OK, so the title is the only poetic licence I'm allowing myself. All of the words below are Paul's. Enjoy his recollection of an epic day. Cheers, Simon.
Fitz Wrap - Wingman Edition
So, you’ve read Greg Anderson's wrap, and I have to hand it to him, he handled the situation extremely well. My bike would have been at the bottom of the Cotter Dam Wall if I had encountered the misfortune he did! When I read the part where he started walking the 5km the finish, I seriously didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. How could so much misfortune happen to both Ando and Rob on the same day!
My own day was the complete opposite, and other than some truly awful weather it went off pretty much without a hitch.
When I signed up for the Fitz Epic earlier this year, it was with one intent. to have a crack at the top spot and ride the 210km with as little stops as possible, just a grab & go at the checkpoints for water & food, then back on the bike. As I was also doing the Fitz Epic as a Qualifier ride for the Alpine Ultimate 320 in January, I needed to make it count.
Last year I did the Fitz Epic for the first time and made the rookie mistake of stopping for lunch at Tharwa. After the first checkpoint at Rendezvous Creek it was Brendan Read and myself hammering around the course, and that lunch stop put us about 30 minutes adrift of the front runners, so the revised plan for this year was to team up and TT the whole course without doing any extended stops. When I say “team up”, I mean I would suck Brendo’s wheel all day and make him do all the work!
Well, my wheel sucking plans went out the window when Brendo rudely went on an extended holiday that consisted mostly of drinking and eating, and when arrived back in Sydney on Thursday there was some story about not getting a leave pass, but I saw the photo of his post trip weigh-in on the bathroom scales so I am not falling for the “no leave pass” story. Long story short, Brendo was out of the Fitz Epic and I would be solo unless someone wanted to come and sit up the front with me. With all the truly insane/hardcore club riders doing the Fitz Extreme, I had no takers as my lead out man.
Leading up to this years event, I was eyeballing the weather forecast for Canberra for the entire week. It seemed to change hourly, but the trend was that it would be wet, and there would probably be storms. That’s ok, I am an all weather commuter, I can handle the wet. Only catch is that there are no 90km/h descents on my daily commute, and my commuter bike has disc brakes! The weather was overcast on Saturday coming down from Sydney, and we had showers in Goulburn, but it was a sunny afternoon in Canberra so I was hopefull it would be a clear day.
Sunday finally arrived, and right on cue at 4:00am as I was getting ready to leave the apartment, a thunderstorm appeared over my apartment and the heavens opened. I had planned to ride to the start, but luckily a last minute ride was organised with Andy Yuen and his friend Ed, who were staying just across the road from me. That got me to the start in a dry condition, but I was keen to get on the bike and make sure everything was mechanically sound, and since I had not ridden this bike in the wet yet, I wanted to know how the brakes handled well before I needed to use them in anger.
I did a few laps of the carpark/camping ground, and I found hubbard camping central down in the southern drainage ditch (yes, Ando tells me that when the storm came, they realised they had pitched the tent on the natural water course). It was wet but had stopped raining, but I had spoken too soon, as another shower came through and I saw Ando huddled under the Registration tent while I did a few more laps in the wet just to get my confidence levels up. All the other riders were crammed under the balcony of the main building. I don’t know why as they were going to get wet shortly anyway!
This year at the start I wasn’t going to weave through any hubbards, especially in the wet!, so when the announcer called everyone down to the start line for the rider briefing I grabbed pole position at the start line, and parked myself right next to the one and only Jono E (the legend who has Everested just about every climb in Sydney). At precisely 6:03am, right on sunrise, the announcer sent us on our way, and without any hesitation I was off and straight off onto the empty road in front of me, setting a solid tempo and waiting to see who would join me at the front for some rolling turns. After a few minutes two other riders pulled along side me and asked if I wanted to do some rolling turns. I looked back and it was just the three of us, and not wanting to waste any opportunities that presented themselves, the three of us lit the afterburners and left the main group behind in our wake. The other two riders were both doing the Fitz Extreme, so I was more than happy to only be working 1/3 of the time and not actually in the same event as them. The bonus was that with only two other riders to worry about, the wet conditions were not really a factor on the descents as there was plenty of space to pick your own line. I was a bit nervous on the first few sweeping downhills as I really had no idea how the bike would handle, and I didn’t want an early exit to my ride off the side of the road and down a gully, but after getting a feel for it I was a little less timid into the turns.
On the way out to Fitz Hill, coming up yet another rise, we spotted the infamous “Red Devil” about 100m ahead, and here I was having just moved to the back of the rotation. That was hardly befitting of the Wingman Kit, so grabbing the opportunity I got out of the saddle and expended all the Free Watts I could muster, sprinting up the hill, giving the Red Devil a cheeky grin before I flew by under full afterburners. The photographer captured the moment perfectly!
Unlike Ando & Rob Stevenson's horrible experience with flat tyres, I don’t actually recall seeing any evidence of burnout action on the way out. Mind you, it was soaking wet, and when you are moving at Mach 2 with your hair on fire, there isn’t much time for checking out the road surface! The three of us had a nice routine going. One guy on a BMC had terrible issues with his gear shifting. Every time we had to go up a steep section he would drop out of the paceline and fight with his derailleur as it made horrible noises, the chain skipping all over the place. I couldn’t figure it out, and then when I looked down it became clear. He was running Campy lol
Around 2 and a bit hours from the start we reached the first climb of the day, the foreboding Fitz Hill, the hill from which the ride gets its name. Last year I reached the bottom of this hill in a group of 18. This year with just three of us it was a bit like a teary farewell at the airport as we wished each other a safe journey, and that was that. Solo time!
At the first checkpoint I briefly caught up with the other two riders while we refilled bottles and had a quick bite to eat, and 3 minutes later I was on my way again. Not long after leaving, the next group of riders were coming down the hill. This year the organisers had dispensed with the coloured patches you attached to your bike, so I had no idea whether the following riders were from the Extreme event or from my own. Not that it really mattered, as I was essentially just out on another solo training ride now, setting my own pace. I went through the motions. Stay hydrated, eat regularly, keep the pedals moving and no massive power spikes unless there are Red Devils waving at you!
It seemed to take an eternity for me to reach the top of Fitz Hill on the return leg, but boy did I enjoy the descent, especially as the first rider of the day back over the hill. Due to the course speed limit being 60km/h, I am not able to disclose my actual speed. Suffice to say, it was quick. The riders struggling up the hill, some walking, were probably having other thoughts at the sight of me bombing down the hill knowing that 105km into the ride I already had a 30km lead on them.
With Fitz Hill out of the way it was only a short distance until the turnoff for Honeysuckle Creek, and this is about where the wind appeared with a vengeance, making the already twisty and steep climb into a nightmare. I’d set a goal to climb Honeysuckle in 30min, which was only marginally quicker than my time last year, and based entirely on my fitness level now vs then. The wind had other ideas, and it was a sufferfest. Instead of doing it quicker I actually rode it almost 3 minutes slower than last year. Despite the temptation to go deep, I kept the power on the climb at a nice comfortable level. The climb is 9km long and you can’t get into any sort of rhythm as the road undulates up and down like a rollercoaster, and the wind just keeps coming at you. I felt like I was going backwards on a couple of sections, and the cattle grid 4km into the climb is a curious feature. Has anybody stopped and asked why cows would be half way up one of the toughest climbs in the ACT?
Finally reaching the top after slightly more than half an hour of climbing, it was another quick stop. Drop the rider card in the bucket, refill the bottles, grab a couple of pieces of fruit and off we go. The Honeysuckle Descent is a wild ride, and the wind threw in some extra difficultly points. It was a bit different not having Brendo to draft behind. He loved this descent last year, while I just tried to hold onto his wheel and my nerves. This year it was all me, but at least I remembered the cattle grid this time! There were a lot of pain faces coming up the climb, and I spotted the SUvelo Father/Son combo of Andy and Robbie Matthews towards the bottom. That kid is one to watch. 13 years old and knocking off the 210km event!
Back on the main road I still had a pretty large gap to the next 210km rider. Nonetheless, I didn’t bother with a stop at Tharwa on the return. I still had two full bottles and plenty of food, and at 11am I was looking good for an early afternoon finish. But the wind was getting worse, and now I was heading directly into it and still had the most horrid climb of the day to go, the 11km ascent to Corin Forest. Easily the most misleading climb on ride profile sheet, a laughable 4.8% avg gradient over 11km. Pffft. 4.8%, that is big ring territory. That’s not a climb at all. Alas, this is what happens when you let statisticians loose on ride profiles, you get meaningless numbers. The Corin climb goes roughly like this. “Ouch. Ouch. WTF is that! Ouch. You have got to be f&*king kidding me! <Cramps> OMG, who built this road? No, seriously…this is not normal!”. Anyway, you get the idea. I can assure you, not one section of this road has a gradient anywhere near 4.8%, except maybe the entrance to the checkpoint carpark at the top!
It was here, in the carpark after the 45 minute climb, that I came face to face with another rider from the 210km event going in the same direction. I was a little surprised at this given the large gap at the previous checkpoint, so I cheekily suggested we roll turns back to the finish line, thinking that Brendo had sent in a proxy (because he was about the same size!). He agreed, perhaps thinking I was going to tow him home so he could sneak around me in the last couple of km (like I was going to let that happen..bahaha). So, water refills again, another card drop, more food and off we go. Total stopping time about 13 minutes so far for the day, and now just the descent and run home to go, and I have someone with me to share the workload.
I love the Corin descent, the 13 min white knuckle ride being the reward for the slog on the way up! With my fellow 210km rider with me, it was almost like having Brendo back, except I didn’t have to yell at him when he did 600W over the top of every hill! Reaching the turn back onto the main road was a bit of a slap to the face though. The wind was now blowing from the NE at about 45km/h on average with gusts well beyond that, meaning a massive headwind then a massive crosswind as we made the right hand turn back to Stromlo. I allowed a couple of minutes to get my legs back into climbing mode after the high speed run down the mountain, then I relit the afterburners to cut through the wind. It was all too much for my new riding partner. He had gone incredibly deep on the Corin climb to catch up with me and was now paying for that effort. Once I started turning the legs over, he tried to hold my wheel as best he could, but I was pulling away and he was therefore no chance to pull a turn. I am pretty sure his heart sank after the effort he put in, but that is the thing about the Fitz Challenge. You must ride it on your own terms, and not get suckered in to chasing wheels. When you least expect it, you can get chewed up and spat out the back, whether it’s cramps, mechanicals, bits of wire, or hubbards! That is what makes this event so great. You have the opportunity to test yourself, but you always have to be mindful that the end goal is to finish.
There were a lot of riders from the shorter events struggling in the wind, not helped by a few questionable choices of deep rim wheels in the crazy conditions. A tough day at the office for everyone!
Crossing in front of the Cotter Dam Wall, I knew I only had the uphill run on Cotter Rd to go, and catching the green light to cross the river, I knew someone was smiling at me today.
As I finally came over that last rise and caught a glimpse of the residential area behind Stromlo, my heart was racing. Only 2km to go and I could smell the sausages cooking at the finish line. At Fitz, even the entry to Stromlo is uphill (no joke!). At the end of such a brutal day, it’s just a reminder that you need to stay alert the entire time.
I made the final turn into the Stromlo Park and headed for the 300m straight (and downhill!) run to the finish. The marshals were waving flags and telling me to slow down. Noooo! However, in a surprise bonus, my wife and kids were right there on the finish line to see me arrive, my youngest one jumping up with excitement to see me. As I crossed the timing mat a wave of emotion came over me. This was an incredibly tough day, but I had achieved my main goal to be the first rider home, and proven to myself that I can do a ride of this difficulty level with the bare minimum of stops. I have also now qualified for the Alpine Ultimate 320KM event at Bright in January.
At the finish I was able to sit down and have some lunch with my kids from the awesome BBQ that they had running. That was the best sausage sizzle I have ever tasted! We all sat there and watched the other riders coming in over the finish line, and we soaked up the atmosphere while my legs recovered enough that I could walk. Looking towards the sky we could tell that it was about to rain again, and my thoughts turned to the riders still out on the course. You poor buggers! Somehow I had managed to avoid the rain all day. It was just those laps of the carpark in the morning where I got wet!
This is a fantastic event. Sure, the weather sucked this year, but this does not take away from the ride itself. You have to expect changing conditions for an all day ride, and at some point you will get wet so you might as well enjoy it. If you want to test yourself, this is the ride to do it on. The support is fantastic, the organisation second to none, and you get to spend the weekend away from Sydney. Just finishing the event is a massive achievement.
For Ando, I hope you have better luck next year. You have smashed out the climbs this year and even joined the Hells 500, so I thought this was your year!
For all the other riders that gave this a go, whether you finished or not, you are all winners!