I’d had an invigorating swim in one such stream earlier on, but now I sat on a gently sloping grassy bank listening to the organisers during the pre-ride briefing. They were singing up a gospel, praising the weather that had blessed us for the past two days.
“Truly magnificent,” they said with a smirk. “But don’t expect it to last!”
Then, with evil intent and a devillish grin, they announced the following day’s ride would start in pouring rain. The first descent, a twisting 30 kilometre plunge off the side of Falls Creek, would be made in darkness and on wet, slippery roads.
But then, like an infomercial offering free steak knives, there was more. Riders would be faced with 40 km/h head winds on the upper slopes of Mt. Hotham, the tough second climb of the day.
And if you survived that, the 30 degree plus temperatures predicted for the Omeo Valley would probably fry your brains later on anyway.
I went to sleep that night full of confidence.
I woke at 4:30 am and listened carefully for the sound of rain on the tin roof of our accommodation. Nothing. Not even the sound of a rustling leaf. The morning was serene. I smiled.
An hour later I was unloading my bike in dusty winds and a dirty, spitting rain. Granted I was in an exposed carpark somewhere on the side of a mountain, but the weather was deteriorating.
As a result I decided to go the wet weather gear. I donned my rain jacket, a pair of long bike knicks, a fluffy headband to keep the wind out of my ears and a pair of shoe covers to keep my feet from getting wet.
I ended up cooking.
By the time my wave of riders were allowed to roll off the start line, the sun was about to break the horizon and the roads were bone dry.
That didn’t stop the top half of the descent from being sketchy though. The riders were still all bunched up and their varying ability levels were cause for concern. Some bombed around the corners as if they were on rails, while others jumped on the brakes at random moments if they felt they were going too fast. Others just got the speed wobbles. An awful lot seemed to puncture, a couple almost within view of the starting line.
Apart from one hairy moment when I hit a corrugated section of bitumen on the inside of a hairpin at about 40 km/h, I was fine.
It was quite tense though and you needed your wits about you, especially with some reckless riders trying to film their own descents with hand held iPhones while hurtling down the hill at 60 km/h.
But they turned out to be the least of my worries.
The mantra of the veterans who had ridden this event several times was ‘eat, drink, repeat’.
“Do that, and you can’t go wrong,” they chortled as they flexed their bulging calf muscles.
I knew I was in trouble as I bit into my first energy bar. I couldn’t swallow the mongrel. No matter how much I chewed it, it wouldn’t go down. I’d just come off the Falls Creek descent and thought I’d make the most of the very few relatively flat kilometres before the start of the Tawonga Gap climb to eat, but it wasn’t happening.
Cursing, I tucked the half eaten bar back in my jersey pocket and swung onto the first climb of the day, a 7.6 km drag up to Tawonga Gap.
A few minutes in and I was sweating up a treat. I ripped off my headband and stopped briefly to remove my rain jacket, but my long knicks and shoe covers were making my legs and feet hot. Sweat ran from my forehead and dripped off the end of my nose to splatter over the top tube, smudging the distances I had written on a piece of paper that I had stuck there earlier.
The climb was a little steeper than I expected and its constant gradient didn’t allow for any easing off, but I felt OK and cleared it comfortably.
I then bombed the descent. With the riders now spread out, I could enjoy it. It was an exhilarating, twisting, turning, roller-coaster of a ride and I loved it. I was a beast on a bike. The world tilted as I swept around each corner, first one way and then the other, a pendulum motion that swung trees and rocks and sky around me. I felt like the centrepoint of the universe.
We had been warned at the rider briefing about turns five and seven. They were off camber and always managed to claim a few collarbones. We were also warned of turn 11 which had more recently developed a reputation for bringing riders to grief.
Five and seven were clear when I went around, but a motorcycle official was flagging caution at eleven, and sure enough a rider had slammed into the rocky cliff face on the outside of the corner and now lay in a ditch clutching his shoulder. Race over for him.
I reached the end of the descent at Germantown and swung left to head to Harrietville, 18 kilometres away. This was the flattest section of the ride and I tried to eat again but couldn’t.
I’d fallen way behind my eating schedule but decided to push through to the rest stop at Harrietville and eat there. While it was flat, there was a slight headwind and I probably burnt a few too many petrol tickets in getting there. I latched onto a couple of groups but they were going slightly faster than was comfortable for me so I decided to make my own way. In the end it turned into a bit of an individual time trial, and that was probably a mistake.
I was well ahead of my schedule at Harrietville so I rammed down a couple of bananas and changed out of my long knicks and removed my shoe covers. What should have been a five minute stop blew out to 16. When you’re 194 centimetres tall and awkward, changing in the confines of a portaloo are challenging.
The Mt. Hotham climb, a 30 kilometre monster as unforgiving as Annie Wilkes in Misery, began straight after the rest stop with a nasty little pinch that quickly let the leg muscles know that their job wasn’t yet over.
The first ten kilometres were constant like Tawonga Gap, with little respite and a killer of a kicker at ‘The Meg’ – a vicious little ramp coming out of a hairpin that I almost stalled upon. I had to momentarily unclip and put a foot on the ground. Maybe even two feet. Momentarily.
I had some dark moments on the early part of the Hotham climb, but none as dark as the fella waiting for medical attention while huddled in a space blanket or the surly young bloke sitting cross-legged beside his upturned bicycle who, when asked if he was OK, succinctly replied with, “Bike’s fucked.”
The second ten kilometres of the climb evened out a bit and my speed climbed from about 8 km/h to fluctuate between 15 to 20 km/h. For awhile anyway.
Because I couldn’t really eat I was drinking copious amounts of water and Hydralyte, stopping occasionally to force down a few painful mouthfuls of energy bar. My gut was beginning to churn.
My neck and shoulders also began to ache. Painfully. The pain became so bad I could barely raise my head. At eight kilometres an hour this wasn’t an issue and I rolled along with my head down, watching my sweat splash across the top tube.
This was disappointing as I’d worked at riding with less tension through my neck and shoulders but I guess the gritted teeth on the lower slopes had taken its toll.
While my legs weren’t cramping and still felt reasonable, my speed was steadily dropping and any increase in gradient would slow my forward momentum alarmingly. Time became an issue, in fact it began slipping away at such an accelerated rate that I knew I wouldn’t make the time cut at the Dinner Plain lunch stop.
I had just reached the most difficult last ten kilometres of the climb. I could see the road cutting its way across the ridge line to the summit, so close and yet so far. At the rate I was cycling the summit was probably at least an hour and a half away. Dinner Plain was another half an hour after that.
I looked at my watch as I pulled into the aptly named ‘Black Hole’ rest and water stop. It was already past midday. The cutoff time at Dinner Plain was 2 pm. I’d been on this climb for nearly two hours and I wasn’t getting any faster.
A sag wagon sat idling in the parking bay with three or four sad souls gazing forlornly out its windows. Their bikes were strapped onto racks in the trailer behind, sweat soaked and abandoned.
I took one last look at the road ahead. I took a long look across the ridge lines to the summit. But the humming engine of Sag Wagon 4 called to me as the Sirens did Ulysses. I sighed, removed my Garmin from its handlebar mount, and surrendered my bike to the trailer.
Inside the sag wagon were broken men and one woman. Their eyes were haunted and red from sweat and sunscreen. They spoke softly and shook their heads every so often as memories of the previous five hours bubbled to the surface. At least the men did. The woman was all too cheery and wanted to chat. Loudly. I just wanted her to shut up.
The sag wagon picked up other broken men. They littered the infamous CRB hill section of the climb. With vacant stares they entered the bus, heads down, avoiding eye contact. The smell of defeat was hanging heavy over us all.
We were dropped off at the lunch stop at Dinner Plain. My gut was queasy and I went behind a tree and spewed four times – big orange Hydralyte spews which stained the leaves and grass beneath my feet. It made me feel better, both physically and mentally, as if my failure had been purged along with the contents of my stomach.
Two big tourist coaches were waiting to take us back to Falls Creek. I boarded one and found a seat next to the window. Both buses were soon full and the long trip back to the start began.
Excuses flew around the bus. Someone didn’t make it because they’d had a bug in the lead up to the race. Someone else had suffered a bee sting. Another couldn’t train properly because of work commitments. Others had the wrong gearing, or they were getting over a breakup, or their gears kept jumping, or a grasshopper flew into their eye, or the cat had died….on and on it went.
“I just wasn’t quick enough on the climbs,” I said.
My seat buddy contemplated that for a moment before brushing it off and muttering something about having an asthma attack. It truly was a bus of shame.
I’d been on the bike for five hours. The bus took three hours to retrace my route back to the start. I wondered what its excuse was. Maybe it had ingested some dirty diesel.
The Bus of Shame had one last indignity for us to suffer. Instead of allowing us to disembark discretely at some secluded spot, it pulled right up to the start/finish line where a horde of spectators were applauding those riders who were already finishing the race under their own steam.
A trio of ladies turned their attention to us, clapping and saying well done. It was condescending and laced with sarcasm. Their smiles were less than genuine and I saw loathing in their eyes. Maybe they were taking the piss, maybe they weren’t, but it didn’t feel right.
I retrieved my bike and packed it into my car while my old man went to buy pizza.
Pizza fixes everything.