Le Tour de High Country
By Adrian Rollins*
Pity the French.
Every year they host one of the biggest sporting events in the world, the Tour de France, and every year they come away empty handed.
The three-week cycling marathon showcases the French countryside but not, it seems, it athletic prowess.
Glance through the list of winners in recent years – from the skinny beanpole Brit Bradley Wiggins and jockey-like Cadel Evans through Spaniard Alberto Contador and the rider-from-Texas-whose-name-no-one-dare-mention – and there is not a monsieur among them.
You have to go back to 1985 to see the last time a Frenchman stood on the top step of the podium in Paris to shouts of allez.
And, with less than two weeks of the races 100th edition to go, it appears the dominance of the dastardly English-speakers is set to continue.
African-born Chris Froome from the British team Sky Racing is in the yellow jersey of race leader and, ably supported by his Tasmanian lieutenant Richie Porte, looks set to hold onto it right through to the finish – barring accidents and illness.
Earlier, Australia got its taste of yellow when Simon Gerrans, from the Australian-registered team Orica-GreenEdge, spent two days as race leader, before handing on the privilege to his South African teammate Darryl Impey.
Of course, it only falls to a tiny fraction of those who throw a leg over a bike to ever participate in the Tour de France, let alone lead it or win it.
But one of the beauties of cycling is that enthusiastic amateurs can get a taste of what it is like to be a professional – riding the same bikes as the pros (one of the quaint rules of the sport is that professional teams are only allowed to ride bikes that are available to the general public), and on the same roads.
And, occasionally, there is the chance to emulate the lifestyle of the pro, if only for a few days.
This was the case earlier this year when a group of about 30 keen cyclists (this writer included) descended on the Victorian alpine resort town of Bright for a four-day training camp.
For those bitten hard by the cycling bug, the Bright Boot Camp – run by David Heatly and Jodie Batchelor from Cyclinginform every February and November since 2007 – is about as good as it gets.
For four days, all we had to think about and do was ride our bikes in the morning, then eat and rest in the afternoon, go to the local pub for dinner (which included expert advice on cycling training, nutrition and equipment) before crashing out and doing it all again.
Which was just as well, because the cycling was physically challenging.
From Bright – which is just down the road from where Simon Gerrans grew up and started cycling – just about every road goes up, and in four days the group rode 420 kilometres and ascended 6300 metres.
While this is nothing compared with the distances covered by the pros, it was a testing regime for we amateurs.
The first ride of the camp was a 60 kilometre round trip to the top of Mount Buffalo and back.
The climb up Mount Buffalo is 18 kilometres long, with an average gradient of 5.6 per cent, and was used as a way to seed riders into one of three groups, which they would ride with for the rest of the camp.
Day Two was the biggest challenge – a climb over Tawonga Gap (six kilometres, 6.6 per cent gradient) before a 30-kilometre drag up Falls Creek (average gradient 4 per cent) and return.
The Falls Creek climb compares with any of the major Alpine or Pyrenean ascents tackled by the Tour, minus the crowds, the altitude, the quaint villages or the lung-busting surges.
The first half of the climb is deceptively gentle, rising just 400 vertical metres and lulling the rider into a false sense of confidence. It begins to bite at the 16-kilometre mark, where the road pitches up, and the gradient rarely drops below 6 per cent for the remaining 13 kilometres. Throw in a bit of a head wind, and it can be a grind.
But the reward for all the effort is a glorious, virtually traffic-free 30-kilometre descent.
The third day of the camp traditionally involves a gruelling climb up Mount Hotham, but a still-smouldering bushfire meant the road was closed and we instead did a 120-kilometre loop out to Beechworth.
The camp finished on Day Four with a 110-kilometre ride over both the Rose and Tawonga gaps.
True, Australia’s alpine country is nothing like the soaring slopes of the Alps.
But for those who hanker for a taste of the professional cyclist lifestyle and want to hone their fitness, but can’t afford the time or expense of a trip to the French Alps or the Pyrenees, a four day sufferfest in the Victorian high country is a very good – and far cheaper – alternative.
What: Bright Boot Camp (http://www.cycling-inform.com/bright-boot-camp-home)
Where: Bright, Victoria
How to get there: By car, four hours drive from Melbourne; seven hours drive from Sydney
Cost: $949 (incl accommodation); $574 (accommodation not included)
When: 1-5 November 2013; 21-25 February 2014
* Adrian Rollins is Editor, Australian Medicine
Image by Oliver Regelmann on Flickr, used under Creative Commons licence