Ironman 70.3 Ballarat has nostalgic sense of adventure
JUST outside Melbourne sits a hidden gem where culture, history and adventure collide.
About a 1.5-hour freeway drive leads to Ballarat, which has evolved into an enticing hub for those looking to combine fitness and explore a region that played a pivotal role in the nation's evolution.
Cycling has evolved into a regional drawcard, with the town hosting next year's Cycling Australia Road National Championships Gran Fondo, along with triathlon.
During December the triathlon train rolls into town where athletes compete in the Ironman 70.3 - a 1.9km swim in Lake Wendouree, 90km two-lap undulating rural ride and then three laps around the lake on the compressed gravel track named in honour of expat Steve Monaghetti (he still rightfully holds the lap record of 16:10 set back in 1992).
It's an intriguing race often dictated by the lottery that is rural Victorian weather.
Victorian weather can be a fickle beast. Despite being December, the overnight temperatures plummeted into the low single digits and daytime varied between high teens into the 20s.
Yet it can get scorching hot, and it can be somewhat of a lottery in terms of conditions.
Last year's experience saw athletes enter the wetsuit swim at temperatures around four degrees, but the rising sun dragged temperatures into the high 20s.
Wind turbines on the horizon seen near the turnaround point on the bike speak volumes. While the terrain is mostly flat, it's the wind which presents a constant challenge.
Riders pass through the prestigious Arch of Victory and Avenue of Honour on the two-lap course before reaching transition at Lake Wendouree. Easier on the legs than bitumen, the track offers a picturesque view around the watercourse which is home to some of the town's most prestigious sprawling properties.
There is strong crowd support throughout the run leg and when passing through town, with soldiers borrowed from Sovereign Hill adding to the nostalgic atmosphere for which Ballarat is renowned.
Fabulous architecture through the city centre points to a proud heritage built on the gold rush era.
Monuments in the heart of Ballarat tell some of the story, but for those old and young it's Sovereign Hill which provides an interactive look at the city when it was the epicentre of gold discovery.
You can see everything from blacksmiths in action, liquid gold before your eyes, sweets in production, and also pan for your own priceless nuggets. Just be aware some extras require you to dig into your pocket again, including the underground mine tour, which can be disappointing given the hefty entry cost.
Given Ballarat is so close to Melbourne, some of the café culture has filtered through.
Worth a visit is lespresso, Fika Coffee Brewers in the CBD, while for the riders there is also Gove's Cycles and Café in North Ballarat. For pizza and pasta a great spot is the Forge Pizzeria, and near the lake is Racer's and The Lake View Hotel.
For those racing, it's best to get close to the lake for easier access to transition (parking is difficult on race day) as well as the town's outstanding indoor aquatic facility. Our family loved the eclectic features of the Lascelles apartment. Available through Stayz, it has been delightfully renovated with a brilliant open-plan bath, amazing artwork and impressive heating - yes, you may need it even in December.
Ballarat Premier Apartments also offers a great option for those looking for luxurious, high-end properties.
If you go...
Ironman 70.3 Ballarat
When: December 11, 2016.
- Bear in mind the walk from transition to the swim start is about 1km, so it's worth having a helper or stashing some shoes to keep your feet warm
- Conditions can be varied, with temperatures starting in the single digits while tops can be into the 30s
- Three and four-day attraction passes are available to Sovereign Hill, Kryal Castle, Ballarat Wildlife Park and the Museum of Australian Democracy at Eureka where you can save 10% on entry
- Take change for city centre parking, just about everywhere is metered