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.
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