Sonia O’Sullivan: Great Ocean race a perfect sign-off to summer
Thankfully my knee held up well as I got an inkling of what professional cyclists endure
Australia’s Cameron Meyer sprints for the line after breaking away in the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road in Geelong. Photograph: Mal Fairclough/AFP/Getty
Summer holidays officially ended in Melbourne at the weekend. The start of February means the schools reopen again, with that a return to the early morning routine of rushing out the door a few minutes behind time.
The Australian Open also marks a sort of ending to the season. It builds up for weeks in advance, and even with so many of the favourites knocked out in the opening rounds, Sunday’s final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal provided a totally engrossing climax.
With the head cheering for Federer, and the heart cheering for Nadal, it was one of those matches you simply didn’t want to end, before Federer just about shaded it. The Australian media embrace the event for all it’s worth, and for a while you’re left wondering what will replace the tennis now that it’s all over.
Unofficially, however, the summer continues for a while yet, especially in the sporting sense. Melbourne has a special way of embracing sport, creating an energy that spreads through the city, partly because so many people actively participate in so many sporting events.
So there’s always something on the radar to tune into. The Herald Sun Cycling Tour also started in Melbourne this week, before heading towards the Australian Alps. Friday night sees the start of the first ever AFL women’s championship, which has also been generating a lot of interest, and there’s also the first Nitro athletics series event here this weekend, which will see Usain Bolt racing in Australia for the first time.
We were away at the beach for the last weekend of summer, which coincided with the now annual Cadel Evans Great Ocean road race. My own activities have been limited a bit lately, due to a pain in my knee, but even still I packed the cycling gear and put my bike on the roof. Whenever a sporting event comes to town I find it hard not to be inspired to get as close to the action as possible.
After a frustrating few months of stop-start training, in running and cycling, I’d gone for an MRI scan the week before, hoping to get a more conclusive diagnosis. When you try all the conservative recommendations (resting, stretching, etc) you wonder is it time for something more intrusive, that only a look inside will reveal.
Okay, so I headed out on the Saturday morning, planning a short spin, and a close-up of the Great Ocean road race. I headed for Bells Beach, an undulating section of the race route, where cyclists were already thronging the road as part of the People’s Ride, which precedes the elite races.
Now, as anyone who rides a bike will know, once you warm up there is nothing better than spinning along in a big group, and I soon forgot the pain in my knee. Riding alongside the ocean, over one of the toughest climbs on the route, it almost felt like we were in a race ourselves. It certainly gives you a far greater appreciation of what the elite riders go through, the men and women, as they race over these same steep and twisting hills.
I didn’t want to ride too far, or too fast, so just staying relaxed in the bunch, wondering when I might turn off and head back home. The temptation to go all the way to the finish in Geelong was always there, even if that meant an extra 25km ride back. Only a bit like watching the tennis, and the Federer-Nadal match, there was also a feeling you didn’t want it to end. So, engrossed in the moment, I kept going.
I knew most of the road, although had never actually climbed the last ascent of the Challambra Crescent, toward the finish, which the elite men would have to race up three times. On the last approach, someone shouted a warning from the footbath to “get in the right gear, it’s a bit steeper around the corner...”
It’s a 20 per cent gradient in fact, only I had no more gears left, which meant standing on the pedals, trying to grind it out, dragging the bike and body. Plenty of people had stepped off their bikes, were walking up instead, and at that point we all knew exactly what the elite riders had in store, later in the day. Hilltop section After all that, there was still time to ride back towards home, and intercept the elite women’s race, just as it headed towards the steeper climbs. I’d chosen my spot at Bells Boulevard, where the road heads for the ocean, and you could feel the energy of the race as the people on the side of the road rang their cowbells, the police escort announcing the arrival of the race proper. The riders pass by in a flash but the wait is still worth it.
Later still I was home in time to see the climax of the road race unfold on TV.
The next day I decided to select a viewing point closer to the hilltop section, to get an even better view of the men’s elite riders as they passed, a few also standing on the pedals, grinding it out up the steep gradient.
It was a nice surprise to see Conor Dunne among the leaders at that stage, the young Irish rider who is part of the new Aqua Blue team, Ireland’s first professional UCI cycling outfit, who are looking to gather enough points that might yet earn them a place in the Tour de France.
Knowing exactly what he was going through, Dunne did every well to hold on to the King of the Mountain jersey at the end, even as his breakaway group were swallowed up by the peloton on the last circuit back in towards the finish line in Geelong.
It was the perfect way to end the summer holidays in Melbourne, my knee also feeling relatively pain free for the first time in a while, and ready for plenty more rides back home in Ireland this summer.