IIt is said that elite athletes must be incredibly selfish to succeed. I thought about it as I pulled my bike out the door and said goodbye to my pregnant partner, who was due in a few days, and our two-year-old son, who was shouting “I want daddy”.
It was early Friday morning and I was driving an hour south of Sydney to Helensburgh, where the elite women’s and men’s road races will begin the weekend of September 24-25. The women will cover 164.3 km with 2,433 meters of elevation while the men will cover 266.9 km with 3,945 meters of elevation. The route includes the challenging climb of Mount Keira which is 8.7km long with an average gradient of 5% but pinches at 15%.
I’m not an elite athlete, of course, and was just hoping to get up the mountain without getting off my bike. The organizing committee, Wollongong 2022, had helpfully provided an official photographer to document the embarrassing moments.
I was riding the course with Mark Renshaw, a former professional cyclist and former track world champion, who is the security officer for Wollongong 2022. There were also local riders and other journalists riding to mark the 100 days until the start of the championships.
We met at Cafe Diem for a coffee before leaving. We headed up a small climb and Renshaw, cyclist in the lead alongside Wollongong-based Samara Sheppard – who hopes to compete in the world championships for New Zealand – asked if the pace was right. “Of course,” I said. But I knew riding around Sydney’s Centennial Park for a few hours every week wasn’t the right preparation to tackle a world course. It wasn’t going to be OK.
Helensburgh is an elevated town at the southern end of the Royal National Park – the second oldest national park in the world – on Dharawal Country. The course first meanders through the forest while tumbling 250 meters to Stanwell Park on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
This 6.9 km section will be neutralized on race day so that the professionals do not fall on the first descent. Renshaw is so worried about this prospect that he is considering removing the reflective cat’s eyes from the center of the road despite the ridiculous cost involved.
From Stanwell Park, the race will be launched and the riders will attack to enter the breakaway. It will make for spectacular TV footage as runners surge along Lawrence Hargrave Drive and over the famous Sea Cliff Bridge south towards Wollongong.
On Friday we cycle the 27.7km to Wollongong taking in the shimmering ocean to our left and the dramatic Illawarra Escarpment to our right. It is a beautiful ribbon of road between blue and green which makes it easy to forget Wollongong’s mining and industrial past and present. The forest hides labyrinthine underground coal mines, some of which are, controversially, expanding.
After arriving in Wollongong’s CBD, we head inland to tackle Mount Keira, which towers over the city and rises to 473m, according to the official UCI course profile. I stop to refill my water bottle, expecting it to take a while, and tell the others not to wait. I’ll see them upstairs.
But Dean Dalla Valle, a former mining executive who chairs the local organizing committee, kindly insists on guiding me on the climb. It starts strong, with a second kilometer at 10.4% on average, before settling into a sustained effort.
On Friday, it’s time to shop around. The forest here is dominated by silver ash, Sydney peppermint and turpentine with rainforest species in the wetter areas. It’s a beautiful drive with the canopy of trees sometimes meeting overhead creating a cathedral atmosphere.
It’s where locals like Sheppard train and she tells me her best time on the main Strava segment is 16 minutes and 28 seconds. When I finally catch up, Dalla Valle, who is 63 and can run in under 20 minutes, happily tells me my time – 32 minutes. Could some people run faster?
Steve Peterson helped design the course and he suggests that while the pros certainly won’t go as slow as me on race day, they won’t fly uphill either. Mount Keira is too early in the course to prove decisive. When the runners cross the summit in September, the women will still have 122 km to run. The men will still have 225 km to cover.
But the climbing will sap the legs and have an impact later on when the riders reach Wollongong City Circuit and the action heats up.
The city circuit is similar to that of Geelong when Australia last hosted the world championships in 2010. But this year’s course, overall, is more challenging.
“There’s no doubt that Mount Keira makes a big difference…and will influence the backend of the race,” Peterson, who is head of sport for Wollongong 2022, told me on the phone after the race. “We have nearly 4,000 meters of vertical drop [in total] for men and it’s the equivalent of a mountain stage in the Tour de France.
Luckily, we don’t cover the full distance. The elite women will do six laps of the 17.1km Wollongong City Circuit to complete their race and the elite men will do 12 laps. We do the loop only once for a total distance of about 70 km.
The pros will descend south of Mount Keira and the side of Mount Kembla back to the CBD. But this road was closed on Friday due to landslides caused by La Niña rains, which meant we had to go back down to the road we had climbed.
Then, after turning left, we were on the city circuit and I wished I had only eaten a banana on top of Mount Keira rather than a bag of lollipops and a can of coke. The circuit includes a small climb on Dumfries Avenue (which the UCI calls Mount Ousley) and then what seemed to me to be an almost vertical wall on Ramah Avenue (Mount Pleasant).
If the photographer hadn’t been positioned on Ramah Avenue, I might have walked down and lay on the lawn in front of one of the cute suburban homes. It’s stiff.
Instead, I watched Renshaw do a wheelie as he happily started the climb, then ducked his head and crawled. The course profile indicates that Mount Pleasant is 1.1 km long with an average gradient of 7.7%.
At just 300 meters, it peaks at 14%. (Although my Garmin bike computer, when I looked down at this point, was blinking at 25%. At the same time, an elderly woman walking down the street smiled at me and said, “Enjoy your journey.”)
Ramah Avenue then flattens briefly before resuming. This climb is where the weaker riders will be dropped on each of the circuits before frantically trying to get back to racing on the fast technical descent to the coast. The last 5 kilometers to the finish line are relatively flat.
Renshaw thinks the carnage of the final laps could be such that only five riders survive to contest a sprint. He says the course is suitable for a classics specialist.
Peterson says the city circuit will see riders drop gradually throughout the day and then “definitely in the last two to four laps you’ll really see them come out”. He argues Mount Pleasant’s technical descent will encourage riders to attack overhand and try to stay clear “because it’s harder for the chasers to organize themselves to close the gap again.” He too expects a sprint from a relatively small group for women and men.
When I got to the top of Ramah Avenue, I saw that the others had been patiently waiting for me and we completed the course together. The finish straight isn’t straight yet – the council is working to remove an unfortunate crease in Marine Parade after controversially moving some bus parking lots – and it will be relatively short at 300 yards from the final corner.
But if the experts’ predictions are correct, there won’t be a mass sprint, so it shouldn’t matter.