Giro della Donna (Part I)

I’m going to get this report rolling by listing off the excuses. I have none. Whilst I’m a little bit disappointed I didn’t crack the top 10 as I’d aimed to, I still did pretty bloody well and am able to take much away from the event. Now that is out of the way, I’ll get into my experiences of this year’s Giro Della Donna.

The event is held out of Warburton, about an hour twenty east Melbourne and just into the Victorian Alps. Consisting of 2700m of climbing over 107km, the course includes some of the state’s most spectacular roads, a 13km section of gravel, and finishes atop Mt Donna Buang, at 1200m. Last year I placed 27th overall, and I was looking to well and truly top that effort.

An early start, 7am, meant an early alarm. I was fortunate enough to have an NBRCC mate pick me up from Hawthorn, but I was still up at 4:30am to ensure I had enough time to check everything was good to go. The drive out in the early morning light was suggestive of a miserable day to come, and getting close to Warburton, the peaks we were to climb were shrouded in cloud. With the car parked and bikes unloaded, we had just enough time to say hello to the rest of the NBR group, but I barely made the warm clothing drop off to be transported to the top of Donna for the later descent.

6:50am and faster riders were being called to the front, as the organisers would send everyone off in waves. Entirely self-seeded, I found myself pushing my way through the throng to settle in about 50 riders from the front. With a 20km neutral roll-out, it wasn’t too much of a concern, and I could see many quality riders starting behind me, but I was nervous of the rubber band affect that can easily find you in a spot of bother before the ride really became testing.

Pic from Cycling Tips. (c) Tim Bardsley-Smith
Pic from Cycling Tips. (c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

7am and the start was punctual. Leaving from the car park of the footy oval, I was cautious but confident to pick a smooth path out of the start chute to settle in on the road. Too often at races I’ve seen people get overly excited and cause some trouble. With the RACV car leading the way, and a motorbike scout ducking up the road to monitor any surprises on the closed road, the bunch found a good rhythm and I was able to have a chat to some mates whilst remaining careful.

The opening is a 20km stretch of undulating road, with the bunch large enough to really suck you along effortlessly. I managed to have a quick chat to Andrew Stalder, an u23 national road race champion from not too long ago, and someone I expected to give the climbs a serious nudge (he got a mention a few weeks back in Bolton up to Bonds). 15km or so in, he pulled over for a nature break. I considered doing the same and was aware that he may have been using it as a tactic to take out the first and only timed KOM section. Whatever he did, it worked for him.

Last year I found myself caught out too far back before the ascent of Reefton Spur. I didn’t want to be picking my way through the field again this year, so at the 18km mark, I started moving up the right hand side. The course turned left onto the reef ton Spur climb, and whilst everyone seemed to be grabbing a handful of brake on the left, I turned in hard from the right, with speed, and soon found myself at the front of the pack, immediately behind the RACV car. It wasn’t a good strategy for the KOM time, as my timing chip would be first over the sensor, but it felt pretty good to be setting the early pace that would dramatically thin out the bunch.

For perhaps the first kilometre, I stayed on the front holding steady power. My legs were protesting, but I was determined to keep an eye on the front runners. I’d look over my shoulder frequently, and found a small bunch had gathered with a good gap on everyone else, and it wasn’t long before we were riding two abreast and I was able to fall back the line to do my best to hang on.

A few more would eventually bridge across to us, including Ben and Dylan, and the bunch must have been close to 20 strong. I think I found myself most comfortable at this point – the pace had settled for the most part, and my heart rate had settled to low 170s – something I was confident of maintaining. Between 10 and 15km up the climb, the bunch was gradually thinned out to 12 riders. The tempo seemed to suit me, and I was able to hang on during several small, fast descents that stretched it out to single file. At the 15km mark, though, it felt like the screws had really been turned in up the front. The pace was largely dictated by Brendan Canty (now a World Tour rider), and with my heart rate causing me some stress, I made the hard decision to back it off a bit to save something for the rest of the ride.

Canty turning the screws. I'm still holding on at this point, but you can see they definitely stretched it out
Canty and Stalder turning the screws

I was pretty upset for a moment. I mentally made the decision. Perhaps I could have held on for the next five kilometres, but it really felt too stressful. I immediately calmed down when I realised I could still maintain a very good pace, and I had another rider to work with. I could see one more rider in front who had been dropped from the bunch, so I figured they hasn’t surged too hard, and I was hopeful to catch them on the Acheron way, before the final climb of the day.

Part II still to come.

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