Earlier this year, Dougie Hunt completed a 300km solo ride that had many of us in Team eQuipo tranQuilo shaking our heads in disbelief. So when he started sending out invites for a single-day ride from Mt. Gambier to Melbourne — the best part of 440km — there weren’t too many takers. I knew Dougie was tough but this challenge, I thought, had to be beyond him (and most humans really). I should have known better.
This is the story of one truly epic solo ride, as told by the Grinderman himself.
I’ve always been a sucker for pushing the limits of my endurance. Ever since I started asking ‘would it be possible for me to do that?’ I’ve never been able to deny myself the chance to find out.
It probably started in 2007 when I naively decided to take on the English Channel despite having had no real swimming ability nor any notable sporting background at all. It was the most gruelling thing I’ve ever done … but after that I was hooked.
I went on to complete a series of marathon swims around the world including circumnavigating Manhattan Island (46km) and being part of a six-man relay team that broke the world record for the longest open water swim (120km).
With these achievements comes great reward – kudos from family, from peers and, most importantly, from within. There is no greater feeling than accomplishing a lofty goal and proving to yourself that what you set out to do was actually possible.
After getting back from the Sydney to Melbourne ride my legs were in a world of hurt for days. Last year I did essentially the same ride (albeit less distance per day via the inland route) and it didn’t seem to take the same toll on my body (maybe I’m turning into an old bastard!)
Apart from the immediate difficulty of my tender legs, the pain potentially spelt trouble for the Mt Gambier to Melbourne ride I had planned for the following weekend. But somehow, when the time came, I still found myself queuing up at the V-line counter for a one-way ticket to Mt. Gambier with nothing but my bike by my side, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into.
Despite karaoke night at the Mt. Gambier Hotel on the Friday night I managed to get a decent night’s sleep. And when my alarm told me it was time to get going at 3:30am I didn’t hesitate – it was going to be a long day ahead and with over 400km to get through on my own, I couldn’t afford to waste any time.
Hitting the road at that time of the day was a bizarre feeling. The endless darkness of the foggy country roads brought an eerie creepiness but the freedom of having the road practically to myself was particularly liberating … especially for a city cyclist.
For two hours I plugged away at a road that visually existed only 10m ahead of me at a time, save for the taillights of the occasional passing truck which would illuminate the terrain ahead before passing into the distance.
Surprisingly, the first couple of hours in the dark passed quickly despite little to look at besides the long road ahead. I tried to zone out as much as I could and it seemed to work well … aside from a near run-in with a couple of roos.
After a quick stop in Heywood (after 90km) for some water I was back on the road. I was keen to cover as much ground as I could in the early morning and I wasn’t willing to waste any time resting. Not only that but I found the cooler-than-forecast temperatures made it difficult to stop for any longer than it would take for my body temperature to start dropping.
The countryside through this part of Victoria was, as it was for most of the trip, the perfect setting for a ride. As opposed to the mostly highway roads that Fletch and I had endured the week before between Sydney and Melbourne, I had specifically plotted a route that would guide me through country backroads. This would get me away from the traffic so I could enjoy the beauty the Victorian countryside had to offer.
Apart from the need to regularly check my course this proved to be a good decision because I wasn’t forced to ‘go cyclo-cross’ on dirt at any point. It also meant I rarely shared the road with anything more than the curious stares of livestock who seemed to be thinking ‘geez, those calves are much bigger, hairier and uglier than me’.
In an effort to mentally prepare for what was ahead of me I tried not to look at my Garmin too much in the first few hours. I tried to consider the first 200km as merely a warm-up before heading in to what was to be a 230-240km ride for the day, just as I had gotten used to when riding down from Sydney.
It seemed to guide me quite well mentally because when I stopped for lunch at Camperdown and checked my distance to go (less than 200km), my spirits lifted considerably.
Having a ‘distance to go’ that starts with a 1 rather than a 4 makes a big difference … particularly when it is a 3-figure number!
Not only was being over halfway doing great things for me mentally but after hitting the road post-lunch the wind had switched from a southerly into a sou-wester. Given I was now heading north-east up through the flat lakes and craters region of the Victorian volcanic plains I got a great kick from the tailwind with little effort required from the legs.
Squeezing through the narrow stretch of road between Lake Corangamite and Lake Gnarpurt (see image below) also offered some interesting views to detract from the relatively mundane contour of the road.
Having started in a place named ‘Mount’ Gambier I naively thought I’d be starting from the highest elevation of the ride. In fact, it actually ended up being one of the lowest points of the day.
Throughout the first 325km I had gradually gained around 150m — not much but it still ended up being another ace up my sleeve in covering the final 100km for the day. Knowing that the upcoming Geelong was at sea level, I could sense a few more free kilometres sliding past in the blink of an eye.
Thankfully it mostly took place in the form of nothing much over 1%, meaning I could make the most of my potential energy without having to get on the anchors and waste my hard-earned elevation.
Strangely, it wasn’t until 14 hours had passed that I crossed paths with another other cyclist. Apart from having to endure the whole day with no company, equally as testing was the inability to share the workload at any point throughout the ride.
Much to my delight, at around Bannockburn I managed to hook onto the back of the guy’s wheel and both my legs and mind were grateful for the opportunity to take a break. Just as I began to think I might get a free ride to Geelong, our paths diverged and again I entered my own little world on the bike.
With 360km to my back things started to go a little wonky, both downstairs and upstairs. Not only had my legs begun to cramp but, more importantly, I was beginning to fray mentally.
Without any particular plotted journey home and a distinct lack of knowledge about Melbourne’s western region, I reasoned with myself that the best path to take was the direct and trusted (but less enjoyable) journey up the Princes Highway. Thousands of people had taken the journey up there a month before so why not make the trip myself?
Without the distraction of navigation I was able to concentrate as much as I could on the mental side of things which had now truly come into play. I found myself in the mental territory I had learned to deal with in my swimming days but was yet to experience since switching to cycling a few years ago. ‘Don’t listen to your mind, don’t listen to the mounting excuses, keep turning the pedals and above all, remain patient’, I kept telling myself.
Apart from being the world’s most boring stretch of road, my memory of riding between Geelong and Melbourne remains particularly hazy. Probably the only thing I remember with any clarity was stopping for a calorie refuel at one of the service stations and trying my best to get out of there before I coated the floor in all colours of the Gatorade rainbow.
I feels strange to say this given my usual gluttonous diet, but I had started to find it particularly difficult to keep anything containing sugar or carbohydrates down. In fact, I was having trouble eating or drinking in general. This was far from ideal given my worsening energy depletion and the fact I still had another 2 hours before the ordeal was over.
Just as things started to go a little pear-shaped for me I saw a sight that gave me an injection of vitality. In the distance, the fading light of day was giving way to the lights of the Melbourne skyline. Considering I had started the ride in another state over 400km away, having a visual on my end goal was a particularly welcome sight.
Much to my dismay though, the lights of the city’s skyscrapers dangled in front of me like the proverbial carrot for what seemed like an eternity. My warped mind continued to play tricks on me with repetitive visual glitches in my surroundings and cramping continued to hinder my tempo.
But before I knew it I found myself working through the inner western suburbs of Melbourne. I was quite thankful not to have done too much riding through Melbourne itself because the stop/start nature of city cycling washed off my average speed (even after 14 hours!) Not only that but unclipping and standing at the lights was a real challenge — I had to concentrate hard on not falling over because my balance had strangely abandoned me.
I pushed into the familiar territory of the Melbourne CBD before rising up to Collingwood where, after 436km and 14 hours 24 minutes on the bike, I finally got the opportunity to turn off my Garmin, my legs and my mind.
Lying in bed that night was such a relief. Knowing I had successfully completed the task I had set out to achieve was an amazing feeling, not to mention the welcome comfort of now being clean, warm, comfortable and horizontal!
In taking on such a challenge you certainly ask a lot of your body but if you’ve done the right amount of preparation it will look after you well. In extending yourself you also find out a lot about your mental composure that you would not otherwise learn. It’s immensely liberating to find the key to unlock the psychological gate between you and your end goal. Not falling for the trickery of the defeatist inner-self is certainly part of it.
Most importantly though, in throwing down a personal gauntlet you push the boundaries of what you believe you can achieve as an individual. Sure, I made it through what I had set out to do, but as I lay there at the end of a long day I couldn’t help but think: if I had been successful in achieving what I set out to do, had I not, in theory, been unsuccessful in finding the limits of my own ability? In other words: could I have gone further?
I hope someday I will find the answer to that question and I would encourage you to do the same.
You can find the Strava file for Dougie’s incredible ride here. 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.