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Over the Hills and Far Away: 5 July 2014

by Michael Wong

othafa 2014 mw 01How cool is it to ride through the Grand Arch of Jenolan Caves! That’s the sell job. Andrew Hulme, Tom, Jerry and I took the bait, even though the route profile showed over 6,000 vertical metres of climbing. On a 300km training ride with Norman, I was quite chuffed having just ridden up Galston Gorge, “that’s our first climb out of the way!”, her quick response was, “that’s not a climb, wait until Bells Line and Mt Victoria”, as this illustrates it’s how you want to see it. Sometimes it’s better to not dissect things too much and ‘Just do it’.

The four of us, as well as a handful of riders showed up at Anzac Park, West Ryde for the 6am start of Over the Hills and Far Away 400/300/200 Audax ride. At 6:10am, Tim the ride organiser led us through the myriad of on and off road bike paths from West Ryde, Meadowbank (machine gun bridge), Bi-centennial Park, Olympic Park, Parramatta River foreshore, beside the M4, until we ran out of bike paths and had to ride on the M4 breakdown lane near Wentworthville. Although it was cold riding through parks and foreshores, the sounds of wildlife, bushland setting, views and vistas offered a pleasant distraction.

The section of M4 from Wentworthville to Blacktown was strewn with debris and crap, having to navigate through that mess trying to avoid a puncture was rather stressful. It was a miracle that we all got through that unscathed. From Blacktown to Penrith, the M4 was much cleaner and the smooth asphalt surface offered good riding. Although the sun was out, the stiff headwind made the climb up the Blue Mountains more difficult. Andrew and I stopped at a nice Blaxland Café for breakfast, whilst the others pushed on. That’s the last contact we had with any of the other riders. Our simple ride strategy was to try to complete the ride inside the 9am cut off on Sunday.

It was tough riding into a headwind on our way to the first checkpoint at Blackheath. Andrew and I took turns up front riding in single file to give each other some respite from the wind. The slow going made it felt like a long time getting to Leura, Katoomba, Medlow Bath before our arrival at Blackheath (107km at 12:07pm, 56 minutes inside the cut off time). Dumping our bikes outside a Café on the main street, the wind was so strong that we had to force the door open to get inside. After consuming another sumptuous meal, we psych ourselves before venturing outside.

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Our next checkpoint Jenolan Caves is only 63km away. The Mt Victoria descent was pretty scary due to the strong buffeting wind and Andrew handled it much better than me. It was a relief to finally turn off the main drag into Coxs River Road. The scenery, vistas, noise and smells along this road was simply wonderful. It gave us an intimate feel of rural NSW. The unsealed road brought us back to reality as concentration is required to pick the smoothest line and try avoiding the loose stuff that can bring the rider unstuck. (a MTB biker would probably pick the roughest line) Although there were corrugations, the road surface was dry and in pretty good nick. It was a relief to have ridden through the dirt road section unscathed.

As dark clouds loomed overhead, light rain started falling, we stopped to put on waterproof jackets plus everything warm we had. At the briefing before the start, Tim indicated that the maximum temperature forecast at Jenolan Caves was 7 degrees. Since we were still cold with every warm bit of gear on, getting wet could have had disastrous consequences of hypothermia forcing us to abandon the ride. Still some 25km from Jenolan Caves, the only option was to continue riding and hoped that the rain would stop.othafa 2014 ja 05

Luckily, the light rain stopped after about 20 minutes and we made it to Jenolan Caves after a hairy descent dodging cars and tourist coaches. After a brief stop at the Grand Arch for a couple of photos, we looked for a place to eat and to get out of the cold ASAP. With the restaurant closed, we found the Bar & Bistro in the Hotel.

We made our second checkpoint Jenolan Caves, (170km at 4:18pm, 62 minutes inside the cut off time). Andrew and I were so cold that the small heater in the room didn’t do much to warm us up. After a nice chicken parma meal with coffee, it was time to brave the freezing conditions outside and tackle the climb out of Jenolan to Oberon. On reflection, the climb out of Jenolan was the only time I felt warm and sweaty. Although the route to Oberon was undulating, it was mostly downhill and the wind direction was more side on. It was still slow going in the sleet and snow. Conditions were similar from Oberon to Tarana to Lithgow our next checkpoint.

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Although Lithgow was only 81km from Jenolan Caves, it took over 5 hours of hard slogging to get there, (251km at 10:40pm, 4 minutes inside) a very close call but we survived the cut off. At the time, I had forgotten that we had started 10 minutes later and Tim indicated that all the times would be pushed back accordingly. We stopped at the Lithgow Macca as that’s the only place we could get a meal. When you’re dog tired, any place serving hot food and drinks, and heated will do. A woman and her daughter at the counter told us that her car registered the outside temperature at 1 degree. Since it was still blowing a gale, the wind chill factor would have pushed the temperature lower.

Reluctant as we were to leave the warm confines of Macca, we dragged ourselves out to tackle the last big climb up Mt Victoria. The GPS route guidance took us through Hartley Valley Road and a section of unsealed road that we negotiated through safely. The climb up to Mt Victoria along Hartley Vale Road was relatively easy compared to the Jenolan Caves climb. It’s probably the easiest climb up to Mt Victoria out of the three options available, GWH and Bells Line. Andrew and I were relieved when we got to the top of Mt Victoria as we knew it’s mostly downhill to our next checkpoint at Penrith.

Our spirits picked up when we got back onto the GWH as we were feeling more confident of making it to Penrith before the 4:52am cut off. It was exhilarating riding as we hammered from Blackheath to Blaxland. Andrew was riding so strong that I was struggling to keep up. We received a couple of friendly honks from passing motorists, seeing two crazy cyclists out on the road when most sane people would have been asleep. We lost a bit of time at Blaxland missing the Wilson Way turn off that takes us into Emu Plains via Mitchells Pass, a one way road.

We made it to the Penrith checkpoint in good time, (343km at 3:36am, more than an hour ahead of the cut off). The attendant at the Servo was so impressed after signing our brevet cards that he offered us free coffee and doughnuts. We were very appreciative of such a nice gesture. With only 58km back to our starting point to complete the ride, we were feeling pretty good having endured many hours riding in trying conditions. Although we have maps and cue sheets printed out, it’s difficult to navigate and ride at the same time with them. So, we placed our complete trust on the TCX route guidance file provided by Tim the ride organiser. Andrew and I are very grateful that the route guidance was spot on and we completed our ride at 7:15am on Sunday morning (404.2km) the extra distance takes into account the few times we got a bit lost.

After getting our brevet cards signed at the Servo nearby to officially end our pain and suffering, we congratulated each other for completing a very challenging but satisfying ride!

Footnote:
Andrew reckons someone should give him a slap if he mentions another Audax ride!
The route of this Audax 400 ride takes you through some of the most stunning countryside you’ll ever see, and it would be great if it was scheduled at a time of year when the longer daylight hours and hopefully warmer temperatures allow riders to take in the magnificent views.


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