Leader’s Lowdown – L’etape Australia 2018 – Greg Boyd

Jindabyne to Jindabyne via Perisher – 1 Dec 2018

L’Etape Australia 2018 – Profile (3000m overall climb)
L’Etape Australia 2018 – Course

Leading up to L’Etape 2018, I was bemoaning the usual tale of not enough training and too much tasty food. I guess you could say, what else is new? ? Oh well, the extra kilos on my girth could provide more downhill speed! A slightly new course for 2018 seemed more logical than the previous 175Km iterations which had started near Thredbo and finished 175Km later in Perisher, which is not great when you choose to stay in Jindabyne. The new 170Km course would start and finish in Jindabyne and this made the logistics of travel more sensible as well as adding a finishing descent to Jindabyne. Previous years required awaking at stupid o’clock and travelling from Jindabyne accommodation to Thredbo for the start at the Skitube terminal (Bullocks Flat).

We left Sydney during the “biblical rain and flooding” in November with forecasts predicting similar rain in the Snowy mountains. It did pass my mind that it could be another wet-n-wild ride like 2017 but when we arrived in Jindabyne it was just some cloud, wind and a few showers – maybe third time lucky? With plenty of time to spare prior to the race on Saturday we setup camp overlooking Lake Jindabyne, complete with single track by the lake edge (mental note, bring MTB next time). Jindabyne was abuzz, although it was not at the extraordinary level of the first Australian L’Etape in 2016. Crews were busy setting up the village in the Banjo Patterson Park, located on the edge of Lake Jindabyne, with the statue of Pawel Strezlicki (Polish explorer & geologist) suitably draped in yellow pointing toward to Mount Kosciuszko.   Likewise, the town area was sprinkled with plenty of yellow wheels, bikes, flowers and other tour adornments. The weather forecast was predicting race day to be mid-20’s and sunny and the media was promoting that 4,000 riders would be competing. Friday arrived with a sunnier complexion and I walked down to the park and found a special line for foundation riders – bonus! Rego process was super-quick and also ran into Matt Keenan for a quick hello.

That evening, a customary Italian carb rich meal at Bacco Italian with an old university friend. Rob had sent me an SMS a couple of weeks prior announcing that he had entered L’Etape for his first major long-distance event. I guessed he would not have any problem as he trains in the Blue Mountains and previously raced in Triathlons. The only other Sydney Bike North rider I knew had decided to pull out, so I thought Rob was about it. At the end of the race I also discovered that James, Dan, Alannah and Mark also were in the L’Etape race. After a tasty pasta meal, it was early to bed to awake for a Start time of 06:50.

On race day, the morning sky was crystal clear, and the weather forecast was predicating 28C in Jindabyne and 19C in Perisher with NW to W winds. This would equate to predominate brisk head winds (30kph) but a section with tail wind from Eucumbene to Beloka. Eat some brekkie and gear up, only to find I had packed two right handed gloves ☹ I Thought about racing off to the bike shops but then thought no biggie, whacked heaps of sunblock on the back of my hands and thence final bike check and then just a short ride off to the start some few hundred metres away. A much more agreeable start than previous years jumping into a bus or packing the car and racing off to the start! I parked myself toward the top of hill in group #3 hoping I would spy Rob or someone else who I knew – nope! There was a good crowd building up at the side barriers and as per previous years Matt Keenan was talking 20 to the dozen. A nervous energy could be felt amongst the riders and as usual a chat to whoever was nearby. Some on their first big sportive and others experienced campaigners. The lead group left promptly at 06:30 and soon we shuffled up. Somewhat amusingly, Chris, a rider next to me had to run off for a quick toilet break and his partner had to shuffle ahead and when Chris returned, we were gone! Chris just found his bike/partner not long before our start. He ended up running a similar pace and we often passed each other during the ride.

 Probably a few hundred riders in the #3 group and we rolled off in the bright early morning sun, crystal clear sky with cheering supporters lining the road as we left town. All good fun and as per other L’Etape races on road spectators and support creates a great atmosphere – not to mention fully closed roads. I was riding toward the top half of #3 group and very conscious of conserving “matches” as Col de Beloka and Col de Kosciusko climbs would require plenty of energy.  No sign of Rob, but at the finish I found out he had a flat just after the start very conveniently near the Shimano mechanics who fixed the flat very quickly and even supplied an extra spare tube resulting in little loss of time.

 The first 20Km is uphill, with the odd dip down, and firstly climbs up past east Jindabyne with plenty of spectators, cheering and hi-fives, though I guess with closed roads the choice was sit at home or come out and enjoy the spectacle. The kids were keen for hi-fives and I duly obliged, probably slowing my progress but good fun particularly with closed roads and plenty of yellow roadside decorations and bikes. As per previous events this made the 170Km race quite special and enjoyable.

After about 15Km we were catching up to group #1 and #2 riders who were slipping backwards. Soon we turned left off the highway, into the headwind with steady climbing and undulations toward Rocky plain. Doesn’t get much better, on your bike with fresh mountain morning air, clear skies and beautiful countryside. I latched onto a cruisy group, slower than what I could do solo but allowed plenty of energy conservation. Had a great chat with a lady from London who told me that Canberra weather is wonderful, well in contrast with London weather it is great! She also mentioned that energy prices in Australia are much more than UK – funny about that. After cruising along for 5 or 10km we turned a sharp right turn and now a tail wind. Whoosh-ka off we go, the group quickly scattered, and we zoomed off individually toward Berridale. The tailwind had certainly picked up my pace and rolling into Berridale past the roadside lined with green bikes. The Garmin was indicating close to 30kph average.

The rest stop in Berridale had riders scattered across and blocking the road, which required a quick unclip and shuffle through the throng before riding on toward Dalgety. Initially no groups, but after a few km one could be seen maybe a km ahead, so pressed on and latched on for some more energy conservation. Met up with a blind rider, Toby and steerer Graham on a Tandem. Turns out they live in the next suburb to me and we discussed various rides around the northern suburbs. We rode along and chatted as we passed Dalgety across the old timber plank bridge. On the left of the bridge is a sign which says erected in 1888, some mental maths means said bridge is 130 years old. I then think how old are those stadiums in Sydney? Oh well the road is tending up, keep pedaling.

With the breeze at our back we climb over the undulations out of Dalgety. I am impressed with Graham & Toby’s progress on the tandem and to our left vistas of big sky scenery, wow! and the distant hillsides are lined with windmills. I guess the wind blows around here, thankfully today a tailwind and warm sunny weather. The Beloka rest stop came up quickly, where Toby and Graham continued on to save time and given the weight of their tandem bike, they were planning on walking Beloka. I checked the results prior to this write up and they finished in 9 hours, an excellent effort on a tandem.

I decided to stop at the Beloka rest stop for a bottle of electrolyte to drink and a bottle of water to pour over my head, a banana then off to battle the Beloka “cliff”. Probably less riders walking than in previous editions of L’etape, I guess the word has spread and appropriate gearing/training has been applied. Nonetheless, it is a hard climb, it doesn’t get easier and not to be under-estimated. Toward the top of Col De Beloka was the sign “Even Mat Hayman’s legs are hurting.” – absolutely! In the 2016 & 2017 L’Etape Chris Froome commented that course is worthy of Tour status and a hard ride.

After steadily winching up Beloka, happily the “match-box” at the summit was in better supply than previous years. I rode past the water stop as it looked too crowded and headed toward Jindabyne into the headwind. Scattered riders, no groups for shelter and individual riders were slower and/or not interested in teaming up, so I pressed on solo to Jindabyne for a planned stop with Emma and Marion at the Barry Way roundabout.

A couple of steeper pinches coming into Jindabyne and the last downhill into Jindabyne was quite steep and the speed nudged up into the 90’s. I had to slow and pull in left to meet up with Emma and Marion. A cold can of coke, dump some gear and collect some SIS gels for the upcoming 23Km climb. A chat and apparently Rob is due in a few minutes, but then whoosh-ka he flashes past without stopping – obviously on a mission! Some more chat and then I eventually get around to pedalling off into the headwind and warm weather (mid 20’s) to the next water stop at Thredbo river and the out and back run to/from Perisher. Again, on the road no groups but plenty of scattered riders in front and the same when I look back. The heat was rising, and baking heat was starting to reflect off the blacktop. Just before Thredbo river the leader of the race speeds past, in the opposite direction, complete with police escort and Shimano mechanic. Then it was a few minutes back to second place, looked like he had it won. A quick look at the Garmin for current time, some mental calculations of distance remaining and the fact they had started 20mins before our group and I estimate 5 hours. Later at the finish we find the official time for Darcy Norton was 04:48 – stunning! Speaking of official timing everyone’s official time was based on the first start which added 20 odd minutes to group #3. Not sure why they don’t quote the net time, and use the timing chip on the bike.

Somewhat depressingly I realise I still must get up the Col de Kosciuszko climb to Perisher before speeding back down to Jindabyne. Mind and body reconcile themselves to a few more hours of work and I just keep steadily pedalling toward to the stop at Thredbo river to stock up on electrolyte and water. As before, a bottle for drinking and a bottle for pouring over oneself for cooling. A young girl was walking through the throng of riders with a box of bananas, so I thank her and grab a banana. Awesome volunteers and support on this event. Thankfully the climbing now was less brutal than Beloka, albeit into a cool headwind.

The climb was steady and only occasionally dipped into double digit % grade. I had earlier thought a gilet might be needed for the mountains, but the warmth from the sunny skies remained and it was only the cool headwind that provided any relief. The side of the road was increasingly “littered” with riders stopped, walking or lying down in the shade. At Wilsons Valley a couple of locals were perched in arm chairs in the back of a ute enjoying the passing parade with a couple of beers. I give them a thumbs up and continue onward. My water supplies are dwindling but at this stage I am thinking I should just make the next stop 7 km from the top. I also note, no flies, unlike the swarms we had to endure in 2016!

A steeper little pinch as we get to Rennix Gap (1600m) and the full force of the cool headwind. The ride is supplemented by many brief chats as you pass or are passed by someone. Sometimes a conversation with too much information and just before Rennix one rider is rightly moaning about numbness and tingling in the nether regions (I guess you can figure the real language used). A very quick mention of saddles with cut-outs and I peddle on quickly thinking, too much information! Then, not much further along I pass another rider who comments that I have the cleanest cassette he has ever seen. I guess this comment would resonate with some Bike North riders!

Once over Rennix gap we descend past the Guthega turnoff, then climb up past Sponars resort for the final water stop. By this stage I am out of water and fill the bottles, as before, one for drinking and one for cooling and then back on my way with 7km to go. A few hundred metres up the road we climb over Dainers Gap (1650m) and descend again. I think, just one more climb up to Smiggins and thence into Perisher at 1800m. After all the head wind, amazingly at the base of the Smiggins climb a tailwind for the first half past Prussian Creek (I guess named by Stezlicki) and once it became a bit steeper the solid strong head wind returned. Yet more groups at Smiggins cheering us home and a bunch of ladies bashing pots and pans, they inform me they are the Smiggins percussion group.

Just after Smiggins, Mat Hayman zooms past and encouragingly says “just a short push, keep going” Mat had left about 90mins after our start group, but I figure he has had a cruisy ride and plenty of stops and socialisation. I also note that at that time I have picked up a “passenger” looking for a tow and in a world of hurt. Even with the altitude, wind and open mountains the temperature at Perisher is 20C with the sun beating down.  A quick U turn at Perisher and I stop for a coke and some salty chips. A queue has formed for selfies with Mat and I consider a selfie, but I guess he wants to get home and I and don’t like queues. I grab the coke plus handful of chips and then Mat comes by and he suggests chip are a great idea, a quick chat and I congratulate him on his career and Roubaix win and then off we go. It is now 1:30pm with 33km to the finish and I guess we should get back to the finish by 2:30pm

Sadly, the descent back to Jindabyne has 3 small climbs equating to about 400-500m of climb, but the previous headwind is now a tail wind, so while a bit hot, the climbs over Dainers gap and then over Rennix gap is relatively painless. Then an awesome 17km zoom back down toward Thredbo river, swapping places on the way down with a #1 start group rider and at one stage his pockets disgorge their contents and dodging these missiles at 70kph was somewhat interesting. I pull alongside in a few hundred metres and mention his loss of gear. He says “sorry, Bro and I am not going back” and on we hurtle toward the Thredbo river passing other riders and police bikes, making sure we avoid the witch’s hats lining the centre of the road. I could not help but feel for the riders still climbing up as the heat was climbing as was the breeze.

All too soon we cross the Thredbo river and one last climb in the heat – now around 30C. I ride along with another tired #1 group rider. He says he had a split tyre just after the start and has been riding with a patched tyre, and very happy to be on the home run. Once we get to the top of this last little climb, off we go. In the distance scattered riders ahead and looking back the same can be seen. Along the undulations and the distant sight of Jindabyne nestled alongside the lake is somewhat exciting – almost home! Thence a run into Jindabyne and with about 400m to go a team in Mondrian kit (like La vie Claire) are trying to line out across for the ideal finish photo, however, other riders are pushing past for their best finish time! I decide to slow and hang back and let them get their finish photo. I roll through the finish and Emma and Marion are cheering at the finish, complete with L’Etape flags – awesome. Apparently somewhere on the Col de Kosciuscko climb I had passed Rob and then about 10mins later he rolls into the finish, job done.

Overall a great event with the best weather for the three Australian L’etape events with fabulous support along the ride and car free!  Surprising that more riders didn’t make the effort and seems everyone I spoke with said they would be back. Total ride time was 7hr 36 mins, live results displayed 670th out of 1601 riders with moving time of 7hr 16mins, 23.1kph avg and 3009m climb. Curiously and disappointingly the official results show my ride time as 7hr 58mins which is the time from when the first group started and in group #3 we were at the back waiting and shuffling forward for our turn to start. Hint: start in group #1 and you get a much better official overall time!

At the event village we enjoyed a rest and real food under the park’s shady trees with Rob and Marion. The trusty TREK Emonda also enjoyed a well-earned rest under a shady tree.  A yummy curry purchased from the Thai takeaway in the event village went down well. In the distance I spy James who joins us in the shade for discussions re the race. James mentioned that his friend Dan also completed the race, plus he said Alannah and Mark had also completed the race. So, as it turned out there was five others in the race that I knew, curious that our paths did not cross on the road during the 170km!

Overall a great ride, no cars, awesome atmosphere with the new course and convenient start/finish in Jindabyne. Overall just a few aches and pains supplemented with some nasty sunburn on the back of my hands, even with re-application of sunblock – mental note check you have left and right gloves! Make sure you turn up for 2019, early bird entries are already open. Will I be there? Too right (pun intended!)

Check out the 2018 L’Etape highlights video

Greg Boyd
Dec 2018