The 2016 Tour of Bright was, for me, the culmination of my most committed period of training since I took up racing. A race that started well enough, my Tour almost ended in disaster before ultimately resulting in one of my most satisfying achievements. There is, perhaps, a psychological danger in committing so much preparation to something that transpires over five hours, or which can unravel in an unlucky instant. This time, however, it was all worth while.
A New Weapon for the Tour: My 2017 S-Works Tarmac
Critical to my participation in this year’s Tour was a significant upgrade to my equipment. I’ll write a more detailed post about this soon, but in brief:
My second place on Baw Baw in April had stung. When I saw the winning rider pass my 8kg Roubaix on a famously light Emonda SLR, the seed was sown: I’d be racing a lighter bike at the Tour of Bright.
After seriously considering an Emonda from Peak Cycles, and a few other options, I turned to a bike I’d always considered as a crazy spend-all-the-money solution. Whatever people think about Specialized and the S-Works Tarmac, it’s a profoundly winning bike. I’ve set about making a list of major wins on Tarmacs for the longer post about the build – all the Grand Tours, multiple recent World Championships etc. – it’s a long list.
Of course, your bike has to have a name! Claire had named her White S-Works Amira ‘Molly’ in a tradition of naming bikes after Beatles songs and characters. So now Molly, aka ‘Molly Jones’ from the White Album’s ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, would have her lyrical partner: ‘Desmond Jones!’ If you appreciate this, you’ll appreciate our naming my Roubaix ‘Maxwell Edison‘, after all the head injuries I’ve sustained on it!
A fortnight out from the Tour I joined Spinfit’s Bright Camp, along with some other Coburg CC members, and tested the new machine for the first time on Mt Hotham. I took something like 5-6 mins off my previous best time. It felt like cheating. The bike was flawless.
Later during the camp we rode the Tour’s Stage 2 route in terrible conditions. But in freezing and pelting rain I still stuck more than a minute into my old Tawonga Gap time (before almost turning hypothermic).
I have to thank Simon and Rani from Spinfit especially for taking on the extra Coburg riders and helping us so much. They run an impressive training camp.
In my last hit out before the race, I entered Giro Della Donna with Claire. I rode ‘Maxwell Edison’, unwilling to subject the new Tarmac to the unsealed Acheron Way. I made an effort on the timed climb of Reefton Spur and was pleased with my time and 24th place, considering I was on my heavier bike, and especially considering the ability up the road.
At the end of the day I’d reached a higher CTL than I had before the Tour of Bright in 2014, when I’d been in good shape. I was feeling well prepared.
Quickly, I have to mentioned Claire here. She was devastated she couldn’t race the Tour. She had a close friend’s wedding on the Saturday night (non-racers!) and there was no way around it. But at Giro Della Donna she chased and smashed the 2015 QOM for Reefton Spur by 54 seconds. She’ll be tearing up a mountain with a number on her back in 2017. Watch out!
Stage 1 – ITT
I’d taken a somewhat cavalier attitude to training for the time trial. I hadn’t made a significant effort on my ex-VIS Apollo TT bike since the Northern Combine ITT champs in winter, and the Mansfield Tour before that. Never particularly enjoying hard efforts on the bike, I rationalised that so long as I spent enough time on the machine that it didn’t feel alien on the start line, then the efforts I was already making on climbs would be training enough.
So the TT bike became my recovery ride bike. I’d turn the pedals over gently whilst watching an old video of the TT course – conditioning my arms at least, to hold my upper body weight on the bars.
I fussed a lot about the bike too, and by the time we were ready to head to Bright, I knew the only weak link was my approach to training.
Really I was relying on adrenaline and the sheer urgency of the situation to force me towards a better performance. Strangely enough this worked for the most part.
I timed my warm-up and pre-race organisation really well. I have such a bad reputation for turning up late to TTs I even used this as the basis for choosing my accommodation, which was essentially on the start line.
But this time there would be no last-minute emergencies. I sat there in the hands of the volunteers as the clock counted down, feeling focussed, calm, and determined. And then the race started.
The night before I’d noted my average speed at each turning point around the course, from my 2014 effort (my injured and untrained 2015 participation being not a lot more than an exercise in stubbornness!). 2014 had been on the Roubaix with clip-ons – so I had to go faster than that, and that meant averaging better than 43.5kph by the time I reached the first turnaround. Except this year we had a pretty stiff headwind outbound and by the time I got to the roundabout I was barely nudging over 40kph.
But as ever, power is the more useful metric. I use intensity factor a lot in training and knew I’d finished with .97 in 2014 (with equivalent threshold power at the time). Now as I swung through the turn, I was sitting on about 1.2 – I knew I was going harder. All good – and the worst of the headwind was past.
I’d passed my minuteman (or 20 second man as the case was) Rob from Eastern vets on the way out. Rob is a good crit racer but was unfairly equipped against me with only a road bike and without clip-ons. Halfway up the gentle incline that makes for the closest thing to a climb in the course, I passed another rider. This was a reversal of 2015 when I was passed by two riders by the same point.
Heading back down the descent I was trying to do the maths (which is of course impossible on a bike, let alone whilst racing one) and sensed I could make up the average speed with the tail wind on the home stretch.
Powering as best I could through the last little hill and down to the line I just managed to beat my 2014 time, by 5 seconds with 20:22, for an average speed of 40kph across the course. This might sound pretty average, but in my grade it put me only 1:19 back from the head of the race and what was to come was much more suited to my strengths.
Ominously, Shaun G had done a strong time of 19:22 to take third place, only 19 seconds down. Only nine months earlier I’d overtaken Shaun in the Mansfield TT. Since then he’d turned out consistently massive weeks of riding, doing double Mt Pleasants before breakfast, Kinglake in 17 mins, and Mt Donna Buang in 52 mins. I knew he was a huge favourite for the overall win.
Of course, I can’t help but wonder how I’d go if I actually trained on the TT bike. Maybe the future will tell. Maybe.
You can see my Strava file for Stage 1 here.
Stage 2 – The Gaps Loop
With the TT done I lazed in the heat briefly then turned my mind to my Tarmac. I use the one set of race wheels on both bikes so I’d have to swap them over … easy enough. Claire set off for a stab at Mt Hotham and I set out for an effortless spin, just to make sure everything was in order. The bike shifted so beautifully I even emailed Top Gear just to thank them for their work. Whatever happened on Stage 2 wouldn’t be due to problems with the bike …
Saturday morning was warm – dehydration would be a potential issue on the stage in such conditions. I’d slept terribly but this was nothing new for a stage race and I knew I could still perform.
A key lesson from last year was the importance of positioning. In that race I’d been caught out at the back of a pile-up on the way out to Rosewhite Gap and had to work to get back on. Then I was stuck in a traffic jam of slow climbers at the start of the climb. I wasn’t going to let that happen this year. So right from the start I was up the front, squeezing in on the line for our 10:40 depart.
The bunch proceeded at a steady, if not sedate pace. It wasn’t until we were half-way to the Rosewhite turn-off that a group of riders detached themselves. I watched them drift off the front from about ten places back. They looked like they might be keen to get the sprint points on Happy Valley Road road but wouldn’t pose a threat by the end of the day. ‘Big guys’, someone said.
I chatted briefly with Shaun, cautioning playfully for him not to work on the front. I thought, ‘please do lots of work on the front.’
The break disappeared from sight. The bunch was moving lazily towards Rosewhite Gap and another two riders broke away. More a case of subtly moving off than attacking, soon these two were growing smaller in the distance. I began to wonder – will I regret this, my conservatism? There was a sense of deep reluctance in the bunch to move and that steeled my resolve. I dug in and set off to bridge the gap.
A quick look over my shoulder to confirm no one was chasing. Onwards. But then the sound of breathing and drivetrain. One rider had bridged across. He sat there for a short while then pulled in front only to flick his elbow immediately. The cheek! I urged him to keep going and he obliged.
I was in two minds. We were stuck half-way between the bunch and the second break of two – maybe 250m either side. I was prepared to test the bunch’s reluctance, but not to the point of my own fatigue. I decided to wait until the climb of Rosewhite Gap before making any real effort.
We reached the climb with our gap intact. The break of two were closer, slowing on the ascent, and remnants of the original break were visible too. My Garmin sprang to life with my old PR (to countdown the distance more than anything) and I got going.
As I glanced back down the hill I was surprised the bunch wasn’t yet visible. I began to entertain the idea of KOM points. But how many more up front? I dragged back the two riders from the second break, and a couple of riders from the first. One shouted to me after I passed, something like, ‘you’ll only have to wait for us at the bottom.’ I smirked and waved – another 50km solo wasn’t on the cards.
Then my chain slipped across the cassette. These things happen; I shifted back. It slipped again. No matter which way I shifted it wouldn’t sit in place. Still, I’d held off the bunch as I reached the top.
‘How many up?’ I called to the KOM judges.
‘Four – a minute and a half!’ came the response. No KOM points.
As I rolled down the descent I didn’t need to shift so I naturally forgot the trouble I’d been having. With no one immediately behind me I eased up, enjoying the descent without the pressure to really cane it. The road straightened out and two riders came past. I let them drift about 20m ahead then thought I’d better scoot over to work out a plan …
I stood out of the saddle and pushed …
Crunch! The crank jammed, the wheel locked. I was thrown forward with enough force to automatically unclip my left foot. But somehow I held on. My left cleat skidded against the road; my back wheel locked and also skidding. Then, as inexplicably as I was bucked, I was back in the saddle, wheels and cranks turning, utterly shocked and confused.
The bunch flew past as I dropped like a stone through the middle, still too scared to move. My friend Julian saw me and gave me a friendly push. I almost bit his head off – ‘don’t do that!’ I snarled. But straight away I apologised too, and tried to explain my agitation. Had ‘Desmond Jones’ just tried to kill me?
I dropped to the back of the bunch, then almost off the back. Every time I tried to accelerate, the chain would slip horribly one way or another. I pulled alongside Rob and tried to explain what was happening.
‘Can you stop?’ he asked.
‘No!’ I implored.
Along the Kiewa Valley Highway, I began to figure out what I could and couldn’t do. No sudden acceleration and no out of the saddle efforts. But if I stayed seated and made a steady effort the bike would behave, mostly.
At one point I almost forgot the issue, the chain hadn’t slipped for a while, I was cruising in the bunch, and as we neared Tawonga a beautiful sailplane banked around in the distance, it’s aerodynamic lines glinting in the sunlight. Then I realised what was wrong.
How could I have been so stupid? I thumped over a cats-eye in the road and I distinctly felt the back wheel move in the drop-outs. I’d done up the rear quick release skewer so poorly it had somehow worked its way loose. Did I have time to stop and do it up? Could I chase back on? No time time to think. We’d hit the final climb.
Almost immediately the bunch broke in two. A group of about twenty of us pushing up the hill together, with every one else strung out behind. This was all right. I was holding on. Then: crunch – slip – clang – slip. Damn it! I struggled to hold a gear and the better riders began to pull away.
It was maddening. I ached to leap out of the saddle and attack them all. A couple of times I did stand up and almost straight away I felt like I’d lose the back wheel. I sat back down and resigned myself to making as hard a steady effort as I could, as far back in saddle as I could position myself. It was miserable. I finished a minute and a half slower than the time I set in driving rain a fortnight earlier. I was three minutes back on GC.
As soon as I came to a stop at the top of Tawonga Gap I lifted the bike by the saddle and the rear wheel dropped right out. Once I heard Sean Kelly admonish amateur cyclists for thinking QRs had to be done up ‘rock hard’. I wasn’t taking his advice any more.
Hey – I was alive! No broken bones, no broken bike. I’d finished 16th out of 93 finishers on the day and had moved into 15th on GC. It could have been much worse.
So I rolled back down the hill to Bright. A lot of riders passed me. I resolved to stay at under 2w/kg. I told my story to one rider. It just sounded like I was making up excuses. I’d have to light it up on Mt Hotham.
When I got back to the accommodation I put the bike in the stand. The front QR had also been loose. It could have been much worse.
You can see my Strava file for Stage 2 here.
Stage 3 – Mt Hotham
On the start line for Stage 3, a fellow Coburg CC rider, Mathew, asked me what the plan was. “I’m just going to climb as fast as I possibly can”, I said. The only other thing I had in mind was to stay near the front from the start again.
Moments after setting off, however, the lead-car driver got confused and drove past the first left hand turn. Half the pack followed the car and half took the turn. By the time we were all on the right road a lot of guys who would have liked to be on the front were in a bad position.
There was a lot of nervousness and frustration. I called out to everyone to chill out. We were still neutralised and the climb takes more than an hour – this moment didn’t really matter. But of course then I found myself champing at the bit to move forward, and a few moments later I was behind our lead-car ute which was now on the inexorable course to Mt Hotham.
Mathew and another Coburg rider were up the front with me. When a break went I called out to let them go. When it became clear they weren’t cooperating too well, we started to make an effort to bring them back. My part in this was calculated: I figured I’d want my legs well and truly ready to go at the base of the mountain and a few efforts over the short distance to that point would probably be more help than hindrance. When it began to feel like too much work, I dropped back a few places and stopped helping.
The breakaway disappeared up the road. One rider in the break, number 837, had finished ahead of me on Tawonga Gap. How handicapped had I been by my mechanical? Maybe we were making a mistake.
All I could do was back myself. My only plan was simple. I’d done the climb in 1 hour 24 mins a fortnight earlier. Now I was a little fitter, if not a little fresher, and the wind was forecast to be friendly. I was saying I could do the climb in 1 hour 20 – and hoping very few of the riders around me could match that.
We reached the shady avenue-like approach into Harrietville. I moved to the very front. I tipped some water out. The first ramp up – all out!
I gave it everything up through the first steep left hand turn. Right away, only one rider was with me. In 500m I was on my own. One kilometre later I glanced back down the road. It was empty. My Garmin said I was already 10 seconds ahead of my PR.
Nearing the first KOM competition point at The Meg I began to reach the breakaway.
“How many in front?” I asked the first rider.
“Five ahead of me” he said.
I could see one already, and overhauled him. Around the next bend I could see three. One was only 20m or so ahead, but the next two were just about to turn on to The Meg. I got out of the saddle (Desmond Jones was working with me today) and passed the nearest rider. ‘Come on’, I urged myself, ‘you can get some bloody KOM points!’ I reached the next two as they hit the steep corner of The Meg. They were in conversation about the points:
“Do you want it?” Number 837 asked his companion.
The other rider looked over, saw me coming, and said “I think this guy’s got it”
I couldn’t adjust my line as I accelerated through the corner and went between the two of them, calling out apologetically. My front wheel jumped off the ground as I fought the steepness through the corner.
A quick glance back and I knew I had the second place KOM points. I eased up as a judge called out, “One ahead, about a minute, but he’s going sideways’!
Moment’s later I was on that one rider. He said something encouraging and asked if the bunch were close. I strained, “I don’t know!” by which I meant – I hope not.
I was mopping up riders from other grades now. Still just the ute acting as lead-car for continuous company. The driver checked, as if in a moment of worry – “You’re Masters C?” It was all right, he was in the right place!
Of course the peculiarity of Mt Hotham is that whilst it offers the highest vertical ascent of any Australian climb, at over 1500m, the 30km journey to the summit includes several different types of terrain. The initial steady gradient, the steepness of The Meg, the fast descents before CRB Hill and the awful last grind to the summit, and the long false-flat in the middle.
I dug in and tried not to relax as the road eased. This stretch would be a huge threat to my chances. Sustaining power on flat ground is my greatest weakness and going it alone would offer no reprieve. I was buoyed somewhat by Elite C riders, who urged me on as I passed them. Eventually, one rider said – “You’ve got it, the false flat’s over!”
‘Please don’t speak too soon’, I thought. But as I looked at my computer, I was almost a minute and a half ahead of my PR. I was on track for 1 hour 22 mins or better. I began to entertain notions that I could win the stage. How much time could I make up on GC. Surely not three minutes?
But an ominous sensation soon chastened this thinking. At the next ramp my legs howled in protest. I remembered this feeling from Baw Baw. In that race my legs were singing until I reached the mountain, whereupon they began to cry. But before the tears on that day, the singing had begun to drift off-key. And here was that dissonant portent.
‘Oh, come on.’ On my computer, I watched my lead over my old PR begin to diminish. ‘Hold on, Hold on.’
Down the descent to the start of the steep CRB hill, where in 2014 I was overtaken by a butterfly. An oncoming car drifted into my lane as I passed at 72kph – thanks for that! Then the long grind. In the saddle, out of the saddle, watching my time slip away, not daring to look at my power.
Then a surprise – the second KOM point was here – at the top of CRB hill. I looked back, still no chasers. I had this one. I heard a child call my race number excitedly as I crested. Plugging on in my compact big ring to the final descent, for one last moment I felt a real hope that I could take the stage and make up some big places for the Tour.
Then, hitting the final climb, I imploded.
With my PR on my Garmin I watched my virtual self from a fortnight earlier race by. To compound my struggle the wind whipped up in my face. Should I write that the sky began to darken? Excessive? Well it did! I believed at any moment I’d be caught. I was willing my chasers to catch me, to end the misery of waiting for the moment. I was really beginning to fall apart. I passed the 500m to go sign – ‘So close – come on!’
The final corner was in sight. Barely more than 300m to go. Someone from the side of the road shouted, “Sprint! There’s a guy coming up behind you! Fast!’
Of course there was. Limply, I shook my head. I honestly had nothing left. I would dearly have loved to win this mountain stage. Of all the stages to win. But I was a wreak. Then Shaun powered past.
He could have been a freight train. He came past me with a seemingly unstoppable force. He was possessed of such fierce determination like I had only seen once before: when Cadel came over the Corkscrew at the 2014 Tour Down Under. The stage was Shaun’s and the Tour would be too. It was an emphatic conclusion to an amazing weekend for him.
Without looking back, I somehow knew I had second place. I fell across the line 23 seconds after Shaun. 23 seconds out of an hour and 25 minutes of climbing.
Déjà vu? Actually I thought of Marx. In his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he discusses Hegel and history:
“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce”
Well I suppose I can’t quite contradict Marx because I’m not a ‘world-historic fact or personage’! But as quickly as the words entered my mind I banished them as inapplicable. This is the third time I’ve made a solo break in a mountain race or stage in the Victorian Road Series. Each time I’ve gotten a little closer; from a couple of kilometres on Mt Buller, to 1km on Mt Baw Baw to 300 desperate metres on Mt Hotham. Each time I’ve been caught. But there was no farce on Mt Hotham.
Each of these results has steeled me to continue my journey in cycling and made me a better racer. Nothing is going to make me race more conservatively: it’s not in my DNA. Even if I end up surrounded by stronger riders in Master B, as now seems likely, I’m going to animate and attack.
But my satisfaction with the result was also for Shaun. I congratulated him and emphasised how glad I was it was he who passed me. To win the Tour without a stage win would have been bitter-sweet. His mountain win was gutsy and his Tour win was complete.
As a result of my attack I got on the second step of the podium for the stage. I moved to 8th on GC, very narrowly missing 7th, and I achieved something more: I won the Tour’s King of the Mountains classification.
I’d tied for points with the appropriately name Canberran Ed Hilly, but as a result of my first place on CRB Hill the jersey was put on my shoulders.
After three seasons of struggle; three seasons of broken bikes, broken bones, hundreds of hours, and many thousands of kilometres, I was finally on the top step at a Victorian Road Series race.
It was the Tour of Bright, and it was all worth it.
You can see my Strava file for Stage 3 here.