Sunday 11th January 2015 – Melbourne, Australia
A 4:45am start is not how most people choose to begin a Sunday morning. Nevertheless, there was no shortage of enthusiasm as riders gathered in the Melbourne CBD at just that time on Sunday 11th January 2015. The reason? To ride 130km together to Buninyong for the Australian Men’s Road Race National Championship.
The morning air, despite the bleak forecast, was still, and, importantly, rain-free. Late night revellers occupied the streets. Transfer caps and patches were distributed, bananas eaten and bags off-loaded to the support vehicles. A last-minute emergency tyre change was effected.
Riders discussed predictions for the race. Would Cadel and Richie dominate? How long would friends, courageously racing against the pros, last? Would it rain? How hard would the Buninyong climb – which the race ascends a staggering 18 times – prove to be?
Others nervously sought reassurance regarding the intended route to the race. Gravel sectors had been omitted, given the torrential rain in the days preceding the ride. Glenmore Road or ‘Cut Hill’, infamous for its 20%-plus pinches and prominent inclusion in the “Hell of the West” club-level race, was incorporated. “I hope you brought your 28 cog” was a phrase quickly bandied around.
Following a quick briefing and introduction of ride leaders, the group departed, swiftly making its way out of the city, through Melbourne’s western suburbs and towards Ballarat. It was from Ballarat that we would take the train on our return journey to Melbourne, thus making the day a true Rapha Transfer Ride, but with the sun yet to rise, rabbits darted alongside the bike path used to circumvent the freight roads.
At the first comfort stop in Werribee, riders received home-made “seedy bars” and water, and relished the opportunity for a nature break given the extra-early start.
Conditions were ideal, the rain never came, and – extraordinarily – there was no headwind; the Melbourne to Ballarat handicap, currently in its 105th year, is renowned for its ferocious head and crosswinds, which have resulted in some racers vowing to never race it again.
As the bunch traversed the wide-open plains of Western Melbourne, friendships and degrees of separation were established: “I went to school with your sister-in-law”; “that’s the wheelset I manufacture – thanks for riding our wheels and wearing our kit”; “we ride together on the 6am loop.”
Traffic signs warned ‘Very Steep Climb’ as far as 13km in advance of the Glenmore Road climb – those who had previously ridden or raced knew what was approaching, while others were blissfully unaware. The group splintered. Those feeling strong sought to race to the summit, while those not feeling so brave either walked or made it harder for themselves by mistakenly ‘cutting’ the corner, thus encountering gradients exceeding 20%.
Once over the climb, a second rest point was relished. Jackets were adorned, as the wind had increased and cooled significantly. More seedy bars and cans of Coke were consumed. There was a rider or two in the support vehicles, either for express delivery to official feed-zone duties (Road Race not Transfer Ride) or having had enough on the bike for one day.
Four or so hours later, having collected their bags from the support vehicles, the riders arrived at the base of Mt Buninyong. They were again greeted by an air of anticipation. The race had commenced, traffic management blocked the road and police cars warned of approaching cyclists. It was on and the race was approaching us for the first ascent of the Buninyong KOM. Screams of encouragement, photographs and conversations regarding a need for coffee from the H-Van, dominated proceedings.
The peloton, containing one or two riders in Rapha Pro Team kit, roared past.
Once the team cars had passed, the group was permitted onto the climb, where riders sought their own glory, charging up the KOM climb a few minutes behind the race. Passionate fans lined the climb. BBQs, deckchairs, cowbells (and a Teletubby) contributed to the atmosphere.
Towards the summit of the KOM, the Rapha H-Van, tent and DJ awaited. Transfer caps were again distributed, creating a sea of green on the climb. Then the sirens, the police cars and the impending peloton were back, charging up the climb once more.