lIt is said that elite athletes have to be incredibly selfish to succeed. I thought about that as I rode my bike out the door and said goodbye to my pregnant partner, due in a few days, and our two-year-old son, who yelled, “I want daddy.”
It was early Friday morning and I drove an hour south of Sydney to Helensburgh, where the elite women’s and men’s road races begin on the weekend of September 24-25. The women will mate 164.3 km with 2,433 altimeters while the men will do it 266.9 km with 3,945 altimeters† The route includes the tough climb of Mount Keira, which is 8.7km long with an average gradient of 5%, but pinches at 15%.
I’m obviously not a top athlete and just hoped to get up the mountain without climbing off my bike. the organizing committee, Wollongong 2022had helpfully arranged for an official photographer to capture embarrassing moments.
I was drive the course with Mark Renshaw, an ex-professional cyclist and former world champion on the track, who is the safety manager for Wollongong 2022. There were also some local riders and other journalists riding to celebrate 100 days before the championships started.
We met at Cafe Diem for a coffee before leaving. We went up a little and Renshaw, who was riding in front next to Wollongong resident Samara Sheppard – who hopes to compete in the New Zealand World Championships – asked if the pace was right. “Of course,” I said. But I knew that rolling through Sydney’s Centennial Park for a few hours a week wasn’t the right preparation for taking a world class course. This wouldn’t work out.
Helensburgh is an elevated town on the south side of the royal national park – the second oldest national park in the world – on the land of Dharawal† The track initially winds through the woods and descends 250 meters to Stanwell Park on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
This 6.9km section will be neutralized on race day so the pros don’t crash on the first descent. Renshaw is so concerned about this prospect that he considers removing the reflective cat eyes from the middle of the road, despite the ridiculous cost involved.
From Stanwell Park, the race continues and riders will attack to get into the breakaway. It will make for spectacular TV footage as riders travel along Lawrence Hargrave Drive and over the famous Sea Cliff Bridge south towards Wollongong.
On Friday we drive 27.7km to Wollongong, admiring the twinkling ocean on our left and the dramatic Illawarra escarpment on our right. It’s a beautiful little road between blue and green that makes it easy to forget Wollongong’s mining and industrial past and present. The forest hides labyrinthine underground coal mines including some who, controversially, expand†
After arriving in the Wollongong CBD, we head inland to tackle Mount Keira, which overlooks the city and juts out at 473 meters, according to the official UCI course profile. I stop to fill my water bottle, expecting it to take a while, and tell the others not to wait. I see them at the top.
But Dean Dalla Valle, a former mining director who is the chairman of the local organizing committee, insists on leading me up the climb. It starts off slow, averaging 10.4% on the second kilometer, before turning into a steady effort.
On Friday there is time to look around. The forest here is dominated by silver-top ash, Sydney peppermint and turpentine with rainforest species in the wetter areas. It is a beautiful road with the occasional canopy overhead, creating a cathedral-like atmosphere.
This is where locals like Sheppard train and she tells me her best time on Strava’s main segment is 16 minutes 28 seconds. When I finally catch up, Dalla Valle, who is 63 and can race in not much more than 20 minutes, cheerfully tells me my time – 32 minutes. Could some people run faster?
Steve Peterson helped design the course and he suggests that while the pros certainly won’t go as slow as I on race day, they won’t fly up the climb either. Mount Keira is too early in the trail to be decisive. When the riders go over the top in September, the women still have 122 km to go. The men still have 225 km to go.
But the climbing will weaken the legs and have an impact later on as the riders reach the Wollongong city circuit and the action heats up.
The urban circuit is similar to that in Geelong when Australia last hosted the World Championships in 2010. But this year’s course is generally more difficult.
“There is no doubt that Mount Keira is making a big difference … and will have an impact on the back of the race,” Peterson, head of sport for Wollongong 2022, told me on the phone after the ride. “We have almost 4,000 altimeters [in total] in the men and that is the equivalent of a mountain stage in the Tour de France.”
Luckily we don’t drive the whole distance. The elite women will complete six laps of the 17.1km Wollongong city circuit to complete their race and the elite men will complete 12 laps. We ride the loop only once for a total distance of about 70 km.
The pros will descend to the south of Mount Keira and the side of Mount Kembla to return to the CBD. But that road was closed on Friday by landslides caused by La Niña rains, meaning we had to get back to the road we had climbed.
When we turned left we were on the city circuit and I regretted eating only a banana on Mount Keira instead of a bag of lollipops and a can of Coke. The circuit includes a small ascent on Dumfries Avenue (which the UCI calls Mount Ousley) and then what appeared to me to be a nearly vertical wall on Ramah Avenue (Mount Pleasant).
If the photographer hadn’t been positioned on Ramah Avenue, I might have gotten out and laid down on the front lawn of one of the neat suburban houses. It’s steep.
Instead, I saw Renshaw wheelie as he merrily began the climb, then my head dropped and crawled. According to the course profile, Mount Pleasant is 1.1 km long with an average gradient of 7.7%.
Only 300 meters into it reaches a maximum of 14%. (Although my Garmin bike computer flashed 25% when I looked down. At the same time, an elderly woman walking along the street smiled at me and said, “Enjoy your ride.”)
Ramah Avenue then flattens out for a moment before rocketing back up. This climb is where the weaker riders are dropped on each of the tracks before frantically trying to chase back on the technical and fast descent to the coast. The last 5 km to the finish is relatively flat.
Renshaw thinks the carnage in the last few laps could be so great that only five riders survive to do a sprint. He says the course suits a classic specialist.
Peterson says the riders on the city circuit will gradually lose weight throughout the day and then “certainly in the last two to four laps you will really see them come off”. He says Mount Pleasant’s technical descent will encourage riders to attack over the top and try to stay away “because it’s harder for the pursuers to organize to close the gap again”. He also expects a sprint from a relatively small group for both the ladies and the men.
When I got to the top of Ramah Avenue, I saw that the others had been waiting patiently for me and we completed the course together. The last straight isn’t straight yet – council works to remove unfortunate kink in Marine Parade after controversial move some bus parking spaces – and it will be relatively short at 300 meters from the last bend.
But if the experts’ predictions are correct, there will be no bunch sprint, so that shouldn’t matter.
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