He’s worn yellow. He’s won Milano-San Remo. He’s a two-time Olympian. And he has a reputation for being one of the most likeable riders in world cycling. After spending several hours both on and off the bike with Orica-GreenEDGE’s serial history-maker Simon Gerrans, you’ll get no argument from me. It was a breath of fresh Victorian alpine air to meet someone so successful at their chosen endeavour yet still so, well, normal. What you see is really what you get with this unaffected 33-year-old from Victoria.
The reason for our Sunday morning rendezvous with Mansfield’s most famous lycra exponent was a personal escort up the Mt Buller Tourist Road to help promote the latest iteration of the 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge, being held across the Victorian High Country from 18 October 2013 to 3 March 2014.
Gerrans emerged solo on the road from Sawmill Settlement bang on time at the foot of the 16.8km ascent, roughly 220km from Melbourne and 30km from Mansfield. It’s a ride he could probably do in his sleep; he’s done it so many times over the last 17 years, including his first ever road race for his beloved Mansfield Mount Buller Cycling Club whose membership has swelled to around 120 in recent years, no doubt due at least in part to the unprecedented run of success Gerrans has enjoyed everywhere from Ballarat to Corsica.
In my role as a self-confessed pro cycling tragic, I’d of course watched, read about and followed Gerrans’ career with just as much interest as the next Aussie cycling fan for many years. But this would be the first time we’d ever met. As he rolled up and unclipped, I was instantly struck by his immaculate appearance. He’s not a big man (I never asked, but suspect he may have played rover on the Aussie Rules field as a kid). But even in his off season – “my busiest time of the year,” he confessed – Gerrans looked every bit the accomplished WorldTour pro, resplendent in his Orica-GreenEDGE team kit astride his team-issue Scott, with barely a bead of sweat despite having been training for the best part of three hours prior. As he introduced himself to the group, I also noticed the tiny Dura-Ace cluster on his rear wheel, in stark contrast to my 11-28 Ultegra dinner plate. If I was a younger or more distinguished rider, I might have been a little embarrassed by such a technical disparity. But this writer knows his limits on the bike. And, yes, there are many. I was going to be very happy indeed just to make it to the top on this overcast and chilly spring day.
A quick chat and photo opportunity at the Mirimbah gates and we were away. Seven riders. One a stage winner in all three Grand Tours and ex-National Champion. The rest of us, riders of varying abilities who, frankly, couldn’t believe our luck to be doing such a thing in the first place.
You can read the brochures and websites. You can reconnoitre the ride on Strava. You can watch the Youtube clips. But even if you know what’s coming on a genuine alpine climb like Mt Buller, if you’ve not had a lot of experience with this kind of riding – like me – you simply don’t know how you’re going to react until you’re in the thick of it. On this particular morning, I was right up to my ears.
The Mt Buller climb, perhaps not as formidable as some of its 7 Peaks siblings (the hors catégorie Mt Baw Baw is by all reports a complete beast with gradients of over 20%) can be broken into three reasonably distinct sections. The first third, whilst not mountain goat steep at 5-8%, is certainly no picnic. There’s no false flat to ease you into the climb. You need to be ready to work, physically and mentally, right from the start and find your rhythm quickly, or it will catch you out. Sadly on this ascent of Buller, my second in 24 hours, I would be caught out.
The pace was steady, certainly not fast. Yet little more than 2km into the climb, I was beginning to dangle off the back of the Gerrans-led bunch. Not by much, mind you. But enough to know I was in trouble, especially given there was another 14km to go. As the rest of the group chatted merrily with Gerrans about everything from Strava segments and nutrition to his recent hip injury, I was somewhat preoccupied just hanging on as my elastic stretched like strands of molten mozzarella. The ride leader and our host from Tourism North East, a local called Steve who’s known the Gerrans family for years, suggested I go to the front. I suggested otherwise. If I was going to suffer, I’d rather do it off the back where I could wallow in my own limitations free from the gaze of a living legend of Australian sport.
Feeling like a two-wheeled ball and chain, I encouraged Steve and the bunch to keep going at their own pace, whilst I continued at mine. They didn’t need to be told twice, for moments later I was unceremoniously dropped. The plan was to regroup at about the 8km mark, roughly halfway up the mountain. This duly happened in a roadside stopping bay, which was good in some ways, bad in others. Given the far-from-ideal way I was feeling at that moment, it would no doubt have been better to keep going straight past when I eventually caught the bunch, to maintain what semblance of rhythm I still had. But how often do you get to pick the brain of Simon Gerrans in such an intimate setting?
It was here, over energy bars and electrolyte drinks, we probed Gerrans on his approach to training. In sharp contrast to the majority of club and social riders I know, he explained the distances he covers each week, month and year are largely irrelevant. What matters is structured time in the saddle. “It’s all time-based,” Gerrans says espousing the age-old cliché of quality over quantity. “I’ll average about 23 hours on the bike in a typical week, and build that to around 30 hours leading up to the bigger races.” For him, a long training ride will last anywhere between five and seven hours.
Like pretty much all top riders in 2013, Gerrans know his ‘numbers’ in intricate detail. For example, he quite matter-of-factly explains his threshold means he can stick with the top riders on a climb for 12 minutes at 450+ watts, before topping out at 15 minutes. “That’s why I’m so suited to the Ardennes Classics,” he adds. Short, sharp bursts versus long, sustained pain-fests. My mind shifted to Old Willunga Hill as he spoke, something of his own personal plaything in the last couple of years at the Tour Down Under. By the time you read this we’ll know if he’s managed to feature in the mountain-top finish for the third year straight where, rather than Valverde and Slagter, he may find himself going head-to-head with countrymen Cadel Evans and Richie Porte.
We keep the training conversation going. When it comes to strength work, Gerrans reveals he typically completes 350+ watt power efforts at a leg mincing 40-60rpm. The practical implications of these words take a few moments to fully register; when they do it gives us all a rather serious reality check, reinforcing exactly why he’s in the Orica-GreenEDGE kit. And we’re not.
Years of experience may mean Gerrans has a finely tuned sense of what his body is capable of throughout the season. But he’s quick to point out so do most of his rivals, especially given the ever-increasing reliance on sports science and ride data. In the tiny principality of Monaco – occupying an area of just 2km2 on the French Riviera – where he and many of the WorldTour pros are based during the European season, he explains there are very few secrets. Riders from different teams regularly see, meet and even train with each other when at home for a mid-season freshen up. “We all know who’s in form, we can see what their programs are,” Gerrans says. “Besides, I actually have to ride right past Thor’s (Hushovd) place to get home every day when I’m training – our wives are good friends too.” He finishes the explanation by adding something that, euphemistic or otherwise, is about as close as we’ll get all day to the issue of doping. “Really, it’s pretty unusual for someone to do something completely out of nowhere these days.” Indeed it is. As recent history has shown, more often than not where there’s smoke, there’s invariably fire.
I may be a middle-aged writer standing on the side of an alpine road. But at this moment I’m really just a pig in mud; a cycling fan. I could happily listen to Gerrans all day, except that it’s clouding over yet again and we’re only halfway up a mountain that’s getting colder by the minute. The forecast suggests it may even snow as we roll closer towards the 1,600m summit. Our own mini Milan-San Remo experience with someone who’s actually won it. Life could be worse.
Given the world of pain I’m about to enter, it’s entirely fitting our ‘half-time’ conversation with Gerrans ends on something dedicated cyclists everywhere know a fair bit about: suffering. Specifically, we ask what he thinks about when he’s aching his way up a gut-busting climb?
“Well, it happens a lot,” he says with classic Gerrans humility. “I just remind myself that if I’m really suffering, chances are so is everyone else. That’s what it’s all about – who can suffer the most.” I think about these words. Yes, I’ve heard them before. But never quite in this context. For I’m 100% certain I’m about to suffer the most of our seven-rider bunch as we complete the final 8km of the climb. Sadly, this is born more from a total lack of talent than any special ability to resist pain – and it certainly won’t get me to the top of Mt Buller first. Darn it.
The group clips in and rolls away once more. Within 400m I’m off the back just as expected. This time I don’t even try to hang on, nor does the group try to hang on to me. It’s for the best. It feels like I have shin splints from yesterday’s ride, although I’m pretty sure I don’t; coming from Sydney where even the longest continuous climbs top out at about 5km, I’m simply calling upon certain muscle groups a lot more than usual. And, yeah, it hurts.
Suddenly out of nowhere I find myself thinking about another top cyclist: ex-pro and Subaru NRS Race Director, Scott Sunderland. Specifically, I recall some advice he gave at a training camp I attended in early 2013. I can’t remember his exact words. But it was something along the lines of: “When you’re feeling awful on a ride, change things. Eat, drink, change your gearing, or position on the bike. Anything.”
So that’s what I do. I try getting out of the saddle for longer, 25 revolutions at a time, first in my 28 and then the smaller cogs. I shift my hand position. Wide on the tops. Tight on the tops. On to the hoods. I even try climbing in the drops for a few hundred metres. It’s hard to tell if any of this makes much of a difference, but if nothing else it occupies my mind. A small win.
Despite my best efforts, I’m quickly reacquainted with a familiar cocoon of discomfort as I continue to grind my way towards the top. As Gerrans and Co disappear around a bend in the distance – the final time I’ll see them until the summit – I look at my Garmin and notice my heart rate is down by about 10bpm on yesterday’s ascent. Tellingly, so too is my strength. Considerably. It’s a sure sign of fatigue and no amount of energy gels or bars can help me today. I just have to deal with it and keep turning those pedals. The thing that weighs heaviest is I’m acutely aware the nastiest part of this climb is yet to come; the final 2km.
Spinning ever upwards, I take a peek over my left shoulder. Nothing. I crane my neck to the right and look at the road 50 metres above, virtually parallel to where I am now but heading in the opposite direction. Not a soul. Moving as slowly as 8km/h on some of the switchbacks, I enter the final third of the Mt Buller climb. I’m guessing I’m at least five minutes behind the Gerrans bunch. Maybe more. There is one small blessing, however. The wintery forecast seems to have kept people away, and whilst the Buller road is open there are few bikes or cars travelling in either direction. I can focus entirely on my rhythm and my breathing, not getting hit by traffic.
To this point of the climb the road has taken us largely towards the left. But now the switchbacks begin, the road steepens and we meander more purposefully to the right. Always upwards.
Unlike the reasonably technical Buller descent, where you spend most of your time concentrating intently on the next corner, the slow speed of the climb means there’s plenty of time to take in your surrounds. The scenery here is different to the NSW Snowy Mountains, where I’ve spent far more of my time albeit mostly as a skier, not a cyclist. The trees that flank the roadside are standing tall to attention, lamp-post straight as they reach high up to the heavens. Many are also shedding their winter coat leaving sinewy strands of bark everywhere which, at first glance, may or may not be branches ready to trip you up as you roll by. I’ve not ridden all 7 Peaks as yet, but the local vegetation on this particular one feels more like ‘bush’ to me than ‘National Park’. When we drove up to our hotel earlier in our stay, I wondered aloud where all the snow gums and alpine shrubs were? The answer is they’re there – but only at the very top. I’m sure it looks far more beautiful in winter under a pristine blanket of snow. Everywhere does.
I’d done a reasonable job of distracting myself for another kilometre or so by staring at trees and fallen bark, but was snapped back to reality when, at about 1,400m, it began to sleet. I’ve ridden in plenty of foul weather over the years – thunderstorms, freezing cold, pea soup fog, even the choking smoke-haze from bushfires just a fortnight earlier – but this was a new experience. Part of me felt bad-ass as tiny shards of ice peppered my face, hands and arms. The other part felt, well, hypothermic. Fortunately, conditions changed again shortly after as they’re prone to do in alpine regions, and by the time I hauled my aching legs up the final few 13%+ sections from the Lower Tyrol car park, through Hell Corner and into the Mt Buller village, the summit was largely precipitation free.
The rest of the bunch had arrived some time earlier, of course, and were cooling down rapidly, so there was no time for small talk on my somewhat delayed arrival. A final photo opportunity in front of the Mt Buller sign and it was off for a hot shower and protein bar, before lunch with Gerrans and the group, courtesy of the Mt Buller Resort.
In a cruel twist of fate our accommodation for the weekend was the Arlberg Hotel; superbly-located at the very top of the resort in the shadows of the Blue Bullet chairlift station. Most of the group, clearly feeling far better than I, rode up the ridiculously steep service road to get there. Bugger that. I threw my bike in the hire car and drove. Cleats and all.
The recuperative powers of a hot shower never cease to amaze. With renewed vigour and dry clothes, we regrouped 30 minutes later at the Powder Bar in Buller Central for an extended and refreshingly candid chat with Gerrans over coffee, hot chips and toasted panini.
As snow began to fall more heavily outside, the lunchtime conversation jumped about like an Olympic mogul skier. We covered a remarkable range of topics and Gerrans answered every question with good humour and openness.
Peter Sagan? Fantastic talent. 2013 Milano-San Remo? “I thought the worst of the weather was behind us after the bus transfer and was seriously underdressed for the second half. But I was wearing #1, so I had to give it a crack.” The team bus incident on Corsica? “We had no idea the finish had been moved, lead-out trains started flying past us way too early. Then we heard on race radio the ‘finish was as normal’ – it was all pretty confusing.” Orica-GreenEDGE signing the Yates twins for 2014? “I haven’t even met them yet, do you know if they’re identical?” Trappings of success? “Not many, but I do have one toy: a Porsche 356.” Strava competition between riders? “There’s not much with the younger guys, but Robbie (McEwan) is into it in a big way.”
One of the stories that fascinated me most was how Gerrans actually came into the sport in the first place. There are a few myths floating about. But this was our chance to set the record straight. And, after first getting us to tell him what we’d heard, he was happy to oblige with the facts.
Whilst his dairy and beef farming father Allan is a keen and capable rider, and his younger brother Andrew has recently been signed as an osteopath for Orica GreenEDGE in 2014, Gerrans didn’t come from a cycling family. A late bloomer by any definition, he didn’t even start road cycling until his mid teens, when it formed part of his rehabilitation from a motocross accident on the family farm near Lake Eildon.
Was he a natural? “Absolutely not,” recalls Gerrans with an endearing trademark grin. He does admit, however, he was very fortunate. Around the same time as his accident another local, the recently-retired Phil Anderson who’d bought a farm in nearby Jamieson, was completing his directeur sportif accreditation and needed someone to coach. That someone turned out to be Gerrans, who’d actually known Anderson for some time; well before he realised he was actually an international cyclist blazing a trail for generations of Aussies to come. “I don’t think Phil rated me very highly at first,” Gerrans confesses with a smile. Luckily for Australian cycling, both men persevered.
Much has happened in the ensuing years for Gerrans, both before and after his celebrated signing from Team Sky as a foundation rider for Gerry Ryan’s GreenEDGE project in 2012. Stage wins in all three grand tours. Milano-San Remo (2012). Tour Down Under Titles (2006, 2012). A podium finish at Amstel Gold (2011). The National Road Championship (2012). Olympic Games appearances in Beijing and London. Even two days in the prized maillot jaune during the 2013 Tour de France. He could jump off his bike tomorrow and have one of the finest palmares of any Australian cyclist in history. But don’t count on that happening just yet.
At 33 Gerrans isn’t the youngest guy on the WorldTour, so what about retirement? “I’d like to go for another five years or so, but time will tell,” says the married father of two who, somewhat counter-intuitively, admits he actually recovers better now than he ever did when he was younger. “I didn’t really get going until my mid 20s, so hopefully that’s working in my favour.” Does he think about life after cycling? “All the time.” But when we explore what that future might look like, Gerrans says he doesn’t really see himself as a directeur sportif or even getting into rider management. “Maybe I’ll do something completely different. Or if I do stay in cycling, more in the sponsorship or business side of things I think. That’s always interested me.”
We talked about the upcoming National Championships, to be held once again in Bunninyong roughly 300km south-west of Mansfield. Having already won the title, does he still covet the green and gold stripes – especially given it happens so early in the season and is renowned for being something of a lottery? “For sure,” he says without hint of hesitation. “This might sound a little selfish, but I do think the timing would be better if it was held after the Tour Down Under, though.” He points to the example of Orica-GreenEDGE teammate Luke Durbridge who was unstoppable in early 2013, taking out both the Road and ITT National titles. “Luke really peaked in January, but probably struggled to reach the same heights again all year. It’s hard for the WA boys, though. The weather over there is so good through November and December, you just want to ride all the time.”
Confident, humble, eloquent and polite. The longer the day went, the clearer it became if there was a textbook on how to carry yourself as a professional athlete in the 21st Century, Gerrans might just be the perfect role model. All the more impressive is, whilst Orica GreenEDGE provides all manner of support staff to assist its riders with their physical, technical and nutritional needs, Gerrans points out the PR side of things – at an individual level, at least – is largely left up to them. Unlike many elite athletes whose judgement, or more accurately lack of it, can sometimes put media, fans, sponsors and even teammates offside, it seems Gerrans just ‘gets’ it. He’s the complete package on and off the bike. No wonder everyone likes him.
Simon Gerrans has built a reputation for being one of the shrewdest riders around. As our lunch draws to its close, we gain a final insight into this very quality when he reveals that rather than have to pilot his Scott down the snowy and potentially-precarious descent towards Mansfield, he arranged for his father to drop his car at the top of Mt Buller earlier in the day. Allan then rode home, downhill pretty much all the way in the best of the day’s weather, allowing Gerrans to drive himself home at his own leisure; warm, dry and safe. Very clever. Very Simon Gerrans.
7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge
Now in its sixth year, the 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge continues to draw more and more riders to the Victorian Alps from all over Australia. Over 5,000 separate climbs were registered in 2012/13 and, at the time of writing, more than 5,500 x 7 Peaks passports had already been issued for 2013/14. Last year 283 individual riders officially completed all seven peaks. However it’s suggested many more chose to keep their passports as mementos of their two-wheeled vertical awesomeness.
Unlike epic one-day rides such as the Three Peaks Challenge which requires entrants to haul themselves up three major alpine climbs in a single 235km journey and can last well over 12 hours, 7 Peaks is a more accessible way for most riders to enjoy the alpine climbing experience. You can ride it at your own pace at any stage over the five-and-a-half-month event window from 18 October to 31 March. You simply pick your climb. Pack your 7 Peaks passport. And you ride to the summit to get your stamp.
Some riders target a few cols on the one weekend. Some do them all in a week. Others prefer to tackle them one at time. It simply doesn’t matter. Which is, of course, the whole point. Whatever kind of rider you are, whatever kind of bike you ride, everyone is welcome. On my first ascent of Mt Buller for example, a race dubbed the ‘Sunset Mountain Challenge’ run by Peloton Tours, I was joined at the start line by a delightfully eclectic mix of riders. There were entrants on road bikes, mountain bikes, reconditioned step-throughs and even one guy from Mansfield who zig-zagged up the entire mountain on his white and orange steel fixie. We chuckled at the bottom. But when he appeared at the top in a highly respectable time of 1 hour 22 minutes, we applauded as one. What an achievement.
Whichever strategy and bike you choose, should you manage to conquer all seven climbs before the 31 March cut-off, be sure to purchase your 7 Peaks finisher’s jersey. It will cost you around $110, plus plenty of pain and sweat. A small price to pay for all the bragging you’ll be able to do.
Mt Baw Baw: 12.5km 7.7% av 962m
Mt Buller: 16.8km 5.9% av 985m
Mt Buffalo: 20.9km 4.8% av 1,013m
Lake Mountain: 21.3km 4.3% av 908m
Mt Hotham: 30.8km 4.2% av 1,279m
Falls Creek: 23.4km 4.2% av 980m (Omeo side)
29.8km 3.9% av 1,164m (Mt Beauty side)
Dinner Plain: 42.4km 2.2% av 934m
Peter Maniaty’s 7 Peaks experience was provided courtesy of Tourism North East, Mt Buller Resort Management, Peloton Tours, Overflow Cottages in Mansfield and the Arlberg Hotel.