By the time entries opened for the 54th running of the Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic, I had erased the suffering from my race there in 2013 and the desire to enter the 228k event again was smouldering away inside. When fellow MIA team mate Joris entered almost as soon as the website was launched, I had all but decided to enter too. The only thing standing in the way was whether I would be able to get back to the level of fitness required for such an arduous event while working a Fly In-Fly Out job in central Queensland for the months leading up.
I’ve never really been one to “train”, basing much of my riding volume on commuting, which was not an option where I would be working. I did manage to take my bike to camp and get in to a disciplined routine of getting on the bike by 4am, riding for 2hrs and back for a rushed shower, breakfast and ready to catch my ride to work at 6:30am. I worked out an undulating course on quiet roads, which I alternated with a course that had some good climbing. I used my travel days as rest days, and managed to fit in some criterium racing and longer rides on the weekends when back home.
I finally entered, confident that I could get time on my bike, and it was time to work out logistics. Discussions with my friend Jon Hobson from KPCC turned in to an offer of handlers for Joris and I from some KPCC members. Many emails were exchanged and plans were made. On the Thursday before the race the child of one of our handlers was admitted to hospital and we scurried to find another handler. The KPCC guys came through again and we had our final crew, James, Jon and I riding in C grade, Joris riding in B grade with Phil and Michael supporting us at the feed stations and driving the cars from Grafton to Inverell.
Based on feedback from riders last year, this year’s even would be run as 3 separate races instead of having a combined B and C grade race. This was a great move, and made for a more completive race with riders knowing that they were racing all the riders in their group and also that any break up the road was from their grade. The smaller peloton was also much safer, and unlike last year where there were many crashes in the first 65k, I was not aware on any crashes this year. There were 98 riders entered in C grade.
Grafton to Inverell has earned the label as “Australia’s Hardest One Day Race”. With temperatures of up to 38 degrees and a headwind forecast, that tag was looking very appropriate. Even before the 8:30 C grade start, the sun was baking, and I sought out what shade I could. The roll out of town under neutral conditions was quite calm, and with some air flow didn’t feel so hot. Once the race really started, there were many more attacks than last year, and combined with the heat, it felt much harder, but I maintained good position within the chase group. You could even say I was conserving, which is an unusual position for me.
The major crunch point in this race is the climb up Gibraltar Range, which ascends 907m in 16km. Not a steep climb, but long and relentless, offering no opportunities to rest. It was at this point last year that I missed the opportunity to keep with the lead of the race. This year I felt much more in control and less like I was just hanging on. I also knew that I had to be towards the front when we hit the base of the Gibraltar range climb.
The climb starts with 69km already covered with the neutral water station doing great trade on such a warm day. Almost immediately after the water station a couple of riders attacked, leaving a solid chase group of about 35 riders, which dwindled as the climb went on. I maintained position in the first 6-8, watching my heart rate at near maximum, but feeling OK otherwise spinning in a low gear. On one of the tight switchbacks, the rider in front of me slowed for a split second, which was enough for me to rub tyres. I unclipped my right foot in order to maintain balance, which in turn initiated a cramp condition in my calf, which remained uncomfortable for the rest of the ride. I lost a few positions getting clipped back in, but remained in the front half of the bunch.
When we topped out there were 4 or 5 riders ahead, but much like last year there were very few riders willing to work to chase them down. From the top of the range, there is still over 30km before the Mt Mitchell feed station and in the heat I was going through bottles as fast as I could get them from the neutral service motor bikes. The organisers must have been using so many bottles that they were taking used bottles back from riders to refill. I have never seen that done before.
Happy to have stayed with the lead bunch on the climb, I took more than my share of turns on the front to chase down the break. Eventually we did get organised, and all but about 3 riders were rolling turns at the front, and I had some chance to recover.
The 1st feed station at Mt Mitchell was a disaster for me, when the strap on my musette broke as I grabbed it from Phil. I briefly considered stopping, but the pace was on, and I doubted that I’d be able to get back to the bunch if I did. So I had no food and no water. Aware that other riders might start throwing out anything extra they didn’t want to carry I called out that I’d gladly accept anything. Jon was first to offer an energy bar, and others supplied gels and bars, but I still had no fluid at all. I tried getting attention of a follow vehicle, but they must not have had any water to give. Already thirsty going in to the feed station, I went a further 20 minutes without anything to drink before Jon gave me one of his bottles. Eventually a motor bike came up with water, but instead of taking my empty which I had in one hand, he tried to give me the new bottle which I fumbled and on trying to catch it, I put my finger in to my front spokes, which took a huge slice of skin off my pinkie finger, and it bled profusely for what seemed like an hour.
The temperature was hovering in the low 30’s and we were still riding in to a headwind. After hiding in the bunch for a while I had my food and water situation sorted out, I started getting back on the front for the run through to Glenn Innes. The gap to the break of 4 was hovering around the 5 minute mark, but there were still only a few guys doing the majority of the work, and a couple doing none at all. There were a few gentle climbs, followed by fun, fast descents, but always in to a headwind.
As we neared the Glenn Innes feed station the bunch had dwindled to about 15 riders. This time my musette held together and I was happy to get some electrolytes back on board. After nearly getting dropped through Glenn Innes last year, I made sure to pay attention and keep with the bunch for the turn back in to the wind on to the Gwydir Highway. I felt pretty good after taking on some fuel, and I assumed my standard position on the front. I was getting some occasional assistance, and we kept pushing along, but we never seemed to take any time out of the break.
The bunch seemed happy to let me drag them up the hills. It seemed that I was going fast enough and taking enough of the wind that no one attacked. Through the undulating hills, I drove the descents and pushed the climbs, but there were a couple in succession where I was concerned that if someone really attacked that I would be in trouble. Jon was also putting in the odd attack, to try shake the hangers on in the group. I didn’t realise at the time, but looking at the timing results it appears that between us we the size of the bunch was reduced.
From Sinclair Lookout, the profile is predominantly downhill, and the pace picked up. We passed a number of solo NRS and B grade riders, who looked in a world of pain. We also caught one of the break, which meant we were now racing for 4th. With KOM and sprint points only available for the first 3 there were none of the accelerations that there may have otherwise been. Still the Wire Gully KOM saw me gapped to about 6 riders before giving everything to get back with them.
After Wire Gully the pace picked up in anticipation of the finish and mostly downhill run. The chase bunch had dwindled to about 9 riders. The turn off the highway towards the neutral water was fun, although the temperature increased, and I gladly took on some more water. At this stage last year I made an attempt at a solo break but I didn’t remember it being slightly uphill. I actually started to conserve at this point, fully aware that the last climb of the day was going to be tough, because from there it was a flat out downhill run to the finish. I gave a heads up to club mate Angus, who is a strong climber, that he should have a go on this climb. It was the same advice I’d given to Jon prior to the race.
As soon as we hit the start of this climb, a couple of the local Inverell riders jumped. We quickly closed them down, but Angus countered, and Jon followed and the bunch exploded. I put in everything I had left, but still watched about 7 riders disappear in to the distance. I could see the highway just ahead and dug as deep as I could, knowing that once over the top it is all downhill. On the descent, I was out of the saddle like a sprinter and I caught a couple of riders. We rotated turns and passed another rider. I knew there was one last corner, and had been told at the race briefing that it could be taken at speed, but it was new and unknown to all of us. We hit it fast, but I seemed to lose some momentum to the other 2 riders and I was not able to make it back in the final sprint. After 7hrs 39 minutes and 228km I finished 11th. Jon and Angus finished slightly ahead in 5th and 6th respectively.
Congratulations to the lead group of 3, Jacob Patterson, Brett Newton, and Simon Anderson who stayed away for such a long time, although we had reduced their lead to just over 2 minutes. The chase group put in too little, too late, relying on too few riders to do the work. Only two thirds of riders in each grade finished, which is an indication of how tough this race was.
Massive thanks to Phil and Michael from Kangaroo Point Cycling Club for their assistance during the race. Without them, we would not even have made it to the start line. Thanks also the race organisers, the police escorts, volunteers and the local community who lined the course in huge numbers, making us amateurs feel a little like Pros.
Team mate Joris also finished 12th in B grade.