Stratford to Dargo

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Whenever I climb up my favorite Victorian berg, Mt Hotham, I pass a sign pointing to this place called “Dargo”. It always makes me think about this infamous race that I’ve heard lots about but have never done – The Stratford to Dargo. From what I hear it’s tougher, longer and steeper than Mt Baw Baw and legend has it that many A-Graders with 29T cassettes end up walking the final pitch of road.

I didn’t even realise that this race had come and gone until Judith Cahill from the Wellington Cycling Club asked if she could provide a write-up on the race that was held a few weeks ago (Nov. 8). Here are a few photos and a report from this event that I would love to race one day. Thanks for the report Judith.

The 2nd Annual Stratford to Dargo
by Judith Cahill

In perfect racing conditions, the Wellington Cycling Club hosted the 2nd annual 104km Stratford to Dargo race last Saturday [Nov 8]. With help from Cyclesport Victoria, the club were excited to have over 110 riders lining up to start this epic race. Last year a temperature of 30C+ for much of the event left only 35 of the 80 starters finishing the race. But with some inside knowledge and added determination everyone was planning to beat the mountain this year.

The start is was like any other race. Nervous riders warming up. Some on the road and some on rollers. Lots of fast bikes, riders dressed in sponsors kit, carbon wheels, power meters and fancy GPS systems. I asked a few riders about their gearing for this race and was surprised to hear someone tell me that he had a 25T on the back, but I was relieved to hear that many had compacts on the front and a 29T cassette. I wasn’t judging anyone, just observing. The riders all nervously looked at the race profile posted on the wall and listened to the race briefing.

Divided into four groups, A grade, B grade, C grade (including women) and a combined Masters group, the riders rolled out of Stratford and onto Stockdale Road, a popular training route for local riders. I was in the lead car for the A grade bunch. Unlike some other races, I noticed no obvious attacks at all along this initial innocent section of road. After approximately 20kms, the riders turned into Beverley’s road which was only sealed in around 2007. The sealing of Beverley’s Road was responsible for the creation of this event when a group of riders that thought bringing riders to Dargo and beyond would be an exciting challenge. Beverley’s Road provided 20km of slightly tougher undulations which begin to wake up the legs a little.

Finally the riders turn left onto the Dargo Road and a steep descent leading riders to a wooden bridge where they had to stop and walk due to large bike-eating gaps. The rider briefing warned that nobody was to take advantage at this point, but those that knew the ride knew that there were no advantages. The undulations made it a good solid ride, but the first longer climb of approximately 4% for 10km was just about to come. A feed zone provided in an area known as Waterford was between some longer climbs. If you were still with your bunch and feeling good, you may have been thinking that you were in with a chance here, especially if you were one of the uninitiated that read the CSV description; an average gradient of 8.3% for the final 10.5km.

full course profile (via CyclingProfiles)

profile of final climb from Dargo to Grants Junction (via CyclingProfiles)

Arriving in Dargo after a nice 5.1% descent, you have freshened the legs and looked at the Dargo Hotel, wondering if that might be a better option but remind yourself; how bad can it be? Only 8.3% for the final 10.5km. Continuing on, the road rises, and rises some more and just seems to stay that way for a long time. There are sections of this road, 2km sections of around 12%, short breaks and then more climbs, the yellow steep hill signs are a warning that the last 10km is TOUGH. In the lead car we had seen a rider breakaway approximately 20km before Dargo and he was still in a rhythm and fighting the hill before we caught a glimpse of another rider, John Kent from Alpine Cycling Club, who soon became race leader and was tapping away on the hill. As an observer his gears seemed to be getting bigger the farther along he rode. Then appearing from nowhere riding a very high cadence in comparison we got a glimpse of Ben Dyball (Virgin Airlines). Given his cadence and speed Dyball was unbeatable winning by over 2 minutes.

The sting in the tail of this ride is the final kilometer. Faced with a 1km to go sign, riders may be thinking that they have finished the climbing and they can happily fall over the line in 1km – WRONG!

Turning the final corner the riders are faced with “The Wall”. The Wall is around 500m of road that seems to be vertical. Around 17% this is the final challenge of the day. Although many walk this last challenge, the race is then finally over. For those that feel like they are letting themselves down by walking, I can assure you that you are not alone. Many walk and last year one rider in particular was so disoriented from the climbing and the heat he had no recollection of the final 2km at all. IT IS TOUGH!

I noticed a transformation from a bunch of nervous and fit looking riders at the start of the race, to a group of riders at the end of the race that had searched somewhere within themselves for the drive to get to the end. Some riders had even aged about ten years from start to end, but the looks on their faces that said “I did it, I finished” were priceless. Even where hopes of winning or placing had been lost along the way, that didn’t seem to matter any more. What mattered was getting to the end and taking on and beating that final hill.

Can it be that bad? The uninitiated may ask this question and there are other brutal races around which also ask riders to overcome their inner voice, their tired muscles and those dreaded cramps to get to the end. I spoke to many that finished and got the same answer every time, a resounding yes, IT IS THAT BAD!

This race is held thanks to Wellington Cycling Club and the many other helpers that provide their time to assist along the way. The club also acknowledges sponsors Wa-De-Lock Cellar Door, Dargo Hotel, Dargo General Store, Dyers Gippsland Transport, Budget Car and Truck Rental, CJ Office Choice, BeBliss Yoga, the help of CSV and most importantly those that come along to test themselves against such a tough course. Victoria offers some fantastic climbing events and although the real climbers find this is a race to win, to many it is a race to finish. Congratulations to everyone who came and raced and especially to those that finished. Even with tired faces and bodies, there is something about that inner smile that just demonstrates a sense of accomplishment. Well done!

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