It's 7am on a cool and overcast Saturday morning and 13 teams of four riders from far and wide (London, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore and all over Australia) are filing into Rapha Australia's temporary race HQ: A winery – Velo Wines – located 10km north of Tasmania's second largest town Launceston, in the stunning Tamar Valley.
Riders drink in the aroma of early morning coffee and, after a Captain's briefing, the first team set off on the first 160km day (yes it’s a multi-day event) of the Rapha Prestige Launceston. My team – 5th to depart – are in every sense representative of what the RCC is about. All strangers prior to this weekend, we are a 'bits' team assembled of individual RCC members looking for a ride: Michael and Jess, a lovely young couple from Sydney, Jeff Curtes, a cross-riding photographer from Portland, Oregon, and myself, the lone rider from Brisbane.
Away we went and soon enough the tone of the day was set, a front flat for Michael and a few wrong turns in the centre of Launceston had us already picked up by the following team who had the forethought of downloading the route into their Garmin (even if it did differ from the route cards!). Two teams became one as together we left Launceston behind us heading over undulating roads through beautiful vineyards and rolling farmland to Ben Lomond National Park, where we hit the first section of today's 50km worth of gravel.
A winding 13km climb weaving its way through the National Park's towering eucalypts to the base of Jacob’s Ladder, a 1.2km, 12% average gravel climb carved into what seemed a sheer cliff face, leading to the second highest peak in Tasmania, Ben Lomond. Approaching the ladder was like entering a natural amphitheatre of sheer cliffs with the ladder itself staring us smack in the face. I had seen many articles on Jacob’s Ladder, with pictures making it look like a 'dirt Stelvio'. I was really excited to be ticking this one off, but any expectation I had of it was soon blown away, literally.
High, swirling winds howled across the climb, making it even more of a challenge, especially when turning on some of the exposed switchbacks. Adding to that was the loose gravel. In some parts it offered precious little traction that provided many involuntary stops on the way up, and even some walking. I've tackled many gravel roads before and regularly ride a local gravel climb just outside of Brisbane, but none of that could prepare me for how challenging the Ladder was.
On one switchback alone four of us went in completely different directions, with not one rider rounding the corner. It was as tough as it was beautiful and demanded every last drop of energy and concentration to tame this remote and wild climb. Cresting the ladder was ecstasy, however, as if I'd conquered a mighty European Alpine pass. Jacob’s Ladder tested every part of my riding and mental ability, until I came to a startling realisation: I saw the leading team riding back down from the chalet towards me. We then had to to descend this beast. A reprieve and regroup at the ski chalet for lunch and back on our bikes we went. Now the winds had really picked up, howling across the peak, temperature was near freezing and the cloud was rolling in. But of course, that all paled into insignificance with the ladder awaiting. Surprisingly the descent wasn't too bad, gravity was now working with us all and helped with momentum over loose gravel. Soon enough we were at the base of the Ladder. Reports also indicated our Australian Cyclocross champion who was riding that day totally owned the climb and descent leading her team to rename it Lisa Jacob’s Ladder.
The best of the day was now to come, descending back down the long free flowing gravel road we had just come up, 13km of sheer delight, but of course gravel demands your every concentration too and as I find out, a lapse in that and your back wheel soon let's you know, fish tailing around a few corners…
At the end of the gravel a very welcome sight came into view. At least 10 of the 13 teams in the Prestige were waiting at the end of the road to form a giant peloton to make our way home together. After making sure everyone was present we set off as one big group of over 40 riders, displaying all the attributes of a Rapha ride: camaraderie and friendship amongst very like-minded people.
A steep climb and a few wrong turns on the next gravel section quickly broke up the peloton as riders were now strewn all along the route, and then the mechanicals started to hit. 2 flats in 100m for my team, another team flatting as well, then as the following team picked us up, a front wheel buckled and it all started to feel a little like a day on the cobbles. The two Rapha cars were either helping riders change tyres/wheels or trying to track down lost riders.
By now we had a group of seven and then it got all very Belgium-like on us. Long, straight, exposed, open roads with a mighty northerly wind of over 70kmph belting us from the side as we headed west back towards Launceston. The group worked as one with the knowledge the final 15km would take us directly into this fierce wind. Then as we hit Launceston, the rain came – the final garnish on a day that would be undeniably classed as epic. Beer and hot pizza awaited our arrival at Velo Wines after nine hours on the road.
It's fair to say day two was a much more relaxed affair and the weather played its part too: brilliant sunshine and very little wind greeted us in the morning and we set off in four groups for a very scenic 55km up along the gorgeous glistening waters of the Tamar River. This was more a recovery ride, over a gravel climb through the scenic Notley Gorge to be finished with a fantastic 15km descent back to Velo Wines for lunch, presentations and the swapping of many a story from this amazing weekend.
Thirteen teams may have started this weekend but we all seemingly finished as one team with every rider meeting and exceeding the challenges the weekend presented, and many friendships forged on the beautiful roads of Tasmania.