Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Sandal Girl


Getting ready for the race at 4:30 am

I’m a rarity in a lot of the bike races in Catalunya because aren’t a lot of female competitors, especially ones with a bloonde pony tail who like to talk as they ride and climb with a funny Catalan accent.  I didn’t think I was going to draw much attention over in Australia in a bike race because the American accent isn't that different, but I guess it is a unusual to see someone participate in a long distance bike race on a touring bike.  I thought I fit right in with the other riders.  My friends Stu and Kersti Faulkner had gifted me a kit they designed for all their friends participating in the infamous 3 Peak Challenge Gran Fondo in Victoria this past weekend.  I looked pretty professional if you ask me, all the way down to my ankles…..and then there were the sandals.  You don’t get many, rather any, serious road cyclist riding in Keen sandals and that is why I became known as “The Sandal Girl”.

By now you know me nad you probably don't even wonder why I would I be compelled to do a Gran Fondo race on my touring bike, especially the infamous 3 Peaks: a grueling 235-kilometer bike ride that has three major climbs with a total altitude gain of 4,400m in one day?  However, that was the million-dollar question last Sunday in the race, as cyclist passed me and I managed to pass some too!  

Stu and I at the race check-in
You see, I met Stu Faulkner back in the Pyrenees in 2012 on a Tour de France trip. It was my second TBT trip and I hadn’t had many Aussie clients before them.  I didn’t really know what people from Australia were like, at least not the cyclist.  It took me about half a day to formulate my opinion, as the clients on this trip were almost all Australian.  Aussies are fun,…fun,….and let’s see,…even MORE fun!

I led Stu's group, the B group, as I usually do.  The guys I lead love to ride, but they also look forward to a nice coffee break a delicious croissant and lunch at a local café, even if it means arriving an hour later than the others.  We do the same distance as the fast guys, but suffering is relative because we entertain each other so much on the climbs telling stories and laughing past road experiences.  We’d arrive back to the hotel and before I could ask for my key to my room, there was a beer at the bar waiting for me, followed by another, and then another.

A few days after I told the Aussie clients about my plans to come to Australia and tour cycle I had an email from Stu with an elaborate itinerary of all the places in Australia that I needed to see.  Granted, it was about a three-month visit, which included a Bruce Springstein concert, riding the 3 Peak Gran Fondo Challenge, and an invitation to his house to stay with his family in Mudgee.  As you can see, Stu is another cyclist, like myself with the same amount of energy and passion to live. Not to mention he is the most entertaining storyteller I’ve ever met, so you spend all your time laughing in his presence.  In the end, I couldn’t swing the Springstein concert, but the dates of the 3 Peaks race worked out perfectly. I was in, and boy was I in for it!

Notice there are more than just 3 peaks.....


My hosts from Melbourne who were keen on going up to the mountains in Victoria for a long weekend and took me with them.  We met Stu and the crew on Saturday afternoon at the start line.  They had a good laugh when they all say my bike. I was lazy and didn’t want to take off my racks, but my friends insisted.  Everything went except for the back kickstand which came in handy since all the other riders had to look for a space for their bike on the racks at each of the rest stops. I could park mine just about anywhere since it was freestanding!

The race started at 6:30am and the weather forecast was perfect: sunny skies and an average temperature of 20 to 25.  This was Stu’s second race with his friends because three years ago when they attempted, the weather got nasty and two thirds of the participants pulled out due to hypothermia as the heavens opened and the temperatures dropped drastically.  This year he was back on a mission to tackle the 3 peaks!  I was intimidated and nervous to say the least.  I didn’t think I had it in me to go fast and turn on my competitive switch in order to compete and complete the challenging 235 kilometer race over 3 huge mountains with a total ascent of 4,400 meters. It wasn’t the longest distance I’d done on my bike, but I just didn’t know if I had the mind set to be able to complete the race.  There was a 13-hour cut off and I refused to get in the sweeper van!  I started the race without ever looking at the race’s profile and route map, I didn’t want to scare myself before even starting.

I wanted to start with Stu, but I couldn’t find him amongst the 2,000 riders at the start line.  I took a bit longer to head over because I had to find some sort of way to keep myself warm on the first 30 ks which were all downhill. My pockets were stuffed with food and an extra tube; I didn’t have much room to keep a jacket so I wore plastic bags on my feet under my sandals and stuck some newspaper under my bib.

From the start of the race, I got plenty of stares. I quickly realized this was going to be a loong day filled loads of explaining as people passed and surprisingly I passed them! The most common comments and questions included “Never seen that set-up on a bike before.” “Now that’s a different kind of bike!”,  “Do those sandals clip in?”, “Feet cold yet?”.  Some people even offered to switch bikes as they saw my legs moving so quickly on the steepest climbs, thanks to my triple chain ring and the 32 on the back. 

My favorite comments included  “The sandal girl again…..”, “Hats off to you girl!”  “You are unreal!” and my all time favorite, “Bloody hell, you’re a f#*#% machine!!!” So I have to admit, I am a bit unreal.  It’s not ideal to do a long distance race on such a heavy bike, but it just goes to show you that you don’t really need a fancy lightweight bike.  At the end of the day, you’ve got to be in shape and able to pedal and that is just what I do best!  My legs kept spinning up one peak after the next, and the next.  I climbed the first rather effortlessly, never going down to my small chain ring.  At the top I found Stu and gang, filled my bottles and tried to keep up with them on the descent.  Although I reached 66 kph at one point, I couldn’t hold on and unfortunately I never found them again!  I did  find my own little pack to ride with and participated in my first pace line on the left hand side of the road, which made me nervous, but managed to keep me focused.  I would have loved to witness this pace line as an outsider,….. all these riders in stylish kits on their fancy light weight bikes and then me, moving my way up to the front of the line on my beast.  I should have rung my bell to let them know I was approaching; they would have been humiliated! 

Panoramic view, Falls Creek
The second climb was more difficult, but I found a nice guy from Hong Kong and we rode up most of the way talking.  Others were suffering and gave us some nasty stares, but we felt pretty good.  Heaps of cyclists were walking their bikes up the steep bits and one man looked like he was in pretty bad shape.  I pulled over to offer food, but he’d run out of water.  Luckily I was carrying my 1,5L bottle, which was still full, so I filled his bottle and relieved myself of some extra weight and carried on.  I thought I was going to find Stu up top at the lunch stop, but somehow I had missed him. I ate quickly and got back on my beast.  This is how I made up time in the race.  While everyone else took long stops, I only spent half an hour total at the various rest areas.  If I would have waited around any longer I don’t think I would have made it back on my bike. This is why I kept seeing a lot of the same racers.  They passed me before the rest area, I took a quick break, and started before them, and then they eventually caught up.  It was quite entertaining!

I managed to stay ahead of the cut off times the entire day and the sweeper van was never a threat.  The scenery was unbelievable as we went up several different ski slopes and passed through countless forests, undulating farmland, and saw desolate plains.  I regret not taking any pictures, but that would have definitely slowed me down too much.  Riding without weight took some getting used to.  I spent a lot of time out of my saddle as usual, but wobbled back and worth initially, since I’m used to overcompensating my pedal motion with the extra weight. Although I think a lot of riders took pity on me, it is all relative.  I as heavy compared to them, but light compared to a normal touring day.  I felt naked after shedding the 30 kilos from my panniers.   

That's higher than I lift it with panniers

The third and final climb was torturous; the steepest of all and it lasted a long 10 kilometers.  By this time my legs were tired and I was ready to be done!  It is hard to keep riding when you see the majority of the cyclists off their bikes walking.  I have a rule against walking, but many of the cyclists who did walk, later passed me when they hopped back on.  My slowest time never got below 7 kph hour, which is fast for me, considering I drop to 4,5 with all my bags on steep hills.  I made a quick pit stop at the top of the last climb and then descended 15 kilometers to the finish line. Eleven hours and fifty-two minutes later, I was finished. I got a lot of offers from people who wanted to buy me drinks at the end, but I just wanted to go home with the gang to celebrate, although we basically just crashed.  Kersti, and her friend Rach were waiting for me at the finish line and cheered for me upon arrival.  Kersti had given me her entry number, as she only really wanted to ride the first two climbs, so really I should have been called Kersti, The Sandal Girl.

Celebrating with Cava and all!

Back at the house we managed to toast to the occasion with some Catalan Cava and Australian wine.  Having slept very little the previous night after our car travels we were all exhausted.  Participating in a Gran Fondo bike race with an unbearably heavy bike is once-in-a-lifetime experience. I can’t thank Kersti and Stu enough for inviting me. I don’t think you’ll find many other cyclists who would want to have a similar experience.  I had to use two hands to life my bike up at the finish line for a photo, others raise theirs with one finger.  If there is one thing I learned (and proved to the road cycling community) this weekend, it would be that the weight of your bike doesn’t make you go faster, it just makes you fast, but the weight of your bike is all relative.  I also learned that Australia does have climbs, and tough one. Don’t expect me to take pity on any more of the Australian TBT clients who say it’s hard to properly train for European cycling because they don’t have any hills down under…..Aussies, there’s no excuse, I’ve found plenty of mountains here! The alpine region in Northern Victorian is gorgeous and I’m about to climb over another hilly region, The Blue Mountains, as I make my way from Mudgee down to Sydney.  Australia; this country keeps getting better and better, one climb at a time!
Congratulations Kersti



            

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