Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Storms, snakes and sleeping at Mount Nebo

Heidi does her best cycle touring pose
Heidi and I are pretty much fresh off the boat in Queeensland, and so are taking every opportunity to get out and explore this new place where we find ourselves living. Given my obvious obsession with bikes, Heidi has graciously resigned herself to our wheeled steeds accompanying us on most holidays in the future. So in the interests of seamlessly integrating the pinnacle of transportation that is the push-bike with our holidays, we have decided to dabble with cycle touring.   

Ollie follows suit

We were familiar with the pannier laden exploits of tourists pushing their unprenouncable bikes across the endless headwind battered plains of New Zealand. They were often glimpsed from the seat of a car as we zoomed past with bikes strapped to the rack. Questions came into our mind like where they were going, where they were form, and what luxuries they must be carrying to explain the seemingly excessive baggage. My experience with touring thus far has been of the hasty variety, not really taking time to enjoy the scenery, but cramming in food and miles in an effort to make the next town as quickly as possible. My natural disposition is to want to do things fast, so to see if I could do slow touring was a bit of a personal test.

For me, it is a natural instinct to want to explore the high points of new places first, and I like the idea that standing atop a summit in a new place will provide an appreciation and view of surroundings that you simply can’t get from the flat plains. Mount Nebo was within striking distance of our new home, and so we resolved to leave early afternoon and push for a mountaintop campground, staying there a night then returning the next day. A sampler of cycle touring to see if it was something we could dig, and if I could refrain from turning it into a race, because not everything is a race.

The reality of Mt Nebo, a 40km ride from central Brisbane didn’t quite provide the expansive views we’d expected. A meer hillock by New Zealand standard at 538m a.s.l., the epic undulations leading to the mountain top were not to be underestimated. And at the summit, rather than a panoramic view of the sprawl below, we were enclosed in an eerie tropical tunnel with thickets of palms and twisted vines so stout I was half expecting tarzan to come swinging across the road in full cry.
Rocket booster panniers
For bikes, with my Tour Divide bike awaiting a new wheelset, so I opted for my singlespeed instead. Heidi’s Surly Cross Check eats this kind of ride for breakfast and we strapped on some Freeload  racks, dry bags and panniers to pedal off into the warm but not unbearably hot afternoon.

Gear wise we’d gone minimalist. We’d toyed with taking my uber light Z-packs tent but given the rain forecast and the likely dampness for the second person (me), we swapped this out for the Black Diamond Mesa. We took a cooker, pots, sleeping bags and mats, and enough food to ensure a food induced coma at our camp, just in case the hill wasn’t enough to do this.

The climb to Nebo undulates in the true delightful sense. As if the early civil engineers had playfully wielded their scale rules like paintbrushes, the road pitched up then flowed down in a whimsical fashion. Delightful, at least at first.

The view from one of the lookouts
We’d stop at viewpoints along the way to admire the views to the valley below. Often the road was perched atop a great cliff which afforded a sense of exposure that really added to the vista. I found these regular breaks (usually absent on normal rides), were a great way to embrace the touring mentality, and they certainly helped reframe the experience for Heidi. While I’d feared the hill would have been a sufferfest for her, she was still smiling at the summit, only requiring a single emergency snack stop en-route to our camp.

Heidi gets some emergency snacks
Arriving at the cross roads at the summit, light was fading and a storm was approaching, and after failing to locate our campground we flagged down a friendly local who pointed us in the right direction.

Even these directions weren’t sufficient for our navigational numptiness, and with the first heavy drops starting to fall we made a quick decision to stealth camp at a trail head, hoping that any enforcement officials would take pity on our predicament in the face of the impending storm.

And storm it did, with bright lightning flashes lighting up the sky and deep thunder rumbles echoing through the dense forest. I’d last experienced such epic precipitation on a ridge top in New Mexico, and fortunately the lightning never got as close as it did then.

Thankful for the shelter of the walker’s rest, we set up the cooker and prepared our food, a delicious green curry with a desert of giant jelly pythons.

Heidi chops vege by headlight
Dashing through the rain to our tent, we sealed ourselves in our fart sacks and dozed off, a check of the clock informing us of our early nap time of 7PM. A bedtime more akin to our grandparents, but perfectly respectable for intrepid bike tourers, especially with the thundering storm bearing down outside. There is something about being in a dry tent with a storm outside that makes you sleep well, and when the light finally woke us a 6AM, we’d both had a thoroughly good kip.

Packing up, eating breakfast and rolling out, we stopped to sample an Australian pie (nothing on Sheffield) and climb then descending the last few pinches to home in Toowong.

Heidi fearlessly tackles the steep descent
And shreds one of the numerous sweeping switchbacks

Arriving at 10AM we’d had an excellent adventure in a relatively small amount of time. Both Heidi and I really enjoyed the experience and are looking for new destinations as we speak. Safe to say that a few more sedate paced cycle tours will be in store!

Friday, October 19, 2012

24 Hour Race for a Supporter

Ollie thought it might be interesting for me to write about being a feeder/supporter for a 24 hour race to share my thoughts and observations.  So that is what this post is about.

When Ollie first mentioned going to Canberra for the National Australian 24 hour race he didn’t explicitly say that I needed to go with him.  It wasn’t till further in to our conversation about the race that I found out it is compulsory for solo riders to have at least one support crew.  That’s when I figured I was going to Canberra.  I was excited to be going away for a weekend and being a part of another adventure with Ollie.  But as the time drew near I started to dread the race realising that it required me to be awake and functioning for the same duration as the race.  Not that big a deal, I know.  But not your holiday weekend away, sun bathing and napping on a tropical beach which, by the way, we haven’t been to yet. 

After our exciting taxi ride to the venue and a good night sleep in our trusty wee tent we rose to a lovely morning in Canberra.  As Ollie started assembling his bike I asked him my final questions mostly about what should happen upon him finishing the race.  I suspected he would be super out of it. I was a little worried about packing up everything and getting him back to the airport. 

As Ollie mentioned we were in the line up with high profile solo riders.  They started to arrive and set up camp and I watched with curiosity.  Jason English had two tents and so many supporters I lost count.  I think they were mostly family, his mother checked in on me at 1am to say if I got cold to come down to their tent where they had a heater.  Isn’t she a nice lady.  I’m pretty sure it was his Mum anyway.   Other riders had their table brimming with food and sagging under the weight of what appeared to be thousands of drink bottles.  Because of our travelling situation we decided to take our food with us from Brisbane.  It didn’t look like much in comparison.  But Ollie was confident it was more than he needed.  Turns out at the end of the race he’d only eaten about half the food that we brought.  Also, most of the other solo riders had multiple bikes.   
Ollie is such a hot shot now with his tent label.  

Ollie being interviewed before the race.
The start of the race was very fast but soon appeared to settle and Ollie seemed to just be ticking away, sticking to his eating regime and getting work done.   At around 8 hours he started to fade and at 9 hours he pulled in to our pit saying he needed heaps of food and that he was falling asleep.  This is when the spread sheet feeding plan went out the window.  We pumped him with caffeine and stuffed his pockets with food and off he went again.  Previously when supporting Ollie at a 12 hour he requested coke and didn’t go back to drinking water for the duration of the race.  I didn’t think that would be the case this time, but I thought he might want a second bottle of coke and then go back to the water or Gatorade.  Little did I know that the caffeine had taken effect strongly and all he really wanted to was water.  Unfortunately every second lap he passed through the camp at an alternate place, so I wasn’t near the tent where I could just swap the coke for water.  Anyhow, he seemed in great spirits after that until 1am.  It was raining and his lap times where getting considerably slower.  I took advantage of the longer lap times and had at 30min sleep.  It was so cold I put Ollie’s sleeping bag inside my own for warmth.  Fortunately Ollie wasn’t having any problems staying warm on the bike. 

At around 2am I was almost back on schedule with the spread sheet feeding plan and was about to give him his first treat, a bag of snake lollies.  Instead though, he pulled in and said he needed a break.  WHAT!  You’ve been riding for 14hours and you need a break?!?! You gotta be kidding me. (Sarcasm)  He was going to lie down on the grass floor of our tent and curl up, but I got his Ground Effect bike bag and he laid down on that.  I covered him in his jackets to try and keep him warm.  He said to wake him after 10 minutes.  As soon as he lay down he was sleeping deeply. I could see his eyes moving beneath the lids and he was twitching.  I figured 10 minutes wasn’t long enough.  He had the lead by over an hour at this stage, so I wasn’t worried about him loosing places.  I was worried about him getting cold though.  I thought about using the sleeping bags... but he was so heavily caked in mud I decided not to.  After 15mins I woke him.  I tried to say something comforting and positive, but was unsuccessful.  I told him it would be easy once the sun came up and that was only four hours away.  He responded with a cheeky grin who’s meaning can be interpreted as “yeah, you go ride out there for ONLY four more hours, till the sun comes up”.  None the less, he didn’t procrastinate.  He got up and went straight back to doing what Ollie does best, riding his bike when actually it would be so much nicer to stop.  His mood was hugely improved after his nap and he continued on till day light without drama.

At the end of each lap he would pass by the feed station twice, once on his way in from a lap and once on his way out for the next lap.  We used the first passing to swap drink bottles and pass food, the second for clothes or for me to quickly give him an update on where the competition was.  Later in the race we didn’t really need the second slot, so I’d just stand there at the side of the track trying to think of something to cheer as he rode by.  I found heckling difficult though.  So many of the standard ones I have picked up from fellow hecklers at bike races just were not appropriate.  “Put it in the biggie”  “Get off the brakes”, not really that kind of race.  “Good job”  “You go you good thing you”, so cliché.  Finally I decided to go with the “you know you love it”.  This turned out to be a winner even getting a smile out of him. 

During the night Ollie was riding pretty closely to a guy named Callum.  Callum’s father was supporting him and we were often waiting at the feeding stations together, chit chatting about our riders and general other stuff.  It was nice to have some company. 

I was slightly confused about the finish of the race.  In other 12 hours I’ve attended at the finish you need to complete a full lap before the 12 hours is up.  Not the case here, you only have to start your last lap before 24 hours.  Ollie was a little disappointed when I told him this and in all honesty he probably could have sat out the last lap and still won, but he was a good sport and did it anyway just to be safe.
There were two guys doing a running commentary and handing out spot prizes throughout the duration of the whole race.  At the finish line they were interviewing winners of prominent categories and as Ollie finished they pulled him aside and talked to him for a couple of minutes.  It was pretty obvious he just wanted to sit down but he humoured them anyway.  Finally they let him go and we went back to the tent so he could have a sit down.  He was surprisingly functional.  I sent him off for a shower while I washed his bike.  He instructed me on how to pack his bike, which wasn’t too hard after all.  Prize giving was prompt and speedy.  Then we were in a taxi back to the airport. 

So much drool!  While we were waiting for our flights Ollie leaned on me and promptly fell into a deep sleep.  When he awoke and sat up there was a small lake of drool on my arm.  Later we moved seats to be closer to the gate for Ollie’s flight.  We sat and again he half leaned/lay on me and fell asleep.  I was also very tired and set my alarm so I could sleep as well.  I was just dozing off in a seated position when a dribble of drool fell and landed on Ollie awaking him and me.  With so much drool and wearing our scruffy clothes from our long and tiring weekend we must have looked like retarded homeless people waiting for our flights.
Ollie at the airport in Canberra after his 24 hour race,
creating a puddle of dribble on the floor, rather than my arm. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Mud, sweat and goo at the Scott Australian 24hr champs

Sunrise and set are always great times to ride the Scott 24 was no exception
Photo Sportograf
It has been a goal for some time to race a solo 24 hour in the traditional multilap format, so when the stars aligned and I had the opportunity to partake in Australia’s premiere event, I leapt at the chance.

In a way, these events are a more respectable form of mountainbiking, distinctly lacking in the hobo-esque characteristics of bikepacking. With a support crew to feed you every lap there is no need to hoard food on your bike and body, you only have the chance to accumulate a single day of stench as opposed to multiple days, and the shorter format means you don’t need to bivvy in roadside ditches.

But on the flipside, the repetitive nature of a lap course can be mental torture, as rather than the profoundly motivating prospect of an end of day destination, you must force your body to endure lap after lap of the same features, and this would prove to be one of the hardest parts of the race for me.

The support I had to get to this race was amazing, with personal supporter Ground Effect and co-organiser Sarah from Canberra Off Road Riders Club (CORC) sorting out an entry and even a personal marque on the prestigious pit row. When I plonked down my Tardis bike bag right next to international legends of the sport Matt Page, Cory Wallace and the indomitable Jason English I was aware the field was high calibre, and was stoked to be racing amongst it. My employer Beca also provided generous support to fund flights from Brisbane to Canberra, which was a god send given the short notice before I committed to the race.

Travelling with Heidi as number one fan and chief supporter, we arrived in Canberra to take the first taxi off the rank. On only his second day, the driver was pretty green and hadn’t heard of the Mt Stromlo venue, and had no clue how to drive us there. As if to up the stakes in ridiculousness, he couldn’t operate any of the three GPS devices in his car, and proceeded to speed whilst swerving between lanes and talking to his friend on the phone to get some directions. I guess I take it for granted that a taxi driver will know where to go, or at least have the nous to work it out, but when the vacant circling got ridiculous we forced him to stop and I grabbed the GPS off his dash to find our destination.

Taxi driver leads us on a magical mystery tour!
Safe to say that when we arrived we were happy to say goodbye and parting with a heavily discounted fare we left the taxi driver to his own devices (probably autocide).
Initial impressions of the venue were shock and awe. With a live band and a playing field full of tents with sponsor’s flags, the CORC team weren’t doing things by halves. After a greasy all day brinner (at 9PM) which contained my yearly allowance of vitamin B (bacon) I was ready for bed. Heidi and I pitched the tent for the first time since our holiday in the USA and I had a peaceful sleep, me twitching occasionally in anticipation of the ride ahead.

Ample serving of vitamin B

Sideways Ollie eats a banger
In between assembling my El Commandante, talking shcmack with new friends, briefing Heidi on my detailed feeding schedule spreadsheet and being interviewed by the Canberra Times  the morning flew past, and by the time 12PM rolled around I was well and truly ready to mount my steed and ride into the sunset.

Misty morning at Mt Stromlo
Un-pro Ollie does all his own fettling
It seemed my hopes of slipping under the radar were idealistic, with a commentator interviewing me prior to the star filling the crowd in on some of the more interesting parts of the Tour Divide. It is crazy what a small world modern electronic media has reduced the world to, and I often felt that awkward feeling where someone knows you but you’ve never met them. I was pretty stoked at the buzz it created though, and hopefully my presence and some of the yarns I spun will encourage some others to embrace their inner hobo and give bikepacking a nudge.

From the start, the pace was surprisingly sedate and for the first couple of laps yo-yoing my singlespeed on and off of the lead bunch were a blast, whooping and hollering as we took in some of the great singletrack which permeated the Canberra course.

Pretty sure I was making this much air. At least in my mind.
Photo Sportograf
To minimise the boredom I’d feared and maximise the space between riders, organiser Russ had strung two laps together, and he spoke about how they’d kept the average rider spacing at 45m, as they’d found any less really detracted from rider experience. A true testament to how well CORC run an even, with a great focus on giving the riders the best experience.

One of the best moves I’d made was to not have any time display on my person, and without the constant reminder of apparent dilation of time as the hours rolled on, my mind was clear and I found I really enjoyed the simple challenge of heading out and knocking off another lap, just focusing on one at a time.

Early on everything was going well with my riding, I was sticking to my feeding plan and steadily munching away at bagels, B&E pie (for more vitamin B) and bananas. But as the laps wore on my stomach protested to the point where anything more than a goo would raise a wave of discontented stomach acid.

Heidi tried her best to make the food she offered appealing
I’d feared the sleepmonsters which I’d experienced in Tour Divide, and they brought their leaden eye-weights about 9 hours in. Wanting to hit back with conviction I stopped and downed caffine pills and Coke and while this had the desired effect of keeping me awake for the next 14 hours, for the next few my heart rate was racing and mind circling in a way that is quite rare to my coffee deprived body. Fortunately it calmed down and when normality resumed I felt relieved to have escaped both the monsters and a heart attack.

Early in the evening the rain began to pour, and unfamiliar to the moody weather of Canberra I donned my Helter Skelters and jacket thinking I’d be able to ride through the sludge with impunity. Sure enough the very next lap the sun returned and all I succeeded in doing was getting sweaty and losing a bit of time donning my rain garb and then removing it.

The rain returned with a vengeance in the wee small hours, turning the second lap into a quagmire that became a true test of mental and physical perseverance. In some places bogs were wheel deep and only careful and lucky line choice could save you from a mud sandwhich. With motivation waning and questions about the point of it all rising in my mind like lumps in the sticky mud, I took the decision to take a power nap, curling up in the fetal position on my bike bag and catching a blissful 40 winks.

I’d asked Heidi to allow me 10 minutes, but she felt so bad at my shivering and muttering state that she let the clock run to fifteen, and even then on waking me I asked her if she it was sure I’d used all the precious time.

The tent village by night as viewed form the top of the hill
Photo Sportograf
The turnaround in attitude on the back of the nap was profound, and with only that tiny amount of sleep I’d reframed the race in my mind and started to feel stronger all the way till the first tendrils of light grew form the horizon. Once the sun had risen I knew I’d make the full 24 hours, and even managed to push hard in my final few laps to make the best of the cutoff.

I can attribute least some of the good sensations I had in those early hours to the exceptional performance of the belt drive setup in the muddy conditions. Running singlespeed with the Gates Centretrack setup proved to be a source for much internal smugness, only heightened by the crunching, chain-sucking gnash of derailleur gears as the wimpy cables and chains of other riders succumbed to the bog which consumes conventional bicycle transmissions. The design of the mud ports effectively cleared all the mud from the belt and the system ran silent and smooth for the duration of the ride. I’m stoked to be able to use the system especially when it performs so well in difficult conditions.

So by the end of it all I was pretty tired, and although a bit wobbly on my feet Heidi remarked at my surprising coherence. Catching a plane for work the next day was always going to be tough, and still know I’m feeling the effects of sleep deprivation. I feel guilty for demanding so much of my body for it to stay awake and it can certainly rise to the challenge, but for some reason it still wants to keep riding, 2 days later which is less than ideal at 2AM with work the next day.

So after dabbling in the 24 hour race format I can say that they are a pretty enjoyable experience, especially at a well run event and great course as at the Scott 24. An awesome support crew who will even have the sympathy to let you sleep for 5 more minutes was just the icing on the cake. I’m definitely keen to race a few more and with the scene as popular as it is here in Australia I’m sure the opportunities will present themselves. Who knows, I might even throw on a Rohloff and race for the world title at the same course next year!