By Monique Hanley
Geelong West’s Chris Fry became the fourth to conquer the gruelling finale to Australia’s toughest one-day road race, the Baw Baw Classic. Rain, sleet and freezing winds played havoc on the record 120-rider field, causing many to withdraw in the final stages from hypothermia and exhaustion. The slightly-built under 23 rider from the flat Bayside town of Geelong surprised race favourites by forming an early five-man breakaway with two other Geelong West club riders shortly after Jindivick. They remained clear of any chase attempts until reaching the Mt Baw Baw tollgate – the start of one of the toughest stretches of road anywhere in the world – a six kilometre climb to the Village car park with an average gradient of 13 percent. A natural climber, Fry was able to pull clear of his team-mates when the race turned its agonising steepest, holding off a late attack courtesy of St Kilda’s Matt Lloyd to clench victory by completing the final six kilometres in the fastest time ever.
How it unfolded
The 97km race was rescheduled this year from the usual end of the road racing season in October to the start of the season in April to avoid past snow, rain and snow-storm finishes on Mt Baw Baw. Unfortunately, the rescheduling was to no avail, as last week’s threat of bushfires seemed a world away from the rain and strong south-westerly winds welcoming riders to the start of the race in Queen Street, Warragul. While local farmers blessed the three and a half inches of rain received over the past 12 hours, Ride Director Chris Beales’ chief concern was that the deluge hadn’t turned into snow on the southern Alpine region. This caused a rise in last-minute sales for the local outdoor adventure store and Bike Land from under-dressed spectators and riders.
The A grade field sustained their first attacks as the group climbed towards Jindivick at the 16km mark, but regrouped once reaching the top of cheese country. A counter attack into Neerim South was more successful, consisting of Geelong West riders Peter Pape, Ryan Moody and Chris Fry, who were joined by Ballarat/Sebastopol rider James Pugh and St Kilda’s Craig Johnson. The five worked together well, establishing a one minute break which was built on as they approached the Red Hill descent into Noojee. While the majority of the peloton were happy to leave the relatively unknown riders ahead, local rider John Mackenzie attempted to bridge across to the lead bunch but found conditions too difficult for any success. Johnson took the sprint points at Noojee as the five continued their surge up the Category 2 climb of Vespers Hill at km57. Fry sounded a warning on his climbing prowess by taking the KOM points available at the top, as steady rain and low cloud made themselves comfortable amongst the bush surrounds.
By the time the peloton reached the top of Vespers Hill the breakaway group had established a five and half minute break. Third placed in 2003, Nigel Dunstone (Caravello Joinery), was shocked by the time gap and initiated the chase alongside Matthew Lloyd (St Kilda), leading the group up Ballantynes Saddle. Reducing the time gap was slow and painful, but by the tollgate at 91km the lead was down to three and a half minutes.
Ahead of them, Chris Fry immediately pulled away from the breakaway bunch in the first 3km of the Baw Baw climb, where the road was averaging a 20 percent incline. Fellow Geelong West riders Ryan Moody and Peter Pape, having debated the previous evening on whether or not to use a 23 or 25 tooth chain ring, were now thankful they had both chosen 25s. They struggled with numb hands and feet alongside Ballarat/Sebastopol’s James Pugh as chasing rider Matt Lloyd, using a 27 tooth cog, showed a much better cadence to reel in Pugh, Pape and Moody. Fry continued to pull away from the others, completing the final 6km in one of the fastest times every recorded on the mountain – 32 minutes, 15 seconds – to claim the win. Lloyd finished second and was followed by Moody, Pape and Dunstone.
From early on, B grade was controlled by a handful of the youngest riders in the field – under 19 competitors Nathan Wise (Caulfield Carnegie), John Walker (Brunswick) and Mark O’Brien (Horsham). Nathan Wise took the Noojee sprint and KOM on Vespers Hill, but Mark O’Brien was able to overcome the remainder to take out the B grade win.
The C grade field seemed intent to attack each other from the outskirts of Warragul, and by the first town on route, Rokeby, the field had already begun to splinter. A small breakaway, consisting of Brendan Washington (Lavington Panthers), Brenton and Clinton Slotegraaf (Bendigo), and Jordan Sutherland (Brunswick) remained together until Vespers Hill where they were joined by a solo bridge effort from a phantom Colac rider. But the effort was too much and he disappeared from the lead radar shortly after making contact. Brendan Washington powered from Vespers Hill to continue on a solo effort for the remaining 35km. He took the win comfortably after passing much of the B grade field. Second place was Brenton Slotegraaf, followed by Sutherland.
The Masters’ division is known for having Ken Ford’s name written all over it – literally. The three-time winner, whose efforts earned the naming of the perpetual trophy after him in 2003, felt both the pressure of defending his title and the determination of others to claim the category crown. In one of the closest finishes ever seen on Baw Baw, Ararat’s Ian Blackie challenged the Carnegie Caulfield rider to the very last km as the lead continuously changed. The determination of both riders could be seen over the last few hundred metres, as Ford found something extra over Blackie in the ‘sprint’ to roll across the finish, and for the fourth consecutive year claim victory. It was a very emotional moment for Ford, who rated the win as one of his best ever. A tough day on the bike for Warragul’s Thomas Sandner, who found the conditions and additional distance through Jindivick to be taxing. He finished in 6th place, winning the Masters 4 division.
The small women’s field was dominated by race favourites Claire Baxter (Hawthorn Citizens) and Cristine Foster (St Kilda). Baxter rolled strongly into Noojee to claim the sprint prize, but Foster was too strong on Vesper’s Hill, claiming the QOM. From Vespers, the endless winding road through old growth forest and deteriorating weather conditions wore the strength of all riders, with Foster able to power up the final climb to take the win in what she described as one of her toughest races ever. Kerryn Charman (Geelong West), managed to pass a tiring Baxter to claim second place, rounding off a very successful outing for the Bayside club.
Many thanks to the strong local community support of this now legendary race, including sponsors Bike Land, Mt Baw Baw Resort Management, and Baw Baw Shire Council; members of the Warragul Cycling Club, SES and St Johns Volunteers, local police, the Gippsland Logging Syndicate and Queen Street traders.