As it turns out, doing lots of kilometres over the summer holidays doesn’t count for much when preparing for the Alpine Classic ride on the Australia Day weekend. In previous years, the summer holidays have been an intense training camp, squeezed in between all the other demands of the season. I’d commenced the same routine this year, but had my holiday routine simplified by a driver failing to give way in the Dandenongs. The first day of 2014 ended with x-rays in the emergency department and me unable to walk due to a bruised (but thankfully not broken) hip. Instead of packing my bike for our beach holiday, I packed crutches. I figured that was the end of the Alpine Classic campaign for 2014.
Realising that one decent ride in the month before the event wasn’t the best preparation, I looked at strategies to help me through. I rejected some, such as switching to an easier ride. But I did decide to buy some time by taking the early start time (4am), rather than the usual 6.19am sunrise start.The 4am start was a revelation, and has become my default position for future years. The ascent up Hotham in the dark is a sound and light show on wheels. The deep silence of the forest on a still pre-dawn morning was only broken by the gentle whirring of well-tended machinery, the occasional bit of friendly chatter, and the surprise of a bloke with the cow bell giving us a congratulatory belling as we reached the top of ‘The Meg’ (a steep pinch on the lower slopes of Mt Hotham).
The high powered lights combined with reflective vests created an almost psychedelic experience as the peloton headed out of Bright toward Harrietville. And then the rock faces of the cuttings as we climbed Hotham became giant shadow puppet displays. As we approached a bend cut into the side of the mountain my light silhouetted the rider in front of me, which was overlayed with a shadow of me illuminated from behind, with some other out-of-focus shadowy figures lurking behind that.The lights created a continuous trail of red dots ahead and a trail of white behind. It was at the top of ‘The Meg’ that this became most apparent. The slope dropped away sharply to the left, revealing the elevation gained by the steep section of road. And below in the forest was a slow-moving snaking trail of headlights, looking like some medieval pagan torch-light parade. It was my favourite part of the whole day, unfortunately too subtle to catch on a phone camera. It was the time I most missed my usual riding companions (who stayed with the 6.19 start and were still sound asleep). After seeing something that amazing, I wanted to point and talk. But I had that part of the road all to myself, with only the fading sounds of the cow bell behind to keep me company.
As I reached the upper slopes of Hotham, the sun started to rise. First the silhouetting of the black jagged mountains and fire-damaged skeleton trees against the increasingly not-so-black sky. Then more light that filled in the details of the topography of the jagged peaks and the forest around me.Past the first of the snow-chain fitting bays the vegetation thinned, opening up the views to a newly risen sun in a cloudless sky. The sun illuminated the lakes of fog that sat in the valleys below. This was a sight that even the most humble of phone cameras could do justice to. Stopping and taking the occasional photo was actually part of my ‘I’m underprepared’ strategy. Take it easy, and save as much as possible for the second half of the ride. But things became serious after the start of the climb up to Falls Creek and the camera didn’t come out again. Head down, one pedal stroke at a time. Apart from a stop to fix a puncture half way up the steepest part of the Falls climb, I avoided joining the small pelotons of dismounted cyclists walking their bikes.
The final climb of the day, up Towonga Gap, used to be the one that struck the most fear in my heart. That was back before the 250km route existed. It was the mid-point of the 200km ride lying between Falls Creek and Mount Buffalo. You tackled the exposed sections in the heat of the mid day sun with rock faces radiating heat. But after the steepness and suffering of Falls Creek, and with some sections of the climb in delicious afternoon shade, this third peak is now an anti climax. The finish line was almost in sight, and my legs still weren’t toast. Perhaps I should take up hobbling around on crutches as a form of cross-training? Or was it the weeks spent sleeping in and sitting around with my feet up? Either way, I was only about an hour slower than my previous times, for the same ride, photo stops and all! An extra hour well spent? Have a look below and you be the judge.
Pre-dawn, on the slopes of Mt Hotham.