Chain Reaction Stage 5
Today was almost the perfect day on the bike.
The 30km climb from Harrietville to Mt Hotham is the longest in Australia. It’s not the steepest, it’s not the hardest, it’s not the most technical or difficult, but in my opinion, it’s the best. It has everything. Add to that a perfect day’s weather, a peloton full of anticipation for the climb and the best support crew available, and you have all the ingredients for cycling perfection.
We rode out of Bright just after 7am. It was cold; 8 degrees. The morning mist hung like an Instagram or Snapchat filter but slowly cleared, on cue, as we rode towards Harrietville, revealing the true majesty of the valley and its surrounding peaks. In truth, it’s a 52km climb to the top of Mt Hotham from Bright. The first 22km, to Harrietville, is only a 1% or 2% gradient but just enough to remind riders that the first half of the day is all uphill.
We passed the reservoir outside Bright, billowing steam like an Icelandic caldera. You could hear the birds chirping their morning songs. The peloton snaked past Smoko and Freeburgh to the base of the mountain, where Tim Chadd let us up in a staggered start. There’s a good reason for that. The fast riders would climb the 30km to the top in 90 minutes, the slower “grupetto” riders at the back taking a full hour longer than that. This is one of the beauties of bunch cycling, well organised. It allows for a broad range of talent and fitness to extract maximum enjoyment, and a sense of communal achievement, from the same ride done at very different speeds.
Each rider makes and meets his or her own personal challenge. The climb starts steep, a jolt to the system. It soon flattens a bit, allowing for chat, as it curls its way up the lower foothills north of the peak. Then suddenly, The Meg, a 400m pinch of 15%. Few talk as they tackle that wall. At the end, you round a corner and see all the way to the top, 25kms away. In that, Mt Hotham is unlike many climbs in Australia, which reveal themselves corner by corner, never hinting at the summit until near the end of the climb. Mt Hotham is different. You can see the pain and discomfort you’ll endure to get to the top up to two hours before you get there, high up in the sky. Because of the topography, the road to the top is a huge horseshoe. This life member of the grupetto could see the leaders on the other side of the valley, bobbing their way up like distant ants.
The last time I was here, on a Chain Reaction ride in 2013, recent fires had reduced much of the bush to cinders. There are still reminders of that inferno: dead snow gums, deepest black, like massive liquorice sticks poking up from the valley slopes.
Because the landscape is so wide open you can see the steep ramps up the sides of the mountain well before they burn your legs, CRB Hill chief among them. You tell yourself they won’t burn, but they do, every time. Many times today I searched for that easier gear that wasn’t there.
We riders all give thanks for our support crew, who cajole, water, feed and occasionally push us up the mountains. George, grabbing bottles, refilling them and delivering them to their owners further up the road, so that the riders don’t have to stop and break their rhythms. Tim, John and Cindy, weaving through the traffic to ensure that we riders are safe, as the logging trucks and tradies tear up and down the road. JJ, our mechanic, a bit like Jack-Jack from The Incredibles, pushing rider after rider after rider up the road, jumping in his car, finding a new spot higher up, and doing it all again.
Today we had a new crew member, young Ben Calder, all of 10 years old, handing out gummy bears and yelling encouragement to us as we neared the summit. Ben is Mick Calder’s son. Mick is a Chain Reaction stalwart. Here’s where Chain Reaction and our charity partners mesh most directly. Last night at dinner Mick and Ben told us all about Ben’s recent stay at Monash Hospital, where urgent surgery to fix a burst cyst on his brain meant Ben spent hours and hours in the Starlight Room. Sporting a scar across the side of his head that would make Jack Sparrow blush, and a wide smile, Ben told us just how important the Starlight sanctuary was to him during his stay at Monash. I’m sure I detected from Mick, one of the toughest blokes in the gang, with a bass voice deeper than the sea, standing beside his son as he spoke, a tear in the eye; hardly surprising, really. That’s Chain Reaction for you.
We got to the top. It was cold all the way up, topping out at 6 degrees. One plus from that is that your drinks stay cold, be it water, Gatorade sludge or one’s own bespoke power juice. After lunch and coffee, and a round of photos at the top of the Victorian Alps, we started our descent. I’m fast down the hill yet it still took me 50 minutes to get to the bottom, fanging it, hugging corners, hyper-alert and completely alive.
The ride back to Bright from Harrietville was a real treat: slightly downhill, the peloton with its tail up, almost in a flow state. With the slight decline, and the wind behind us, those in the middle of the peloton hardly had to pedal to maintain a speed of over 40kmh. A number of the riders commented to me as we sped back to base that this was, perhaps, the best day’s riding they’d ever experienced.
2017 vertical metres
4 hrs 20 mins to 5 hrs 20 mins on the bike, depending on climbing ability
David Lowth - Blue (Kay & Burton)
Rose Palmer - White (Domain)
Anthony O'Halloran & Dave McKenzie - Polka Dot (Rialto)
Kriston Symons - Black (LSH Auto Australia)
Sam McGuinness - Green (Newmark Capital)
Tom Paul - Orange (Pure Storage)
Money raised for Starlight Children's Foundation & Very Special Kids