Like some freshly paved road goading you gently towards an unseen precipice, the gradient of the first 5.7km of the climb averages just a shade over 4%. This amounted to a good warm-up as far as I was concerned and with the role of a warm-up to increase the heart-rate in preparation for the main effort, I did not hold back. I maintained a fairly steady pace in excess of 20km/h using a 39/17 for the most part while attempting to scoff down one of those unchewable energy bars ahead of the ominous Gantry Corner. I’d barely managed to flood the last araldite-like crumbs from the roof of my mouth when there was the warning sign “Gantry Corner” blaring out in yellow dead ahead. Click went the gears into the 39/21 of last resort. To the right the road went up…
I had read that the steep part of the climb is supposed to start at the site of the old toll booth just past Gantry Corner. The problem is that this toll booth is no longer there, and that unless you are part of the “I’ve been to Mt Baw Baw more times than you’ve had hot dinners” club, you’ve got no idea where the bloody thing was situated. This means that you can’t accurately record your time for the 6.6km of hell. On second thoughts perhaps this is actually a blessing in disguise. In any case I did not have any time to contemplate this as the gradient immediately kicked up to, I reckon, about 11%. I tend to be an out-of-the-saddle climber and found that for now I could stand and pedal without totally blowing up. I could see a big left hand corner a few hundred metres ahead and just tried to find a rhythm because I knew it was going to get worse.
Just around this first major left hander and the gradient had definitely increased into the 13% range. It was only 1km in, the legs and lungs were screaming, standing on the pedals was extremely difficult and with 5.5km to go I was experiencing doubts as to whether I could make it. To unclip would be terminal, so it was a case of just try to shut it out and attempt to focus on one sub-section at a time. Suddenly, just up ahead there appeared a sign saying “Neulynes Hill”; which I knew from last night’s research was perhaps the toughest of the entire climb with about 500m at sustained 13+%. However, as this came upon me earlier than ‘expected’ it was actually a big mental boost – it meant that despite the pain the kilometres were ticking over. Get through this tough stretch and it should get ‘easier’ I thought (it didn’t). During this 500m standing slowly became impossible. My leg strength faded, forcing me down into the saddle. It was only Lucas’ expert decision to raise my seat height that allowed me to climb this way, but I was able to push across the top of the pedal stroke from the glutes and lower back, pain steadily rising in those areas and beginning to zig-zag across the road as the 500m wore on. Then, all of a sudden, the LH turnoff for the C426 to the summit appeared, the point where the road flattens for about the space of a few bulldozers. Again (in my mind) this was sooner than anticipated so that spirits rose again. I barely managed to sneak a quick drink before normal service resumed and the road turned right at about 12%.
I knew the next 2.5km section would be bloody hard as this contained the steepest corner of the climb, the left-hand ‘Winch Corner’ with a gradient of 20%. And so it was, but again the course research paid off. Although unmarked, I recognised Winch Corner because it occurred with 4km to go. Welcoming all thoughts of softness, I went up around the outside. The next 2km at 12-13% were pure pain because fatigue became a really big factor: it was increasingly difficult to stand up, hence sitting and zig-zagging. Yet even amongst this torture, there is one major boost: at the main L.H. hairpin you come across a sign saying 3km to go. Having gotten this far, cycling profiles told me that the average gradient would be slightly easier for the remaining 3km. I had already covered the toughest part of the climb, or so I thought. As I rounded the hairpin, there was a fat balding roadie sitting on a stool outside his van. “You’re not the first to come up here today he said”. “Yeah” I managed, “I saw 2 guys as I drove in”. “Oh no, there’s been 4 or 5 come up here today” he retorted. “Fuck you!” I thought, “I bet you’ve just been sitting at that corner on your fat arse all day, getting paid for it”.
The benefit from the 3km sign and the associated aggression may have lasted for almost a kilometre although I suspect that, in reality, there may have been the odd respite in the gradient. What I can say is that at a little over 2km to go there is an incredibly hard stretch, much like Neulyne’s Hill where the gradient is up around 13%; and by this time you are so incredibly fatigued that you are just about to throw in the towel. To make matters worse, at the end of it is what appears to be an unbelievably steep right-hand corner, an unmarked beast that rivals Winch Corner (guess 17%) and you’re only thought is “come-what-may beyond, I must keep going or I won’t actually make it through the corner”. With the lower back screaming, around the corner I found… a little ‘break’ of 9%!… “Hang in there! Just over 1.5km now and the last kilometre gets easier… Keep going!” Absolute resolution was the feeling that came over me right then, because if I made it to the last kilometre the gradient would decrease to 10% and below. The course stats obviously didn’t lie and I was sure that I was home!
The sight of the first carpark (5) below the resort gate brought immense joy and as the road continued to flatten I accelerated. Past the other carparks, two at once – one on either side, gathering momentum until… there it was! “I can’t believe it, the last carpark with the gate in sight”. Speeding into the final carpark I was so happy I started pumping my fist, once, then a few times. Zipping up the jersey I waved ecstatically to a family of tourists. Any amusement they felt at this prima donna performance they hid superbly, and they grinned and waved back. I had done it!! 13:10:40 on the wristwatch, a time of 57:20 for the 12.5km. Without stopping, I had conquered the hardest road climb in Australia.
Outside Mt Baw Baw Village Central, I had a chat with a group of workers: “Simon Gerrans was up here with a film crew the other day. Should have seen him fly up Winch Corner, then they stopped him and he repeated it about another 20 times”. Of course he did, I was used to this by now [Congratulations on your win in the Tour Down Under Simon, it was all worth it!]. Michelle from Village Central was absolutely lovely to me, stamped my passport and encouraged me to sit down, not caring a jot about the pool of sweat she would have to wipe up afterwards (out of consideration for her I politely stood). Not having a phone, she arranged for Eliza from the marketing team to take a photo of me, my bike and the Baw Baw flag at the summit, a photo I will treasure for all time. Thanks guys, I am indebted to you!
Finally it came time to head down. I took it easy, it was steep and there was no need to rush. Approaching the hairpin 3km down the mountain, there was a fat balding roadie sitting on a stool outside his van. Down Neulyne’s Hill I had an odd moment of panic “What if Michelle forgot to stamp my passport, I didn’t check” and then I was past Gantry Corner, flying towards Big Tree Creek Bridge. Only the briefest of protest from the legs as the road turned up toward Tanjil Bren before they realised that this was only 6% and the power was on back to the car. The forest on the drive home was truly breathtaking and not a single logging truck in sight. I dropped the bike off at the shop on the way home. The mechanic, a racer, said that a winning time on that climb is usually about 45 minutes but that fatigued from some very difficult roads on the way in it had sometimes taken him more than an hour. It felt overwhelmingly good.
I feel fortunate to have completed some very memorable climbs. The Col de Marie Blanc with Milton Speer and Mont Ventoux with Robin Van Koert in 2006 were very special moments, as was the day at Mt Buller with Ross in December. However, the difficulty of Mt Baw Baw surpasses anything I have seen in France, or anywhere else. I have no doubt that “2nd toughest in the world of professional bicycle racing” is an exaggeration, although I reckon it would definitely make the Top 10. To have completed this gives me a deep sense of satisfaction and it is the kind of elation that doesn’t wear off a few days after the moment has passed. There are still 4 climbs to go for the 7-Peaks challenge, but after succeeding on Mt Baw Baw, there is no longer anything to fear. The Audax Alpine Challenge up Falls Creek on January 29th awaits. Who knows what other roads may be travelled that weekend?