“Are my legs cooked or is it just really steep?”
“Mate, either way it’s just brutal”
That was the extent of the advice I could give to the guy I was riding alongside up the last big climb before the 90k turnaround. In my case it was really steep AND my legs were cooked.
Fitzs Challenge fits the bill as one of those bucket list events, like Husky or Ultratrail Australia, you just have to do at some point. It’s important to know it’s not a race as the organisers reminded us at the start, it’s a personal challenge. That’s the Audax way.
I was doing the Classic. 165k or 100 miles in old school numbers. There are 2 longer distances topping out with the 255k Extreme and 2 shorter distances, 50k being the easiest. I had toyed with going longer even as late as Saturday morning but this was all about banking some good miles prior to L’Etape in December. I hadn’t even done any real rides other than on Zwift post Hounslow, 3 weeks earlier. Doing something that would certainly have me reaching into the pain barrel really wasn’t an option as it was still empty. The Classic is still a very honest test and exactly what I needed.
Fitzs starts at Stromlo Forest Park just 16k out of the centre of Canberra. The Classic heads NW briefly before running South to a turnaround at 90k. It then runs back on itself until 13k from the finish where it shortcuts back Stromlo.
A few storms had rolled through in the early hours of the morning but come the 7:30 start it was clear and moderately warm. Temperatures were warm enough to not really need any sort of insulation but I started with full finger windproof gloves just for a bit of extra comfort. I had my raincoat ready to carry but ditched it before the start. Positive thinking.
This would be my proper first ride on my winter project, a Cervelo S5 VWD. Having just had an updated model releaased, the VWD was going for an insanely cheap price. I built it up with various bits I had acquired over time and ended up with a very nice build bang on 6.8kg (with pedals and PM). I was looking forward to getting it on the road but also moderately nervous about whether I had tightened everything right, that the brakes were OK and that the wheels would be fine (I was running tubeless Chinese carbon). One annoying thing I noticed was a slight blister on the rear tyre on the Saturday evening. Fingers crossed it wouldn’t blow up mid ride!
The ride started off pretty comfortably. I was happily in the front bunch which was moving at a comfortable pace. The only negatives were the bunch almost parked up on any slight incline and it was pretty evident that too many were not particularly groomed in good bunch riding behaviour. Wheels were everywhere. I was content to simply push through on any climb and slowly work my way forwards.
Come the first big climb things really splintered. I paced up the hill well but a couple of riders in front lost the wheel and a group of maybe 15 got away before I noticed. I pushed hard for a good stint to try and get back on but solo in the wind it wasn’t going to happen. Eventually the other 2 riders slipped back and we worked together about 200m behind the lead group. This was much easier than riding solo.
It was at this point I got very loose on a corner descending one of the big hills. I’m not sure what the problem was but probably part the fact I am a bit rusty on bike handling, part the bumpy road and part the fact that the front end of the S5 is renowned as being a little bit soft. Either way I wasn’t in the game of taking any more risks so decided to back off on all future descents. I would normally catch the other 2 riders pretty quickly at the bottom in any case.
The slow descending eventually meant that the bunch behind would swallow us up about 10k before Fitzs hill. Some of these guys were descending like their lives were worth nothing. I really didn’t enjoy this especially since the moment the road headed uphill they would go to pieces.
On the flatter sections there were only a handful of riders actually doing any work. Far too many would make it 5 riders from the front and just drop in. Pretty poor form really.
I had a couple of turns on the front before drifting back as Fitz’s approached. I figured everything would split up on that climb.
Fitzs Hill, the namesake of the race, comes at the 73k mark and is 2.5k at 10.7%. It’s a solid 15min or so effort and combines with another 2.5k climb at 5.8% just before the turn around to give a total of 400m of ascent in about 15k. The bunch did indeed splinter in an instant and I headed off uphill with another rider.
The gradient of Fitz’s is pretty taxing given my lack of k’s. Even with my 36/28 combo my cadence was a snails paced 63 average for the climb. The smart riders had a 32 in the rear and were spinning up happily.
Come the final climb up to the turnaround it was just a case of keeping things safe and making sure. As per my intro, my legs were at least at risk of getting cooked way too early in the day.
At the turn around I took the opportunity to have a brief rest and refuel. Might aswell take advantage of it not being a race! A couple of packets of chips to hold off any cramps and a few snakes for energy. Then I headed off again.
Straight out of the turnaround around the climbing starts again. At least I was reset. Even though on paper reversing down Fitz’s is a big downhill its peppered with constant uphills. The whole of the course is like that really, if you aren’t going down you are going up. There is very little in the way of flat ground out there.
At about the 4hr mark a northerly wind kicked up. At times the gusts were very noticeable in both speed and bike handling terms. Every hill crested out of the wind shadow and the descents were all exposed to the wind. At least I didn’t need to ride my brakes to control my speed descending!
As the course flattened out I found a couple of other riders and managed to get some decent shelter and share the effort a bit. This was much needed as I was really quite spent by this point. Unfortunately, we all nearly missed a turn (I didn’t see a sign but maybe it was there somewhere) and once I had gotten myself moving again they were gone and I was all alone again. Come the gravel pit aid station I was really just needing to know how far was left. I couldn’t figure it out in my head so decided to check my phone… no reception… dam. Checking the map now, it looks like only 16k.
I would stop again for a drink and gel and another failed location check another 8k down the road. My body by now was reminding me it wasn’t conditioned for spending 6h on a bike with my lower back and shoulders aching. At this point my only option was to push on to the finish (which was only 20mins down the road).
In the end I would finish in bang on 6h and 20mins. A decent result and in the end I still had more left in the tank than I expected.
Fitz’s proved to be a great event. It was run very well and in a low key way. My only real criticism being a couple of missing signs and some pretty poor bunch riding skills (not the organisers fault!). I guess its possible I just missed the signs, or someone had removed them. I have always admired the Audax ethos and one day might just find the time to do something bigger under that banner. Probably once I can’t trail run anymore 😉
Looking forward to L’Etape now!