The Grafton to Inverell Classic has become known as Australia’s toughest one day bike race.  The 228km event is part of the National Race Series (NRS) including teams like Team Budget Forklifts, GPM Data #3 and Downer EDI Mining, but also caters for more amateur club riders.  With a 17km climb up the Gibraltar Range, this is a real race, and with a background as an endurance mountain biker, I had an immediate attraction the first time I heard about it.

Grafton to Inverell course

A point to point race always adds the complication of logistics, however a race of this distance adds the requirement for food and hydration.  While there would be some neutral support, everyone I spoke prior to entering told me that I did not want to rely on this support (and they were right).  While I was keen to do this race after my success at the Cunningham Classic, I was not able to find someone to support me, and had all but given up on entering.  Then some last minute discussions at the Hamilton Pine Rivers Wheelers Club presentation dinner allowed me to enter on the last day before entries closed.  Many emails later, I had Eric as support, accommodation booked at each end, and a basic plan to make it happen.

If I had been able to enter sooner, I might have done a little more specific training, although I did manage to fit in a few extra “training” rides on my commute to work, just in case I was able to pull something together.  It had been months since I did a ride of more than 120k, so the 228k was surely going to be a test, and there is nowhere I know of locally to actually ride 17km of continuous climbing.  With this in mind, and no racing on the prior Saturday, I managed to get out for a solid 130k ride and I felt quite strong.  After having Sunday off the bike, I was surprised when I had quite acute knee pain on my commute to work on Monday.  I decided to see if the pain disappeared once I warmed up…it didn’t.   I was slightly better on my ride home, but on Tuesday, the lower part of my quadriceps on the same leg was incredibly sore. Wednesday the adductor on that same leg felt super tight and uncomfortable, and despite much stretching, this continued in to Thursday and Friday and was cause of some concern.

I had the luxury of a couple of hours Friday morning to get organised, ready my bike and pack.  I picked up Eric, after he finished work, and we made our way south.  A combination of roadwork, peak hour and weekenders heading to the Gold Coast caused horrendous traffic.  We also lost an hour due to daylight savings, so that we arrived in Grafton about 9:15.  We had just enough time to grab a pizza and check in to the hotel.  It turned out that in the rush to get something booked at late notice, I had booked a hotel directly opposite a freight train line.  Between the trains, excitement and concern over my tight adductor, I did not get a great night’s sleep.

Grafton to Inverell Classic Start

While most people registered on Friday night, I still had to register.  Eric and I had a quick coffee and raisin toast with club mate Luke (who was also riding C grade and whom I had tipped as a real chance) and his support Danny.  I went in search of registration, heading off on my bike in totally the wrong direction.  I still felt a little uncomfortable, and suspected a recent saddle change might have been the cause of my soreness.  I decided to lower my saddle height about 2mm, risky, but thought it could not make things worse.

I still had to put together my feed bags.  I probably should have planned for these earlier, but now I had to think about how far in the feed stations were, and where the neutral water stops were.  Other factors too like how hot, whether I wanted 2 electrolyte bottles or 1 water.  What food?  How much?  Which stop?  Having never done this before, I figured more was better, and if I wanted water I could get more at the neutral stops.  I settled on 2 electrolyte bottles and couple of bananas, muesli bars and gels for the first stop, and 1 electrolyte, 1 water bottle, a banana, muesli bars and more gels for the second stop.  With everything sorted, we headed to the start line.

[quote_center]With all the constant slowing and near crashes at the back, I decided to try to get a bit further to the front[/quote_center]

It was cool to watch the activity with the NRS teams lining up, doing interviews, signing on and all the extra hype that goes with the more professional end of the sport.  This made observing a minute’s silence for the late Jack Griffin even more poignant.  The 53rd Grafton to Inverell was dedicated as a memorial to Jack, who participated in the first ever race, and became integral in its success.  After the big boys headed off, it was time for us to line up.  This year B and C grades were being started together, and interestingly the rules allowed both grades to pace off each other.  Not only was that going to make the race interesting, but it also meant that the starting peloton would be 180 riders.  Even though the race was under neutral conditions until we were out of Grafton, there was a lot of nervousness and there were six or so crashes.

I spent the first portion of the race towards the back chatting to a friend of a friend that had somehow recognised me.  With all the constant slowing and near crashes at the back, I decided to try to get a bit further to the front (as per my “race plan”).  Once I got to within the front third, and I could see Luke and a few other club mates, I felt a bit more relaxed.  At around the 45k mark riders started pulling over for a “nature break”.    I’d been forewarned about this, and expected that I would not bother, but decide better go now than wish I had in 3 or 4 hours.  Unfortunately, while many riders stopped, a lot did not, and many riders I’d past getting towards the front, all came back past me, and when things settled out I was towards the back again.  In hindsight, this cost me the opportunity to be anywhere near the front when the main climb started.

We rolled past the first neutral water stop.  I grabbed a bottle and sucked down most of it before tossing the bottle back to the side of the road.  Then we were on the climb.  Throughout the first part of the ride I was trying to assess how my adductor was holding up, and while it wasn’t causing me any pain while the pace was quite sedate, I wasn’t sure how it would go on the climb.  I started the climb gently, but as I got in to a good rhythm, I felt quite strong, and I started catching other riders.  About one hundred meters up the road I spotted Luke, and I focused on catching him.  Meter by meter I did and I kept on going.  I was feeling strong and saw another club mate, Mick ahead riding in a small group, and I had my new target.  I really wanted to make up as much time on this climb as possible, and I worked hard on the less steep sections, catching and passing more riders.  Some were jumping on-board behind me and I was collecting a bit of a group together.  At some point, it occurred to me that since I had never ridden this climb before, and on paper it looked tough, that maybe I should keep something in reserve in case the really tough bits were yet to come.  When I caught Mick’s group, I backed off just a bit, allowing some of the riders I’d passed, to catch back up.   When we topped the climb we had a group of close to 20 riders, we started to get organised to chase down the lead group.

As expected, there was a reasonable head wind, making our chase hard work.   While the climb up the Gibraltar is the most notable, it is certainly not the only one, with a relentless series of not insignificant climbs sapping away at our legs.  We were getting timing information to the group in front, but not the composition of the group.  So we knew we were losing time, but not how many C grade riders were in it.  We were also picking up some riders that didn’t manage to stay with the lead group to end up with a final 20 rider bunch.

[quote_right]With fresh supplies we pushed on, fairly sure that we had no chance of catching the lead group[/quote_right]

We were quickly approaching the first feed zone at the 120K mark.  I had never taken on food from a handler holding out a musette like you see on “Le Tour”.  I was hoping that I could see Eric, and that I didn’t crash or drop the bottles.  I was looking forward to seeing Eric and Danny, and for them to see that Luke and I were in the same group.  We rolled through the feed zone, and it was a success, although I did see some riders have to stop or almost crash.

With fresh supplies we pushed on, fairly sure that we had no chance of catching the lead group with a time gap of about 8 minutes.  There was still a relentless head wind, but other than that it was great riding conditions, sunny 26 degrees and good (mostly closed) roads.  The group was rolling turns pretty well, and I was starting to feel a bit stronger.  There were still some nice little climbs that we had to work on, but the kilometres were ticking away, and before we knew it we were approaching the last feed zone at Glenn Innes.

Grafton to Inverell Clasic finish
Luke wins our bunch sprint to finish 8th in C grade.

I spotted Eric, grabbed my musette, just took my bidons and ditched the rest.  I also made the mistake of going to the back of the group, and then getting stuck behind a rider not able to pass through the traffic furniture, so that we ended up off the back of the main bunch by 30 or 40 meters, just we turned in to a head wind.  I battled to get back on the bunch, and was thankful for the support car that gave me a “Pro Tow”.  When I finally got back to the bunch, I realised the race was back on, and the cooperative nature in the bunch was gone.  We still had 68k to go and it was every rider for themselves.

Once I recovered from the chase back, I actually started to feel stronger although me left foot felt like it was on fire.  We were in to more rolling hills, the kind that I seem to ride strongly and I was starting to find myself back towards the front.  Luke was also looking strong, and I’m not sure if he had a plan for a break, but I was not feeling that strong.   I also knew there was there was a steepish climb in the last 10k that was going to be tough to for a breakaway to get over.   Just as we approached the turn off the Gwydir Highway, a rider made a small break, we let him go for a while but then put on a chase.  It was a nice downhill, so I tucked and went to the front.  It was not long before we were all back together.  Luke asked if I had some spare water, and I handed over a half bottle.  Ironically it was only about 1k later that we came to a neutral water station.  I took on a bottle and tucked as low as I could go on the downhill.  I don’t know if was the extra weight of the full bottle, but before I knew it I had a 50m break.  With a flash back to the Cunningham Classic, and forgetting all the pains in my body, I decide to have a crack at a break.  I quickly realised that there was still about 13k to go, which was probably more than I could do solo after 215k, but pressed on at about a 95% effort, and it was not long before I had a 500m gap.  I was away for a bit over 5k before they gave chase, and they had me slightly before Gibson Hill, the last climb of the race.

Strangely, as we started the climb I felt strong, and I remember giving Luke a push before finding myself off the back and struggling big time.  With the pennies I’d spent on my solo attack, the piggybank was nearly empty.  I desperately changed up a couple of gears and relied on power to get me back to the group.  I managed to get back on just before the top, Mick confirmed it was all downhill from here, and I instantly lifted.  I got towards the front, but did not want to go to the front.  The group was still made up of about 20 riders, and we were hitting speeds of 60kph about 4 or 5 riders wide.  With traffic coming towards us in the other lane, I held back a little, probably too much, because before I knew it the race was over.  Luke managed to get the bunch sprint win to get 8th overall in C and I rolled over the line in 18th overall in C grade.

Grafton to Inverell 2013 winners podium

The main race was won by Jack Anderson(Budget Forklifts) and Ben Johnson(Solo) narrowly beaten in 2nd and Nathan Elliot(African Wildlife Safaris Cycling) nearly 30 minutes faster than the B grade winner.

Video of NRS race

It’s definitely the toughest road race I have done, with around 1/3 of B and C grades not finishing the race.  I could not have got through it without the help of Eric and Danny for support, Luke and Mick for advice and encouragement during the race.  The organisation was fantastic, and if there was anything that didn’t go off exactly as planned, I didn’t notice.  The post-race dinner was awesome too, although it should be noted that cyclist do eat dessert…especially after 228K :)

Photos thanks to ESi Sports Photography (Danny)

Anthony Zahra

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Anthony spent much of his childhood riding and “messing around” on bikes with his brother. After roughly a 10 year hiatus, Anthony’s love of cycling was rekindled as a way to get fit. After doing his first cross country mountain bike race in a 2 person team roughly 7 years ago, he was hooked. This was followed by racing 24hr enduros in teams, then solo, 6, 8 and 12hr races. He eventually progressed (some say regressed) to riding almost exclusively Single Speed MTB and undertaking his first 24hr solo race on his beloved single speed. Most weekends Anthony can also be found racing local criteriums, road races and the odd time trial. Weekdays he can be found commuting to and from work, rain hail or shine, and is a strong advocate for cycling rights on the road and the use of the bicycle for transport. Anthony rides a variety of differnet bikes including an Azzurri Forza Di2.