Amy’s Gravel Fondo 

The cyclocross race yesterday combined with the gravel ride today formed an inaugural “off-road festival” or as I like to call it the “festival of fun” as part of the Amy’s Gran Fondo event. As it was the first time the gravel event had run, I had no preconceptions about the ride. I knew there would be some tough climbs and it would be very scenic. I didn’t know how many people would participate and how hard they/we would ride. I didn’t even know how the timing would work. So my plan was to enjoy it: rock up on the day, ride out, and see how I felt.

It turned out there was no timing system – I love an event that is purely about participation and enjoyment, to the extent that you can’t even find out how you compare to others. There should be more of it 🙂 

I estimate there were 150 or so participants, with around half on mountain bikes. 

The obligatory start line photo. What a beautiful day!

We set off from the centre of Apollo Bay, quickly through town and about 5km of flat roads before starting the proper climbing. I started mid pack, then made my way past a number of slower riders and got to the climb in the front 25%-ish. 

My plan was to take the climb pretty steady as I knew it would be a long one. I’d started at a pretty strong pace (a bit excited by the glorious sunshine, I couldn’t stop smiling) and continued at a solid pace up the climb, probably sitting around threshold pace. Even at this early stage the riders were pretty strung out, so I passed a few and got passed by a few others. There was one lady about 50m in front of me that I’d been keeping my eye on as she looked pretty fast. I was very slowly gaining on her up the climb. Then we got to a little flat section, I clicked through my gears and sped up, and suddenly I’d caught and passed her. A few minutes later I could hear that she had gotten onto my wheel. 

This first climb was a long one, around 13km all up. It started on bitumen, then progressed to good quality gravel road, then there were a few bits that were muddy and you had to pick the right line. The gradient wasn’t too steep though, and there were some flat bits for recovery, plus it was early in the ride so we were feeling fresh. 

The lady I had passed, Kayla, came up next to me about halfway up the climb and we rode companionably together. When we had enough breath to speak we chatted about where we were from and what kind of riding we did. In fact, we found we were so well matched in pace that we did the whole rest of the ride together which was really lovely. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Upon reaching the top of the climb, we had 4km of descending with no pedalling required. The gravel was a little bit looser and bumpier than I’d expected, so I stopped to let some air out of my tyres which really helped with grip in the corners. 

Straight after this descent we got to the next climb. I hadn’t really studied the course so I didn’t know what I was in for. Although even if I’d looked at the profile it wouldn’t have prepared me for how hard this climb was. It was 4km long, which doesn’t sound too bad. But there was not a moment of reprieve the whole climb, and every time I checked my Garmin it said the gradient was 9%. Now on the road this is hard enough and I’d be in my easiest gear. But my easiest gear wasn’t available to me so I was suffering there to start with. Plus this was a proper off-road climb. The ground was just soft enough that it felt like it was sucking out half the power you generated. Then there were the bits with small rocks that were so bumpy it felt like you couldn’t get a full pedal stroke in without being bumped out of the saddle. This is where the mountain bikes had the advantage. My cadence was 50rpm (compared to my preferred climbing cadence of 70+) and I was suffering. I really wanted to stop but I was so determined not to. I couldn’t look further than 5m up the road because I couldn’t face the view of continuing uphill.

After 30min I eventually made it to the top. Kayla had disappeared up the climb ahead of me but waited at the top, where we decided we should take a breather and a photo. 

Me and Kayla, trying to look like we haven’t been suffering uphill for the past 30min

We had done 27km at this point and had 17km more to go before the next rest stop. Thankfully that was the last of the proper hard climbing. The next 17km were undulating and through absolutely stunning scenery in the Great Otway National Park, and we had company and conversation to distract ourselves from how tired we were! 

The spectacular Great Otway National Park. Temperate rainforest country.

The road continued to be proper off-road with significant potholes, branches and muddy bits. We were ok with this though, because it was flatter! We then turned on to a bitumen road, which was like heaven! It was also downhill, one of those great descents that is not too steep, you can pedal a bit or just coast, the corners were sweeping and no brakes were required. There was around 5km of this, then a similar amount uphill but at a gentle 1-2% gradient. 

Loving the sunshine and the scenery!

Then we were at the rest stop! We figured we had about 400m more climbing to do, based on the stated elevation climb for the ride. So we both scoffed a handful of snakes and I shoveled in a piece of carrot cake, in spite of neither of us normally eating during a ride nor eating sugar! 

So we set off and I realised that we were at the top of Skenes Creek Road, where we ride on the same road as the Gran Fondo riders for a short section. We then turned onto Wild Dog Road, which was gravel but well made, and the descent continued. This descent was the reward for all the hard climbing we’d done – it was scenic, relatively smooth, with flowing corners, no pedalling and minimal braking required. The only downside was that it was fully in the shade and because we weren’t working hard we quickly got cold. I could not feel my hands at all, even after we finished it took five minutes to get the feeling back. 

After a spectacular 15km and 30 min of descending, we turned onto the Great Ocean Rd. We could see Apollo Bay which was only about 3km away – it turned out there was only 20m of elevation gain in the last 19km, so all that sugar and the 10 min break at the rest stop was probably unnecessary! 

We finished in around 3 1/2 hours (including photo stops but not including the rest break where I stopped my Garmin, then accidentally saved the ride up to that point!). Our average speed for the first 44km with 1160m of elevation gain was 15.5kph, which is what I was kind of thinking I’d do for the full ride! Then the last 19km almost all downhill we averaged 28.5kph. 

I know I worked hard because I recorded my all- time best power for durations of 10 min to 90 min. My power meter on my cyclocross bike reads a bit high though, so this can’t be compared to road rides. However, I also recorded my all- time highest average heart rate for durations of 60 min and 90 min. Now, either I can hold a higher heart rate on my cyclocross bike compared to all my other bikes (road, time trial and mountain bikes), or my heart rate threshold has significantly increased in the past few months. Further investigation is required to find the answer to this. 

I celebrated completing the ride with a well- deserved coffee; I love my coffee so much that it was thoughts of coffee that got me through the tough bits! 

Two of my favourite things – good coffee and my cyclocross bike 🙂

Thanks Apollo Bay for hosting the Festival of Fun this weekend and turning out some good weather. I think the Amy’s Gran Fondo rides are some of the best in the country, thanks to spectacular scenery, safe riding conditions with closed roads, and good organisation. I hope to be back for more exploring another time! 

Apollo Bay main beach

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