There was much banter on the blogs in the run up to the inaugural running of the ACE250 and I even dropped the "B" bomb at some point in time - yes, why not add Buffalo to the ACE250 to make it the ACU310. Little did I know that that little nugget would stick...
Within hours of completing the ACE in 2010, the Back of Falls in the hot sun and a blistering Tawonga had me thinking, tick, done, move on please. Except I didn't, I couldn't and I haven't.
A good friend of mine, Josh, had been forced out of the first 3 Peaks event by the atrocious weather and a lack of lights and had unfinished business. That's how the "tick, done" loop had morphed into me rolling out of Falls Creek at 7am in 0C one Sunday in late April. We never did get rid of the arm warmers or the leg warmers or the winter jackets or the caps or the full fingered gloves although I did get a snooze in the sun at the General and we finished with a below zero ascent of the Back of Falls and across the High Plains in the pitch black with the wind and the stars for company.
By now, the seed was more than planted and 2011 ticked around with another run, this time starting at the Blue Duck Inn. Fresh legs put a new perspective on the Back of Falls with perfect weather and a night time descent into Omeo the highlight. Even stomach problems couldn't dull the excitement with the ever faithful can of Coke the rocket fuel home to the Blue Duck.
An ever expanding crew rolled out from Falls in 2012 - from 2 to 3 to 7 for this edition - and some (literal) warm up rides on Buffalo and Falls Creek the previous day (in 37C) were replaced by a cool overcast day - perfect and a whole lot better than the scorcher that had accompanied the Hells 500 on 3 Long 5 High on that previous day. Perfect became trying as the skies opened on us on the far side of Tawonga and soaked us through to Harrietville. Jackets were donned for the ascent of Hotham and the usual swooping drops below CRB and the summit were replaced by 20m visibility, rain and swirling winds. Never has the General offered a more inviting haven of warmth, tea and hot chips.
Wearing everything we had, we dived down into Omeo where the sun was out and we were back to shorts and jerseys - a little reminder of the ever changing mood of the Alps. With the handbrake off and a cheer squad from the Hells 500 crew (not to mention their "motivational" signs on the Back of Falls) we barreled home (and back through the drizzle on the High Plains) to a steak dinner at The Man.
Which all leads me back to where I was going with this. 2013. The year of the ACU310. Actually, feeling in the form of my life after the 2012 edition, I had planned on an attempt at the ACU two weeks later in March, but a landslide on Buffalo put that idea to bed for another season. The 2013 edition was to run in conjunction with the ACE250 but with a midnight ascent of Buffalo ("that's the maddest thing I have ever heard" said Mr Colin Bell). I'd even roped in a co-conspirator, Marty, but alas, attempt two, was not to be either. This time, bush fires had closed the Great Alpine Road and while four assaults of Buffalo may have been an equivalent substitute, it was not one that filled me with excitement!
So here I sit, three days after finally completing the ride that had been in my head for 3 years. It had been a nervous run up, the fires finally dying down only for landslides to let rip on the GAR and close the road. We were promised it would be open for the long weekend and, four days out, it was and we were in!
I went to bed in a good state. Normally I am nervous before such a big ride but not this time. Maybe it hadn't sunk in. Maybe it was just too damn hot in the tent to think? The alarm went off before I had gone to sleep or, at least, that is how it felt. A 3am start is never pleasant!
I was anxious about the descent of Buffalo in the dark - wallabies and wombats the main concern and not so much the road itself. Within a few hundred metres of leaving camp, I was broadsided by a wombat. It came out of the dark and headbutted my rear wheel. Someone I stayed on the bike but I was now spooked and the sight of three more wombats and a deer by the gatehouse did nothing to calm the nerves. I was hearing and seeing creatures out to get me everywhere. The climb passed uneventfully. Climbing in the dark is hypnotic. All there is the gradient ahead for the next 50 metres. Nothing else. No distractions. No sound, just your breathing.
I turned at the Gap - no need to add any more creature filled kms - and descended like I was in the streets of Kabul, eyes scanning left, right, ahead. It was uneventful right up to the little climb out from the gatehouse. I looked down into the valley at the lights for a second, looked back, and there in front of me, no more than 2-3 metres ahead was a very large deer. Fortunately I wasn't going very fast but had I not avoided it, it would have still hurt. It flew across the road and I lived to tell the tale.
I met Mark at the bottom. He said I was quiet. I said I was stressed!
We picked up Frank and Misha and rolled turns in the early morning light to Harrietville. Misha and Frank went ahead and Mark and I rolled together, amazed at the extent of the fire damage (which continued past Hotham to Dinner Plain). Re-grouping at Hotham, we swept down towards Dinner Plain, filling our bottles, before pressing on to Omeo. A gut busting refuel and we headed into the building heat.
The majestic section through to the Back of Falls felt longer this time. Perhaps the legs, perhaps the heat, probably the inevitable anticipation of Pain Lane.
As ever, the fellowship was shattered on Pain Lane and we all retreated into ourselves to battle the 15% relentless gradient and the 38C heat. Stare at your feet, stare at your hands, stare at the road ahead. Whatever it takes to keep turning the pedals over and resisting the urge to step off the bike. Eventually Misha and I came through Trapyard together and rolled our way across the High Plains to Falls Creek just in time to see some of the early finishers from a brutal 3 Peaks slog their way up the hill. Two spectators asked if we were glad to finish. We explained where we had been and that we had 70 more kilometres to go yet. Their eyes were on stalks! We shrugged and drank.
By now hunger was kicking in and energy levels were bottoming out so another feed was in order while we waited for the others to join us. We rolled down Falls to a scene of carnage. There were broken bodies and spirits (and the odd machine) everywhere. People lying under bushes on the road side, seeking solace in shade and a cold spring. People pushing bikes - its a long way from Bogong Village to Falls if you are pushing. We shouted encouragement but really it was a false promise to those deep in the hurt box. We probably looked like some of the early finishers blasting past with cheeky grins. We weren't but we had still paid for our efforts to date. As the heat built with every passing kilometres, my mind raced ahead to Tawonga Gap.
Oh Tawonga Gap, your slopes may never press above 7% and you may be a mere speed bump at 7km (after the 3 HCs totalling 74km of climbing) but you know the meaning of pain. 2010 has lashed me particularly hard where I hadn't been able to drink enough water or pour enough over my head.
Done and dusted. 310km, 5700 of climbing. An epic day!
So is my love affair now over? Hell no. I will be caressing the slopes next season for sure. In what format I do not know but you will see me there. What brings me back? Hotham, the climb that always hurts no matter how hard or slow you hit it? The real pain of the Back of Falls which serves up the reward of the majestic High Plains? That amazing contouring from Omeo to the Blue Duck Inn? It's all of the above and none of the above. It's the adventure - once you get to Omeo, there is no escape route. It's the company. It's the challenge, the achievement. It's what ever you want. Maybe next time I will take my time over a couple of days?
One thing is for sure, I won't be descending Buffalo in the dark again!
Ride data (for those that care about such things!):
2010 with Josh
2011 with Josh and Tim
2012 with Mark, Josh, Tim, Sam, Robert and Ian
2013 ACU310 with Mark, Frank and Misha
Special thanks to all the support over the years - Audax, Trishe, Pete, Hells 500, Team Van Bergen, Tracey and Lisa!