The Tour of Bright has established itself as the premier race in the Victorian Road Series calendar, and attracts over 700 cyclists from across Australia each year. Having competed in the tour every year since 2007, the 2015 edition would be my 9th consecutive participation, with some mixed success during that time including 3 overall victories (B-grade 2010, A-grade 2012, 2013) and numerous stage results.
Stage 1: Stage 1 - The Individual Time Trial
I often find that race reports from time trials can be quite boring, so I'll use this story instead...
It's Friday afternoon, you've knocked off work early and you're looking forward to spending the rest of the day on the couch watching reruns of Seinfeld, when all of a sudden you notice a strange character walking up your driveway to the front door.
It's clear from the clipboard under his arm and formal appearance that this is a door-to-door salesman, coming to peddle another too-good-to-be-true deal. You loathe your encounters with these individuals almost as much as receiving a phone call from a telemarketer. The doorbell rings, and as much as you want to pretend you aren't home, you can't because the sound of Kramer crashing through the front door of Jerry's apartment has just been blasted from the stereo.
You use the time it takes to walk from the couch to the door to consider all of the possible conversations that will take place, and an excuse to politely send the salesman on his way empty handed.
The door opens and without a moment’s hesitation, the smooth talker is doing his thing. You keep calm, nodding at all of the appropriate times, and things seem under control. You even mutter the words "no thanks, I'm not interested." but by this stage you're already in over your head, and your new best friend knows it.
Before you can say "what's a pyramid scheme?" you've signed yourself up to a deal that you still don't understand, and the salesman is halfway down the street with a grin from ear to ear. You want to chase them down the street and undo the damage, but it’s too late. All that's left is for you to stumble back to the couch and attempt to wrap your head around what has just happened.
You sit down as another episode of Seinfeld begins, but you can't bring yourself to laugh anymore. Your throat dries up and you find yourself sweating profusely as you come to terms with the fact that it will be 12 months before your contract expires and you can attempt to rectify your errors.
Your Friday afternoon has been ruined.
You are probably now wondering how this has anything to do with the Tour of Bright, but this is the story of my time trial pacing strategy. Pacing plays a huge part in time trialling when the profile/weather conditions change during the course, which is why reconnaissance before a race is important.
Having placed 1st and 3rd in the two previous tours, I had an idea going into Friday’s race of how I needed to execute my ride. But that plan went out the window when I left the start line and my salesman pitched me the opportunity to catch my 20s man (and pre-race favourite), Brendan Canty. I spent the first part of the stage telling myself that it was important not to go too deep before the climb, but the temptation ahead of me proved too much, and by the first turnaround I had halved the distance between myself and Canty.
It might seem odd to some people that this could be seen as a bad thing, but I knew already that I had signed up to a pace that I couldn't sustain, and I was about to face the harsh reality of this too-good-to-be-true opportunity. The kilometres that followed were painful to experience, as my legs began to feel the effort that I had put in, and in my head I was kicking myself for what I knew was a rookie mistake. I crossed the line, covered in sweat and suffering with a dry throat from the heat, knowing that my chances for the tour were most likely over for another 12 months.
My Friday afternoon had been ruined.
After cooling down on the trainer and driving home to Beechworth (where I could at least enjoy sleeping on my own bed), I had the chance to sit down with a couple of Zooper Doopers and properly assess my situation. I pushed to the end in an attempt to minimise my losses for the day, finishing in 6th with a time of 17:29.09, 36 seconds behind a monstrous performance from Sean Lake. My time itself was better than expected, almost identical to the time which took me to 3rd last year, but left me thinking of what could have been if I had chosen not to open the door.
Results: Stage 1 - Individual Time Trial
1. Sean LAKE 16:53.87
2. Brendan CANTY 17:01.70 +8
3. Alex MORGAN 17:19.09 +26
6. Matt CLARK 17:29.09 +36
Stage 2: The Gaps Loop
With an early start on Saturday morning, the Gaps loop is the longest stage of the Tour at approximately 130km.
Starting in Bright, riders fly down the Great Alpine Road to Ovens, where they turn towards the aptly named 'Happy Valley', and over the Rosewhite Gap. From there riders make their way along the Kiewa Valley Highway through the towns of Tawonga and Mt Beauty to the Bogong Village, before turning back towards Mt Beauty and finishing at the top of the Tawonga Gap. The course profile includes several types of terrain: flat, undulating, climbing, descending - everything is included - which means that the stage is open to any kind of rider if they play their cards right. In fact, a card playing analogy is the best way to explain how stage 2 unfolded.
The pace was on from the gun as it is every year, with several riders hoping that the early break away would bring them success. From this point on I'll refer to them as the Gin Rummy players, because I have no idea how that game is played, just like I have no idea how events transpired in the break away. All I can say is that there appeared to be a lot of them, and they were moving fast.
The riders left in the peloton were either the GC frontrunners - from this point on referred to as Poker players - who had been marked out of the break, or more Gin Rummy players who were too late to the table. Again, I'll emphasise the fact that I don't understand Gin Rummy, and therefore don't understand the tactics that some of the riders in the peloton were using. Instead, I'll just focus on the Poker game that was unfolding.
With the blinds posted as we approached Ovens the game was underway. There was a lot of looking around between the players, as everyone was trying to determine who was holding the best cards. Initially it appeared that Sean Lake and Brendan Canty were holding the lion’s share of the chips after strong performances in the time trial that gave them a slight buffer over the rest of the pack. Sitting back in sixth I could see that my pile of chips was considerably smaller than everyone else, so if I was to have any chance of success I would have no choice but to go all-in.
The chase group at the very bottom of the Tawonga climb with approx 7 km to go. About 20s after this photo, Ben launched his attack with split the bunch to pieces.
The first big move of the day came from Ben Dyball, who decided to throw a few extra chips into the kitty by attacking up the first major climb of the day – the Rosewhite Gap. The pace was high enough to break the previous Strava record, but by the top there was still a considerable sized group, and all of the main contenders seemed happy to cover the wager.
With the bunch then making its way along the Kiewa Valley Highway towards Mt Beauty, we had reached the point in the game called ‘the flop’, where the first cards were revealed by the dealer. Things became desperate for me as I discovered that I had little more than a pair of 6’s in my hand, and I would have to bluff my way through if I was to have any chance. With that, I launched a sneaky attack whilst eating a banana and soon found myself in a strong group of five riders off the front of the main peloton. Also in the break was my teammate Ben Dyball, who had shown enough of his cards during his move up the Rosewhite Gap for me to be confident that he had the ability to win the kitty.
As we reached the feed zone just outside of Mt Beauty there was a merger of three bunches – the bunch of five that I was a part of, a small group of three that launched from the peloton not long after us, and a larger group that was stuck in no-mans-land behind the leading group. The time gap was still over 4:30, so after a brief chat with Ben I decided that the time had arrived to go all-in.
In Poker this move would come when a player is either extremely confident with their hand, or perhaps hoping to bluff all of the other players into thinking that the player holds the winning cards. In this case however, I knew my cards were not going to win from the current situation, but if I could get enough riders working together then perhaps Ben would have a chance if the time gap was small enough at the base of the final climb to the top of Tawonga.
The gap shrunk as we climbed out to the Bogong Village, and as we intercepted the leading group that was on its way back towards Mt Beauty, the fourth dealer card (also known as the turn) was revealed. The lead group had around eight riders left, and in the brief moment that we could see them, it was clear that they were still working well together. It was still touch-and-go as to whether any riders in the chasing group would be able to close the gap in the short distance we had left to the finish. We also had the chance to see what was left of the chasing peloton behind us, with Brendan Canty leading a select group of no more than five riders. It would take a superhuman effort for any of those riders to close the gap, but anything is possible in such hot conditions, and we didn’t want to hang around and see.
Our group hit the final climb still three minutes behind the leaders, and the time had come for the riders to reveal their cards. The heat had taken its toll on many riders in the chasing group, and when Ben Dyball launched his attack at the bottom only three riders were able to hold his wheel – Ben O’Connor (Navitas-Satalyst), Lucas Hamilton & Michael Storer (both VIS).
Of the three riders, O’Connor had been the most visible during the stage, having contributed quite a bit to setting the pace of the group, and due to the fact that he was the next best placed rider on GC behind Dyball. I could only watch as the four riders disappeared up the road, and with my job done for the day I just focused on reaching the finish without overheating.
I’m not sure about what happened with the group of four during the remainder of the climb, but it resulted in one of the fastest ever recorded ascents of the Tawonga Gap, which was quite impressive given the difficult conditions riders were forced to deal with.
After a long day off the front, Sam Hill was rewarded with a narrow victory in his first Tour of Bright, with a fast-finishing Lucas Hamilton falling just short on the line.
Results: Stage 2 - The Gaps Loop
1. Sam HILL 3:24:31
2. Lucas HAMILTON +4
3. Cyrus MONK +25
13. Matt CLARK +2:50
Pioneer data from Stage 2: The Gaps Loop
Elevation gain 1938.7m
Average power 268.9w
Normalised power 306.6w
Max power 1293.0w
Average heart rate 168bpm
Max heart rate 191bpm
Stage 3: The Mt Hotham Ascent
In trying to describe what the final stage of the Tour of Bright is like each year, I immediately think of the comments from stage 2 winner Sam Hill as we rolled out of Bright.
“So the stage is only 55km long? It’ll be over before you know it... Nah, I’ve never ridden up Mt Hotham before.”
This was received with a few laughs from the bunch, no doubt from the more experienced competitors who knew exactly what they were about to face. Sam was right about one thing – at just 55km the final stage seems insignificant when compared to what riders have already overcome the day before. But Sam couldn’t be further from the truth when he assumed it would be over quickly. For fatigued riders the Mt Hotham climb can appear to drag on for an eternity, and things are made worse in the exposed sections when you can look across the vast emptiness towards the upper peaks and see the road continuing to snake upwards. For some, the climb can be broken down – the first part that takes riders to the first KOM at the Meg, the fast section through the middle that lulls riders into a false sense of confidence, the steep pinches that take you up to CRB hill, and then the final saddle which makes sure your legs are full of lactate for the last few kilometres.
See also: Find out how to build you base
Perhaps when Sam said “it’ll be over before you know it” he was referring to my chances of winning the stage, as I seemed to be doing everything I could subconsciously to waste my legs before we reached Harrietville. I found myself at the front of the bunch as we rolled out of Bright, and all around me I could feel the nervous energy of riders hoping to join the early breakaway of the day. For some riders the goal was to chase the sprint points on offer in the opening 25km, whilst others were looking to gain an advantage over the peloton before the road tilted violently to the sky.
I honestly can’t say what I was hoping to achieve from the break, but I quickly found myself searching for it as soon as the flag was dropped. Perhaps the nervous energy from another rider was transferred to me just like a charge of static electricity getting zapped from one person to the next.
Despite the fact that I had dropped out of contention in the race for the General Classification, it seemed that there were too many people who were not content with allowing me to take a head-start into the climb, and so despite my efforts the entire peloton hit the base of the climb together. It was lights-out for me not long after that, as the toll from the efforts in the previous stage (as well as my brain-fade before the climb) caught up with me.
Brendan Canty started the climb like a man on a mission, attacking as soon as he caught sight of the front of the bunch, and by the time the riders reached ‘the Meg’ there was no more than 10 riders left in contact with the leaders. I watched as the lead group slowly edged their way further and further into the distance until they were completely out of sight. The occasional opening in the trees would allow for a brief glance across the mountain range to see what awaited riders, and for the riders like myself, who were not a part of the leading group, it was not a welcome sight.
I was lucky enough to pass a few locals on my way up the climb, receiving updates on the progress of the race ahead. On the second KOM of the stage – CRB hill – the yells indicated that Ben Dyball had a slim lead of 15s over the chasing group, and suddenly I felt myself in a rush to get to the finish to learn the result.
Results: Stage 3 - The Mt Hotham Ascent
1. Ben DYBALL 1:45:49
2. Brendan CANTY +4
3. Lucas HAMILTON +35
18. Matt CLARK +8:10
Pioneer data from Stage 3: The Mt Hotham Ascent
Elevation gain 1741m
Average power 291w
Normalised power 308w
Max power 1076w
Average heart rate 165bpm
Max heart rate 183bpm
With the tour finished, so too is my time with the Avanti Racing Team. The past two seasons have been full of amazing opportunities and experiences that I never thought would be possible. I’d like to say a big thank you to Andrew, Steve, Fenz, Neil, and all of the other staff and riders for the help and support I’ve received during my time in the blue and orange. In season 2016 I will be riding with the Perth-based Satalyst Verve Racing Team, whilst also trying to balance a return to uni following an extended ‘holiday’.