It’s 7.45am on Friday. A chilled wind whips across the alpine lake, piercing through the lycra skins of the 20 hardy souls collected on the lake’s western bank. A long winter of frigid mornings and numb extremities has prepared us well and we are unmoved and unbowed. It is the morning of the first day.
Our group stands atop Falls Creek, and now, above the tree line, the landscape of granite and gorse rolls and falls below us in all directions. A coarse quilt of green, yellow, grey and purple spring flowers are tucked low and tight against the rolling terrain lest it be blown clean off by the merciless alpine wind.
The troops are mustered and briefed. It will be hot. It won’t be easy, but it will be awesome. The car is packed with food, drink, water, spares, and clothes for the venture ahead.
The only way from here is down and so that’s where we go. Falling off the Back of Falls. Rolling, breaking, leaning, panicking, leaning a little more, cornering, surviving, breathing and breaking again. And again. And again.
Much like spending too much money on your credit card this descent provides plenty of thrills but all the while we know that we’re going to have to pay it back at some point … and with interest.
Now at the bottom the group reaches ‘WTF Corner‘ — the infamous first bend that begins the Back of Falls climb. A brief glance back from whence we’d come leaves no one in any doubt of the appropriateness of this nomenclature. More on this later.
Although only 8.30am, it’s warming up in the valley. The frigid peak is behind and way above us and it’s time to ride. The gloves come off, along with the arm-warmers, knee-warmers, leg-warmers, wind-stopper vests, caps, mesh undershirts. It’s like being backstage at fashion week but subtly and almost imperceptibly different. The average body fat percentage is the same — must be tan lines that give it away.
It’s a stunningly beautiful valley. Once reclothed, we turn right and follow the river downstream. Rolling smooth turns at a gentle pace allows time and breath for a yarn with our fellow riders, most of whom are new faces. This is why we ride. Meeting new people with new perspectives and different backgrounds but who share our love of cycling and interestingly, a very similar outlook on life. This is the good stuff.
Just past Anglers Rest we are now far enough from home and we turn back. Not long after, it’s time for morning tea. The support Jaguar is at the riverbank site already and Fergus is on the case. Water boiling, a pot of freshly brewed coffee at the ready, carrot cake laid out, bananas, “Seedy” bars (it’s good stuff, really). Where are these guys when I need them at the outer reaches of my weekend ride?
Back on the road and we are sated, but the mood is starkly different. A sense of trepidation befalls the group and voices are hushed and nervous. And for good reason. The climbing is just about to start.
At this point I could make all sorts of inappropriate euphemisms about going up the backside of Falls, but none of them would be sufficient to describe the brutishness of this climb. It rips you a new, um, well, backside.
We turn left off the Omeo Highway and the climb starts immediately, accompanied by the tune of clicking and clacking and clunking and thumping (depending on your groupset) of chains hitting the small ring and levers being pushed to rear cogs that don’t exist. Those with 11-23s are hardly even moving. Even with a 28 you’re immediately reaching for more than you’ve got. My heartrate pops to a number I haven’t seen since I was…well, younger.
Rounding the appropriately named WTF Corner, we commence the first ramp and our group is smashed into tiny pieces like a Piñata at a Yankees end-of-season party. Each man, now alone, recedes into his personal cave where he is afforded 50+ quality minutes of quiet, hot, painful solitude.
Adam — the Kiwi architect rower with the massive engine — and Stacky — the man with by far the best café calves of our small posse — climb with panache and the 40-metre gap which opens almost immediately seems an insurmountable chasm.
Danny, who achieves his tremendous power-to-weight ratio primarily through a denominator effect, quickly and bravely bridges to Adam and Stacky and looks strong and unfazed by the 15% gradient, 30 degree heat, 180 heartrate and standard crankset.
Matt (the other Kiwi and another beneficiary of the denominator effect – but who also packs a mean numerator) also finds his rhythm and quickly drops me. Not satisfied with just bridging to the heads of state up front, he gives them the stare and keeps going up the road and, eventually, out of sight.
It’s down to four again.
Danny, feeling the combined effects of a recent 2:46 marathon (not bad for a first timer) and the sub-optimal choice of a standard chain-ring (a big mistake for such a seasoned pro) drifts back and settles in 25m behind.
The gap to Adam and Stacky also starts to close, albeit slower than the roof at Rod Laver Arena on a 40 degree Melbourne day. It’s painfully slow and the heat is stifling. To quote the late, great Robin Williams: “It’s hot. Damn hot! Real hot!”. We are all jumping at shadows. Literally. Right side of the road, left side of the road, doesn’t matter. Where is that next goddamn shadow? I need that sweet, cooling, two seconds of relief.
Somehow I find myself back with Stacky and Adam now and we start the yo-yo game. Everyone has a turn. I fall off the back and walk the dog. Then Adam drops back and does the cradle. Then it’s Stacky’s turn and I don’t know what he’s doing back there but I’m just glad that I’m not being intimidated by his magnificent calves for the time being.
We reach the intermediate peak together and start a brief, relieving descent before the final pitch. And then disaster. As we start the climb the clock strikes amateur o’clock and I drop my chain. There is no support vehicle to give me a new bike, so I stoop down and put it back on myself. It’s a quick fix but the damage is done.
Stacky and Adam are up the road and already halfway up the final ramp. I try in vain to close the gap and perhaps I make up a little ground, but it’s not enough. Over the final roller and then downhill to Trapyard Gate. It’s all over. Matt first, daylight second, photo for third and fourth and yours truly, an emotional and greasy fifth.
We wait briefly at the gate for Danny and some of the other brave souls and then, having achieved critical mass, make the 25km push for home, back across the alpine tundra to Falls Creek.
Back at the lodge a beautiful lunch spread is ready and is quickly inhaled by the raging lycra horde. The rest of the day is uneventful. More eating, a lot of Strava post-mortem analysis, plenty of well-selected local beer and wine and general pampering by our magnificent hosts whilst our bikes are serviced and washed in preparation for tomorrow. So this is how the pros live.
Then there’s dinner and an awards ceremony where thankfully the awards have nothing to do with actual performance. There’s also plenty of banter with new mates and a few more local brews. But then it’s to bed. Tomorrow will be an even bigger day.
Special thanks to Mogul Ski Lodge where we stayed for the weekend which included ‘Chef Danielle’ who kept us well fed with fine food. If you’re looking for a riding weekend in Falls Creek at a wonderful lodge with the option of a brilliant chef, look no further.
Also, thank you to The Feedzone for helping us out with our nutrition products. They’ve started a fantastic subscription service around choosing an assortment of bars, gels, sports drinks, etc. Just like subscription services you see around wine, food and other products, you can now get for your sports nutrition needs as well. Be sure to check them out.
Last but not least, thank you to Daniel and Jason from Soigneur who helped put this trip together and made everything run so smoothly which always gives everyone an memorable experience without fail. They’ve just announced their latest summer trip in South Gippsland (you can read about my experience on this same trip here) and you can find out more about it on their website.