Mt Baw Baw Reconnaissance

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There’s never been a ride that’s haunted me like Mt Baw Baw has.  I’ve never remotely considered riding the road to the top, nevermind racing it.  I’ve heard horror stories of respected riders walking up sections of this climb.   Mt Baw Baw is the only reason there’s a market for 29T cassettes in this country.

Local folklore says the hard part of Mt Baw Baw is the final 6km from the gatehouse to the summit which has an elevation gain of 780m.  The average gradient is 11.3% with some parts reaching 20%.  That doesn’t include the 100km lactic slapfest of racing over some big rollers prior to hitting the Big Kahuna.  To put this into context, Alpe d’Huez is 13.8km at an average of 7.9%.  A “hors category” climb typically has an elevation gain of around 1500m+, the steepness of Baw Baw would most definitely classify it as a HC climb.

profile from CyclingProfiles.

On the weekend my mate Graeme and I went to Baw Baw to confront my fears.  The annual Mt Baw Baw race is coming up in less than two weeks and I thought I’d better get my act together if I want to have a crack. I only had a 25T cassette but it would have to do.  I fully expected to not reach the top with my ill-prepared setup.

We started from Noojee (middle of the profile map), this quaint little town 50km from Mt Baw Baw.  It took about 500m of riding before we got into the good stuff.  The climb started right away and we rode straight into the thick mist.  It was the first time since November I’ve needed to wear arm warmers and a vest.

The road eventually got narrower and canopied by thick green forest.    It was absolutely stunning scenery on a road that was built for cycling.   It was a constant up and down but easy to get into a rhythm.  Nothing too difficult or out of the ordinary up until this point.

We then reached the base of real climb where the boys are separated from the men (#12 on the profile).   It was looming there right in front of us looking quite intimidating .  I’ve built this up in my head for 5 years now and I expected the absolute worst.  The road wasted no time and went straight up.  The only choices were to either pedal as hard as possible standing out of the saddle, or bow my head and walk.  The only thing in-between that was a place called Purgatory.

The chit chat between Graeme and I quickly became very quiet and we crept into our own little worlds.  As much as it went unsaid, this was man against man.  Egos were at stake here and no one was giving in.   Unfortunately man against man was quickly reduced to men against mountain.  Keeping enough forward momentum to keep at 10km/hr suddenly became the goal.  The fear of what was around each corner made any thoughts of “attacking” out of the question.  As one commenter said last week, “attack the mountain and it will attack you!”

Six kilometers of climbing at this gradient was a slow going effort.  The fact that we had only ridden the previous 44km quite easily was in the back of my mind the whole time.  I couldn’t imagine doing this after responding to attacks, riding tempo on the front, and closing gaps from the riders being popped.

Reaching the top was satisfying but a bit of an anticlimax.  It wasn’t easy but I had expected it to be much worse.  I was pleasantly surprised that neither of us had to walk any part of the climb.  However, I did learn some new Aussie slang “delivering the mail” (a good description of Graeme’s movements when zig zagging up a steep section of the climb).

The bomb down was well worth the price of admission. The sun had come up and dried the road so we were able to make use of some of the big swooping turns with nearly no traffic.

When it was all said and done I couldn’t be happier that we made the trip out to Mt Baw Baw and faced my nightmare.  It was challenging, but nothing like I had anticipated.  I had read that it was the “second toughest climb in the world” and the toughest climb in Australia.  I’m not so sure I agree with either of those claims.  I guess everyone has their own interpretation of their personal toughest climb.  Mt. Ventoux is the toughest climb I’ve ever done Worldwide, but Mt Hotham is a very close second.    Mt Baw Baw was certainly a magnificent ride that I can’t wait to do again and again.  The only thing I’d do differently is put a 27t cassette on.

BTW, if you’re planning on racing Mt Baw Baw you should have already done your homework.  There were quite a few people up there doing the final touches on their preparation (i.e. closet training…you know who you are) and clocking some good times up the climb.   My legs were shattered the day after and we took it pretty easy for the most part.  You don’t want to start training for this race now!

The new CA 3.0 wheels were quite the treat to try out on Baw Baw.  <C-4> hubs with ceramic bearings, white powder coated  DT-Swiss bladed spokes, under 1500g.  Quite a few more impressive specs for a price that’ll surprise you too.  I’ll let you know when they’re going to start importing into Australia.

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