This year we numbered 8; Chris, Ham, Anita, Andrew, and moi, as well as a couple of debutants, Rich and Rob. The eighth was GKs substitute, Chris from Melbs.
The forecast was spot on. Cold morning, some afternoon heat, and northlerly winds in the afternoon. At the conclusion, most agreed conditions were slightly tougher than last year.
Of all the starts, this one was easily the coldest, maybe 5-8 C as we assembled in the start corral. Having started dead last in episode 5, we opted for a mid-field entrance, with hopes of surfing quicker bunches throughout the day. Of course this meant a lot of standing round in icy air. A smart move in principle, but it made for the most nerve-wracking opening descent of all editions, despite super dry conditions and a perfect surface which looked like it had been leaf-blown from top to bottom. Whilst in past years rider density soon seemed to thin out, this year it was chockablock all the way down.
As usual, Ham, Anita and I descended the whole shebang together. Anita had one nervous moment, momentarily sliding the rear on a crush point. I was pretty cold, but not as chilled as one rider just ahead, whose arms and front wheel were shimmying almost uncontrollably the whole way down. How he had the nerve to keep letting the bike run was beyond me. With riders coming from everywhere it became easier to monitor the situation from behind than to try to have us all squeeze past.
At Mt Beauty I bade Ham and Anita farewell before finally warming up on the lower slopes of Tawonga. About half a K in I unzipped gillet and jersey only to have my sunnies spill onto the road under me. Miraculously, the swarm of riders following didn't crush them. I recovered glasses, removed remaining sheets of newspaper and was off again. Not my quickest time up Tawonga (25 min) but I've typically burnt too hot on this climb in the past.
A quartet of us worked the descent. At Germantown we latched onto the tail of a group the size of the Tour de France for the valley road to Harrietville. I made a point of not doing a single turn on this stretch. A few Ks before the climb I slid to the back and chugged the coffee milk I'd lugged over Tawonga. As we hit the climb (clock at 2:12, same split as last year) I knew a pee stop was inevitable, so I pulled to the side a few corners later.
The climb up Hotham felt easier than in past years, perhaps aided by the lovely cool conditions and almost total lack of breeze. The views from the summit ridges were truly spectacular.
Dinner plain. In at 4:07, out at 4:10. I was hoping that I'd fall in with a solid group for the stretch to Omeo, but it took 20 km for a bunch of 10-15 to aggregate. There was some serious horsepower present, but getting it to coordinate was like herding cats. Maybe the terrain is just too lumpy for a quality paceline to stick, given the relative strengths of differently sized riders. But despite this, on aggregate we were still moving at a reasonable clip.
As Omeo approached I still had a bottle up my sleeve (unlike last year), so had the option of rolling on to Anglers (30 km later). But I'd basically decided to be conservative and stick with the script of pitting at Omeo as I'd done in the past. As I pulled over the rest of the group rolled through en mass. It was perhaps my only tactical blunder of the day. I wasn't overly concerned at the time as I was sure another group would be just behind and act similarly, but it never came.
Hence, I was by my lonesome for the next 15 clicks into a strengthening headwind, with plenty of time to contemplate my decision. Just after the rickety bridge a rider finally caught me and we picked up a third. It was nice to have two others to share the lovely wiggly run up to Anglers where my companions pitted. Still with a full bottle, I rolled through. At this stage I suspected I was comfortably ahead of last years effort so was content to spin it easy and rest the legs, taking a pee stop a few Ks before WTF corner, which I hit with the clock on 6:48, 10 min up on last year.
The grind up the back of falls was the easiest I've done it (thank you semi-compact!) despite cramp forcing a temporary dismount and hobbling progress for the last 2 km before the Trapyard feed. I would have been in serious trouble had it hit 2 km earlier where the grade is nastier. Just before cramping, some 30 minutes into the climb, my phone chimed, alerting me to the fact that perhaps Anita was also on the climb. Surely not? If true, she was absolutely motoring!
From Trapyard to the end I was essentially by myself, but the last few uphill undulations flew by and all of a sudden the lake appeared below. For a few moments I thought that cracking 8:40 might be a possibility, but the final push into the headwind put paid to that. Rolled home in 8:43, a couple of minutes quicker than the 8:45 I'd had my sights on, so I was pretty happy to have nailed my mark.
I settled into basking in the sun on the grass, devouring a few sausage sandwiches as the clock ticked by and the music flowed. It's one of the lovely parts of the event. All the relieved faces emerging from the timing tent. All the stories of suffering, headwinds, camaraderie, triumph or just plain relief.
Next to emerge was Andrew in 9:32. I predicted he'd go under 9:30, but in the last 20 clicks he became trapped in an armada of riders on 9:30 schedule, with little urgency to rally for a blistering finish. This added to the injury of having his legs feeling blocked for the first 160 km. Sometimes there's just not much you can do if the legs don’t feel great. Still, he looked content to have done a considerable PB, and noted that Anita was doing an "extraordinary" ride, and shouldn't be too far back.
Sure enough, 7 minutes later a very happy looking Mudge arrive (9:39). Having done 10:25 last year her goal was to sneak under 10. See what peeing in the bushes can get you! Actually it's no substitute for fitness, and she had plenty of that this year after a solid preparation, although she was pedaling squares from WTF corner to home. That's giving it all.
Now we were all a little worried for the Ham. He had a shocker with cramps last year, and this year Lisa upped the ante, suggesting for him not to bother coming home unless he went under 10. I'd offered him my spare room (which is not without its charms), but I'm guessing a mixture of ambition and expectation were weighing on his mind. The last meal was prepared exactly as he wanted it. He was leaving nothing to chance. He finally emerged from the tent with a cheeky smile, brandishing a slip of paper that read 9:59:51!. Must have been an agonising final 10 Kms!
Where was Chris? I'd not seen him since breakfast, but he eventually appeared with a satisfied grin and a piece of paper showing 8:41 flat (70th outright!). Awesome ride and massive PB. I suggested to Kev that he might get the better of me this year, on the back of regular racing (nothing prepares you like racing) and consistently impressive endurance sessions on the M7. Nice to see him put in a ride that I think most of us suspected he was capable of. He and I basically did identical splits on Tawonga and Hotham, but he is the superior descender and a monster on the flat. Who knows what he'll achieve next year ; ). Hats off Chris!
Three of our party were still on course. The debutants, and Melbs Chris, who'd enthusiastically taken GK’s entry but on very little training. Rob and Chris found themselves riding much of the back half together, finishing a monster day in approx 12 and a half hours. Rich covered the 160 km to Omeo before being cruelly cut by the organisers, upon which commenced another endurance event entirely; the round-the-world voyage of the sag wagon to re-gain the village. Despite what must have been a disappointing conclusion for Rich, it was good to see him, as well as Rob and Chris back safe, and still capable of enjoying a meal and a few beers at the pub that night.
As to next year? I won’t say “never again”, as that’s almost certainly asking for trouble. But even the raccoon has done 5 laps now, and must be getting sick of the same roads. Part of me would like the big lap tradition to continue, but part of me wants to perhaps explore some different events or formats. Time will tell.