Sunday, November 17, 2013

Les lanternes rouges

Not only did our bags make it onto the truck but Jim, a local rider, is our escort out of Sydney. His role is to shepherd us through the first few clicks. Very thoughtful!

This is the part I worried about, getting out of Sydney without getting lost. We should have rehearsed riding to the start instead. No matter, we're underway, Jim and Deb and Craig and me. That's ancient history now.

It feels good to be riding. (The course, that is…)

The roads look familiar, having just come this way with the racer dudes. Must be the bike route. At a red light as his foot goes down Jim says "OK your next turn will be a right on Broadway." I check the cue sheet. "Is that a Right on Broadway which becomes Parramatta Road?" He nods to confirm and we're on our own. On our way to the Hume Highway.

Plenty of stoplights to deal with, not much traffic. The lights will have slowed down the main pack. It's a comforting thought. At some point maybe we'll see the other riders.

Another plus, as Deb points out it has stopped raining. For the moment. Under a low blanket of grey clouds, we're rolling up and down. This was supposed to be a flatter day, a warm-up! The rollers seem endless and not small, winding through a bleak suburban landscape. The pavement is grey; so are the curbs. There's more rain in the clouds. I brought two rain jackets; both are in my drop bag.

It seems likely that Deb was hoping for late spring weather, warm and sunny. As for me, I told myself about the tailwind. In reality I'm sheltering in place behind Craig who plows on, seemingly immune to the steady south wind that brought the rain. At home in New Zealand, he faces a headwind every day on the way to work.

We share a few stories about airport security, before and after 9/11. Coming into Australia, even from New Zealand, the standard questions. Business or vacation? A randonneur has to hesitate, just as a terrorist might. Well, both. Riding a brevet is both. Blogging is both.

A new question totally stumped me. After almost 24 hours in planes and airports, the immigration guy wants to clarify my profession. Blogger. Um, someone who keeps a blog. A web log, an online journal… My mind goes blank. Thank goodness he nods and waves me on.

Craig tells how he was stopped and searched 5 different times on a single trip! A doppelgänger, someone with his name or physical description, must have been in play. As it turns out I used to fit the profile of a drug mule. They seem to use profiles less now, and data more. Lots more...

It's way, way easier to focus on mistaken identities than on climbing the same 100 feet over and over, virtually alone, dead last. Fumbling to recall the details of today's ride. The name of the first control, for example. Whether there's a real hill. Exactly how far to Canberra. It's important —tomorrow is a hard day.

You could see the concern on the organizers' faces, yesterday at bike check and this morning at the start. They're wondering who's going to make it. Who they're going to worry about over the next few days, go looking for, maybe in the dark.

There are only three of us and because of that, flying blind, and a lack of landmarks I have the persistent sense that we're just out for a casual ride. The pace is quick, we're riding rather hard, the limit of what's comfortable and sustainable. But otherwise it feels as if we're just wandering the countryside in search of lunch. It's a surreal feeling, a completely different sort of surreal than this morning's dream sequence, in rain and darkness.

To get to the first control, first we have to leave Sydney. After 37K I'm ready. At 43K, there's a very American-style cluster of large new houses close together, on the left. A petrol station on the corner. We catch and pass the last rider. Relief all around that we're no longer the lanternes rouges. Good to hand that moniker to someone else.

Another one, a rider in a yellow jacket delayed by a brief comfort stop. An American-style mall with a Target and a Woolworth's and a parking garage. A red taillight in the distance, blinking persistently. We're on the Hume Highway now.

Somewhere out there is the edge.

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