In the space of a few weeks I’ve gone from questioning whether I’d pin on a dossard again, to taking two climbing podiums including a win, and upgrading with the Victorian Road Series leader’s jersey for my (former) grade. It’s been an intense month and proves that if you keep at it, good things might just come to you.
I worried so much about the chance of winning this race I ultimately decided instead to focus on two aims: to get to the gantry (where the famously steep section of Mt Baw Baw begins) with the lead selection, and achieve a PR on the HC segment of the mountain. On both counts I succeeded. Unfortunately the lead selection was a chasing group … .
Last year one rider, Brad T, rode off the front of a lead selection which I was simultaneously dropped by. Proof, at that point in time at least, that the he was on another level to me. Brad went on to win the Tour of Bright with an impressive solo win on Mt Hotham, but remained one point from an upgrade to Masters B.
I don’t blame him for wanting to go for the win in Masters C. Last year he got away from the group but was caught on the climb, and beaten into second place. He had unfinished business. But so did I. I’d ridden a 70km solo breakaway in 2016 and been caught with 1km to go, being beaten too into second place.
In 2018, presumably to recapture declining race entries, Warragul CC and Cycling Victoria halved the course distance for a number of grades. I was annoyed and stated on social media that the solution to waning interest wasn’t to make a famously difficult race easier. I also felt I was disadvantaged by a number of bigger riders who were able to get over Vesper Hill on fresh legs then destroy the remaining selection on the rolling terrain before the mountain. This wouldn’t have happened as easily on the long course.
This year fewer grades were reduced to a half course. All riders were allowed to participate in the longer course, but if you did this from a half-course grade you wouldn’t accrue Series points. It was time for me to step out of Masters C with the points I’d get from this race. So a re-run of last year was on the cards.
For a week I told myself not to burn my matches on Vesper Hill – the short but sometimes steep Category 2 climb which now arrives only moments after the Masters C start from Noojee. I would do as little work as possible, let Brad chase any attacks, and sit-in. I’d take my chances on the mountain. Brad is lean but significantly taller than me and I believed I might have a chance in a sheer watts-per-kilo slog on steep ground.
A week earlier I’d ridden the course with Claire and our friend Aldo … in the snow! The conditions were wretched – descending the mountain was heart-in-mouth stuff. But race day dawned clear and mild, with a warm tailwind under our sails at the start.
It was a nervous roll-out and I could sense Brad ready to go long. We hit Vesper Hill slowly. Brad led the group and I crept up to third wheel. Everyone was waiting for the first move and it came from behind us. Davide W, who won the race several years ago, exploded through a narrow gap on my right. Brad responded straight away, but I was on his wheel.
A few little flourishes like this characterised the next couple of kms, with Davide and Brad and me, and also Leigh S who had podiumed the ‘Tolmielet’ with me at Mansfield. Davide was doing most of the animating and I wondered if he was working for Brad – softening us up.
With about 500m to the top Davide rolled off leaving a gap between Brad on the front and me, now second wheel. I could have just burned across. I knew I could. But I had spent a week telling myself, and being told by friends – ‘Don’t do the work!’ Brad sensed his moment and started pulling away.
I shouted over my shoulder, ‘Come on – don’t make me do it all myself!’ I assumed there was at least a small group locked on to my wheel. Leigh came through and we crested with Brad now about 50m ahead of us. There’s a little pinch before the descent-proper, on the other side of Vesper Hill. When we got over this Brad had really jumped. I heard an expression of disbelief from Leigh. We were hitting almost 80kph on the descent and Brad was disappearing away from us.
We reached the turn on to the rolling terrain which would take us to the mountain. I took the chance to look around. There was Leigh … and no one else. I was stunned. I’d saved my energy, not bridging to Brad with the assumption we’d have a group of strong riders rolling turns, at least limiting his advantage. Instead this was a much more difficult situation.
‘We have to press on’, I told Leigh, ‘we’ll just have to roll turns ourselves.’ Then I added, ‘But I can’t go much harder right now.’ I’d been well over threshold power for the ten minutes before the descent. Now I was only just under threshold power, but that’s where I knew I’d have to peg it for a bit.
I repeated the story of last year. I pointed out Brad was carrying a single tiny bottle of water. There had to be a chance he would fade on the mountain. He was out of sight now and obviously putting out a tremendous effort.
Leigh said a group were coming. But I wasn’t about to back off and wait. They would have to come to us. Presumably they’d be guys who would suit the rolling terrain. Guys who would catch us and give me a sit without our situation worsening.
When the catch came it felt like an eternity had passed and I’d done a lot more work than I intended. Worse still, there were only two riders. It was Davide and one other. I never really saw the fourth rider, he didn’t pull through, but it quickly became clear this was the only chasing group we’d form.
I worked hard. I reiterated we had a chance. Someone said, ‘nah he’s gone.’ I kept pulling. At times I pleaded for more of a shared workload. Leigh responded a few times but I might have been the only one visualising Brad’s capture.
At one point before Tanjil Bren (the last tiny forest town before the mountain) you can see across the forest to the road switching back on itself. It’s a chance to see about 40 seconds up (or 40 seconds back from the other side). I shouted blindly, ‘Hey Brad! Slow down!!’
“Can you see him!?’ One rider asked.
‘No! I’m joking!’ I said. But I should have said, ‘yeah he’s just around the corner.’
We rode together up to Tanjil Bren, the pace reducing slightly, a resignation to the chase being a race for second place. The potentially hair-raising descent from Tanjil Bren to the base of the mountain was taken sedately with me leading the way again.
Crossing the bridge over the Tanjil River and starting the climb up the lower slopes of Mt Baw Baw we started to pass riders who had begun earlier. We passed a rider from Elite C; I asked him the time gap to Brad and he said, ‘at least two minutes.’
A rider that strong, with two minutes lead at the base of the mountain. It would take something special to get him. But that assumption imagines a rider who powers away endlessly. I know as well as anyone you can’t do that. I know what it feels like to grow so thirsty on a mountain you might just pass out. Here I was, hydrated and carbed to the gills. I’d eaten 800g of carbohydrate the day before and kept going through the morning. There were dangers in this race but hypoglycaemia and dehydration were not amongst mine.
So we reached the gantry, where the road ramps right up. Perhaps amusingly, we gave each other some friendly encouragement, along the lines of ‘see you on the other side.’ I guess they don’t do that in Elite A. But I hadn’t completely given up. A few moments later only Davide was on my wheel.
We reached the momentarily flat turn-off 1km further up the road. A volunteer stood at the corner:
‘What’s the gap!?’ I called.
‘Sorry’, he said ‘I wasn’t timing it, maybe two minutes, or a minute and a half.’
‘That’s get-able!’ I encouraged Davide, ‘If he blows up.’
With the steep incline returning I tried to keep Davide with me. ‘This is the hardest bit.’ I said. But by the next corner I was on my own. So second place on Mt Baw Baw again? There are worse ways to finish my long stay in this grade. It would make six podiums, including three second places and one win. I was lucky not to have been booted up sooner.
So nearing the last km or so I resigned myself to second place and backed off the power a little. Then unbelievably, at the top of the next crest maybe 150m up the road, was a rider looking for all the world like Brad. But I saw no lead car and couldn’t believe it was him. A fading rider from Elite C surely?
I crested the last hill and rode at tempo across the flat stretch to the finish line. I saw Claire and gave a little shrug and a disappointed shake of the head. Then I saw Brad, riding back up to the finish line from the other side. We slapped hands and I said ‘too strong!’
Claire seemed excited. I said, ‘I really tried, but he rode away from us early on.’
‘You were right behind him!’ she said.
And there it was on the live results page – Brad had won by only 26 seconds. When you consider my new PR for the HC segment (from the bridge after the Tanjil Bren descent) was 49mins 29secs, that 26 seconds is tantalising. More proof that race radios are needed in club racing I say!
My mountain climb wasn’t just the fastest in my grade but one of the fastest on the day:
I was proud of that, even if the A Graders listed there (including the KOM of Zwift’s ‘Alpe du Zwift’) had ridden a further 50km beforehand. I’d done a bit of work too!
So up on the podium, second again, memories of 2016, and other memories too. It’s all very bitter-sweet. Then one final funny twist. I’m on my way to the next grade now, but until the Tour of East Gippsland I’m the Victorian Road Series leader for Masters C.
Putting on the jersey for the Series leader’s photo, I said to Cycling Victoria’s road manager Anina, ‘I can never race in this’.
She replied, ‘but you can wear it for a month and take it home and be proud of it.’
Into the setting sun, Claire and I rode off the mountain and back to Noojee. Me in my ironic jersey, savouring it. Claire towed me all the way, not asking me to take a single turn (and she wasn’t going that easy on me either). I thought of all the people who’ve towed me along in one way or another the last five years. I’ve been lucky to know these people. Whatever comes next this is the end of a chapter which began with racing at Mt Buller in 2014. It’s been a good stretch really.
Strava file here.