Friday, November 29, 2013

The Waterford seems to be broken :-(


This is to report damage to the road bicycle that traveled with me as a checked bag on booking V7CDQH.

The nature of the damage is, the steel frame has been bent inward at the right rear dropout/derailleur hanger. The main symptom is the rear wheel can only be installed or removed from the frame with great difficulty. For example, 3 pairs of hands and one large screwdriver were needed to remove the wheel to pack the bicycle for the return trip from Australia. 

Another symptom is, the rear derailleur is oriented abnormally relative to the rear wheel, causing the derailleur arm to brush spokes in the lowest gear. There is a ticking sound and additional friction in this gear.

A visual inspection in good light on a bicycle stand reveals a crack in the steel frame of the bicycle. An image is attached for reference. This type of damage does not result from normal riding or wear and tear. Nor is it the result of normal baggage handling. In many flights with a bicycle I have seen no major issues such as this.

Unfortunately it is a requirement to be able to easily install and remove the rear wheel. A puncture, for example, requires removing the rear wheel by the side of a road. Travel also requires assembly/disassembly by one person with a normal level of effort.

As a next step I am shipping the bicycle frame to its manufacturer, Waterford Precision Cycles USA. I'll accept their diagnosis and follow their recommendations for fixing the issue. If a structural remedy is called for the cost must be borne by Air New Zealand as a consequence of mishandling this baggage. Any documentation needed to process the damage claim will be provided.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving at our house

Today we invite over friends and family to eat a lot of good food together.

Thanksgiving is the best holiday because it's about people and gratitude, not about Stuff.

In the past few years there has actually been some research on gratitude. Some people kept journals where they thought and wrote about whatever they were grateful for in this life. Other people, y'know, ate candy and went shopping and surfed the Internet instead.

Those who practiced gratitude experienced a variety of measurable benefits to their health and well-being. Just in case, give it a go...

Friends, old, new, and rediscovered after many years. Great people met while traveling. Bicycles (of course).

The Continental Grand Prix 4-Season tire, a reliable friend. My one flat tire on Sydney Melbourne, that it happened on the front rather than the rear. Turns out the rear wheel was stuck in the dropouts and would not budge.

Most pieces and parts healthy and where they should be. There was no ambush by the Double Wombat Brigade. I'm not in chronic pain; the travel pillow protocol worked well. Sleep, sleep is good.

As are hot showers. As I said at the finish, for my money the reward of endurance cycling is the shower afterward. And after a long flight, getting clean. You could base a religion just on that.

Computers. The Internet, digital cameras. Social media (except Facebook, sorry). Those who play by the rules along with Julian Assange and Edward Snowden and many others who don't.

Music. Whether at the Sydney Opera House or the person humming next to you.

Many insurance companies and some employers, playing by their own rules, demonstrating how to be utterly secure in self-interested wrongness. That we don't have to be like that. Go be wrong over there (preferably far away.)

Fresh vegetables. The first little Meyer lemon from our tree, giving all its goodness to the Brussels sprouts. The woman in the market who was asking about Delicata squash, because she is still learning and asking questions and trying new things.

Great espresso. Books. Solar panels.

And so on...

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Lagging, and catching up

Typically, we humans sort of float around after a brain injury until something pierces the denial. For me it was jet lag.

Even 2 years after the accident I had persistent jet lag from short trips (even a couple of time zones), from early morning meetings, from spring forward and fall back. Any major change in routine would throw me for a loop.

For TBI survivors, this simple thing can ruin your life. After one trip to Dallas it took a full month to get back to normal sleep cycles. Finally I went to see Dr. H. and fell asleep in the exam room waiting for him! Like most busy professionals, I couldn't afford the downtime. It was one of the deal breakers with my job.

With some experimentation I've come up with a system for dealing with time changes and jet lag. Some of the tricks are standard; others are mine. There's a new product recommendation, too. The system is for anyone; feel free to use and forward to friends who travel.

  • Avoid caffeine before getting on an airplane. For longer trips you want to be able to sleep on the plane. (Also, you don't want to freak out too badly in case of mechanical issues.)
  • Avoid alcohol before, during and after the outbound flight. It messes with sleep cycles. On inbound flights a small amount of wine or beer is OK to assist with falling asleep.
  • On longer flights, take melatonin when you're ready to sleep. This should be whatever dose works for you. For me, it's the ridiculously small amount of 250 micrograms. Available at Trader Joe's in chewable tablets.
  • Have an eyeshade and ear plugs/noise-canceling earbuds ready in case of distractions. On yesterday's flight from Auckland someone in the row behind was using their reading light. Also the white noise on a 747 is really, really loud. No problem!
  • As soon as possible, your phone or watch or whatever device you use for timekeeping should show the local time at your destination. For Daylight Savings Time, change all the clocks at once (including the one in the car).
  • On the ground, eat meals that are rich in protein and lower in carbohydrates. No pasta or pizza for a few days.
  • Get some exercise, outdoors if possible. Walking and biking both work. After a regular early meeting I used to head to a noontime Spinning class. 
  • Stay awake until a normal bedtime or at least until the sun goes down. Consume caffeine as necessary. (These words powered by a nice strong cuppa black tea.)
  • Have melatonin available to use at bedtime for the first few days, if necessary to fall or stay asleep.

In New Zealand there's a new product for jet lag that seems to work for a large number of people. It's a hydration drink that you can buy as a concentrated extract. Dilute in a water bottle and drink both during and after a flight.

The active ingredients are electrolytes, B vitamins, and a polyphenol for the secret sauce. They claim there are 58 clinical studies supporting its effectiveness for jet lag. All I say is it works for me!

In the Auckland, Sydney, or Melbourne airports you can buy 1Above in person at a kiosk. Unfortunately it's only available in New Zealand and Australia right now. But, good news….there's this thing called the Internet where you can order… As long as you plan ahead and order 2 weeks in advance, shipping appears to be free.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Greetings from Café Derailleur!

Hey people, in the Rural City of Wangaratta, excellent espresso at Cafe Derailleur!

For lunch, a salad of fresh microgreens, cantaloupe, chicken, and avocado. Mmmmm. On the side, a slice of artisan bread drizzled in artisanal olive oil (which had to be left on the plate…) Yeah, after a 1200K food does tend to taste better. But judging from Margot's expression over her french toast with fresh berries on top of homemade custard, the kitchen here can hold its own. No brevet required.

In 1982 the food was British and not in a particularly good way. Were there any actual restaurants? Not sure. Several fish and chip shops. Someone catered the weekly Rotary meetings.

Today not only can you eat well but the Ovens and King Valleys have become (wait for it…) a cycling mecca. Beautiful scenery, great weather, much flatter than anywhere nearby. My legs can testify to that.

In 1982 like most kids I rode a bike to school, to town, to friends' houses. Now (just like back home), kids get dropped off in SUVs while adults ride bikes for fun. On any given day you'll see cyclists in town, along rural roads, or last week during the Sydney Melbourne Alpine 1200K, skirting Wangaratta via farm roads. Passing signs that help the tourists find regional food and wine.

At the post-ride barbecue we enjoyed a lovely red from Rutherglen.
You could definitely think you were in the Napa Valley, except this is way more sincere and less crowded…

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

The Double Wombat Brigade

Inside the sailing club, it was warm and hopping. Downstairs were the showers while upstairs, food and crowds of people. One of whom was Craig McGregor, the lone Kiwi. The other late starter on Day 1. He was sitting at the table, arm in a sling and a dazed look in his eyes. There was clearly some pain. And so we had to ask, though the story had already been told many times, what exactly happened?

He mumbled about being double-wombatted. The Double Wombat Brigade. Of course!

What the hell is that?

Craig had voiced his intention to ride Day 3, even after a rear blowout took him to the mat on the road to Laurel Hill. That was his first set of scuff marks, in the evening of Day 2. Deb Banks and I had chatted with him over dinner. Or whatever it’s called when you eat at midnight in disgusting bike clothes before collapsing.

The next morning Craig rolled out of Laurel Hill for Mansfield, with a donated rear wheel. So the fact that I’d seen neither hide nor hair of him on Day 3 didn’t seem strange at all. Deb had the same plan; hadn’t seen her. David and Sarah, only briefly. Seems like after lunch at the snack bar at Hume Weir, riders crossed back into Victoria and promptly exploded into the vast countryside.

Fast forward to Tuesday evening…with me descending faster than I liked into Mansfield. At that hour, Craig was just leaving Whitfield (and its snoring randonneurs on the gym floor). He made it over the ridge and down the other side.

But the wombats with their ancient instincts must have heard him coming. They waited until just the right moment. One ran out in front of him and Craig saw it in time. He swerved left, missing it. But  the first wombat was not alone. A buddy, sensing the lost opportunity, followed suit. It aimed for and intersected Craig’s wheel. Caught off-balance he went down fairly hard. Wombats, though not exactly large animals, are compactly built. Unlike humans, they’re mostly cartilage. They scuttled away. Craig did not.

In the darkness on the climb, the official ride ambulance had passed me. It was in front of us. Then, the Whitfield Randonneuring Club had elected Mr. Sandman as their mascot. In those cold hours before dawn, no one rode behind Craig. The wombats knew he was their last chance... 

Realizing he was more than a little hurt, Craig lay next to the road for several hours, alone and cold. Until help finally came.

Yes he’s OK now! No, he did not ride Day 4. But the next day at a BBQ, Craig was recruiting us all to come work a crazy 1200K in New Zealand that he's been dreaming up.

Beautiful day

Life has its little ironies. For example, in the final hours of a four-day event with the goal practically within reach, you are the most impaired and least able to appreciate it.

If this were a one-day event, at the finish there would be a party, dancing in the streets. Two days, hugs and laughter all around. Three days, a Mona Lisa smile. Near the end of Day 4, fatigue and desperation and numbness make it tough to feel anything at all.

Well, except maybe are we there yet?

We've been on the road for most of four days and three nights. To come back into civilization, get to the point of feeling and interacting normally, we have to press on a little further. Put an end to it. Do what it takes, whatever lies between us and the finish.

As luck would have it, the road to Melbourne goes directly over the top of one tall hill after another. No mystery here; after climbing one we can see the next clearly in front of us. And the next. No winding around, no breaks.

What it takes is climbing the same 50 meters over and over.

This is farm country, with micro produce for the crowds of Melbourne and tours for the school kids and training for the cyclists. Someone says  'this is why all the racers from Melbourne like Stuart O'Grady are such awesome climbers'. Good for the Tour de France! It seems like a mean joke, coming in like this.

The sky is close down around us, cold and gray and humid. The wind pushes against our faces and shoulders, like it has for four days. I'm lagging behind everyone except Rick, whose stomach shut down in Beechworth and has been running on sugar water ever since. I'm pretty sure I will never make it. My body feels so heavy and tired it's hard to breathe.

In Yea, no matter how awful it may sound, next time I'm having a real meal. What was I thinking, coffee and cake!

At kilometer 165, we turn left onto the Maroondah Highway. It's a narrow busy two-lane affair and at the turn, since there's no shoulder it seems like an excellent time to pause and let that semi towing a flat bed trailer glide on by.

It gets worse from there. We spend 15 kilometers in silence, drowned out by 3 lanes now in each direction of heavy car traffic. Could it be rush hour? Stoplights, no shoulder, hills. Drivers who are not expecting at all to share the road with us. They're not happy about it either. It's obvious this is not the bike route. This is confirmed when we ask David where we are and he doesn't know, never comes this way!

When finally there is a turn, we are still doing long, steep rolling hills, now on anonymous surface streets. There is some hopscotching with a huge public bus. Then we're on an unmarked path, with its surprised pedestrians and dog walkers, twisting through parks and neighborhoods. Who came up with this route? The only good thing is the route sheet; pretty much spot on. But really, to stay on course when you're brain dead, you need a Garmin. I'm following folks that have technology and trying not to get dropped.

When finally we reach the famous path along the Yarra River, the boys are energized and riding fast. The path itself sounded way more orderly and designed than it really is. A patchwork, with gaps filled in by winding around a building and cantilevering the path around the outside. Tight turns that are hard to navigate. This is what bike advocates do, in a car culture. They make do.

Even so we are lucky to have it. Lucky to have our 30-mile tour of the outer and inner suburbs of Melbourne. Think of Deb, who rode today and is somewhere up ahead, so disappointed to DNF on Day 2. Rick, whose water bottles are full of Coke or cordial (nasty, concentrated Kool-Aid). Vinny, who also had heat-related stomach issues yesterday. The many riders who DNF'd and did not ride any more of the course. (That might have been good thinking on their part.)

So yeah, we are lucky to wind around and climb and wonder why no one makes cities on a grid. (Is it really that hard?) What's so special about the Albert Park Sailing Club and why do we have to go through all this to get there? Because that is how we get to stop.

And we put an end to it as a group, taillights blazing, right at dusk.

Photo by Bob McHugh and Rod Burgess


Heading out of town we make a left turn onto a proper country road. Off the highway. Yea!
Day four is payback time for the hard work over the previous three days as you ride 220km from Mansfield though Yea and Healesville to the Melbourne CBD, along cycle ways and quiet roads.
That was the web site talking. Somehow my mind turned that into pretty flat. No major climbs. But almost 2200 meters (7200 feet) of elevation gain, well it's a non-zero amount. Where does all that climbing come from? Over 140 miles, many many many smaller climbs. Constant climbing. Lumpy.

Given enough time and hardship, the layers of denial fall away. The wind is blustery, forbidding, with a cold edge. The sky is a low film of flinty grey. Fitting somehow. 

Poor Hamish and David, stuck with me, the weird foreigner with the drug problem. We have to find something to chat about. With few cars we decide to live a little, riding side by side.  No one's going to pull out a Garmin and recite the reality of what lies ahead. No one's going to say how their bum is sore (although I'm thinking, that cornstarch stuff is magic. Zero friction!). No one's going to admit they're ready to be done because even at the 100k mark for the day, 120 left to go. Longer than a Saturday ride, on fresh legs.

The road is quiet and lovely (though wide). The problem is the surface. The lanes have this laughably rough chip seal, hard to ride on but silky smooth compared with the shoulder. They might have resealed only the lanes, then scraped all the debris from the project to the side of the road. I'm swerving around islands of deep gravel and 3D anomalies. Some focus required.

So we talk about road maintenance! Infrastructure. Rail, public transport. Systems for getting where you're going. They ask whether the roads in California are in better shape than this. I have to snort with laughter. Whether it was the last budget crisis or 10 years of insolvency or the actors we elect to state offices, our infrastructure is crumbling.

We're caught by Mark and Rick, and a rider from Japan who shows up in Toolangi State Forest. From the looks of it he's finding this leg lumpy as well. No time for photos; I have to keep up with these guys. Lunch was a slice of cake and a coffee in Yea and fuel is running low. A Hammergel does the trick.

My legs are sore and weak. Nothing left in them. Yet there's that little trick from Norway, where you sprint to get the lactic acid out of your legs. After all, David has been racing me to the crest of each hill. Game on! I let him win, then accelerate on the descent and blow past him on the next one in a sneak attack. Rinse and repeat! Momentum is such a beautiful thing. Eventually we're exhausted, but my legs feel a lot better.

It would be nice to know exactly how far it is to Healesville, the next control. Too proud to ask Mark. I'd like to know for sure they'll have real food there.

Thank goodness it's downhill.

Drugs of choice

We pass a turn for Alexandra, ancestral home of David. The first David, from Day 2. He lives in Melbourne now, but was born in Alexandra. He got an even later start from Mansfield and caught us at a mini-mart on the Goulburn Highway. 

We pass a turn for Lake Eildon, where I once spent a relaxing week on a houseboat. My family at home did not relax, so this was a new experience. There were no smartphones, but even then it was a relief to leave the phone and TV behind and do jigsaw puzzles and play cards by the light of an oil lamp. The people were the focus, and I remember Rob and Margo and Megan and Suzanne. I do not remember what we ate, or whether I brought a book. Probably I did. One of the rare times we went onshore I remember buying a white V-neck T-shirt with the words Lake Eildon on it. No one from home knew what it meant.

A volunteer at Mansfield, a kind woman who kept handing me delicious food and making it harder to leave, warned about a hill just before Yea. She calls it a "bitch of a hill" before apologizing for her language.

This photo is a marker because the hill has to be coming up... this might be the last place I'm known to be alive. Now I'm documenting my whereabouts for the search and rescue operation.

At the time I thought she might be exaggerating for effect, but no, it's a steep, exposed sucker. About 2 miles total in a couple of segments. We can see it rise up in front of us and then we're climbing it. My legs are telling me they don't have that many of these left in them. They want the granny gear, and they get it.

I'm so glad to be approaching Yea. At 77 km (50 mi). And then, it's a town that's trying a bit too hard, with a main drag but not much worthwhile. The control is just a control, meaning we have to seek food on our own. I'm not hungry. But I happen to land at the same coffee shop as Hamish and David. It's filled with locals. Ordering seems to take forever, and this seems quite funny. All the rushing and panic and effort and urgency to get here, stand in line and wait.

And the young woman says "cup or mug?" when I order my coffee. "Cup or mug?" I still don't understand. It seems like a bad movie. She shares her exasperation with a coworker, using facial expressions, and eventually just gives me coffee and some kind of cake. Gluten be dammed, it's fuel.

Back at the table I ask David and Hamish, "is that a standard question, cup or mug? What does that mean?" David confirms it is standard and they're both laughing. It's a way, apparently, of saying small or large. Or if you're into Starbucks lingo, tall or grande. Like Starbucks, I'm looking for the "I could care less" default option. But it doesn't exist. You can't have that. I'm grateful to just get coffee.

David is teasing me about medication. He's showing me that he's taken some ibuprofen.

Somehow I made the mistake of offering what is in the US over-the-counter medication to David, at some point on Day 2. And I'm never going to live it down. I carry this little packet on every brevet, containing Zantac, caffeine, Advil, melatonin (for sleep after a long day), and caffeine. Oh, and for pain emergencies, one sample packet of a COX-2 inhibitor that was at some point banned by the FDA. And some echinacea, in case I'm getting sick.

This stuff weighs almost nothing and it rides in the handlebar bag in case I need it.

So I made the mistake of letting David know that I had these in stock, should he need them. Just as a friendly gesture. Hey, sometimes the right harmless drug can mean the difference between finishing and DNF. And he's turned it into some kind of running joke. The American with the portable pharmacy.  I forgot that other cultures don't really have OTC medication and David, a principled person, views this as, well, pushing.

He's showing me this in the photo to say "even I, a tough Aussie who plays by the rules, have taken some painkillers at this point".

The last to leave

At 2:15am in Mansfield, after signing and stamping my brevet card the first question is, what time do I want to get up?


I mean, as late as possible. The opposite of ASAP. Leave just as the control is closing. When is that?

Ahead lie 220 allegedly-flat kilometers (~140 miles) to Melbourne. Mansfield closes at 8:17am. We have until midnight to get to the finish.

I know this not because I know it, but because in Whitfield over dinner it was revealed that Mark Thomas keeps a mental spreadsheet of control opening times and closing times, and the distances between them. Probably the climbing stats too. He's not checking a Garmin or a smartphone, people; it's in his head. Rain Man.

So the riders sleeping on the gym floor in Whitfield, the brave ones who shortened a very long Day 3, will be leaving before dawn to get here in time. On the other hand, I will be sleeping in. They can bang on the door at 7:15.

At 6:30, reacting in some animal way to motion in the vicinity, I emerge from my warm dark cocoon of covers. Sarah is just packing up her lights, on her way out the door. The woman's got discipline!

Eggs for breakfast. Oatmeal too, and hot tea with milk. Sunshine, laughter, plenty of food. Everyone is so happy. Why on earth would you want to leave? At this point, barring something truly out of our control, we're all going to make it.

Mark and Vinnie are pushing the limits in the parking lot. The goal is to leave at the very last minute. But around 7:40 those randonneur instincts kick in and I can't stand it any more. I push off, leaving them still joking and laughing around the empty bike racks.

Roll 20 meters down the road and come to a stop at a big roundabout. The road sign doesn't have the road number. And the route sheet has only the road number. Several minutes are spent here, deciding what to do.

The hilarious thing is, there's really no choice. There's only one way out of Mansfield to the south and this is it. On Day 4 you become simple and literal; you want everything to match and tuck in nicely. You want road and mileage numbers and towns to line up so that finally, you can finish.

Also, it kind of looks like a highway. I'm not that happy about sharing space with fast traffic this morning, but as it happens no one has asked me. On we go.

I'm not proud of this, because it seems soft and wishful. But I would really like a nice aesthetic experience today. For example, a beautiful, narrow, shady bike road. Flat or rolling would be good. Maybe a tailwind.

Sure I'm ready for a reward, but also just mentally spent. Too much hardship. Don't want to be cautious. Don't want to worry about making a mistake, leaning too far in the direction of the rumble strip, or on the other hand, the trucks. For three days I've been riding with head down through some beautiful landscapes. Now it would be great to relax and take things in.

Instead, we have a blustery cold, quartering headwind on the Maroondah Highway. Must be a front coming in. So Mark and Vinnie might have been right to eat their dessert first, by lingering at the control. Carpe diem.

Eventually Jan-Eric and Vinnie overtake me, and I latch onto Vinnie's wheel. We struggle as a unit, Vinnie occasionally saying something to Jan-Eric that is (to me) lost in the wind.

I do it for the shower

Mansfield is not a large place and this isn't the best way to experience it, totally dark and buttoned up. Which is understandable in the middle of the night. In (roughly) the middle of nowhere.

Hard to believe I've been here once, 30 years ago, on the kind of weekend field trip that exchange students go on because someone thinks they should see something. You just go along, like a rag doll. In this case, a friend of a host mum drove us over the hill to visit the childhood home of Henry Handel Richardson, who wrote The Getting of Wisdom. Richardson grew up here in Mansfield, wherever it may be. For years a copy of the book sat unread in a box at my mother's house. Now it's a movie, and I regret not reading it and following up on whatever wisdom I should have gotten. Maybe it would have put me on a better path in life.

Nothing rings a bell, rolling through the main shopping district. It's a bit worrisome, as there's not a lot of town to roll through. In Whitfield, the third David and I looped back and forth many times in the dark, trying to find the control before realizing we'd run into a small error in the route sheet. No  more adventure left in me tonight.

Lo, ahead and left a red blinking light on an Audax sign. At eye level. A superb volunteer knew the importance of roping in us weary randonneurs! It's a sort of communal motel that's been taken over for this event. The large bike rack in the parking lot is full of bikes. Is everyone here already? That would explain my solitude on the last leg.

I park the Waterford, gather stuff, and head straight for the light in the doorway of the common room. At the sight of a rider, friendly faces look up in the kitchen and at the table for stamping cards. The guys who passed me with the flat are at a table, eating ice cream and laughing. Ah, it is warm in here. Warmth!

The meal is amazing. Wholesome, with protein and carbs and lots of flavor. Hot tea with milk. Kindness and patience are radiating from the volunteers. They're all in orange T-shirts but at this point, frankly it could not be more obvious who's a rider and who's not. Just watch us trying to walk in bike shoes, our eyes trying to focus, the delay in responses when a decision is needed.

And then, our delight with the food. I could sit here a long, long time just sort of wallowing in good stuff.

In comes Michael James, the rider from Canberra. In his honor I order another portion, and eat it. Then Sarah and her small posse come in. OK, that is my cue. Everything now is subtracting from sleep, which is coming on fast. Time to get the drop bag and get into the shower. Then, bed.

Arnie insists on carrying my duffle to the room. Remembering a room number, that can be kind of dicey. Carrying a bag, dicey. Good thing all I need to do is walk. These people are taking unbelievably good care of us. Arnie's exhausted too, running on little sleep, coming down with a cold. I shove some echinacea at him saying, it's just a plant, give it a try!

I manage to gather my shower kit and pajamas. First, brush teeth. Strip off these grimy stretchy clothes, kick the pile to one side. Then, turn on the water and get in.

There are no words to describe how it feels to have the hot water running over me, the soap working on  the layers of sweat and grime.

It's a transformative process that seems to make everything that's happened today, from leaving Laurel Hill before dawn, from running low on fuel, from heat exhaustion and fixing a flat and the cicadas and a lower back on fire, from careening down this side of the Great Dividing Range in the dark, completely normal and bearable.

Clean skin and clean hair. Clean teeth. I can barely stand up straight, yet every second standing here is worth it. You can't get this intensity of feeling in ordinary life. What you deserve and badly need and what's available all converging in the same time and place. Three days and nights on a bicycle, that's all it takes.

I need sleep. But I almost need this more.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

In the wild

Turning off the Edelux and switching on the headlamp I'm thinking, that guy was right. The guy at the control who gave us the rundown on this final leg of Day 3.

At the same time I'm thinking, on the headlamp you have to be careful to hit the button twice. Quickly. That's how you get to Economy Mode, so the batteries don't run down. Who knows how long I''ll need them tonight? Maybe a long time.

The guy was a volunteer at the control in Whitfield, at the bottom of the hill. An ordinary-looking fellow in an orange T-shirt with extraordinary information. One of the riders asked about the hill and he proceeded to recite, in detail, the salient points. Steep for 5 km, is how it starts. (That's the part I'm on.) All told, about 14 km.

Just listening it was clear he's done the whole thing, on a bicycle. From Whitfield over the Great Dividing Range to Mansfield. So the information is good. OK, doubtful it was totally at night. No normal person would choose to depart Whitfield at 10pm. Today it's necessary; there's no other choice. Good thing I love to ride at night.

More good news.. so far, so good with the lower back. When I rolled into the control it was screaming. Didn't like pushing that front tire. Changing the flat. All that climbing yesterday. Waiting for food it got a few slow Downward Facing Dogs. This will have to do. As I tell Mark Thomas over homemade soup and grilled cheese, exhaustion means I can't take ibuprofen or its relatives. They make me sleepy and sleepy is no good.

Ahead of us is the longest climb of the day. It's 62 km to Mansfield. That's not nothing...

Behind us, on the floor of the gymnasium, a half dozen randonneurs lie flat on their backs in Corpse pose. Snoozing away. As the minutes tick by, their numbers grow. Rick Blacker is there, with an upset stomach from the heat of the day. Mark is waiting for him.

I gather my things and get on the bike, turn right out of the control, and begin climbing into utter darkness.

The last mile of the steep part I start to take in new information. Something other than my own fear, my own pain and weariness. The worry is gone, I'm going to make it. As it happens, with a massive spray of stars against a black sky, with a moon behind the hill backlighting the ridge on my left, there is more going on than me riding a bike. The bush is alive with birds, calling.

At home we have only a couple of birds who are nocturnal. I've never heard them sing. But here, here... this is Australia, home of the ancient ones. The darkness is anything but silent. I struggle to understand the language, the patterns. None of the voices are familiar. They're the natives; I'm an observer, a learner. A seeker, surrounded by noise.

One bird singing a pattern I can pick out - I try to repeat it. The pattern comes back! Call and response. I try again. It calls back. And again. It calls back. There's no way to be sure the bird is responding directly to me. But it sure feels like a conversation. I'm participating in something alive and mysterious. Something that has no analog in urban or suburban life. These creatures know how to survive. I will be lucky, tonight, to emulate them.

The guy said after the steep part, it's rolling for a while. When I reach the first downgrade, euphoria. Followed by what seems like an endless series of ups and downs. A long, long while. At some point I stop to put on arm and knee warmers. Patience, and a new rule: as long as you can see hills close around you and in front of you, even winding around, it's not the summit.

Then we start to go down. The guy said it was a gradual downhill run to Mansfield. Well, I'm sure it is. In the daylight. It's a struggle to stay focused on the road. Slow the bike down. Someone said there could be wildlife. God help me, in that case. On and on and on.

Cold air sinks, and I'm plunging down to meet it. Into the chill. Can't go slow. Try not to shiver. Don't shake the bike. Don't shake the bike.

How long? There is no end. The moon is up now, but the road is shaded by trees. I'm searching for shadows, moving across the road. I'm going too fast. Mansfield is somewhere ahead but there's nothing. Just a dark ribbon of a road lined with tall gum trees. I'm falling, basically, along its path.

Finally out in open rolling hills, a pair of headlights. An oncoming car. Make that a truck. It takes a long minute to reach me, and after it passes I can make out a lone pale streetlight up there. No sign of a town. There must be a town. Then, a red blinking light, way up ahead, on the road. There must be a way to end this thing.

Finally, there is.

Come to the right place

How, in the space of a few minutes, can you go from needing nothing and no one to wishing for so many things? There's a certain violence to it.

A pack of four riders speeds by. The guys from under the tree on the climb to Beechworth. The Waterford lies on its side, front wheel off, tools flung everywhere. From this angle, they seem infinitely fast. I wish I could go with them. I wish they would stop.

Bending over the bike, my lower back has stiffened up in an alarming way. It's rigid, like a board. Aching with every move. All that pushing yesterday, and today has not been flat either. This feels like a spasm in the making. I wish my back were whole and true. It's a constant reminder that I'm not calling the shots.

Need help? One of the riders calls out as he spins past, drafting his buddies. People really don't want to stop. They don't want to share your problems. They want to be let off the hook. Heck, I'd like that too!

Hope not!! I call out, instantly regretting it. That was petty. Thirty meters down the road at this point. The bum tube is not their fault. What exactly can they do? What good is it, if someone else feels guilty? No taking it back. The cicadas sing on.

One of the riders circles back to check on me. He sees the jerky beam of the headlamp, lighting up the crime scene. Tire levers on the ground. The soft tube draped over the frame. My right hand, moving along the inside of the tire half on the rim.

Ah you seem experienced, he says. And damn it, he's right. As soon as we have root cause, this turns into a familiar exercise. Everything required is right here; nothing missing.

Voila! A piece of glass. I fling it far and wide, away from the road and this whole scene, the mayhem  it created. Sorry I'm cranky I say; my back is really hurting. Wishing he'd stick around. Though frankly I know better. With a pack waiting, nobody in their right mind would stay. He takes off.

Another rider approaches and pulls over. There's no shoulder to speak of. You don't have to stop I say. I'm fine, just cranky. With the pump clamped down on the valve, air is going in. Slowly. This is the part my back really hates.

It helps to have company, even just standing there for a minute facing away (oh right, peeing). He's David, that's easy to remember. The first guy was David as well. And David from yesterday is somewhere up ahead. Australia's a big country; they need more names.

I call out the beauty of this particular spot, and how I love the cicadas.

David used to catch them to sell to the other kids at school. All different kinds. Green ones and gold ones (the loud Green Grocer), black ones (the Black Prince?). They're slow-moving, easy to catch. Put them in a big coffee can, like our grasshoppers. Who got the highest price? Oh, the black ones did...

He reaches over, lifting up the frame so I can position the front wheel in the fork. Perfect timing, the one right and needed thing. I tighten down the skewer, reattaching the leads for the Edelux. He notices the hub and its light. The tire is not exactly firm—the limiting factor being my back—but it should get us to Whitfield.

Those last 8km, pushing with all remaining strength, I'm militant about keeping his red taillight in view. Nothing else matters. As the moon rises, I just don't want to be out here alone.

Against a dark hillside, at the edge of a dark town, the control blazes with light. Outside, I spot a floor pump and make a beeline for it. A volunteer comes up, asks gently about my needs. Ever so nice.

I say "besides air, food, coffee, a place to wash my hands". Like I've been rehearsing in my head the last 8 km.

They've got all that here.

Being there

Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear,
the flute of your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows,
play itself into total exhaustion.
 - Galway Kinnell

As daylight fades, the goal is Whitfield, population 300 (which includes the surrounding area).

Normally I'd be working hard to get there. There's always some uncertainty about reaching the next control. But the King Valley is pancake-flat and full of rural, almost Mediterranean beauty. Little farm towns and signs pointing to wine trails, local food, B&Bs. The air temperature is perfect, the views expansive and bucolic, the light soft. With fresh legs this would be no problem.

After three long days on the bike, it's natural to slip into a sort of grim execution mode. Treat each leg  as a task to be done, a project, no more. What I'm really working at right now is staying awake, taking it all in, easing up a bit. Savoring this place. After all, it might be the only time.

Connecting to a place in more than a surface way requires energy, and patience. Things that might be in short supply after riding 900km. There's also a real risk of losing focus. At the moment I'd rather be a dreamy tourist heading to a B&B. Not Rider #3, who needs to get to Whitfield and eventually Mansfield, before sleeping.

If it were natural to focus on a goal for days on end, events like this would simply not exist. I'm sure of that.

At least I'm not alone. Not another rider in sight, but coming from the trees along the road is a raucous thrumming. Surrounded by cicadas! Thousands of them, from the sound of it.

An ancient, original song. More rhythm than white noise, less melody than birdsong.  Enthusiastic and everywhere and not exact. Tiny variations in tone that are mysterious, impossible to pin down. Does each insect have its own signature? Does the sound itself vary according to phase?

The warmth of spring draws them up from underground, next to the tree roots. Inspires them to shed their skins and sing. The sound envelops everything, like water. It's impossible not to feel buoyant, alive.

The road to Whitfield starts winding next to a low ridge of hills, climbing gradually. Trees are dense on either side of the road, as well as overhead. To the right in a thicket runs a small creek or watering ditch, where cattle are gathered. Maybe that's just where they like to hang out. Cicadas are thick in the trees among them. The thrumming is deafening, so loud you want to laugh.

On a gentle roller I stand up for more leverage. With each pedal stroke the Waterford seems to respond by wagging, back and forth. Back and forth. Then, the wagging feels exaggerated, on the verge of losing my balance. And again. Either this is a trance or something is wrong.

I pull over and feel the front tire. It's soft.


The persistence of memory

Where you come from is gone, where you thought you were going to never was there, and where you are is no good unless you can get away from it
― Flannery O'ConnorWise Blood

A long, ugly fast downhill from Beechworth. A speeding car honks at me for riding outside the debris-ridden shoulder. On the car side of the white line. I yell back, bearish on all humankind.

At least the terrain is finally flat! I check the cue sheet, check it again. No turns for quite a while. Just keep on.

I've been trying to make time to Whitfield. To get there, we tack around Wangaratta and I have no expectation for anything to look familiar. It's been a long time. 

In the openness of the Ovens Valley, a tickling starts. A change in awareness. 

It doesn't look familiar, as much as I know it is familiar. This place, I know this place. In a nonverbal way, a re-cognition of something faint, but real. 

At any point in, say, the last 20 years if someone had asked for a description of this landscape it's doubtful I could have provided one. My perspective was from a bike riding to and from school, and town. Or from the back seat of a car. Never quite sure where I was. 

Still, it seems I know this place. The long, flat valley with gum trees lining the road, occasionally one standing alone in a field. The water tower against a huge sky in Moyhu. 

Everywhere we've been, it becomes a part of us.

Over the top

No thermometer on the bike. Rick Blacker's got one, though. It's reading 103 degrees F.

My relief at knowing is quickly followed by panic. That dwelling on the reality of the situation for more than a millisecond will lead inevitably to a 'why am I doing this' moment. Which would be counterproductive.

Anyway, the three guys yielding their spot under the tree and crawling in slow motion up the hill, that's a clue. Aussies under trees? Must be hot.

We won't catch them on the climb. The road to Beechworth is mostly exposed so whenever there is some shade, we take advantage. Making steady progress, but not fast. Sort of a hiking pace.

The heat hasn't sunk its claws into me yet. Though the ice from Bonegilla is gone, melted and evaporated, it did buy some time. An hour or two where my core temperature wasn't rising, ready to boil over on a hill like this one. 400 meters, in the heat of the day.

With heat exhaustion waiting in the wings, it's about avoidance and delay. At least until the climb is over or you reach cooler terrain or the sun goes down. It gets hot at home and I suck in the heat, so I've had plenty of practice.

Normally you look for some kind of convenience store or mini-mart, a gas station. Doesn't have to be fancy. Hopefully you brought a Camelbak, which goes under the ice hopper in the soda machine until full. Topped off with water.

Followed by something cold and sweet, like a Coke or Gatorade or Red Bull. Maybe a stick of beef jerky, for protein and salt. Or an ice cream. Maybe both.

When the electrolyte caps run low, grab a bottle of spicy hot V-8. Works fast, like an IV full of sodium and potassium.

As you might have guessed by now, the formula is more about chemistry and less about Zagat ratings. The jerky can be washed down with Gatorade, or the ice cream bar chased with a V-8! You can have some absurd fun with it. The point is, cold drinks, ice lasting more than a few minutes, calories, salt and potassium. Nothing too heavy.

There's not a town or minimart in sight. It's us and the road and the sun, making things even simpler. All that can be done is turn over the pedals, hoping there's some buffer left somewhere, hoping my body is not too out of whack at this point. Surviving moment to moment. Talking to myself about what to do in Beechworth when we get there. Dig out of this hole.

At the top, I turn around to take a photo. Mark's already heading down. The road goes up again before we reach town. At which point, I'm a mass of immediate needs.

Beechworth is a tourist destination, a preserved historic town that some might call precious. It was a center of Victoria's gold rush, famous not only for the riches it produced but also the outlaws who terrorized the locals. Similar to our Wild West. Today it's full of preserved buildings, nostalgic businesses, chic and expensive restaurants. Only one problem: I need a minimart.

The control is at the Beechworth Bakery, which suits most randonneurs just fine. It happens to be full of things that make me sick. So after signing in, I croak out "water, ice, ice cream". Strangely, a volunteer insists on directing me back to the bakery. She seems flustered and unsure when I keep asking for something else. It does not compute.

Finally there are pointers to a couple of cutesy ice cream parlors down the block, which happen to be closed. I walk back to the control, only to be asked by the same worker whether I've left my ice coffee outside.

There's a welt in my tongue where I had to bite it.

Starting over, I ask if there's a supermarket in town. Silence. They go find another worker who might know. Ah, there's an IGA! Where might it be? (you guys are killing me here). Finally I decide to follow my own nose. It takes a couple of tries, which is damn good for someone in an altered state. Beechworth has hidden its IGA market behind a block of historic facades!

They have water. They have Gatorade and ice cream bars. And OMG, they have V-8. All self-serve. Who cares if the locals are looking at me funny?

Down the Riverina

It's plenty hot here on the Riverina. This morning's bitter cold, it must have been a mirage.

We know exactly how hot because the Waterford's top tube feels warm to the touch. Mid 90's (F), then. No shade. For the first time on the ride I'm wishing for a Camelbak.

After twisting and turning in the mountains and along the river, we still don't have a favorable wind. Don't understand how that's possible.

At Hume Weir, a burger that is almost as huge as Lake Hume appears in front of me. A basket of potato wedges, similar in size. Plus an ice cream and a Coke. Potatoes, the new power food. And gluten or no, it all gets eaten. Given another hour, I'd go for another round.

But with almost 200km still to go we hit the road. Tacking this way and that to avoid metropolitan Albury-Wodonga. At which point I realize, it was a bad idea to leave the control without some ice. The route steers away from population centers (thus, no stores). The heat is barely tolerable, with the hottest part of the day ahead of us. On a day like today, ice can mean survival.

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There's a likely place, a small gas station/store by the side of the road. This might be the only chance. "Do you have ice?" I ask the proprietor. He gives me a long look. "Yes, but you have to buy the whole bag." Having no problem with that, I fork over $3.52 and tell him, there'll be a half-finished bag out there for whoever comes along and wants extra.

I rip open a bag in the big white cooler. Fill up my sports bra (try that, guys) and start in on the bottles. Out comes the owner with second thoughts. "I can't let you pay for a whole bag of ice." (We're not in the USA any more, Toto.) I argue that he absolutely can. I'm happy to pay. Someone will get more ice than they paid for, and they'll do something nice in turn. It's called paying it forward.

All this while the top half of my Route 66 jersey is completely stuffed with ice. I look like some kind of odd bird, bent on defending itself. He won't take the money, and so we reverse the transaction right there in front of the store. He has a story all worked out for the ice delivery guy!

This somehow (don't remember how) launches a real conversation with the proprietor. Who asks what I do. "I'm a blogger." He knows what that means! When I mention brain injury he tells me about his brush with encephalitis. We've both been through neuropsychological testing. After his illness he had something like 32% of his cognitive capacity. Through rehab and speech therapy, he's up to 92%. Next year he and his wife are doing a tour of the Northern Hemisphere. I give him my card and say, contact me.

Though the ice in my bottles disappears fairly quickly, it does help. The stuff in the sports bra is my secret weapon. It lasts an hour and a half.

And the human kindness, well it's still there.

Running on empty

Well, this is what happens when I'm behind on sleep. Trying to crawl out of the black hole of an epic bonk. Hoping one little muffin will help. Washing it down with instant coffee.

It all started when I had to stop two-thirds of the way up a hew-mongous, steep roller coming into Jingellic. Lose the vest and roll it up, force down something from a back pocket, note that I haven't been drinking enough. Give myself a little pep talk there by the side of the road. All while applying a messy dollop of Lantiseptic to what we'll call the affected area.

Thereafter resolving to be a tourist today. Rebel against the death march. Take photos, with abandon, no matter what expression the subject might be wearing.

Riding solo is great, liberating and scary at the same time. Stop for photos. Ride at my own pace. Stay inside my own head. The problem with all this is, on Day 3 the body needs constant tending.

For example, I've burned through a large breakfast in under 3 hours. Fallen seriously, seriously behind on fuel. The clues, in order of arrival: 1. Stomach so empty it hurts 2. Lightheaded, in a stupor 3. No power in the legs 4. Not thinking straight. Left alone, it's a downward spiral. Putting the whole tourist thing on hold.

Jingellic is no more than a crossroads, really. A store on one corner, hotel on the other. A big, hot breakfast, unfortunately not in the cards.

In fact, cyclists are the only thing there's plenty of! At the moment we outnumber locals by a wide margin... On a warm spring morning, you might expect the mood to be upbeat. It's weirdly quiet around the camp chairs. Faces are not eager. People are having trouble sitting down and standing up.

I manage to choke down a muffin. One muffin, nowhere near enough. Nothing looks good. Can't look another banana in the face. As the market opens its doors, Wayne from Perth heads over to pick up some Mars bars. Yuck! Plenty of food in my pocket. I'll be fine as long as I eat that. Want to keep moving.

Around the corner, onto a sturdy low bridge and...

...even someone in an altered state can tell it's the Murray River. Has to be, the border of New South Wales and Victoria. Can hardly believe it! Like us, the water has tumbled out of the Snowy Mountains and slowly wound around, landing here. A moment of euphoria visits me, like a fragile soap bubble. Then it dissolves. Time to press on.

The route follows a road along the river. It looks easy but with a decent headwind, progress is slow. Wayne motors by. We ride together for a minute, then he hops on the rear wheel of a guy who's going even faster. They seem so happy! Like they're on a different ride.

Wayne drifts back for a moment and says something like you should eat something. Nibble, nibble, nibble all day long. Want a Mars bar? Then like a character in a dream, he takes off.

Rebel no more, I reach back into a pocket and wrestle out a baggie of potatoes. It was a good move, cooking these in Orlando's kitchen. Dousing them with olive oil and salt, stashing them in my duffle. You never really know when there will be a need.

Now is the time.

Not my finest hour

One thing I'll never be, an early bird. A lark. I'd give anything right now to still be horizontal, in that low bunk, snug and warm. Covers overhead in a cocoon! Instead, it's back on the road before dawn. One big day deserves another. 345 kilometers (217 miles) to Mansfield.

Still, leaving Laurel Hill you have to be moved by the view, the colors of the sky, the moon setting. Descending the same way we climbed last night, it takes my breath away.

Or is that the cold air? I tried to keep a couple of other taillights in sight, at least for the first couple of turns. But those guys are going too fast. They're not shaky like me. They're tracking just fine. Don't know how.

In a few hours it will be a different story but for now, single digits. My guess would be 4. Wool knee and arm warmers and a vest, not quite enough.

Don't get me wrong, it's good to be here, to have survived yesterday. Coming into Laurel Hill around midnight, Deb and Craig were sitting at the dinner table. Deb having done the smart thing at Cabramurra by getting in that car that passed us. OK on time but behind on food, and in pain. All I could say was, I was proud of her. That could not have been an easy call.

Craig's rear tire hit something and blew out on the bad pavement in the dark. He went down. Right around the place where David and I imagined something like that happening. We actually said to each other if anything goes wrong here, there'd be no way to correct. Craig's coherent but scraped up and in shock. Both are disappointed, of course. They intend to ride today.

This just feels like too much, too much. My attention is still not there. Whoa, the big rollers on what's supposedly called "McGinty's Gap Road"! Where's the gap? Those crazy Aussies plow their roads straight over the hilltops. No winding around. When the sun hits, it's suddenly warm. And of course, breakfast wearing off 10 kilometers before Jingellic.

Nope, not a morning person. Nor an early bird. Nor a lark. Today's challenge? Stay upright, stay fueled, keep moving. Faster than this, eventually, I hope...

Monday, November 18, 2013

Orion upside down

As we make the right toward Tumbarumba, what a simple, happy thing. A town name on a road sign! Feels like we're getting close.

Meantime I've been contemplating the power of the integrated adjective. And how giving a special rhythm to words can make them memorable. It's been very quiet, these last 100 kilometers. Except inside my head, that is. In my head instead of real thoughts what's playing is a single phrase, over and over: 

Up in Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos... 

Up in Tumba-bloody-rumba shootin' kanga-bloody-roos... 

Can't remember when or how the thing started today, but there's no stopping it. 

It really started in 1981, when one of my host dads demonstrated the proper usage of Australian slang by reciting this poem by John O'Grady. Somehow, 32 years later, passing a road sign telling how many kilometers to Tumbarumba, the memory is called up. Detailed and intact! Including Brian's  delight in how the words sound. Makes me want to know how all that works

Now if there were just a way to turn it off...

David gives a fair effort by saying the last climb, the one up the road, promises 400 meters of vertical gain. 400 meters!! The Big Climb was 600 meters! Could it be that we have that much effort between us and dinner and bed? Sometimes it's not helpful to have company.

I say nothing, of course.

On that last leg between Tumba-bloody-rumbas, I was thinking about Deb. Actually hoping she didn't attempt it. The climb, brutally steep and long. The dangerous pavement on the descent. And a long dark stretch where you need to whistle and keep very, very alert. An un-rando-bloody-neur-like thought! But I can tell she's not 100% today. Anyone in that situation, it would likely eat them up.

We reach town and ride down the main street, with its streetlights on and storefronts all dark and shut up tight. We pass a rider from Japan who's a little wobbly on his bike.

Kinda eerie but peaceful, too. The moon is up, a full moon. Beautiful. Out of the mountains now, the sky opens up for us. There's Orion, or is it?

Looks like him, but tweaked and spun around, rising feet and sword first! This seems quite funny in an ironic way. (Possibly because of exhaustion.) But when you say you're heading to Australia, out come all the silly jokes about water swirling the other way in the bathtub and everything being upside down. Ha ha ha! And you debunk them, of course. Well, in the case of Orion, the myths are true! 

We start to climb, gearing down for the final push. My legs are definitely weak. Slowly the reason dawns on me: hunger, along with an extreme case of stubbornness. I just don't want to reach back to my pocket, grab a bar, unwrap it against the handlebars. Put it in my tired maw and chew it while riding. Don't want to. Just can't make myself do it. And so I'm weak, struggling to keep up.

David looks down at his computer and says "well, it's official. My biggest day of climbing, ever. We've just passed 5000 meters."

I put my foot down and get a bar out and start moving again, chewing unhappily. I want real food so badly it hurts. Feels like we'll never get there.

A couple of kilometers up the hill, a car passes us. There have been few cars since we left Adaminaby. This one leaves plenty of space and as it passes it seems to slow a bit, maybe taking a look at us. Sometimes this is what support vehicles do, getting a sense of who's still on the road. 

There's a dark shape on the back, a road bike. Our lights hit it and the reflectors on the spokes light up for a moment. 

I just know, Deb's in that car.

Whistling in the dark

At the top, it's dusk. Of course not the real top, just the top of the steep part.

David is there, waiting. So is Geoffrey, wanting to know if I've seen his buddy. I passed him—he was going slowly, munching on something. He'll be here in a minute or two. Sarah is down there also, but I haven't seen her in a while. That might not mean anything. On a steep hill the only people you see are the ones in front. If you look back you'll fall over.

If staying upright is half the battle, fuel is the other half. Somehow I've managed to stay on top of it this afternoon. Even forced down a couple of gels! (It's not their fault I find them disgusting.) Whether luck or the gels or the fact that yesterday I ate half the Southern Hemisphere, there's fuel in the tank. The legs didn't stop in the middle or anything. They worked, they did it, they made it this far.

From the Tumut River at the bottom to this point, we've come somewhere between 8 and 9 kilometers. The experience seems to match (some of) the data. Average grade of 8%, consisting of long pitches of 10-12% and steps in between of 4-5%. You have to look for the version of the story that's truthful.

Now for the rest of the climb. Out pop the reflective vest and leg bands. On go the lights. David's twitching and getting eaten alive; it's The Mosquito Hour, his reward for being first! I set off, expecting Sarah to catch me on the downhill as usual. David follows to save his skin. The ride is far from in the bag and we all want to survive.

More climbing, another 6 kilometers or so. Not as steep, and rolling as you go. At times I switch off the Edelux and use the headlamp, to go easy on my legs. There's another climb after this. The headlamp is on long enough that I start to worry about running down the batteries. Spending them all on Day 2.

At the real top, what they call Sue City Pass, it's truly dark. With the steep, lower part it's 15 kilometers all told. So that part is (kind of) true as well. We pause for a moment before heading down.

My lights are strong but no match for lousy pavement at this speed. Makes me think about hitting a some anomaly and going down. You could take your pick; there are literally hundreds of anomalies, everywhere. They're like the stars in the sky.

You look for a pattern, like where car tires normally make a rut. Avoid the rut and you have a reliable and safe line to ride. The problem is there's no pattern. Patches and fissures and holes all over. Usually I can give myself a little pep talk to get through the scary stuff. Tonight it's not working.

Fear is how I've come to pick this speed, slow enough to lose David yet too fast to save the day in case of impact. Worst of both worlds. Not only that but while the legs are still strong, my attention has expired, every bit spent. We've been on the road for 17 hours. I'm blurry and really struggling to keep focused.

With all the fast, bumping around after maximum pushing, my lower back is not happy. It says, stop that. Now. I shift back in the saddle to stretch it out. Can't stop now.

Then I remember this descent is also where we need to watch out for brumbies and kangaroos! It's known among locals and cyclists for large animals that appear in the road. In the dark. OK!

I start to whistle. The technique recommended by Alison, one of the volunteers. A cyclist who grew up in the bush. Whistle, she says, to let the macropods know you're there. If they know, will it make a lick of difference? Just in case and to feel like I'm doing something to further my own survival, I whistle.

Whistle and whistle the same note, the whole way down. Along the McPherson Plains, where a single homestead has the light on, probably this place. At one point I do hear a rhythmic hopping in the grass near the road. From time to time, a mysterious rustling as well. But amazingly, the creatures let us pass.

Facing Grendel

Coming around a bend the road crosses the river again. So beautiful. It starts sloping upward. "This is it, this is the climb," I say.

A quick look down at the computer for a mileage check. Might as well see how big the monster really is…

After the first couple of pitches, it levels off and we get a little rest. Then push again. Stair steps! A welcome surprise, something we've been running low on lately. The pitches are steep, maybe 12%. They are not short and they keep coming.

David's just ahead, Sarah's back a few meters. A few others as well. At this point in the ride, differences in speed and riding style tend to even out. Without passing anyone or trying to catch a group, we start to converge.

And so it goes.

Wish I could report what was said. Truth is, no one's saying anything. It's so quiet, I hear a new noise on my bike. In the lowest gear the rear derailleur brushes the spokes on the rear wheel ever so slightly.

Whatever I was thinking, not sure. It has no beginning, no end, and none of it can be turned into words.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme

At the dinner table last night Vinnie from Seattle gave a little extra encouragement. If I just make it to Cabramurra, he said, everything will be OK. Vinnie was here last time, in 2009. So he remembers. Kind of.

He was making amends for a certain thread at the pre-ride dinner, where the guys were busy scaring the heck out of each other about Day 2. Apparently my eyes were big and my expression fearful, which he felt bad about later.

In fact there was more disbelief than fear. WHY are you people trying to PSYCH each other out? We're in the chute! If Day 2 is super hard, WHAT exactly can be done about it now? That's right, NOT A THING!!

If it sounds as if the hard climbing is before Cabramurra, that is not the case. While Cabramurra is a high point, from there we descend, giving up all that elevation. Then face the two hardest climbs of the day. It's more like, if you still have some fight left in you at Cabramurra, you'll probably survive the last 80 km!

It's a beautiful day, perfect weather for cycling in the mountains. After climbing all afternoon, we've just turned left toward the control. The grade is gentle but still it's 8 km to the top.

This just feels like bonus effort. Is Cabramurra way up here for a claim to fame? The highest town in Australia? Does it really need a label that badly?

Toward us comes a happy group of riders, leaving the control. It's Wayne from Perth and a few friends, waving! Wayne is actually sticking out his tongue. In fact, he's waving his tongue...

The road snakes around some massive power infrastructure, the heart of the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The real reason Cabramurra is where it is. It's a company town, all about hydroelectric power. Situated where the water starts flowing downhill.

The control is at the well-kept cafe, owned (like everything else) by Snowy Hydro. We spend a good half hour, letting the chef and volunteers take care of us. The glutinous food looks great, but the chef brings me a special salad and rice to go with a bowl of potato leek soup. Best food in town!

We leave happy, retracing our steps to the turn and heading suddenly, precipitously down.
After few seconds I grab the brakes, wanting to make sure this isn't a big mistake. Too steep to undo. Yep, Goat Ridge Road toward Tooma and Tumbarumba. This is the right way.

The most direct route between two points, a way that humans under their own power would never come up with. An epic downhill that goes on forever (or 15 km). Weird rippling pavement and sharp ungraded turns. My eyes stay glued to the road. And there's no stopping the bike. With brakes full on, the Waterford keeps sliding, dipping with the pavement. The pads are making that stressed, scraping sound against their rims. It is, weirdly, slow going.

Whenever the brakes are relaxed, it feels like free fall.

Down we go into the deep forest, into an ancient ravine surrounded by ridges. Many birds, you can tell by the quick movements in the trees and the music of their calls. A shady, wild retreat.

Finally at the bottom we cross a river, the Tumut. The road follows it gently downhill for a little while, the water and trees and rocks laying out a sensory feast. After surviving the wilds of Sydney and the Monaro Highway, this is more like it! I'd love nothing more than to stop and breathe a little and take photos, but every moment counts. We've been on the road for 15 hours, making our way to The Big Hill. The shadows on the hills are getting deep.

Sarah and David and I compare notes on the descent, relieved to be out of its clutches. No talk of what's coming up. But everyone's thinking the climb out of here, is it like that thing we just came down?

Lost in space

Where are we?

Somewhere in the Snowy Mountains. All the signs say "Great Dividing Range", which is confusing. Later I'll learn that the Snowies are not a discrete mountain range, but part of something bigger. Which is itself part of something even bigger.

No idea what time it is either. Monday afternoon...

A Garmin screams all this stuff at you, as if more information is naturally better. At times it is possible to enjoy not wearing a watch, be grateful for your old-style computer that makes a person really work to get information other than distance. I'm making the most of it.

So here we are in this timeless, placeless place. Climbing steeply, then descending. Climbing and descending. Climbing, descending.
The road, the Snowy Mountains Highway, is pretty much deserted. It winds its way through like a proper mountain road, gradually revealing its secrets. Finally we have quiet.

Around us, a spare and profound landscape unfolds. Several years ago a bush fire left all the trees looking like realist sculptures of themselves. They have not yet recovered. There are landmarks, like the entrance to Kosciusko National Park and Selwyn Pass; I'm totally surprised when we encounter them. Absolutely no idea where they are in the continuum of anything.

At the entrance to a ski area, a huge sign points tour buses this way, cars that way, trucks that way. And David kind of starts laughing because even with not another vehicle in sight and the resort closed in summer, he wants to do the right thing. Which way for bikes?

I'm laughing because it's like we're not here. We don't exist. We're ghosts.

One thing I love about these rides: looking around, you might see nothing familiar. If someone took out a map you couldn't point to your exact location. Yet by following the directions on a little piece of paper, eventually you get to the right place.

Meet me at the Big Trout

At Adinimaby a guy in an orange Sydney Melbourne T-shirt sees me looking over the Waterford. He asks if I need anything.

I love these people...

But probably not, having just wiped off the cable guides under the bottom bracket. The very lowest point on the frame, the part closest to the ground. The front derailleur cable has been creaking and resisting with every shift. The baptism of mud we got yesterday, it's gumming up the works.

Everything else is going well. Riding with Sarah and David is fun; feels like we're just out for a ride. David's a little faster up the hills, Sarah a little slower. Everyone ends up more or less in the same place.

David is quiet and patient and wryly funny. Sarah is strong and has the best attitude ever. She stops at the right times to take care of the right things, never going anywhere near the Pit of Despair. Ever. I'd ride with the two of them any day.

I'm wearing a wool jersey with short sleeves, my RUSA jersey. Totally necessary this morning on the Monaro Plain. But if you want the truth, it's a little on the warm side for these long, exposed rollers heading out to the Snowies. A gorgeous day, 28C (82F), full sun. With the faint smell of moist sheep. Hope that's OK.

The volunteer produces a bottle of TriFlow, stands the bike on its head with wheels in the air and proceeds to lube the cables in question. Maybe he thinks that's more effective than rubbing the area with a damp napkin. I don't know...

Then he tilts the bike up on the rear wheel, saying "watch this!" A stream of water runs out of a small hole. A drainage hole on a steel frame, how about that! Didn't even know it was there. Apparently the rims can also store a fair amount of water. We joke about this being why the bike feels heavy.

Supplementing the ice cream bar and Schweppes Lemon from the Spar across the way, I make a peanut-butter-and-jelly roll with one slice of white bread. My nod to gluten-free! The volunteer at the picnic table shudders, I can feel it. They provide peanut butter for those of us who want it, but it's still an American food.

Another rider at the table is talking about the mythical climb up the road. The Big Hill. We've heard it's 15 kilometers. We've heard it's 8%. We've heard it's 600 meters. The two of us make eye contact and I say, well the good news is, it can be only two out of three. It can be 15 km at 8% (but that's unlikely). That would give us nearly three times the vertical gain, 1600 meters. It can be 600 meters with an average grade of 8%, in which case the climb will be over with quickly. Or it can be 15 km with a total gain of 600 meters. The most likely option. It feels good to finally compare notes with another sane human being on this.

As we're leaving Chris Walsh, the organizer rolls up. Deb's 10-12 kilometers back. She'll make the cut-off time for this control, but there are others who won't. Even if he's not I'm worried about her, I am. We've already climbed plenty today, but the long, steep climbs remain.

So much going on, I don't even notice the Big Trout. How can you miss something like that?