Sweat in my eyes

The journey up Mount Hotham is a physical and emotional battle for cyclist, Daniel Young.
Image by Greg Mac and kindly supplied by the Audax Alpine Classic.

Image by Greg Mac and kindly supplied by the Audax Alpine Classic.

 

It’s almost like a moonscape up here. I’m sure it’s pretty in winter, but not today. I pull to the side of the road and take it all in: pale, almost colourless windswept grass, craggy rocks and dead trees sticking out of the ground like a dead person’s fingers. No flesh, just the bones. The tree-trunks are completely bare and bleached white by the sun in this thin mountain air. They all slant in the same direction, at a forty-five degree angle to the ground. Presumably they’d been weighed down with snow at some point, and now they look dead. This is Mt Hotham in summer.

“We made it!” Mark pulls along beside me, unclipping from his pedals for a moment’s rest. He looks tired, but I know he’s managed the climb better than I have. His tone sounds conciliatory, as if he wants to leave our bickering back down on the preceding slopes.“Nah. Still a few more Ks to go, and I heard it’s the hardest bit.” I might have taken some joy in telling him this if I wasn’t dreading this final section so much—I’d done my research. We were facing a final 1.5 km push of steep gradient before we reached the true summit at the ski resort. “They call it the Diamantina.”

“Damn.” He clips back in and we coast down the hill as fast as we can, saving our legs for another round of pain and trying to maximise our momentum, which doesn’t take us very far once the road begins to tilt skyward again. This final section would not be so bad on its own, but we’ve been climbing for nearly 30 km already and I’m now running on empty.

I feel defeated, it would be wrong to give up now. I could walk, but cycling shoes are not made for walking, especially not on a hard road like this; it would destroy the plastic cleats, along with my pride. Just one leg after the other, that’s all it takes. Keep on pushing. I wish I had chosen a friendlier gear ratio before we entered this event. Road bikes are often sold with the same gearing that’s used in professional racing. I had swapped my rear cog, resulting in one easier gear, but it wasn’t enough. A mountain bike rider would be able to easily shift gears and continue spinning up a climb like this. Road bikes require more leg power, but if you can manage that, they also get you there much faster.

My legs, however, are no longer in a state to provide much power. Come on, just one leg after the other. The sweat drips into my eyes, stinging. The blood pumps through my veins and it feels like fire; or acid. The pain is everywhere, not just in my legs.

Sometimes on a climb you can embrace the monotony, allow your mind to drift and forget about the pain. You look down at the road passing by underneath you instead of looking up to see how much further there is to go; the illusion is that you are moving faster, and when you finally do look up it can be surprising how little of the climb remains. I try this, looking down and letting the rhythm keep me moving as my thoughts tune out.

I think back to my childhood. I’m ten years old and Dad has taken me out cycling in the rolling suburban hills of Brisbane. The sticky green heat surrounds me, clinging to my skin. I’m a scrawny child and haven’t yet developed the leg muscles needed to make it up the hills, so I complain loudly, ready to give up and walk instead. Yes, I was a sook. But Dad cycles along beside me, hand on my back, helping me out like a strong tailwind.

“C’mon son—you can do it.”

I can do it. If only he could see me now. He would be so proud. I can do it.

 

The ride we’re doing is called the Audax Alpine Challenge. It’s not a race; Audax is a global organisation that specialises in long distance cycling for the sake of personal achievement, favouring reliability and consistency over pure speed. It’s a 250 km ride, starting from the charming town of Bright, over Mt Hotham to Omeo, and then returning via the back of Falls Creek.

“250 Ks? Mark, I can’t do that. You can’t do that. We’re not that fit any more. Are you insane?” We’ve been cycling together for ten years now, and at times we’ve been very fit, but it’s difficult to maintain that level while working sedentary office jobs.“They have a two day version,” he told me. “It’s called the Alpine Raid. We’ll ride 125 km, stay the night in Omeo, then return the next day. We can do it if we train.”

And so we trained.

In the months before the event, we spent almost every Saturday and Sunday on the roads, trying to regain our fitness. Of course, we don’t live in Alpine Victoria, so our training never quite reaches the same scale as the event itself, but we prepare as best we can.

The day begins early, with a big breakfast and a leisurely 25 km ride on the flat road from Bright to Harrietville. The alpine scenery is magnificent; the mountains loom over us with a forbidding beauty. One of the true joys of cycling lies in seeing and experiencing the terrain in a way that isn’t possible in a car, but covering much more distance than you can walking. Every up, every down, every bump; the trees, the birds, the sunlight and the breeze. Even the occasional echidna hiding in the bushes if you’re lucky. It’s a beautiful way to experience this part of Australia.

I have some idea of what lies ahead. Mt Hotham is a beast; the longest and toughest climb we’ve ever done. The town of Harrietville is at 500 metres above sea level, and from this point the climb is a distance of 30 km with an average gradient of 4.2%, rising to an altitude of over 1800 metres. The low average gradient figure belies the true challenge, with steep sections that kick up to 10% or more. That’s what lies ahead; but for now I’m excited and nervous to be starting the climb.

The road turns skyward. Mark and I ride together, keeping a steady rhythm and enjoying the peaceful bush cover that surrounds us. Because we’re in a small group doing the two day ride, the roads are relatively empty on this first day. The climbing is tough in some sections, as the road curves its way through the trees with hairpin bends, but our legs are fresh, our bellies are full, and our mood is good.

Until, after 5 km of steady climbing, we reach The Meg. Who names these climbs? We ride up to the official sign at the side of the road ‘THE MEG - ENGAGE LOW GEAR’; above these words is a cute picture of a car climbing a steep incline. If only we had a car.

“Here we go.” I look at Mark as we take a breather and drink some water.

“Here we go. So far so good, but it looks like we’re about to hit heartbreak hill.”

He’s right. We continue cycling as the road bends around to the left. We turn the corner with trepidation and it feels like we’ve hit a wall. The Meg is a short section of road, only around 300 metres at over 10% gradient. It doesn’t sound like far, and it’s not impossibly steep: suburban Sydney and Brisbane streets abound with short sharp climbs like this. But when you’ve already been climbing for half an hour without any flat or downhill sections for respite, a sudden increase in gradient like this is heartbreaking. It breaks your equilibrium.

We battle our way up The Meg, climbing out of the saddle and using the weight of our bodies to force our legs around and around. Standing on the pedals breaks the routine and uses different leg muscles, in addition to the arms and upper body, giving the thighs a rest. However, cycling out of the saddle also requires more cardio effort and it’s easy for your heart rate to get out of control if you aren’t careful. Mountain cycling is all about keeping a steady rhythm. If your heart rate gets too high it can be difficult to recover without having to stop and rest. It’s a delicate balance. We use heart rate monitors to help with this; but when the road kicks up too steeply, there’s not much you can do but struggle your way up until the gradient eases off.

Thankfully, The Meg doesn’t last too long, but it does leave us feeling battered. There are only so many times I can do this before I crack. The sweat has been dripping off my forehead and into my eyes; they begin to sting.

Following The Meg, the climb is relatively easy, with wide corners, a slight gradient, and a pleasing mixture of cool shade and dappled sunlight from the tree cover above. Occasionally we’re treated to sweeping views of the landscape below, showing the significant altitude we’ve gained.

“C’mon, let’s pick up the pace,” Mark says, wanting to push things a bit harder now that the gradient has eased off.

“I can’t.” I know he’s fitter than I am and although I’m enjoying this section, I’m at my limit and don’t want to push beyond that. I also know that there is much worse to come.

The gradient picks up a little and we’re turning a hairpin bend as I lose momentum, slowing down to a crawl. We’re 20 km into the climb, and it’s been nearly two hours since we started, with little relief. Mark comes dangerously close to my back wheel.

“Mush! Mush! Outta the way!”

I become incensed. I’m not a husky! What is his problem?

“You go ahead then. See you at the top.” Stuff him.

“Don’t be like that.”

I would rather have him go ahead without me than feel pressured to ride faster, but I put my head down, focusing on the dark asphalt, and remain quiet. It’s going to be a long two days, and we need to look out for each other. We ride on, not speaking, but keeping pace.

Although we’re still climbing, the gradient is manageable and this middle section of the ride is quite pleasant, so I’m in surprisingly good spirits after 23 km. Only 7 km to go. Easy!

But no, nothing is ever easy. The trees begin to thin out and the landscape changes. It feels like we’re already on top of the mountain. There are some undulating sections—our first chance to coast downhill since the climb started a few hours ago. It’s briefly enjoyable, but pointless, as each downhill section simply means that we have a larger corresponding uphill section before we reach the summit.

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2 Responses to “Sweat in my eyes”

  1. abbie foxton
    abbie foxton
    Aug 1, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    I could imagine the additional conversations you must have had inside your mind to conquer such a grueling climb – pleasure and pain conflicted. Really enjoyed your piece.

    • Daniel Young
      Daniel Young
      Aug 2, 2013 at 8:30 am #

      Thanks Abbie, glad you enjoyed it 🙂

      You bet, my internal monologue on that ride had to be censored out of this piece. Too much cursing!

      I’m glad I did it though, and am thinking about 2014… (if I can stop writing and get riding again).

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