115 kms (71 miles)
We’re pedaling up through the bush on a gentle uphill, the tires emitting white noise as they part the sandy granite on the track. The sun is warm, enveloping, continuing on its trajectory toward longer, hotter days. The high will be in the 80s today, the first time since last autumn. And the wattles are all in bloom – a yellow pox of pollen spread across the slopes of the hills like a histamine rash on skin.
We’ve missed most of spring and many of these perfect, sunny days. We missed a lot of winter, too – there were a lot of gorgeous days and not much of the rain that was predicted. I have not been on the bike in two months. Work consumed my life and immune system in June, and my health spiraled right down. By the time July and August came, my life was just work, eat, sleep, repeat. I did not have enough energy to do anything else. I was a zombie doing long hours on a major project that finally concluded at the end of September.
The coronavirus has made time move in strange ways. Add in working long hours and spending 22 hours a day in a 10 X 10 foot room, and I feel like the seasons moved right on by without my notice. My world reduced to feeling like shit and getting the work done.
And so, I have today, Friday the 2nd of October off, because I have time-off-in-lieu out the wazoo and that big project is finally finished. It’s a breather before we dive into all the projects that got put on hold for the urgent one. I don’t know how much longer my body can take this. If there was food or drink or drugs that did such horrible things to your health, your doctor would tell you to cease absolutely and without delay. So at some point, I’m going to have to be done.
We head off toward Eldorado on roads we’ve now ridden many times. The gravel is still riding good – we keep getting small amounts of rain once or so a week. They are predicting a bunch of rain with La Nina going forward, but we’ll believe it when we see it. They said we’d have a wet winter and we were below average for precipitation every month.
I get swooped by six magpies in the first 19 kms. None of them hit my helmet though, so I don’t mind the ones that are all swoop and no contact. We only see a few cars, and they all give me plenty of room. I can tell I’ve done nothing but sit in a desk chair the past few months as I fight into a moderate wind, but it always feels good to be on the bike. Really, this is what I was meant to do in life – just ride.
I stop in Eldorado for an ice cream bar. Yes, I’m still social distancing. But, we haven’t had any virus cases in my region since April, and even then, it was just two people who were returned travelers (not community transmission). They have been testing the sewage, and coming up with nothing, for 4-6 weeks now. So I’m comfortable enough that I’ll mask up, go in the shop, sanitise my hands on the way in, touch one freezer handle with my left hand, pay with Paywave with a card in my right hand, and sanitise hands on the way out. I’m careful, but for the moment, I’m okay with a short jaunt into the shop (particularly because no one else is in there at the same time).
There is a big sign outside the shop though that says DO NOT ENTER if you are from Melbourne with the shop asserting the right to check driver’s licences to prove a local address. I guess I don’t look classy and snooty enough to be a Melbourne woman because the shop proprietor just asks how I’m going and never asks where I’m from. I guess a lot of us feel pretty safe at the moment, but there are probably a lot of vulnerable people like me who will retreat again once the Melbourne people (where all the cases in the 2nd wave were concentrated) are allowed to leave the city.
I take the ice cream down to the creek and give the guys a float while I consume the treat. The creek has plenty of flow, even though it hasn’t rained in a week. It is pleasant there in shade with the sound of the water rushing by and the birds in the trees. I could easily spend the rest of the day here, just lying in the shade in the sand. My energy levels are incredibly crap and I don’t feel all that stellar. I feel like I could sleep and sleep and sleep for months. And the guys look pretty relaxed out there on the water.
But we all want to ride, so after about 30 minutes, I pack everything up, and we take off over the causeway and start into our first new track. We head up Lonnie’s Gap Road on the western edge of a flat valley between granite ridges. There are a few properties in the centre of the narrow valley, and the gravel road is in good condition.
The grass is a bright, glowing green. The trees down low are open and it is a nice, gentle ride up the valley. The bright yellow wattles dot the hillsides amongst the pale green eucalypts. It feels fresh and alive – such a contrast to the crackly, dry understory of summer.
Eventually the main valley ends and two smaller drainages branch off. Our road curves left and up the side branch of the valley. The track gets very eroded and steep, and I have to get off and push. Luckily, there is some grass and uneven ground on the edge, so I can get a foothold and not slide backwards as I drag the bike up the slope. That is how you can tell steep from very steep – steep hills you push the bike up; really steep hills you drag the bike up.
Gosh, dragging a bike up a hill is so much more fun as an arm workout than the hand weights I’ve been using to try to keep movement in my frozen shoulder (when I got really sick again in July and the inflammation ramped up, it started to get pretty stiff – but not painful – again).
We stop near the top of the climb once we’ve hit Ramsays Track (another new one). I sit on a log for a bit while I drink water and eat a banana. I’m really trying not to overdo things.
We get to the top of the ridge as the track curves through the forest. Then we get a gentle descent across large granite slabs interspersed with open and grassy forest. There are rounded boulders that look like giant wombat droppings. The boulders sit in ragged rows on the top of the ridges that fall away into more drainages. There are all sorts of wildflowers – there’s such a short burst of good, wet, warm weather before the long months of dryness and heat, that everything takes advantage of the temperate conditions all in one go.
We wander along the plateau, heading up on Moss Road for awhile before descending for a bit. We pass the turn-off to Holden’s track. The name plate has predictably been stolen by some arsehole bogan – but the post is still there. We skip that road and head on to the Snow Road.
We pass by Flat Rock – the slab of rock is the entire slope of the hill. It has a very old sign leaving you no doubt that it is, indeed, a big flat rock.
The 4WD and motorbike crowd appear to enjoy ‘hill-climbing’ that slab – there is an obvious path to the top that is devoid of any vegetation.
We roll on into another drainage, dropping beneath ridges and leaving me to wonder how difficult the climb will be back up to the plateau.
We stop for another float and rest. There is a little dam on a small ephemeral creek that probably only has water for a few months each year.
Then we climb through open forest with thigh high weeds back to the top of the plateau. The climb is not nearly as bad as I thought it might be. But the weeds are so much worse than you’d think they might be. You don’t realise how much of the groundcover is weeds when everything has died back in summer.
There is plenty of water in Clear Creek along the Old Coach Road. If the sun weren’t starting to get such an angle to it, it would be worth another float!
We get to the turn-off to the Barambogie Road. I could climb up this and link up some more tracks – adding about 10kms to the ride. As much as I am tempted, I know that I am only supposed to do about 80 percent of what I think I can do. So I stand there and look at the road for a few minutes and then do the sensible and smart thing. I head on down the road that will take us off the plateau and on toward town. Damn. It sucks to get old and wise… and sick.
We roll on out of the national park and down the tree-lined Settlers Road. We do get a nice, long straight drop on Settlers Road in the park that has a couple rises that we rollercoaster right over at 50 kph. I am just hoping my bike handling skills are like muscle memory and my brain and reflexes will know what to do with the surface – it’s slippery gravel with wheel-grabbing sand patches and occasional little erosion ditches.
We emerge unscathed and ride straight to the motel since it is on the way into town (it is next to the rail-line, so don’t stay here if trains every few hours will disturb you). The owner can’t believe I’ve ridden 55 kms today. She asks if I need a drink of water. It just goes to show how little physical activity the general public does that a whopping 55kms seems like a major undertaking.
It also shows why people can’t understand that I actually feel like crap if I am able to do such things. They don’t understand that normally I could ride 3X that distance with a full load with no problems. They don’t understand how desperate I am to ride when they would just stay home in bed if they felt like I feel today. They overestimate my energy and underestimate how crap I feel. Invisible, chronic illnesses suck.
I walk into town to procure dinner. I wander around the supermarket but don’t feel inspired by any of the offerings. I end up with some rice crackers, a bit of brie and a frozen packet of Mediterranean veggies (potato, cherry tomato, onion, zucchini, basil with a sauce of some sort). I’ll end up microwaving two small batches of veggies at a time using the two coffee cups in the room. It is a six-course dinner featuring a starter of cheese and crackers and 5 courses of small serves of veggies. When there’s a will, there’s a way.
First stop is the bakery. They do not have caramel slice!! That is my whole reason in coming. I’ve discovered that my digestive life is better if I severely limit wheat products and sugar in my diet. So I eat very few treats or bakery products these days. I had thought a caramel slice would be a nice treat. So I end up with a hedgehog slice (these are a good stand-by as they have good structural integrity that can stand up to rugged gravel roads) and a peppermint slice.
We then take off with the wind that is already kicking up at 7.30am. We head along the B2 access road, then Rogers Lane. Today we are linking together a bunch of the small laneways and gravel roads that run through the hills at the edge of the national park. We could ride the freeway access road a few kms to the west, as we have many times before. But today, before the flies and the heat start for the year, we’re going to go get those ‘new’ roads.
Orchard Lane is a narrow two-track that climbs the side of a valley. Small hills create a lumpy topography – it’s not just a U-shaped wide, broad valley – but still, the laneway is on the edge of the Rocky Creek valley. Rocky Creek is a small creek that runs on granite slabs and through the thousands of years of topsoil deposition.
We cross two ephemeral feeder creeks along the way, both times splashing through the deep puddles where the creek crosses the track. Most times of the year you would come off the downhill and hit a thick patch of sand there, get a bit squirrelly, and pop out the other side on the uphill. But today there’s a big splash as you hit the sandy bit, not quite knowing the depth of the pooled water. Feet get a bit wet and the squirrelly moment holds a bit more of the “oh shit” feeling since you know coming off the bike will mean getting you and the gear wet.
At the top of Orchard Lane, which is a really nice climb and perhaps a preferred western approach to this bit of the national park, we stop for some of the peppermint slice. I do not expect it to hold up to the heat and road jiggling as well the hedgehog, given that the peppermint layer is gooey and could just slide right off given the right conditions.
We have a perfect little spot to stop amongst the granite boulders and open trees, overlooking green paddocks scattered with trees. The peppermint slice is really sweet! When you don’t eat much sugar, sugary things can almost make your eyes water! We’ll take the hedgehog slice home and put it in the freezer as next week’s treat.
We are at the top of the valley and wander along on the higher slopes for a bit before the road begins to drop. We pass by the bush reserve (someone I know from uni days says there’s a good spot to camp up top with nice views), but we don’t stop today. We’ll do that at a less snakey time of year. I’m also needing to get home by noon, so I can call my parents, but we’ll incorporate a stop in another ride at some point.
We roll on down and come to a flatter part of the valley. There’s a big gas compressor station (or something to do with the high pressure gas line) for the big gas lines they put in underground a few years ago. It really detracts from that beautiful green valley, but maybe that’s the only farmer that was willing to sell his land.
We roll on into another valley branch, sticking to the slopes of the hill that holds the Springhurst mobile phone tower. You can see this hill clearly from the freeway – we’re just riding the back side today. The downhill keeps us at about 30kph cruising speed. It’s a lot of little rocks compacted, so the guys keep vibrating up and I keep reaching forward and pushing them back down into the bag. I don’t want to lose a crew member today!
We eventually get spit out at Vipond Road. This road is dead-straight on my map… which means it goes straight up a hill at a very steep, wheel-spinning grade. But I am very proud of my dodgy body which lacks any muscle or fitness. We make it up that really steep and slippery grade. It also reinforces what a good move it was to go to a mtn-bike chainset. That thing really can climb walls.
We descend off the hill and climb another – deep in the hills that roll off the range in the national park. We find ourselves on Naylors Road, climbing to the top of another rolling hill. It has mostly been good gravel today – very few corrugations. So when I crest the top of that hill and see that there is a long drop to another creek with just a few small flat sections… I just let the bike run. I push the guys down in the bag, zip them a bit tighter and then get my weight back. We fling down that gravel like it is sealed bitumen. Yee-ha! Luckily there isn’t much sand in the causeway at the bottom and we fling right up the hill on the other side to Cemetery Road.
We start climbing gently up another valley past open paddocks and crumbling sheep shearing sheds. The one property along here has two huge dams on the creek and a huge number of bales packaged up in silage wrap. They have got plenty of spare feed.
I stop at the cemetery which is still in use, still has plenty of space and still has plenty of bright, fake flowers placed on various graves. However, the peaceful country scene is obliterated by some young calves that look freshly weaned screaming at me. I do not speak cattle, but these very young calves, come running up to me and follow me all along the fenceline, and I’m sure they are saying, “GIVE ME BACK MY MOMMY! WHERE IS MY MOMMY!”.
We climb further up until we come to Cluggs Road. We could continue climbing up this into the national park, or onto Campbell Road, and eventually come out at Byawatha or Eldorado again. Instead I head back out toward the freeway, wanting to get some miles down and get home by noon. Cluggs Road is clay with big rocks in it, so it is a bumpier ride downhill. I aim for the smoothest line, but we are all ready for something smooth by the time we get back to the bitumen. This may be a less favoured approach to the national park from the west.
We sail along with little effort along the frontage road. The tailwind has now picked up to 25-35kph and is a big help. We turn down Carrarramungee Road and I get ready for the assault. I haven’t ridden this road in spring in a few years because the magpies along here are atrocious for about a 2km stretch.
I can report that nothing has changed. I am pretty sure this is just like a bogan family that all live in the same street causing an intergenerational public nuisance. It’s as if the offspring each year just move to the next tree down the road so that there is a full stretch of attacking, obnoxious birds.
Yep, the first one swoops me a few times with a particular style for a bit, then tag teams the next bird who comes and swoops me and cries out with that distinctive cackle. Then, he flies up to a tree and tag teams the next one. This goes on for five birds worth. Because I’m riding east and the sun is to the north, I can watch their shadows and determine how close they are swooping and what particular attack style they’ve adopted. At least they do not hit me. As long as you don’t shit on me or come in contact with me, swoop away, I don’t care.
We head on down toward the rail trail. This one is a lot more popular than the one out of Wodonga, but it really isn’t all that special. The lower part of the trail through the lower parts of the Ovens valley is pretty boring, but we do ride the one nice little bit today. There’s a short stretch with a bit of incline and decline where the trail crosses Reedy Creek. There is plenty of shade and a picnic table here. Much of the year, Reedy Creek isn’t flowing, but it’s still the best part on the lower trail.
Today the creek is flowing and the guys really, really would like a tether free float here. If it weren’t so windy, I would just call my parents from here while the guys had a float. But I’m afraid that should I call from here, all my parents will hear is the static sound of the wind over the phone mic. So we stop long enough for a banana, but that is all. We are forecast to get decent rain on Monday, and perhaps Thursday, so I promise them we’ll come back next weekend, as there will definitely still be water flowing.
We cut off from the rail trail before the section that has a bazillion tree roots making the track uneven. There is a sealed road that parallels that section, but there’s a bit of traffic along there that will skim you pretty close to show their displeasure that you are on the road instead of the rail trail. Luckily, a bit further to the south is another parallel road that is just a tiny track that is in good shape and rides fast. So I always take this track instead on my way home. It pays to have local knowledge!
So we ride down to Curran Track past a farmer out making hay while the sun shines before the forecast Monday rain. I don’t know why, but his runs northward he drives faster than his runs southward.
We roll along through the trees in the road reserve. This is such a tiny track that I once got a big surprise when I came across about eight guys and all of their utes at the side of the track. I never see anyone, and there was this big congregation of people standing next to a front end loader. From a distance it looked like they had a big rock in front of the loader. As I got closer, I could see that they were butchering a cow right there on the side of the track! They had all the hide peeled back (which is why the lump looked grey from a distance) but had not yet started to pull out its guts (thank goodness). Funnily enough, I surprised them just as much as they surprised me. None of us said anything, but we all waved at each other with rounded eyes with the look of surprise.
There are no surprises today and no more surprises the rest of the way home. The one magpie that was doing a helmet-hitting swoop back in July on one stretch is no longer out and about – wonder if he’s got empty nest syndrome now?
The Plough Inn at Tarrawingee is open again. It’s an old pub whose previous owners just couldn’t recover after flooding in 2018 caused a lot of damage. Because it’s a heritage-listed property, I’m sure repairs could be prohibitive. So it was closed for awhile, but some new people have taken it on. I wish them luck – it’s not easy to start a new business, let alone in a pandemic.
We power on toward home with the tailwind. We get home in time to unload the bike, shower and start rehydrating before my weekly call to my parents. The soft tissue of my butt will tell you we haven’t been on the bike in a while, but I’m pleased that my muscles don’t ache given the amount of climbing we did. I’m definitely very tired, but I was very tired before we started the ride, so I guess I’m pleased I’m not exhausted. I usually don’t get the big dip in energy after exertion for about 48 hours, so check back on Monday to see how I REALLY pull up from this ride.
Hopefully work won’t be quite so crazy going forward. And hopefully the chance to get more fresh air with the warmer weather and windows now open will help me recover. I have a four-day weekend over the 23rd of October, and another four-day weekend at the beginning of November. I’m starting to think about some gentle overnight rides I could do on those weekends. I’m so sick of being sick, but the cyclist gene is strong in me, and I’m always trying to figure out a way to spend time on the bike. Spring is a time of growth and energy – let’s hope I can regain energy as quickly as the plants are growing at this time of year!