150 Women. One Mountain. High Country Women's Cycling Festival 2018

I was 500m from the top of Mount Buffalo when I came across a cyclist. Her head was down, her pedal stroke was sluggish and she looked like she’d rather be anywhere but on that bike.

I rode up next to her. “How are you going?” I asked as calmly as possible. I didn't want to seem overly chirpy and piss her off.

She grimaced. “Not that great.”

I matched my pedal stroke to hers. “You know we are only 500m from the top right?”

I have never seen such a look of disbelief on someone’s face. “You’re kidding?”

“No. Seriously, the top is just around that corner. Keep pedalling, you’re almost there.”

If we weren’t on bikes, and she wasn’t knackered, I’m pretty sure she would have hugged me. The elation that shone in her eyes was priceless.

From somewhere deep inside she found the motivation to keep going, a strength and drive to push on that only comes from knowing you are on the home stretch. Her speed picked up, a smile was plastered on her face and we rode to the summit handlebar to handlebar, cheering when we zoomed over the lip and down the other side towards the promise of a coffee.

That, right there, was my favourite moment from the 2018 High Country Women’s Cycling Festival.

HCWCF 2018

I was lucky enough to be a ride leader for this fantastic event.

Based out of Bright in Victoria's High Country, this inaugural event was a celebration of women's cycling with a focus on adventure, fun, fitness and friendship. Held in April this year, 150 women came together to cycle up Mount Buffalo - an 18km climb that is not for the faint hearted.

For many women who entered, this event was a bucket list moment. There were women who had never attempted such a long climb before; women who were recovering from injury; women who were getting their fitness back after some time off the bike. There were also women who were seasoned riders who came along to explore a new cycling area and make a few new friends.

Fate or coincidence?

I became involved in this event when Michelle Armstrong, one of the organisers, sent me a message on instagram in July last year.

Michelle told me that she was organising a women’s cycling festival down in Bright, Victoria and wondered whether I'd be interested in hearing a bit more about it.

Coincidence is a funny thing. Was it fate or coincidence that when I received that message I was currently in the final planning stages of relocating from Sydney to Bright?

I certainly think it was fate that Michelle would be one of the first people I met when I moved down here, and that she would become a firm friend almost immediately.

Image: the lovely Michelle

When I received that message from Michelle, I was pretty excited.

This event would be a great way to integrate into the local community where I currently knew no one.

Plus meet some fantastic women.

Plus help promote women’s cycling.

Plus ride one of my favourite climbs in the area.

So I jumped at the chance to get involved.

Michelle and I went on a few reccie rides when I arrived in Bright to chat about the festival - actually really just chat about everything...Michelle is the first person I’ve met who can talk non stop while climbing a mountain!

I soon met Clare from Wide Open Cycling Tours who was Michelle’s partner in setting up the festival. Michelle and Clare came up with the idea of the festival as a follow on from the success of the 7 Peaks 100 Women's Stories which aimed to share and unify the powerful voice of female cyclists through showcasing 100 authentic female rider stories. The HCWCF took this one step further by physically bringing together women to ride, eat, drink and share their own stories in Victoria's beautiful high country.

It wasn’t only the ride that Clare and Michelle had on the agenda, they had involved half the town in providing activities over the whole weekend, including lunches, dinner parties, lycra fashion parades, yoga, bike mechanic courses and much more.

These two were a force to be reckoned with, and through a fair bit of hard work on their part, before we knew it April was upon us and the festival was in full swing.

By this stage I’d been down in Bright around 5 months. Phil and I had had an awesome Summer of riding (as we were unemployed for most of it!) so I’d probably ridden up Buffalo almost once a week and knew the climb well.

Mount Buffalo is an 18km climb. It’s a fairly steady gradient the whole way, with an average of around 5%. The HCWCF included a 12km warm up ride to the base of the climb from the centre of Bright, plus an additional 2km after the summit of the climb to the Mount Buffalo Chalet - then the descent back into town (straight to the pub!)

The 150 women were split up into groups of varying abilities. I volunteered to ride at the back with some of the women who would find the ride a challenge. For me this festival wasn’t about getting to the top first, it was about meeting people, and providing encouragement and support to those who might need it.

Mount Buffalo here we come

On the festival morning the sun was shining brightly and there was a fantastic feeling of anticipation and excitement that swirled around the women as they rolled up to the start line at the Bright Brewery.

The plan was that each group would roll out together through town with their ride leader, then when we arrived at the base of the climb everyone would ride at their own pace.

Note, the festival wasn’t set up as a race, it was just a fun day out for all.

Now, my riding style has been shaped over my years as a member of Sydney Cycling Club. SCC were quite strict on riding neatly in a bunch, side by side, rolling turns and calling obstacles. So this is how I am used to riding.

It had occurred to me that many of the women in my group may not have ridden in a bunch before, but it didn’t really occur to me how this would translate on the road. So after 30 seconds of chaos I had to do some quick herding to get everyone in line as we rolled through town. I definitely lost a few who decided to bomb it to the base of the climb, but for the most part we stayed together (kind of...!) Good to note for next year.

Once the climb started everyone spread out and dug their heels in for a nice long ride to the top. I spent most of the ride moving up and down through my group checking if everyone was ok, and reminding them to eat and drink.

I’m a stickler for eating on the bike. It was drilled in to me when I first started riding by Phil that I had to eat eat eat! So now that’s what I do.

By the time we got to the top I’m pretty sure everyone was sick of me asking them if they needed a banana. If I’m anything it’s vigilant!

For the most part absolutely everyone was fine on the ride and didn't require my pestering. Everyone absolutely killed it. Even those who were struggling towards the end had a smile on their face and kept going.

I completely take it for granted that I’ve been riding regularly enough over the years to be able to roll out my door and climb a mountain on the bike relatively easily.

What really struck me on this ride was that there were women doing it who were completely challenging themselves. I heard amazing stories. One woman had been in a terrible accident mid last year - she had been struck by a kangaroo while out training on the bike. She had spent months in intensive care and had to re-learn to walk only 4 months before the festival. She signed up during her first week in hospital after the accident. If that is not determination then nothing is.

These stories were humbling.

The smiles on everyone’s face at the top of the climb were priceless. There were hugs, tears, laughter and absolute support from everyone who was either riding or volunteering during the ride.

Overall the ride was a brilliant success. Everyone I spoke to, whether it was on the ride, or over a glass of bubbles afterwards was raving about how well organised the event had been and how much fun they’d had.

This year the festival was limited to 150 women, but i’m pretty sure next year if that limit can be waived we’ll have twice that number.

I feel so honoured to have been part of this event that achieved everything it set out to do - adventure, fun, fitness and friendship.

I’m looking forward to telling my grandkids that I was a ride leader at the very first High Country Women’s Cycling Festival. See you there next year!

VicRoads, a sponsor of the event put together this great video from the event. Check it out.

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