Sunday, 5 February 2017

Alpine Classic 2017 (320km in one day)

It's 4am on a Saturday morning, late January 2017, and I’m with my bike in down-town Bright, preparing to embark on my annual day-long pedal-powered tour of the high country. 

It’s the third time a 320km option has been offered as a part of the Audax Alpine Classic, and it’s the third time I’ve been on the start line. The ride includes ascents of Mt Buffalo, Mt Hotham, Falls Creek and Tawonga Gap. Happily, I’ve finished both previous attempts at the ride. Unhappily, I’ve missed the time cut both times. Not by much, but by enough for me to feel that there’s unfinished business. 

Last year I started in the dark and finished in the dark. It wasn’t that I suffered too much. We just had some bad luck (punctures, a riding buddy dropping out mid-ride due to illness) and were thinking more about finishing than the time cut. A few minutes too long at each of the check points adds up over a whole day. 

As a result, I have a determination in my belly that has been brewing since I crossed the line last year. A determination that is giving me a nervous twitch even as I stand waiting for my riding companions at ten to four in the morning. Where are they? We don’t want to start too far back in the pack! We could lose minutes!

My riding companions arrive in plenty of time. Quentin and Chris who have also both done this ride before, and have both also danced with the time cut. 

Mount Buffalo is first on the agenda. In the pre-dawn blackness, it’s like riding through a tunnel. You can’t tick off the visual landmarks along the way. Instead, you get sucked along with the stream of other cyclists, accompanied by headlight shadows and flashing red tail lights. Combined with fresh legs and a pre-ride caffeine hit, Buffalo feels like a gift. Ride 3 peaks and get one free. 

We see the first returning rider as we ride over the Gap at the top of the main Buffalo climb, but we’ve made good time. The temperature drops by about ten degrees as we ride into the shallow depression that sits on top of the mountain, and past Lake Catani that has a layer of mist hanging over it. We turn around at Dingo Dell. I recognise a person I used to work with and who I haven’t seen for about 15 years. But my belly full of determination cuts off the conversation. I’m battling a time cut today. There’s no time for standing still and small talk. 

The sun rises over the surrounding mountains as we descend back into the valley. A friend has lent me a camera that’s attached to the front of my bike. I turn the camera off and on during the day to create some pre-edited highlights. This footage was going to be the highlight of the highlights. The orange sunrise over distant blue hills, sweeping in and out of view as I wind my way through hairpin turns. Unfortunately I find out later that the footage I thought I’d captured here wasn't. You’ll just have to trust me that it was stunning.

We were back in Bright just after 7am, ready for the big ‘three peaks’ loop. The road to Harrietville is long, dull, and ever so slightly up hill. We have some company, but the field has thinned out. Most of the riders who started with us at 4am have taken the Tawonga Gap turn-off. They’re doing the 200km ride option and many of them will be back in Bright for lunch.   

It takes an hour to reach the next mountain on our agenda. While there are some steep pinches on the lower slopes of Mount Hotham, the real leg-sappers don’t start until the trees thin-out and the summit comes into sight about 10 kilometres from the top. But my preparation has been good, and my legs are feeling strong. 

I’ve been riding at my own pace most of the way up Hotham, and have distanced my two riding companions. I reach the Dinner Plain checkpoint on my own. My time-cut-induced twitch starts to reappear. Hopefully they’re not too far behind. I fill my bottles and eat some food. I start to apply some more sunscreen. Phew, there arrive, not more than a couple of minutes after me. But I leave the checkpoint before them anyway, so that they can catch me along the way. Being on a moving bicycle is the only thing that keeps my time-cut anxiety at bay. 

The Hotham descent is wholly unsatisfying. There are no scenic twists and turns and the scenic sunrise has long gone. It goes down a little bit, but before you know it you’re working hard, riding through rolling farmland in the hot sun. We’re on the high plains, so it won’t get to the 36 degrees forecast for the lowlands, but it’s hot enough. I keep my legs ticking over, and eventually arrive in Omeo, once again ahead of my riding companions. Once again they arrive shortly after, putting an end to my twitchiness. I’m definitely not leaving before them from this checkpoint. The next couple of hours of riding between Omeo and the base of the Falls Creek climb is exactly where you need company and a wheel to follow. 

First off, we tackle the climb out of Omeo. It’s not steep and it’s only about 4 kilometres long, but it’s very exposed to the sun, and by now it’s the middle of the day. I’ve heard the climb referred to as Bingo Gap. It’s always nice to put it behind you and get onto the   lovely flat winding section of road to Anglers Rest. 

Past Anglers Rest and we’re approaching the back side of Falls Creek. Long, steep and hot, it took its fair share of victims this year. We pass perhaps a dozen people off their bikes and walking. I was fearing the worst for our riding companion Chris, who was complaining of heat-induced all-over body tingles. But fortunately a water stop was in sight, and a long drink and a liberal dousing in water saw him bounce back. 

Once at Falls Creek, the ride is almost over. We've beaten the intermediate time cut here by the best part of an hour. At last I start to relax. The descent of Falls Creek is always fun and beautiful. But after more than 12 hours in the saddle it hurts to get into an aerodynamic tuck.  

We cruise into Mount Beauty, remembering being chased along the same roads by the sag wagon last year. We have time up our sleeves this year, so there’s no motivation to go too hard. Tawonga Gap is a slow grind, but it the late afternoon sun it’s actually quite pleasant. My riding companions drop me in the last few kilometres of the climb, but wait for me down the other side.

On the lower parts of the descent down Tawonga Gap we get talking. My riding companions are suggesting that they might sign up for a shorter ride next year. The 320 is no fun, they say. Now that we've ticked it off the list, we can move on. At this point of the day, I'm not going to argue with them.  But deep down I also really like a challenging challenge. Something to test your physical and mental resolve. Something hanging over your head as motivation. 


We ride into Bright together, pretty much spot on 8pm, 16 hours after starting. I'm sure I can do it in 15 next year....

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Alpine training

Last year a friend and I did an alpine training camp in Spring. We stayed in Bright for 3 nights and rode 400km over two and a half days, including all the big climbs within sight. It was fantastic. Perfect weather, and finding ourselves in the middle of a World Tour pro team training camp half way up Mt Hotham to top it off.

There is a danger in trying to repeat great experiences.  The grass might end up being greener the year before. We were scheduled in earlier this year too, and all the professionals were sure to be savouring a well-deserved off-season.

The other change was that there were three of us this year, up from two in 2015. Well, that was the way it started. An hour or two into the first day of riding and one-third of us were heading back to Bright for a lie down. What had started as a benign sore throat was rapidly turning into something even less conducive to riding bikes up hills.

So then there were two. We’d decided upon Mt Hotham for day one, because day one had the best weather forecast, and Mt Hotham is the most exposed when it comes to weather. In fact, despite it being well into Spring, it had snowed at Hotham the day before. But the word in Bright was that the road was very rideable.

The snow was clearly visible on the mountain peaks from the valley and the extent of it became clearer as we approached the top. There was snow lining the edges of the road up ‘CRB Hill’, which gradually increased to walls of snow a couple of metres high by the time we reached the summit. It was spectacular.  
 
Near the top of Mt Hotham

Trusty steed, wall of snow


One third of us spent the next day in bed, while two-thirds started out with the Rosewhite loop out through Happy Valley. Mental note to self – take more food for the Rosewhite loop next time. We limped into Mount Beauty with tanks running very low after 90 bumpy kilometres. Fortunately baked goods from the bakery came to the rescue, and the rest of the itinerary to Falls Creek and Tawonga Gap for a total of 180km was able to proceed as planned. After our experiences the day before, the snow at Falls was very underwhelming. There was not a single snow flake by the roadside.

On our last day all three of us tackled Mt Buffalo. All three thirds were pedalling a bit gingerly, but for a couple of different reasons. But we all made it to the top and safely down again.


So after two and a half days of sunshine, the rain started as we drove out of town. It’s been raining quite a lot up there. The grass was very, very green.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Bike restoration

We live in a little terrace house in inner-Melbourne. The size of the house and lack of storage space means that I have pared back my bicycle collection to a small number that get ridden regularly. But there is one exception. A bike that I've held onto for decades in a completely unridable condition. It isn't even my size (it's quite small, and I'm quite tall). The reason I've kept it is because with its fancy lugs and distinctive brazed 'H' head badge, it's always felt like something of value. But perhaps the bigger reason is that it has some personal stories attached to it. In my mind, it's an heirloom of sorts. And the time has come to tell the stories and make it ridable again.



I've already noted that the bike is too small for me. Fortunately, there is someone who is rapidly growing into it. My almost-8-year-old son started racing track bikes on the velodrome a couple of years ago at the junior summer clinic held by Brunswick Cycling Club. His older brother had a go too but it never really caught his imagination. But the almost-8-year-old got a competitive spark in his eye when saddled up on the track. He counts down the sleeps to the next clinic. He is very keen.

Brunswick Cycling Club own sets of track bikes in different sizes that the kids use at the clinic, but he'd been asking about getting a track bike of his own. I pulled the old frame out of the shed and he was  immediately smitten. He threw his leg over, which proved it was still too big. But within a year or two it will be perfect. So the restoration project that has been sitting on the back-burner for many many years now has a deadline.

There was a previous restoration effort. Rewinding the clock back to when I was only a couple of years older that my kids are now, my dad started riding a funny old fixed-wheel bike the couple of blocks from our house to the school where he taught. He'd been given the bike by my maternal grandfather, who had a big shed at his house in Yarrawonga that was full of interesting things. He enjoyed tinkering with things that he found at garage sales. This bike was one of them. The story he'd been told when he acquired the bike was that it had been ridden by a female racer from Yarrawonga.  Oral history being what it is, this could be fact, speculation, or a figment of my teenage imagination. My grandfather passed away a few years ago, aged 90. The place where his wonderful shed and orchard of fruit trees once stood is now a supermarket car park.

A bike race had come past our house when I was still in primary school and it had left an impression. I'd had a 'racing bike' since my tenth birthday, but it wasn't racy enough. I was eying off the bike my dad was riding, which I'd heard had been a proper racing bike. At some point my dad bought himself a new bike with gears and brakes, and I quickly laid claim to the old one. I spent many evenings sitting on the back verandah sanding off the old (but not original) mustard-coloured paintwork by hand. I re-painted it. White on the lugs, blue on the main tubes and a transparent blue gloss over the lot. It was done with all the professionalism of a teenager. Which is to say it wasn't very good at all. But I spent a lot of time with that frame, dreaming of riding it.

But I never did. I started to explain to my father about how I was going to turn this old frame into a magnificent road racing machine. He looked at the old frame, with its horizontal drop-outs made for a fixed wheel set up, and various other bits of antiquated technology not compatible with any parts we'd be able to buy at the local bike shop. He could see that my dream and this frame were incompatible. Instead we went into the bike shop and compared the brand new and shiny bicycles to my savings account. I walked out with a Repco Olympic 12. It even came in blue and white, just like the racing bike I'd imagined for myself. The old frame went back to the shed, but stayed in the back of my mind.

In recent years, now that the internet puts information about obscure topics at your finger tips, I've learned more about the bike. The H doesn't stand for my grandfather's surname, Howden. It stands for 'Healing', named after Alfred George Healing (1898-1945) who originally started his bike shop in Richmond in 1898 and made frames in Melbourne until 1959. There's lots more information about him and the company here: http://aussievelos.net/healing-cycles/, including this snippet:


The brazed H (compared to the models with attached head badges) are regarded as superior builds with rare fancy cut lug models noted as supreme lightweights and top of the range custom built for pros.

I posted some details about the bike on an internet forum thread devoted to Healing frames (http://www.bicycles.net.au/forums/viewtopic.php?f=23&t=34079) and the vintage bike aficionado Warren Meade guessed that it was late 1930s vintage ('say 1936 to 1939'). He also had a name for the lug shape: 'keyhole lugs' he called them. And sure enough, looking at images of vintage bikes on the web, the handful I've found with keyhole lugs are mostly from that period (such as this 1930s Arrow http://www.veloaficionado.com/blog/kevin-fallons-arrow-pista-1930s-race-bike, and this 1939 Schwinn http://classiccycleus.com/home/1939-schwinn-paramount-track-bike/, or this 1940 bike made by Lance Claudel http://classiccycleus.com/home/claudels-last-bike/. This 1954 Schwinn is the exception http://classiccycleus.com/home/1950s-schwinn-paramount/).

My almost-8-year-old and I spent a few hours together pulling the frame apart on day one of the restoration project (which happened to be father's day 2016). My partner's father came around later in the day for dinner, and we talked about re-chroming and period details. It's something he knows a little bit about. He raced bikes on the track during the 1950s. He never rode a Healing frame, but he raced against others who did. And he's been a regular spectator at the Brunswick velodrome for the junior track clinic these past few years. It's not just the kids who have sparks in their eyes.

As we pulled the bike apart, it dawned on me that the last time these ball bearings saw the light of day was in my grandfather's shed under his watchful eye. In a few years time, I'm looking forward to taking my son and the bike to Yarrawonga, where on a quiet Sunday morning when no-one is around, he can do some laps of a certain supermarket car park. I think they call it closure.

The brazed 'H'



The frame has a number stamped near the seat post clamp.
The steerer tube has a number as well.
The bottom bracket and fancy lugs.
The chainring and seat post seem to be original.
Not so sure about the aluminium head stem.
Hints of the original colour scheme on the steerer tube. 

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Alpine training camp


My training partner Nick on Mt Buffalo


The idea started on a mid-week day, mid-year, and mid-winter, when I was getting almost daily photos emailed to me of friends sipping coffee, eating pastries and riding the famous cols of Europe in the mid-summer sunshine. I was sitting at my desk working, aware that I hadn’t been overseas for so long that my passport had expired. So I plotted a revenge available closer to home and started the ball rolling on an Australian alpine training camp when the weather improved.

November rolled around and the plan had come to fruition. 3 nights in Bright with riding buddy Nick, and a plan to ride as many kilometres and mountains as we could squeeze in between copious coffee, pastries and the odd beverage from the brewery.

After a weekend full of the usual kids birthday parties and other engagements, we packed up the car and headed off on Sunday afternoon arriving in Bright in time to check in at Bright Velo and have dinner at the aforementioned brewery.

Chosing Bright Velo for our accommodation was a part of the strategy for complete cycling immersion. It’s run by cyclist Wayne Hildred who is about to turn 60, but is still handy enough on a bike to have finished Melbourne to Warrnambool this year. He’s been doing this cycling thing for a while. And part of his job description at Bright Velo is to tell stories of his cycling exploits. They’re worth listening to. In the early 1980s he set the record for fastest time for the Melbourne-Warrnambool bike race, beating a record previously held by the late Russell Mockridge.  And there was a story of some argy-bargy with late French legend Laurent Fignon for doing a turn on the front out of turn in the European peloton. There are photos on the wall of Bright Velo cafĂ© of him riding in the bunch with Fignon and American Tour de France winner Greg Lemond.

We woke up the next morning for day one of riding. After coffee and croissant for breakfast we hit the road, starting with the Rosewhite loop that I’d never done before, and Nick had only ever ridden as a part of a stage of the Tour of Bright. Once off the main valley road back toward Myrtleford, we cruised through the appropriately-named Happy Valley to Rosewhite Gap, our first and smallest real climb of the campaign. The loop took us into Mount Beauty for an early lunch, with just under 100km under our belts. We turned left and climbed up to Falls Creek, where our plans for gratuitously excessive coffee and pastry intake were thwarted. Australia’s interpretation of an ‘all year alpine resort’ doesn’t stretch to anything actually being open during the week when it isn’t snowing. Instead we returned to Mount Beauty for more sustenance before making our way over Tawonga Gap in the hot afternoon sun and back to Bright. So the tally for day one was a bit over 180km and some good climbing.

Day two it was Mt Hotham’s turn. Fully fuelled by so much breakfast that Nick had to tuck one of his breakfast pancakes into a back pocket for later, we headed off. A short way out of the Bright on the road to Harrietville, half the road was blocked by some work on the powerlines. More about that later. From Harrietville, we headed up the Hotham climb. It starts steep, and then flattens out for a relatively benign middle section before getting very exposed, steep and alpine at the top. We were getting toward the end of the benign section when we saw our first fellow cyclist for the day. As we caught and passed him we saw a small group of cyclists catching us from behind. It was clearly peak hour. The first of the group came past in a distinctive white, blue and green kit. ‘Gerro!’. Shortly followed by a procession of Orica riders, including Matt Hayman (who had his breakthrough win at Paris Roubaix later in the same season) and new signing Jack Haig, not yet in his Orica kit.  

Further up the climb we passed the Orica car parked on the side of the road, looking back down the road, seemingly waiting for someone else. I kept looking over my shoulder for the next few kilometres, and eventually a lone figure came into view. As he got closer I recognised the bearded face of Sam Bewley, the big Kiwi on the Orica team. We had a chat as he came past. He said it was the first time he’d ever ridden Mt Hotham, and in his words ‘the boys put me to the sword’ in the steep first few kilometres out of Harrietville. I asked him if I minded if I took a photo, and he was happy to smile for the camera before pulling off up the road.
Sam Bewley on Mt Hotham

When we reached Hotham Village, it was as lively as Falls Creek – there was absolutely nothing open. A note on one of the closed doors said that they’d shut for the day because of power outages. We rode on to Dinner Plain (waving to the Orica guys who were on their way back, with Sam Bewley safely back in the bunch). Dinner Plain didn’t have any power either due to those powerline works down in the valley, and the owners of the Dinner Plain Hotel were taking advantage of the down time to oil their deck. Feeling sorry for us, they let us in via the side door, and we sat at the bar eating and drinking things that didn’t require electricity. Like some not very cold sugary soft drink, a packet of nuts and a muesli bar. I haven’t frequented the cafes on the mountains of France, but I’m figuring things are not this grim.

On our final day we rode up Mt Buffalo in the morning before departing in the afternoon. Buffalo is probably my favourite mountain to ride up, and the weather was perfect again. Not only that, but there was a coffee van parked in the chalet car park at the top, so my dreams of high-altitude caffeine finally became a reality. 


Nick had comprehensively beaten me up the climbs over the three days, so I tried my hand at a few other competitions. The ‘who can roll the furthest without pedalling’ at the bottom of the climb, and then the sprint to the Bright town limits. You’d think that the extra kilograms I carry over my mountain goat companion may have benefitted me in both of these competitions. But he’s a mountain goat crossed with a cunning old fox and he beat me in both.

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Hayman!

10 April 2016
It’s Sunday night. The rest of household is sensibly in bed, sound asleep. We’d returned home from a family dinner at about 8.30pm, read the kids their bedtime book and tucked them in. It was about 9pm by the time I turned on the telly and tuned into the live Paris Roubaix coverage. There was still well over 100km of the race still ahead.

Paris Roubaix. The most famous of the cobbled classics, raced in the European Spring over cobbled farm roads, industrial back waters, and suburban streets in northern France. In some ways, the lack of spectacular scenery focuses concentration on the core business of bike racing. No chalets or picturesque ruined castles. In their place old mining infrastructure, muddy puddles, roundabouts and speed humps. And action-packed bike racing.

Pre-race favourites Fabian Cancellara and world champion Peter Sagan get caught behind a crash and the race starts to break apart and look very open.  Scattered groups of riders morph into different configurations in response to the forces applied. An attack off the front applies a force that stretches one bunch to breaking point. A group of team mates combine forces to pull a disintegrated bunch back together. Punctures selectively remove riders one by one. And crashes. A vortex that the peloton rides into in an orderly way, and emerges from in a different configuration entirely. Or are left in crumpled heaps on the side of the road.

Toward the end, things stabilise, and it’s a small group of five at the head of the race riding toward the finish line at Roubaix velodrome. Tom Boonen, Sep Vanmarke, Ian Stannard, Edvald Boassen-Hagen, and the Australian, Matt Hayman. You could describe them all as second-tier favourites. Except Hayman. Boonen is a four-time winner of the race, but past his best. Vanmarke overcame relative obscurity just 2 years ago when he went close to winning this race, but was beaten in a 2 man sprint by Cancellara. Stannard, a renowned hard man, looking to reverse the fortunes of his big-budget team who consistently win the Tour de France but have never got close to winning here. And Edvald Boassen-Hagen, the Norwegian national champion looking for a long-anticipated and widely-expected break-through performance. And then there’s Hayman.

24 November 2015
In mid-2015 I’d been sitting at my work desk mid-way through the Melbourne winter getting updates from friends who were riding the famous climbs of Europe, watching famous bike races and eating famous food. I started planning a low-budget, family-friendly and not quite so famous version. Along with riding buddy Nick, I booked accommodation for 3 nights in Bright for November. A chance to have my life revolve around bicycles, food and alpine scenery for a few days.

It was excellent. We clocked-up over 400km in two and half days of riding, including the climbs of Falls Creek, Mount Buffalo and Mount Hotham.

It was Tuesday when we rode Mt Hotham. The weather was perfect and there was very little traffic, vehicular or bicycle. But about half way up as we snaked along the edge of the valley, I looked back and saw a small bunch of cyclists approaching around the bends behind us. Shortly afterwards they were upon us. And we both did a big double-take as Simon Gerrans cruised past and said hello. Jack Haig was there too, and stood out because he had only just joined the Orica Greenedge team and wasn’t yet wearing team kit. Most of them looked small and lean, spinning their legs and floating up the mountain with enviable ease. 

But right behind them was the larger figure of Matt Hayman, not giving an inch. He wasn’t spinning effortlessly. You could almost feel the power his legs were generating buzzing in the air around him as he slid past. It was memorable.

Sam Bewley rides up Mt Hotham for the first time.
About 20 minutes later, another non-petite member of the team, Sam Bewley rides by, dropped on the lower slopes. It's his first ever ride up Hotham. We have a chat and he lets me take his photo. 















10 April 2016
I’m lying on the couch watching the race things unfold. Hayman has already had to chase back on to the group after losing ground in an awkward corner. He’s also been in the breakaway. Surely it’s only a matter of time before he succumbs to fatigue and leaves these second-tier favourites to decide among themselves who wants this more. Then Hayman attacks. I sit up.

Stannard, Boonen and Vanmarke have all attacked previously and opened up gaps before being reeled back in. After Hayman’s attack, the others are straight onto his wheel. I settle back into the couch.

Boonen attacks and opens a gap. You can almost see the velodrome from here. There is hesitation from the chasers, and then Hayman gets out of the saddle and closes the gap without any passengers. He sits behind Boonen for half a second and then blasts past. I’m sitting up again, this time on the edge of my seat.

Boonen works hard to gets back and as the two of them enter the velodrome, Matt Keenan, the commentator, notes that Tom Boonen has won 109 professional races in his career. Hayman. Two.

26 March 2006
We’re lining the side of Birdwood Avenue, along the back side of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. I’m about to become a father, with my heavily pregnant partner by my side. We crane our necks peering intently from our roadside position on the finishing straight into the shade of the fig trees beyond. Matt Hayman emerges solo and wins the race. I also remember that federal minister Kevin Andrews presented his medal on the podium.

10 April 2016
They’re on the velodrome, with only a couple of hundred metres left to race. Vanmarcke has joined them. My mind is ticking over fast. A couple of seconds ago, when they entered the velodrome I was thinking that the worst case scenario for Hayman would be second, which would be an amazing result. Now with Vanmarke there I’m thinking about how amazing a podium result would be. But the other two are closing in fast. Fifth. Still good, but not that much of an improvement on his previous best placing of eighth.


Fortunately Matt Hayman is not playing along with my game of self-doubt. He’s leading out the sprint. Boonen, the better sprinter on paper, is sitting behind him, but is boxed in. They’re in  the final straight. Boonen finds some space and is drawing level with him. But the line has past. Hayman has won. I realise that I’m standing in front of the television, pumping both fists in the air. In complete silence, so as not to wake the kids.