That was probably the comment of the weekend from Adrian as we again ascended in Granny gear up the never ending series of undulations out of Yerranderie. Hmm, apparently starting with a 3 1/2 hour climb after the epic 15 hour effort of the day before might have been a bit much... but back to the beginning!
After the sick, sick and still sick sagas that have plagued my year I've decided to get back to just having a bit of fun on the bike and what better way of having fun than going out and getting a spot of bikepacking in. Of course this also has the benefit of preparing for the Tour Divide next year! I had put together a route and then gotten a likely little crew together for mid October but then the mini Blizzard hit NSW and the attack of the green slime hit my lungs! The result being a reschedule to the 27th/28th of October.
Once the dust had cleared from the reschedule, clashing events (apparently riding singlespeeds and drinking beer at the SS Nationals is more fun than gravel grinding!) then I was left with a crew of three. Myself and two bikepacking virgins. Well, virgins in the bikepacking sense anyway! GPS routes were prepared and many messages exchanged but eventually the departure date arrived and there was nothing left to do but ride.
The route I had planned was a variation of my first ever solo overnighter although instead of aiming for Wombeyan Caves like that trip we would instead end up at Yerranderie - an abandoned town turned into a wilderness campground. Day 2 would be a ride to Bowral, each day around the 155km mark. The theory was that the distance was a little shorter on the first day (155 vs 177) but a longer on the second (155 vs 75) which would make for a more balanced trip.
Day 1 - The Warm Up
Things started to get interesting when Adrian suggested that rather that trying to get loaded bikes onto the train during peak hour perhaps we could just ride to Blackheath from Homebush. Now, I had been toying with the idea of riding up but given the lack of riding time in my legs was pretty much resigned to a train trip but never let it be said that common sense was the guiding principle at work in my head.
So, after frantically working to get things done during the week Adrian and I set out for Blackheath from Homebush at about 2:30. Hmmm, 115km on day 1, 155 on day 2, 155 on day 3... it was looking like the trip was going to be tougher than anticipated! This would put Adrian and I at Blackheath for Friday night with Han meeting us at Blackheath on Saturday morning (turns out that Han's partner Judith is a bit of saint for a mountain biking man...).
The ride up into the mountains was a pretty uneventful roadie slog fest... well apart from the obligatory puncture on the M4, a knob truck driver driving a Linfox truck throwing a full carton of fruit juice at us and me forgetting the basics of long distance riding and not really eating or drinking anywhere near enough. You'd think I'd have learnt by now? The cumulative effect was that by Wentworth Falls I was cramping pretty badly and was ready to bail at the nearest train session. At this point, the reason that Adrian is known as 'Jack Russell' became apparent as his unflagging enthusiasm and good humour kept me on the path and we pulled into the Gardiners Inn in Blackheath at about 7:30.
After the obligatory beers, food, more beer and more food followed by some beer to wash it down it was time to retire (oh and do some more bike fettling!). After all of that it was nearly 11 by the time we got to bed... not the best for the big day to come!
Day 2 - Nothing but FunDay 2 saw us meet Han at 7am on the dot and it was a good chance to compare gear and see what we all had put together for the trip - bikepacking setups can be pretty individual!
I was riding my trusty Scalpel 29er kitted out with basically the Revelate Designs catalogue. I had learned from the BigHurt experience and was carrying a smaller drybag on the handlebars in an effort to avoid the issues with stuff rubbing the front wheel. To compensate I had added a Revelate Pika seatbag which held my bivy, sleeping mat and some dehydrated food for Saturday night.
Adrian was riding his commute bike affectionately (and at times derisively) known as the Donkey. A 2002 Scott alloy framed 26er, complete with 2002 vintage SIDs and XTR 3*8 drivetrain. Old school. It was his first trip so a couple of backpacks and a drybag strapped to the handlbars made for a surprisingly robust setup. Although his back was feeling it as the trip went on!
Has was also on a Cannondale Scalpel but the 26inch version. Once again using the combination of a drybag strapped to the bars (this time with a Revelate Harness as support) and a backpack. Although there was a certain amount of fussing about when we hit the first rough sections everyone's gear stayed pretty much where it was put. Not a single pannier rack to be seen!
The plan for day 2 (according to the elevation profiles...) would be a screaming descent into the Megalong Valley and into the technical sections of the 6 Foot Track. From there a grinding climb (well two climbs really) up onto Jenolan Caves Rd for another screaming descent into Jenolan Caves for a lunch stop. After that yet another grinding climb, this time on tar and onto the range proper with the last 40kms being a gentle descent into Yerranderie.
Elevation profiles lie.
The day started pretty well - the 6ft Track was as fun as I remembered it being and I managed to ride a lot more of it this time. The Scalpel 29er is great for this sort of riding - big wheels and dual suspension means that if you're not riding its cause you're not up to it rather than the bike! Also, the packing jobs done by the newbies were pretty awesome - my first ride loaded up on this part had gear going everywhere but they seemed to have it pretty sorted and almost no faffing with gear was needed!
Once we crossed the bridge - I can now see why its not recommended for bikes and had a little stop it was time for climbing. Even this part of the day was pretty uneventful. Sure, its a long granny gear climb but the views are worth it and its a great test - all rideable so long as you've got the legs. The turn off onto Jenolan Caves road saw the group in good spirits although discussions of pie at Jenolan were becoming more frequent!
Jenolan Caves road is one way between 11:30am and 1:15pm which means that you can really fly down the hill (apart from the d*ckhead ignoring the closure). Sure its a mountain bike ride but going fast is fun no matter what the surface and there's something satisfying about the sound knobby tyres make as they fight the gods of traction on smooth asphalt!
After clearing the Caves kiosk out of Gatorade it was time to get back on the bikes for the grind up and out of the caves.
No nice stuff about this one. 12% average grade climb for about 5km on tar with nasty little switchbacks pinching to 18%. Owww, torture on a roadie... something indescribable on a loaded up mountain bike. A little less chat at the top this time as the legs were beginning to feel the burn (hmm, who thought riding the day before was a good idea?).
Still, it was all looking good as we began the long run across the range and the eagerly anticipated 40km of downhill to the finish. Time wise we were a fair bit slower than I'd anticipated - not so much in pure riding speed but loosing time in stops... something I'll remember for next time! Seems that when I'm on my own I just potter along but group riding just adds a little time. I was still feeling ok though - after all the last section was supposed to be pretty quick...
Well, we hit the sign indicating Yerranderie at about 5:30pm... 60km to go. Ouch. That 7pm anticipated arrival time was not looking so good!
Turns out that even though the 60km to go sign is at 1200m and Yerranderie itself is at about 500m you can travel 'up' an awful lot in descending that far. About 1800VM of ascent in this last section. Owww.
At about 7:30 with more than 30km to go we all decided that discretion was the better part of valour and we stopped to fit lights to Adrian and Han's bikes. Now, at this point I had pretty much had it... a bit of a sugar bonk (although I was eating better than I had the day before) and the length of time in the saddle just had me a bit cranky and snappy. To their credit (or perhaps it was exhaustion?) it was water off a ducks back to Adrian and Han and we got their lights fitted and started moving again (including some ghetto work using zip ties to improvise a helmet mount for Adrian!)
With my spiffy Assos climaSchutz jacket (expensive but does everything it says on the tin - keeps the wind away and doesn't get too hot on the climbs) and lights on (not to mention some more food!) I rode up the road a bit and had a bit of 'alone' time... this was great as I just got into the head space of 'this will take as long as it takes - your warm(ish), we have food..'. Besides, as I rediscovered... I love riding at night!
Matter of fact I was having such a good time that I was almost sad to see it end as we finally rolled into Yerranderie at about 9:45pm... a mammoth 14+ hour day. Although the 2km gradual climb up into the town itself did stretch the patience of all concerned. With several 24s and long trips under my belt I was ok with the distance but for Adrian and Han this was truly in at the bikepacking deep end!
Our accommodation at Yerranderie was in the lodge (I had bought gear to camp but decided a soft bed was the better option!). Hot showers, comfy beds, a well equipped kitchen - even a wood fire place! What more could hungry bikers want?
After some (ok, lots of...) food and a couple of glasses of the red wine that I'd carried with me for 2 days it was time for sleep... although not before a long talk with some of our fellow campers (the lodge is a shared thing) who more or less had decided that we were utter loonies. Like I said... one man's fun...
Tomorrow was looming as another huge day...
Day 3, the Escape
Of course, what goes down must go up and it was grumpy bikers who awoke bright and early with the knowledge that even though it didn't seem like it at the time... the night before we had descended more than we had climbed so therefore we were looking at a tough morning with our route taking us back about 50km on the road we'd travelled the night before.
The plan was to return to Sydney via train with these leaving at 2pm, 4pm and 8pm from Bowral... although there was early optimistic talk of catching the 2pm train way back on Day 1, even the 4pm train was looking like it was going to be a stretch goal! Problem is that tired bodies are somewhat incompatible with a sense of urgency and we didn't get away until about 7:30 or so.
The climb out was pretty much everything we expected it to be, long and tough and it took us the better part of 4 hours to make the 50km or so back to the Mt Fatigue firetrail that marked the beginning of the descent to Wombeyan Caves... of course descent is a relative term here! As the bodies got more tired, the questions about the track became more insistent and I definitely got the sense that the answer of 'kinda downhill but undulating' was somewhat unsatisfactory!
Luckily the Mt Fatigue firetrail was as good as I remembered it - fast flowing Super-D type stuff. Rough enough to be interesting but no so much so that it was difficult to negotiate on a fully loaded bike! Just let go of the brakes and ignore the burn in the legs as you smash up the little rises that dot the trail in the big ring. Almost worth the pain to get there... almost.
Physically I was feeling ok - the legs were pretty smashed but not actually sore and although my power output (and heartrate) were well down on days 1 and 2 I had gotten to that point where even though things ache you just feel you can go forever. The only thing that was really annoying was my saddle. I've put the new Selle Italia SLR Max saddle on (for the past few months now) and I suspect its a little wide so all my weight is supported on the sit bones. Owwww.
It was a tired little group that eventually stumbled into the Wombeyan Caves kiosk at around 3pm. My concerns that it might be shut proved to be unfounded and we all started to feel better after once again clearing out a small store of pies and Gatorade! Well, almost all of us were feeling better...
Han had started to lag a bit on the climbs and by the time we hit the Caves he really wasn't in a good way and didn't feel up to the ride back to the revised end point of Mittagong (about 5km shorter and would give us another 45 minutes grace for the last train...). Especially as we still had about 1/2 the days climbing to go. Reluctantly Han made the bail out call (see - I said his partner Judith was a saint) and settled in to wait.
Adrian and I were generally faffing about when we realised that it was getting close to 4 and we still had the better part of 70km to ride. At the pace we had been riding we were in serious danger of missing our train so once again tired bodies (and sore arses) were hauled on to bikes and off we went.
The ride from Wombeyan to Mittagong is one of the real high points of this ride - no its not technical singletrack... even calling it fireroad is a bit of a stretch... but after the grind out of the caves its about a 14km constant descent into the valley. Brakes off and go as fast as you dare... oh, keeping in mind that if you stuff it up you will (a) smash into a rocky cliff face or (b) sail off the edge of a rocky cliff face - neither of which are desirable options.
Once you cross the Wollondilly river (love the place names out here - its actually a nice camp ground but the caretaker is a cranky bugger!) its a long big ring climb out of the valley. Nothing too strenuous - just an hour or so of constant climbing. Adrian had the scent of the finish in his nostrils and was riding like a demon and I got used to seeing the sight of the silver Scott in glimpses around the bends in the road.
At the top of the range I called home just to check in... the phone was answered with 'Hello, I can't come and get you - I've been drinking'. Certainly no Judith (who we had met towards the top of the climb - it was looking like a long day for those guys - she probably had a good hour and a half before getting to the caves!). Anyway, after confirming that the last train was at 8:50 out of Mittagong we continued on, pretty confident that we would at least make it by then!
The last 25km of this ride is to be honest pretty crap. Its tar. Its flat. Its usually into a headwind. And it seems to take forever. By now we were both just silently working in together to get to town and it was two tired riders who eventually pulled into Mittagong at about 7:30 - tired and a little cold but pretty happy with more than 400 km covered over three days!
We had dinner at a local pub while we waited for the train - 8:50 out of Mittagong saw me get into Central Station at about 11:50pm. What a weekend!
ReflectionsSo how did the trip go overall?
Comparing this trip to the last time I was out this way... time wise I was quicker on almost every individual section but the whole thing took a lot longer. Some of that is due to to the additional climbing on the way to and from Yerranderie but mostly its due to stops.
In hindsight it was probably overly ambitious for the little group we had - not so much from a pure fitness perspective (apart from Han who it seems was suffering from some sort of tummy bug!) but just not experienced at making big miles in a day. Every 10 min stop basically costs you about 3km... but not only that you're constantly working up and cooling down your muscles and that really takes it out of you.
Also, I probably needed to spend a little bit more time looking at the intricacies of the route... when I'm on my own its ok to take a 'what happens, happens' attitude but when there's others involved then some forewarning might be helpful!
For those planning their own adventure... the pre-planning stuff is pretty important. I carried a SPOT tracker and had shown everyone where I was carrying it and how to use it. I also had looked at the map and had a good sense of where the bail out points were so that if something did go wrong I had a pretty good idea as to what the options were.
For this ride Adrian and Han were always planning to sleep in bunk accommodation whereas I had planned to camp. This meant that as a group we were pretty much committed to getting to Yerranderie - we were pretty lucky weather-wise - it was a pretty mild night but had it turned nasty then we would have been a very long way from anywhere. I will be adding emergency shelter to the list of things people should take on these rides! To be honest once it was past 8pm it would have been good to have the option of saying 'you know what? Lets just bush camp here and continue in daylight'. We probably wouldn't have but better to have an unused option up your sleeve rather than get caught!
Finally... the company / group dynamics / whatever you want to call it. People respond to stress in all sorts of different ways and at different times and lets face it, riding out into the middle of nowhere with few options is pretty stressful (yes its fun as well but...). I had a great couple of guys to ride with - I think we all had our low moments but in the end just got on with it and are still talking to each other at the end! Sometimes just forcing yourself to take a few moments to put things into perspective makes all the difference - ultra long days are a mental thing and spending the time to get your head in the right place makes a huge difference. I felt so good once I got over some dusk frustration and settled in to enjoy the night ride - probably was my favourite part of the ride really.
Well, enough of this novel! Planning is underway for the next one - probably in January sometime... just a little jaunt from Lithgow to Hill End and back... should be a reasonable 310km weekend and after a couple of hills the track is pretty flat with a few undulations...