Monday, September 28, 2009

Blown away at the Mallee Routes

To be a randonneur is to invite a certain amount of discomfort into your life along with the rewards from one enjoys among the long hours in the saddle, the hills, the weather and the other assorted perils of the road. This year's Mallee Routes opened the door to discomfort rather wide, with the strongest winds I've ever ridden into, magpie attacks, and rain and hail thrown in for good measure. Hard times seem to be a feature of this ride: 2006 and 2007 were tough outings for me too and last year, which I missed, was apparently pretty windy too.

On paper this can be a wonderful ride through some wonderful countryside. There's a dinner on Friday night for the riders who gather from Adelaide and Melbourne and from even further afield. The accommodation at the Hopetoun bush retreats is top notch. The Mallee country is flat, the weather is usually warm and the Victorian country roads are quiet on AFL Grand Final day so it's a good time for a ride. The route passes through seemingly endless wheat and canola fields and lovely historic country towns. There are ride choices from 50km to 600km. I was intending to ride the 200km event, but despite the gloomy weather forecast, was talked into signing up for the 300km by ride organiser Peter Annear. My plan was to decide along the way - reverting to the 200km distance if the weather was as bad as the strong winds, rain, hail and possible thunderstorms the forecasts seemed to suggest.

Things didn't look too terrible at the 6am start and despite a bit of wind I made a pretty reasonable getaway riding in the small groups finding their legs on the long straight run towards Warracknabeal. A very quick stop at the roadhouse and I was again on my way - passing the 100km mark a few minutes under four hours. The tailwind along the leg to Birchip was phenomenal, pushing me along at a steady 30km/h. After a short stop to take off some clothing I found myself motoring down a slight incline at 44km/h chasing down a rider I'd been chatting away the miles with. I reached Burchip for a burger by 11am. My average speed at this point was over 25km/h and I was feeling strong.

Getting a tailwind like that on the outbound leg means you're going to have to pay the piper big time on the way home. It's a Mallee Routes tradition. Back on the road, the wind increased and big black clouds rolled in. The rain started, then some hail. I was drenched by a passing car which hit an inopportune puddle. Somehow despite all this, I was feeling pretty good and was still toying with completing the 300km course. And then the wind got really serious.

The weather station at Hopetoun Airport records a steady increase over the day. What started as a 20km/h westerly lifted into the 40s and 50s by 11.30am and the gusts were rolling in at 70km/h - a pretty forceful 20 metres a second. On the flat and largely treeless plains there isn't much to stop the breeze. As I turned west alone into the wind and made for Woomelang pub, my progress slowed to a crawl - 15km/h, then 12km/h, twice even forcing me to stop and wait as the most violent squalls hit. Grinding away in a gear I usually save for climbing hills, the 60-odd kilometres to the finish seemed to take forever. My mate Steve, who finished earlier, rode out to offer some company on the final slog. In the event, while my first 100km took under four hours, my second took six, and was much, much harder. My average speed for the day was just 21.6km/h. Still, I felt good and finished strong. It's a funny world in which 200km is a ok day on the bike.

Full respect then to the riders who managed to finish the longer distances: particularly the unstoppable Peter Heal who ride 600km in 26 hours. Because I didn't finish the course I nominated for, my result is a DNF, but finishing a 200km ride in under 11 hours in those conditions was a pretty good test. I love this ride, but next year I'll give some very serious throught to manning a checkpoint rather than again suffering like a dog out on the road!

4319km so far this year.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Even if it's Ousing Down.

A record field of nine signed on for the (inaugural) Even if it's Ousing Down two-day tour on Monday and Tuesday this week with local bike gang Bottles and Chains. We met at the Machine Laundry Cafe, a rough route was agreed and off we set for the delightfully named town of Ouse, 100km up, 100km back.

As is so often the case in Tasmania, up was the operative word. The first major challenge was the long hill over Glenlusk towards New Norfolk. A distinct lack of fitness told on me as the blokes on fixies and single speeds charged off to preserve some forward motion like men possessed and I gently spun up the long hill with a sympathy escort. A bit to much weight on the bike and the body will slow a man slightly. Once we reached the top there was a fine descent into New Norfolk and lunch.

It seemed pretty apparent that we were going to spend most of our day grinding into a headwind so I decided to head on alone and ride at my own pace. Everything became easier after this and I quickly rolled through Bushy Park, Westerway and Ellendale before the first of the quicks again caught up. Two fairly major climbs out of the way it was a gentle downhill roll into Ouse where were repaired to the pub for a post-ride refreshment.

An interesting and most convivial evening followed where the discussion was, pretty much non-stop, about bikes. No sub-topic too esoteric, no part too obscure, no fad too faint to have attracted notice and informed opinion. An outsider might have found our chatter a touch obsessive, but it was a delightful immersion among like-minded friends into the work of bike culture and the cares of the world be damned.

Tuesday morning we were back on our steeds for what promised to be a most interesting day in the saddle. From Ouse, we climbed the big hill on the outside of Hamilton and took the dirt road for Pelham, where I found my second wind. From there we had a screaming dirt and tarmac descent followed by a long downhill and wind-assisted scream through Elderslie and into Brighton for lunch. At this point I turned my wheels for home as the rest went for an exploration of the hills of the eastern shore.

My return along the bike path was delayed by Tasmania's toughest man for just long enough that I was right on time to meet the others at the pub for a pint to cap off a superb weekend. There's much talk of a similar trip or two come December. I'm rather looking forward to that.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

They make them tough in Tassie.

I might have met the toughest - or the luckiest - bloke in the world. I was riding down the Hobart cycleway yesterday when a cyclist was hit by a ute at an intersection about 20 metres ahead. Clearly a big hit, the bloke was lying on the road, his helmet shattered into small pieces around him. As people stopped traffic, I called an ambulance and approached him - not knowing what to expect given the sickening sound of the impact, which I didn't see. I told him help was on the way and to stay as still as possible in case he had a head or neck injury. His eyes flickered open and he uttered a line you don't hear often:

"Did you see that? That bloke just ran over my head."

We helped load him into the ambulance. The cops were talking to the ute driver when I left. I heard the cyclist has a broken collarbone, thankfully nothing worse. Take care out there folks.

4,079km so far this year.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Seymour revisited

When the winter weather fades and the days slowly start to lengthen it means the Spring into Seymour can't be far away and that is always a good thing. For those of us who view the winter months as a bit of a mid-year break, this ride is such a lovely season opener to get the blood flowing again. This is my favourite ride because it's a fast, flat course passing through some lovely central Victorian towns. Early in the Spring you need something quick and easy like that to make you feel like a champion again. And any ride is enhanced by the company of like-minded folk intent on wringing not the fastest time, but the greatest joy from a day in the saddle.

I've done this ride three times: the 200km once and the 160km (100 miles) once. This year, my vast experience didn't stop me taking a wrong turn and setting off with the 200km riders, who do a 5km loop to round up their distance before heading out of town. I could tell I was in the wrong bunch, or even within several kilometres, because I couldn't hear my mate Steve talking and cracking wise non-stop as he tends to do. It was quite eerie, though I pushed through it manfully. It meant I spent the first 40km thundering along in pursuit, reacquainting myself with some old friends as the half-dozen Lancefield Lairs I was supposed to be riding with laughed amongst themselves on the way to Nagambie (39km), where I caught up.

Onward pedalled the brave, with their chatter and their bad jokes and the sometimes by accident true tales of epic rides from distant past. We crossed the dreaded Kirwan's Bridge, which is a long single lane wooden structure in shocking disrepair which has to be walked because the gaps between the planks are so wide. We stopped at Murchison (63km) for lunch at the bakery and set out on the road once more refreshed whereupon a few drops of rain meant the jackets came out for a very few minutes. Back through Nagambie, a lovely tailwind towards the sleepy pub in Locksley (129km), where we took turns tossing a ball for a kelpie which had for some reason taken up residence unremarked in the front bar. Some of our number decided now was a good time to try beer as a sports drink, though they now report its performance wanting. Rode with some more old friends for a while out of Locksley before doubling back to the raggedy-arse bunch where I belonged.

A couple of years ago four of us rode this ride like dervishes, this time we took a slightly more leisurely pace, broken by intermittent breakaways as someone or other had a rush of blood or decided to test their legs over a gentle rise before sitting up to be reeled into the shelter of the bunch again as we picked up the odd straggler on the run home.

There are Audax rides to challenge the legs and there are others to confirm the simple joy of being healthy and alive. Six hours into the ride, as we cruised out of the famous secret checkpoint at Avenel (140.5km) and it was obvious we've only got an hour left on the bike, I'm sure we all felt the same way: Damn, this thing will be over soon.

Thanks to the Lairs for their company and thanks Carolyn Bolton for organising another memorable ride.

3783km so far this year.