Our friend Mick once said after racing the Mt Baw Baw Classic a few years ago that it takes three months out of a racer’s life expectancy. It was the first time I had heard about this annual event on the Victorian race calendar.
Debs also raced it and called it the wrath of Baw Baw that makes grown men cry. Talk like that made Alberto want to race this race, badly!
It’s now more than 24 hours since he rolled over the finishing line in fourth place, drawn cheeks, glassy black-ringed eyes and all shivers, and he still hasn’t said anything about the race, yet. But I’m sure, in time, he, too, will coin some phrase that will be repeated amongst cyclists in Brisbane coffee shops.
Having seen the course and witnessed the struggle from the warmth and comfort of the support car, I certainly have come up with my sentences that summarise the experience for me: Glad to be in a car! and Oh man, I’m going to pee my pants!
Over the past two weeks meal times were not much fun. Alberto refused his usual seconds of my lovingly cooked meal, or only requested light salads for dinner. Anyone with the will power to not even touch the much beloved mayonnaise is serious about the quest for lightness, which I now understand.
A triumphal announcement from the bathroom that race weight had been reached, an uneventful flight to Melbourne, a pleasant rental car and hotel and delicious pasta in Lygon St on Saturday night, the stage was set for an exciting weekend of racing.
But race morning came and Alberto woke up to sneezes. He sounded all blocked up and sniffy and when he asked me to drive the 100km to Warragul, the start of the race, I knew I needed to get him on his bike as soon as possible.
A bit worried I took the short cut to the feed area about 50 km into the race. As I stood there, shivering in the icy drizzle despite beanie and warm winter jumper, I heard more Baw Baw stories from other anxious support crews. “If you are cold now, wait till you are at the top” the nice Italian lady warned me empathetical. Perfect conditions, a friendly young guy told me, because half of the field had apparently abandoned the race at this point in Neerim the previous year. It was his wife’s second attempt after she had climbed in the support car at the bottom of the last climb, the final six kilometres to the Mt Baw Baw resort. Rain and sleet coming down horizontally had made it impossible for anyone dropped and out on their own to make the cut off times.
Lucky, I thought, that 10C and intermittent drizzle was perfect conditions.
Not long and the Masters 4/5 lead car approached, a bunch of thirty riders close behind.
Excited I jumped in the car immediately after passing Alberto’s water bottle, happy to see him in the bunch. A few minutes later I found myself driving second car behind the bunch. Prime position for any winning team, I felt like a true directeur sportive. 47 km to the finish and we were moving along at 30 km an hour. My own water bottle, stuck to the middle console, was almost empty.
The next incline saw a few guys drop off the back. I spotted Alberto up in about tenth place, hidden mostly, racing smart, looking comfortable. Another climb, this time longer and a bit steeper, maybe four kilometres long, more guys getting shed and by the time the road crested, the bunch had wiggled down to nine riders, Alberto comfortably among them.
The discomfort seemed only at my part. The water! I shouldn’t have drunk the entire bottle.
A fast and furious descent! Alberto off the back suddenly. How did that happen? Go, go, go! I yelled into the loneliness of the car. And he went, closing up to the other two guys off the back, passed them, pushed on, connected back to the back of the other seven, passed even a couple of them … I was on the edge of my car seat. And not just because of the excitement… I needed a toilet.
Why hadn’t I gone to the loo at the feed? Too late now, there was no way I was going to give up my prime spot in a long line of support cars. Not for a pee. Not right now.
More climbing and more descending through incredibly beautiful fern forest, the pretty winding road was dotted with struggling riders from other grades. Less than 30 km to go but the nine remaining riders were climbing now at a rate of maybe 15km/h. More dropped riders, a whole bunch of them; it turned out to be the Elite Men C bunch, or what was left of them. They had started ten minutes before Alberto’s race, and with them another lead car and support car.
No, no, no, don’t stop me right now…
The commissaire picked up something from the road and jumped back in his car and pulled out onto the road in front of me. When we got going again, Alberto and his companions had climbed way ahead, out of sight. Stuck behind the wrong bunch, I could hardly concentrate. I was going to pee my pants anytime now. Should I stop and find some bushes by the roadside?
Yes, finally, hand appeared out of the car window ahead of me, waiving me pass. About time, and I started to chase Alberto.
The road looked steep but I knew the steepest part was yet to come. Six kilometres to go. I yo-yo-ed back and forth, and when we hit the clouds, everything slowed down another notch.
The thick fog wrapping everything into grey cotton, ghost riders appearing out of the mist, tired faces passing in slow motion, hands frozen and shivering, not able to hold the camera still… it all appeared strangely surreal.
Only when Alberto and I sat in the warmth of the resort with a cup of hot chocolate, reality set in again. What a marvellous race, what a result!