The Blayney to Bathurst is a cyclosportif that I’d heard about, mostly from climbers-turned-cyclists, as a pleasant well-natured country event. Being 2 weekends before dirtworks I thought it would be a good hit out. Enthusiasm from Fletch (in Melbs) also encouraged me to get online and tick the 160 km box. In the end the Mudge, GK and Carl (who hails from the ACT) followed suit. I was expecting a relatively small event – maybe 500 riders tops, but when we got to the “scene of the crime”, about 2300 had registered, making it one of the biggest road events I’ve been to. Front page of the local rag parochially proclaimed it the “BIGGEST CYCLE EVENT IN NSW”. Although an absurd statement (the Gong ride nudges 10 K, and the Mont and Scott 24s both cut entries at 2500), it was still a big number, and I’m now thankful I didn’t bring the mtb as intended. I needed every ounce of fast-rollyness I could garner.
The Mudge and I did 2 valleys (50 km) on the Sat morn before bunging everything in the car for the three hour trip west, to a town I’d earmarked more as petrolhead-bogan-central (Bathurst 1000 etc) than western cycling mecca (despite it being Mr Renshaw's town of origin). Registration was in the pit area of the race track which we subsequently drove, being open to the public. Both the tightness and steepness of the climb, as well as the views from skyline are impressive. I can understand why the motorists love it. We stayed overnight in Bathurst with GK before strapping bikes to the wombat-mobile in the morning for the short transit to Blayney where we also found and introduced ourselves to Carl. As we rolled up to the start the event was already underway, with a constant stream of riders disappearing quickly into the distance. Any semblance of voluntary seeding seemed to have gone out the window – it was one large group. My plan wasn’t to start at the very back of a mass field, but that is what eventuated.
The field started splintering immediately. Carl and I were keen to get a wriggle on and jumped from group to group, till about 10 km in we hopped to one with about 15 riders whom didn’t want to let us go. Eventually some organization and cohesion set in, with a rolling paceline mostly staying intact despite some very pot-holed patch-work-quilt sectors, cobbled corners, and the odd slow learner disrupting the rhythm. Another group eventually came into view, about a minute up the road, which gave us something to aim for although never did catch them. Carl had a little bad luck on the run back to Blayney, with what sounded like a classic case of broken spoke. I was hoping he’d quickly bend it out of the way to eliminate slap, and maybe rejoin us or pick up the next group, which can’t have been too far adrift. [In fact his cadence magnet had slipped to a position where it was plucking spokes, and required a bit of a fiddle to fix].
The initial Blayney-Blayney 50 km loop soon came to a close, and I was hoping the surface for the remaining trip to Bathurst would be kinder, which it mostly was in the sense that the pot-hole frequency was dramatically reduced, although the dead surface and ever-undulating nature of the course persisted. About 5 km out of Blayney my group stopped working although I didn’t understand why so I just tapped away at the front. As a climb of a few kilometers approached the whoosh of a powerful bunch then started coming past. WTF? I had no idea where this mob had come from, but it was all shaven legs, club jerseys, race numbers, the “voom voom voom” of seemingly ubiquitous deep dish carbon. This was no cyclosportif cohort, but perhaps a concurrent road-race part of the weekend I wasn’t privy to? I upped my tempo hoping to stay with them but they just kept filing past – akin to B-grade being passed by A-grade at Heffron, x20! With at least 100 riders having passed I knuckled down and latched onto what must have been the tail, only to realize there was probably another 50, no, another 100 riders behind me! I clung on desperately over the climb as the pace quickened over the other side. Before long we were doing 55-65 km/hr on the downs, and mid 30s+ on the ups. I hung tough over every ripple and fart, gradually filtering towards the back of what would easily rate as the biggest and scariest bunch I have ever been part of – well over 200 riders, for the next 30 km.
My senses were reacquainting with sights, sounds and smells I haven’t been exposed to in some time on the bike – the spine chilling squeal of brakes, smell of burning rubber, cursing and swearing, and the repeated torturous accelerations that accompany a bunch breathing concertina style in response to compressions on the rises, and to accommodate the odd car approaching in the opposite direction! These were by no means closed roads but the bunch was using every part of them. Some extremely nervous moments ensued – reminding me of all the reasons I disliked road racing, particularly on a course that made relatively little selection, and all over nasty pock-marked blue metal which was going to take a chunk out of you given the chance. The way I saw it this was a TdF-sized bunch, but on much worse roads, with less skilled riders. It seemed only a matter of time.
I finally blew at the 90 km mark where a sharp LHT yielded an acceleration I just couldn’t respond to. Having put in lots of work during the first 50, then been wagged by the tail of this mega bunch for the last 30 I popped big time. It was pretty demoralizing actually. I pride myself on being at the fit-end of the pool, and here I was, comprehensively shelled by a bunch of country bumpkins (although very well manicured and kitted-out bumpkins) in a cyclosportif. Anyway, it was down to survival now, as I still had 70 km to go. At the top of the next climb was a feed zone populated by dozens of people holding bottles for their chosen riders – so this was a road race after all? Also at the feed, still lying in the middle of the road surrounded by worried onlookers was a casualty of the bunchasaurus just passed – a rider prostate on the ground, the second one I’d seen thus far. Ironically this occurred on what was probably the slowest part of the last 40 km! But as Paul and Phil keep telling us, feed zones are dangerous places.
I had a bit more to eat and drink, and then in ones and twos picked up the odd riders being shelled from the tornado ahead. Occasionally we’d get some flow going but everyone was shagged so our rotations were fairly sloppy. Fresh horses were required, and they arrived, 5-10 minutes later in the form of another huge bunch. Probably “only” 100 strong, this second bunch was too big and powerful to purely represent the dregs of the first bunch. It must have had its own start.
It was about here that the penny dropped (I am a bit slow). The bulk of riders doing the event were doing the 110 km version (about 800 riders in this category), which used a later start. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was the first year that the 160 km version was offered (only 300 riders). Hence, when initially passed I had 55 km in the legs to their 5. The fact that there is a purse for the fastest rider in each age category has effectively reduced the event to that of “road race”, as evidenced by the waves of club jerseys on offer, even though one didn’t need to be licensed or affiliated with a club to enter – a very dangerous mix in my opinion.
In any case, I was still not quite in shape to hold the tail of this 2nd bunch for long, and let it slip by without much fight. Not to worry, however, as 5-10 min later a third bunch came through, probably 70 strong this time, and without quite the venom of the first two. It was like a group handicap, but in reverse order, with the scratch bunch leaving first. Having recovered sufficiently I sat in for another ~20 km. I even found a few people in here I recognized – again, all club racers. I finally got shelled from this lot with about 23 km to go as the last and most pivotal climb got under way – five km at ~5% but with pinches up to 18%.
Once over the climb the last 18 km were a real pleasure, nearly all gently down-hill to the finish, with a nice group of ~10 guys to roll with. Before this little group got going, however, on the descent we had to first pass the sickening sight of another rider not moving in the middle of the road, very nasty head wound, blood everywhere. Police and ambulance vehicles came blazing by in the opposite direction as we worked the flats. It was apparently quite a crash with 20 riders down, 4 of which were carted off to hospital, one by air. Not long after we got through the road was actually closed and all following riders were re-routed via a short-cut to the finish.
Of the three of us doing most of the work on the run in, “Jim” was about 10 years my senior, on a Columbus steel frame and fork (Peter Bundy), 7 speed down-tube shifters, and like me had 150 km in his legs. It was obvious this dude had done a bit of road racing in his time. And obvious that he knew the finish, as once inside the grounds of Mt Panorama he gave us the slip on a short steep rise and managed to hold us off to the pit-lane finish.
After such a grueling experience (4:33 for me), I was quite worried for Anita, in particular, who hates the big bunch experience. Coupled with the dead road I was expecting tears at the end but instead got a smile, and only 25 min after I rolled in. By the time she passed through Blayney at the 50 km mark she had missed the madness of the 110 km heavy hitters, and at the end had been diverted by the above-mentioned crash. Carl looked pretty cooked in the end but did a good time in spite of his mechanical; “Personally, I would take Sydney traffic over some of the riding I saw”. Gerard had also been diverted, but made a point of riding the length of the climb before turning back, just for good measure.
BTW, winner of the 110 was Ben Kersten (former USPro champion and track sprinter), who was paced back on after losing a minute on the last climb. His ride was even more impressive when you consider that his “buildup to this race consisted of nothing more than a half an hour training ride” – more quality journalism from the Western Advocate. Winner of the 160 rolled round in ~4:05!
Will I be back? Not sure I will, to be honest. Although I enjoy the thrill of bunch riding, the sheer size of these bunches really rattled me. Maybe I’m just showing my age; “racing was never this dangerous back in my day”, when I know full well it was probably on par or worse. Having never done an “Etape de Tour” or similar event, maybe this is the norm for cyclosportifs? Maybe 3peaks, which had a completely different friendly vibe, is an anomaly. Yes, rock climbing and mountain biking have their obvious dangers, but it's the randomness of the big-bunch spill, and frequency with which they happen, or nearly happen, and the severity of the consequences, that both leave me cold and rekindle respect for what the pros deal with every race. Maybe my opinion will soften in time, but at this stage of the game I think it would take considerable arm-twisting to get me doing this sort of event again.