Day 1 – Albury to Wangaratta

Sunday February 17, 2013, 70 miles (112 km) – Total so far: 70 miles (112 km)

I’m rolling at first light – 6.19 am. We live on the north side of Albury, a town of 50,000, ten kilometres from the Murray River, the state border with Victoria. Verne, the turtle, and I ride in shades of grey and and a calm warmth that foreshadows how hot it will get today.

We take the bike path along the Lincoln Causeway over the Murray River and into Wodonga, Albury’s twin city of 30,000 on the Victorian side of the border. The first rays of light begin to heat the day as we turn onto McKoy Street which becomes Plunkett Road – a frontage road paralleling the freeway to Melbourne. All is quiet this early Sunday morning and we are absolutely thrilled to be on the road after 2.5 years of dreaming about being on a bike tour again.

This frontage road will more or less take us all the way to Wangaratta. It will have different names; it will sometimes be on the east side of the freeway and sometimes west. At times it is close to the freeway and sometimes further away – but all you have to do is follow the small brown lines on the RACV maps and cross the freeway a few times and it is a great alternative to riding the freeway. It is a major training route for local cyclists. I will be passed by 14 cyclists between Wodonga and the Eldorado exit and will only see four cars in the same distance. One cyclist even slows to ride with me and have a chat as we ride into Chiltern on the old highway.

Chiltern is an old gold mining town with a lot of pride. The main street is nicely preserved and there is a takeaway shop/milk bar and a bakery on the main street and public toilets just off the main road. Barnawatha and Chiltern are the only places to refill water bottles on the way to Wangaratta – so it’s a good idea to top up here.

Chiltern, Victoria. Public water tap available at the park for refills.

After Chiltern, it’s more undulating hills and rural scenery that looks so dry and parched after our hot, dry summer that I’m almost afraid to breathe lest it start a fire. It doesn’t seem like it’d take much more than a stray blink.

Typical scenery on the way from Albury to Wangaratta.

There is a killer and unexpected short hill just after the Springhurst exit. I confirm the new small chainring has a great little granny gear and doesn’t seem prone to throwing the chain when shifting from the middle ring. Great!

Nice views from a high point near Springhurst. For camp tonight, we’ll be heading up to the north end of that line of hills in the distance.

By the time we get to the Eldorado exit, and the longest sign name on the freeway between Melbourne and Wodonga, it is getting hot. My sweat runs down my stomach and my sunscreen collects in the creases of my elbows. Ugghhhh. It is only around 11 am. I just want to yell, “FUCK YOU AUSTRALIAN SUMMER!!” What an unpleasant summer this one has been – and I feel like I’m pushing my luck starting out on a tour when the forecast for the next 7 days has highs of 35C (95F) each day.

Yes, that is one long name on that sign. That’s not even the full name for the road. You need to add the word “Estate” after the C-word. Turn left here, then turn right in a few kilometres onto the Byawatha Rd to avoid the freeway. If you want a direct, paved route into Wang, you need to get on the freeway here.

The heat starts to drag me down. I re-sunscreen. I ride slower, even though I’ve had a nice tailwind since Chiltern. Of most concern is my left achilles tendon – it is not happy AT ALL, and has not been happy for most of the day. I’m loving the idea of this bike tour – but I’m not loving the ride at this exact moment.

I drag the rest of the way into Wangaratta. I hop on the bike path at Bowser (highly recommended – the road into town from the north has heavy traffic, crosses several bridges and has no shoulder), riding the river levee into Apex Park. I’ve done 55 miles, it’s noon, it’s 34C, and I’m ready to be done.

However, I’ve organised to have Nigel meet with me at a campground in the Warby National Park about 15 miles northwest of town. He is bringing me dinner, a frozen ice bottle for my medication to replace the one I’ve used today, and water for a shower and for drink refills. There is no water at the campground, and there will be no water all the way to Shepparton on the little roads tomorrow. He’ll camp with me for the night and head home tomorrow while I head on.

So after snacks, a rest and a water refill, I drag myself back out there. To get to the bike path along C374 (Wangaratta-Yarrawonga Rd) from the main street, take Templeton St down to the railway and an underpass. Then turn right on Gray St, which turns into Evans St. This runs into Edwards St (C374). In town there is a shoulder or bike lane; once you get to the new housing estates the path will start on the east side of the road.

The nice tailwind we had is now a headwind. It is 37C. I am out-of-shape. I am hot. I am tired. I am done. But I push on. The paved bike path turns into dirt and eventually becomes sandy single-track. Uggh. Still it is better than getting out there on that very busy, no shoulder highway. So we ride the bike path till its end, then get out on the highway for the 3 kilometres we have to be there. It’s a scary few kilometres and I keep a constant on eye on the mirror so I can hit the dirt ‘shoulder’ whenever two cars are going to meet where I am. I hit the dirt 6 times in 3 kilometres. No fun.

The bike path along C374 starts out paved. It then becomes nicely graded dirt. Eventually it deteriorates to this sandy single-track and then ends after the river access turn-off. C374 is best-avoided if possible – lots of speedy traffic and no shoulders.

Nigel passes me and pulls over to check on me. He goes on to the campground and Verne and I finally make it to the back road (Boweya Rd). Ahhh, this is the type of road I’d been looking forward to! But I’m too hot to really enjoy it, and I just travel from shade patch to shade patch, resting any time there is thick shade.

Boweya Rd. Ah, this is the type of road I was looking forward to – too bad I’m too hot to enjoy it. The snake sign in the foreground (these are one of the few that aren’t a danger to humans) and the kangaroo sign way down the road is for my American friends.

At mile 66 (100 kilometres), I’ve had it. My mind is fuzzy, the world feels very far away, drinking water makes me feel queasy, and my eyeballs feel like they’ve receded into my head. I had a scary experience with heat stroke in 2003, and I know that I’m experiencing the beginnings of heat exhaustion. This is the beginning of trouble. I take off my helmet. I’m pro-helmet, but the biggest danger at the moment is the heat, not a crash at the pathetic speed I’m travelling or an encounter with the non-existent traffic. At least that headwind is cooling!

At mile 68.something we start up the final hill and I just get off and walk. Verne, the turtle Commander, says this is okay. Finally, we get to the turn-off for the campground and blessedly it is in good condition with not too many corrugations and only a few sketchy and squirrely moments through sand.

The road into the “The Forest Camp” campground is in good condition and is about a 5-minute ride downhill through scenery like this.
Rolling into the campground, I manage a smile but I feel pretty shit.

When I get to the campground, Nigel is all set up with his tent and immediately gets me naked and pours water all over me to cool me down. He was the one who debated about calling the ambulance when I was lying unconscious on our bathroom floor in 2003, so he takes the heat seriously, too.

For the rest of the evening we hang out naked (there is absolutely no one around) in the 35C heat and periodically stand on the picnic table to pour water over the other person. I have no appetite, my achilles hurts, and I’m doubting I want to do this tour if the next 8 days are supposed to be this hot.

Naked Nigel. When it’s still 35C (95F) at 7pm and there’s no one around, you might as well hang around camp without clothing.

In the morning, after I’ve tossed and turned all night in the heat, I roll over and tell Nigel, in tears, “I can’t do this. I’m not fit enough to carry all that extra water I need when there’s nowhere to refill through the days. I can’t freecamp when it’s this hot – I need some sort of way to cool off after the ride. And that ice bottle was melted by 11 yesterday – I can’t keep the medication cool when it’s this hot.”

Nigel says, with a hug, “Ah, it’s okay, hon’. I’ll drive you to Shepparton to get you past this section with no water. Take a rest day there for the achilles. Then maybe it won’t be so hot.”

We discuss it further – but I know deep in my heart that a 3-week, round-trip tour to the Grampians is just not going to happen in this heat and with this level of fitness. Maybe I could contend with one or the other – but not both. I’m so frustrated – I am NOT a person that quits EVER, but I’m also older now and don’t do stupid things as frequently anymore. I can see further into the future than I could in my 20s. I need to go home and re-think this ride. Freecamping and tiny backroads away from towns is just not wise for me in this heat that is forecast to continue. I can handle days of 35 to 37C when they are interspersed with cooler temps – but 35C and higher every day is no fun for me at all. Call me a wimp, but I just don’t do heat for extended periods.

So with head hung low, I retreat to Albury.

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