Reporting from the saddle: Bupa's Challenge Tour
FOR the amateur cyclist, inspiration doesn't come much bigger than knowing you've got Grand Tour riders Simon Gerrans, Richie Porte, Rohan Dennis and Geraint Thomas chasing you down.
Not to mention the might of Team Sky, Orica-GreenEDGE and BMC teaming together to crack Adelaide's hills in hot pursuit of thousands of amateurs tackling the same route on the same day.
The Bupa Challenge Tour Ride is the Tour Down Under's mass participation festival, an impressive cyclosportive/Gran Fondo over the toughest stage of Australia's annual curtain raiser on the UCI World Tour. For 2016 that meant a 142km trial from the Adelaide suburb of Norwood, up through the Adelaide Hills and down to South Australia's southern coastline and a finish at the beautiful tourist town of Victor Harbor.
A little sting in the tail was the location of this year's King of the Mountain hill climb: Port Elliot's Crows Nest Road - a 4km slog with an average gradient of 5.8% (but up to 12% in places) that riders had to endure with 118km already in the legs.
For cycling enthusiasts, participating in the Bupa Challenge is an ideal excuse for a cycling-themed getaway. I saw it as a nice family long weekend holiday with a purpose; namely challenging myself over a route the pro riders were also doing, plus getting caught up in the festival atmosphere Adelaide has when the Tour comes to town.
The first challenge was, of course, getting to Adelaide. The expense of flights, extra baggage charge with a bike box, hotel room and (large) rental car all added up, but who ever said cycling was a cheap sport?
A positive was the excellent organisation of the event. Sign-in and official Challenge Tour jersey collection was easy (despite being in the heart of the city), and with the cycling expo in the same spot there was plenty on offer to help enthusiasts get caught up in the excitement. I also spotted a few of the pro riders wandering around (they are of freakish body shape) and team mechanics with some of the two-wheeled hardware to drool over.
For 2016 a new event was a public time trial up Adelaide's Norton Summit Road's 5.6km climb, introduced to give participants the feeling of being part of a professional timed sprint, much like you'll see at the Tour de France. The route was chosen as, according to cycling app Strava, it was Adelaide's most popular hill climb test. Entry fee was $90 and limited to 300 riders.
It looked an excellent initiative. Closed road, professional time-trial starting ramp, riders released every 30-seconds and decent prize money - $1000 each for the 1st male and female placings - plus the honour of sitting in "fastest so far" thrones until your time was beaten. King of the Hill this year was Rhys Gillett with 11:17.36 while Queen was Nusha Kerin with 15:06.78.
As for the Bupa Challenge Tour itself, riders could opt for four different start points along Stage 4 of the 2016 Tour Down Under: the full fat version at 142.4km ($145 entry fee), a 100km route from Echunga, 70km route from Strathalbyn or "bring the kids" effort of 36km from Goolwa.
The city start riders (myself included) pedalled off at 6.30am, covering the identical route to the pros who would set off later the same day.
Blessedly the weather was dry and the temperature in the 20s - it can be so, so different in Adelaide in January - and the route was a fine blend of decent road surface, stunning scenery and fragrant summer smells through the Adelaide Hills.
The initial climbs through the Hills were lengthy rather than too taxing on the gradient front, with stronger riders soon surging past the stragglers; some of whom were walking up hills only 10km in - long day in store for those folk.
Well placed food and refreshment stops, plus mechanical help in places, were excellent and key to ensuring everyone had a good day out.
With the hills out of the way there was ample opportunity to boost the average speed by riding in some large and rapid groups, and I enjoyed chats with riders who'd come from all over Australia to compete, plus a couple of Europeans making the ride part of their Aussie adventure. Meeting these other riders is one of the most rewarding parts of a cyclosportive.
There were few happy faces to be found on the King of the Mountain climb however. The Crows Nest Road climb was a regular lung buster for me when I lived in South Australia, and it really is a bitch of a road in places. You know the type; starts off gentle and steady to ease you in, then ramps up to ensure it's bum out of the saddle and legs burning.
Around 12% gradient in places - including just before the finish line - is a brutal test even without 118km already completed. More bike-pushing walkers than those still turning pedals suggested its toughness.
A final lovely descent into Victor Harbor with a shimmering ocean behind was a real highlight, as was the fortune I and my riding companion had as we rounded the final corner and had the finishing straight - a good 300 metres or so - practically to ourselves as we enjoyed a Mark Cavendish/Andre Greipel-esque Tour de France sprint battle to the finish line, albeit at probably half the speed of those freakishly-legged sprinters.
For those few brief seconds, we got a glimpse of what it's like to be a pro rider desperate for a stage win (I lost, by the way).
A complimentary sandwich and fruit greeted us at the finish, followed by some celebratory beers in the local pub beside the finish line.
A few hours later we enjoyed eventual Tour winner Simon Gerrans score a stage win over the course we'd just conquered, helping give the feeling that, even if just for a day, we were out there riding with some of the world's best.