The 2016 Mt Baw Baw Classic was easily the hardest race of my life. Finishing second was an achievement, but it felt bittersweet after having led the race in a solo breakaway for 70 kilometres only to be caught with 1000 metres to go. A case, perhaps, of stealing defeat from the jaws of victory. By races end, however, there was every indication I simply could not have gone any harder.
Since its inception in 2001, the Mt Baw Baw Classic has earned a fearsome reputation. The event is regarded by many as the toughest one day race in the country. I can’t imagine there are many tougher, for amateur racers, in the world. Whilst only 102km in length, the course features constant rolling terrain with steep climbs and fast descents, unrelenting for 90km – and then you reach the toughest mountain climb in Australia.
In 2014 I gave passing consideration to entry, after the Mt Buller Road Race. However the logistics of getting to Warrigul and back from Mt Baw Baw after the race proved too much of a disincentive. I gave more serious thought to the race last year, but after a focus on the inaugural Mansfield Tour I wasn’t quite able to shift gears mentally for the challenge. So this year I entered Mansfield with Baw Baw as my secret mental focus. The Tour would be a step on the way up.
I had a lot riding on the Classic and my climbing at Mansfield, and recent good form, boded well. On Easter Monday I rode Baw Baw in 50 minutes flat, faster than anyone in my grade last year. Though wisely, my friend Mat pointed out that hitting the constant 12% gradient is a harder proposition after 90km racing.
Originally I had planned to drive to Warrigul, take the bus back from the mountain, then drive home. With what I know now, I would not recommend anyone drive themselves after this race. Luckily my friend Claire, who helped me at Mansfield, generously reprised her role as soigneur. We arrived at the West Gippsland Arts Centre for registration and confronted a stiff northwesterly wind. Ominous dark clouds approached and the thought of wet descents made me fret about tyre pressure. There was a nervous tension before the start, more palpable than any I’d felt at a race before. Although the weather cleared as we set out, silence in the peloton spoke to this tension.
The first few kilometres proceeded with this nervous air at a decent rate through the verdant dairy farming terrain. But after 10 kilometres or so, those at the front decided they weren’t going to do any more work. The bunch slowed down to a crawl, with no one willing to pull. I noticed a rider in Manly CC kit, with his dossards pinned high on his shoulders. I rode up beside him. This was Paul who had ridden the tough solo break on Stage 2 of the Mansfield tour. We wished each other luck.
The bunch was still at a crawl. It was so slow now it felt undignified. I was on the right of the three abreast bunch, sheltering from the crosswind, when a rider on the inside line made a move. I went with him as we hit a gradual rise. Gradually, the bunch came back. But as we hit a little extra pinch I found myself off the front.
May as well have a little go
I dug in, stretching the gap, then suddenly Paul was there, urging me to consolidate the break with him. I knew from Mansfield what he was capable of – maybe the two of us had a chance of staying away? We rode for another kilometre or so before a third, and then a fourth rider bridged across to us.
‘What’s going on back there?’ I asked.
‘No one wants to chase.’
Now we might really have a shot, with four guys working together against the obstinate bunch. But just as quickly we were all together. I hadn’t fully believed in the attempt and had been watching my power numbers carefully, never holding much over 90%. No major disappointment.
On the front of the group I tried to avoid expending too much energy, though pride kept me at a pace above that we’d left behind. We’d only been together for what felt like a few kilometres when I looked over my shoulder and saw the bunch 100 metres back.
What had happened? Had there been an accident which caught out everyone but me? I hadn’t attacked – should I attack now? What if there has been an accident?
We were only about 30km in – surely this would be madness? But then I saw a little rise ahead, and another glance showed the bunch was still a long way back.
All right, go!
I went all out. This time I’d make sure they would really have to work to get back on. Past the ‘dangerous descent’ sign I recognised my location. There was mostly climbing now until the feed zone. The steep and winding descent into Noojee, after the feedzone, was something I regarded with a little apprehension. Friends had told me stories of hitting 90kph there – I’d be happy to do that without worrying about my front wheel. Presumably, we’d regroup at the bottom and go from there.
I was beginning to pass riders from the combined women’s bunch when the sound of heavy breathing alerted me to a bridging rider. I wasn’t all that surprised – I couldn’t quite believe I’d ridden away. But then just as he came within reach, he faded. I wouldn’t see him again. I pushed on, up on to the main road – holding around 90% FTP, maybe a little higher. Traffic on the open road had to contend with the bunches (I could now see the Women’s and Masters B groups up the road) and the accompanying convoy of officials. It was a chaotic spectacle.
Now the feedzone approached. I’d never been in a race grueling enough to warrant a real one and didn’t know what to expect. It was stretched out over several hundred metres. I noticed Hawthorn CC’s DT and Marco in the distance. They’d wished me well at the start and now I saw a small opportunity. I’d been planning on racing with only one bidon; training over similar distances with just one. The aim was to save weight, but thankfully the ridiculousness of this was pointed out to me by Hawthorn CC’s Julian during the week. Less than half way there, one bidon was finished. But now I could save weight anyway. I tossed the empty bidon to DT – with a little more momentum than I’d anticipated. It wacked him in the chest with a spray of residual liquid. Sorry DT! Neutral support offered me a new bidon – I shook my head and rolled on to the descent
Past another ‘dangerous descent’ sign, the lead car sped away to give me room. I nudged just over 80kph before the bottom, then looked over my shoulder. No sign of the bunch at all.
OK, time to reassess. Everyone says Vespers Hill is where the winning selection or break is made. Looks like I’m going to get there well ahead of them. It’s time to think about winning this race.
As I reached the start of Vespers Hill more riders from the Women’s and Masters B bunches appeared in front of me. I pushed past them, finding the climb harder than I remembered. My legs were beginning to fatigue but if I got to the base of Baw Baw with a gap I’d have a real shot. After all, I’d done the mountain in 50 minutes flat in training. Over the top of Vespers, I saw riders standing at the side of the road. Perhaps they’d had mechanical trouble, but they looked exhausted. I let myself enjoy the descent for a moment, then pushed on.
Every time I looked at my power numbers, from here until Tanjil Bren (4km from the start of the mountain) I made sure I was riding at or over 100% of FTP. By definition, you can only ride at 100% for 1 hour, but I figured I’d be backing off when I wasn’t looking at the numbers, and on the descents.
You’ve always known you can go faster. The difference is psychological. Now prove it.
A women’s follow car driver held out an energy bar to me, but my pockets were still full of dates. Now I was passing Justine and Tessa at the head of Women’s A. ‘See you on top of the mountain’, I said to Justine (though she would see me sooner).
With only the lead car for company, I rolled through the descending bends as nimbly as I could – a particularly expensive new set of race tyres seemed worth it at this point! Dappled light through the forest canopy above proved a challenge however, and at times it was difficult to see through the corners. With a crumbling road surface necessitating sudden changes of line through some turns, I was glad to be descending alone again.
Climbing now, up to Tanjil Bren. Looking back over my shoulder. Still no sign of the chase.
Look at the computer. Keep it at 100%.
Up ahead, a group of Masters B riders were soft pedaling. They must have seen the main contest in their grade move ahead. There would be no point in wrecking themselves now. I moved past them before passing through Tanjil Bren and on to the last fast descent before the base of the mountain. I relished the sweeping bends and took a moment to recharge.
I was confident now. All I’d wanted to do from the start was reach the base of Mt Baw Baw with the lead selection, and now I was the lead selection. I’d loaded my 50 minute climb as a virtual partner on my computer, and as it chirped into life I got out of the saddle and went for it.
But here was the first indication of trouble – I was noticeably fatigued and couldn’t produce the same power I recalled laying on the road during my recon. Anxiously, I watched the gap between my position and that of my 50 minute time stretch out. By the time I saw the 12% ramp approaching I was already 90 seconds down on that earlier effort.
Then the monstrous pitch up. I came to a standstill. Going nowhere at all. Surely the bunch would be on me in an instant. My heart sank.
During the week Julian had insisted a 32T and medium/long cage rear derailleur would enable me to exert more power. I did have these components coming in the mail, but was unworried when they failed to arrive on time, given my previous recon on the 28T. Now how I wished for four more teeth!
The lead car driver called out encouragement, but I was watching my own earlier effort ride off into the distance. With hindsight I should have switched pages at this point, to watch my power numbers again – my output was terrible on the climb.
My body was beginning to shut down. I passed Marco and DT – they were standing on the hill at the hairpin where the gradient eases for a moment. Later, DT told me my eyes were glazed over. I cried out for water, but Marco pointed out I could be DQ’d for taking assistance now.
A little further up the road Justine came past. She’d shaken off Tessa and was flying. Moments later Tessa came past too. I reached more riders ahead and a scene of carnage played out before me. Riders were collapsed on the side of the road. Some looked to be in real distress. Others looked like they had simply given up and gotten off.
Still I kept grinding, pedal stroke by agonising pedal stroke. Now I was fully mixed in with the Master B remnants, who were strung out across the mountain. It was a desperate and ridiculous scene; humans pushing themselves to breaking point amidst a slow moving convoy of officials whose cars inched up the climb alongside them.
Only a couple of kilometres to go.
If I can just get to the 1.5km mark I’ll be home. The gradient will ease and I’ll regain my speed to the line.
I reached 1.5km to go. Almost there. I can see the 1km to go sign in the distance.
Then – the tell tale sound of shifting gears. I looked over my shoulder and there was a lone rider from our bunch, setting slowly, but steadily, upon me. It was Sam, a known force in the grade.
‘Well done’, I gasped, in a moment of acceptance. But I wasn’t quite ready to throw away everything I had fought for over the last 70 kilometres. I dug in and tried to hold Sam’s wheel. With a disconcerting flash I felt overwhelmingly faint and unwell. I almost came off the bike. I watched the race slip away towards the line, less than a kilometre away.
I didn’t know, but when I passed DT and Marco one final time, a couple of kilometres from the line, they could see Sam about to get me. DT filmed the moment:
This video shows the guy with better core strength won. I’m climbing here with all the elegance of a puddle. But please forgive me, I was absolutely imploding – throwing my upper body around was all I could do to keep the legs moving. On the other hand I’m doing better than the Masters B guy in the distance – see him zig-zagging over the whole road!
I resigned myself to the expectation that others would pass too. The only aim now was to reach the finish line safely. As dizziness began to affect me I held a genuine fear of not being able to keep the bike upright. A Masters B rider sprinted me to the line – but the absurdity of this didn’t really register as I crossed in second place – I was only looking for somewhere to collapse.
An official delayed me for a moment to give me a finishers medal, then I fell on the ground and broke down in tears. I was utterly, utterly, depleted. Emotionally, as well as physically.
There remains a certain feeling of heartbreak over this race. Silly and excessive language, I know. But I may never come as close to winning an event as big and as difficult as this. I only hope I showed an attacking spirit and a little, albeit relative, ability.
What had gone wrong? Obviously I used up all my matches before the climb. One rider said at the top, ‘If you’d just stayed with us you would have been fine.’
To break or not to break? Like Paris-Roubaix which ran that night, this race will always finish with a small selection, if not a solo break. The course won’t permit anything else. If you want to win – at some point you’ve got to go. The question is when. There was such extreme reluctance in the bunch to move I found myself having to give it a go. Some knowledge of the gap might have been good, and if I’d known it was getting up around four minutes (as I later discovered) I would have saved more energy for the climb. Though of course that might only have meant getting caught sooner. I overestimated what I could put out over the whole distance and my power – and even my heart rate – plunged towards the end. At least I know I really left it all on the road this time! The third place rider was still several minutes back, so if it wasn’t for that one strong rider …
How had the race played out behind me? A comment from Paul on Strava painted the picture:
That night I had crippling cramps in my quads, where I’ve never cramped in my life. I said, ‘I don’t feel tired, I feel damaged.’ For days afterwards I felt hungry and sore. My power curve explains some of this; I was close to best power from 10mins and set my best power from around 1:15 to the end of the race. The big drop off at that point shows just how much harder I was going, than I’d ever gone over an equivalent time-frame:
I’m convinced this is one of the hardest amateur bike races in the world – I would love to know if there can really be anything tougher. I would have finished mid-pack in Masters B with my time – but as an indication of what an equaliser this terrible climb is, I would have finished mid-pack in Masters A too.
The mountain doesn’t care how good you are anywhere else and will happily destroy you. We had the impertinence to build a road up its side and now it takes its revenge – rewarding a scarce few and punishing a great many. It’s crazy- this experience will always carry some disappointment, but I’m glad to have been subject to the mountain’s formidable, and immovable, force.
Until 2017 …
My Strava file for the race can be viewed here.