Simon Clarke Conquers Baw Baw

By Mal Sawford

The fifth staging of what has become renowned as the toughest one day race in Australia saw eighteen year old Simon Clarke (Victorian Institute of Sport) cap off his phenomenal preparation for his three month stint in Italy with the Australian Under 23 Team with another impressive win on the near vertical slopes of Mt Baw Baw. Showing his versatility and toughness, the youngster who cleaned up at the Bendigo International Madison Carnival three weeks earlier, took to the start line despite a nasty fall in training only two days before the event. Race Director Chris Beales was thrilled with the success of the event, which drew a big crowd to the race start in Warragul. There were also good crowds at the Noojee feed zone and at the summit, where the car park was full. Beales was appreciative of the support from the local community, with generous support from Road Safe, a Vic Roads initiative, Baw Baw Shire, the Mt Baw Baw Resort and Alpine Hotel and Phil Gallagher’s Bikeland Warragul. Gippsland Syndicated Logging were instrumental in the safe staging of the event, keeping their logging trucks off the roads for the day.

How It Unfolded

Although relatively short at only 97 kilometres, the race takes riders over three major climbs, at Jindivik, Neerim South and Vespers Hill before tackling Australia’s only ‘Hors Categorie’ climb to the summit of Mt Baw Baw. The final six kilometer climb is reported to be the steepest paved road in the Southern Hemisphere, and saw the majority of riders opt for 29 tooth cogs or a triple chain ring set up to tackle the 13% average gradient. Clarke initially watched as a three man move went clear on the Jindivik climb, thinking it was far too soon to commit in the 30 degree heat. He had a change of heart when he realized that along with Ashley Hayat (the Freedom Machine) were Giro d’Italia stage winner David McKenzie (HLP/Ridewiser) and local star John MacKenzie (Lloyd Morgan), who wore the number 1 bib! Clarke jumped across to the leaders, and the quartet combined well to pull away from the bunch, staying together to Noojee, where McKenzie took out the Shimano Sprint. The tough four kilometer climb to the KOM at Vespers Hill saw Clarke lift the tempo and only McKenzie had the strength to respond.

After Clarke took the KOM prize, the two leaders shared the pace for close to fifty kilometers, and arrived at the toll gates which mark the start of the final climb well ahead of the chasing bunch. As the road turned skywards, Clarke immediately put some distance into his companion, but revealed after the race that he hadn’t actually attacked. “I just started the climb at my pace, and Macca started at his. When I saw I had the gap, I just went as fast as I needed to to guarantee the win. I wasn’t really racing up the climb, just cruised up.” Clarke took a little over thirty-one minutes for the climb, and rode a 39 x 27 “I reckon at about nine or ten k’s most of the way – other guys told me they were doing thirteen, but they would have caught me straight away if they were” for most of the journey. It was the first time he had ridden the mountain “but I’d been told heaps about it and what to expect. But it looked pretty steep when we got to the toll gates and I didn’t know exactly how long the climb was. Davo ( VIS head coach David Sanders) had told me it would take about thirty minutes, so I set my watch and just started counting the minutes down!”

Clarke initially scratched from the event when he got his call up the Australian team, which leaves for Italy on Wednesday. Sanders later decided it would be a good last hit out after a week of training in the Victorian High Country, and re-entered his star rider. Near tragedy struck on Davo’s regular epic Thursday motorpacing session when Clarke tangled handlebars with the motorbike and “Davo ran over me!” Clarke’s feet didn’t release from his pedals, and he was dragged behind the bike for a distance, but survived with nothing more serious than a substantial amount of missing skin. McKenzie hung on for a well deserved second place, while Jason Heggert proved to be the best climber left in the bunch, racing to a third place finish ahead of Pat Shaw (VIS) and the determined MacKenzie.

Support Races

Under 19 riders dominated the B Grade event, with William Ford and Pip Grinter taking the top two spots ahead of KOM winner Nathan Masters and another promising junior Nick Walker (CBD Cycles). Brad Clark was too strong in the C Grade race, leaving Pete Knight and Ryan Bilszta to settle for the minor places. The ‘young masters’ race saw a three way battle amongst the riders who regularly dominate Melbourne Masters racing, with Tom Crebbin (Pro-Motion Bicycles) triumphing over Guy Green (Le Tour Cycles) and Australian Road Champion David Sturt (Giant/Pro-Motion).

Ken Ford (Gran Prix Bicycles) retained his amazing undefeated record, with his fifth straight win at Mt Baw Baw in the Masters Category 4, 5 & 6 Division. It was no walk over for the unassuming climbing maestro, who attacked the leading bunch on the descent from Vespers Hill to Icy Creek, but couldn’t shake off Ian Blackie. The pair were inseparable up the final climb, with Ford taking the win in a close sprint.

Only two Women were prepared to tackle the mountain this year, and competed in the Masters race. Mary Rogers acquitted herself well, with a top ten finish, to finish as the leading lady ahead of Angela Wade.

Photos by David O’Leary.

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