Saturday, March 30, 2013

Escape to the Blue ‘Mountains’

Bikes + Train = Fun ahead

Easter weekend dawned and Heidi and I took the opportunity to escape the madness of our new Sydney home to head for the hills. Hills is an appropriate description with the most extreme geographical projections in close proximity; The Blue Mountains only reaching a pitiful 1090m, a mere pimple by New Zealand standards.

Heralded by friends as one of the must visit places in New South Wales, the Blue Mountains have been on the must do list since arrival, so taking advantage of the great train service we loaded up with bikes with gear for the scenic journey into the ‘mountains’.
How's the serenity?
Heidi was riding her mountain bike for the first time in a while, the clammniess of Brisbane making her roadbike her go to steed, but took to the fat tires quickly, enjoying the even playing field that Ollie’s fully laiden pack created on the uphill sections.
After a lot of time on my El Commandante recently, I’d decided to air up the fat tires and take out my more travel endowed El Chucho. This would make me ready for any impromptu hucks that might eventuate, while also getting me get used to the bike which would be my go to ride for the Trans-Savoie Enduro race I’ve signed up for in France this August. While we weren’t expecting the Blue Mountains trails to rate highly on the gnarl scale, I wanted to be ready for any extreme detours that might eventuate.
Gawking at Govett's Leap
Heidi on tent setup duty
Arriving on Friday afternoon we set up camp, and realising on completion that 4:30PM was probably too early to go to bed, we went exploring down a promising trail from Perry’s Lookdown.
Dropping 600m in 2km, this trail posted figures which would compete with the epic descents of the Canterbury foothills for steepness, but alas the sections were too steep, too littered with steps and chest impaling hand rails to consider riding them. Or perhaps I’m just getting lame after too much time across the ditch where properly gnarly trails are as rare as kangaroo eggs.

I would have ridden this if I had my knee pads
The next day we headed further afield to explore some of the trails which were mentioned in local ride guides, namely Govetts Leap, Baltzer Lookout, Anvil Rock and Victoria Falls. Besides a sprinkling of singletrack made tantalisingly rowdy by some water erosion, the trails were largely nice flowing set of 4wd roads. Not too bad all considered, especially as every route ended in a spectacular lookout with a breathtaking outlook across the water eroded valley to towering orange cliffs. The exposure added to the vista, as did the blue haze which permeated the gum forest, presumably the source for this mountainous region’s name.
And this huck if I had a downhill bike
Wind took a toll on this cliff
My favourite parts of camping are eating lots of easy to prepare food, then going to bed at 7PM and logging a solid 12 hours sleep, and this trip didn’t disappoint.  Despite signage and the area’s reputation for ferocious forest fires, some fellow campers insisted on building camp fires, perhaps exercising some idiotic pyromanical gene which Australian’s posess.

Now that we’ve got a feel for the place I’m hoping we’ll be frequent visitors. Only two hours by train, they Blue Mountains are a great way to escape the city, a readily accessible wilderness experience just like in New Zealand. With a bit of investigation and hushed exchanges in the dark corner of bike shops we’ll hopefully find some trails which will justify a bit of hike-a-bike. I’m confident that somewhere in the vast network of trails I’ll find something which rides the fine line between death and elation that can only come from the right mix of gravity, roots, rocks, leaves and dust.  

Sunday, March 17, 2013

GDT 2013: A touch of suffering, Australian style

The GDT route as seen from Trackleaders
The final 20 kilometres of the 2013 Great Dividing Trail Ride were some of the hardest I’ve ever experienced on a bike.
The cumulative effectives of my body’s failure to function in the hot temperatures (which approached high thirties for both days of the 384km ride) reduced me to a physically crippled wreck.
Riddled with cramps in the usual places as well as some odd ones (arches of feet, elbow and neck), the slightest rise forced an awkward dismount.  I propelled bike and body jerkily forward, doubled over with one arm on the bar and the top of my head pushing the other grip. An unorthodox and wholly inefficient technique but one that was necessitated by the world of hurt I was in.
With 10km to go I’d forced myself to stop and eat my last goo, a sickly chocolate concoction which promptly forced my stomach to evacuate the half digested day’s takings, which were thankfully meagre. On finishing my technicolour yawn I’d had a second wind, if that’s what you could call the asthmatic puff of energy in my otherwise desolate world of glycogen debt.
Knowing that the last 6km were downhill was supremely motivating and on passing Arran at the crest and chomping on his proferred salt tabs with only a slight gag, my mind’s bullying motivation which had pushed me thus far faded into the blissful hum of the sinuous descent.
Not to be outdone in the realm of fails, my GPS decided to kick the can in the final 4km, so I put in a call to organiser Ryan, first to dish out some harsh but fair anatomical metaphors, and secondly to get directions to the train station which was the finish.  I rushed there to buy a ticket home before the shivers set in.
The shakes of early heat stroke came with the same ferocity as the previous day. Arran who finished close behind later likened them to a seizure, which prompted the station master to ask Arran if he could move me. A caring sort they are in Victoria. But I wasn’t moving, not after the immense effort it took to get to the finish of the epic adventure that was the inaugural GDT.

Post race haze: no instagram required
Photo Ross Cairns

The weekend began with promise. Local legend and bikepacking afficianado Ryan had picked us up from the airport and the banter from the get go was off the scales (or rather on the scales for the weight weenies amongst us). It was great to put faces and personalities to the bikepacking community which till now had been virtual. In the company of other enthusiastic bike geeks we could let loose with the pent up gear-talk which we’d learned to bottle up in our home lives for fear of irrevocably ruining relationships with loved ones and colleagues.
The Bush Pig Inn where we gathered pre race was the single most Australian insitituiton I’ve come across in my short time here. The ramshackle pub had authentic curious and a rustic charm like it’d just swaggered in from the outback with dangly hat corks bobbling. The entrepreneur/gold prospecting/property developing proprieter even joined us for a drink to spin some yarns. Unfortunately the water slide was out of commission but Ryan promised this for next year.

Race start in Bendigo

While my preparations for the event had been light, with only a handful of rides over 2 hours in the last 3 months, I was backing myself over the long days, and fully intended to pull on my powers of sleep monster management to push through the course without sleep.
Something new for me on this race was a dynamo lighting setup from Tapping into a Shutter Precsision PD-8 front hub through some electronic wizardy, I had 800 lumen of light from the handlebars with a claimed power loss of 5 watts (bugger all) at 30 km/h. Best of all it would run as long as I could pedal over about 10 km/h. Another benefit was that I could charge my GPS via USB while on the go, breaking the tether that had kept me reliant on longish stops in the Tour Divide last year. With the exception of a few teething problems the system worked great and I’m looking forward to working with Kerry to fine tune what I’m certain will become the go-to system for bikepacking.


Shutter Precision hub driving a tiny light head which packs an 800 lumen punch

Bike setup was my Tour Divide rig, without the aerobars and a fresh Rohloff hub which is through the break-in period and is starting to purr. If I was to do this race again I’d opt for a more trail friendly setup; suspension fork, tires with actual knobs (rather than the skimpy but fast WTB Vulpines). My Gates Carbon Drive worked well as always, with the dry dusty conditions requiring constant relubing for chain riders, while mine only needed the odd squirt from a drink bottle to keep noise at bay. Late into the race in my delirious state I squirted some Gatorade into the sprockets which yielded an awful  raspy noise so can’t recommend this lubricaition to any belt users out there.
On the trail early Saturday morning and we were right into some flowing singletrack that would set the tone for the weekend.  A good range of surface conditions from loose death cookies to dust filled berms that let off delightful roosts, the first stretch of singletrack was pure fun.
Restocking in Castlemaine Liam and I had a small gap, but into the rocky trail and disaster struck, with a sidewall cut on my rear tire, quite an accomplishment for Victorian rock given I’d not managed to do this in almost 2 years of riding on these tires in some of the harshest conditions Colorado, New Zealand and the Tour Divide could muster.
First tube in had a hole, worn through at the valve stem from the long TD miles, second tube held (phew) and by this stage the chase pack of Ryan and Ross had joined me and I set off in hot pursuit, just as the day was starting to get hot.
Epic drink stop in Daylesford, including a sit under a tree, but this next stretch to Ballarat was where I really started to fall apart. It culminated in an episode of heat stroke in Ballarat like I’ve never experienced before. Apparently your body draws all the blood to the internal organs, leaving your extremities cool, and some epic magnitude shakes result, completely at odds with the 30 degrees outside. I lay down and smashed back some fluids, put on my jacket and rode them out, the worst of them had passed just as Ross rolled  into town. Stocked up at McDonalds we headed out together, knowing that I’d have to be careful if I wanted to ease my body out of the hole I’d dug and get it to the finish 180 hard km away.
To this end we took the relatively soft option and bivyed under a delightful roadside pinetree, just the thing given I’d gone without mat in an effort to reduce the gear I was carrying. Bivy bag and sleeping bag liner proved a perfect combination for the warm night and this sleep helped me get through the night and rise for the next day with vim.
I was desperately low on kilojoules, but just couldn’t stomach food, with a solo Egg McMuffin a dismal breakfast performance compared with the height of my eating prowess in the Kiwi Brevet where I clocked the menu and racked over $45 (including free smiles) in hyper processed nastiness all before 10AM.
I have blurred recollections of an epic climb from Bacchus Marsh, an epic wrong turn by Ross who was too far ahead to hear my calls, and some mind blowingly good exposed singletrack that was an old miners route. More singletrack and some exposed roads and we were back at Daylesford. Only 50km to go but I knew to be wary, so snuck in a juice induced powernap prior to pushing out with an aim of finishing by dark.
Ross' photo message to organiser Ryan during the final leg says it all 
The rest became clear, one of the toughest sections of riding, not due to the course which would have to rate as my favourite bikepacking route and one that should be on everyone’s GPX list, but more just a battle between my decaying physical state and my mind which whipped it on.
But I made it to the finish and have learnt a few things about myself. Apparently I finished in 37 hours, perhaps 3rd place, but not sure the result really justifies the suffering I put myself through to get there.
The biggest thing I can take from the ride is a fantastic group of mates. Howard, Ryan and Marnie’s hospitality was amazing, gifting transport, beds and food and feeding me back to life. Ross who barely knew me, but was kind enough to help me through my dark post-stroke place, despite repeated attempts to drop him.  Brad, Arran and even the random dude who returned my jacket. It is a fantastic community and I’m looking forward to getting out there with these guys and exploring more of this amazing country.