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Melbourne Gentlemen's Race
Words: Christopher Stack | Photos: Steven Caddy and Jim Hsu
A musette, a route card and the best of luck. The rest is up to you; the training, the day’s food and water, and finding your way back if you happen to stray off course. Welcome to the Rapha Gentlemen’s Race, Melbourne, Australia 2013.
The day’s menu read a little like this:
- 22 teams of six riders (each made up of men and women)
- 3,900 meters of vertical gain
- 15km of gravel
- And on the specials board: Lake Mountain and the gravel ascent of the rear of Mt. Donna Buang
Much like when I find myself at a high-end restaurant, it all looks good on the menu but you never really know what you’re getting until its sitting in front of you. Set roughly an hour’s drive from Melbourne’s CBD, in the sleepy town of Gladysdale, the day’s ride would take us through the neighbouring Murrindindi and Yarra Ranges Shires, both of which were ravaged by the fatal ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires of 2009; the highest ever loss of life from bushfires in Australia’s history. Throughout the day we would see the effects of those fires and the countryside’s progress in returning itself back to life.
The beauty of a Rapha Gentlemen’s Race is the variety of the field it attracts, all passionate lovers of the sport that brings us together. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ridden the Giro d’Italia, or are riding 150km for the first time, the six-person team format puts all riders on a level playing field. For some, this would be their longest ride to date and the most climbing they had ever done. Others have arrived fresh off a 1,000km week traversing Victoria’s famed ‘7 Peaks’, some of which we would revisit today.
In the true spirit of the Gentlemen’s Race, the atmosphere on arrival was jovial. Beautiful bikes, plenty of coffee and the smell of embro wafting through the air. There is no prize money up for grabs at the Gentlemen’s Race, just beer and respect. Everybody wants to be here for the same reason, to ride their bikes through beautiful countryside they would have otherwise never ridden.
As the riders trickled out according to their team handicap and the road quickly gained elevation, the excitement of the start soon gave way to the reality of the challenge. Meandering through the lumpy countryside, today’s game would pan out much like the tortoise and the hare. Those that knew what lay ahead proceeded with vigilance. Those that didn’t soon found out. I think it was best not to know, ignorance is bliss after all.
The first major obstacle for the day was climbing Lake Mountain, which stands an impressive 1,480 meters above sea level. From nearby Marysville it’s a pleasant 22km climb. Today, however, we would approach from the Warburton side, which adds an 18km appetiser by the name of Reefton Spur. Join the two bits up and you have a mind-blowing 40km climb. The enduring effects of the bushfires makes for stunning, if at times eerie, surrounds as you gradually climb toward the ski resort of Lake Mountain.
Given the aim of race is to finish with all six riders, a 40km climb can make or break your day. With this is mind, most teams tapped out a steady pace, with those in the hunt for overall honours flying past other teams with military-type precision and formation. Those less encumbered by the clock took the time to look around and, savouring the surrounding scenery, were the main beneficiaries of the day.
The ‘moonscape’ at the summit of Lake Mountain was equally spectacular but it paid not to hang around as the ferocious wind ripped through sweat-soaked undershirts. From here, it was head down for the rewarding fast descent into Marysville, practically the only town this unsupported race would pass through, and which ensured teams were happy to stop for a bite, a coffee and the chance to compare speeds they hit on the run into town. After 90km and 2,100m of climbing, it was a well-earned break.
If only we knew what lay ahead. Riders were content spinning the legs out as the course offered some brief respite. Brief indeed. As the parcours swung left, the road narrowed and it felt like the trees grew taller. We were entering cycling nirvana, the famed Acheron Way. No cars to speak of, single-laneway roads as stands of trees resembling cathedrals towered over us. As the gradient sneakily increased, the surface became rougher and eventually turned to gravel. The social banter soon turned to silence, which then turned to panting. If you picked your line between the ruts and mud you could hold your speed and not worry too much about braking. The dirt was over all too soon. As the riders reached the checkpoint where the road once again became sealed, the adrenalin from the gravel propelled the riders onward and upward, toward the summit of Mt. Donna Buang.
On the home run, riders embraced the flowing descent down the sealed side of the mountain, conserving what if anything, they had left for the final climb of the day. By this stage most teams were now in damage limitation-mode, scratching their way toward the finish line.
Teams limped home in dribs and drabs but with a beer in the hand even before unclipping, the pain of the day was soon forgotten. Teams gathered around and swapped stories. Tales of punctures, of how magic the riding felt, stories of mateship and how stunning the scenery was. As the numbers grew, the cheers for each newly arrived team became louder and louder.
By far the most brutal Rapha Gentlemen’s Race in Australia thus far, most riders had, at some point on the road, questioned why they were doing this to themselves. Within minutes of crossing the line, however, most wanted to know details of the next one.