Here is a teaser summary of life on the forest roads for January. I’ll write up the trip properly when the weather turns and I wrap up this part of the tour.
I’m currently in Bairnsdale where the super-knowledgeable and helpful staff at Bairnsdale Bikes are hooking me up with a new chain, spare tubes and a few other bits and pieces of maintenance. The vibe there is awesome and they even have a coffee bar if you need a caffeine fix. So give them a visit if you are in that town and need some bike love.
January has been a dream come true. The type of riding I’ve always wanted to do became possible with Atlas, and I’ve thrown myself into it.
We’ve been doing hard climbs and bombing down the hills on every possible variation of gravel known to be laid and eroded.
We got up before 5am and rode water source to water source each day during the 10-day heatwave, slogging up out of a creek valley on tyre-spinning grades, roller-coastering the steep ups and downs along the ridge, and then flying over rough rock and loose gravel to the next valley. We did go 11 days without a proper shower at one point. But grinding out the ridge climbs for hours at a time, flying down to a campsite in the early arvo, cooking up lentils and rice on the stove, and sleeping every night in my tent is everything I think a tour should be. I have so loved being out in the forest.
My worst nightmare came true, however, when I came down with COVID deep in the bush. I had only been indoors for a total of 15 minutes on the trip, but the visibly ill checkout chick at the corryong IGA was only wearing a mask over her mouth. The transaction took about 3 minutes and I was wearing an N95 mask, but it was enough. 2 days later, a lumpy throat and a niggle I couldn’t swallow arrived. Let it be a lesson: just imagine the viral load I could have gotten if I were sitting at the table next to her in a restaurant and neither of us were wearing masks!
Luckily, I only had a mild sore throat for 3 days. I did hard rides those days, however, because I had to – I wanted to get to a town in case I got worse. I scrubbed 2 days off the route and took 3 days off at a public campground in a tiny town of 200. I felt okay, so continued.
One morning, a couple days later, a blister the size of a 50-cent piece appeared on my tyre – this will cause a blowout if you continue to ride on it. So I gingerly rode back to the nearest town, booked into a caravan park, talked my way onto a reservation only bus service to the next town, went to a tiny kayak/bike/paddleboard shop who miraculously happened to have a tyre that would work, and caught the bus back that night.
COVID was still giving me 3 hours of headache and fatigue each arvo, so I took it as a sign and took off 3 more days.
But then I was fine. No symptoms whatsoever after day 9. I’m still keeping cumulative climbing down and taking rest days frequently to be extra careful though.
But we are back to big climbs and people in disbelief when they see me high on a ridge deep in the forest on a pushbike with gear. When I speak to people, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, and tell them where I’m heading or have been, they inevitably say, “Ohhh, that is steep!”
At least 4 people have said, “You must be a very keen cyclist!” Yes, I am. Never underestimate a middle-aged chick who spent 4.5 years feeling like shit.
The best part though is just being on the bike. I’ve always been a cyclist – from age 5. I love nothing more than being on a bike. I have met a few people in life who ride for fitness – the bike is a means to an end for their need to have a ‘nice’ body.
I’ve never understood that. For me, the bike has always been the means, the ends, and everything in between. I just love to pedal, and pedal and pedal.
I have loved these hard slogs, wobbling up and over embedded human head-sized rocks while on a 12 percent grade. I’ve loved trying to maintain my balance on the steep grades with loose shale scattered all over the surface. I’ve loved learning how the bike handles at 50 kph on a downhill strewn with big, loose rock and assorted size gravel. I love the steep downhills where the tears wedge out of the corner crease of your eye only to be followed by a steep uphill demanding full concentration to pick your line through the jumble of hard earth cobbled together to be called a road. I love the climbs that weave in and out of each drainage, ever ascending to four-digit metres.
I love taking in the views, reading the weather (no phone reception so no app assistance out here!), getting into camp, and setting the guys out for a float while I filter water, cook dinner, clean the drivetrain and set up the tent. I love cuddling down in the bag knowing I get to do it all over again the next day.
Life is reduced to such simplicity. It’s days and days of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. It’s feeling like I’m growing as a cyclist and improving my bike skills and achieving a point in my bike career where I feel confident to ride hard (for me) dirt roads and have the outdoor skills built that allow me to bring cycling and camping together in a very fulfilling way.
If this is all I could do for the rest of my days, I would die a very happy woman. This, to me, months of totally self-sufficient forest cycling, where you disappear into the bush for a week or so at a time, is the pinnacle of tour cycling.
And I’ve come back from absolute zero to get here. I am beyond grateful every day to be out here doing these rides. I can remember all those days, at least 1500, when I absolutely scraped myself out of bed. It brings happy and grateful tears to my eyes sometimes to think how far we’ve come.
My word recall is still crap, my short term memory is not the same, and my thermoregulation is still fucked, but I’ve made a full physical recovery (or remission). For now at least.
The good doctor in Melbourne said to expect a relapsing, remitting disease and to never expect more than 85 percent of previous capacity. But I’m back to 100%, and so grateful to have achieved remission with full capacity.
There have been days on the road in the past that have been perfect, where I could not think of a better place to be than right there, right then. Inevitably, those were the days on remote roads or landscapes with few humans. I remember one day in Wyoming feeling this way and thinking that it all boiled down to: I am Em. I am a cyclist. And I ride.
Well, nearly every day this month has felt that way. But, now, as an underestimated middle-aged chick on a mountain bike that rides steep shit, I think it goes like this: I am Em. I am a VERY KEEN cyclist. And I ride. Again.
See where we’ve been below. This is pretty accurate except for the first day out of Jindera where stupid RideWithGPS won’t let me route down the freeway no matter what I do.
Some other stats:
Days in a row without speaking to anyone: 2, 3 and 2
Days with no cars on the road: 8
Days of some rain: 4
Days of mostly rain: 3
Days of all dirt, no chipseal: 7
Number of nights in the tent in the bush: 14
Number of nights in the tent at a caravan park: 9 (would have been 3 or 4 if not for covid and the tyre blister)
Number of nights roofed accommodation: 2 (because the caravan park in Bairnsdale has shitty and unsecure tent sites, and I thought I could spoil myself after 24 nights in the tent. Plus, it’s a treat to myself because I celebrate 25 years since I first came to Oz on Wednesday, and I’ll be back in the bush then).