Mt Buller has been my regular destination for downhill skiing for many years. My university has a lodge there and the place has some family history so I know the mountain pretty well, but only in Winter and only on skis. Well, on Sunday I headed to Mt Buller for the final of the Domestique 7 Peaks Series. Over the last 3 months I’ve ridden 5 of the 7 supported rides in the series including Lake Mountain, Baw Baw, Falls Creek, Hotham, Buffalo. The only ones I missed were the rides from Omeo up to Dinner Plain and Lake Mountain which took place while I was doing an alpine training camp.
Like the others in the series, the Buller ride started at the base at the township of Mirimbah which is where you enter the national park. The climb starts immediately so if you need a warm-up you’re best to start a few km out. The climb is about 15.5km and rises roughly 940m. Of the 7, it is probably the most consistent, mostly hovering around 6% with a few steeper sections, notably the final 2.5km which often hits 10-12%. You can read a good breakdown of the climb at The Climbing Cyclist.
I was really looking forward to this ride, more than usual. I just felt really positive about it. I don’t know why. I’d had a big week and was actually pretty tired the day before. But all my training during the week was based around hill repeats and I think this helped set me up for a big day. These weren’t big hills, but big enough between 1 and 6km, and this is long enough when you’re making a serious effort each time. It’s obvious, but these rides were really meant to focus on climbing. I had limited time and I wanted to spend as much of it climbing as I could. Living where I do, all rides involve climbs but this was even more focussed and it did the trick.
A couple of months back, after the last Domestique rides, a few of us started talking about doing Buller repeats. I wanted to do two and even at the start of last week that was what I was focussing on. Then during the week I started to think about doing three reps. This ride is two weeks before 3 Peaks in early March so Buller was the perfect training opportunity. So on Saturday morning, at 4:45, after managing to not wake my 2yr old, I started the 2.5hr drive playing Red Hot Chilli Peppers nice and loud. I’d packed my gear methodically the night before to make the early morning start as simple as possible.
I started my first climb at 8am, right on schedule. Already there were clearly a few riders around. The main ride of the day was due to begin at 2pm so I had plenty of time to do three climbs, at least that was the plan. The real surprise was how cold it was. It was freezing. Fortunately, having done a couple of cold descents, I came with arm and leg warmers, gilet and wind jacket. Lucky. I needed all them and more. I warmed up quickly on the climb, but after the first descent I was really, really cold.
This was my first ride up Buller and I loved it. It was great just being there riding up solo, just me and the mountain, and riding at the pace that felt good for me. I didn’t do any extra warm-up, instead I used the climb to warm-up as I often do. I might add, if I was only doing one climb and if I wanted to make it my strongest one, I would do a good 30 to 50km warmup beforehand. Being 15km, it’s easy to break it down into 5km chunks, with about 300m gain for each. These chunks are sufficiently small that they clicked over nicely until I finished my first climb in 1:10. After arriving in the village I rode up the next steep pinch to see if the Abom was open for coffee. It wasn’t, so I headed back down. My morning coffee is part of my routine, so I was pleased to get a good one at the Mirimbah store opposite the car park, which, I discovered at the end of the day, sells beautiful homemade pies and the best flourless orange cake.
After recovering my warmth at the base I was able to put my jacket and warmers in the car and switch over my water bottles, opting to carry less this time. As I was getting ready for the next climb several other riders started gathering, including my mate Cyril who was also doing a triple. Together we started our second climb. Knowing the climb and the pace I’d set myself I decided ride at a faster pace and rode ahead of the group. By the time I got up to the top I’d knocked 6 minute off my first time, getting 1:04 without going into the red. It’s fair to say I had surprised myself. I was getting a taste for this.
Another quick descent, dump more stuff in the car and it was off and up again. I was now only carrying one small bottle of water, a spare tube and gas, and my phone. I don’t know how much difference it makes, but it felt good to be able to let go of extra weight incrementally. On number three we were joined by Martin, who is also a member of our GreenWedge riding group. Again it felt really good and we were able to chat away for a while before I finished it riding solo again. Only on the last couple of kms did my knees start to hurt. I’m not sure what this is but interestingly I find that by doing some back stretches I’m able to shift it. I wasn’t able to sift it completely but enough. This climb was another 1:09. It was now getting close to 2pm and I’d already been riding for over 5hrs so we headed back down again for the start of the Domestique ride.
Now, while I was feeling good coming into this, I thought I might be done by this point. But I wasn’t. I was starting to get tired but I still had another one in me, so I started my 4th, I was happy to do this one as slow as I liked, it was just about finishing and it didn’t matter when. Riding along I was able to chat with other riders, some cruising comfortably, others really struggling. This is one of the best features of these rides; you get lots of riders who are climbing for the first time alongside professionals and serious amateur riders. At a couple of points I must have looked like I was struggling a bit as a couple of riders gave me some words of encouragement. A lot of that goes around actually, especially as you approach the tops of the climbs and those coming down call out how far there is to go. “You’re nearly there! 500m to go!”
The fourth was tough. I was feeling the accumulation of the day, but after a slower start where I was able to recover a bit more I found myself able to stay with a couple of riders who were keeping a good pace. My knees where hurting quite a bit, so I stood on the pedals just to break it up more. Most importantly I retained my rhythm. As we hit the last 4kms I knew this one was in the bag, it was just a question of how fast or slow it was. Again I was able to ride ahead passing some riders who had come past earlier. With the end in sight I started to dig deep. Really using all my body, pulling hard on the handlebars with each revolution of the pedals. I was in that really intense zone, growling to myself to come on, push. I love this state actually, I really know I’ve given it everything. It’s completely unselfconscious as well. I don’t care how I sound or look. I have one focus and that is all. On previous laps I’d taken it pretty steady on the last steep section, but seeing the final bend ahead of me, I knew I only had a few hundred metres to go so I slammed down into a big gear and gave it everything I had on the uphill straight into the village. They were ringing bells and cheering us through. Immediately ahead of me I could see my fellow GreenWedge riding mates, Alain and Jeremy, and some others. Alain had told them what I’d done and this got some great reactions. I have to say it felt amazing getting congratulated by so many strangers and friends alike. It was really beautiful and I felt a big rush of emotion, a huge release. I’d done it… Then with an adrenalised burst I sprinted up another steep section of the village to the Abom. I thought I’d done a much slower time. In fact I’d managed my second fastest for the day, with 1:08.
There were familiar faces all over the place at the top, people I’d seen either at other rides in the series or at Audax, and more hearty congratulations all round. Then it was time for my last descent, the last reward for the day and more people congratulating me at the bottom too. That’s something I wouldn’t mind getting used to 😉
The atmosphere in the summit village was terrific, but it always is on these Domestique rides. It’s hard to describe really, but it’s quite special. Maybe it’s because there’s something very pure about this event. The fact that it is not commercial is a big plus. The rides are free and there’s usually bugger all in the way of merchandise to be bought, and even that goes toward supporting these events. I couldn’t even see where they were set up in the village. Unlike other events, with the Domestique series it’s all about the mountain and I think that’s it. We’re all there to meet this challenge, and make of it whatever we will. Big climbs, and by big I mean HC climbs, are special, beautiful, beasts. They demand your respect and humility. They can leave you completely crushed or feeling like a king, often a bit of both! But everyone is there for this. There are no illusions. Everyone is there to climb a real mountain, to learn for themselves what this means, and what it requires of us.
I drove home in silence. As you leave the mountains, the hills become gentler and in the afternoon light they took on the most beautiful grey, blueish green hues. It had been a warm day in the end and felt great having the windows down feeling the cool wind rushing past. The ride had filled me with an amazing sense of clarity about who I am and what I’m capable of not just on the bike but in life generally. It’s been hard these last few years, and it’s all too easy to forget this, but it’s these days that help to rebuild and maintain that sense of faith in myself, a faith based on sheer determination, and learning. I’d done it right. I’d prepared myself beautifully and executed my plan at my own pace, and exceeded my expectations in the process.
So, I want to end by sending a big thank you to the Matt and Andy, the guys who got this series off the ground, and to everyone, the volunteers and all the riders who have made these such great rides. And to you dear reader, if you haven’t already done so, get out into the mountains, ride the hills wherever you are, big or small. And if you’re in this part of the world in November, sign up for the next Domestique series. I’ll see you there!
You can check out my ride here.