We so enjoyed the laid back atmosphere of the Audax event last year that we booked accom very early in anticipation of doing the full loop in 2016. I managed to persuade Anita that the big 245 km loop was going to be fun and easier than 3peaks in a less competitive format, despite the increased chance of heat being a factor in the January time slot. Ham and Andy were keen as well, but various injuries and ailments intervened, so in the end just Anita and I made the trip.
With the forecast predicting a dry run but temperatures of low-mid 30s, we had no hesitation aiming for the 4 am roll-out. This meant a 3 am start, which sounds daunting, but was actually remarkably easy. First off, by 6:15 pm the previous evening we were chomping down some of the finest pizza known to man at Bastoni's in Myrtleford (what a find!), 20 Km before getting to Bright, which was otherwise heaving with hungry cyclists and their entourages all looking for meals. A full belly early sets it all up. We registered, did some shopping, then headed for digs a Bright Velo.
The hotel room was an old-school besser-brick shoebox, like what you'd expect at Smiggin’s in the 60s (and would have made things interesting had Ham and Andy taken the spare room), but at least the aircon was functioning and, after prepping the bikes and ruminating over kit the lights were off by 9 pm. Neither of us slept very well, not unusual given the factorials that loop through ones mind the night before one of these things. This was about our 4th crappy night in a row, given a run of tropical stinkers in Sydney. The only other thing that made me nervous was a saddle sore (grapes of wrath-style) I'd developed literally two days prior. Should it deliver too much grief before topping out on Hotham we'd have to bail.
After a light breakfast and kitting up we hit the lights and rolled down to the start corral, joining the throng of hundreds of sets of blinking tail lights and reflective jerseys. Gradually the line started to move and before long we were off in an alien pace line that stretched into the night. The long string of lights started breaking up, indicating that if we wanted to do the run up to Harrietville at a decent clip it was time to jump ahead to some snappier pacelines. After leap frogging a few groups we settled mid line into a gaggle that had episodes of fast rolling, but the pair at the head of affairs steadfastly refused to roll it over. I resigned myself to this being a bit of a tedious plod as a cluster of lights up ahead gradually vanished into the blackness.
With Harrietville gained it was pit-stop number one to ditch the inevitable product of morning coffee, which is a bit more of an effort for Anita, who had to remove mandatory reflective vest, gillet, and jersey with bursting pockets before jumping behind a hedge to down the bib and brace, before reassembling it all in the darkness. 5 min tops.
Hints at the magic to come became apparent as we started the lower switchbacks of the 30 km climb to Mt Hotham. The magnificence of a near-full moon winked at us through tree trunks as it sank towards the hills. A flood of riders that passed us at the foot of the climb were gradually reeled in by the pace being set by Anita, which, betrayed by her breathing, I thought to be a little on the hot side, but she was adamant all was OK. We got to The Meg, kissed the valley and the moon good bye, then flipped to the Hotham side of the ridge as the sky started to lighten, with the birds finally starting to break song as the false flat was gained.
With sunup due at 6:18 it was clear that it would hit Hotham before we did, but the temperature was cool-mild, the air dry, and the promise of a stunning day firming as we progressed round the giant horseshoe that is the second half of the climb. Looking up to the left the brightening silhouette of the ridge-line was broken at one point by what looked like a massive cascade of cloud, spilling over a low point separating this valley from the next. We'll have to ride through that, I thought to myself.
To some extent the Hotham climb really starts around 8 km from the top. This is where the false flat runs out and the tractor is engaged for the 10% slopes which gain the ridge-line (middle of the horseshoe), separating the valley you've climbed out of, and whatever mysterious country lies beyond. The anguish one normally experiences on the slopes of CRB hill was, to some extent at least, ameliorated: firstly by the stunning views that initially open up over ones left shoulder of the valley you've just climbed out of, with distant ridges and velvet folds of delicate hues, and Mt Buffalo sitting grandly at the back; and to the right a cloud-covered mystery world, like gazing upon the surface of the ocean, all whilst the first rays of the sun peered over the horizon. Seriously one of the best little cycling wonderments I've experienced.
But it wasn't over yet. Hotham is also tough because in order to gain the final steep kilometers, two small sharp sinuous descents across the ridge-line are required. As we rounded the corner into the first of these, the waterfall of cloud we'd gazed up at from a distance 20 minutes earlier now lay below us, like a huge cup of milk spilling out of a bowl. We plunged in and visibility was immediately reduced to meters, fogging glasses, prompting headlights to be switched back on and brakes to be applied as one tried to read the road. Two minutes later we clawed back out of the soup onto the next ramp.
The top was finally gained with the clock at 6:50, 60 km under the belt, and a long way to go. Mt Hotham village was gone in the blink of an eye, and so too Dinner Plain. Another 10 km down the track we once again punched into the cloud mass we'd been riding above, re-coating us in a fine layer of moisture. This was quite a heavy blanket and would keep the sun at bay for some time. We got passed by a handful of strong riders at this point, but couldn't quite stay with them, in part as Anita was having some shifting and glasses issues, so we just kept chugging at an even pace, finally gaining Omeo and the pit area at approx 8:35. Yummy ice blocks, watermelon and a comfort stop.
Ten minutes later we were rolling again, enjoying the rural atmosphere with the sun starting to shown signs of breaking through. The drag out of Omeo, now expected, wasn't so bad this year, and before we knew it we were across the rickety old bridge and cruising my favourite part of the route, that sinuous 15 km into Anglers Rest. With mostly full bottles we kept rolling, although by this stage it was becoming apparent that Anita's gear problems weren't imaginary - sluggish shifting and limited range along the block - the classic symptoms of the cable fraying inside the lever head. If it snapped here she was screwed. She coaxed the chain onto the biggest sprocket and restricted shifting to big ring or small ring, ready for the massive climb to come, as we limped to WTF corner (approx 10:15 and 140 km completed).
By this stage, of course, the sun had dispensed with the morning fog, and we got to do the Back Of Falls in full sun, but at least we were on the climb nice and early. It's always a hard grind but wasn't too bad, and with the steep section done Anita started to judiciously make use of the rear derailleur again (with much chain coughing). WTF to the village in 2:05.
The pit at Falls Creek is A-grade, with all manner of food and drink on offer. We had a very enjoyable 30 min filling up on a sandwich, watermelon and lamingtons, before cruising the 35 km descent back to Mt Beauty, and into the heat of a hot summers day. Not far now, we took on more water for the grind up Towonga, then hit the afterburners for the final run back to town, and what we'd been dreaming of since Omeo, more ice blocks! We rolled home with the clock at 3:05, just over 11 hours since departing for the 245 km.
Sipping beer in the shade with the band playing whilst catching up with others and listening to war stories is one of the best parts of the experience. Caught up with Ansha and Bec, who had a grand day out on the slopes of Buffalo, a fine effort for people very new to the sport. We wondered where on the course those who'd ticked the 320 km option might now be on a hot afternoon. That's the 7th time I've done the big loop, and even though this was the easiest of those outings for me, I certainly wasn't sitting at the end feeling gypped of another 70 km!
Which is easier, the 3peaks 235 out of Falls or the 245 ACE out of Bright? Hard to say, as they both have pros and cons. The 235 could almost be shortened to 200, given that few pedal strokes are required for the first 35 km. This is true for the 245 as well, but for the later the descent is all about recovery, and every stroke engaged hurts. The flip side is that the two mega climbs are easier to digest in the 245, especially the BOF, which comes much earlier in the day. Tawonga in the heat is cruel, but surely preferable to a similarly timed BOF. The extra 10 km alone means adding another 20 min to the later format, even though it's pan flat. My view is that the 235 format is easier if the aim is to crack out a fast time, especially in the context of a greater proportion of riders aiming to do just that. Better pace lines, less monkeying about etc. But if enjoyment is key, the 245 is better. Easier mega climbs, no stress of descending in an armada, and better party atmosphere at the end. My 2 cents.
BTW, Bright Velo, clunky rooms aside, turned out to be on par with Scafferi (Swedish joint in Mt Beauty), in the breakfast department, and we didn't even have to drive to it. By the time we crawled out of bed (terrific sleep!) we could hear the reassuring sounds of a vibrant cafe adjacent, full of customers, and the walls, like most of those in the rooms, adorned with all manner of cycling memorabilia (the owner, Wayne, was a former pro). Just what the doctor ordered before the long hot drive back to Sydney. We'll be back!