Alpine Classic Extreme 250
Posted Saturday January 25, 2014on:
In the lead up to the Chain Reaction Challenge it seemed like a no brainer to head up into the hills for a long ride and a lot of climbing. I didn’t take much goading to be persuaded to put my name down for the 250km route, and although I hadn’t completed any of the qualifying events I submitted that I’d finished a couple of Otway Odysseys, had a background in 24-hour mountain bike racing and understood what it meant to have a big day in the hills. And that seemed to do the trick.
In no time at all, it became January 25. Australia Day. On the drive up to the little mountain town of Bright, I thought about my formative mountain biking days up there, getting smashed by kids from the Alpine Club, who were usually only bested by Team Mount Beauty, who would ride across Tawanga Gap, smash everyone, grab a roll or a pie at the bakery and ride home again. Animals all. I also thought back to my previous ‘biggest ever’ ride. With Neil back when Fee was pregnant with Claire (now six). We’d stayed on top of the HC-rated Mt Hotham and ridden down through the valley, up Mt Buffalo to the century-old chalet and then riding back down, back through the valley and back to the top of Hotham. 182km.
The Alpine Classic Extreme is 250km long (plus or minus), and takes in a little over four and a half thousand vertical through the Victorian high country. That’s a big day out. I decided that if I could hang with most of the people from work doing it (and I can) that I’d be fine. I’d make it home anyway, even if the idea of spending 12 or 13 hours in the saddle of a road bike didn’t sound overly appealing.
With a hectic schedule, a bit of a bad post-Christmas funk and a wrong-sized derailleur clamp in the switch to SRAM Red I didn’t get much riding in at all in the two or three weeks prior, but at least I’d be coming in fresh.
Dave managed to fluke a luxury three bedroom house on the main road, so we were able to tuck ourselves into amazing king-sized beds at nine and enjoy a relative sleep in, waking up at 3:15 for the 4a.m. start. Some colleagues who missed out of in-town accommodation would be up at 2:00, just to have time to dress, eat, drive into town, park and unload.
We loaded up on coffee and bananas and rolled into town a little too relaxed, missing the official start and riding against traffic to roll over the timing sensors. It was uncannily mild and we thought ourselves very smug for leaving arm-warmers at home as we made a brisk tempo up through the field. Dave was tapping it out but I was on threshold leaping from group to group. When we got to the second lead group we could see the fast boys up the road with a solid gap on us. Thankfully Dave decided we should let them go and we settled into a steady rhythm, the road gradually tilting upwards at the foot of Mt Hotham. I started the old familiar meditation of closing the doors to the rooms of my mind that hold thoughts of the rest of the day, expectations and the machinery that weighs capability against niggles and doubts. The doors to the room full of here-and-now and the screen door out to the over-grown mental back yard of deeper thoughts and big life questions are allowed to stay open. The first is where technique and pace are kept, the second helps melt time away. Melted time and a hot cinnamon sensation in the legs for hours on end have been great providers of clarity to me over the years.
We rounded The Meg, a steep-kicking hairpin, in the dark, to the sound of a cowbell and a the cracking voice of what could have been an old farmer shouting encouragement to the groupetto. It’s a beautiful day boys! No wind, no rain! Only the pain! In retreating darkness now, we could see the skeleton-fingers of the dead and sun-bleached trees reaching out of nothingness, erie and beautiful.
The temperature dropped steadily as we gained elevation and the dawn bloomed. As we crossed over CRB I could see we were above the south side cloud, with clear sky to the north. It was cold here and I told myself to enjoy the numb fingers and chattering teeth for the next hour or so because there’d be plenty of heat later in the day. In the last drop before the final kick to the summit I had to confirm visually that my fingers were on the brake levers because I couldn’t feel them.
Keeping your mind in the present does funny things to time, and it felt like only an hour into the ride (probably more like two and half) that I walked into the first control point at Dinner Plain, reeled off my rider number, grabbed a mouthful of food, topped up my bottles, took a wee and scadaddled out of there. A lot of the old Audax guys had pulled up a chair and made cups of hot tea to warm themselves up, but I had no wish to stop and stiffen up, nor to make the day any longer than it had to be, and I rolled out of there briskly but alone.
I’d come in with maybe twenty or thirty other riders. Alone? I kept bombing down the road. Surely someone else must’ve… Maybe I took a wrong…? But there’s no other road up here.
Still… Still, it’s not going to be a fun day if you’re soloing off into the morning on some off-course alpine road, I told myself. I turned around and began the climb back up to the control point, maybe three km behind. I didn’t have to go too far until another rider appeared out of the mist. Huh.
Omeo, the second control, appeared quicker than expected. Flagged into the CFA shed in by a sturdy, bearded man in his 50s or 60s in a Rapha cap yelling ‘Welcome welcome!’ The firefighters had put up long trestle tables of quartered oranges, halved bananas, chocolate chip cookies, muffins, rice cream, tea, and french pressed coffee. I took two half bananas and some sweet, black coffee and a cookie, refilled the bottles, slathered myself in sunscreen and hit the road to Falls, thinking about the legendary ‘back of Falls’ climb and what it would really be like. I resolved to burn a bunch of matches there and have it done with as quickly as I could.
The road from Omeo to Falls is about 60km long, but rolling, meandering and pretty. I rode it alone for the most part, with others alone, and for a little while in a group of three that couldn’t get it’s shit together. The first rider sat out the front of the other three, myself in second wheel, until he faded in the wind. ‘Roll off and I’ll take a turn’ I said. He did, but looked confused. I pulled for a good five minutes before sliding right and soft pedalling. The group behind slid right behind me and backed off. I stopped pedalling. They stopped pedalling. Ok, this isn’t how it works guys.
We crossed the creek and you could sense the coming ascent, the hillside rising up on the side of the road to the left. I stopped for a leak and a Gu, and not 20m up the road found the left hand turn onto the back of Falls.
It’s like the left hand turn onto Bank St, a short but steep kicker on our usual homebound route, except that Bank St is about 50m long and the road up the back of Falls is 17,000m long. The guy in front of me, who had seemed strong on the open rolling road started zig zagging immediately. Up the road I could see several more, strung out and hurting badly. I dropped my shoulders, set my hips, kicked down the gear and set my mind to holding a hard temp for however long it would take.
A long time, as it turned out. In retrospect, I probably could have pushed a couple of gears higher, but it was my first real ride on the compact crank and spinning itself wasn’t exactly easy. But as in a 24 hour lap, I set my eyes on the next guy up the road, and focussed on reeling him in. And then the next one, and the next one, until we finally crested the last long roller up onto the plateau.
That’s where things really began to suck. You expect to be able to drive along rolleuring rollers, but even the downhills felt like false flats on dead roads with my nose in the breeze. Underscoring that, I was having trouble with pain in my feet and was starting to get desperate to take my shoes off. I love Sidi for their super snug, narrow fit, but after nine or so hours in the saddle things had gone from numb, to sore to searingly painful. I was beginning to be not having fun when someone passed me strongly on the right: a large guy in race kit, an actual roadie. You, sir, are my ticket out of here. I got out of the saddle and kicked hard to jump onto his wheel. I’m not ashamed to say I sat there in the draft, head down and in the drops all the way until the ski resort, where I thanked him for the shelter and headed indoors to down more coffee and rice cream.
At this point, the two big dragons had been slain — Hotham and Falls — with just 75km or so to go until the finish. Two-and-a-bit hours? Surely not, but the last leg began with an endless descent off of the Falls Creek ski station through (with a few exceptions) even radius turn after turn. The SRAM brakes are a big leap up on DA7800, on carbon rims at least, and I stayed off them as much as I could. We were through the Mt Beauty valley in a shot and the road turned upward once more for the final climb over Tawonga Gap, with Bright, the creek, the brewery, the finish line and bed on the other side.
I’ve never seen so many people walking road bikes up a hill and in many ways I still can’t understand how it comes to that. I would grind out a 30rpm pace with cramping muscles before I’d get off and walk in road shoes. It’s always, always, always going to be worse on foot and for longer. At the 3km to go mark a lady on the side of the road was spraying people with water from a knapsack. Bless her cotton socks. And although it might’ve felt like the one of the longest 3km I’ve ever ridden with the sun climbing and pulling the temperature up with it (nearly 3p.m. now), the final stretch over the top of the gap wasn’t insufferable. Just get it done.
Someone had told me earlier in the day that there’s no better feeling that the descent into Bright knowing everything’s behind you, but I didn’t feel elated. I was very sore in the shoulders from the tucked descents. Once I was in town though, I couldn’t help but smile riding down the main street, people along the sides, many of them applauding the riders in and across the line.
I stopped the clock at 11:08 or so elapsed, 10:22 or so moving and am happy with that.
Doesn’t look like a killer does he?
Some practical notes:
- Nutrition was fine the whole way through. My plan was the same as my last Otway Odyssey (100km / 3,000m MTB race): one bar, one bottle for every hour of riding. It didn’t quite pan out like that but bananas (especially half-bananas) are back on the menu and of all the various foods supplied by the support staff, rice cream was the awesomest.
- Using electrolyte tablets for hydration and taking on fuel by solids feels much better than drinking sugary drinks for long events, and carrying a tube of fizzy tablets is a lot easier than a bag of P/C/E powder.
- SRAM Red is awesome, but I spent a few seconds at each control point adjusting cable tension as the new stuff was still bedding in.
- Rapha’s GT gloves are beyond awesome
- My shoes (Sidi) aren’t great for rides over four-and-a-half to five hours. I like the snugness of the narrow fit, but I have numb toes after hours of it and after the ninth hour of the ACE I had some pretty severe foot pain. Next pair of shoes will be wider (Giro, Bont, Fizik and Rapha all contenders).
- Riding a compact crank was a fantastic idea, and ensured I could keep a steady cadence even up the back of Falls. I did, however, fall into the trap of riding a high cadence with low force too often. A more effective combination seems to be working to turn a slightly higher gear over at the same 90-100rpm as an easier spin would be (obviously this gives you more speed, but I think it’s actually a better power/effort setup). This is effectively what I’d been doing on the 39/27 in the hills around Melbourne. A lower gear allowed me to do the same thing in the big mountains, but I wound up riding a lower gear still and paid for it in time (I’m speculating).
- Working to stay up front, or entering with a group of similarly matched riders, would be a great help. The loop is effectively three big climbs with rolling transitions between them. A working bunch on those transitional roads would make the ride faster, easier and more fun in general. I spent much of the ride with those mental doors shut just to avoid a loss of pace that comes from too much scenery gazing (I did drink it in where it was lovely) or the mental fatigue that comes from over-thinking the ride or watching the clock.
- I’ll admit that my first thought over the line wasn’t ‘Wouldn’t it be ace to come back and do that again’, but knowing what I can do with training and pacing now and how to step that up again, I am tempted to know how much faster I could go.
- It’s surprisingly nice, and easier than you’d think, to go to bed at 9p.m.
- Getting up at 4a.m. to go and shoot first light on the mountain would be a cool thing to do, photographically speaking. It’d also be cool to shoot riders up there at that time.
- I can’t forget to post my colleagues’ times:
- Dave: smashed it home in 8 hours and 37 minutes (moving) / 8:50 (elapsed)
- Henry: 10:39 / 10:49
- Tom: 9:44 / 10:34
- Rob: 10:40 / 12:34
- Andrew: 10:58 / 13:08
248km 4,650m 10:22/11:08