Cycling The Great Ocean Road Race

The inaugural Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race, along the iconic Australian highway, sees James Henderson battling coastal crosswinds and tortuous gradients to slay 111km – before comparing notes with the man himself

Cyclists in the 2015 Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race
Cyclists in the 2015 Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race | Image: Graham Watson

Most people know of the Great Ocean Road, that highway beaten into the outback by demobbed Aussie sweat and muscle in the 1920s. And any follower of cycling will have heard the name Cadel Evans, the Australian rider, whose finest hour was probably winning the Tour de France in 2011. After 20 years on the pro circuit, he has just retired, aged 38.

This year the two came together: Evans’ final professional race, along the Great Ocean Road on February 1, was part of an inaugural event that carries his name – the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race – and allowed him to return to his roots. He is from the coastal town of Barwon Heads in Victoria and used to ride these roads in training. Curiously it all began there for me too, rather longer than 38 years ago – given that I was born in Geelong – where the race starts and finishes.

Training for a race is always a challenge but I had a double whammy: I now live in England and the amateur event was taking place on the last weekend of January, one of the bleakest times of the year. Unfeasibly there were some days of reasonable, if blustery and cold, weather in which to reclaim some fitness, starting from the flabby base of Christmas excess. Not ideal, but better than riding inside on a resistance trainer. Eventually, I made my way down to Melbourne, into, well, blustery and warm Victorian weather.

Adventure lifts the spirit and so cheerily I head around the western shoreline of Port Phillip Bay to Geelong, whose waterfront is already set up for the event. There’s a whole weekend of cycling ahead here. The pro women’s race happens on the Saturday at 11.30am and the pro men’s race, which includes Cadel Evans, is at 11.20am on the Sunday. The Momentum Energy People’s Ride, for which I have come, sets off at 7am on the Saturday.

That familiar, exhilarating sense of jangling nerves returns. The course will be spectacular, but those of us on the People’s Ride have 111km ahead of us. What will the weather be like? The wind? Will I get the best out of myself – get to the end even? For my pasta dinner, I am shown to Table 54 – spookily also my race number.

Cadel Evans (right) alongside the race’s winner, Gianni Meersman
Cadel Evans (right) alongside the race’s winner, Gianni Meersman | Image: Con Chronis

Next morning, as it gets light, the crowds filter down to the Esplanade. In Australia, much as in Britain, cycling is popular with a certain demographic. Around me are all the middle-aged men in Lycra you could ever imagine, in groups and with their families. And a few women of middling years too. As we cram onto the road in our numbered groups, a murmur runs through the crowd. The public address system has announced that prime minister Tony Abbott is taking part. The murmur is because he is embattled at the moment, partly over his decision to knight Prince Philip a few days before.

After 30 minutes or so we are released along the waterfront in our groups, all 3,500 of us. We are shepherded by marshals as Geelong morphs instantly into suburbs, old villas and the newer estates and malls, through crossroads and roundabouts before reaching open countryside, farms and rectangular paddocks.

A friendly element of biking group-think develops. Riders ahead shout instructions and point out the occasional potholes. We’re riding into a crosswind initially, so ahead of me the stream of cyclists snakes comically left and right in the gaps. House numbers seem unfeasibly high – was that 1175 Barwon Heads Road? Signs flash by – “Go Dad!”.

An hour in we hit Barwon Heads itself. The crowd is out, lining the roadside, cheering and waving. It’s also the point we hit the coast. And a headwind. We emerge into seaside dunes and a golf course, then a grinding oncoming blast over the flatlands. The race is gathering its rhythm, and I have found my pace and place. I shuffle back and forth among certain race numbers – 233, 1077 and then, confusingly, 1044 and 1444 – for miles.

Riding out of Torquay is mild torture. I hadn’t expected hills, and find myself on a roller-coaster of freewheeling followed by gears and strain. Slopes rise and fall, then swing left and right – briefly there’s a detour above Bells Beach before we rejoin the Great Ocean Road. And then the headwind, which channels back in to taunt us again. If there’s any justice we’ll be blown north right back to Geelong.

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And so it happens. We turn inland, into forest, and all goes silent as we ride the cushion of the wind. It licks at us with tiny hot flails. I fall in with a group riding two abreast, a chain gang, 20 of us, cranking it out at near 40kmh, wheels within a few inches of one another. This is what it’s all about, the pleasure of unimpeded speed, working as a team, dragging one another along, slaying kilometres. It is going well. We can make it.

All of which is suddenly undercut by backchat, slathered with Aussie irony.

“Saw your lower bracket creaking on the hills back there, Jeff…”

“It’s not the bracket’s in trouble, mate, it’s me knees and hips.”

“And your heart, eh?”

“Yeah, yeah.”

We continue, groups breaking and reforming, for 50 minutes, out of the forest and into pasture, past homesteads and tiny settlements, across the Princes Highway. Suddenly the group has dissolved. Turning 90 degrees, I am reminded, by a sideways blast, how much the wind has helped. There are 20km to go. The home stretch. Or so I’d like to think. As always, there are tricks to come. The course organisers lure us into Geelong on the sweeping gradients of a freeway, banked and cut to minimise climb and descent, but once in the town they take us up any hill they can find.

The mind’s playing tricks again – “Come to Geelong to be born….?” I puff. “Come to Geelong and die, more like.” We scoot over a metalwork bridge and then face surely the steepest hill in Christendom. I’m standing in the pedals, up to my highest gear and struggling to keep them turning, thighs straining and lungs burning.

You would hope that for every action there is an inverse. Not here – the downhill, long forgotten, came first. We turn a corner… and the climb continues out of sight… Grrrr. But it heralds the back straight. Eventually, eventually, we’re on the hilltop, back among the Victorian villas and the heart of town. The bay looms into view, and the promenade, and the crowds. And the finish. Phew. Done it!

The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong
The Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race in Geelong | Image: Con Chronis

The jangling nerves subside into satisfaction. I look around. Riders are lounging on the grass bank watching other finishers. Then the women’s pro race sets off. And a few hours later they pass through again, riding circuits of the town. Talk turns to the men’s pro event next morning and Cadel Evans himself. Can he win? Might they let him?

OK, there are a few things to make clear at this point. Our efforts out on the Great Ocean Road – which, granted, felt near as dauntless and stouthearted as building it in the first place – are not quite what we’re dealing with when it comes to the pros. They cruise at closer to 60kmh than 40. It’s unbelievable what they put themselves through. As for the murderous circuit of Geelong, well, they’ll be doing that three times.

Next morning, before the race starts I drive down to Barwon Heads to stand with the crowd. The “Go Dad!” sign has become “Go Cadel!” There’s a cheer as cyclists begin to appear, and then a roar of manic flags for the main group containing Evans himself. They are gone in a flash, out onto the Great Ocean Road. By the time they reappear in Geelong two hours later, I am back to watch them hurtle around the city circuit and race for the finish line. Unfortunately, Evans didn’t win the event, but he finished a very creditable fifth.

Later I manage to speak to him about his recollections. Clearly Barwon Heads was a special moment: “The flat section through my hometown in Australia was spectacular, with all the fans and many friends on the side of the road. To ride there in my final race as a professional was surreal.” I ask if there were sections he wanted to see included in the course? “I would never compromise the route integrity for sentimental or personal purposes, but I was pleased to see the race follow Thirteenth Beach Road, which I have ridden so many times over the years.”

And his favourite sections?

“The various climbs around Bells Beach…” (The mild torture as I remember it.) “With so many fans braving the elements and scenic beauty of that location, it made for a special experience, just before the crosswinds took hold! Also the sections of the 2010 World Championships Road Race course in Geelong.”

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The race that carries his name has been scheduled for three years. It is staged after the Tour Down Under (a six‑stage UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) event held around Adelaide), which attracts many of the professional cycling teams. I ask Evans what hopes he has for the Great Ocean Road Race?

“I’d like it to complement the Tour Down Under and be sanctioned as an integral World Tour one-day race on the UCI calendar. It can help continue the amazing growth of cycling as a sport and a healthy and enjoyable recreational activity in Australia.”

Keen to saddle up foranother cycling challenge? Try Turning Back The Gears – a vintage escapade, or collectors might like shopping inspiration with second-hand Road Bicycles.

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