By Mal Sawford
The final six kilometre slog to the summit of Mt Baw Baw is reputedly the steepest paved road in the Southern hemisphere. Averaging a mind-boggling 13%, Australia’s only “hors categorie” climb is the final obstacle to be conquered by the participants in what is becoming renowned as Victoria’s toughest one day race.
Incorporating the Victorian Mountain Climb State Championships, the Baw Baw Classic is a Category 2 event in the National Road Series, and attracted a quality field. The winner of the Elite Road Race at the National Club Championships in Mooloolaba, Chris Bradford (CBD Cycles), was honoured with the number 1 saddle cloth, but pre-race favouritism went to the diminutive Simon Gerrans (Pro-Motion Bicycles). Gerrans, a protégé of Phil Anderson, has recently returned from his first season as a European professional with the Norwegian team Ringerike. His season culminated with a Stagiaire ride in the Tour de l’Avenir with Portuguese team Carvalhelhos Boavista, a long way from his stage win in the Geelong Bay Classic in January! Canberra’s Michael Tolhurst had impressed observers with his sub 14 minute ride up Mt Dandenong’s notorious 7 kilometre ‘1 in 20′ climb the previous week, and was also expected to do well.
With Jessica Ridder and Kathy Watt, running first and second in the National Series, both scratchings, fourth place holder Zoe Southwell (Raceline), a strong climber, was the clear favourite, with local MTB star Claire Baxter and Australian Criterium Champion Lizzie Williams determined to do well. Williams had come prepared with a specially fitted long cage rear derailleur to accommodate the 32 tooth cog gracing her rear wheel – most competitors were hoping their 27’s would suffice.
The A and B Grade men rolled out together from Warragul in perfect conditions. No wind, clear skies and a forecast temperature of 20 degrees – although the summit of the mountain was reportedly covered with snow! With a succession of testing hills through Jindivick and Neerim South, the field splintered as Gerrans forced the pace. By the sprint at the logging town of Noojee, only Tolhurst was still on the pace, although Gerrans took the SRAM sprint prize unopposed. The four man chase group of Bradford, Nick Kiraly (Fitzroy Cycles), Colin Thornton (Mainline Cyclesport) and B Grade leader Craig Johnson was a minute down at the midway point, with Nigel Dunstone (Caravello Joinery) seemingly out of contention after early mechanical troubles.
Gerrans returned the favour at the Category 2 Vesper’s Hill KOM sprint, with Tolhurst claiming the Walhalla Goldfields Railway prize. Kiraly flew up the climb, and joined the leaders, only for Tolhurst to lose contact. Club mates Gerrans and Kiraly rode the lower slopes of Mt Baw Baw together, but at the toll gates marking the official start of the climb, Kiraly was forced to watch as Gerrans eased away as the road steepened.
Gerrans raced away up the mountain, constantly extending his lead. Kiraly, with a five minute buffer over third placed Tolhurst made good use of his 29 tooth cog to hold onto his second place, while Dunstone had charged through the field and was closing in rapidly on a tiring and zig-zagging Tolhurst. Gerrans powered home up the snow lined roads to a convincing win, ahead of Kiraly. Dunstone passed Tolhurst in the final kilometre to snatch third, while Chris Bradford’s fifth placing cemented his top 10 placing in the National Series.
The Women’s field started with the Masters, and raced a slightly shorter 87 kilometre route to the summit. The leading contenders were still together at the Noojee sprint, taken out by Claire Baxter, but began to splinter on the climb of Vesper’s Hill. Southwell raced ahead, with Williams resorting to her ’32’ early on. Baxter and Jennifer Finlay did their best to keep the leader in sight, but the petite climber was clearly having a good day as she kept pace with the leading Masters riders.
Southwell went onto take out a convincing win, ahead of Baxter. Lizzie Williams’ granny gear paid off, as she overhauled Finlay on the climb to the finish third, a result which should see her jump to second in the National Series. Cristine Foster claimed the final prize cheque with a strong ride into fifth place.
In the other categories Carnegie Caulfield’s Ken Ford (Gran Prix Cycles) took out the win in the Masters division, breaking away from the leaders on the treacherous descent of Vesper’s Hill, and holding his advantage to the line. He has now won his category in all three Baw Baw Classics contested, prompting race promoter Chris Beales to name the Masters Perpetual trophy after him! Pete Knight, Ian Blackie, Warragul’s Thomas Sandner and Rob Curtis claimed the minor placings.
Murray Spink (Giant Bicycles) repeated his effort from 2002 by taking out the B Grade race, and leading home a Dirt Riders trifecta ahead of Brian Sing and Chris Winn (Yeti/Pearl Izumi). Early leader Craig Johnson faltered on the tough ascent of Mt Baw Baw, eventually finishing fourth with James Pugh fifth. Jason Pastor claimed the C Grade win, in the days closest finish. Local rider John Mackenzie chased hard the whole way up the climb, and finished in sight of the winner in second place. Under 19 rider Jordan Sutherland took third, from Adrian Hanson and Andrew Robinson.