The Rapha Prestige is not a race. It’s an unsupported and unmarshalled adventure across stunning terrain. Designed to bring out the camaraderie and suffering of road riding, the rules are simple, and the course is tough. Team members must ride and finish together, and teams must include at least one female rider. There were thirteen teams all up, and 17 women.
When Nadine O’Connor from Rapha gave me a call to ask if I’d like to participate in Rapha Prestige Launceston, I instantly said yes before I’d even heard about the route or the team of which I would be a part. My smile grew wider across my face as Nadine explained the route to me. The event would be taking us on an adventure starting in Legana, a small town near Launceston (northern Tasmania) through tiny towns and over undulating, steep and tough terrain. We would then suffer up the gravel and winding ascent up Jacob’s Ladder to the summit of Ben Lomond. Jacob’s Ladder was the icing on the proverbial cake for me. It has been on my cycling bucket list for years. I couldn’t wait to ride this route. In true Rapha style, the 165km route included 3000m of climbing and about 50km of gravel road. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I prepped my bike with new Specialized Roubaix Pro tyres and stuffed an extra tube and gas canister into my overflowing saddle bag. I filled my pockets with as much food as I could carry. Size extra-extra-small jerseys aren’t too accommodating for six Cliff bars, a rain jacket, tyre leavers, multi tool, phone and wallet but I still managed to somehow fit everything in. I was as ready as I could be. Now I just had to meet my Festka Australia team for the first time.
Day One Thirteen teams gathered at Velo Wines Legana for a 7am briefing on Saturday morning. It was definitely feeling like Tasmania – the air was brisk and the winds were strong. Rain had been forecasted for the afternoon, but I hoped would be home before the skies opened. I met my teammates Karl Ulbrich, and brothers Thomas and Benjamin Juzwin at the morning briefing. First impressions? Three strapping lads with quads to rival Andre Greipel. We huddled around our coffee cups and nervously chatted about the day ahead. We set off at a cracking pace, riding hard for almost 40km passing a few other teams along the way. The terrain was absolutely breathtaking – and so was the pace. My legs were screaming. The grovelling had begun. My Quarq had cracked it in the morning, so I was without power data. Probably for the better as the numbers would have definitely stressed me out. The guys were great. On the pinchy climbs they waited, and on the flats they let me suck their wheel. My nose didn’t touch the wind all day. I constantly had to remind myself to look up and around from my stem to take in the views of some of the most beautiful roads in Australia.
Soon enough we were caught by the team that left after us. We rode with them a while and had some fun drafting behind the film crew as they captured our journey. This company proved a great distraction from my screaming legs and before I knew it, we were at the base of the Ben Lomond climb.
I told the boys to ride at their own pace, and I would see them at the top. This was the beginning of 18km of gravel. The road was hard-packed, with loose gravel on the surface. It was hard to get out of the saddle without the back wheel slipping around. My 23 tyres were just not wide enough to make the gravel comfortable. I spent a lot of time looking at the road in front of me, picking my line and grinding carefully. I was using all my energy concentrating, my legs were feeling very heavy. The race pace from earlier was catching up on me. This was proving to be one of the most picturesque climbs I’ve ever done. As I gained altitude, the terrain got more spectacular. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The rock formations were unbelievable. The boys waited for me at about the mid-point, and we rode together until the final four kilometres – where Jacob’s Ladder begins. We emerged from the tree lined road, to a rocky open moonscape. Cliffs on one side and a sheer rock face on the other. The road wound up and around a steep gradient, with deep rocky gravel. We were exposed to the elements now, and the wind had picked up. As I grinded along, I gripped my bars tighter and tighter. I wanted to look up, but I couldn’t. I had to concentrate on my line. I stopped on the first hair pin to take a photo. How could I not? The view was better than anything I’ve seen. It even rivals Col d’ Aubisque or even Luz Ardiden in the Pyrenees – both of which were mind blowingly beautiful. It was probably a rookie move to stop here. Mounting my bike on a 10 percent gradient, in deep gravel, in the wind proved difficult. Not to mention I was feeling very fatigued by now. I managed to get on, just, after pushing my bike to a flatter five percent section.
The final four kilometres was a grind. It was beginning to get cold and very windy. I finally made it to the summit. I walked up those stairs to the café like I had been run over by a truck. At the café, I was met by familiar faces as most teams opted to stop here and share the moment over a warm drink. It was time to refuel, dry the sweaty clothes a bit and get back on the road as we still had 80km left to get home, including another 30km or so of gravel.
A stressful descent aside, we regrouped at the bottom and set off home with a few other teams. There was now a large bunch of us, my partner Purdie included. The pace now was a little slower, but quick all the same and the climbing wasn’t over. I hadn’t recovered like I’d hoped, my legs were feeling very slow on the pinchy climbs and the wind was picking up. I was groveling again. Sucking wheel. I shoveled more food in, hoping that it would make me come good. That’s when we hit the final gravel section. All of a sudden, I was vibrating all over the road. I was stressed. I was feeling overwhelmed by the speed at which the bunch was travelling on the gravel descent. I started to go backwards, started to lose touch with the group, and I watched them fly into the distance. My teammates were up the road, and I was alone, sliding around in daze. The gravel was defeating me. I felt overcome with emotion and self-doubt. That’s when I saw the light, or Purdie at least, she was waiting for me with a group that had flatted. I kept riding and groveled the final two kilometres or so on the gravel with her by my side – in silence. We stopped once we reached the asphalt. I was so relieved that I almost kissed it. I had a little moment to reflect, ate some food, and then I was ready to ride again. In hindsight, I was not being rational. I let myself get stressed and I was letting the gravel get to me – all I needed was some food and a moment to regroup.
We continued on and joined another couple of teams along the way. Eventually I picked up my teammates Karl, Ben and Tom, who had taken a wrong turn (that’s why I lost them earlier). We were all feeling it – they had done an extra 10km of gravel by the time they found us again. The wind had picked up by now, and the 30 or so of us were being blown around like yachts. I was feeling much more positive at this point, especially because we had a group to ride with for the final 30km.
The Rapha team car joined us for a little bit, it was pumping out some tunes and handing out jelly snakes to keep us motivated. As we rode, we were collecting riders along the way, and by the time we reached the outskirts of Launceston with 10km to go, we were about 40 riders strong. And just as we neared the end, the downpour began. Most of us were at the edge of our tethers by now, suffering in the elements with fatigue well and truly setting into our bones. The knowledge that pizza and beer awaited us all back at Velo Wines was enough for our legs to keep ticking over at a steady pace. Before I knew it, we were home. There was a huge cheer as we wiped the mud from our brows, wrung out our gloves and devoured those pizzas. It was 4:30PM when we got in… nearly nine hours since roll out, which felt like a distant memory. I was absolutely cooked. I high-fived the boys and the rest of the evening is a blur of good food, wine and a fair exchange of stories of flats, stacks, bonks, road kill and suffering – with the hope that the following day’s ride would be a little more cruisy.
We gathered again at Velo Wines, a little more weary than the day before. As we sipped coffee together in the morning sun, we chatted about what the day would have in store for us. Sunday’s route would take us along the Tamar River, through State Forest and the steep gravel roads of Notley Gorge. It was a relatively short day on the bike, but challenging all the same for our tired legs.
We set off in larger groups, with three teams grouped together. We rode the rolling hills along the Tamar River, chatting excitedly. It was a beautiful sight, the sun reflecting off the water and the wind on our backs. We were all in top spirits. Unlike yesterday, I was more mentally prepared for the gravel sections which we would encounter. I did not let the gravel stress me out. I rode it like I would any paved road, enjoying the scenery and the banter. The kilometres ticked over quickly and before we knew it we were entering Notley Gorge. T
he climb was steep and unsealed, which meant it was hard to get out of the saddle without losing traction. I was wishing I had one more gear. Before I knew it, we were at the top – stopping briefly to regroup. My legs were weary by now, yet I managed to find the last burst of energy to get me home. I could have kept riding into the distance, but that was the end. It was time to pack up my bike and head back to reality.
I would say that the Rapha Prestige was one of the hardest weekends I’ve had on the bike, maybe even harder than Everesting. I very much underestimated the power of the gravel. It drained my energy and my mental strength. In many ways it nearly broke me. Everesting was controlled, consistent and predictable. Rapha Prestige was not any of this, and it wasn’t meant to be. In many ways it was everything I expected – a truly epic adventure. I learnt a lot about myself this weekend. Riding here has been one of the most satisfying times I’ve had on the bike. Jacob’s Ladder is one of the most beautiful climbs in the world, and I can now say that I have climbed it. The view from the lookout rivals many of the famous climbs I’ve ridden in the Pyrenees, and it’s just as challenging to ride. The rock formations, cliffs, forest and sky viewed from that lookout was almost angelic. I will never forget the experience of this weekend – the view from Jacob’s Ladder, the suffering that I endured on that dreaded gravel, the satisfaction I felt high-fiving the boys after a hard 165km, and the friendships formed in sweet and tears along the way. Every person that rode The Rapha Prestige Launceston will have a different story to tell, yet we all shared the same camaraderie and suffering. Memories that will not be forgotten. I’ve made new friends, solidly built from the satisfaction and knowledge that we did it. Together. This weekend reminded me of the importance of following your dreams – whether it be to climb a mountain or begin commuting to work. Just get on your bike and ride it, in paces that challenge and inspire you to ride more. I can’t wait until the next Prestige, and a whole lot more suffering.