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.

Monday, 4 April 2016

Buninyong


The view east from Mt Buninyong


For a decade I’ve been making the annual January pilgrimage to Buninyong for the Australian Road National Championships. It’s something I’ve always done with my kids, starting when they were in the pram. Beyond toddlerhood they’ve had the choice to come with me or stay at home. They haven’t elected to stay at home yet, so I think I’ve done something right in raising the cycling fans of the future. It’s mostly been a fun experience having the kids there (the occasional ‘is it over yet’ aside). The one downside is that I’ve never taken my bike with me or participated in any of the ‘ride the course’ events before the race. So while I know the hilly part of the course with an intimacy built up over many years of pushing prams and piggybacking tired kids, I’ve never felt what it’s like to suffer up it on a bike.

That changed on the weekend. Some friends are looking after a house (and goats and chooks and ducks) in Mount Edgerton for a few months, and invited us to stay for the weekend. In trying to work out where Mount Edgerton was, I worked out how close it was to Buninyong (only 20km away), and decided to pack the lycra and put the bike on top of the car.

Mount Edgerton is a pretty little place. There are some buildings on the main street that look like they may once have been shops, and there is a complex network of unmade roads and rough bush tracks beyond. These tracks constantly blur the line between public road and private driveway. Our friends were living on one such track. So, in addition to saying good morning to the goats, each ride also started (and ended) with some steep up and down hill off-roading on skinny tyres. It certainly got the heart racing, both from effort and from fear of hitting a patch of loose gravel the wrong way and ending up upside down in a ditch. 
Good morning, sleepy goat.

Mount Edgerton is located on top of a range of wooded, rolling hills. The name mountain is perhaps a bit of a stretch. Leaving town and heading west, it’s not long before Mount Buninyong pops into view, along with its smaller cousin, Mount Warrenheip. These two are more deserving of the name. They’re volcanic cones, jutting abruptly from the surrounding plain and giving me a good look at my destination as I cycle toward them.

Approaching from the east provides a view of Mount Buninyong I’m not used to seeing. The town of Buninyong sits on the western side of Mount Buninyong, and the race circuit up the side of the mountain from the town is gradual and stepped. There is no road to the summit from the east, and if there was it would need a lot of switchbacks. Instead, you get to the town of Yendon where there is a fork in the road. Yendon Number One Road skirts around the northern edge of the mountain, Yendon Number Two Road hugs the southern side like a too-tight collar. Together, roads number one and two pretty much circumnavigate the mountain.

The approach to Mt Buninyong on Yendon Number Two Road

I take the smaller, quieter Number Two Road and approach the mountain as the sun rises and illuminates it, and return on the Number One Road, by which time the weather has closed in and the mountain is mostly obscured in a swirling mist.

The Australian Road Race Championship circuit is made up of two main parts. A fairly constant climb out of Buninyong, up the Midland Highway and onto Mount Buninyong Road. The second part is a gradual downhill back section of the course leading back into the finishing straight in the town, where the uphill commences again. It’s just over 10km per loop. The men do 18 laps  and the women ten to win the national champions jersey. The roads are quiet on a weekend morning. Apart from the special road signs that point out the circuit location and the painted-over graffiti on the road near the summit, it feels like many of the other roads in the vicinity.

The one way loop near the summit
The Mount Buninyong Road continues on past where the circuit turns off. It continues gradually uphill for a kilometre or two before it enters the wooded summit reserve, where the road becomes a narrow one-way loop. As it loops around the mountain you get views in all directions. Back toward the hill masquerading as a mountain to the east, and north to the goldrush spires of Ballarat.

Having climbed a mountain, ridden the circuit and stopped for a coffee in Buninyong, I start to head home in the increasing cloudy gloom. Just past Yendon where roads number one and two merge, corner marshalls were out waving through a peloton of  about 20 riders. What better way to finish a ride than see some bike racing action. It turns out I’d just seen the second last group come through, with the four scratch riders about to come past. In a nicely symmetrical plot twist, the scratch group included Ballarat local Pat Shaw, who finished 9th in the 2016 Australian Road Championships held on the Buninyong course. I followed them (by a rapidly increasing distance) back toward Mount Edgerton as the rain began.