It’s 41′C (105′F) as we mingle outside the blue cottage in Esk. Eleven of us unload bicycles from our vehicles and pull on our cycling clothes in the limited privacy our car doors provide. Sandy the Sensational gives us our brevets and route cards in exchange for our entry fees. She checks we have the required two tail lights, two headlights and reflective vests before wishing us well with the ride. At 4:15pm we set off down the road, a small group of randonneurs hoping to complete the hot and hilly 200km course within the 13:30 cut off.
The course will be a challenge. It’s my first foray beyond 160km and my first overnight road ride. With 2,800m climbing, this is not a challenge for the feint-hearted. The extreme heat just adds to the challenge. What we don’t know when we set off is that the heat won’t drop below 30′C (86′F) until well into the final 50km of the ride when we drop back down the range to Esk.
We leave Esk at our own pace. I find myself riding somewhere near the front of the group. Two men race off the front, leaving us all behind for the rest of the ride. A group of men decide not to blow themselves up in the heat and climb, so they take up the rear of the group. I’m not sure how to pace myself for the distance and am scared of being late at checkpoints so I push myself a bit to put some time in the bank. But I don’t push so hard I can’t enjoy the sensation of actually being here and doing this.
The only thing great about Australia’s Great Dividing Range is that it runs the length of our eastern seaboard. The mountains aren’t tall or snow capped but they are steep. The range here tops out at about 700m, which is barely a hill by world standards but when you start at sea level, 700m is a long way to climb.
I ride the first part of the climb with Mr Swiss; I name him after his jersey. By the end of the ride I will know his real name but for the purpose of this blog, he will remain Mr Swiss. Mr Swiss is an experienced randonneur whose patience and advice will help get me through the ride. He tells me to loosen my shoes to reduce the risk and pain of hot foot. Basic as it seems, I wouldn’t have thought to loosen my shoes off to prevent my feet being squashed as they swelled.
I loose Mr Swiss on a steep gradient and ride alone. Instead of suffering, I pull out my iPod and listen to some music while enjoying the scenery. Some of the views down over Brisbane are spectacular. I can see all the way to the ocean. This is why we climb these mountains; because the views look better when you have worked for them.
The extreme heat prompts Sandy the Sensational to send her assistant James halfway up the climb to set up an extra water station. It’s a lifesaver. The water in my biddons is hot enough to make a pot of tea so the icy cold water is like manna from heaven. I pour what’s left in my biddons over my head and fill both with the fresh icy water. I drink a full biddon before riding back up the mountain with a full 1.5L of water on board.
I feel so much better after the water stop and continue singing out loud to the music on my iPod. Mr Swiss is no longer visible; he left the water station as I was arriving, wishing me well for the rest of the climb. I keep catching up with Mr Kazakstan, so named due to his jersey. Every time I catch him he seems to take off. Perhaps my awful singing is driving him away. I cheer and punch the air as I pass the sign marking the crest of the range. It’s a small but significant victory.
Sandy the Sensational has set up an amazing checkpoint at Hampton, 50km from the start of the ride. Piles of food and plentiful drinks greet me as I pull up. After signing my brevet, Sandy explains what food we can choose from. She doesn’t take offense when all I can do is nod incoherently and say I can’t eat. I’m cooking from the heat so I drink a big cup of cola and visit the nearby men’s room. Misters Swiss and Kazakstan are waiting for me when I return so we can ride together. I grab a ham and tomato bun to eat as I ride with them.
We pull on our reflective vests, turn on our lights and set off into the sunset for the next 50km stretch to Checkpoint 2. It’s beautiful up here on the range riding between the long grass and trees. I feel strong as we ride quickly along quiet country roads. There’s no traffic and the three of us fan out as darkness descends. I’m no longer listening to my iPod but am talking with Misters Swiss and Kazakstan.
We reach Checkpoint 2 in good spirits having made good time to the 100km mark. In fact, despite it being the most challenging 100km I’ve ever ridden, it’s also the first time I’ve cycled this distance in less than five hours. Sandy the Sensational has outdone herself again, setting up another mountain of food for us. There’s the best ever pasta salad, watermelon and bananas, salty potato chips (crisps), lollies, cake, buns, cola, three different types of sports drink, cold water, and tea and coffee. Surely Sandy and her assistant are the heroes of this ride.
The road between Checkpoints 2 and 3 is long, tough and demoralising. I struggle to maintain a positive mental space for the fifteen kilometres leading into Haden, which is at the 128km mark. My legs are fatigued and my mind starting to wonder why I am keeping it awake past my bedtime. While the Sleep Monster yet grasping at me, the Wall is definitely difficult to ride through. I tell Misters Swiss and Kazakstan that I need to put some music on to help me find a rhythm and apologise for being antisocial. The music helps and I work my way through the wall to Haden.
We stop briefly in Haden to catch our breath and refocus on the ride. It works and we ride the last 22km to the Crows Nest Checkpoint more strongly than we rode the previous 28km. At 144km we hit the New England Highway and pick up the pace. We belt our way to the final checkpoint where Sandy the Sensational has cooked the most delicious chicken, corn and noodle soup I’ve ever tasted. It was exactly what I needed.
We leave Crows Nest in the middle of the night. The roads and town are quiet as we pedal away into the night. A few hundred meters later we are back out in the darkness. Our headlights are as bright as car lights so the road ahead is brightly lit but I occasionally turn back to see just how dark it really is. There’s a new moon tonight so the world behind us is pitch black, which is discombobulating but interesting. The toads are insects are drawn to our headlights and they are out in full force. We laugh as we run over toads even as we try to avoid them.
We ride down to Perseverance Dam before starting the long climb back to the top of the range. At least we are starting from about 400m above sea level so we don’t have to climb the full 700m. But we’ve now ridden 160km with 9km of climbing ahead of us. There are some small descents but the pinches in the climb are tough. I put my iPod back in and ask Misters Swiss and Kazakstan to wait for me at the highway, which they do.
Most of the final 25km of the ride is downhill off the range. There are a few nasty climbs but it’s nothing compared with the previous 175km. When we are three kilometres from the finish we all start to crank it out. We want to finish before 2am. It’s an arbitrary time that has become our goal. We’re down on the drops as we turn down the Brisbane Valley Highway in Esk and race the final two blocks to the blue cottage. 1:59am. We made it. The bacon and tomato sanger Sandy the Sensational dishes up for me is the best I’ve ever tasted. Unlike her pasta salad and soup, this time it’s just the fact that I’m hungry that makes it taste so good.
Without Misters Swiss and Kazakstan, this ride would have been even tougher. They helped me ride faster and longer than I ever believed I could. My goal at 4:15pm was just to slide into the finish at 5:30am, just within the 13:30 cut-off. Instead, I broke 10 hours for my first 200km ride.
Total: 200km road cycle