The very definition of trepidation. A stage with 171km (106 miles) lying in wait, despite last night’s smash and grab, plus 5000ft of climbing with a dodgy calf for good measure.
From the very first day that I set the schedule, this was the beast from the east.
After a freezing cold clusterfuck breakfast at the back o’six, the first question was “how far does the tarmac go before dirt kicks in on the Spicers Gap road?”
Not very far was the answer.
Let me set the scene.
From Moogerah, there are two ways of getting over the hill to Tregony where we’d set the first rendezvous. One is to take the bike over the notoriously steep and twisty Cunningham Highway, with no hard shoulder and road trains a plenty; the other is to take the Spicers Gap road. But having done it, to call it a road is a bit of a misnomer: it’s steep, it’s very rough in places, and once over the top it’s unrideable on a road bike. If I’d had a mountain bike with granny gears, I could have ridden up the 11km climb and probably saved myself an hour. But I was on a road bike, geared for road climbs, so 9km of that 11km track became a pushathon, and once the sun came up properly, and the forest provided shelter from the breeze, it was a sweatfest.
To the haunting accompaniment of bell birds, I made my way up the winding track, a 2000ft climb in all, trying to stretch but not overstretch the dodgy calf. I was half expecting that once I’d gone over the top (which took two hours to accomplish) the other side would be a downhill mirror image. No chance: big roots, even bigger boulders, ruts and drought infested cracks: the route down was infinitely harder to control the wheels than the route up. I couldn’t scoot more than ten metres at a time, and taking into account the time to keep getting on and off, it wasn’t actually any quicker.
Just after eleven, I met Paul: he was walking up from the other side with a cold bottle of water in his hand: hero. Three and a half hours to do just 17km! A pretty disastrous start to a long day: still 154km from the finish and only six and a bit hours of useable daylight to play with.
But at least we had a tailwind and a generally downhill 40km ahead of us: our first real test of travelling in tandem on the Cunningham Highway. But the road surface was awful, really rough, or as they say in racing parlance ‘grippy tarmac’. Within half an hour, the wee hex bolts on the handlebar stem had worked themselves loose enough to allow the bars to slide. The handlebars were one of the many items that had to come off the frame in order to get the bike in the box for shipping to Australia, and I had the words of Neil, my mechanic, ringing in my ears when I re-tightened the four hex screws in Brisbane: diagonally opposite, bit by bit, but don’t overtighten them.
They felt tight to me.
But what’s tight, and what’s not tight enough on a surface that’s capable of inducing vibration white finger right through your hands and forearms? It’s a point for debate.
“Ooops, I can’t use the drops anymore: they’re just spinning round!”
Trying to brake became an exercise in chasing the brake levers round the bars.
“This is getting downright dangerous!”
I had to stop.
Fortunately, the last piece of kit I bought before I left the UK was a fancy lightweight multi-tool and on it was precisely the hex screwdriver that I needed to sort the problem. Five minutes of elbow grease later, I was on my way again, and the bars never bothered me again before I got to Adelaide.
Lunch was taken near to Warwick Airport, which, interestingly enough, sits at around 1500m above sea level. In UK terms, that roughly equivalent to riding up from Inverness to the Drumochter Pass on the A9, and over the same kind of distance too. 17km in three and a half hours had now become 60km in five and suddenly, the schedule was back within scope again: 110km remaining and still five hours to do it in.
I’d reckoned without a two o’clock thunderstorm. Lashing rain, frighteningly serious lightning and with a sense that this wasn’t going away anytime soon, I jumped back in the van. It cost me just under half an hour, but at least I lived to tell the tale.
Back on the road, we re-joined the highway west of Warwick and counted the animal cost of the drought. Seemingly the ‘roos and the wallabies come down to the roadside in search of better-quality feed than they can find in the scrub. But many of them pay for that search with their lives. I didn’t count, per se, but I estimated five hundred rotting corpses at the side of the road. When we got to North Star the following day and relayed that story to the farmers, they doubled our estimate: they reckoned on one dead ‘roo every twenty metres. The stench was ongoing and overpowering. More than anything else, I will remember stage 2 for death at the side of the road.
In the main, I was trying to ride on the hard shoulder, if you can call it that. It was a strip of tarmac alongside the main carriageway, sometimes two or even three metres wide, but sometimes less than one. And usually covered in stuff to snare the unwary.
I was duly snared.
I suspect it was glass, quite possibly lobbed from a passing motor, because I did pass and try to avoid said hazard, but whatever the cause, I found myself thinking “hmm, this feels uncharacteristically spongey”…
Of course, it had to be the rear wheel.
Then the rain came on with a vengeance.
The puncture was caused by a cut in the tread of the tyre, a tyre that was only a month old. I’d bought a spare with me for exactly this scenario but elected, this being so early in the game, to duct tape the inside of the tyre so as to offer a little more protection: after all the cut was only two or three mm, then I slapped a new tube in. It cost me twenty minutes, and I restarted in the pouring rain, but at least I was still in the game.
Cold rain and warmed down muscles that had already done a hundred kilometres was not a good combination. But I have a saying that I’ve used many times before in both running and cycling: “once you’re wet, you’re wet”.
However it was cold and getting colder, the light was starting to fade and this was the A15 Cunningham Highway. With 143km on the clock, and the bike still a good hour away from of our destination, we (the proverbial we) called it a day. With the bike in the van, I was already playing catch up at the end of the second day.
We piled into Inglewood, got cleaned up and headed into town. Well, actually, we were already in town: and it was dead, totally dead. We found a bar, which doubled up as the bookies, and we were the only dudes in there. Seven o’clock on a Saturday night and it was empty. They weren’t even serving food. For that we had to wander 50m down the road, place an order at the takeaway, which itself was closing in a few minutes, then bring the grub back to the pub in a tub.
A couple of schooners later, by nine o’clock, we were tucked up in the van, and I was tuned into the pouring rain by eleven. The forecast for Sunday wasn’t at all clever and as I lay there, listening to the raindrops hammering on the fibreglass roof just inches above my head, I secretly prepared myself for the worst.
Drought, what drought?
Stage 2: 143km. 268km done. 1954km to go.