Taking on the punishing Brisbane Coot-tha Burn

23 December 2015

Cycling try-hard Graeme Wilson is in training for the inaugural Brisbane Coot-tha Burn on 13 February. He found out the hard way that the 2000m climb can be unforgiving on the unsuspecting. 
Graeme Wilson at Brisbane Coot-tha Burn

My eggs went down poached this morning, but there’s every chance they’re about to come up scrambled.

I’m 200m from the top of the Coot-tha Burn course and the previous 1800m have put me in serious danger of losing my breakfast.

It’s my first training ride for the inaugural Burn in February and through the cloudy haze in my head, I make a mental note to skip my morning meal on race day.

Back-pedalling (so to speak) for a moment, I need to explain how I’ve arrived at this stomach-churning moment.

When word broke of the new challenge on the cycling calendar, I was on to my second beer of the evening and had no hesitation in declaring: “I’m up for that.”

I regularly ride a 40km river loop which is admittedly pretty flat, but there’s still a few climbs to negotiate so hills aren’t totally foreign to me. And I’ve ridden up and over Mount Coot-tha a few times in the past, although never with any thought of competing against the clock.

So it was with some confidence I committed to tackling this unique event that promises to capture the imagination of the Brisbane public, who will be encouraged to line the course Tour de France-style to cheer on the competitors.
I start my first serious attempt at the Burn course feeling strong. It’s considerably cooler than the previous day’s scorcher and the body’s feeling good and seemingly up for the challenge.

There’s no real easing into the climb. It starts immediately and after 200m I’m thinking that maybe this is going to be tougher than I thought. Another 200m on and I KNOW this is going to be tougher than I thought.

I’m buoyed a little as I gain on a fellow cyclist who has squeezed himself into gear designed for someone a couple of sizes smaller. Not for the first time I’m amazed at the ability of lycra to stretch far beyond what seems possible.

I’m starting to lose my sense of humour, but as I grind my way past him I smile briefly, thinking that a Wide Load message would be more appropriate than the leading bicycle brand emblazoned across his backside.
It’s not super steep, but this hill is super relentless. Every bend I round in the winding upward journey promises the hope of some sort of respite but fails to deliver … the climb just continues.

Any thoughts of taking in the spectacular views on the way up are now forgotten. I’m fully focussed on the road ahead, and survival has become the name of the game.

I pass the halfway mark and wish I’d committed more to losing those extra five kgs I’m carrying around my midriff. My power-to-weight ratio is not what it should be and I’m literally pushing it uphill. I have new empathy and respect for the portly pedaller now keeping pace behind me.

I paid a lot of money for this ultra-light bike and I don’t feel it’s proving good value for money. Maybe I should have upgraded to one with a little motor. 

I silently curse the riders flying past me on their downhill run, their stupid, knowing grins suggesting they sense my worsening predicament.

My heart is pounding and my lungs are burning. I back off slightly but I’ve started too fast and I’m in serious oxygen debt, with little left in the bank to cover that debt.

Shut Up Legs message at Brisbane Coot-tha Burn
As the pain sets in, a fellow cyclist pushes on towards the finish line

It’s only pride that keeps me going now, and as I pass the “Shut Up Legs” slogan spray-painted on the road, I now understand what legendary German cyclist Jens Voigt was talking about when he coined the phrase.

I feel like I’m cycling through quick sand and my legs are turning to jelly. They’re screaming at me to stop.

Do I stand up or do I sit down? I’m not thinking clearly enough to make educated decisions so I try both, but neither seems to ease the pain.

If I stop pedalling entirely, I’ll simply fall to the road, and that option may in fact prove far less painful.
I hit that “200m to go” mark and my stomach moves from its natural location and positions itself somewhere uncomfortably close to my mouth.

I back off again and decide that today there’s glory in just making it to the end alive and able to fight another day.

But who could have believed 200m could seem so far?

Tortured legs and lungs eventually get me there and I barely have the energy to dismount and assume the star position staring up at the sky above. 
Life’s all about living and learning, and the lesson I learned from that first serious climb was a painful but important one that I’ve taken into subsequent climbs and have passed on to other novices thinking of taking on the Burn.

Slow and steady is the name of the game. No matter your fitness levels, this climb will find you wanting if you don’t give it the respect it warrants.

Learn from my mistake and ride within your limits, gradually building your fitness over progressive climbs.

I’m now completing the climb at least once a week and it’s gradually getting (I was going to say “easier” but that would be an exaggeration) less painful.
Brisbane Coot-tha Burn
The unrelenting climb winds its way up Mount Coot-tha.

What I love about the Burn is the fact there’s nowhere to hide.

You can have a $10,000 bike and a fancy white jersey with red polka dots as worn by the Tour de France King of the Mountains, but neither will help you master the Burn.

This is not a glide around a river loop in the slipstream of riders ahead of you. Shaving your legs may mean they look good in shorts, but it won’t assist you here.

This is a true test of the “no guts, no glory” maxim.

In the man (or woman) against mountain challenge, your body will be asked some serious questions. If you’re not willing to enter the hurt locker, then you won’t come up with the right answers.

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