Sunday, September 12, 2010

Mallee Routes revisited

The ultimate destination of my tour was the small north-west Victorian town of Hopetoun, where the Mallee Routes is held each year. It's a great event, best when the wind isn't blowing too strong across the seemingly endless plains. It's a tremendous gathering of audax riders, who pack the local pub for a festive dinner on the Friday night before the ride.

Last year was windy and I didn't finish the 300km ride after being talked into the longer distance. This year I allowed myself to become convinced 400km was a good idea.

The weather on Saturday was superb, with light winds and mild temperatures. The usual quick run down towards Warracknebeal saw the quick and the bold speed away and the slower and more cautious riders like me were content to drift back in the field. It's a long day to be riding at someone else's pace.

Onward towards Birchip, and still feeling good, the first 100km rolled by in just over four hours of riding time. Sea Lake rolled by, and another feed, which slowed me down a bit and though the second hundred took about the same time, my legs were definitely feeling the miles by now.

The leg to Patchewollock was where things got harder. Our group of two became three for a while and then four as we tackled the undulating sandhills to Speed where a short break allowed us to turns lights on and don reflective gear.

After a welcome feed at the Patchewollock control, the 50km back to Hopetoun came after dark and though we were still making good progress, it became obvious that finishing 400km by 2am as I had planned was going to be a big ask. I was getting tired and my hamstrings were giving me some grief and the prospect of another six hours on the bike for the 100km leg out to Wonga Hut in the Wyperfeld National Park just didn't appeal at all. When we completed our loop to Hopetoun, I decided to pull the pin.

Quitting isn't an easy decision to make, particularly after a DNF last year, but I was knackered and simply didn't have another 100km in my legs. Shame, but I'm pretty happy with my ride all the same - which took 15 and a half hours including breaks. My decision to pull out was vindicated in the morning when I found out my riding companion finally finished around 5am. Bravo to him, but I just wasn't up to a night that tough. And there's always next year for another crack. I'm disappointed not to finish what I set out to do, but I had a bloody good time and that, after all, is what it should be all about.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Into the Mallee

I love riding in the Mallee country, it's such a vast and interesting landscape, so very Australian: long straight empty roads and red soils and massive farms punctuated by small towns with a pub and a shop and not much else. There is plenty of history and in spring there are of wildflowers and the long plains dotted with sparse trees lend themselves to a rather meditative state of mind. Today was another wonderful day, blessed by good luck and good winds.

We caught the train north from the delightful Pyramid Hill to the border town of Swan Hill were we were to start our ride. I braved the heavy traffic to cross the Murray River into New South Wales for a few minutes, for my own amusement. After a spot of lunch we stopped in at the Visitors and Community Comfort Centre for a wee break. What would have been a short stop took nearly half an hour as we chatted to the delightful older ladies who keep it going and were interviewed by a reporter they summoned to meet the intrepid long distance cyclists. The Comfort Centre is a wonderful facility which every town should have, long may they prosper. Travelling by bike is such an easy way to meet people, who are often keen to chat and share their stories and hear ours. We have some new friends in Swan Hill.

Back on the road for our 72km zap to Sea Lake it was apparent our luck with the wind was holding and we barreled along at speeds not normally reached by cycle tourists. We punctuated the ride with sprints for the crest of anything resembling a hill, something in pretty short supply in these parts. An hour or so saw us in Ultima, where we enjoyed an ice cream in the general store before the final push to Sea Lake - a town I've not visited before and which is close to our goal of Hopetoun. Another push of 60km tomorrow and we'll be at the home of the Mallee Routes with a rest day in hand. Apparently there's 50 riders expected for the various distances. Even the weather forecast seems favorable. Here's to the weekend.

Flood crossing, Central Victoria

Fortunately the worst we've faced so far is wet feet, though there are towns nearby sandbagged and evacuated.

A brilliant day

I've never forgotten how much I love touring, though yesterdays ride was a good chance to renew the relationship.

We started the day with a visit to Rochester's delightful Sir Hubert Opperman museum before setting out in warm and still conditions. The roads in these parts are perfect for cycling - flat and with only light traffic. The effects of the heavy drought-breaking rains made themselves felt with a couple of water crossings, though we were not seriously slowed.

Lunch was at the tiny town if Dingee after about 50km and we stopped for a break at Mitiamo 20km later. The final 20km into Pyramid Hill was more of the same: zooming along at 25km/h marvelling at what a nice day it was. We arrived at the magnificent Pyramid Hill hotel just in time for some cold beers and to learn who was to form the new federal government.

Today's ride has been amended by the flooding - the roads we were intending to travel are deep underwater and blocked by police. A detour by train to Swan Hill should get us around the worst of it by lunchtime and we shall venture forth towards Sea Lake.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

About the bag.

I very seldom use a handlebar bar, preferring to carry loads in panniers on a rear rack where they are stable and out of sight. Even so, I've owned one for ages, and drag it out from time to time - like for this trip because I was keen to have a little extra room and it's a handy place to keep a few essentials together.

If I had any doubts about the usefulness of a handlebar bag for touring, I'm now a complete convert. The bag holds all the little items I need during the day and keeps them within easy reach on the go. Sunglasses, gloves, camera are right there and it's a handy place to keep cash and cards. Spare clothing can be stuffed in too as the day warms up. Since it clips off easily and has a shoulder strap, it comes off the bike at stops. It does affect handling slightly, so even after getting used to that slight change, it's best not to put too many heavy items in.

As part of an ultralight touring ensemble, it's hard to beat. My only criticism is that it sits a little high. Perhaps one of the lovely Gilles Berthoud handlebar bags would take me that short step towards perfection.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Onward to Murchison

On the road for the first proper day of our tour, the relatively short hop from Seymour to Murchison. We were on the road by 10 and quickly into a rhythm, slowed only once by water over the road after the heavy rains of Saturday, although the rivers we crossed were all mightily swollen. Lunch in Nagambie then just 20km to Murchison where we found a cheap room in the pub and a few beers and a fine meal downstairs. All in all a fast fine day of touring.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Tour de Nord

Day one of my long-planned tour of central and northern Victoria did not dawn auspiciously. To be fair, the signs weren't good from early last week, with warnings of the heaviest rainfall in a decade but I held out hope that it would somehow pass by and I'd be able to ride the wonderful Spring into Seymour as planned.

It was not to be, with heavy rain and strong winds meaning the ride was cancelled due to flooding in the course and I went back to bed.

The plan, hatched at the Alpine Classic in January, is to ride between two great audax events - the Spring into Seymour and the Mallee Routes, which this year are a week apart. From Seymour to Hopetoun is about 450km, so it's a cruise ride, very flat, though against the prevailing winds.

I'm doing the ride on my trusty old Surly Crosscheck, because it is solid and comfortable and reliable and because it has lights and mudguards and racks but with the right tyres is still capable of a decent turn of speed.

I'm traveling with just my two tiny panniers, a rack and handlebar bags. It's not quite credit card and toothbrush, but the bare minimum so I'm not too bogged down with gear.

After the rain eased yesterday I left Tooborac for the undulating 35km run to Seymour as a little shakedown ride. I'm happy to say everything worked perfectly, despite the drenching I got from a single burst of heavy rain right at the midway point. Today is a 60km roll up the road to Murchison before the 100km days start in earnest. With a clearing forecast, it should be a most enjoyable week.

Friday, September 03, 2010

As I recall.

A few days ago I noticed a bit of noise on the internet talking about a recall of some Surly bikes - Long Haul Truckers and Cross Checks to be precise. Since I own one of both I took more than a passing interest, it sounded serious. The recall seems to apply to complete bikes sold in Australia. something to do with brakes being unsafe.

I did a little research on what it's all about. There are no faulty brakes, despite what some are saying, just a lesson in what is wrong with the product recall system and the Australian Standards for bicycles.

It seems, there is concern that a bike fitted with cantilever brakes and knobby tyres, a snapped front brake cable could mean the suddenly free straddle cable drops and catches a knob and flings the rider over the bars. It has apparently happened once to someone riding a cheap bike with plastic brakes in the United States. The inevitable resulting lawsuit is here.

Such an incident can only happen on bikes without mudguards and with knobby tyres, and only on brakes set up with cantilever brakes which had straddle cables incorrectly set so short they could contact the tyre. Neither of these bikes was sold with knobby tyres. It would also only happen on bikes with no no mudguard or front reflector or light bracket, which would also deflect the cable.

In the real world, if this problem existed, it would apply to all bikes fitted with cantilever brakes. Somebody, somewhere, has decided a "brake cable catch hook" (never heard of it before) is the solution for these two bikes alone rather than correctly setting up and maintaining the bicycle. Keep in mind the only recorded case of a problem occurring happened on a completely different bike, with different tyres, and a roller pulley setup, which again neither of these bikes have.

The level of risk is so close to zero that nobody has seen fit to issue a general warning to the hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who may use cantilever brakes, despite the fact it's an easy problem to detect and remedy.

I'm told the Australian Standard now requires the hook for be fitted to all new bikes. As far as I know such a hook is not required in any other country, although the waning popularity of cantilever brakes may explain why it's not more of an issue. It's part of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission crackdown to make sure every bike sold has reflectors, a bell and two working brakes, regardless of whether the owner removes them on the way out of the shop. Surely they have more serious risks to public safety with which to occupy their time.