The MTB Report Dec 2012 - A Day Out In Victoria

Part One: Up

A few weekends ago, I received and invite from my good mate James Taylor (no relation) to go visit him in Bright, VIC, where he's been living for a while as a paragliding, bike-riding, rock-climbing, beer drinking dropout bum. And so it transpired that on Friday 7th December I found myself in a cab on the way to the airport, in thick Sydney traffic, with my bike in a box and a small bag of stuff for carry-on luggage, bound for Albury and thence to Bright.

James's housemates are deeply involved with the Bright Brewery, so obviously the first stop was beer. Then some more beer. Then some more beer, a visit to the supermarket, some steak, some rice and a bottle of quite nice red wine (among other things). The original plan for the next day had been to catch a minibus at 8am to the top of nearby Mount Hotham, and ride down a 45km-ish trail with a fairly big group of local mountain bikers.

I, of course, had other ideas. My plan was to ride up Mount Hotham and meet the mountain bikers at the top, then accompany them down. At 2am through a haze of alcohol this seemed like a pretty mad and barely feasible idea to my companions, who expressed guarded admiration for the idea, but open cynicism about its possiblity. Frankly, we were all a bit drunk.

Well, at 4am my phone nudged me into wakefulness, barely hydrated, probably still tanked and reluctant to drag myself out of bed. By 4:30am I was sufficiently awake to get my contact lenses in, and get ready to go. At 5:17am, after a caffeinated energy gel for breakfast, I started my timer and rolled out, bound for Bright town centre, the Great Alpine Road, Harrietville and the Hors Catégorie Mount Hotham climb.

Now, for those unfamiliar, there are five levels of categorised climbs in road cycling. Category four is the 'easiest', leading to category 1 and above that, the toughest of the tough, Hors catégorie. This is no picnic. But it's rather special, and I like riding uphill and frankly I wasn't going to spend 24 hours in Bright without riding up something.

And so it was that, after a short break to rectify a misbehaving contact lens (dehydration, natch) I completed the 20km warmup ride to Harrietville and embarked on the climb proper.

The Mount Hotham climb can be seen, really as three sections rolled into one, each of roughly 10km or so distance. The first is a fantastic tree-lined, sweeping climb including a famous 9-10% section called The Meg. It was on The Meg that I caught sight of another rider, also on a mountain bike. It took perhaps a kilometre to haul the rider in, but once I did, and we introduced each other (though I've rather shamefully forgotten her name), discovered we were both meeting the same group at the top, and rode together for the middle section of the mountain, a ~9km "false flat", which gave a nice respite in the level of effort required. We chatted bikes, racing, the Tour of Bright which had just got through - and in which my companion raced - the local area, the concept of the tree change and the trail we'd be riding later.

Soon though, the "Steep Climb Engage Low Gear" sign loomed ahead of us, signalling the final 11km of proper climbing, and I kicked into climbing mode. Slightly rudely, I dropped my erstwhile companion in the first km. It wasn't deliberate, I just have a tendency to attack climbs, and not pay full attention to what's going on around me. Still, it was nice to open the throttle a bit after what was a fairly relaxed trundle through the middle section.

Above the treeline, I came to CRB Hill, the second properly serious climbing section, a bit over a km at 10% or so. It was now really clear that I was up on a proper mountain, as the trees were gone and the road snakes along the ridge line, with huge vistas to the left and right. A quick downhill after Little Baldy hill was a nice wind-in-the-hair thrash before the last big section, the Diamantina.

Only 1.4km of 9% climbing, and the difficulties were over. To be honest, I'd forgotten all about the Diamantina, and only realised it was there when I was on it, and to be more honest, I started to suffer a bit, but I kept turning the pedals and shortly, mercifully, felt the gradient dip back to something sensible, then downhill to the Ski Bridge at Mount Hotham Resort.

The clock ticked over at 2:04 from when I hit the "lap" button, and Strava afterwards showed 2:01:25 for the 29.6km climb. Respectable for a guy on a mountain bike, though A grade road racers could *almost* give me a head start at Harrietville and race me to the top from Bright. The Climbing Cyclist blog says anything under 2 hours for the Hotham climb itself is respectable for a road rider, so I'm not displeased, considering I did it on a ~12kg full-suspension MTB with a hangover.

Part Two: Down

 I was earlier than expected to Hotham, and wandered around looking in vain for somewhere that might sell me coffee. In the end I settled for an energy bar and some water, and awaited the arrival of James and his coach party. I didn't have to wait for long. My phone buzzed (yes, I had reception). James and group were waiting at the Reservoir, a km or two back along the road at the highest point.

Meaning I had to ride uphill again. Bollocks.

 Oh well, a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. I pedalled my way back to the reservoir and found a group of about twenty riders waiting for me, including James. Greetings were done, a group photo was had and after much disarray, we set off, down a rocky firetrail and into the wilds.

The group was very much a mixed-ability crowd, and the first part of the ride included lots of stops for food, chats, local history and general procrastination while other riders caught up. The faster riders were positively revelling in the conditions, but James and I were itching to get back - to make my flight I'd have to be back in Bright at around 2pm to make the airport at around 4pm. This was very much a flying visit and a relaxed day's trundling in the mountains wasn't on the agenda. As beautiful as the surroundings were, and as great as the trail was to ride, we had a deadline.

Past the old Red Robin gold mine, we rode hard. A little too hard, as in my case a rear puncture dropped me from the front of the group to near the back, but soon we all regrouped and took stock. While our average speed based on moving time was good, the breaks were putting us well below 10km/h. Some quick mental arithmetic, and the consideration that there was some steep climbing ahead with over 30km to go, meant we wouldn't make it in time if we stayed with the group. In fact, we'd be two hours or more late.

Negotiations were begun. The group contained about three or four riders who knew the route - and we certainly didn't. One of these key riders would scoot ahead with me and James as we split the group, get us past the trickier routefinding, and then we'd put the hammer down for Bright. Game on.

We started to hoover up the trail, James and I sharing leads and our guide keeping reasonably up to pace. We stopped to fill water bottles from an alpine stream, had one dodgy moment of routefinding uncertainty, and eventually found our turnoff, a steep plunge to the valley bottom, followed by a big climb up onto the opposite ridge. We parted ways with our intrepid guide and commenced on the final leg. The average speed had climbed up back over 15km/h thanks to some fast sweeping trail and some attacking riding on the pinch climbs. Things were looking good.

As it turns out, some of the slowest riding of the day followed. Steep, winding and rocky, a barely-maintained trail from the river, over fallen logs and snakes, in rising heat, with dwindling water. My legs were starting to really feel the miles and James, while much more fresh, wasn't appreciating the track conditions. Still, the setting was amazing, steep-sided alpine valleys, native bush, wildlife, the river below, clear sky above and only the occasional *thunk* of a gearchange to disturb the peace.

We eventually reached the highest point of the climbing, at a three-way junction. Our instructions had probably been quite clear when first imparted, but now neither of us were sure. We were high up on the valley side, with a downhill, a steep uphill or an even steeper uphill ahead. The downhill looked like the only track that underwent any regular use, so we headed down, with some slight trepidation, until another junction where we found 3G reception. Some rapid and dirty navigational work determined we were nearly home, with both arms of the junction dropping us out at roughly the same place at Freeburgh, near Bright. It was approaching 1pm.

From here, fast, sweeping downhills were the order of the day and the average speed climbed again. There were creek crossings and waterbars and some really joyous riding, even taking into account a crash in a river crossing when, unsighted, I hit a dodgy rock midstream and crashed, laughing, headfirst into the freezing water. All too soon, tarmac appeared, houses started to peek through the trees, and we rejoined civilisation and all that comes with it. Some Team TT work sharing leads into a headwind got us back to Bright in time to pack up the bike, take stock of the day, and ship out for the airport. I was over 100km for the day, we'd taken 4:26:17 from the top of Mount Hotham (of which 3:05 was spent actually moving) and as it turned out I'd scored five Strava trophies for climbs on the way back.

All that remained was to hoof it to the airport, check in the bike, shake hands with James for a fantastic day in the Alps and cram down a quick cider before boarding.

And the day was over. Soon I was back in a taxi in Sydney traffic, bookending a fantastic 24 hours away, and a high point of my riding year. I'd recommend it to anyone, but I'd also say: give yourself a bit more time than I did.


posted @ Thursday, December 20, 2012 5:10 PM

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