Posted by: Fiddygig | 22/01/2012

Mt Baw Baw Pt2: The Climb

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!

Mt Baw Baw. What a buzz! Worth a trip just to take in the view.

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.

Yeah... this feels 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?

Posted by: Fiddygig | 22/01/2012

Mt Baw Baw Pt1: Fear

Mt Baw Baw. Australia’s only Hors Categorie climb. Need anything more be said? Well, try this: Promoters of the 7-peaks challenge claim that Mt Baw Baw is the 2nd hardest ascent in road cycling. Only 12.5km in total but the last 6.6km have a mind-blowing average gradient of 11.7%, behind only the legendary Angliru of Vuelta a Espana fame. The toughest climb of the 7-Peaks challenge – by a country mile! The Collins free online dictionary has the following definitions:

Fear: a feeling of distress, apprehension, or alarm caused by impending danger, pain.

So far I have been confident of making it to the top of every climb attempted. I have climbed Mont Ventoux and Alpe d’Huez without severe difficulty. Mt Baw Baw scares me. Totally!

It’s not just the insane gradient, it’s the gearing on my bike. Simon Gerrans recommends a 39/27 and other sources suggest even smaller ratios than that. The granny gear on Yellow Peril’s 9-speed Ultegra cluster (1997) is just a 39/21… There will be immense pain and considerable danger that I will not make it to the top. I would feel comfortable with a 39/27, no doubt. But if I step off, there will be no stepping back on – I wouldn’t be able to generate enough forward momentum to clip in.

Loathing: abhorrence, disgust.

Today (Thursday 19th Jan) I am tackling this climb alone, without my brother-in-arms Ross. I had a spare day of leave but he could not escape the office. It’s an odd, uncomfortable feeling, almost like I’m cheating on my partner. Hey we aren’t married are we Ross? Never even kissed another bloke (okay Adrian, the final siren of the 1999 AFL Preliminary Final does not count!). Abhorrence to have upped and gone it alone on this most difficult of assignments.

And should I fail to make it without hopping off I will be appalled at my weakness – utterly disgusted. Flashback June 2006, the Col d’Aubisque, 4km from the summit. No more than a corner short of the ski resort of Gourette, an ailing, clicking, defective derailleur finally lets go and snaps off the frame of the brand new vitesse-for-hire, depriving me of my first ever H.C. summit. Traces of bile still stain the back of my throat from that fateful day. An elephant never forgets… and it wasn’t even my fault. Self-loathing.

One thing was certain. The attempt at Mt Baw Baw would be no coffee/bacon n’ egg roll cultural tour of duty. This was special ops, a 32km drop-in raid… with no guarantee of success. Leaving just after 9:30am would not permit a 100km campaign anyway. The plan was to try and find a park near the Big Tree Creek bridge at the foot of the climb then pedal back to Tanjil Bren some 3-4 kilometres beforehand, in order to have a suitable warm-up (and so as not face a 2km @ 6% climb back to the car at the end of proceedings). It would take me roughly 2 hours to drive there I estimated, ample time to evaluate the factors contributing to my likelihood of success. So I had my coffee at home and jumped in the car.

Even with limited riding, this attempt had a few things going for it I reckoned. Firstly, the weather was perfect. With a ridge of high pressure easing itself through Bass Straight, the wind would be from the southwest and light (indeed I noticed no wind at all during the ride). Not enough for significant stratocumulus cloud but certainly welcome relief from high summer temperatures. Secondly, my preparation, although restricted, did include some experience with Baw Baw like gradients if adherence to the non-granny gear was factored in. Way back in October, much of Arthur’s Seat (3km) resembled a gradient of 10%, with one corner at least reaching 20% – the maximum gradient at Winch Corner on Baw Baw. Then, there was the last kilometre of Mt Buller, and its 12% monster mid-section. ITB-snapping and barely pedalled in 39/19, but completed nonetheless. Finally, on the weekend just gone, the 2km @ 9.5% into Marysville and the first 4.5km @ 8% up Lake Mountain handled in 39/19 with relative ease. Yes the gradient would be tougher but I did have a gear in reserve.

Then there was the mental aspect. I knew the average gradient but what of the detail? If I was to be hit with gradients of 16% for 1km stretches unexpectedly I was as good as gone. But if I knew what to expect then perhaps the loins could be girded. The climbing cyclist is about to feel something warm and damp in his back pocket right now as this is where his excellent site was really worth its weight in gold. Armed with some kind of handlebar GPS/altimeter gizmo he has described the Mt Baw Baw climb in agonising detail. Pulling out the pen and paper the night before, I studied this intently so that I knew exactly which parts of the climb were the toughest and those few places where I would receive a brief respite. Another key piece of information came from cycling profiles: Of 6.6km at 11.7%, the first 3.5km past toll booth would be 13.1%, the next 2.2km would be 11.6% meaning the final 0.9km would be <10%. Get beyond 3.5km from the toll booth and, at least objectively, the ride should get easier.

But on the other hand 39/21 for gradients this steep was woefully inadequate according to all published accounts, and my efforts to hold it in reserve had resulted in knees so sore that I was unsure of my ability to pedal let alone climb. Fortunately, some nifty work by fellow pistachio and cycling physiotherapist extraordinaire, Lucas Owen, had restored some meagre flexibility to my ITBs and corrected my position on the Peril, so as not to have to use them as much in future. [Note: If any reader ever has a cycling related injury or requires their bicycle to be anatomically set up for them, Lucas is your man Details here: Contact: ]. Attempting to control all possible controllables, on the way out of Eltham, I filled the Esky with ice ready to move into damage control as soon as the attempt was done.

Driving first to the Baw Baw turn-off from Yarra Junction took me on the route through Powelltown to Noojee. It struck me that in normal circumstances I probably would have described the forest along this road truly breathtaking. Unfortunately I was too anxious to appreciate it. Understandably the main industry in these parts is timber and the main driving hazards are the loggers’ trucks, barrelling down the middle of the road determined to wipe out anyone who dares to roll a tyre onto their highway. Once you reach the outpost of Icy Creek, roughly 20km from Tanjil Bren, the road narrows significantly becoming very winding. It is barely possible to hit 60km/h and trip duration estimates were blown out. Any readers wanting to attempt Baw Baw, I’d actually recommend starting from Icy Creek as you will cover that 20km almost as quickly by bicycle as you will in a car. Running late, I decided to start from Tanjil Bren and wear the 2km climb at the end of the ride.

The view towards Mt Baw Baw from Icy Creek

Parking the car, pumping the tyres and finally hopping on the bike at the stroke of noon, I wheeled around to find a 60ish man speaking to me wearing navy Hard Yakkas and a fluoro yellow shirt emblazoned with “Muz’s Mowing”. From these timber felling parts, Muz was a chip off the old block: “… Have you heard that Mt Baw Baw is the second toughest climb in the world? 6km at about 13%.” The talkative Muz seemed a very likeable chap but I did not prolong the conversation.

Onto the bike and down, down, down out of Tanjil Bren, focussing on the beautiful forest rather than the upcoming monstrosity. Expecting maybe a 1-2km flat section before the climb, I turned a left hander and immediately ahead was Big Tree Creek bridge, the start of the climb. I was then glad I’d started at Tanjil Bren as there was no place to park down here. Evidently there are no flat roads in this part of the world. The wristwatch read 12:13:20 as I crossed the bridge and the computer said 10km exactly. A bonus, I would not have to do any complicated arithmetic on the climb…

Posted by: Fiddygig | 17/01/2012

Lake Mtn: Fire & Famine

Devotees of Arthurian legend who climb Lake Mountain, hoping to find a passport stamp held aloft by a hand rising silently from the clear, still waters at the top… are destined for disappointment. Such a gimmick could be engineered to be sure. However, the ‘Lake’ is not a body of water but the surname of one George Lake, (according to Wikipedia) Surveyor General at the time (unknown); and who apparently, desperately wanted to have a mountain named after him (a bit like needing to own a very large motorised vehicle in modern times). Admittedly, this a bizarre opening to the latest blog entry… an author duelling amateurishly against writer’s block… but we are on a grail quest of sorts, after all. Such twaddle could only be the result of fire, flood, famine and pestilence:

Flood: Escaped the Melbourne flash flood by aircraft on Christmas Day only to find upon returning a fortnight later that the house had not.

Famine: Two weeks in Brisbane without anything resembling decent coffee; or in Ross’ case, 10 days hiking in Tasmania with only chocolate coffee beans to keep himself alive. Enough to support a habit but pathetic in terms of nourishment. This caused Ross to ‘Waste’ to only 64kg and triggered a severe hunger flat on Lake Mountain.

Pestilence: The prawn-like hatchlings covering the smooth film of red clay on the lower storey floor (was slightly tempted to cook ’em). Perhaps mould and lots of it also belongs in this category.

Faced with these unfortunate circumstances the thought and action of bike riding floundered. Just a shade over 2 weeks to go until the Alpine Classic and no climbs, nor indeed bike riding of any other kind, have occurred since December 22. Oh, that and the fact that Victoria had about its coldest summer day ever at the last opportunity to head out. Had we ridden Lake Mountain on that day we would have had to contend with snow! Just one last chance to ride – the day before returning to work – and the weather forecast looks perfect. What a great way to bookend the holiday!

But before we get started on the details of the ride (if we ever do), on the eve of the 2012 pro-cycling season (Stage 1 of Tour Down Under on 17th January), it would be remiss not to reflect upon some of the recent developments in Australian professional cycling:

Firstly, our old mate Simon Gerrans. After saying all those (mostly) nice things about him on Mt Buller, Gerro has gone and done us proud, taking out the Australian National Rode Race Championship in Buninyong, Victoria. Better still, he won it from a select breakaway of 3 who went away on the final climb… by being “a complete hard-arse who can not only survive a course with climbs but win on it”. He now gets to proudly wear the Australian National Champions jersey in the first year of GreenEdge Cycling Team. Chapeau Simon!

The week before the Nationals, a series of criterium races called the Bay Cycling Classic is held annually near Geelong. Marking the race debut of GreenEdge in 2012, the pro riders were completely upstaged by a 17 year old from Bowral NSW, who won 2 out of 4 stages and placed 9th in the others. In the process he dispatched sprinters of the pedigree of Chris Sutton, Robbie McEwen, Greg Henderson and Allan Davis. He goes by the name of… Caleb Ewan!!…  Clearly the lad has a big future.

2011 saw the emergence of two major talents on the local cycling scene both riding for the Genesys Wealth Advisers Team. Nathan Haas (22) totally dominated the GC of the Australian National Road Series (NRS), and then stepped up to the Pro Ranks for the 2.1 ranked Jayco Herald-Sun Tour. Not only did he win (besting several Tour de France riders) but followed up by winning the 1.HC ranked Japan Cup, defeating amongst others Ivan Basso and Damiano Cunego. His results have earned him a 2012 contract riding for World Tour outfit Garmin-Barracuda. And dominating the sprint classifications of the NRS was his team-mate, the aptly named Steele Von Hoff. Enough to garner him a spot on the Chipotle Development Team (Garmin feeder team), Von Hoff will ride the Tour Down Under for the UniSA (local all-stars) team. But I’m wondering how he will get on if he makes it to the World Tour ranks next year, what with Garmin being the team of fellow Aussie fast-man Heinrich Haussler? With both vying for the honour of leading sprinter, fans of Steele will surely be crying: “Don’t Haussler the Hoff!”

The Tour Down Under starts for real tomorrow following the Down Under Classic matinee yesterday. This was won by the ‘Gorilla’ Andre Greipel over ‘Eddie’ Boasson Hagen. The novelty of this year’s race is a stage finish at the top of Old Willunga Hill, rather than after a descent from it; giving ‘puncheurs’ a fighting chance over the sprinters. With time bonuses up for grabs in the sprints though it will be fascinating to see who comes out on top. Could Valverde hit winning form immediately back from a 2 year suspension? Maybe his Spanish team-mate Jose Ivan Gutierrez. Will it be sprinters who can climb like Boasson Hagen or Rojas? Perhaps our champ Gerro, clearly in strong form. With some tough uphill sprint stages in the mix also, I’ll have to plant my kiss-of-death on ‘The Cannibal’ MkII E.B.H.

Finally, after that lengthy interlude… Fire. The foot of the Lake Mountain climb lies at the Victorian town of Marysville. Once one of the most picturesque small holiday towns in Victoria, Marysville was all but wiped out in the Black Saturday bushfires of 7th February 2009. 45 town residents lost their life. Having not visited since before that tragic event, the scene is still eery. Historic trees and buildings gone, with piecemeal redevelopment surrounded by bald grassy scars. For our pre-ride feed, we stopped in at one of the new buildings, the Marysville Country Bakery Cafe. By now my views on country coffee are well known and this was a case in point… terrible, but more or less expected. When you visit a country bakery, what you are genuinely hoping to find are a plethora of homocooked Aussie delights such as apple slice, custard tart, vanilla slice (the good ol ‘snot roll’), chocolate eclaire (OK, French) and jelly slice. We tried the vanilla slice and jelly slice and immediately annointed them the best we had ever tasted(!!) Definitely worth a visit to Marysville of their own accord and completely overshadowing a disappointing bacon-and-egg roll. We were ready to begin our ride.

We did not start up Lake Mountain immediately. Wishing to warm up first, we took the 80km route of the Marysville-Lake Mountain challenge, which begins with a 35-40km triangle from Marysville-Buxton-St Fillans-Marysville. After 25km of near-flat the final 10km or so is very hilly and includes a 2km climb in the 9.5%-10% range – a major benefit for two riders that will have to take on Tawonga Gap before Falls Creek in a couple of weeks time. Better still, this was steeper than anything we would encounter on Lake Mountain, so if we could handle this, the rest would be straightforward we thought. It struck me as being very similar to the Arthur’s Seat climb and I am pleased to report that (a) after 3 weeks off the bike, our climbing form had not suffered at all, (b) Ross spent the entire climb out of the saddle – a first for him; and (c) my granny gear has still not been used. From there we enjoyed a very pleasurable 5km descent back into Marysville.

Like a harried breakaway, pursued by a relentless Grand Tour peloton, we swept past the car and straight onto the Lake Mountain climb. The unique aspect of this climb is that it’s the first kilometres, rather than the last, that are the hardest. Roughly 4.5km at 8% is what you will face once you make the right turn onto the Lake Mountain/Woods Point road. The Climbing Cyclist, a site that I greatly respect, describes this as one of the most challenging in Victoria. However, on this occasion I am inclined to disagree, as does Australian National Champion Simon Gerrans. Once you are through that first 4.5km, the remainng 16+km of the climb barely averages 4%, less even than the 1-in-20. A few minutes of effort and you can sit up and enjoy the wonderful scenery on offer all the way to the top.

Like Marysville, the most outstanding aspect of this alpine setting is the sign of recent fire. Ridgetop after ridgetop lined by bare dead forest behemoths, the grand guardians of a bygone age. Had Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings trilogy) wished for an alternative location to film the march of the Ents from Fangorn Forest he need have looked no further than Lake Mountain. Indeed, we found this a very enjoyable climb, despite Ross being ravaged by the dreaded ‘Taswegian Hunger Flat’. Near the summit, canopies of trees which would have been simply gorgeous pre-bushfire, were still striking even in their passing.

Canopies of trees were still striking, even in their passing.

Naturally the 22km descent was a highlight. We tarried awhile at the top though because the setting of the Bistro at the alpine resort is superb. Wall-to-wall glass and a jazz band to greet cyclists on arrival. Dinosaur jumping castle for the kids should one be able to talk their spouse into a day trip (ie a thinly disguised attempt to score a hit for your own cycling habit). What more could one ask for? The combination of alpine views, comfortable couches and jazz band elevated Ross to a zen-like state. This was only possible because he eschewed the obligatory coffee/bacon-and-egg bap, as they were bloody awful! Were it not for this unsavoury taste in the mouth, Lake Mountain was otherwise magnificent and would make a fine candidate for a future Great Pistachio Bike Ride.

The combination of alpine views, comfortable couches and jazz band elevated Ross to a zen-like state.

Next: Fear and Loathing

Posted by: Fiddygig | 27/12/2011

Mt Buller Pt2: The Climb

Somewhere in the depths of the Victorian Roads and Traffic Authority vaults, we reckon there is an engineers’ bible with the commandment: “though shalt maintain a gradient of 6% on alpine roads at all times*”, where the footnote reads in the finest of print: “*unless you happen to run out of mountain, in which case, just send the bloody thing up the hill any way you can”. The 7-Peaks passport says that Mt Buller is 15.8km long, that it hits its average gradient of 6% tout-de-suite and that this “comes as a bit of a shock to the system”. What the officianados fail to tell you is that the true climb continues a further kilometre past the entrance to the alpine village to the doors of the Arlberg Hotel at a gradient in excess of 10%! Interested readers can find a fine account of the ascent and view its profile at these two excellent sites:

There is a reason that long climbs of 6% do not dislodge the strong men of a Grand Tour peloton: it’s just not steep enough; Ross and I can pedal up it comfortably in a sub-granny gear. We were even able to appreciate the forest – more arid than Donna Buang on account of its northerly aspect – and some fine views across the valley. When the gradient did kick up it was short-lived, and our ‘bad legs’ of the valley roads had come good. With 10km of climbing completed in what seemed the blink of an eye, we were even starting to wonder whether our Sky clad chaperone and his “shock to the system” carry-on might actually be a bit soft? Then we looked at our stopwatch: “Okay, Gerro actually finished 5 minutes ago”.

It’s in the final mile to the alpine village (official summit) that the RTA throws out the doctrine. The average gradient snaps into the realms of 8% and sweeping bends are replaced by a series of hairpins as the forest gives way to stunted snowgums. With 14km of climbing already in the legs, this is where the true test begins. We found the going tougher here: Ross feeling the effects of deliberate out-of-the-saddle training on the lower reaches, me as a result of avoiding my granny gear for as long as possible.

Talk to a racer about Mt Buller and they will fix you with a knowing smile and say “watch out for Hell Corner”. Just after the flame rouge point of the official climb, Hell Corner is a hairpin where the gradient heads skyward at 13%. “This is Mt Baw Baw territory” I thought to myself and therefore the logical place to ‘go granny’. The gradient even slackens slightly on the run into the corner and you can see the steep pitch ahead – a perfect place to change gear. But somehow I managed to confuse myself on the approach… “Where’s best?… fast enough for a smooth change?… what would SG do?”. Too late to change gear after such procrastination, I was forced to size up the 13% apex versus the gentler option of the outside lane. The thought of such softness shocked me. I became angry. “Baw Baw you bastard!” my internal monologue cried and I stamped on granny-minus-one, thrusting the handlebars straight into the apex.

This of course, is by far the best way to handle Hell Corner, as no sooner have you committed yourself than you are through the sharp bend and the gradient eases back to 8-9%. From there it is plain sailing to the entrance of the alpine village and the finish of the official climb. Here the purists among us turn right onto the concrete Summit Road heading up to the Arlberg Hotel. Ross and I rode quietly on, chuffed with the knowledge that Simon Gerrans had stepped off his bike at the gate. Trouble with Summit Road though, is that while the first 200m are flat, the average gradient is greater than 10%. Up ahead the wooden railing coincided with the steep pitch to the summit. I cannot give you Ross’ perspective from here on, because once you enter these places of such extreme being, your experience becomes entirely singular…

The wooden railing coincided with the steep pitch to the summit.

“Okay”, I thought. “Maybe I can also do this Gr-1 giving me a gear in reserve for the similar slopes of Baw Baw”. This was fine for the first few hundred metres at 10%, but as the sweeping S-bend straightened and revealed 200m or more at 12%, the folly of this strategy was laid bare. My entire body weight was coming down on each pedal stroke just to turn the damn things over. With 100m of this to go, the ITBs had the flexibility of blocks of wood and the knees were screaming. Only the limited length saved me, as shaking, I made it to 100m of respite at 8%. Just as the road rose up to 12% again around the next bend, miraculously the Hotel Arlberg was revealed barely 100m away; and, at the threshold where the concrete road turns to gravel we finally put down our bikes. The Mt Buller climb had started innocuously but by the end it had become a beast. So we took in the view and celebrated.

The climb was hard & the riders suffered.

A few backslaps above the tree-line later, we tiptoed back down Summit Rd to get our passports stamped at the Clocktower information centre. We were greeted by the friendly girl on duty, a local, who upon seeing our passports asked “Did you know Simon Gerrans grew up in Mansfield?” – “You don’t say!” we hurriedly replied, pretending to be interested, “Could you point us towards the nearest decent cafe?”… The Cattleman’s Cafe was spacious and comfortable, commanding an amazing view of the village plaza and alpine surrounds. Having achieved our goal, there we sat above the world: coffee, papers, and a bacon-and-egg roll that could only have been made in heaven.

At last it was time to return and we were invited into the descent by the aroma of white blossoming snowgums. By now it was early afternoon and sections of the road were melting in the hot sun. This made for a few treacherous corners initially, but once we completed the hairpins it was a very navigable -6% all the way back down to the toll booth. As we approached Mirimbah trepidation closed in again when we recalled our discomfort on the roads from Mansfield. But as it turned out, the 1-2% gradient was far more tangible than it had previously appeared; because although it was hot and we were fatigued, we fairly flew the 30km return journey at well in excess of 30km/h.

Upon reaching Mansfield we slipped into the Star Cafe once more for a brief refreshment before hitting the road. Recounting the day’s events we looked up at the wall surprised to find what we had previously missed: There looking down, guiding us with his solemn stare, was Simon Gerrans, resplendent in the 2008 Credit Agricole uniform of his Tour de France stage win and Mt Buller record…

We drove out of town with the rural haze growing in the westering sun. Sore knees for our trouble and tan lines of dubious charisma, but totally exhilarated by our experience on Mt Buller. As we passed the 100km/h signs marking the open road an oncoming motorcycle rose into view…

There, stuck fast to the rear wheel… devouring the road as only one who knows its every inch can, raced a man in a Sky Procycling jersey.

Posted by: Fiddygig | 23/12/2011

Mt Buller Pt1: Simon Says

Thursday 22nd December 2011. The first day of the summer break and the kids are in all-day care. It’s Ross’ first day of holiday too. We have been planning this day since the week after Mt Donna Buang, the week we decided to take on the 7 Peaks challenge. To hell with sleeping in! We have 7 mountains to climb and opportunity… how better to begin a holiday anyway?

But which mountain? Within easy day-trip range of Melbourne there was the choice of Mt Buller, Mt Baw Baw or Lake Mountain. Flipping through the 7-peaks passport we studied the description of each of the climbs provided by decorated Australian professional cyclist Simon Gerrans who, as any self-respecting SBS anchor will tell you, is: “the only Australian to have won stages in all three Grand Tours”. It took less than a moment to quail at Mt Baw Baw – more on that later… leaving Marysville – Lake Mountain or Mansfield – Mt Buller. We would happily have done either, but with 7-Peaks patron Simon Gerrans raised in Mansfield this made for an obvious choice.

It promised to be a day of great NE Victorian cycling weather. Early cloud clearing to a fine day in the plains with the maximum temperature nudging 30 degrees celsius. Just the hint of an afternoon shower or thunderstorm we noted as we saw cloud gathering about the higher peaks to the east. Passing through the town of Bonnie Doon we observed the overhead powerlines to the right with speed boats zooming across the lake to the left; and this filled us with a strange sense of calm.

To mention the name Cadel Evans in Mansfield is to be greeted by one of two reactions: either a broad grin with a glint in the eye, or a hard glare with the hint of a scowl; both of them accompanied by the phrase “Did you know that Simon Gerrans grew up in Mansfield?” In fact, to mention just about anything in Mansfield will illicit the same response. This is precisely what we discovered when we trundled into the Star Cafe clad in full cycling gear for our pre-ride fuel-up of coffee and bacon-and-egg roll. Thus, it seems an appropriate moment to ponder the feats of Mansfield’s favourite son, who once the calendar ticks over to 2012, will swap his colours from Sky Professional Cycling Team to those of the new Australian World Tour outfit GreenEDGE Cycling.

When you consider that in recent years Australian cycling has been blessed with the talents of multiple Green Jersey winner Robbie McEwen, and now yellow jersey winner Cadel Evans amongst others, it seems remarkable that Simon Gerrans is the only Australian rider to have won stages in the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana. More remarkable still given that ‘Gerro’ is neither a top sprinter nor a Grand Tour winning climber. Nevertheless, he has won a handful of 5-day races and placed in the top-10 of all of the Ardennes Classics, as well the 2009 World Championships (won by Cadel Evans). In other words, a complete hard-arse who can not only survive a course with climbs but win on it. Gerro holds the official record of 39:50 for his home climb of Mt Buller (Stage 4, 2008 Jayco Herald Sun Tour) and this we reckoned, as we downed the last sips of our surprisingly excellent coffee, made all of the local fuss somewhat understandable.

Pre-ride fuel-up

The open roads of country Victoria are hard roads. The stones in the bitumen are large, the kind that make your car tyres whine at 100km/h. For cyclists its even worse with the effort of each pedal stroke sinking like your wheel rims between the marble sized granules. Foolishly, Ross and I attacked the first 10km in excess of 30km/h and our legs quickly found the going painful. Add this to the net 1-2% incline of the 30km false flat to Mirimbah at the foot of Mt Buller and we were sure we were both having bad days! At the first hint of a hill a truce was called, and when our pace slowed to 20-25km/h during the final few forested kilometres to Mirimbah, our appreciation for Simon and his stomping ground was being tested.

At last the arms of the valley converged and there in the distance lay the toll booth marking the base of the climb. With some relief, we made the obligatory pitstop at the adjoining cafe/ski-hire venture. A van pulled in, looking much like a group of bushwalkers, except that they were all dressed in the same gear. Ross got talking and it turned out these guys were actually a film crew associated with the 7 Peaks, heading to Mt Buller to capture promotional footage. The crew informed us that members of the new Australian squad had trained on the mountain recently: “Did you know that the GreenEDGE guys rode a time trial up here a few days ago? Simon Gerrans rode 38:40, that’s the time you’ve got to beat”…

“Bugger Simon!” we thought…”That’s unofficial and the last thing we want to hear right now!”… “They didn’t bother to film us.” we muttered as we turned our bikes towards the toll booth…

Exactly why are we doing this again?

Next – Mt Buller Part 2: The Climb.

Posted by: Fiddygig | 23/12/2011

Mt Donna Buang

Sunday 11th December 2011. The most important part of any weather forecast is the trend. A moistened fingertip in the wind is not required to know what is happening now. We are living it. People don’t plan for the immediate, they plan ahead; and how the weather will change from its current condition plays a role in how these plans are adjusted, often more psychologically than materially.

Six days out, the weather for Sunday around Melbourne looked bloody awful! It had been a similar story virtually every weekend for the latter half of 2011. Every computer model from all the major weather centres of the world was forecasting a sizeable blob of rainfall over central Victoria that day. But Ross and I have been working at the Bureau of Meteorology for some time now. Without count are the number of wet 6-day outlooks that have miraculously dried out by the time the 2-day forecast arrives. And vice-versa of course… but with the current state of training, waiting for good weather wasn’t an option. So we labelled Sunday as tentative and prayed for the aforementioned miracle.

And improve it did as the week went on, with the forecast timing of the rain band creeping forward. When the weekend arrived, the rain was expected to occur overnight on Saturday with Sunday’s forecast: “Early drizzle clearing to a sunny afternoon”. I picked up the phone exuberantly: “Ross we’re on. Did you see the forecast? Says it’s clearing. I’ve been watching it all week and it’s an improving trend. Reckon it might even be gone by morning. How about we do Mt Donna Buang!?”… Ross remained taciturn concerning the weather but was keen to ride…

Sunday morning arose to overcast skies and steady, soaking rain. It didn’t even clear up with an hour’s drive to pick up Ross and out to Healesville. Not noted for its coffee, we even spent half an hour in the Beechworth Cafe under the pretence of ‘fuelling-up’. By the time we’d pulled the bikes out of the hatch and clipped into the pedals we were already soaked to the skin. Forecasting the weather accurately requires skill I guess, as does correctly interpreting someone else’s forecast. That’s why some meteorologists opt for a career in training.

It was a shade over 30km into Warburton at the foot of Mt Donna Buang and our spirits did not improve when Ross punctured one of his bulletproof tyres 15km due east of the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, there was something quite magical about the final few kilometres into Warburton, as we peered through misty rain to see rapids of the fledgling Yarra leaping through its bed several metres below roadside; and despite arriving at the foot of our first major training climb saturated and bedraggled, we were eager with anticipation.

At 1250m Mt Donna Buang is too small a mountain to be a shot at anything more than sightseeing for serious skiers. But it is a boon for Melbourne cyclists being the only long alpine climb within reasonably short driving distance of Melbourne. The elevation gain exceeds 1000m and its average gradient of 6.2% over 16.6km would equate to a ranking of about Category 1 in a Grand Tour. By comparison the 5% times 7km of Kinglake the previous week looked a doddle. Here is what and have to say about it:

Turning left onto the climb, I recalled a report of “magnificent forest” following a recent visit by Robert Taggart (BMTC Racing Team). We weren’t disappointed. After not much more than a mile we were surrounded by magnificent mountain ash forest and tree ferns; and at around 5% gradient we settled in and got chatting.

A lyrebird scooted across the road in front of us. Renowned for their ability to mimic, I struggled to recall having ever seen one outside of captivity. Still not halfway, the gradient crept up to 7% and this time a pair of lyrebirds snuck off into the bushes. Evidently the first was a fast mover. Now the gradient increased to 9% and the going was decidedly less comfortable – fortunately only for a couple of hundred metres though. I thought I heard an approaching vehicle but it was just our friendly lyrebird appearing again with a gleam in his eye. Through persistent drizzle we rose at 7%, a tumbling waterfall on our left, when suddenly we emerged into a clearing. The road flattened and we were into the famous hairpin bend marking halfway up the mountain.

Following the hairpin the gradient resumed at a ‘gentle’ 5% and remained so for a couple of miles allowing us to strike a good rhythm. Supposedly there are lookouts with great views of the Yarra Valley in this section, but today it was dripping trees, shades of grey and… worms! All over the road… not your ordinary garden variety these were big, fat and white! About a foot long, they made a distinctive squelching noise as we ran over them. I felt hungry.

It wasn’t time for the finer things though, as the gradient increased again over the final few kilometres. Now with 13+ kilometres of climbing in our legs, 6-7% was a considerable effort. Labouring, we were buoyed by the appearance of a wide carpark (whose boundaries were invisible in the mist) indicating 2.5km to go. By now the wet weather was taking its toll. Sodden and at more than 1000m altitude, we were freezing. We passed the junction with the gravel road to Healesville signalling 1km to go, resigned to the fact that the final 600m are one of the steepest of the climb. Grinding out that last stretch of 8-9% hurt, especially the final 200 metres with the summit carpark in sight. But we made it, rolling to a welcome stop at the finish line painted on the road at the base of the lookout tower.

We didn't stay long, we were too cold.

We didn’t stay long, we were too cold and there was nothing to be seen but cloud. We were more interested in a hot meal down in Warburton. Normally the ensuing descent would be the most enjoyable part of the experience but today we knew that the next 16.6km downhill would be nothing short of treacherous. The road was awash and our back tyres kept sliding out on albino megadriles. Barely exceeding 35km/h, our hands and wrists ached from the cold and continual pressure on the brakes; and with pedalling not an option, all blood drained from our legs. Greatly relieved to reach the bottom in once piece, we turned right to pedal into Warburton only to find that our frozen, ischemic legs could not even achieve 20km/h.

The owner of the cafe took appropriate levels of pity on us, mothering us towards a warm looking table. Signalling for a mop, she told her bemused patrons that we had probably just come down from Mt Donna Buang. I can’t even remember how good the coffee was because the homemade lamb and rosemary pie was excellent! No drier and only slightly warmer, we were at least facing the 30km return to Healesville with a full stomach. Some blood did eventually trickle into the legs although every 10 metre rise felt like a Category 3. Just for good measure, Ross punctured again 1km from the finish and his day ended with collection by the team car… just as a few rays of sunshine appeared between a break in the cloud.

Back at our lovely dry office the following day, I asked Ross if he had noticed any red clay on the road, as my bike was covered in it: “Nope, they’re worm entrails Cam and you’ll have a bugger getting them off”. Sure enough it took longer than normal to clean the Yellow Peril the next day and I made sure I had eaten breakfast first. Scrubbing away at specks of dried earthworm somehow reinforced the worth of our effort in the wet and cold. On paper, Mt Donna Buang was a longer, harder climb than we would face up to Falls Creek on January 29th; we just had to factor an additional 30km plus two ascents of Tawonga Gap into our training. Were there any other courses we could try out as preparation? Later, I briefly examined this possibility online and stumbled across something called the 7-Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge.

A weird idea began to form…

Posted by: Fiddygig | 21/12/2011


Saturday 3rd December 2011, 9:00pm. Apparently I have agreed to do the 130km Alpine Classic on January 29th. You not only have to ride up Falls Creek, but Tawonga Gap twice!? That is only 8 weeks away. Hadn’t ridden a bike in years till 4 months ago. Only had 11 training rides since then. Last one was 7 weeks ago!… Fucckkkkkk!!!!!

There is only one bloke who can help me now. He has been asking me to cycle to work with him for years. Rides quite a bit apparently. Several recent efforts in excess of 100km and he’s been trying to get me to join him on those too. Asked me to ride the Alpine Classic. What, I agreed?… and paid!? Okay, I’ve fobbed him off at every possible opportunity till now and my reputation with him is ZERO!! He doesn’t think I will even make the Alpine Classic… Do I really have to give him a call?… I really hate humble pie… Beep-beep-beepedy-beep-beep-beep “Ross, how would you like to ride to Kinglake tomorrow?”, “Yep”, “Right”, “No worries”, “9:30am at Video Ezy it is”… Ughhh!!

And so it was that I committed myself bodily to the 2012 Alpine Classic and embarked on an 8-week training crash course with my friend and work colleague Ross Bunn; commencing with one of the staples of Melbourne pseudo-climbing, the route from Eltham – Kangaroo Ground – Kinglake.

Ask anyone their opinion of the Top Three bike rides that are synonymous with Melbourne and they will instantly identify Beach Rd. In second place they will undoubtedly mention the Dandenong Ranges, probably with a reference to the 7km ‘1 in 20’ climb from The Basin to Sassafras. However, in 3rd, you will most probably find a divergence of opinion. Inner city triathlon types will probably tell you “Yarra Bend, Kew” but serious cycling geeks are more likely to talk about “the climb up to Kinglake”.

It is easy to see why. It is not just the climb itself, which is barely more difficult than the 1 in 20. But the road out through the rolling green hills of Melbourne’s northeast (particularly if you take the Kangaroo Ground route from Eltham) is one of the best around. One of the most appealing features of this course is that the severest gradients are encountered on several shorter hills beforehand, making it easy to settle into a rhythm on the main 7km climb to Kinglake. Overall, the average gradient of this ascent comes in at 5.1%. But with the first 4km covered at a very comfortable 4%, riders can enjoy the breathtaking sight of regenerating forest after the tragic Black Saturday bushfires of 7th February 2009. With about 3km to go, railing appears on the RHS to prevent a steep plunge into the valley and it is here the climb becomes a little more challenging, the gradient increasing to around 6% until its conclusion at the township of Kinglake. An alternative description of the climb and a profile can be found here:

On the day Ross and I rode out, a cool change was sweeping across Melbourne. The forecast was for “a shower or two clearing” but there was no sign of the former as we set off from Video Ezy in Eltham. The sky was clear, and I figured we’d be exerting ourselves, so I left the arm-warmers in the cupboard. Light winds made for a very pleasant trip out so that by the time we neared Kinglake, we’d really given no thought to the prospect of a headwind on the return journey.

Reaching the roundabout at the top we were faced with a decision: head straight back and arrive shortly after midday or turn left towards Kinglake West and add up to an hour. “Ross, I’ve got to get back to help out with the kids” I pleaded, but Ross knew just the right button to press: “I know this really good cafe on the way to Kinglake West, it’s only about 5km away”. A choice made easier in the knowledge that just out of Kinglake was an 8% hill of at least 1km in length and we needed the training.

A decision I regretted as soon as we made it to the top of the hill. The cool change had come through and at 600m altitude it was freezing! Having had the foresight to pack arm-warmers himself, Ross made me suffer through about 10km (not 5!) of south-westerly gale along the ridge top from Kinglake to Pheasant Creek. Normally there are magnificent views of Melbourne to be had from the Kinglake ridge; but on this occasion the head was down and I was very pleased to finally reach the doors of his much-vaunted bakery/cafe ‘Flying Tarts’.

Now my experience with country cafes could best be described as “Don’t get your hopes up”. However, when the coffee arrived it surpassed all expectations! Ross was right, this cafe was not a stop along the way at all, it was THE highlight of the ride!! By now, I was extremely pleased that we had made the effort. It was cold outside, so we sat back and had another…

There are magnificent views of Melbourne to be had from the Kinglake ridge

Our legs had well and truly seized up by the time we remounted, and we took a detour around a flatter local road into Kinglake to avoid some unnecessary pain. This would return soon enough once we finished descending and took the lumpy road into Hurstbridge. Normally I would ride into Wattle Glen and turn left to Kangaroo Ground again at this point, but Ross suggested we turn left at Hurstbridge instead to meet the Kangaroo Ground – St Andrews Road nearer to Panton Hill. “Sadistic bastard that Ross” I noted, becoming painfully aware that there are far more short steep hills heading south along this road than there are going the other way. My quadriceps cursed him all the way home to Eltham.

I farewelled Ross at Wattletree Road, leaving him to face another 10km home to Hurstbridge. Ross would have covered 110km all told but I was more than happy with 90km+ door-to-door for a first-up effort. Forgetting about 4 times as much climbing for the time being, there was only another 40km to cover to reach Alpine Classic distance. Surely that was attainable in another 8 weeks time. It had taken 7 weeks for the attitude to shift. By next week the worm would have well and truly turned…

Next: Mt Donna Buang.