Stage 1. Tawonga
Neutral Zone. 30km/hr (now this is an appropriate neutral zone speed – are you taking notes Mr. Shipwreck Classic?). I’m sitting just behind and to the left of Gene, mid-pack. He turns around briefly. At the same moment the guy in front of him brakes. Gene turns back to the front. Fuck……. Slams his brakes on, locks up the back wheel, mad skid, touches wheels with the guy in front, holds it, recovers. Crisis averted, and trust me - he really didn’t want to test out that wicked helmet he was rocking.
After the hell of Shipwreck, it was absolute bliss to sit in the middle of the 100-strong peloton and fly along at 45km/hr with barely any effort.
At 35km, Adrian: “is my back tire flat?” I glance down. The guy behind shouts “your rear is flat!” Adrian slows to the side of the road. I have fleeting thoughts of stopping to help pace him back on – isn’t that what you do for your teammates, and he’s a serious threat for GC, but by the time I consider it it’s too late. I roll on, convincing myself that it’s alright, Adrian is strong, he’ll get back on. I mention this to Gene when I get alongside a few minutes later. “Nah, he’s riding tubs.” Oh, fuck.
We hit the climb at Rosewhite Gap after 50km. 4.5km at 4%. I expect the guys at the front to smack it up here and split things up, but it all feels pretty cruisey. It actually feels good to get the heart rate going a little. I make up a bunch of spots on the descent, which kinda surprises me because I generally descend like a Grandma. I probably get a little too aggressive near the bottom, when I overtake a guy on my left but get squeezed by two guys on my right and rub shoulders at 60+km/hr. For some reason I’m not scared. Must be the adrenaline. TDR’s good buddy James Kent, of Hell Krew fame, comes screaming past as we latch onto the front group of 30 riders. Feels good man.
The final climb up Tawonga to the finish comes at 85km. But the 10km leading up to that are all uphill and my legs start to feel it as the pace picks up slightly. We hit the climb reasonably hard, with Gene, James and me all sitting mid pack.
I try to settle into a rythym but can’t. The three of us fall into a group of about 8 or so, while the top 30-40 riders pull away. I spend the first 10 minutes in the red zone. Man, it shouldn’t be this hard. Gene goes to the front of the group. James is just behind me. I still can’t get a rythym. This gear, that gear. No this gear. Why is my heart rate so high? And why can’t I get my cadence up, it’s too low. Fuck it’s hot. When did it get so hot? Why am I wearing all black? Gene is pulling away, taking the other guys with him.
Fuck. But go Gene!
Halfway through 7.6km climb. It’s steeper than I remember. I can’t keep this pace up, or I’m gonna die before the top. I watch as the group I was with, including Gene, pull away. James is still not far behind, but I know he’s saving himself for the climb up Hotham. My butt hurts. I get out of the saddle. My heart rate jumps. It hurts. I sit back down and grimace. I’m in trouble here.
2.5km to go. Gene is falling back. I can reel him in. I turn around, James is dropping off slightly.
I pass Gene. I push to the line with 1km to go. Spectators are scattered along the roadside. “Go Malvern Star.” I continue to stare at the road, but give a little thumbs up.
I cross the line. Gene is right behind me. James not much further back.
Later, just as we get back to the house, my wife texts me: 47th. Awesome. Only 6 minutes behind the C Grade winner. 47th. The goal is to finish the tour in the top half. 110 starters, so I’ll take 47th. But wow, we lost 6 minutes on that 7.5km climb.
We stand in the icy cold river and let the water wrap around our muscles. Adrian arrives, and we find out that because he didn’t finish Stage 1 he’s not allowed to start the next two stages. Well that’s shit.
Stage 2. Time Trial.
A few hours after finishing Stage 1, I roll up onto the start for the time trial, 15.7km out and back course. The clock ticks down. The starter counts out, 5, 4, 3…. I’m staring at the numbers, silently mouthing each one as it appears.
I roll off the start.
It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.
How far have I gone? 500 metres!?!?! Oh man.
13 minutes of hurt later, and I’ve made the turn to come home. I pass a guy. And another guy. Feels good man. Then I hear behind me what sounds like a helicopter going in slow motion; whoosh whoosh whoosh, and a dude on a time trial bike, tear drop helmet and rear disc comes roaring past me like I’m standing still. “Oh fuck!” I cry out. A minute later he’s out of site.
The course back to the finish is slightly downhill, and I’m feeling surprisingly comfy in the TT bars and smashing it at 50km/hr. This time trial business isn’t so bad. I cross the line and roll back to the house. Call my wife and get the results.
Stage 3 – Mount Hotham.
One stage left. 4 seconds between me and James, with Gene only 30 seconds back. It’s on!
At the start we’re told it’s -2 degrees at the finish line with an icy gale wind blowing across the top of the mountain. For our own safety, the stage will be cut short. It’s a little disappointing we won’t be facing the full challenge, but at the same time my legs are kinda pleased.
Even so, after the first 25km of heading up the valley to Harrietville, we’re still faced with a 10km climb at something like 7%, before a 10km false flat section to the finish.
We roll off, and I happily find a wheel mid-pack and sit in. Twenty minutes later I notice James and Gene have moved up through the pack. I turn around, and there are only two guys behind me. How the hell did that happen? There’s an intermediate sprint, and as the peloton strings out I take the opportunity to move up and re-join Gene and James.
Harrietville comes along, and then we start climbing. Straight into 11%. My legs spin nice and fast, and I start passing big guys gasping for breath.
The front 30 guys are gone. We started too far back to even have a chance. But I’m feeling a million times better than the climb yesterday. So is Gene by the looks of it, as he moves up ahead of me, head bobbing in his usual style. James is not far behind.
The field has split up completely. It’s all two’s and three’s on the road; Gene about 30m ahead, James 15m behind. Racing bikes. Feels good man.
Gene pulls further ahead. He must have 20 seconds on me now. As I pass each turn I glance back, and see James ever so slightly further back. Shit, Gene might get this.
I try to forget about the overall and concentrate on my cadence. Gene has disappeared now anyway. After 4km we hit The Meg. It’s meant to be 300m at 12%. I glance behind. A group of 3, including James, are on my tail. My garmin reads 14%. The guy next to me gets out of the saddle. I stay seated, and slowly pull away. I’m smashing it. I look at the Garmin, I’m doing 11km/hr.
As the gradient settles back down to 7%, I get out of the saddle and punch a few strokes out. I look back. I can’t see James.
Why didn’t I feel this good yesterday?
I see Gene up ahead, riding with one other guy. I’m gonna catch ‘em.
I pull alongside: “James has popped.”
Four or so other guys appear. Did we catch them? Did they catch us? I’m not even sure. I’m just trying to concentrate. There mustn’t be much climbing left before the false flat. I click up a gear and ride off the front of the group.
Another guy bridges across. Good. I’ll need someone to work with on the false flat. The gradient dies down to 2% and all of a sudden we’re doing 35km/hr.
We round a corner. The trees have thinned a little, and we’re smashed by a headwind. But we catch another guy, then another. They latch onto our wheels but are too tired to do any work, and it’s just two of us pulling turns into the wind.
How far are we riding today? I’m not sure.
My buddy fills me in; “I think there’s 6-7km to go”.
A minute later we see a sign; 2km to go. Well, that’s a pleasant surprise.
I glance back, I can’t see Gene or James.
Head down. Smash to the line. I can’t get out of the seat to sprint.
I finish, clip my feet out and fall over the bike. My chest is heaving. I turn my head back towards the line, and see James come across with a group of around ten. Gene follows thirty seconds later.
What an awesome race.
I don’t find out the results until I talk to my wife back at the house. But I’m pretty darn stoked when she tells me.
A cracking weekend all round. An impressive effort by Matt to finish 6th, backing up from his top ten finish last year. Disappointment for Adrian to get a DNF, but he took it all astonishingly well. As for me, James and Gene; it was hella fun to race together and be so close in each stage, and I think we’re all pretty happy to finish in the top half. But mostly, it was just awesome hanging out, racing bikes.