Terra Australis: 7 Days of Heaven or Hell?

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A mate of mine Brad Davies just completed the Terra Australis, a 7-day mountain bike race in the beautiful Victorian high country. It’s a race that I watched with interest because for a long time now I’ve been keen to give one of these mountain bike stage races a crack. However, I’m very well aware of what 100km a day on a mtb would feel like. Without exaggerating, it would be like a Melbourne-Warrnambool for a week straight. That said, nothing in life worth doing is ever easy.

Given this is a road cycling site, I asked Brad to give me a report that captured the race in `roadie’ terms…

Terra Australis: 7 Days of Heaven or Hell?

by Brad Davies

Terra Australis is in the tradition of the monster mountain bike races overseas: the Cape Epic (South Africa), Trans Rockies (Canada) and Trans Alps (Europe). The format, as with these races, is simple: seven successive days through high mountains – in pairs.

A race like this – with 11,000m of vertical – attracts its share of masochists. To set the tone, on the first night it was announced that Bicycle Superstore (race sponsor) would issue a `HTFU’ award. It soon became clear that hardening up was the last thing that some of these riders needed and so the award was changed to `STFU’ (ie soften up). Some of the candidates for this award included:

  • A rider who got a stick caught in the front spokes coming down a fast descent on day one. He landed as you’d expect – heavily – and badly broke his nose. Knowing they had to act quickly, the guy’s riding partner duly held the affected rider’s head still so that the rider could push his own nose back into place. He didn’t ride the following day, but did remount on day 3 and finish the Tour!
  • A South African rider (Jo) who ran out of water on the Buffalo stage, and decided he would rather drink out of a muddy puddle than risk dehydration. He said he made a calculated judgment that it was a `pretty clean puddle’
  • To Jiri, a Czech native who rode a Pugsley bike (a fully rigid mountain bike with massive tyres that are meant for traversing snow and ice) for the full 7 days. The tyres ran at 10 PSI and he decided that for the time trial he would mount a second chainring so he had more options. “How are you going to change gears – there’s no front derailleur?” – the mechanics asked. “I will change by hand while I’m riding” – which he did!

Having spent a lot of time in the Victorian high country, I know all the big climbs well. Hotham, Falls Creek and Mount Buffalo hold no fear. The Terra Australis tackles the same mountains but on different roads. Steeper, gnarlier, God-forsaken roads. To demonstrate, the tarmac climb up Mount Buffalo covers 1000m of vertical in 18kms. We rode Mt Buffalo – on Day 5 with more than 10,000m of climbing in the legs – from the back side. We covered the same 1000m but in 11kms. The tale was similar when we rode into Dinner Plain. We had done nearly 2000m of climbing to the bottom of the big climb up to dinner plain – a 30km monster of sharp pinches and short downhills. Against that day from Falls to Dinner Plain made the Audax pale in comparison (a 200km race from Bright to top of Falls/Buffalo and return to Bright).

So what makes the Terra so difficult?

Climbs. If you heard the words `sawtooth’ profile at the rider briefing the night before a stage my stomach would churn. Sawtooth in Terra terms can be largely unrideable jeep tracks that are almost unwalkable. The climb to dinner plain took nearly two hours at intensity. We climbed Mount Ebenezer (between Harrietville and Bright) at lung-busting pace in 90 minutes (I climb Mt Buffalo in less than an hour). The 10km climb up the back of Mount Buffalo took a similar amount of time, and as much concentration as you had to simply stay on the bike in sections.

Descents. Riding downhill on a mountain bike is fun. But it’s also inherently dangerous and potentially race ending. During the Terra I rode some of the most amazing descents I’ve ridden (and I have toured in 50 countries) but also some of the most terrifying at speed. Some of the roads we covered are used very infrequently and I can see why. But in a way, that’s why we were all there: to ride tracks (including some private property) that are almost untouched.

Mechanical challenges. By my reckoning only one team in the top 10 did not have a reasonably major mechanical. Ours came in the form of a split rear tyre (and subsequent second flat), but the sticks and rocks also claimed countless derailleur hangers, derailleur, tyres, pedals and spokes. Most riders know this going in, and prepare accordingly. Not one rider had a mechanical destroy their race – just lots of time. How you deal with mechanicals and bounce back demonstrates as much about your determination as fighting your way up hills.

To paint the Terra as a slog and nothing more would be doing it an injustice. The race is hard but there’s more to it. Apart from the competitive side of the race –we had a current World Champion (Jess Douglas 24 Hour Solo Champ) and reigning Australian cross country champion (Katherine O’Shea) – the race attracts a number of overseas riders keen to sample Australia’s version of the big mountain bike epics We had riders from Belgium, South Africa, England, Czech Republic and the US among the group, and we got to meet most of them as part of our one week travelling circus. A few of the highlights that get lost in the tales of endless climbs and bone-breaking descents are:

Scenery. To be honest, I think scenery in bike races is over-rated. I never seem to notice. However, there were a few moments in this race where I almost stopped pedalling as I looked across the valley at the high mountains from perspectives I had never seen as a road rider.

Camaraderie: Mountain bikers are generally less cut-throat and the shared pain of a race like this makes on track benevolence even more pronounced. When you puncture every rider that comes past offers assistance. When you are being passed even by arch-rivals there is encouragement. It might sound a bit new age to us roadies but when you are in the bowels of your own private hell then it can be the difference between despair and simply hurting. Perhaps the deepest sense of camaraderie is between rider and partner. The rules stipulate that riders be no more than two minutes apart for the entire race, and you form a very close bond with the person that you help / helps you. It could break relationships, but in most cases it appears to cement them.

Achievement. The only road race I have done where there seems to be real honour in finishing is the Melbourne to Warrnambool, and perhaps the Hotham stage of the Tour of Bright. Most other times if you are way off the pace you simply pack up and save your energy for the next race. But when you have raced for a week straight, pulled yourself and bike (literally) over sawtooth climbs, dragged yourself out of bed when it threatens to snow and fought on when you want to die, there is a great sense of achievement

The big question is would I do it again, and would I recommend it to roadies? To the first question: absolutely. I would happily forsake my annual trip to Rotorua for another tilt at the Terra – and I love my annual trips to Rotorua…

Road cyclists are made for this event. It is gruelling, mountainous and each of the big days (there are at least 5 of the 7 in that category) are as `epic’ as Baw Baw or the three peaks IMHO. The timing of the race is also perfect to give yourself that one week block of training that could set up your season. The race is also family friendly, and a perfect thing to do as a group of mates. A few of the internationals had brought families along recognising that (from the comfort of a vehicle) this race is a great way to see some of the terrain we spend our time in.

One of the turn-offs can be the pricetag: almost $2000 for the week. But it does include all meals, transfers, accommodation and the availability of full mechanical support. On a day-by-day basis it’s great value, and as Mark Fenner (one of the Australia’s best credentialed mountain bikers and Terra regular) says:

“You can’t put a price on experience. A race like this you will take to your grave, and when it comes down to it experiences are the sole purpose of our life.”

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