Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

The 24th of December is a special date in cycling calendars around the world for one reason, it’s when the Rapha Festive 500 kicks off. Over 8 days cyclists are challenged to clock up 500km before the end of the year. Last year I really enjoyed doing this and I ended up completing two of my biggest rides ever and finishing a day early with over 600km. This year was a bit different. Rather than riding in my usual hills, I would be based at Bright for a few days, nestled in the heart of the Victorian Alps. This is where I completed the Alpine Training Camp only 6 weeks ago with the Coburg Cycling Club. This time I was going up with a group of friends to take part in the second running of the Domestique Series. The challenge – over 3 days, ride 4 major climbs – Falls Creek, Hotham, Buffalo and Dinner  Plain.

For two years the 7 Peaks Domestique Series has led these great events to introduce riders to the major climbs. You get riders of different levels of ability, from beginners doing their very first climb to professionals, including young guns like Brendan Canty who has been knocking off the KOMs on the biggest climbs over the last couple of months. Everyone is drawn together by their love of cycling and an appetite for a good challenge and no one was disappointed.

There’s no need to wax on about Bright, but it’s hard to find a better place to base a range of epic rides from. This time our group stayed at the very popular Bright Velo. To call this place cycling centric would be a gross understatement. I was sold as soon as I was reassured that they served Padre coffee. While having my morning double shot I couldn’t help drooling over a lovely early 80s racer fitted out with the complete 50th anniversary Campag groupset put out in 1983 with gold details… I would go on, but that’s another blog.

James Stratford-Bright Velo

James Stratford-Bright Velo

Day 1: Falls Creek

On the Saturday afternoon of the ride up to Falls Creek heat was going to be a factor. The climb from Mt Beauty is just under 30km and rises over 1100m (You can read more about the climb at the Climbing Cyclist).   I had originally planned to ride from Bright for this one, making it a 120km loop, but with 37 degree heat (celsius) we decided to just do the main climb from the base at Mount Beauty. The climb began with a nice long rolling section for the first few kms to Bogong village, where you get a couple of short but no-less welcome descents thrown in. By the time we got to Bogong, most needed to take advantage of the water and fuel provided. I felt good for the first two-thirds of the climb. Passing other riders along the way always feels good on a climb, especially when they look strong and every rider I passed just made me feel a bit stronger. It was only in finishing that I struck difficulty, mainly with painful knees, so I eased the pace for the last few ks. Riding into the resort at Falls Creek I couldn’t see any sign of other riders, so I and the others I had joined continued before stopping a bit further up. I spotted my mate Cyril riding back down and he pointed out where the highest elevation was so I rode up further before turning back to the village. While I stopped I did a few stretches which seemed to resolve whatever was going on with my knee. Thank god too. I had a 200km ride the next day for which I needed to be right.

With Sam (left) and Alex (right)

With Sam (left) and Alex (right)

The rides down was an absolute blast. I’m usually quite a timid descender unless I know the road really well, but not this day.  I’m working on this though and this is starting to pay dividends, not just in the times but most importantly the sheer enjoyment that I experience. Being able to find the best line through the corners meant that I was able to take them with more confidence and control.

Day 2 – The Domestique Double

Preparing my mind and legs for a long day on the ride out.

Preparing my mind and legs for a long day on the ride out.

Doing both Hotham and Buffalo on the one day is hard work no matter which way you look at it. Rather than driving to the bases of these climbs though, I and a number of others chose to ride the whole thing. Starting from Bright at 7am my group (Sam, James, and Nathaniel), rode up to Harrietville to meet up with everyone else for the Hotham climb, a 31km beast rising almost 1300m, compared by many to the infamous Mont Vontoux. Last time I did this it really crushed me. This time wasn’t nearly as bad, mainly because I knew what to expect. It did have it’s own challenges on this day, including strong headwinds which cancelled out much of the benefit of the false flat, and the amazingly strong cross-winds which caused many to turn around before the finale. I was determined to complete it, but I did get off for the windiest section and walk for a couple of hundred metres – even this was challenging. On this one I wasn’t concerned with getting a good time, so I made several short stops on the way up to stretch my back and shoulders to keep niggling pains at bay. I also used these as chances to take photos along the way.

Hotham

Hotham

Hotham

Hotham

After regrouping at the general store near the summit we rode down to Dinner Plain for lunch, 12.5km down the other side. I was feeling tired after 68km and 1800m of climbing but I felt really good and quite emotional. I felt a sense of relief, I’m not sure why. It just wafted over, as it does sometimes on the road.

While I didn’t have the form to ride that strongly on the climb I was able to go for it again on the ride back, not just the descent, but through to Bright. We had done a strong ride on this stretch last time, about 40 mins from Harrietville. I had planned on doing it much more slowly to allow for a good recovery before Buffalo, but we were all pumped for a fast finish and we practically raced into Bright in 36 mins. For James and Nathaniel, this made more sense as they were stopping for the day, but for Sam and I, I’m not so sure. But it was fun.

A very satisfying lunch at Dinner Plain.

A very satisfying lunch at Dinner Plain.

A quick stop in Bright – bananas, water, face-washers, rest for 20 mins and we were back on the road for the final stretch. I remembered the advice of Peter, my mechanic at Pete’s Bikes in Templestowe, who told me to just think of the last 70 as actually 35 – to the top of Buffalo. Like the previous climbs I started at the rear and steadily moved through the field of riders  in the first 10km. But for the last 13ks of the 23km climb I really had to push through growing exhaustion and pain. I had expected pain around the core, not having any really long rides under my belt for a good 6 months, but it was my feet that really hurt. Maybe 6km from the finish, the friendly face of Cyril rode along side me. He had an extra 25km in his legs having done Tawonga gap twice in addition to what I’d done. It made a world of difference I can tell you. Thanks Cyril!

I mentioned before the range of riders you get on these rides and one of the nicest things I saw all weekend was a father and his daughter (I assume) cruising down Buffalo. They were going at a good clip but I could hear him giving her encouragement and technical advice on the corners. It was just beautiful to hear. The girl seemed to only be 10 or maybe a little older, and naturally it made me think of sharing similar adventures with my boy Will in a few years time.

After the final climb up Buffalo

After the final climb up Buffalo

By the time we reached the summit of the climb I was completely and utterly stuffed and so relieved. Thirsty and hungry I stumbled into Dingo Dell where everyone else was lining up for cold drinks and snacks. After half an hour or so Cyril and I started our descent. Another beauty. I thought it would be hard work, but I felt really fresh so I was able to relax and focus on my lines and push the corners, only really braking for the few hairpin corners.  Here too, I think it helped riding down with company. By the time we reached the base of the mountain I’d clicked over 202km with 6km to go before we reached Bright, making it my longest ride yet. My previous best was a 201km on a flat ride down the coast to finish off the last Festive 500. This time, I’d added in two mountains into the mix. Riding into Bright, I had a final surge of energy. It felt like I was winning a stage of the Tour. When I rolled into Bright Velo to be met by a table of my mates I’d ridden 208, climbed over 3,700m and burned around 6,000 calories. It had taken 12.5 hrs, including breaks. This was a major personal challenge and later on reflection I noted that I hadn’t for a single moment considered not finishing this in spite of the fact that I was coming into these rides with less than adequate preparation. It was important for me to push through everything these rides threw up at me and I did. I didn’t use the old trick of talking myself into just doing it in stages as if I could turn back after a bit. That was never an option.

Tired but very happy. Photo credit: Lisa Frenkel.

Tired but very happy. Photo credit: Lisa Frenkel.

Day 3: Recovery

The scheduled ride was the climb from Omeo up to Dinner Plain but as we were already going to be spending 3.5hrs driving home on this day we didn’t want to spend another 2 hrs driving to and from Omeo. My plan for a gentle and flat recovery ride was trumped for a final ride up Buffalo instead. The logic – why ride the flats when you’re in the mountains. This ended up being the toughest ride for me. All the way up I had bad nausea and felt on the verge of vomiting whenever my heart rate went above 135. I had to frequently pull-over to collect myself and cool down. I was exhausted and all I could do was to keep turning the cranks slowly. I got there in the end and had to lie down at the top to recover. The descent was enjoyable, but after 15hrs on the bike over a period of less than 48hrs, covering some 340km and 6500m of climbing, I was well and truly in need of some rest.

I got back to Melbourne 13km short of my 500, which I made up on New Year’s Eve, just.

Having skipped Dinner Plain, I have to do this next year. The next Domestique will be up Mt Buller on Feb 22. I’m hoping to get a few mates to do a double with me. If you’re interested in taking part, all you need to do is register. There’s no fee. I can’t wait. I’m also thinking up some other challenges of a similar nature to work on my form, not all as big as the double, though some will be. I’m open to suggestions ;).

Happy New Year! 

The view from Buffalo

The view from Buffalo

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3 thoughts on “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

  1. Great to share some of these rides with you James, I hope we can be regulars at the Bright Velo this year!

  2. Pingback: Scody 3 Peaks Challenge 2014 – Done, Finished. | Beyond the Call

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