For the past 26 years, the Tour de France organisers have given average punters the opportunity to race a real mountain stage under pro conditions the day before the big boys, with fully closed roads, police escorts and yellow, polka dot & green jerseys for the winners. Recently the format has been expanded internationally and Australia got its first taste a couple of weeks ago in the Snowy Mountains. The organisers drew up a challenging route, with 157 km including 2,700 vertical metres and a ‘mountain top’ finish at Perisher ski resort. A shorter but not insignificant ‘ride’ course skipped the Perisher climb but still entailed 123 km & 1,900 vertical metres, a solid day on the road.
The race commenced at Crackenback, half way up the hill to Thredbo. I was pretty nervous about dropping down to Jindabyne with over 3,500 other riders, particularly as we were being set off in groups of 1,000, but the starting line was located in a small valley with a four kilometre climb out, which was enough to split the mob into manageable groups.
Choosing a pace is always challenging at the beginning of a ride like this. Going out too hard means you run the risk of running out of gas on the long climb at the end, too easy and you miss out on the opportunity to work in a group with the big fellas on the flatter sections. The leading riders headed out at a pace that I knew I couldn’t match so I slotted in behind with the groupe poursuivant, nervously hoping that they weren’t going to smash me in the middle section of the ride. About 50 of us got to the top of the first rise together then descended down the hill and safely negotiated the sharp right hander at the edge of the lake. At the event village in Jindabyne I dumped my wind-vest & arm warmers at the foot of my patient, long suffering wife and, spurred on by her encouraging words, crossed the dam wall and climbed out of town for the next phase of the race.
The next part of the route was spectacular. Rolling hills, some short and sharp, some long and taxing, but nothing too extreme. The weather too, was perfect – the biting early morning chill had disipated, the skies were clear, no wind and a very comfortable 20C as we rolled north to Rocky Plain then headed south east through picturesque country. The pace was, at times, kind enough to let me enjoy the panoramic views of the Snowy Mountains. Knowing the road was clear of traffic made the long, sweeping descents really enjoyable. Corners swept of debris, superb road surfaces, marshals and police coordinating traffic, a solid group rolling through smoothly– it was cycling nirvana.
Berridale, at 75 km, hosted the battle for the green jersey. For a climber like me, the sprint was of no interest but I hung onto the back of the group, just for fun. It was, for me, a warm up, for The Wall.
More rollers to Beloka, where things started to get serious. My group worked well together and tackled the long false flat aggressively, if a little nervously, as we headed up the valley. A, short gentle dip down to a bridge. Grazing country disappears. The bush takes over. We are back into the mountains. 100 kilometres on the clock. The next big challenge of the day was upon us.
The Beloka climb is not for the faint hearted. Three kilometres long, it is known colloquially as ‘The Wall’. Unlike climbs like the Goose, which start relatively gently then kicks at the end, Belokia assaults you at the onset, smacks you in the face right at the start. You cross the creek then climb a cliff: never below 10% for the first kilometre, said my Garmin, with a peak of 23%. At one stage I logged 8 km/hr with a heart rate of 160. Ouch. It hurt even more knowing you are only 1/3 of the way. The gradient eases in the middle, ‘easy section’ but the torture of the intro meant I was still hunting desperately for another gear to help me keep my cadence up. A stiff kick in the slope at the end to squeeze even more lactate into the screaming, burning legs. Then the road flattened. I was at the top.
Not surprisingly, the group I was with was blown apart by the climb. I was doing OK for fuel & fluids so didn’t stop at the refreshment station and made my way back down the hill. For the first time on the ride, I was without friends. The gradient was too gentle to freewheel so I pushed on solo for about 10 minutes. I caught a couple of riders ahead of me but they weren’t willing / able to work so I struggled on by myself. I started to fade, still a long way to go. Looking over my shoulder I was relieved to see a group of riders 50 metres behind me, bearing down with a fearlessly determined driver at the front. I eased up, had a drink and some food, then hitched on and joined the train.
The end of the descent at the outskirts of Jindabyne was pretty close to the finishing line for those who had signed up for ‘the ride’. For mugs like me, however, who had signed up for ‘the race’, there was still 30 km to go. Virtually all of it uphill.
As far as bike rides to ski resorts go, the climb to Perisher is relatively benign. Hugging a creek, it rose gently through the valley at a very respectable 3% average gradient. There were a couple of nasty bites but no tortuous, Alpe Du Huez ramps, no Ventoux forest of 10 km @ 10%. But we still had 120 km of racing in our legs at the bottom, so it wasn’t easy.
I felt pretty strong at the base of the mountain, and climbed solidly for most of the way. A few of the leading group had burnt too many matches on the early sections and I managed to reel in quite a number of riders.
For me, however, the race was about 5 kilometres too long. The last leg hurt. The outskirts of Perisher appeared, but the road kept rising. A nasty kilometre push up out of Smiggins Holes took me to the highest point of the race. The finishing line was in sight, mercifully downhill, 500 metres away. I ‘sprinted’ across the line, then collapsed, comforted and supported by one of the many volunteers who had given up their day to support the riders.
L’Etape 2016, tick.
Five hours, 9 minutes in the saddle was enough to secure me 73rd place overall. Almost 1,900 riders started the race I so was pretty happy to end up in the top hundred.
At UCI events riders are grouped by age but there was no mention of intent to do this in the pre-race blurbs for this event. I discovered later that night that they had in fact graded us into 5 year blocks and was extra-chuffed to find out that I clocked the fastest time of in the 55-59 year old category.
Chris Froome, rides for Team Sky, a few race victories under his belt, was the ambassador for the race. He started last. According to the pre-race publicity, he was to ‘ride through the groups’. I think the plan was for him to pass all the riders, so we all had an opportunity to ride ‘next to’ him. I beat him to the finish by about 20 minutes. Pretty impressive, I reckon.
So, why did I I beat Froome? Was he out of season, a bit overweight, had too many Kosciuszko Pale Ale’s the night before??
Nah – I am pretty confident that, even with a splitting headache, he could have beaten me riding a kids tricycle with one leg in plaster.
I beat him to the finish line because the organisers made one, simple error when they calculated the splits – they failed to take into account what a nice guy he is.
What to say about the man? I have read a few lines penned from people who met him during his brief stint in Oz and spoken to some people who spoke to him, and some who rode with him on the race.
The story? Universally positive.
A description of Froome’s ride is told beautifully on a widely available blog, written by Harrison Bailey, a young guy who was tapped on the shoulder a couple of days before the race to escort him along the route. They rode hard for a couple of hours, then stopped at a refreshment station. No TdF rolling refuel, he spent 15 minutes talking, posing for selfies, I reckon there must be hundreds on facebook of grinning riders and vollies standing next to the man. He stopped many more times, abandoning any pretence of catching the riders at the pointy end of the race. Reports of his enthusiasm, behaviour and willingness to engage were universally positive. This picture, I think, sums up what he brought to L’Etape Australia 2016.
Respect, Chris Froome.
I am in my mid 50’s, and have cycled all my life. I have signed up to many events in Australia (and around the world) but never, ever, previously experienced the enthusiasm and the community involvement that I encountered on L’Etape Australia 2016. Crowds lined the route like nothing I had seen before – clad in yellow in Jindabyne, green in Berridale, polka dots galore in Dalgety and Beloka. Hundreds of old bikes lined the roadside, all painted in yellow, green or polka dot colours. Not far out of Crackenback I spied horses grazed on the high grounds under the protection of yellow blankets, near the sprint all the shops, houses & road signs were decked in green tule, school kids in yellow screamed encouragement as we rode past, polka dot parties galore in Baloka. The Jindabyne shops joined the party – skis and snowboards in the display window of the ski shop were painted yellow, every shop I saw had either a bike, a banner or some sort of TdF colour on display. Kudos to the organisers, but special thanks to the many volunteers, townsfolk & the farmers along the way who, instead of resenting the inconvenience of having roads closed for a day, embraced the event with a passion that stunned me. I will never forget the warmth of the congratulation I received from the local woman who adorned me with my finisher’s medal as I stumbled from the finishing line at the end of the ride.
Well done, Snowy Mountains, #destinationjindabyne.
Hope to be back next year.