Pleasure and pain at the 2011 Audax Alpine Classic – Part 1

A while ago I put up some photos from this year's Alpine classic and said I might write something about it all. Well I did, and the writing exercise proved to be a valuable reflection and learning exercise. Here it is:

Backstory

Every year on the Australia day weekend a great festival and one day cycling event runs out of Bright at the foot of the Victorian high country. The Alpine Classic has been running for 25 years and is enjoyed by many cyclists of very different abilities. The various ride options all start and end in Bright and take riders through the mountains and valleys, which are challenging to ride and therefore also deeply rewarding.

Last year with no preparation and having never really ridden a bike for more than a hour at a time, I did the 72km option to the top of Mount Buffalo. It was so incredibly demanding for me, and such a significant learning experience that I wrote a post on it that goes on forever.

This year I'd been cycling consistently across the whole year so I felt comfortable progressing to the 130km option that contained three major climbs. I’d spent some good training time in the Dandenong’s and always embraced the challenge of climbing.

Being new to the sport, essentially what I like is the learning it provides me. Coming from a performance background my tendency is do something like this as well as possible relative to the time I’m prepared to give it. For me, when you spend time at your edge; whatever the application, it all gets back to your learning edge. I've not only learnt a lot about cycling over the last 12 months but more valuably, a lot about myself.

Start of the ride

So the morning of the ride came and I was feeling good about it all. Got up at 5am, and with my mate Darren Welch, rode the 26kms from Terry’s paradise home in Ovens where we were staying (Terry is Darren's uncle), to Bright. The 130km option basically goes past German town, up, over and down the Tawonga gap, through Mt Beauty and Bogong, up to Falls Creek and then returns all the way to Bright. The forecast was for a top of 32 degrees, so not too hot, which it can easily be at this time of year.

The ride officially started and we took off on the flat first 15kms or so. Then the road started rising. At this point I was pretty much riding on my own within the overall group of a few hundred people spread in front and behind me. Darren had gradually pulled away from me (and the whole group for that matter). He wasn’t overtaken for the entire ride, again confirming his very high level of cycling and climbing ability. I’d love to see him in a full time professional program and see how he would compare against the best.

I can’t really remember the first climb other than it was very hard and that I expected to do it easier than I did. One of my tactics for the whole ride was to try and mix up my speeds, gears, positions and attitudes while climbing. My phrase was “ Play with it”. Keep it light, loose and by mixing it up, stimulating. The thing you don’t want to do at any time during longer rides and especially climbs is get yourself locked into a survival cadence and rhythm. It starts to close in on you and becomes a grind. This kills performance potential but also awareness and enjoyment, with the relationship between both these aspects being important. It‘s fine to get into a rhythm you’re happy with but not so effective to fall into one where you’ve got nowhere else to go.

I got to the top, stopped to fill my bottle (which I couldn’t because their was no water there – poor reconnaissance by me ) and then began the 7km decent. Darren said I’d enjoy it and he was right. It was great fun. A lot like surfing. You pick your line, tap into gravity and the decline, rely on feel and see how fast you can go while maintaining control. It’s important to enjoy all descents where possible because they really are a reward for your climbing effort.

From here we rode across the southern end of the Kiewa valley past Mount Beauty into the undulating hills of the Bogong area. At times the beauty of this landscape staggered me. It’s such a great thing to do something physically challenging while at the same time feeling immense gratitude to be doing it in amazing surrounds. For me that combination never gets old. From a performance perspective, this was probably my best part of the ride (apart from the descents which I’m developing in all the time). The undulation suited me I think, and the ratio of shorter more moderate climbs with descents was good. Maybe everyone felt the same way and it was just an easy part of the course.

Climb to Falls Creek

I’d been good at drinking and eating throughout the ride so fuel wasn’t a problem but I was still quite pleased with myself that I remembered to eat something well before the start of the Falls Creek climb. I was feeling composed. About 3 or 4kms into the 13kms up to Falls I started getting a sore back. Lungs were fine, legs no worries, energy good, but low back? Sore. This started gradually building to where I had to mix up my positions regularly just to alleviate the pain. I was tiring and getting sore, and the mind noise was starting. “How much longer? How far have I done on this one? Are there any flat spots? I thought I’d do it a bit easier than this? Should I get off and stretch? C’mon keep going. Shut up and just breathe. Find a rhythm. I can, I am, I can, I am, that’s a nice mantra. Whatever, just do what you’re doing. They’re nice trees.” Blah blah blah. Only some of it was really helping.

Fortunately there were two short downhill bits, which allow me to stretch while on the bike. They really made a difference and after a few more k’s the back pain had gone or I was completely desensitised to it. So now I was at about the 8 km mark of the 13km climb and my challenge was pure fatigue. Not localised or anywhere specific, I was just very tired and uncomfortable. I keep doing my best to “play with it” but this ability was shrinking all the time.

The last 2 k’s were tough. Especially the last kilometre where you could see the destination across the way but due to the slow speeds, it was taking much longer than it looked. I finally got to the top of Falls Creek and got off the bike. I felt very tired. My head was dizzy, I felt weak and I was sore and stiff. Additionally after 10mins I was starting to get cold – the temperature up there being about 13 degrees with a cool breeze. I took my time, stretched my glutes and ate as much food as I could at the station.

My previous scoffing at the other riders descending in sleeves and jackets while I was in a furnace ascending the hill was pure inexperience and wishful thinking. The combination of descending in a constant locked in position on the bike and being in just a short sleeved jersey to break the wind, had me getting cold. Fortunately as we dropped back down toward the valley the air temp was much higher again. Again through the undulating hills and shorter climbs I felt strong and was enjoying it all.

About two k’s from the bottom of the last climb back over Tawonga gap I was challenged significantly. The road was steadily rising from the flats of the Mount Beauty township. Nothing major but just enough of a difference to make you stand up and realise I needed to ratchet up the tension in my system. Where was my energy? Where was my physical and emotional resilience to push into the incline and meet the challenge? I didn’t know then and I don’t know now other than to say I felt tired. Just like little kids do when they’re puffed out. I had to dig deep, but it was put in context by the upcoming 7km climb I knew was going to be the toughest of the day.

....continued in PART 2