It’s 42 degrees in Adelaide and I have a few friends over for a swim in my pool to try and escape the heat. One of these friends is Samara Farrell, a handy track rider who is training to pilot a disabled rider at the 2014 Para-Sport Commonwealth Games and who confesses to be allergic to hills. I ask her if she fancies riding a few key legs of the Tour Down Under route to give The Roar readers an insight into what these stages are like for amateur cyclists. I only ride 200 kilometres a week and the biggest climb I do is up North East Road at Holden Hill, barely even a bump for the professional peloton. She looks at me like I’m mad, and then smiles and says “absolutely, let’s do it”.
I let Samara know that our first assignment will be the Corkscrew Road climb, an iconic South Australian climb that will be making its Tour debut in 2013, and which most cyclists will tell you is the hardest local climb bar Checker Hill. A look of dread fills Samara’s face, and as she is a far more accomplished cyclist than me, I realise I’ve possibly bitten off more than I can chew.
“When do you plan to do this?”
“This coming Sunday.”
“It’s going to be 43 degrees!”
I just smile and nod.
“You’re on” she laughs.
2.4 kilometres long at an average of 9.4% gradient, the Corkscrew is about to be conquered.
Sunday comes and we load up the car with bikes, my wife and my trusty camera and head for Montacute. We turn onto Corkscrew Road from the Montacute Road end (the top) and drive down, taking in the climb. The start doesn’t look too bad, but soon enough we’re driving down a very steep section of road, and I’m wondering how I can possibly climb up that on a bike.
We get to the bottom and decide to turn right, going 5 kilometres up Gorge Road so that we can roll downhill, get some blood pumping through the legs and take some speed onto the climb. We bid farewell to my heavily pregnant wife and set off down Gorge Road, bound for the Corkscrew. The temperature is still above 40 degrees at 7pm, and the heat is reflecting up off the road – this is going to be one uncomfortable ride.
Somehow we miss the turn off and don’t realise our mistake until we’ve almost hit Athelstone, approximately 7 kilometres down the road. Even going downhill, it’s hot, sweat is dripping from my helmet and the realisation that we now have to climb 7 kilometres before tackling the big climb does nothing to cool my core temperature.
We push out a decent speed as we ride back to the Corkscrew Road turnoff, but the heart rate is already in the mid 160s. It’s all forgotten as we turn and I think to myself that I’m about to climb the Corkscrew, feeling immense satisfaction. The first half a kilometre is pretty easy too, and my pride is growing as we’re sitting on 25km/h. And then it starts… slowly at first, but the road is undeniably getting steeper all the time.
I glance down at my Garmin Edge and my heart rate is now 185 bpm. All the residual speed is gone, and I’m in my lowest gear. I look over at Samara, and she’s furiously trying to suck in as much oxygen as she can. She remarks, between panting, “I’ve hit my lowest gear”, but I can’t even answer, I just nod.
It’s hard work, and the legs are starting to feel really heavy, but we’re still progressing ok. I think to myself that as long as it doesn’t get much worse, I can do this. I try not to think about the steep section we’d come down in the car, but I can’t help it, I’m just hoping it seemed worse than it is.
We round a bend, and lo and behold we’re greeted by the steep section. The worst part is, it’s straight for 500 metres and you can see it getting steeper and steeper – the longest 500 metres of my life! At the end of this section, you start the switchbacks, so you know respite is a long way away.
Ignoring the pain and trying to look anywhere but straight ahead, we push on. My breathing is so loud that I’m wondering if I’m abnormal, but I glance at Samara and notice she too is audibly struggling. And then I did it, the most amateur mistake you can make – I looked down at my Garmin and saw my heart rate sitting on 196 bpm. I quickly do the maths, 220 minus my age (35) and even though I can barely breathe, my brain still works out that is 185, the formula people used to claim worked out your theoretical maximum heart rate. Even though in the cold light of day I know that this formula is flawed, with my legs screaming out for mercy and my lungs feeling as if they literally were on fire, I start to panic. I contemplate how I can bring my heart rate under control, deciding that slowing my pedal rate is obviously the answer, so that’s what I do. It feels as though I’m literally going to fall sideways, and the extra effort required from my legs to sustain this effort has pushed my body past my pain threshold. I can’t stop, I came here to conquer this hill and I won’t be beaten, but my legs are just not interested anymore and I scream over to Samara “I’m done” as I stop.
As soon as I clip out of my pedal, I feel shame. I can still hear my heart rate resonating through my ears, but I feel numb because I’ve let myself down. Being the good sport she is, Samara stops too. I pour half my water bottle on my head, lean over the handlebars and start sucking in the big breaths.
To make matters worse, I’ve managed to pick the only spot of the climb where there’s enough room for my wife to pull the car over for some “happy” snaps. She kindly points out to me that the climb’s not so bad in the car, although she did have to turn the air-conditioner off on the really steep bits. Thankfully for her, I can’t breathe well enough to tell her my thoughts on that!
Pro cyclists will climb this hill at an average speed of 20 km/h but it’s beaten me. The sheep in the paddock next to where I’ve stopped is staring at me and I just know it’s wondering why I stopped when normally the humans in lycra power past. I see in its eyes that it’s mocking me.
I continue to hang over the handlebars for a few minutes, watching the heart rate slowly come back to the number to which I’m more accustomed. When it hits 150, I tell Samara that we’re off again, and she leads the way, doing her best to drag me up the rest of the hill. I give the sheep a disapproving look as we cycle off, sure that I saw it shaking its head as we left.
We reach the top of the straight section and start on the switchbacks. The Cancer Council has put up signs on the climb that say things like “Think this is hard?” followed by one with “Try fighting cancer” and these inspire me to not give up; sure, I can’t get enough oxygen into my bloodstream, my legs don’t even feel like they are part of my body anymore and my face is drenched with sweat, but there are indeed much harder things in life.
The switchbacks, the section that gives Corkscrew Road it’s name, are actually not too bad. The gradient is much less than the straight section, the scenery more exciting and the closer you get to the top, the easier gets. While this is good for my aching body, it makes me even more disappointed to have stopped; if I could have just powered through the last bit of the straight section, I could have conquered the Corkscrew. The last couple of hundred metres rise very gently, allowing Samara to spring to life and start a conversation (though she seemed to be talking about ponies so I’m not sure full service had quite resumed in my brain, but it was entertaining nonetheless!)
We made the summit, and even though I’d stopped, I felt elated. Seeing the same stupid grin on Samara’s face, I knew she was pretty happy too. People often ask why cyclists climb hills, but until you’ve reached the top of a climb, you can’t imagine what the elation is like. And when it’s a climb like the Corkscrew, you wear it like a badge of honour, ready to drop its name the next time you’re enjoying a latte in your lycra at your local cafe.
The Tour Down Under riders will have ridden 107 kilometres before they hit the Corkscrew, but the better climbers will still ascend it in approximately 7 minutes. To the casual observer, it will look like they’re barely even noticing it, but having now ridden it, I assure you that 7 minutes will hurt these guys a lot.
Sadly, there are very few places to stop on Corkscrew Road or even nearby on Gorge Road or Montacute Road, so if you do want to position yourself on this climb to see the peloton battle its way up to the King of the Mountain point, I suggest getting there very early and being prepared for a long walk, remembering the terrain all around is steep and the roads are narrow with no sealed shoulders.
Corkscrew Road Climb, near Montacute, South Australia
Length: 2.4 kilometres
Average Gradient: 9.4%
When: 107 kilometres into the 2nd stage of the 2013 TDU, January 23
Fastest time recorded: 7 minutes, 42 seconds – Damien Howson*
*Damien has been selected to ride for Uni-SA in this year’s Tour.