I’d never ridden further than 60 kilometres in one trip before. Riding the 100 kms from Sorrento to Melbourne last Sunday was always going to be difficult ask, especially with a poor fitness base and fairly inadequate lead-up. At 5-foot-10-and-a-half in the old and a portly 95 kilograms I’m hardly a specimen of physicality. ‘Cuddly’ I think they’d call me in the ‘personals’. I’m ashamed to reveal I’d only had a mere two rides in training, one 20km and one 50km. I was in complete denial as I departed home on my modest hybrid bike. My lovely wife – love her to death – insisted on a quick front-lawn snap, as memento, of course. Perhaps it was proof that I once tackled a major event and the participant number labelled on the card strapped across my handlebars and official lycra garb were the irrefutable evidence. I obliged and sucked my gut in for the pic as much as inhalation would allow.
I rode down to Queenscliff for the 7:00am Sorrento ferry, which was a leisurely 20-minute ride from home, a breeze-up if you like. I arrived at the ferry with a posse of locals with whom I’d be sharing mutual self-deprecation about poor fitness, lack of preparation, and about the monolithic exercise in front of us. The conversation across the bay was as calm as the water beneath. Upstairs, we updated our lives to one another. There was little thought for the ride until we alighted at Sorrento. The drawbridge-ramp of the ferry opened its gaping mouth and a hundred or so cyclists spewed out. I was now in a peloton. I’d never been in a peloton before. My cycling history was restricted to solo rides around rail or river trails. Group riding was a new phenomenon. I was in a peloton. I kept bleating it out to myself. ‘She bought a Jeep’, was rehashed as, ‘I’m in a peloton’. Snaking our way around and up the hill to Ocean Beach Road – main street Sorrento – we met a battalion of cyclists decked out in the major sponsor’s deep sky blue. I stock up on some free gel packs and energy bars – which seem more appropriate than the Snickers and Mars Bars I had stuffed down the rear pocket of my official rider’s jersey. I don’t recall if there was ever a plump Smurf with a goatee but the official starter/announcer at Sorrento, shrouded in the sponsor’s blue, joked to the adrenaline-fuelled hoard before him that Melbourne was only a mere 100km away. He thought he was funny, anyway. The hooter sounded and we rolled off through the starting gates that beeped at everyone to signify that the microchip in their number plate had been read and the clock was counting.
Peloton riding was better than I thought. There was plenty of banter and polite conversation, well at least while we all still had our breath, anyway. Blairgowrie, Rye and Tootgarook were blips on the map as we cycled through the first half an hour. Moderate signs of fatigue began to kick in. Breathing became slightly strained as a humorous thought came to me as our group passed a sign alerting all on-comers to the town of Rosebud. The thought of Citizen Kane, and Orson Welles’ parting word, immediately came to mind. Thankfully I was minus a snow globe and any thoughts of collapsing dead were allayed. There was relief ahead as Dromana’s official ATB pit-stop was quarter-time for the 100km eventers. Fluid-laden riders became frustrated by toilet closures. The Mornington Peninsula Shire was to receive some unkind feedback about inadequate public facilities. The male participants found relief among the tea-trees. The females were left to their own devices – a case of Frankston, or bust. There were water top-ups and gel bars consumed. The gel bars were a curious blend of what tasted like baby food with copious amounts of sugar added just to make it palatable. I trusted it to renew me for the second quarter. I reacquaint myself with my friends who I’d lost in the peloton cluster. They were going okay but I got a sense the day would be a long haul for them. Human etiquette said to stay with them. 100km cycle event etiquette gave the participant a bit more licence to bowl along at one’s own pace – well according to the pre-event criteria set down by my colleagues, anyway. It was clear among all of us there was no obligation for us to ride together. Being a one-pacer, I preferred it that way. I could gain a break as easy as have it gobbled up. Better to roll out and get to the finish in your own time than being mentally-fatigued worrying about those dragging the chain. The prevailing team view was to do it any which way you could. Oh, and have your own myki card as a back-up. There was always a train to Melbourne from Frankston. We exit Dromana and wind around to the foot of Mt. Martha. Now for those unfamiliar with the region, when I say ‘The foot of Mt. Martha’, please lose any idea of hairy, stage 1, Pyrenees-type climbs. It was a steady climb enough to sort out the mere mortals participating in this event, such as moi.
It was clear that I bore no obvious threat to the polka-dot jersey as I inched up to the ‘summit’. I marked my fellow cyclists who glided past me with consummate ease. Many carried more puddin’ than I do and with all due respect, some had chalked up a few more birthdays too. I knew my training regime was lacklustre but what was it that anchored me from the hundreds of riders zooming past? Then it dawned on me. The inhibitor was my hybrid bike. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. ‘Fools’, ‘rush in’ and ‘tread’ being the operative words at play here as I soon realised my impulsion to enter an arduous event such as this sans the right equipment was indeed foolhardy. My hybrid tyre tread was too broad for road use. Its flared edges, ideal for my native, gravel, rail trail, applied too much friction between rubber and asphalt. What a fool. Amateur! The bloody-minded, she’ll-be-right attitude was biting me fair on my increasingly-sore buttocks. Lesson learned. And to think that I was once a boy scout. Sorry Baden.
With the main ascent behind me, and frustrated by the disappointment that no-one handed me newspaper to stuff in my jersey for the steep descent on the other side, I pushed on understanding that I was indeed amateur. The journey thus far had taken a pleasant easterly approach but the Mt. Martha ascent took a nasty swing ‘a gauche’ to the north and this was where I discovered the meaning of the word ‘headwind’. For the next 70 kms we were inconveniently stymied by a bitterly strong breeze that funnelled down the six-lane, Nepean Highway quicker than its speed limits. The gently undulating plateau of upper Mornington offered little respite. “Frankston, where are you?”
The steep descent into the Frankston pit-stop watered the eyeballs (note to self for next year’s renewal – wear protective eyewear when tearing downhill at break-neck speeds). After the obligatory intake and outtake of fluid at half-time, it was time to press on to Mordialloc. The premiership quarter was all ahead of me. Congestion seemed to form naturally as traffic lights, as well as the recent Frankston pit-stop, brought a lot of the field back to the also-rans. It was lovely to take a trail behind a fellow amateur and enjoy a nice cart along a now-narrower version of the Nepean. The word ‘slipstream’ was playing out around me. I was buried deep inside the peloton. Sweet relief. Traffic lights were both welcomed and shunned. As much as they held large clusters of cyclists up for me to tack on to, equally they distanced me from them. On several occasions I found myself fronting a red light and hence leading the peloton. Every rider must do their time, apparently. Thinking I’d dodge the role of the ‘La tete de la peloton’, I toyed with the idea of calling up a new leader from behind me by motioning with a wave of the hand. But I was too afraid I’d receive a competitive shake-of-the-head refusal and then I’d find myself remonstrating in animated gestures and dialogue. It wasn’t worth the stress. The solution was simple, just drop anchor and wait for a frustrated participant to swing around to the death-seat and tackle the lead. I’ll happily hand-up and the problem is solved. Pretty soon I’d conveniently positioned myself in ‘La derrière de la peloton’ in the smooth ride into Mordialloc.
I exchanged fluids in Mordialloc and scoffed the last of the energy bars. My final Snickers bar was savoured right down to the last peanut and with that I hit Beach Road for the final leg into Alexandra Gardens. Tiring riders dropped behind me and swarms of well-equipped teams talked in unfamiliar tongues as they surged by with astounding physical and psychological presence. These large teams, whom I assumed were riding the 250km event, were followed by support vehicles with bikes on rooves. These characters were serious eventers. I was happy to steer clear of them and had no realistic chance of tacking on to their slipstream anyway. The real dilemma was to find a one-paced battler like myself to cart me into Melbourne – which I did. An oblivious old chap quite accidently obliged my appeal and I took a lovely sit behind him into Elwood. I should’ve thanked him as he peeled off for a breather at that point. He helped me through a tricky 10 kms there. It crossed my mind at that point that I must send a communique to the Macquarie Dictionary publishers. I felt that the word ‘tailwind’ didn’t exist and must be removed from the lexicon. I’m yet to hear back from them.
The effects of gel packs, Snickers and Mars Bars had worn off by now. The last 10 kms was powered purely by adrenaline. I was self-sufficient on this natural supplement as I nestled deep in a peloton for the run home. It was amazing to get an applied sense of the human mind and body at work under duress. The end was so close I could touch it. My legs seemed to find another gear and my mind possessed greater clarity. Turning off Beaconsfield Parade for the run into South Melbourne I felt myself getting rather emotional. Sheer joy overwhelmed the senses. Pretty soon, I was riding along City Road with a pack of about thirty, unfamiliar riders. Those last few kilometres were pretty special. There were plenty of pats on the back and well-wishes. “Good on ya, mate. Well done.” I wanted us all to embrace as one, arm-in-arm, as we pedalled down toward Alexandra Avenue before the final swing into the Gardens. It was like our Champs De Elysees. Alas, a red light broke up our peloton. Some of my new-found friends remained adrift at the lights, whereas those that snuck through tore off for home. Quite miraculously, I was a solitary figure savouring the moment as I peeled around to the 200m finishing straight. The sponsor-blazoned gantry set among the leafy surrounds was an awesome sight. I wanted to thrust both fists in the air as the polite crowd of several hundred well-wishers, looking for someone other than me, applauded and cheered. They acknowledged the feat. I held back tears. Humbly, I pedalled through the arch and dismounted. A polite young volunteer came forth and issued my participant’s medallion and offered warm, heartfelt congratulations. Short of breath, I failed to thank him for his voluntary work. He’d understand. Thankfully, there was post-event sustenance freely available. I’ve never enjoyed a pumpkin and spinach sandwich so much. In fact, I’ve never had a pumpkin and spinach sandwich. I downed a couple of bottles of an event sponsor’s product and was met warmly by my wife and son who’d made their way into the event compound. We hugged and waited for the remainder of our group to arrive. On dismount all our team embraced, shook hands and shared stories. We all had a similar tale to tell. After the last of the social graces had been issued, my wife, son and I exited the compound and made for the car. There was a touch of the John Wayne’s about my tardy, bow-legged gait back along the Yarra to the car. After 100kms, knowing my inadequate fitness level, I was relieved to be walking at all, and relieved to have made it all the way – in 6 hours and 21 minutes, by the way. My first reaction post-race was that I’d ticked an item off the bucket list and that would be the last ATB I’d do. A day or two later, however, I’m ready to do it all again next year. Only I won’t be riding a hybrid bike next time.