Inspired by Peter Fuller’s excellent piece before the Melbourne Marathon, I thought I would write something about the Around The Bay (ATB) cycling event. I have participated in the 100 kms event for the past 5 years and this year decided to ride the much more challenging 210 kms with an enthusiastic and persuasive colleague, also a debutant at the distance.
Based on my experience of running three marathons in the late 1980s, half my life ago, and aided by some of the training programs available online, I thought that I had a reasonable idea of what training load was required. For me that meant my regular commuting plus one long ride each fortnight, building up gradually from 100kms in April (having had a decent base before then) to 180kms in September, and whatever other rides I could fit in (mainly faster group rides most Saturday mornings in the autumn which I piked out on as the weather became colder and darker and the long rides got longer). In an ideal world you would do one long ride per week, but time demands and my preference for adequate recovery meant that fortnightly was more achievable.
We trained in some abysmal conditions during the winter and early spring, mainly in cold and wind, and struck one very warm day in early September. We assured ourselves that we would be prepared for any conditions on the day. A few days before ATB the weather forecasts suggested warm temperatures and northerly winds. The wind may have been Demis Roussos’ friend but I am nearly certain he wasn’t a cyclist – it is not your friend in any sort of outdoor endurance event, be it cycling or running, and the strong warm northerly wind is the least favourite of all. By Saturday the forecast for the big day the following day was 29 degrees and windier than previously forecast, with maximum gusts of 40 km/h. My heart sank when I heard the updated forecast, but I put my psychologist hat on, reminded myself that I have no control over the conditions and upwardly revised my required fluid intake levels.
ATB is an event moreso than a race. Although you usually have a target time, it depends a lot on conditions and with how many red lights you get – and yes, cyclists in ATB do stop at them! I reminded myself that while I did want to do it as fast as possible, I mainly just wanted to achieve completing the distance and enjoy the experience. I have mellowed a lot from my intense time-chasing marathon days.
The alarm was set for 0415 Sunday, a rude time to awake any day, but necessary for a 0600 start and a good feed some time before that. I woke at 0230 full of nervous excitement, and decided that one advantage of this ridiculous wake time was getting in a big brekkie earlier. I jumped in the car and parked in East Melbourne with my colleague. Tires pumped, brakes and wheel releases checked, snacks and drinks loaded and we were rolling down to the start line at Alexandra Gardens. The early morning quiet was interrupted by an explosion which scared the pooper out of those around me. Unfortunately it was my tire tube blowing up – a slight misalignment of the tire beading being compromised by the slightly higher than usual tyre pressure. I was momentarily stunned and faced the possibility of not having even made it to the start line if the tire was also damaged. My colleague Kev came to the fore, riding my wheel down to some of the mobile mechanics shops in the Alexandra Gardens. When I got there 15 minutes later, all was good, thanks to the brilliant manager of the Bicycle Superstore marquee. I breathed a massive sigh of relief.
Waiting at the ATB start line is always a great experience, taking in the collective energy and enthusiasm of a huge number of like-minded participants, the buzz of being part of a large event. The field is released in waves, and it was 0630 before we headed off.
Our route was Melbourne to Sorrento and then Queenscliff to Melbourne after the ferry ride. Melbourne to Sorrento was a breeze – the last 30 to 40 kms literally, with a good tail wind which we would have enjoyed a lot more if not for the ever present thought that we had to ride back into it. The lunch/rest stop was a hive of activity and whilst waiting for the ferry we were chatting to a woman who had come from Mackay Queensland by herself to ride and some Sydneysiders. 97 kms completed, still feeling very fresh.
While disembarking from the ferry some bloke behind us read off his phone that it was 28 degrees at Avalon Airport with northerly winds gusting to 50 km/h. That bloke will never get a job as a motivational speaker, and as soon as we hit the road the reality of what lay ahead of us hit us between the eyes – it was very warm with a strong headwind that was occasionally a cross breeze, but never favourable. As we snaked our way towards Corio there were already a good number of people who appeared to be feeling the pinch. It was a very demanding section of the ride but I still felt like I had plenty in my legs. I was reminding myself of all the Melbourne to Geelong and return training rides that we had made, and that as soon as we hit the freeway we were on the, admittedly long, home stretch and in very familiar territory. We weren’t in the black shorts without reason!!
We stopped at a servo in Corio to refresh our drinks with ice. While we were doing so we heard the sirens of multiple emergency vehicles and news travelled quickly that a female cyclist had been hit by a car on the Princes Freeway. It put the time-chasing aspect of the ride into perspective – while you are after a time, most of all you want to go home at the end in one piece. Apparently she ended up with a broken elbow after coming into contact with a caravan.
The wind swung round towards the west which was incredibly welcome, bringing some temperature relief and becoming a cross-wind for the freeway section of the ride to Werribee. From Werribee the wind offered some assistance as we worked our way towards the Westgate Bridge entrance off Williamstown Road. I enjoyed the rare opportunity to ride on the bridge, the steady climb up being rewarded by both some great views and very welcome downhill action on the other side. While exiting the bridge meant that the end was in sight, the organisers had devised possibly the most indirect route imaginable, adding a few extra kms. I tried to think of this as extra value for money, but all riders just wanted to finish. About 3kms from the end a young bloke sat disconsolately by the road with a broken wheel. While the circuitous route meant that he had clocked over the advertised 210 kms, he wasn’t going to ride through the finish line.
We rode back into the Alexandra Gardens some 219kms and many hours after departing the same location. My legs were still feeling fine but my back and neck were tight. I felt equal measures of achievement and relief. It had been a tough day in the saddle, but the training had prepared us well.
ATB is not the best event for evaluating your riding speed – there are events on closed roads such as Amy’s Grand Fondo along the Great Ocean Road in September that offer better opportunities for that – but ATB is a special event because of the sheer volume of participants. Over 14,000 rode the various distances and courses on offer this year and I recommend the event to all cyclists. If I do the 210 kms again I will choose the Melbourne-Sorrento return option. While the ferry ride was enjoyable, it made a long day much longer and the temperature bumped up a few degrees between stopping at Sorrento and recommencing from Queenscliff.
This morning my body was surprisingly uncompromised, completing an enjoyable challenge and experience. The conclusion – riding 210 kms is hard, but a lot easier than running a marathon. Go on, you can do it if you really want to.