Ask people what they know about the Tour Down Under, and you can be assured that the words “Old Willunga Hill” are likely to be uttered. From early beginnings when riders climbed it just once, before those dropped had a chance to try and get back onto the bunch on the descent before a finish in Willunga, through to today where they climb it twice and the finish is the summit on the 2nd climb, Old Willunga Hill has always been the stage to watch.
Having already climbed Corkscrew Road with Samara, our next challenge just had to be Old Willunga Hill. The Corkscrew had hurt, the mental and physical pain worse than we could have imagined, so it was time to see just what made this particular climb so famous.
Mother Nature was much kinder to us for this effort, the temperature in the low thirties as we set off in the car with our bikes on the back. We drove up the hill first to take it all in, and from the safety of a vehicle, it didn’t look bad. We spotted a young woman riding up about halfway, and stopped to watch her go past. She looked over and said “hello, how are you?” without a hint of breathlessness, which made me wonder if this climb was all that bad.
Old Willunga Hill is 3 kilometres in length, and with an average gradient of ‘just’ 7.6%; on paper it’s not a climb that strikes fear into your heart.
Neither of us are great climbers, but this climb isn’t too bad when tackled in isolation. The start feels reasonably steep, but we both were relatively comfortable as we pushed our way up the hill. We were lucky that we were fairly sheltered from the breeze and there was lots of shade on offer, and even our tempo was pretty decent as we ascended.
About a third way up you are afforded some spectacular views over the McLaren Vale vineyards and out to the ocean beyond, though these would be a lot more enjoyable if you weren’t fighting a bike up a hill. Sadly, these views also coincide with what felt like the steepest part of the climb. I’d avoided my lowest gear and getting out of the saddle so far, but that all changed here, and the realisation that this climb was harder than I was giving it credit for sunk in.
The road starts to ease up to a more reasonable gradient after a small section, but all your residual speed is gone and the heart rate is well and truly up in the uncomfortable range again. Still it wasn’t feeling nearly as impossible as the Corkscrew yet, though.
This is a climb where you can find a rhythm and pace yourself up the hill, and although still not a lot of fun, it’s a manageable level. Even though it will hurt you, you don’t ever really feel like you’re in danger of not being able to make the summit, and it’s this mental aspect that often can defeat you on a climb.
We reached the summit together, attempted a smile for the camera – though by this stage both of us were complaining that oxygen wasn’t as freely available as we’d like, and my saddle was so uncomfortable that it felt like I was sitting on a jagged rock, but we’d made it up the top of the Tour Down Under’s most famous climb. The summit is painted with a giant King of the Mountain crown, the words “Willunga Hill” and an Onkaparinga Council logo; a very nice touch!
Unlike when we finished the Corkscrew and practically collapsed into the car, we had a little energy left this time, so I told my wife we were going to have some fun on the descent, and we’d meet her at the bottom. Going back down Old Willunga Hill is definitely a lot more fun that going up it, but you do need to be careful as some of the corners are sharper than they appear and it is very easy to pick up speed on the way down – I hit 76 km/hr and I wasn’t even pushing it.
As we got down to the part that I’d found steep on the way up, I thought maybe I’d see how I went pushing a big gear up that section, as the riders in the Tour no doubt will do. We slowed down, turned around and headed back up, this time trying to go as fast as we could in the big ring. Instantly I realised that although it’s not too bad if you stick in your comfort zone, it gets nasty really quickly when you try and push it. When you consider the riders will have done 126kms the first time they climb it and 148 kms as they go up for the 2nd time for the summit finish, you start to understand why this climb is so famous.
Add in the fact that this is the last chance for anyone to take time off their rivals and the race is well and truly alive; breakaways and attacks are likely to make the pace up this hill frenetic for all involved. On the back of 5 days of racing in the January heat in Adelaide, this is going to be extremely gruelling, but it will make for fantastic viewing.
The course layout is also fantastic for spectators, with quite a few spots on Old Willunga Hill where you could set up for the day and see the riders twice, plus many other spots around Aldinga Beach and Snapper Point where the riders pass 3 times, or Main Road in McLaren Vale where the riders speed past you 5 times. Factor in Australia Day celebrations and you can make quite the day of it. But beware, if you tackle Old Willunga Hill for the most exciting climbing action vantage point, be prepared for quite the hike on foot, or a fair old climb on the bike! Oh, and pack a decent lunch.
I’m glad I’ve ridden up it, but I’m also very glad that I’ll be taking advantage of the prime viewing offered as the riders tackle Stage 5 of this year’s race.
Old Willunga Hill
Length: 3 kilometres
Average gradient: 7.6%
When: 126km and 148km mark of Stage 5 of the 2013 Tour Down Under, January 26
Fastest time: 7 minutes 55 seconds by Will Dickenson