The 2018 Mansfield Tour proved the Mansfield Mt Buller Cycling Club can really punch above their weight. Despite lower entries, the race in its new form is a worthy equal to the more established Tour of Bright. The addition of Old Tolmie Road – the ‘Col du Tolmielet’ – ensured iconic scenes of suffering, more typically associated with races like the Mt Baw Baw Classic. For me, the race marked a return to stage racing for the first time since 2016.
Preparation – Not all training load is good.
Last year I expected to enter the 2017 Mansfield Tour with guns blazing after reaching the podium of every Masters C mountain finish in 2016. Everything was falling into place for a competitive appearance when I got completely laid to waste by gastro, forcing my withdrawal. As the year progressed a mechanical ended my race at Mt Baw Baw and the Tour of Bright was cancelled due to potentially catastrophic weather. But the Tour of Bright’s cancellation was a non-issue for me: I had come down with a chest infection and was going to have to withdraw anyway.
With hindsight a pattern was emerging from which I should have drawn a lesson. Over the summer I rebuilt, pushing my FTP to its highest level in five years of road cycling. I was re-imagining just how quick I might be able to go when I got sick again. Firstly a bacterial infection, then a common cold, a week from the Tour.
If cycling makes you so fit, why do the people who take it most seriously seem to get sick at critical times? I’ve come to the conclusion that training load, the stress we measure to ensure our best balance of fitness and freshness come race day, can also be taken as an indicator of immune function. I had taken a fairly simplistic view that more load was better. Obviously I understood the need for structured rest and recovery. But I still wanted to go deeper and deeper during structured load building weeks. It doesn’t help that I work in an open-plan office on a floor with 300 office workers who seem afraid to call-in sick. But certainly I’ll be taking a more cautious approach to load building in future and I’ve got an idea of what number I should see as a ceiling.
I considered pulling out again, but couldn’t bare to after the mess of 2017. Instead, sick on my last build weekend, I decided I was starting a long taper! Claire’s coach said I wouldn’t make myself any stronger anyway, it was hardly an endurance race, and I’d be better off increasing adaptation to the TT rig. So I did absolutely nothing across the labour-day long weekend. Then on the Wednesday before the race I started cruising around Sugarloaf Reservoir on the TT Bike – coughing and sneezing and spluttering as I went.
Stage 1: Individual Time Trial
Prior to the 2017 Tour of Bright, Claire and I invested in improving the TT bike which we share. We managed to get a Zipp tubular disc wheel at significant discount and borrowed a deep-rim tubular front wheel.
Claire got injured, I got sick, and Bright got cancelled. So here, at the 2018 Mansfield Tour, the new rig was getting its first run.
Whilst I’d be making an effort to bring the road bike up to 6.8kg the TT rig was on the other side of the scales:
The Mansfield ITT course has one steep ramp, appropriately known as ‘Mt Nasty.’ Dragging the TT bike over that pinch wasn’t going to be much fun, but given the rest of the course is basically flat or descending it’s definitely a case where aerodynamics trump weight.
The morning was bright and sunny with light winds; coolish, with a hint of the heat that would come later. At 9:32 I was off. Thanks to Claire, still recovering from injury and acting as soigneur extraordinaire, I’d actually turned up on time. So far so good. I stayed low, hunched my shoulders, and starting chasing my minute-man (30 sec man).
I got out of the saddle on Mt Nasty, not because I thought it was a better approach than being seated but because I thought a change in position might ease stress in my arms later on. Before the crest I passed my minute man.
Over the top and down the descent I was rapidly closing in on another rider. So I’d made up an actual minute on someone, I couldn’t be going too badly. Then I realised I hadn’t shifted back to the big ring after the climb. You’d think the spinning might be a clue? ‘Come on – get it together!’
I passed the second rider after the turn on to Barwhite Road. My lap power was below target. I’d over-thought a negative split and would now have to work hard to bring it back. Confusing this was the fact that I felt fast. With the disc wheel and a bit of a cross-tail wind it becomes easier to sustain speed. You have to ignore that and look at the wattage.
I passed another two riders along Barwhite Road before the final descent to the line. I was so annoyed with myself for letting my power slip that I managed to really gas it down the last stretch and across the line.
I’d hoped to average at least 40kph for the course but had come in closer to 38.5kph. I was 12th out of 41 starters. Interestingly, the same time would have put me in the same position in Masters B.
A disappointment but not a complete disaster. The afternoon’s second stage would suit me better.
Stage 2: Mansfield – Mirimbah – Old Tolmie Road
In the previous three editions of the Mansfield Tour, Stage 2 had been a run down to Jamieson and back with KOM points at Martin’s Gap and an inevitable sprint finish alongside the airstrip. This year there were concerns over the condition of that course and a new approach was taken.
Old Tolmie Road with an average gradient around 7% for 6km is a mainstay of local club racing but unknown to most riders who had raced the Tour previously. We’d explored Mansfield a bit and knew the road as both a relatively tough climb and a very fast descent.
The road is mostly straight and flattens out at the bottom without crossroads, so descending you can simply aerotuck and blast away. With a tailwind I’m sure you could hit 100kph. That is, if the deer and kangaroos haven’t jumped in front of you as they’re liable to do!
But going uphill you’d be lucky to hit 20kph with a tailwind. It was the climb this year’s Stage 2 would feature, after almost 70km of mostly flat racing out to the base of Mt Buller and back. An earlier parcours had included a double ascent of Old Tolmie for all grades except Elite A who would do a triple. That would have been interesting …
We set off at 2:50pm. It was hot and bright with a dry, parching, northerly wind. When the flag dropped at the end of the neutralised roll-out there was little response. I started from the back and as I worked my way forward I realised there was already a break.
I found Dean T near the front, who I know from Peak Cycles rides, and I asked him if there was any concern. He didn’t think so, although the break would inevitably mop up the sprint points which might have annoyed a few. Dean was in his first race. But as a guy who rides on the front of the strongest group in Melbourne no one would have guessed. At one point Julian DB came alongside. He suggested an undercooked ITT might help a later effort on this stage. I hoped so!
The bunch proceeded at an absolute dawdle down into Mirimbah, but as soon as we made the turn the pace lifted. With the speed of the bunch approaching 70kph in places on the run back to Mansfield I suddenly realised my saddle was slipping. To bring the bike up to 6.8kg I’d swapped out my 55g Gelu saddle for a 150g Bontrager one (and added 26mm tyres over 24mm ones). I’d under-torqued the S-Works post because the specified 12NM seemed like an awful lot to me, but only by 1NM. Now I was struggling to sit on the bike with saddle nose dipping markedly.
I could have just left the bike underweight, they never weigh them and didn’t at this tour. But then that would be a kind of mechanical doping right? Soon, I figured, we’d all be out of the saddle anyway …
Closer to Mansfield we caught a glimpse of the breakaway. They were a fair way up the road and about half a dozen of us tried to get some turns rolling to bridge back. These turns were half-hearted and most of the bunch wanted nothing to do with it. Eventually I decided to stop helping too. I wasn’t feeling great and I didn’t want to hit the climb too tired.
Before we reached Old Tolmie Rd we turned on to the morning’s TT course and got smacked with a headwind as we started up ‘Mt Nasty.’ There were a few nervous flourishes but basically those of us who could climb stayed near the front with a watchful eye on each other. We could also see the break was about to get caught.
I sheltered from the wind alongside a bigger rider as we reached the start of Old Tolmie. I found myself on the front momentarily but soon there was a surge and a dozen riders lurched up the steep gradient. I let them through and sat on the wheel of one.
For about 1km I was ok, but then I felt myself tiring badly. I couldn’t sit comfortably with my slipped saddle. I felt too fatigued to stand. Maybe this was the result of the previous week’s cold – the first test of endurance proving too much?
I looked back and our group of a dozen or so had left the rest of the field behind. Some consolation. I struggled up the climb, well off the back of the leaders now, watching my power output sink. What was going on?
I reached a point where there is a clearing for power lines. From training I’d decided I’d shift back to the big ring here and raise the power. This might have worked, and I was still in striking distance of about four riders who were clearly tiring too. But then my front derailleur wouldn’t shift. Why does this stuff always have to happen in a race? I tried and tried to no avail and gave up.
With about 1km to go I saw the locals ‘Col du Tolmielet’ sign which made me laugh.
I randomly thought of the absurd ‘positive possum’ meme Claire had shown me before the race and this made me laugh too. With my spirits lifted I raised the wattage a little and closed back a bit but the damage was done. I limped across the line in 10th place moving up to 9th on GC.
Dean had done well, he just missed the podium in a finishing sprint between the four front runners. Julian had worse luck and struggled up with a broken spoke. I was a wreck, and found my pockets still full of food. An uncharacteristic mistake – I really wasn’t on the ball. I had only Mt Buller left to redeem myself.
Stage 3: Mansfield – Mt Buller
We woke on Sunday morning to the sound of gale force winds. We were staying in a hilltop cottage overlooking Lake Eildon and it felt like we might be blown away. At 6am I went out on to the decking and was almost blown over as the wind roared through the surrounding bush. ‘They’re going to have to cancel the stage,’ I thought.
I looked up the Bureau’s wind readings for Mt Buller – gusts over 100kph! We got ready and drove to the start, fully expecting a cancellation. Instead, the organisers said they would play it by ear. They’d start the race but check conditions on the mountain constantly and pull the plug at a moment’s notice if need be.
I felt surprisingly well. Each day I felt fewer residual effects of the cold, and this improvement was stronger than the feeling of any fatigue from the previous day. I’d torqued up my saddle and the front derailleur had come good again. I felt pretty determined to attack the mountain. I hoped the previous days leaders were tired!
At 8:20 we set off into the gloom and squalling winds, with somewhat menacing clouds forming at our backs. When the flag dropped there was no reaction at all. We moved more slowly towards Mirimbah than on Stage 2. Three riders moved off the front to contest sprint points at 17.2km. But the bunch let them go and come back without interest.
Then I found myself on the front. This is an ok place to be if you can get away with sitting there, in a strong tailwind at no effort. So that’s what I did. I made the occasional remark, like, ‘look I’m happy to sit here, but I’m not going to make any effort.’ There were no complaints.
Soon we were at the entry booths to the mountain. All the memories of previous ascents and previous races flashed through my mind. I remembered shouting ‘what’s the gap?’ at the volunteers years earlier when we were chasing a break. This time I just thanked them as we passed – then I tried to light it up.
From a plod at 3w/kg I jumped hard for several hundred metres then settled to around threshold power. I looked around and it seemed like everyone was still with me. Will G, who also rides with Peak and is a good climber started to come past. I was pleased and would have preferred to hold a wheel, but then he backed off again.
On the front still, I surged out of rhythm a few times, trying to unsettle the riders on my wheel. I didn’t know how many were there. It felt like too many. I didn’t seem to shake anyone.
After half the mountain had been climbed my lap power was still at threshold and I decided to back it off a touch. As Claire’s coach had reminded me it was most important that power was there to draw upon at the end. I waited for riders to come past me but no one did.
Occasionally I would lift the power gently back to threshold or over, just to say – ‘don’t think I’m fading.’ And I wasn’t. In fact I was confused by how good I felt. But I held a strong inclination to caution and a fear of the other’s strength. They had proved much stronger than me the day before on Old Tolmie Road.
There still seemed to be a lot of riders following, though strung out in single file. I remembered my first race in 2014, chasing Marco R up the mountain for third (with Andy G and Mathew I up the road) when another eight riders past and dropped me. I began to think ‘maybe this is the natural order of things and my 2016 podiums were an anomaly?’
With five km to go we turned on to one of the flatter southbound straights – avenuesque on a giant scale with the tall forest canopy over the road. Here the wind became a deafening roar, like jet engines (the old noisy kind!). It got darker suddenly. We felt the first few drops of rain. I worried that falling debris could strike us, and there was plenty strewn across the road already.
Still on the front. At every switchback I raised the tempo a touch and took the opportunity to glance around. There were fewer of us. Perhaps ten? Perhaps this was the top ten from yesterday. I fully expected to get mugged by the stronger guys soon. But I figured if I could make that happen from a group of half a dozen instead of thirty, then all the better for me.
Only a couple of kilometres to go. I slipped into the small ring. I could see Hell Corner approaching. We hit the corner and I lifted back up to a flat out effort. Looking around there was only half a dozen at most, and they were in single file. Suddenly I realised what an effort it would take to get up that line from the back at this point. If I laid the power down I had a good chance of staying near the front. So I kept it up – sitting on about 6w/kg. Then they attacked.
From the power I was sitting on I couldn’t jump to chase. We turned Tip Corner – the last corner with about 500m to go. Three riders came past and I felt so sure of my inability I even congratulated them in a resigned tone as they went by. But moments later I realised they weren’t exactly surging away. In fact, it looked like they didn’t have a whole lot more in the tank.
There was no one behind me now. It was just me and the three guys ahead. Could I go again? I was hesitating and running out of road. Then I thought of everything Claire had done for me over the weekend, injured and unable to race, waiting on me hand and foot. I owed it to her. ‘Just bloody go for it!’ I screamed in my thoughts. I dug in and surged forwards, quickly hauling in one rider and closing on the other two. It was too late – I watch them cross the line ahead of me. I looked back and the rider I passed had sat up. So I was third. I rolled across the line in a state:
How bitter-sweet was this? Or was it? Had I screwed it up by doubting myself at the end or should I have been thrilled that my performance lifted over the weekend after a terrible preparation? Finishing with a mountain podium, and sixth on GC – I’d have settled for that at the outset for sure. After 50mins of climbing 7 seconds separated the podium. Dean was close behind. He came in sixth (and fourth on GC) – a pretty emphatic showing from a guy in his first race who had never been up the mountain.
Claire rushed to me and gave me a jacket and I was ushered indoors out of the elements. Soon rain began to drizzle as riders filed inside. This was a very different scene to the typical mountain finish where riders would gather around in the mountain air. But it was nice. There was a convivial hum, both tired and excited, as riders caught up with each other – swapping stories and drinking coffee. I’d made some new friendships and consolidated existing ones – it felt like a good place to be.
One thing felt sure. The Mansfield Tour, despite lower entries was now a real equal to the Tour of Bright. The TT course is perhaps harder, more interesting and prettier than Bright’s; the Old Tolmie Rd finish to Stage 2 is such a sting-in-the-tail it makes the stage as hard as the ‘Gaps loop’; and the ascent of Mt Buller, whilst not as high or long as Mt Hotham is perhaps just as iconic in Australian racing. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, for length and average gradient Buller is essentially Australia’s Alpe d’Huez. And all this had been achieved by a very small club. We can only hope the event is maintained and strengthened. See you on the start line in 2019!