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It is said that elite athletes have to be incredibly selfish to succeed. I was thinking about that as I wheeled 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 screaming “I want Daddy”.
It was early Friday morning and I was driving one hour south of Sydney to Helensburgh, where the elite women’s and men’s road races will start on the weekend of 24-25 September. The women will cover 164.3km with 2,433 metres of climbing while the men will do 266.9km with 3,945 vertical metres. The route includes the tough Mount Keira climb which is 8.7km long with an average gradient of 5% but pinches at 15%.
I am not an elite athlete, of course, and was just hoping to get up the mountain without climbing off my bike. The organising committee, Wollongong 2022, had helpfully provided an official photographer to document any embarrassing moments.
I was riding the course with Mark Renshaw, an ex-professional cyclist and former world champion on the track, who is the safety manager for Wollongong 2022. There were also some local riders and other journalists riding to mark 100 days until the championships started.
We met at Cafe Diem for a coffee before setting out. We headed up a small rise and Renshaw, cycling on the front alongside Wollongong-based Samara Sheppard – who’s hoping to compete at the worlds for New Zealand – asked if the pace was OK. “Sure,” I said. But I knew that rolling around Sydney’s Centennial Park for a few hours each week wasn’t the right preparation for tackling a worlds course. This was not going to be OK.
Helensburgh is an elevated town at the southern end of the Royal national park – the world’s second-oldest national park – on Dharawal country. The course initially winds through the forest while plummeting 250 metres to Stanwell Park on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
This 6.9km section will be neutralised on race day so the professionals don’t crash on the first descent. Renshaw is so worried about this prospect he’s considering removing the reflective cat’s eyes from the centre of the road despite the ridiculous cost involved.
From Stanwell Park, the race will be on, and riders will attack to get into the breakaway. It will make for spectacular TV pictures as riders surge along Lawrence Hargrave Drive and over the famous Sea Cliff Bridge south towards Wollongong.
On Friday, we ride the 27.7km to Wollongong admiring the twinkling ocean on our left and the dramatic Illawarra escarpment on our right. It’s a beautiful ribbon of road between blue and green that makes it easy to forget Wollongong’s mining and industrial past and present. The forest hides labyrinthine underground coalmines including some that are, controversially, expanding.
After arriving in Wollongong’s CBD, we head inland to tackle Mount Keira, which overlooks the city and tops out at 473 metres, according to the official UCI course profile. I stop to fill my water bottle, expecting this could take a while, and tell the others not to wait. I’ll see them at the top.
But Dean Dalla Valle, a former mining executive who’s the chair of the local organising committee, kindly insists on shepherding me up the climb. It starts hard, with the second kilometre averaging 10.4%, before settling into a steady effort.
On Friday, there is time to look around. The forest here is dominated by silver-top ash, Sydney peppermint and turpentine with rainforest species in the wetter areas. It’s a beautiful road with the tree canopy joining overhead at times, creating a cathedral-like 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 make it up, Dalla Valle, who’s 63 and can race up in not much more than 20 minutes, cheerfully tells me my time – 32 minutes. Could some people run up faster?
Steve Peterson helped design the course and he suggests while the pros certainly won’t be going as slow as me on race day, they won’t be flying up the climb either. Mount Keira is too early in the course to prove decisive. When the riders go over the summit in September the women will still have 122km to race. The men will have 225km left.
But the climbing will sap the legs and have an impact later when the riders hit the Wollongong city circuit and the action heats up.
The city circuit is similar to the one in Geelong when Australia last hosted the world championships in 2010. But this year’s course, overall, is more difficult.
“There’s no doubt Mount Keira makes a big difference … and will have an influence on the backend of the race,” Peterson, who is head of sport for Wollongong 2022, tells me on the phone after the ride. “We have nearly 4,000 metres of climbing [in total] in the men’s race and that’s the equivalent of a mountain stage in the Tour de France.”
Thankfully, we are not riding the complete 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 are riding the loop just once for a total distance of about 70km.
The pros will descend south off Mount Keira and the side of Mount Kembla to return to the CBD. But that road was closed on Friday due to landslips caused by La Niña rains, meaning we had to head back down the road we had climbed.
Then, after turning left, we were on the city circuit and I was regretting consuming just a banana atop Mount Keira rather than a bag of lollies and a can of Coke. The circuit includes a small rise up Dumfries Avenue (which the UCI is calling Mount Ousley) and then what appeared to me to be a near-vertical wall up Ramah Avenue (Mount Pleasant).
If the photographer had not been positioned on Ramah Avenue I may have climbed off and had a lie down on the front lawn of one of the neat suburban houses. It’s steep.
Instead, I watched Renshaw pop a wheelie as he happily started up the climb, then put my head down and grovelled. The course profile says Mount Pleasant is 1.1km long with an average gradient of 7.7%.
Just 300 metres in it hits a maximum 14%. (Although my Garmin bike computer, when I looked down at this point, flashed 25%. At the same time, an elderly woman walking along the street smiled at me and said: “Enjoy your ride.”)
Ramah Avenue then flattens out briefly before kicking up again. This climb is where the weaker riders will be dropped on each of the circuits before frantically trying to chase back on during the technical and fast descent to the coast. The final 5km to the finish line is relatively flat.
Renshaw thinks the carnage on the final few laps could be such that as few as five riders survive to contest a sprint. He says the course suits a classics specialist.
Peterson says the city circuit will see riders dropped gradually throughout the day and then “certainly in the last two to four laps you’ll really see them coming off”. He argues the technical descent off Mount Pleasant will encourage riders to attack over the top and try to stay away “because it’s harder for the chasers to get organised to close the gap again”. He too expects a sprint from a relatively small group for both the women and men.
When I got to the top of Ramah Avenue I saw the others had patiently waited for me and we completed the course together. The finishing straight isn’t yet straight – the council is working to remove an unfortunate kink in Marine Parade after contentiously relocating some bus parking – and it will be relatively short at 300 metres from the final corner.
But if the experts’ predictions are correct there won’t be a mass sprint, so that shouldn’t matter.
Julian Drape is Guardian Australia’s evening editor and an occasional cyclist