Last weekend I returned to Bright to take part in the Audax Alpine Challenge. Audax is a French organisation which specialises in running endurance events. The typical Audax ride ranges between 200 and 1200km. In fact I was told that the introduction of the 300km rides caused quite a stir as they weren’t considered nearly long enough. Rides of 200km and over have the classification of Brevets Randonneurs Mondiaux or BRMs and are certified by the Audax Club Parisien. I first learned Audax through one of my riding mates, Alex, who had just done a 300km as part of the Great Southern Randonee. It turned out that this was the final quarter of a 1200km ride that his brother was doing. Perhaps not surprisingly then Audax has a reputation for doing these things well. They know how to support a serious endurance ride. You can read a bit about the history of Audax here.
On this weekend Audax was offering a range of ride options, thankfully nothing longer than 250km and entry into that requires having completed one of their 200km events. I got a late entry into the 200km Alpine Classic which included climbs up Tawonga from from both sides, Falls Creek and my nemesis, Mount Buffalo. My riding partner Nathaniel and I, added a twist by starting and finishing at Harrietville, adding on an extra 44km. Having done some long and very challenging rides recently with double HC climbs I had no doubts about completing the ride. I just didn’t know how much suffering I’d have to endure. How would my core hold up for such a long day on the bike. Sore feet and lower back set in on my Hotham/Buffalo double over New Year, and doing the Demon’s Double I had struggled to recover for the second of the two big climbs up Lake Mountain.
Within half an hour after getting into Harrietville we were on our bikes for a late afternoon ride up Mount Hotham. When you have one of the best climbs in Australia within 500m of the front door how can you resist even with the toughest ride of your life waiting for you the next day. Last time we were here the top had very strong winds but on this day the conditions were perfect. It’s a wonderful mountain to ride. While it’s a very long climb, it rewards you with amazing views, especially on the top section. The changes in terrain also give you a very clear sense of progress, and this helps on a 30km+ climb. I think it’s the lack of this on Buffalo which adds to its difficulty. While Buffalo is very beautiful, there is so little change until you actually hit the top. Hotham is also punctuated by a series of pinches, including the Meg and CRB among others. These are hard enough, but they also allow to enlist different muscles and it’s always satisfying to knock them off.
After a couple of hours of solid climbing we were rewarded with a brilliant descent. Having done a few times recently I feel like I’m getting to know it. The corners are cambered nicely and on this evening there were very few cars so we could make good use of the corners. All the way along luminous Rosellas would fly out in front of us. Flying down the mountain all I could think of was how much I love this. It was pure euphoria.My confidence also got a boost because despite taking it easy for the first two-thirds of the climb I’d managed to record my best times for both the climb and the descent and I felt fresh at the end of the ride.
We got back just in time to get cleaned up before driving back into Bright to have a hearty dinner of homemade gnocchi with the rest of the gang which had graciously included me. Loaded with a healthy dose of carbs we finished our preparations for the next day. Preparation is essential on these big rides, especially with a 5:30am start so I before bed I packed my jersey pockets with everything I’d need. I also do things like prepare my coffee and breakfast for the morning. As much as possible I keep my morning routine the same to ensure a good start.
The road to Bright was dark and cold for the ride to the start line, the only other activity being the occasional car carrying bikes. We arrived on schedule just as they were starting to send off waves of riders.
The first climb of the day up Tawonga Gap is also the easiest, meandering upwards for 14km, rising about 540m to the lookout where Nathaniel, Darcy and I regrouped before starting the quick descent into Mount Beauty for the first stop before doing the first big climb up Falls Creek. One down and three to go.
Last time I rode Falls Creek for the Domestique Series it was seriously hot, about 37 degrees celsius. It was a good climb but I was hurting. Today though I felt really good all the way up, especially for the final section which is the steeper part of the climb. I was still conscious that I had 170km to go even after the 28km climb so I didn’t push it except for the final straight to the first checkpoint. At the top we were greeted with an array of snacks, cakes, fruit, salad roles, and much more. It was also great to see some familiar faces from the Domestique rides.
The descent off Falls is great fun. Unlike Hotham where the descent starts with some very steeps climbs, this is just straight down for a good 15km before you hit some undulations which require changing gears. But the closer we got to the bottom, the closer we got to the hard side of Tawonga Gap. The last time I rode this was no fun at all. This was on the Coburg CC training camp and I was virtually exhausted by the time we got to the start of the climb. Thankfully it was a different story on this day and much to my surprise I felt strong for much of it, taking about 7 minutes off my previous effort. After regrouping with the others we put the hammer down for the ride into Bright, collecting a bit of a train of riders behind us for the last few km into Bright. Once again we were greeted with an array of food and the friendliest volunteers I’ve ever come across on an event. So refueled we headed out for the final climb, a 65km loop up Mount Buffalo and back to Bright.
The first time I rode Buffalo last year I really enjoyed it. That day I had ‘fresh legs’. However, on the last few occasions it’s been a different story, it’s just been a very slow grind. Twice it’s been at the end of long rides when I’ve already done over 160km with lots of climbing, or the day after one of these rides when I’ve been completely knackered. Today was no different and to make matters worse just as I started the climb my gears started playing up. I also started to get some small cramps in my quads, at least thats what I thought they were. Conscious of not making them worse I just pedaled as easy and steadily as I could.
Now, as it doesn’t provide the same progress markers as Hotham, on Buffalo I just focus on clicking over the kms. It was becoming a hot afternoon and all the way up there are spots where you can either have a dip or get fresh water running off the mountain. As tempting as this was I just wanted to get the climb done so I resisted the urge until the water stop 10km up the climb. Here riders were greeted by two cheery women dressed as fairies. As I pulled up they took my bike while a friendly man came over and sprayed me with a lovely mist of cold water which felt amazing. I joined a group of guys having a break in the shade when the fairies returned with my bottles filled with icy water and my glasses cleaned. It was like a kind of daydream. I couldn’t get over how lovely these people were, they made such a difference providing not merely this logistic support but lively, genuine encouragement. There were still 12kms to go to the top but my spirits were really restored after this stop. The good thing about the last 12km is that it’s broken up into three section. After 7km there would be a short descent onto a rolling plateau before the last couple of kms. The end was in sight.
It was a great relief to roll into the the cafe, ‘Dingo Dell’ at the control point. It was my slowest climb but we would easily make it back to Bright within the cut-off time. We spent a while at this stop as we regrouped with the others but we were all happy for a bit of a rest. The best thing was taking our shoes off!
While I can’t say I enjoyed the Buffalo climb, the ride down is a cracker. Apart from a couple of very tight hairpin corners you can ride it very quickly. By the end I was feeling well and truly restored and confident knowing I’d completed the climbs. As we got to the base my odometer clicked over 210km. It was already my biggest ride and we had 35km to get home. So once again I got a great surge of energy and powered back into town right to the finish line. I was in the zone. It felt terrific. As we entered the event village we were all being clapped through. We were greeted by more friendly volunteers and a few friendly faces. The event was done but we still had 24km to go so after some refuelling we did a nice cool-down cruise into Harrietville. It felt great to roll into town knowing what we’d done. It’d been just on 14 hours since we’d left that morning. A long day. We’d ridden 244km and climbed at least 4,300m (The more accurate Strava route builder put it at over 5,500m). Our moving time had been just over 10hrs for the entire ride, and about 8.5hrs for the main event, not especially fast but that wasn’t one of our goals and that’s not what Audax rides are about. 3 Peaks will be different.
It was an epic ride but I have to say what really made the weekend was the amazing atmosphere that filled this ride, from the generosity of the Becher family and their friends who included me in their gang and the spirit brought to it by the many capable and kind volunteers along the course. I can’t wait to to do my next Audax event.
If you haven’t ridden one, I hope you’ll consider adding one to your calendar for next year. Registrations for 2015 open in August so you’ve got plenty of time to train, even if you’re new on the bike or new to climbing.
You can see my ride on Strava here.