“You know the craziest thing of all?” says the bloke sitting next to me on the road, half way up Mt Buffalo in the Victorian Alps. “It’s not that we do this – it’s that we pay money to do it.”
I nod and grimace in mute agreement. Behind me, as I swig water and try to will my heart rate to drop below 120 beats per minute, a scattered line of cyclists is toiling up the 1000-metre climb. The tar on the road is melting in the sun, and makes a popping sound, like rice crispies, as bikes ride over it. I’m 150 kilometres into the 200km Audax Alpine Classic. How the hell did I get here?
The short answer is easy. A mate and I had paid our $130 entry fee, driven to Bright on Australia Day weekend, registered, eaten, gasbagged, prepped, slept, and got up before dawn for a 6.20am start, joining more than a thousand fellow Audaxers on the road east towards Tawonga Gap. It was a cool, clear morning and no one seemed in too much of a hurry, judging by the pockets of conversation in the lengthening peloton.
An adrenalin-stoking descent of Tawonga east side, a quick stop to snarf some sticky buns in Mt Beauty, and on towards Falls Creek, more than a kilometre above our heads. Rolling foothills gave way to a long crawl to the summit. Faster cyclists who had rounded the top were already whizzing and rattling past us.
Long, mountainous rides are all about pacing yourself - or so I’m told. Plans of keeping something in reserve were ignored in the lemming-like rush to the peak. The descent was a nice change, even though it beat the hell out of my arse, but by the time I returned over Tawonga Gap, the temperature was rising, the leg muscles were congealing, and weariness was becoming an unwelcome companion.
I made a sneaky stop for a shower, a sandwich and a change of kit in our Bright motel room. Refuelled and re-coated in sunscreen, I told myself there was plenty left in the tank. Just 70 kilometres to go; less than a Gong ride!
But as the big man upstairs started raining blows on my head and shoulders with the sun hammer, delusion evaporated, and I soon found myself splay-legged on the ground next to my philosophising fellow-sufferer.
At least we weren’t the only bludgers; all along the road, shade patches contained punched cyclists hiding from the 36-degree heat. Eventually, I groaned back onto the bike and ground towards the summit, contemplating matters deep and meaningful.
Never mind the “woke up this morning” explanation; just how did I find myself halfway up the hill from hell?
It’s been a strange and ever-lengthening journey that began with Gong rides and some Bays in a Day, before a week-long flip through the Alps and a nasty Blayney to Bathurst. And there’s no end in sight.
So what drives the modern recreational athlete?
Last week, columnist Tanveer Ahmed gave our sort a right old serve. Apparently, as “measures of success in fitness culture bear no relation to those in real life, it produces an artificial and achievable happiness”. Also, we are “yearning for transcendence, distraction or meaning”.
Alas for my aching limbs, there was no transcendence, but I did find meaning at that final checkpoint; it meant I could finally turn around and plummet towards the finish line. And it probably won’t surprise ol’ Tanveer to know that while I was dodging patches of slippery, melted tar at 60km/h, I was already pondering next year’s race.
Due to those rest stops, my finish time was going to be nothing special. But just think of the happiness I’ll artificially achieve when I beat it in 2013!
What’s the hardest ride you’ve ever done – and what do you get from such challenges?