To most people, it may seem senseless, masochistic even, but to a cyclist, there is no more exquisite pain than a long climb in the mountains. Lost in the interior, at the limit of your physiology the world narrowed down to a road leading up a mountain. So when I received a late invite to ride L’Etape Australia, of course, I accepted.
L’Étape Australia is held on closed roads in the Snowy Mountains and designed to offer local riders an experience akin to riding a mountain stage of the Tour De France. My recent climbing training consisted of endless laps up the false flat at Centennial Park, but I figured I had enough past hurt in the legs to get through the 157 kilometres to the finish at Perisher.
After an hour’s flight from Sydney we descend to land at Cooma airstrip, the “gateway to the Snowy Mountains”. I enjoy the toy-set charm of a provincial airport — like a visit to the country, it offers a trip back in time. We arrange rental SUVs at a Hertz desk, resplendent in eighties branding. I wander outside, taking in the big sky and the green land sparsely decorated with the stark, almost gothic trees of the Australian country. Three local gents lean up against an outbuilding, laconic in the shade, no doubt enjoying a joke at the expense of the city boy taking photographs.
My it feels good to be out of Sydney, taking in the alpine air in the slower country.
En route to Jindabyne, our first stop on what will be a weekend of fine local hospitality is the Wild Brumby Distillery. Alongside its namesake gin, the distillery offers an inviting continental menu. I opt for the spinach and ricotta dumplings — clean fuel for tomorrow. All the plates at our table look delicious but there’s little time for savour as we are behind schedule for our next appointment, an hour with Chris Froome.
Regarded as the best grand tour rider of his generation, Froome has just announced he will ride the double of the Giro D’Italia and the Tour de France in 2018. A €2 million appearance fee is rumoured for the Italian tour. Arriving late we file into the venue, a local cinema, passing what could be a friendly usher but is Froome himself, relaxed and casual by the door in a black TeamSky polo, waiting to go on stage. The familiar voice of the Australian cycling commentator Matt Keenan introduces Froome. As the event MC, Keenan’s voice is a regular feature of the weekend. Strains of his deep baritone seem to follow you everywhere, echoing across the tree covered valley like a television you cannot turn off.
The hour-long narrative offers little further insight into those familiar with Froome’s story. A reserved character, Froome is naturally polite but not overly charismatic and I notice many of the non-cyclists in the audience become distracted by their phones. But beyond this demeanour there is a flint and a grit to the eyes, how could there not be when you consider all that it would take to win the worlds toughest sporting event four times?
Outside the sky has darkened and showers are falling. Up to this point, I have neglected to mention the weather. Victoria is expecting the highest rainfall in two decades, with heavy rain and high winds also forecast for the alps. As we drive the route back towards Crackenback Resort I cannot help dwelling on the steep descents and a large field of riders in treacherous conditions.
At dinner that evening, news comes through that the race has been shortened. The final climb and an exposed section of road in the middle of the course have been removed, shortening the route to 105 kilometres. There is probably more relief than disappointment at our table. Later that night I am woken by a menacing crack of thunder and heavy rain on the roof.
In what seems like only moments later, my 5.45am alarm is sounding. As daylight seeps in, the conditions seem less ominous. It’s raining lightly but nothing a Kiwi or Englishman would look twice at, at least that’s what the humour is at breakfast. Time to ride.
L’Etape has over 3500 entries with riders released in four waves. An hour into the course, adrenaline released, I have relaxed into a sustainable tempo and am enjoying the climbs and descents and the novelty of access to both sides of the road. It’s wet, but not atrocious, and importantly it’s still relatively warm and the wind is not fierce.
All goes well until about the 70k mark. The road has narrowed and the surface is rougher. I feel my front wheel gradually softening. Unlike in the Tour de France, there are no team cars following with spare wheels. It’s a depressing reality but I will have to stop, losing my position while I replace the damaged tube.
Up ahead I notice a figure flagging the group to slow down. Several riders have crashed on a corner and are picking themselves up off the side of the road, hobbling about, checking knees and elbows. Immediately behind me there’s panicked braking and that awful sound, familiar to the bike racer, of carbon scraping on concrete as others go down.
So there are worse things in a bike race than a slow front flat. A mechanic in one of the blue Shimano service cars provided by the race stops to assist me with a spare tube. It’s then that Froome rides past having started with the final wave and made his way through the field. I am probably slightly keyed on adrenaline, but it makes a glorious sight. Froome resplendent in his yellow jersey with a V formation of weekend warriors fanned out behind him with beatific grins on their faces.
Soon I am back on the road and heading towards the principal obstacle of the day, the Col De Beloka. It does not disappoint, a brutal ramp rising from the valley to a 13% wall. My quads tighten as I acknowledge this is the point where some appropriate training would have paid off.
As the mist thickens Beloka becomes a surreal scene. The air I am gasping is seems incredibly cool and fresh and my senses are suddenly overloaded with the scent of the wild rosemary growing on the roadside. Up ahead, scaling the wall, hundreds of figures weave from side to side in a strange and silent choreography in the fog. The event photographers perched on the slope are all smiling, rapt at this spectacle.
All pleasure is relief. I take 16 minutes to complete the climb compared to Froome’s 11 and a half. Near the top I am urged on by Mick Jagger blasting out of the speakers in what could almost be a mantra for the pain “I know it’s only rock n roll but Ilike it, like it, YES I DO”. And we did not even do the main climb to Perisher.
Our group reconvenes over dinner that night at the Crackenback Restaurant Farm. The timber-lined dining hall is packed with parties of cyclists toasting the day. A near approximation of heaven may well consist of hearty cuisine and a well matched vino after a hard day’s cycling in the mountains.
Sunday affords us the chance to explore more of the activities on offer at our accomodation at the Lake Crackenback Resort. After a divine hour on the massage table at the Spa and Wellness centre I stumble outside in a state of bliss and find Colin wandering the grounds in a similar state. Sunshine is now breaking through the clouds and we walk back through the resort, a community of timeshare complexes set in bushland beside Lake Crackenback at 1100 metres above sea level.
In the afternoon I have my first Segway experience on an all terrain tour of the Crackenback resort. I’m slightly nervous but get the hang of it quickly and spend an hour touring the valley on the intuitive machines. At one point we encounter a family of kangaroos and it makes for a curious postmodern scene. Five humans on upright transport modules staring down a group of five upright marsupials in an ancient mountain valley. They soon bound off and we Segway away towards the Thredbo River.
We encounter a few mountain bikers on the trails and our guide tells us about the off road riding in the area, pointing out the climb over the ridge to the Perisher Valley. Soon a 65 km loop will be completed linking Crackenback, Perisher and Jindabyne. The Segways are novel form of transport but I would kill for a few days let loose on a mountain bike to explore these mountains.
Despite the ordinary weather and a curtailed race, I had a great weekend away in the Snowy Mountains riding L’Étape Australia. We had a chance to sample some of the great local hospitality and everywhere we went we found good coffee and dining options to suit all appetites whether healthy or hearty. Maybe next year I will be back to finally ride up that road to Perisher, preferably with the hot Australian sun beating down on me as I suffer exquisitely.
For more information about L’Étape Australia by le Tour de France visit their website.