Anatomy of a Ride

A week ago, I rode over Mt Hotham. It was a glorious 20 degrees in the alpine village, even though I had begun riding at -2 degrees earlier in the day. There was no wind to speak of despite a forecast of 30km winds. Today, the forecast is for snow and rain, with 50km hour winds. The temperature at the village is about 3 degrees and "feels like" -5. How does a cyclist survive unpredictable weather, long distances, and “brutal climbs?”1

I’m particularly interested in riding “for the rest of us.” Not the kind of riding that gets the young and fit up Mt Hotham in an hour and a half, but the riding that lets “old people” (I’m 68) ride from Bright to Omeo in a day, and then tackle another long climb to Corryong the day after, in relative comfort. This is the anatomy of a ride.

Mt Hotham Road across a valleyLooking across the valley to one of the last climbs on Mt. Hotham

Day One: Bright to Omeo via Mt Hotham. 111km Climb 2240m, descend 1909m.
Day Two: Omeo to Corryong via Staceys Bridge. 145km Climb 1925m, descend 2240m
Day Three: Corryong to Bright via Tangambalanga and Tawonga Gap. 191km. Climb 3130m, descend 3,138

How do “the rest of us” pull this off?

The first secret is that cycling is the most energy efficient form of human transport on the planet.2 The second is that if we can rid ourselves of a bike racing mindset, 80% of that last 190km ride from Corryong to Bright is mindset3, not body. The same is true of the other days. A bike race is about covering the distance in the shortest possible time, including strategies to out fox and wear out other competitors. Touring is about covering a distance comfortably and safely, and that changes everything. Racing the clock, or other riders, the climb up to Mt Hotham must be brutal. When our concern is to get to Omeo comfortably, the Mt Hotham climb is a delight. Its challenge is to ride it so that it is barely harder than the gentle rise from Bright to Harrietville.

The Key Points:

1. The Bike
Most bikes are too highly geared for the rest of us. They work wonderfully with a close cluster of rear cogs which are excellent for providing the most efficient gearing for a flat country sprint. But add in a decent hill, especially a long climb—Hotham is a 30km climb, and this high gearing becomes a liability rather than an asset. For an older person, or anyone deciding to do serious distances, a vital part of a bike purchase (or customisation) is to have very low gearing. I don’t even know what my top gear is! But I know that at the other end I have a 30 tooth front ring and a 46 tooth rear cog.  So, one turn of the pedals causes well less than a full turn of the back wheel.

This means that I don’t have to start working any harder than riding on a flat road until I am climbing a grade greater than 7 to 9 percent. Climbs are rated by the metres climbed in every hundred metres forward, so a seven percent climb (or grade) involves climbing 7 metres per hundred metres forward. My GPS recorded the average grade from Harrietville to the top of Hotham as 5.9%

(Also, with low gearing, weight becomes almost irrelevant, and this makes safety and comfort so much easier.)

2 Safety for when it goes wrong
There is always the obvious safety strategy for any ride: high visibility clothes and lights, using the alternative lower traffic route if there is one, staying  off the highways4 on Friday nights… all that stuff. But what if it begins to snow, or a monumental headwind develops, or something breaks in the middle of the night? Or we get sick, and need to stop.

A night where it's down to minus 5 or below is dangerous. A quiet road like the 55km between Japan Creek and Stacey's Bridge on the way to Corryong may not have any traffic at night.  There are only two or three farm houses, easy to miss in the dark.  Riding without the ability to make an emergency camp is foolhardy.  And one of those thin fold-up reflective foil blankets is not likely to be enough.  So, I made sure to carry a cold weather sleeping bag, tent and sleeping mat.

If it rains, the best strategy, if possible, is to simply ride it out.  That means having an adequate rain jacket, shoe covers, and gloves.  I also have a pair of Helter-Skelters which are water proof three-quarter trousers made by Ground Effect.  Of course, you still get saturated, but on a day of twelve hours rain these items make the windchill survivable. Question: if it's still raining when you have to camp, have you worked out how to set up in the rain and yet keep things dry?

3 Food and Drink
The thing about Australia is that towns are far apart, and often very small.  In one little hamlet the postmistress makes a ham and salad roll every morning. If no one buys it during the morning, she has it for lunch. The shop closes at 2pm (this is very common in small towns) and there is nothing else for 30km in either direction. Some places have the post office, but no food, or have a pub where we'll spend an hour eating a hamburger because of the time it takes for the griller to warm up, and for ingredients to be chopped; that's if the pub even does food beyond beer nuts and chips. If we are dependent on shops for breakfast and tea, then the hours we can ride will be severely limited. And finding, despite what Google said, that said pub or shop is shut on Wednesdays, or permanently, can make life utterly miserable.  Carry at least a couple of emergency meals as well as plenty of energy food for the ride.

Don't just carry enough water to get to the next stop. Carry enough for at least the stop after that, especially if you are not familiar with the road. On my recent 200km loop, not yet summer, I consumed 10 bidons of fluid. That will rise to between 16 and 20 for the same ride during summer.  Summer also means, for me, having a weak electrolyte mix in my water so that I don't become dehydrated.

Don't assume the water in a small town is potable. You may arrive to warnings not to drink the water. (I carry water purification tablets, but hope never to use them.) Some towns inexplicably lock the public toilets at night, so that water is not available. The garage I often stop at heading north has not fitted a tap you need a key to turn on, which is not a nice discovery at 3am. Many small towns don't have reticulated water; you will need to buy it, or buy a beer so that the publican will fill up your water containers. Check Google's satellite maps; many "towns" are a church, or a hall, or a CFS shed. For very long all-night rides, I've taken to ringing the local council office and asking if there is potable 24 hour water.

Don't count on being able to get help at a farm house if things go wrong, or from a passing car. It can be a very long way between farmhouses.  At night, the security system is likely to be an aggressive dog.  I know one farm which has its house and sheds surrounded by two fences. The buildings are inside the inner fence, and the outer fence holds a very nasty longhorn bull. Riding or walking into that at 2am, could be fatal.

Be aware that even for Telstra, mobile coverage maps are aspirational rather than actual. Tell someone where you are going and let them know when you arrive.

Day One: Bright – Omeo via Mt Hotham
I left Bright a few minutes before 5am, so the road was very quiet. I chose it over the bike path which has a lot of leaf and stick litter.  The first 26km to Harrietville is a very gentle climb, good for warming up.  It runs up a flat-bottomed valley until the real climb begins at the end of the main street.

Road to Harrietville from Bright, early morning6.15am, Harrietville Road

I expected to arrive just after the bakery opened, but discovered that it now does not open Monday to Wednesday. I should know better than not to Google opening hours. (Both bakeries were closed by the time I reached Omeo, which was also a change from my last visit.  And closed early; I was there around 3.15.)

The climb to Mt. Hotham begins at the end of Harrietville's main street.  I simply dropped into bottom gear and "walked" the bike up.  It was comfortable sitting between 5 and 10km per hour, and no harder than being on the flat.  A few minutes in you get to "The Meg" which is a short sharp climb at around 14%. If I'd been trying to hold a higher speed, then The Meg would have hurt.  In the event, it was merely two or three minutes slightly harder work.  This pattern continues all the way up to Hotham.

There are some much longer steep climbs near the summit, but the same principle applies. It is all eminently rideable with a three-day touring load if the gearing is right, and if we don't panic and try too hard. 

There is actually no law against getting off and walking the steep pinches, but properly geared, it's actually easier to ride! What does help on a climb like this is making time to take a few photos or, perhaps every third drink, stopping the bike for a few moments.  I have my GPS remind me to suck on a bidon every ten minutes, just a mouthful or two, and that little stop, especially later in the day, makes quite a difference.

Mt Hotham climb showing fire damage  There have been some massive fires through this area.  The road ahead can be seen to the right of the photo.

Mt Hotham Road with hi-viz snow poles; Keep Right! Above the snow line there are warning poles; stay to the right! By this time there was a lot of snow heaped up from snow ploughs in any patches of shade.

Looking back to the road we have covered Looking back through fire damage, you can see the road behind.

Touring bike standing in snowThe bike is standing on its own in the snow. There would be no riding through snow even this shallow.

Mountain Road getting steep

Closer to the summit Not quite at the summit, looking roughly north west.

Omeo and Mt Kosciuszko In this photo Omeo sits in the valley and Mt Kosciuszko is just visible as a snow cap in the middle horizon.

Mt Kosciuszko

On Day One, I was comfortably in Omeo in just 10¼ hours, taking time to fill up with water at Mt Hotham, and eat lunch there. Hotham to Omeo is mostly downhill, and a glorious ride.  There is a good pub and some motel accommodation. I managed to buy frozen pasties at the deli, which I used for lunch on the way to Corryong.

Map of the ride

 Go to Day Two



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