8am. The five riders in our team pose as Sandy takes a pre-ride photo. Our team comprises: Sandy, who supported us with delicious food, icy cold drinks and encouragement; Martin, who set the route and rode a fully tricked out randonneering bike, complete with gold bell and shiny fenders; Dino, who rode a single-speed freewheel called Frez; Rodney, who took up Dino’s challenge to ride the first 300km in a single gear despite having a full complement of gears available on his racing steed; James, who was the youngest in the group at 24 years old; and me.
As we set off, we had 360km of wide open Lockyer Valley roads ahead of us. Martin led the way and set a quick pace. Every time I looked at my speedometer we were traveling somewhere between 28kph – 31kph.
The recent rains and floods have turned the landscape lush and green. I made it a priority to look around and enjoy the scenery, rather than stressing about the long distance to the finish. This is a big change for me. I used to be so goal oriented that I couldn’t contemplate a long ride like this, but my new process-oriented view of the world allowed me to enjoy the scenery and process of traveling under my own power.
We followed flat quiet country roads for 70km to checkpoint 1. Along the way, we took a 4km detour when we turned right too early in a township. Little adventures like this are part of randoneering. After all, the purpose of being out on the road is not just to complete the challenge but also to explore countryside. We made good time to checkpoint 1 at Toogoolawa where Sandy had zuccini slice and hot cross buns ready for us, along with a mountain of bread rolls, lollies, bananas and salty potato chips. I was most excited by the icy cold can of Coke Sandy handed me. It really took the edge off the heat.
The roads started to roll gently after checkpoint 1. That’s not to say it became hilly; there were just some little lumps to roll over. The day warmed up significantly during this second stage of the ride, with the mercury rising to about 31’C (88’F). Our pace eased off for this 60km section as we all seemed to struggle a bit with the sun beating down off us and reflecting off the road.
This second stage saw the only flat in the ride. James was riding along in front of me when he called out the words no cyclist wants to say or hear, “oh no, I’ve got a flat” or words to that effect (usually with more expletives). I took the opportunity to take some photos as I waited for Dino and Rodney to help James repair the flat as Martin rode back.
Flat repaired, we set off again through the farmland. Our group spread out across and along the road. Without vehicular traffic, we enjoyed a rare victory: owning the road. We all had a chance to get to know each other as we enjoyed the team riding experience; something rare in Audax cycling, which is usually an individual experience, all-be-it a friendly one.
It was a relief to reach checkpoint 2 at Atkinson Dam. The first thing I did was stick my overheating head under a cold water tap. It was heavenly. While I was kneeling with my head down under the tap, Rodney was standing in the dam drinking a cold can of Coke as bemused picnickers watched on wondering what we crazy cyclists were doing out riding on a hot day. When we explained that we were riding 360km, they asked which charity we were raising money for. The looks on their faces when we told them we were just riding for fun was priceless.
Again, Sandy outdid herself by having an Everest-sized mountain of food available to us. She never once complained that we only ate bird-sized portions. Pasta salad was the feature on the menu. The cold pasta was flavoured with olives, sun-dried and fresh tomatoes, and herbs. Sandy also had more bread rolls, hot cross buns and zucchini slice. But the best thing was the milo with milk. It was exactly what I needed after about 130km of cycling.
It was still stinking hot as we left Atkinson Dam and followed the endless road into the distance. We still had 230km to ride but I wasn’t scared about the distance anymore; I was in a rhythm. Sure, I knew there’d be some pain to come but I decided to focus on the magnificence of the experience. The sun still beat down on us, but it was now mid-afternoon so I knew the heat would ease off in a few hours.
It was so hot some of the boys took advantage of an irrigation sprinkler and waited until it sprayed water over the road to cool themselves off. I decided not to risk the sprinkler water being infused with the chicken manure that was loaded in a truck right next to it. Instead, I stopped at a flowing creek later and washed some water over my head. In hindsight, the creek would have been polluted with agricultural fertlisers and manures anyway, so I might as well have stood under the sprinkler.
I think we were all suffering in the heat during the third stage of the ride but we were still in good spirits. My legs ran out of fuel during this stage. While I had some oat bars in my frame bag, I couldn’t bring myself to eat them so I relied on jelly snakes instead. This was a bit of a mistake. The snakes burned quickly, rather than satisfying me. The other thing was that the snakes weren’t that easy to reach in my frame bag. This was a big lesson that I will take away from the ride: always take solid slow-burning fuel with me and to store it in my jersey pocket where it’s more easily accessible.
Sandy drove past a few times during the ride, always waving or beeping to encourage us along. She had these great Audax Australia magnets made up for the car. The ride simply wouldn’t have been possible without Sandy’s selfless commitment to making us all comfortable. She and Martin even let us all sleep at their home after 300km and then didn’t complain after we left without tidying up our beds or the checkpoint supplies.
As the shadows lengthened we rode through fields of vegetable crops. The Lockyer Valley is one of Australia’s biggest food-growing regions. We rode through fields of pumpkins, onions, peas and other vegetables. Rainbows formed around the sprinklers and the air was filled with the scents of farming: soil, manure and cut grass.
We reached checkpoint 3 at Ma Ma Creek as dusk fell. We’d ridden about 190km. The shop was still open so we all bought ice blocks and ice creams. Just one Frosty Fruit wasn’t enough; I treated myself to two fruity cold treats. Sandy had more food for us, including more Milo with milk. I took some zucchini slice with me for the next leg of the ride, which proved to be a fantastic success; I was able to keep the nutrition up instead of waiting until checkpoints so the ’empty legs’ feeling didn’t return.
Darkness fell as we left Ma Ma Creek. The sunset behind us was beautiful; the red sky signalling the end of a beautiful day on the bike and the start of the cooler night hours. For the next six hours, our world was reduced to the twinkling stars above, the tunnel of road our headlights lit up and the reflection of our team mates’ high visibility vests. Occasionally, powerful scents such as lucern or night jasmine hinted at the landscape we were riding through. There was little traffic and we were often able to spread out two-abreast. I kept looking up at the stars and sliver of moon.
As a team, the ride from Ma Ma Creek to Mulgowie was a bit of a low point. The call of the 300km sleep stop was strong but we were all at different stages of fatigue and couldn’t agree on a course of action. It’s not that there was real conflict; we just went through the normal challenge that occurs in team-based endurance activities; particularly where the team is pulled together on the day of the event, rather than a team who regularly train together. But we made it to Mulgowie to find Sandy has set up a delightful checkpoint, including camp lights and chicken noodle soup. We all took the opportunity to rest and recover as much as we could.
Before leaving Ma Ma Creek, Sandy asked us whether we needed anything. She was going to stop to buy more milk so I asked whether she might be able to see whether she could get an apple because I was craving one. Believe it or not, the take away shop Sandy stopped at was able to supply her with two delicious sweet crunchy apples. I put one in my pocket at Mulgowie and enjoyed eating is as I rode (I find it easier to eat as I ride, rather than while sitting still at the checkpoints).
From Mulgowie we rode into Gatton and on to our sleep stop at Sandy and Martin’s place in Lowood. The climb up the hill to Sandy and Martin’s house was a tough challenge. After showers and more food (toasted sandwiches have never tasted better), we all crashed on the various beds that had been prepared for us.
I was deep in sleep when Sandy woke us. She’s amazing, is Sandy. She’d had as little sleep as us riders but still managed to look after us until about 1:30am and then get us up at 4:00am to ride again. She put up with our complaints, made us various breakfasts, answered our every whim and kicked us out on the road so that we could ride the final 70km to the finish.
We rolled down the road into the darkness. Mathematically, we had to average 23kph to complete the ride in the allowable time and our pace was certainly not this fast we we left Lowood for one last tour through the Lockyer Valley and into Ipswich. Here’s the thing about mathematics: it doesn’t account for the power of guts and determination. Nor for the way the rising sun affects a group of cyclists’ speed.
At 6am we stopped in Marburg to complete our brevet cards with our 22 hour details. We’d covered 319km and still had about 45km to ride to the finish line within two hours. And we still had to climb Tallengalla Hill, which loomed ahead. Autumn is starting and the ride up the hill took us through a pretty fog. While Dino and James attacked the hill, the rest of us sat back to grind up. We all made it up the hill and then raced down the other side towards our goal.
With less than 40km to ride, we all perked up and started to make good time. We rode a full 5km stretch at 28kph-30kph, which saw us come to the 335km mark. Occasionally we passed cyclists coming from the other direction; some in pairs or small groups and others in peletons. I couldn’t help but feel proud to have ridden through the night while they were just setting out after a full night sleep. It was as though we had experienced something slightly different and privileged.
Rodney and Dino must have been feeling good as we neared the finish line because they had one last run in their single speed downhill poses, dropping their heads and raising their backsides to the air in a strange solute to the sun.
We arrived at Brother’s Leagues Club Ipswich at 7:56am, having covered 366km just 4 minutes shy of the cut-off. Together, our team was successful at completing the 2013 Fleche Opperman Challenge. Our success was the result of all the little things each rider and Sandy did along the way; from route-setting to navigation (thank you Martin for keeping us on the right track), taking turns on the front of the group to calling out obstacles, and the important task of supporting the whole team.
Personally, the ride represented a big confidence boost, especially after the long period of incapacitation I experienced from August to December last year. The farthest I had ridden previously was 202km at the Moonlight Wander in February. This 366km ride was a big step up but proves that the only limits to human achievement are those that we place on ourselves; remove the self-imposed limits and anything is possible.
Total: 366km road cycle.