Riding 200km in a day is a great effort on its own, let alone averaging 200km+ a day for five days. A couple weeks ago, Dougie ‘Grinderman’ Hunt and Matt ‘Fletch’ Fletcher set off from Sydney with the aim of getting back to Melbourne — via a 1,100km coastal route — in five days. This is the story of their journey, as told by Dougie, with photos from both he and Fletch.
There’s something incredibly alluring about the prospect of a good challenge. It’s been something I’ve always found irresistible: hypothesising about the boundaries of my own personal ability and seeing whether I can reach (and pass) those boundaries.
Even better than testing your own physical limits is taking the time to enjoy the great outdoors and what better way to intertwine the two than riding your bike from Sydney to Melbourne?!
What was initially designed to be a catch-up with a few of the Sydney-based eQuipo tranQuilo boys in The ‘Gong Ride (Sydney to Wollongong) pretty quickly spiraled into a 1,100km, five-day slog all the way back to Melbourne for myself and Matt Fletcher.
Having ridden from Sydney to Melbourne last year (see last news item here) I was all for this idea – not only was I keen to take on the challenge but the idea of touring down the coast was appealing (I took an inland route last year).
Route: Bondi to Ulladulla via Wollongong
Upon being woken up by raucous Sydney birdlife outside, Matt and I became aware that the day’s challenge had already begun, long before any lycra hit skin and well before rubber hit pavement. Dealing with a shorter-than-desirable sleep and a larger-than-desirable hangover certainly put us on the back foot for the start of our journey.
Cam Ziebell (fellow eQuipo tranQuilador who was kind enough to offer us a bed for the night) and Chris Blane had taken us out for a fun night in Bondi Beach that left us reaching for rehydrating liquids before leaving the apartment for the first day of our ride.
Luckily for us, Tim Dugan (also of eQuipo tranQuilo fame, not the lesser rider fromTeam Liquigas) gave us a guided tour of Sydney between Bondi and the city’s southern-most reaches. We took in the inner-Sydney cyclist’s escape of Centennial Park, a beachside trundle past Botany Bay and the glorious surroundings of the Royal National Park south of Sydney.
If you find yourself in Sydney with your bike I highly recommend a tour through this area just south of Sydney. Not only will it quench any desire you have to rack up vertical metres but the surroundings are magnificent.
The rise from Hacking River in Audley presented our first real climb for the trip (1.3km at 9.1%) but the forested surroundings seemed to distract from the nasty gradient. After working through the picturesque southern region of the Royal National Park (with beauty rivaling Melbourne’s 1 in 20) we rejoined the coastline and headed due south.
Before reaching Wollongong we rode across the well-known Sea Cliff Bridge which, as the name suggests, juts out from the cliffs over the ocean, creating some great views.
Having joined The ‘Gong ride in parts of our trip from Sydney to Wollongong I was pretty relieved to have the field of riders behind us. Rather than providing some ‘wheel-sucking’ to aid the first part of our journey, we found the road full of cyclists to be a hindrance and it was nice to have the road to ourselves again.
The remainder of the day provided a nice range of flat sections, undulations and short climbs into the coastal town of Ulladulla where we crashed after a long day in the saddle.
Route: Ulladulla to Bermagui
As we expected, day two presented an interesting and important scenario: what toll had the first big day taken and how easy would it be to back it up?
Given our large first day on the bike we decided not to take on the initially overzealous aim to reach Merimbula (231km) and chose to set a more realistic goal of reaching Bermagui for the night.
It turned out to be a good decision — not only did we reach our target just before the touring cyclist’s curfew (kitchen closing time at the local pub!) but the purchase of bathers for swimming – to combat the draining heat of the day – put a dent in our productivity!
The first day of our journey had been warm but day two was a scorcher. The ability to go for a swim was a welcome relief from the testing conditions. Thankfully most of the ride was spent on constant undulations with no climb exceeding 100m without a cooling descent. Refreshing swims at Batemans Bay and Moruya provided welcome respite along the way.
Unfortunately, most of the day’s riding along this section of the southern NSW coast suffered the inevitability of the Princes Highway. When any alternative to cycling along this busy coastal route could be taken, we took it. But the vast majority of the day was spent being hounded by a constant cacophony of semitrailers, campers and cars, all of which detracted from the enjoyment of our surroundings.
Some of the nicer sections which allowed us to detour along the coast included Batehaven and Surf Beach and the beautiful rolling hills through Tilba.
Route: Bermagui to Cann River
One thing I am pretty glad about (being as disorganised as I am) is that I never took the time to look at the profiles of any the rides we had planned.
With a nasty 428km in the legs after the first two days I wouldn’t have been particularly impressed had I known we were in for a long series of cat 4 climbs on day three. The long, drawn-out climb through Alfred National Park was the final nail in the coffin.
With my knicks doing their best to remind me they too had had a tough couple of days, day three proved to be a testing one!
Luckily for us the first 70km offered a more scenic tour off the Princes Highway and we switched back-and-forth between a series of State Forests, National Parks and the coastline before reaching Merimbula for a break from another stinking hot day.
Despite only being in the first section of the day all I could dream about was getting to a servo and filling my bidons and camelback with as much ice and fluid as I could fit, in order to counteract the inescapable, sapping heat.
With a considerable amount of climbing already in our legs, Fletch thought it might be best to ask one of the locals in Eden (where we stopped for lunch) what the terrain was like between Eden and Cann River (which, given the lack of any nearby options, was our projected camp for the night). Not only did the woman’s delicious sandwiches lift our spirits but being told it was ‘pretty flat between here and Cann River’ put wind in our sails.
But if we’d listened to the groaning of our quads on the 6% pinch out of town we probably would’ve had a more accurate picture of things to come. Just to add to our woes, the weather was turning to rain – perhaps something to do with the fact we were approaching the NSW-Victoria border!
Despite the extreme variations in weather and considerable climbing done for the day I think this was probably the most enjoyable day of the trip. Not only did we encounter a lot of wildlife (including a placid diamond python and a huge goanna!) but the climb through Alfred National Park was simply stunning.
Perhaps it was the fact we had now crossed into Victorian territory … or maybe just that the gloomy Victorian weather was contributing to the atmosphere of the place, but the beauty of our rainforest surroundings was the sort of setting I had been craving all trip.
Dense forest enveloped us from all directions, the surrounding hills extended all the way to the horizon and despite still being on the Princes Highway, there was minimal traffic to spoil the tranquility. Bliss!
Thankfully the last 15km of the day gave us a speedy descent into Cann River where we were kindly greeted by a local who seemed to know a large number of four-letter words and had obviously enjoyed a large Melbourne Cup day at the local pub.
Upon arriving at the pub in search of a bed for the night we realised he wasn’t the only local who had enjoyed the day. Everyone had been kicked out for fighting or other debaucherous behavior and we managed to secure a bed just in the knick of time!
Route: Cann River to Maffra via Lakes Entrance
If the second half of day 3 was a taste of Victorian weather then day four provided an entire feast. Not only did we have to contend with a quadruple climb out of Cann River to start the day (2.3km at 5.1%, 1.3km at 7.1%, 1.3km at 6.3% and 2.1km at 4.4%) but the dreary weather had set in for what was going to be a long, cold and wet day.
On a brighter note, after the four early climbs in the east Gippsland hills, the last 150km of the day were undulating enough to keep the boredom at bay without testing our already-pressed legs after three long days in the saddle. I have never been to far east Gippsland but having experienced it from the bike I’d have to say it’s an unsung hero of the Victorian countryside. It’s an area I hope to visit again someday.
At around the 110km mark, Fletch and I reached a fork in the road which presented a dilemma: should we get off the freeway and take the shorter route towards Bairnsdale? Or should we stay on the Princes Highway and take the longer detour through Lakes Entrance for lunch?
Having stopped on the traffic island in the pouring rain to suss out the flow of the traffic we decided the Princes seemed a better option and continued on our merry way, somehow justifying that adding more kilometers to an already 200km+ day was worth it. Luckily it was.
Apart from having the best bakery seafood pie money can buy it gave us the opportunity to ring out some of our clothes which was a nice relief … well, for at least five minutes before they were re-saturated after leaving.
I really enjoyed the climb out of Lakes Entrance (1.2km at 4%) which overlooked the town and took us out to ‘The Narrows’ entrance. Knowing we had a relatively flat ride to Maffra was a welcome thought.
After pushing on through Bairnsdale my spirits were lifted: all of a sudden we were in familiar territory. It was finally an area I actually knew and more to the point, it gave me a sense we were getting closer to our final destination.
But my lifted spirits didn’t last long as the road between Bairnsdale and Maffra was long, straight and dead boring. Apart from the plethora of echidnas to be viewed on the side of the road I found the boredom of our surroundings unbearable. The unchanging terrain, the seemingly endless procession of cars and trucks going past in such an effortless fashion, the incessant rain: it had all become too much.
Luckily, before my head exploded from boredom, we reached the turn-off to Maffra and I could almost smell the ‘world famous’ Mongolian beef we were to eat for dinner than night. But just as I thought my day was coming to an easy end I realised I had a slow leak from my back tyre. Damn it!
Somehow I managed to justify to myself that I didn’t have the energy to stop and fix the puncture and that the only option was to charge full-tilt towards Maffra before my tyre lost all of its pressure. Luckily I made it but by the time I rolled into town my back rim was experiencing the tarmac first-hand.
Route: Maffra to Melbourne
The final day of a ride like this presents an interesting paradox: on the one hand you can say to yourself: ‘Today I get home, I get my own bed, I get to finish this’. On the other hand you have to back up with another 200km+ after four long days on the road.
Thankfully the day started a little better than most because I was putting on a dry pair of knicks for the first time. But with the rain pelting down outside I figured the dryness would be relatively short-lived.
Given we were now traversing a less-rural part of Victoria, the road ahead gave us route options that didn’t involve riding along the highway. It was a very welcome opportunity to get away from the cars and actually enjoy the surroundings a little more. Unfortunately not all the conditions were great.
Just to add to the final challenge of our journey, most of the day involved pressing into a westerly breeze. A couple of bum-steers from Google Maps resulted in some dirt road cyclocross action but after being hounded by the Princes Highway’s relentless agitation for much of the trip, I actually relished the opportunity to get away from it all and enjoy the country roads.
This was relatively short-lived though because it was soon back to the monotony of highway riding as that presented the only realistic option that would bring Melbourne to the horizon in daylight hours.
Melbourne really is the sprawl that everyone says it is. Farm and bushland very gradually give way to only slightly more developed areas. These then very gradually give way to slightly more dense living, which ever so slowly gives way to suburban arrangements. This urban sprawl gradually increases in congestion as the centre of Melbourne approaches.
Maybe it was the 1,000km in my legs but it seemed to take forever to plough through the spread of Melbourne once I had reached it — a nasty, torturous trick for the city to play on an exhausted cyclist who was longing for home more and more with every pedal stroke.
That said, reaching familiar territory after 1,000km is an amazing feeling — to know you are within reach of home needing only to cover the sort of distance you might otherwise do on a daily commute or training ride.
That is until you get within 10km of home and you get a puncture. And then you fix that puncture and get another one. And then you question why there would be so many staples on the road.
Home seemed like it was only arms-length away in the scheme of what had passed over the past five days, but with two deflated wheels I still felt so hopelessly far away. Eventually I got myself sorted and back on the road.
I found it really interesting riding through familiar territory with a completely different physical condition than that you are usually accustomed to. The toll of all that riding becomes so much more evident when you don’t have the kick to push over a familiar rise in the road or the energy to roll through a well-known street at the same speed you usually would.
But this feeble physicality is counteracted by the excitement of reaching your final goal, a feeling that is considerably heightened in comparison with a regular ride.
The approximate route taken by Dougie and Fletch on their way from Sydney to Melbourne.
After five days in the saddle and the 1,101km that had passed underneath it, it was a pretty amazing feeling to be unclipping from my pedals for the last time. The five days had offered us many different settings, showed us many different locations and presented us with many different weather conditions.
The journey was far more undulating than I expected from a ‘coastal’ ride and the roads were less pleasant than the inland alternative.
We’d ridden a great distance, done a lot of climbing (9,464m), experience a lot of difficulty and felt a lot of pain. But these are the obstacles you expect to meet in a test of endurance. If it was easy would there be any point in doing it?
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Have you got a climbing-related cycling story you’d like to share? Maybe you just rode your first mountain on the weekend? Or maybe you’re on holidays in the French Alps, climbing every col in sight. Either way, we’re keen to hear from you. Please get in touch with Matt via email.