We’re basking in rarified air, and some bright early afternoon sunshine, at Fall’s Creek.
The popular Ski Resort town is playing host to the finish of Stage One of the Herald-Sun Tour today, and we’ve decided to make the two-hour trek, after watching the riders head off from Apex Park this morning.
The trip itself provides spectacular scenery. I let my imagination run riot and draw a comparison to those magnificent sweeps of mountainous landscape that provides a highlight of the continental TV cycling coverage.
They’ve headed out the Oxley Flats Road, linked up with the Snow Road, pushed through Myrtleford, then Bright and Mt.Beauty, before beginning the torturous 30km ascent which will take them to the finish line at ‘Fall’s’. It’s 174km – and a good portion of it involves back-breaking climbing.
Hardened bike fans have been licking their lips at the prospect of a potential ‘match-race between three-time Tour de France champ Chris Froome and the ‘Columbia Kangaroo’, Esteban Chaves – both masters of the hill-climb.
On the trip up we passed something like 150-odd riders of all shapes, sizes and age, who have decided to tackle the mountain. They’ve headed off from Bright or Mt.Beauty early in the morning and progressively arrive, pushing furiously towards their destination, as we settle in with a hamburger and cuppa.
We recognise a few of the Wang boys, who have now completed the ride and greet us with the message that they’re ‘completely buggered’.
It’s a sport that develops a rare camaraderie. Most remain in the saddle well into retirement and love to gather and compare notes about recent deeds and their brilliant feats of bygone days.
As someone said, you can have people from all walks of life – doctors, restaurant-owners, public servants, delivery-men, retired teachers and ex-footballers, to name a few – but no one’s fussy about what their past-achievements once they are embraced by the cycling fraternity.
We get talking to one bloke – a complete stranger – who’s describing his ride ‘up Buffalo’ yesterday.
“I did a PB. You know what it’s like – some days you get half-way up and things just don’t seem right. The legs are tight, you feel like you’re using up too much energy. But everything clicked for me. It was a great feeling.”
He was as proud as someone who’d just blasted an even-time century, or cleaned up a hot field in a blue-ribbon sprint.
The old duck on the next table must be something of a local identity; strikes up a conversation with anyone who’s within earshot. She’s been chewing one fellah’s ear for ages, before he obviously decides he has had enough.
Mid-way through her sentence he pulls out his mobile, dials a number and starts talking. She’s not fazed. I surmise that she’s become used to those sort of interruptions.
Someone yells out: “There’s been a break-away; numbers 3, 14 and 63.”
We wait patiently, because twitter suggests that they’d still more than half-an-hour away and a lot can happen. But most of the experts believe that, by the time they reach the top, Froome and Chaves will be right in the thick of the action.
I’m enjoying the atmosphere. We could be somewhere in the French Alps awaiting the arrival of ‘Le Tour’ peloton. Everyone’s full of anticipation.
Acres and acres of skinny silver limbs stand erect, and provide a backdrop to the huge blue arch that will greet the leading riders when they start to appear on the horizon in a few minutes.
I ask a local about the trees. ” In 2003 the bushfires came through and razed all those gums. That’s what is left of them,” he says.
The police motor-cyclists have all zoomed in – about twenty of them – and we reckon all that’s needed now are the unique dulcet tones of the legendary commentator, Phil Liggett, to completely set the scene.
And there he is. He’s just arrived, in the back-seat of a red vehicle. ” Wouldn’t you think old Phil would be able to command a front-row seat,” someone jokes.
To the surprise of the gathered throng, the first rider to make his way up the steep incline is an unheralded Australian, Damian Howson – a self-confessed work-horse for the celebrated Esteban Chaves.
The heavily-fancied favourites – Froome and Chaves – are in a group that arrives about a minute after the jubilant, but exhausted Howson.
Every cyclist is greeted with generous hand- clapping and the ringing of cow-bells. Thirty-five minutes later, a visibly distraught Danny van Poppell, who had been toasted by the crowd at Wangaratta earlier in the day, crawled past us.
The finish line still seemed a long way into the distance for the Dutchman, whose scintillating victory in the Prologue the previous day, had earned him the prestigious yellow jersey.
In a touch of irony, just as van Poppell reached his destination, Howson was mounting the podium above him, to accept his ‘maillot jaune ‘ as the new leader of the race. It was a classic case of being relegated from a ‘ camellia to a turd’.
But that’s cycling for you, as they say. And the race moves on through the North-East and Goulburn and Yarra Valleys before it reaches its conclusion at Kinglake on Sunday.
It’s great to see sportsmen of the highest calibre strutting their stuff. And when all their reservoirs of energy have been eroded and they’re relying on guts alone, as they were at Fall’s Creek, you realise what a tough caper it is in the world of pro cycling……