If you'd told me this time last year - with the memory of an average performance in the Elite C Grade upperlimb.com Cunningham Classic still fresh in my memory - that in 12 months time I would be sprinting to 4th place in B Grade of the Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic, I probably would have called you a liar.
For those of you who aren't familiar, Grafton to Inverell is something of a pilgrimage for Australian racing cyclists; at 228km and about three and a half thousand meters of climbing, it's widely acknowledged as the toughest one-day race on the Australian Road calendar. Hearing stories of the gruelling climb over the Gibralter Range followed by a hundred and forty kilometres of head-wind didn't just sound unappealing - it was enough to put me off. As a... larger gentleman... more suited to time trialling than long tempo climbs, this was not the terrain I was built for.
That said, with a decent base from a solid year of training with some riders much stronger than me, and a bit more targeted training leading up to the event, race day came around before I really knew what was happening. The training had been done, the legs were as good as I could get them, the nutrition plan was in place, and after two days of carb loading I swore I'd never eat pasta again. The starter's gun rang out across the quaint streets of Grafton, and the day was underway.
This year saw B & C Grades combined in a single peloton for two finishes, so the first 5km under Neutral Conditions were a bit hairy with 170 jittery riders in a single lane. After a few crashes even before the flag was down (one of which nearly ended my race - sorry to the guys who's arm I'm pretty sure I broke when I rode over it to avoid the crash!), it occurred to me that the back of the group was not the place to be.
After a few more kilometres, the nerves of the peloton seemed to settle a little and the group relaxed into the race. The first 70km of the race was through some beautiful countryside with a bit of gentle tempo climbing, delivered us to the bottom of the Gibralter Range and was a pretty congenial spin, with no one yet ready to do anything too silly.
The Gibralter Range soon came into view, presenting us with some great steady climbing through dense, subtropical jungle. The Gwyder Highway up the Gibralter Range is a very well engineered road, with 16km at an almost exactly even 5.7% gradient, adding another 1300m of climbing in around 47 minutes. It was during this climb that a break of four riders formed, and over the length of the climb they had put about a minute and half into the group. Any respite promised by the top of the climb was short lived, as we were greeted by the block-headwind this race is so famous for and which has been absent for the last few years. This was bad news for a four-man break, good news for the bunch.
An extremely important aspect of a race of this length and demand is having a well rehearsed nutrition plan. Knowing what to eat, how often and at what point in the race can be the different between finishing and being forced to withdraw (especially for big riders like me who burn through a lot of fuel). I make this point because I came very close to having to withdraw at the top of the Range after my contingency salt intake (oral sodium chloride tablets) didn't replace the types of salts I was sweating out, and I began to cramp terrible at only the 88km mark. The top of the range unfortunately doesn't mean the end of the climbing, and up each hill I continued to suffer and get worse until I had to stop, get off my bike and stretch my cramps out. Faced with the options of either riding the rest of the race out by myself or pacing back onto the group, I time-trialed solo back onto the lead-bunch, which had gained about 35 seconds on me at this stage. Fortunately, the extra blood delivery to the legs resulting from this effort actually improved my cramp situation quite a lot, and I was able to nurse myself through to the first feed with the aide of a few solo efforts off the front, much to the confusion of the bunch.
The feed mercifully delivered the salts I so desperately needed, and with Feed 1 and Feed 2 only around 50km apart, I was able to replace all my losses and get the fires stoked and burning once again. The break-away lead, which had peaked at nearly three and half minutes ahead of the peloton, began to disintegrate in the wind, and only a few kilometres past the second feed zone at Glen Innes, the break was caught.
With no more chasing to be done, the focus of the stronger riders in the lead-bunch of around 25 was to keep the pace high enough that those sheltering at the back were unable to get their heart-rates down and so deny them time to recover and consolidate. And so the next few kilometres played out, with power-climb after power-climb being used to whittle the will of the peloton down so that any attack would go unanswered.
With 50km to go, a pretty meagre attack off the front by four of the stronger riders, followed a small time later by another two, was enough to take the legs out of the peloton. Luckily for me, I was in the initial break of four, and with 20km to go the break had drawn a now unassailable minute out of the bunch. The break worked hard to stay off, and the final 'pinch' (~3% for about 600m - relatively benign by normal standards, but a little different after over 220km) produced the decisive move of the race, with the winner - Paul Wilkes from Inverell - proving his race experience and attacking near the top of the climb. With 30m on the rest of us at the top of the hill and a fast 3km downhill section to the finish, the race was won, and the battle was for second place.
Those of us left in the break who had been working cooperatively for the last 50km now began a game of cat and mouse, each trying desperately to get to the back. The final turn into the finishing straight saw a stand-off, each of us waiting for the move to come from another. With about 200m to go, I saw movement from the corner of my eye and the sprint was underway. With a substantial crowd on hand to cheer the sprint into the finish, the last few hundred metres were a deafening blur of noise and bar-tape. In the end, my lack of sprinting experience got the better of me, and my reaction just a split-second too soon meant that I lead-out second and third place to the finish. The final result (pictured) was seventeen one-hundredths of a second between 2nd and 4th place.
If you're a racing cyclist, the Grafton to Inverell Cycle Classic is a must-do bucket-lister and with a bit of training and some concerted effort, it's a very achievable goal. It's a fantastically well run race, and despite all the pain and suffering, a really enjoyable event. G2I is cycling and racing at its best.
Kieran is a member of TeamKP and a regular contributor to the Kangaroo Point Cycling Club blog.