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About six hours from Sydney and only three hours from Melbourne is the well-preserved gold rush town of Beechworth. The town’s streets are lined with alfresco cafes, and with a popular gourmet food and wine region on its doorstep, Beechworth looks set to experience another gold rush, this time in cycling tourism.
The inaugural Gran Fondo Beechworth was held over the weekend and we were treated to some beautiful autumn weather. There were a number of different events across the weekend, starting with the season’s first cyclocross race (hosted by Dirty Deeds CX) on Friday evening which attracted riders in skinsuits and some dressed as farm animals. On Saturday morning it was time for the Medio Fondo (83km) and Gran Fondo (173km) and the weekend wound to a close on Sunday with the Gourmet Fondo and L’Eroica.
The crowds for Saturday’s Medio Fondo and Gran Fondo were not huge, but it was an excellent start given the event’s only in its first year. I’m quite familiar with most of the roads around the nearby town of Bright, but most of the Gran Fondo route was new to me and it was a treat to discover this region with 100% closed roads.
Riders from the Drapac Professional Cycling team were the pro ambassadors for the event and it was good to rub shoulders with guys like Will Walker, Darren Lapthorne, Johnnie Walker and Robbie Hucker. That’s the beauty of cycling — anyone can have a chat with some former national champions or Grand Tour riders while on an event like this.
I was chatting with Lapthorne and we both agreed about how pleasurable the first couple hours of the ride were. It was kind of a strange feeling — since there were no major hills in the first part of the ride, it felt like a race, but without the pain and agony that usually comes with a race. There was a slight crosswind, but nobody used it to put it in the gutter and split the race to pieces. How civil …
But then we turned into the Happy Valley, approaching the Rosewhite Gap from the east, rather than from the west like we do in the Tour of Bright. All of a sudden there was this familiar feeling of “the calm before the storm”. I was looking around watching Drapac and other teams start to get into position up at the front. Natural instinct kicked in and I began moving up to the front.
Earlier in the day Lapthorne said to me, “this is going to be a nice easy day for me. We don’t get these very often and I’m not touching the front.” The next thing I knew there was Lappers driving it on the front towards the base of the climb. The whole pack was strung right out and with varying levels of ability, gaps were starting to open and the bunch was soon split to pieces.
At the base of the climb Rhys Pollock took it upon himself to finish the rest of us off and set a steady tempo to the top of Rosewhite. I looked around and there were about 15 of us left. This no longer felt like the easy ride I’d read about in the brochure …
Instead of heading to Ovens, we turned right onto Carrolls Road where a wall of a climb faced us. I thought this was going to be a truce and we’d all ride back to Beechworth in a gentlemanly manner while chopping the $500 prizemoney for the KOM. We had just received a time-check stating that Rhys Gillett was seven minutes up the road. Who knew he even got away?
Johnnie Walker decided that the KOM money was going to be his and whacked us at the bottom of the climb while the others who could follow, did. The bunch split in two and we were left chasing. You know how I was talking earlier about how it felt like a race but without the pain and suffering? Those elements were no longer missing.
Carrolls Road was one I’ve never been on before, and every chance I had to take my eyes off the front wheel ahead of me, I did. It was a narrow winding road on a plateau which connected the route to the newly surfaced Stanley Road where the KOM was. Beautiful.
The climb up to Stanley is not particularly long or steep, but it is beautiful and puts a sting into the legs after 150km. It’s just under 11km long and averages 5%, but has pitches of 10-12% (see the Strava segment here).
This was a lonely point of the ride for me but it didn’t matter much because the surroundings were absolutely stunning and I had it all to myself. From what I hear, Robbie Hucker (Drapac) took the KOM and caught Rhys Gillett (African Wildlife Safaris) by this point, turning it into a small bunch sprint to the finish line in Beechworth. Another African Wildlife Safaris rider, Trent Morey, took the bunch kick while his team (also a sponsor of the event) won the prize for fastest team. Congratulations to Jenny MacPherson who took out the women’s fastest time and QOM on the day before her birthday.
But forget the Gran Fondo: from what everyone is telling me, the real race went on in the Medio Fondo. It was a clash of the titans with cycling commentator Matt Keenan and Mansfield-based event organiser Bruce Halket going head-to-head in a battle to the death. There was apparently a lot of foxing going on in the first 60km and there were a few track stands while jostling for position.
Details are sketchy and I can’t believe what Keenan tells me, but the word on the street is that Halket sprouted wings at the base of Stanley Road and left Keenan in his wake. Keenan dropped like a rock in similar fashion to Rodriguez at Liege-Bastogne-Liege and had to settle for second best. It was a triumphant win for Halket who is three times Keenan’s age*.
On Sunday I went along to check out the Gourmet Fondo and L’Eroica (sponsored by sports clothing company Le Coq Sportif which was founded way back in 1882), both of which finished at the wonderful Sam Miranda Winery. Compared with the at-times-unfriendly pace of the Gran Fondo, the Gourmet Fondo and L’Eroica were noticeably more leisurely.
While the Gourmet Fondo was all about sampling fine food and wine from local producers, L’Eroica was about celebrating the cycling of yesteryear, with participants riding vintage bikes and wearing vintage cycling apparel.
As you can see from the photos below, it really was a weekend of excellent riding, new roads, good food and wine, and some great company.
[ct_highlight_box_start]Disclosure: The organisers of the Beechworth Gran Fondo had us along as their guests for the weekend and entries and accommodation were paid for. We thank them for their hospitality.[ct_highlight_box_end]
*Bruce Halket may or may not be three times older than Matt Keenan.