Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Great Southern Randonee 2008
In October 2001, fresh from London-Edinburgh-London and looking for my next randonneur challenge, I traveled to Melbourne, Australia for the 1200 kilometer Great Southern Randonnee (GSR). Despite being in relatively good shape, I came away with a Did Not Finish. I rode the first 500 kilometers of the ride under difficult conditions, including rain and 50-100kph headwinds. Of sixteen riders who started that year, seven were DNFs. I was the seventh rider to abandon; everyone who stuck it out just a bit longer was able to finish. As my Danish friend Stig Lundgard would remind me every time I saw him thereafter, quitting when I did was pretty stupid.
Despite the DNF, I had a great time in Australia. After abandoning the ride, I rode 250 kilometers back to the start, mostly on the course, but with a scenic detour. With tailwinds and nice weather (and a good night’s sleep), I thoroughly enjoyed the ride back, spending long periods at the manned controls and taking in the spectacular Great Ocean Road scenery. After the event, I had several opportunities to enjoy the company of the local audaxers, including on a nice ride partway around Port Philip Bay. My Audax Australia hosts were terrific in every respect.
Since 2001, the gut-gnawing memory of the DNF (to date my only DNF among ten 1200 kilometer or longer events) and the happier memories of riding and hanging out with the Australians have together exerted a strong pull to go back and ride the GSR again. The next edition was held in 2004 and I hoped to return then. Unfortunately, my 2004 randonneur season was shortened by injury after a 100 kilometer populaire, a 200 kilometer brevet, and a fleche. Returning to Australia that year was not an option.
2008 would bring the fourth running of the Great Southern and another chance at redemption. Already burning bright, my desire to return was stoked further by time spent with the Aussies at PBP 2007 and by the presence of old friends Peter and Barry Moore and new acquaintances Martin and Libby Haynes at the 2008 Cascade 1200, for which I was a volunteer.
To my dismay, 2007 ended and 2008 started with injury and my 2008 season was a bit challenged, to say the least. After a slow 24-hour 400 kilometer brevet and a similarly undistinguished time on the 600 kilometer brevet in our spring series and after being sick in June, I pulled out of the Rocky Mountain 1200 in July. I strongly suspect that skipping that ride was the correct decision, but I wasn’t particularly happy about it. Glowing reports from the participants only added to my grumpiness.
Our summer brevet series went a bit better, but culminated in a 600 kilometer brevet in September that I finished with less than an hour to spare. Despite the uninspiring time, the 600k actually boosted my confidence. I fought through a very deep low point before the overnight and finished a difficult course feeling pretty well. After the 600k, a few fun rides and permanents with friends kept me tuned up and brought me to the time for the GSR.
Before the Start
The randonneur (or audax, as the Brits and the Aussies say) club in the Australian state of Victoria owns a place as one of the premier randonneur clubs in the world. Each year it ranks at or near the top of the ACP points ranking of brevet participation. They have an extensive and diverse ride calendar and some of the most accomplished and fun randonneurs that I know. Extraordinary hospitality must come with the territory. When I told organizer Peter Moore that I would be coming for the event, he let me know that club members would take care of picking me up at the airport, putting me up in Melbourne before and after the ride, and getting me and my bike to and from the start/finish in Aireys Inlet.
Trusting in the offers, I made no plans of my own. Audrey Adler, a randonneur friend from southern California, was on my flight from LAX. In addition to riding the 1000 kilometer GSR route, she was also visiting family in Melbourne. In baggage claim, she asked if I needed a ride from the airport. Her cousin could drive. No, I said; “I have a ride.” “With whom?” “Well, I don’t know for sure.” “We could give you a ride.” “Not really,” I said, “I don’t know where I’m going.” I’m sure she thought that I was leaving a lot to chance.
No worries, as they say. Andy Moore, another of the Magnificent Moore Brothers, awaited outside baggage claim. He loaded me and bike up in van, pointed the way to the correct passenger side of the car, and dropped me off at the Surrey Hills home of Peter and Eileen Donnan (and their charming son Stuart).
I would be in their care for the next two weeks, and they couldn’t have been nicer. They have travelled the world by bicycle and are stalwarts of the local audax community. Peter is a three time PBP veteran (1991, 1995, and 2007) and was the routesheet guru for the GSR.
Saturday before the ride (which would start Monday afternoon), Barry Moore collected me at the Donnans and we rode into downtown Melbourne and back. Less than 40 kilometers, but a great opportunity to catch up and to regain the feel of riding on the “wrong” side of the road.
Using the right-side version of the Take-a-Look mirror was a helpful reminder. On the way, we stopped into Peter Moore's bike shop, home to the largest collection of Brooks saddles that I've ever seen.
In South Bank, we met up - for coffee of course - with Hans Dusink, former president of Randonneurs Mondiaux and of Audax Australia, and Carol Bell, a US resident (DC area) New Zealand expat in town for the GSR. Hans and Carol planned to ride the GSR together. Carol turned in a smoking performance at the 2008 Cascade 1200, so I didn’t expect to ride with them much on the GSR.
Sunday, Peter Donnan, Jan Erik Jensen (a Dane living in Sweden), and I went to Aireys Inlet to spend the night before the start. Eileen and Stuart met us there, and we walked around, checking out the nearby lighthouse and giving me my first real experience with the flies of Australia, seen here dotting Jan Erik's back. Riding closed-mouthed is a good idea!
The GSR consists of an initial 210 kilometer loop to the east, followed by a 1000+ kilometer out-and-back to the west. A supported stop at Port Fairy (500km and 925km) divides the ride neatly into 500 kilometer, 425 kilometer, and 290 kilometer pieces. (My altimeter would later report that these segments had elevation gains of 4600 meters, 4200 meters, and 3200 meters, for a total elevation gain of 12,000 meters or 39,000 feet).
Although 500 kilometers is a lot for me to take on at once, the ride start would be at 5PM on Monday, so I thought it a reasonable plan to ride 500 kilometers straight through, to spend Tuesday night at Port Fairy, to ride a long (425km) day on Wednesday, to spend a late night back at Port Fairy again on Wednesday, and then to ride 300 kilometers to the finish Thursday and Friday. Bag drops would be available at Port Fairy and also at Port Campbell (370km/1050km). A bag left at the start could be accessed at 210km. Supported controls could also be found at Halls Gap (680km and 745km), Hamilton (840km), and Apollo Bay (1150km).
I didn’t have a very detailed ride plan in mind. My main plan was not to quit again. Recalling that I had quit just outside of Port Fairy in 2001, I told Martin and Libby Haynes, who would be volunteering there this time, that all I needed from them was to make sure that I kept going.
As always, I hoped to keep my stops efficient and try to build a time cushion that way, knowing that my on-the-bike speed was unlikely to be anything to write home about. Peter Donnan figured me out early, counting me among those randonneurs “who make up for lack of ability with lack of sleep.”
For food, I imported Ensure and Clif Blox from home with the idea that I could count on base calories from those items. I expected that I could carry food for the first 210 kilometers, restock at Aireys Inlet with food for the next 160 kilometers, restock at Port Campbell for the next 130 kilometers, restock at Port Fairy with emergency food for the next 425 kilometers, relying for that stretch on the legendary Pam and Grant control at Halls Gap and other roadside resources, restock again at Port Fairy for 130 kilometers, and finally restock at Port Campbell again for the last 160 kilometers. For rest, I planned to sleep at Port Fairy twice (at 500km and at 925km) and to grab naps as necessary along the rest of the way.
Bellarine Loop (0-209km)
From the traditional gravel start, the first 210 kilometers of the ride loop eastward to make a tour of the Bellarine Peninsula, the west pincer of the claw that surrounds Port Philip Bay. The first 85 kilometers took us generally eastward past the 2001 start location in Anglesea to Queenscliff (from which a ferry can connect you to the Mornington Peninsula curving around the bay from the east). A lovely tailwind and the last of the daylight joined us for this stretch. Typically, I started out from Aireys Inlet with some faster riders, who immediately dropped me on the first hill of any consequence. I rode much of this stretch alone, enjoying the brisk pace and great scenery, including the ocean views around Barwon Heads. For a bit, I chatted with Julian Dyson, one of two UK riders (Judith Swallow the other) visiting for the GSR 1200.
The staffed control at Queenscliff provided water refills and great sandwiches. I worked through the control quickly and headed out with Hans and Carol and John Retchford, an accomplished mountain climber and cyclist who was fascinating company. When I could keep up, that is.
We rode together along the bay at Portarlington, with the lights of Melbourne visible across the water in the distance, and then I fell off the pace before the cafe control in Geelong. I kept that stop to a minimum as well and rode most of the way back to Aireys Inlet with a quick moving group of cyclists. Hans and Carol dropped off in Anglesea for a pre-planned sleep break and I continued to Aireys Inlet, arriving a bit after 1:30AM. Even acknowledging the wind assist, covering the first 210 kilometers in 8.5 hours and putting more than 5 hours in the bank provided a nice confidence boost. While some riders stopped for a sleep break, I moved through the control fairly quickly, just eating from the great spread offered by the volunteers and restocking my handlebar bag with more base calories.
To Apollo Bay (209-273km)
The road from Aireys Inlet to Apollo Bay is spectacular, hugging the coastal hills and bathed in the sound of the surf below. For the visual part of this, I have to rely on my memory from 2001, because this time I traversed this section in the dark both ways. The night riding was peaceful and fast. I enjoyed most of it solo, with brief chats with faster riders catching up and passing me after their longer stops at Aireys Inlet. Volunteers Simon and Gordon served coffee and snacks at Apollo Bay because the store would not open for another hour or so.
The Otways (273-371km)
From Apollo Bay, the road leaves the ocean for an 80 kilometer tour through the Otway Range, returning for a brief kiss at Castle Cove before heading up into the hills again. Simon warned that the toughest hills of the ride were in the next section, and suggested that the ride would be easier after that. “Wouldn’t we be riding the same hills after 1000 kilometers?” “Oh, yes, there is that.”
The road climbs immediately out of Apollo Bay. Moseying (at best) up the hill in a drizzle, I was startled to note that I had company in the other lane. Displaying a gait somewhere between a bear’s trot and a beach ball’s roll, the koala seemed unfazed by the nearby cyclist with its strange lights. Remembering the camera in my bag, I fumbled for a picture. (One of only about 5 that I would take over 3.5 days of the ride. That camera represents weight I could probably eliminate!)
After the first climb, the route rewarded us with a beautiful stretch along a river valley toward the sea at Castle Cove. As I approached the cove, I could see the start of the Lavers Hill climb soaring off to the right. Lavers Hill is the highest point on the GSR at 472 meters. Although not a climb with the insistent length of a Cascade mountain pass back home, the trip up to Lavers was still a full breakfast of up with which to start the day. I reached Lavers Hill with speedy riders Tim Stredwick of Tasmania and Keri-Ann Smith of Canberra. I would see them from time to time on the ride as they’d pass me after some stop or another. Always cheerful, they made the ride look effortless. Keri-Ann and Tim sensibly stopped for some “brekky” in Lavers Hill, but I took off down to the sea.
Some 20 kilometers out from Port Campbell, the road returns to the ocean and takes you past the Twelve Apostles. These spectacular rock formations in the surf look, as best I can tell, nothing like apostles. And there aren’t 12 of them, either. Nonetheless, this is a glorious section of the ride. In need of a break, I struggled up and down the little hills on this section before arriving at the control at Port Campbell.
Encouraging volunteers swarmed the control, cooking and catering to riders’ every need. I had the chance to catch up with Bob Bednarz, who (along with Ann) hosted me in 2001. Feeling quite grubby, I happily recalled that I had tucked extra base layer and shorts in my drop bag, so I headed off to take a shower. Aaaaah! I washed my shorts and hung them up to dry in the cabin so I could enjoy the same great feeling on my return two or so days later.
Port to Port (371-498km)
From Port Campbell, the route leaves the Great Ocean Road to head inland. Other than the nice bakery control at Cobden, there is little to recommend this choice. After DNF’ing in 2001, I rode back along the omitted section of the Great Ocean Road and thought it spectacular.
The 40 kilometers to Cobden has some nice riding as the road rolls along from creek to creek. I had plenty of time to enjoy it as my pace slowed. At the bakery in Cobden, I found the three keys to my getting through the upcoming 90 kilometers to the overnight stop in Port Fairy. Predictably enough to those who know me, the first two were a deep black cup of coffee and an apple pastry. Even more welcome, however, was the company of Greg Lansom, one of the “mongrel dogs” of Wollongong (outside Sydney) that I had met on the 2001 GSR. We had suffered together in the headwinds in 2001, but while I quit, he and his riding buddy toughed it out and finished just within time. Riding alone this year, Greg agreed to ride the next stretch with me.
The road from Cobden to Warnambool seemed dismal. Thoroughly boring countryside offset by the adrenaline rushes of big double trucks coming past on the shoulderless road. The highway through Warnambool wasn’t much more fun. After 400+ kilometers on the bike and a night without sleep, my attitude could have been better. Greg’s company on this stretch was a life-saver. After Tower Hill we left the highway to take the back way into Port Fairy. Here we encountered the stiffest headwinds of the ride, but they were but a whisper compared to the 2001 winds. We arrived at the control around 6:30PM, in great shape as far as time went, with close to 8 hours up on the brevet time clock.
I craved a beer, but none was to be had. Aside from that, however, no rider need went unmet at this terrific control. Libby and Martin Haynes and other wonderful volunteers had delicious soup and other goodies. Hot showers, clean clothes, and bunk beds awaited. My goal was three hours of sleep, which normally works well for me on longer rides. I asked for a wake-up in 3.5 hours and clambered into my (upper) bunk for some sleep. Sad to say, however, sleep didn’t come my way at all. The same thing had happened to me in 2001 and I believe that my DNF was attributable, in part, to that lack of sleep.
After 3 hours of tossing around, I got up and had a second dinner. Although too nice to mention it at the time, Martin told me later that I looked awful. I didn’t feel too good either, with my stomach complaining angrily about the whole endeavor. I figured that if I headed out slowly my stomach would settle and that I could nap as needed along the way. I was on the road before midnight Tuesday.
To and From the Grampians (498-840km)
Wednesday would be a very long day. Only 425 kilometers, but over 25 hours on the road. The first stretch, an 85 kilometer run to the next control at Hamilton, found me moving particularly slowly. Partially this was intentional, as I sought to calm my grumpy stomach. Partially, I suspect, it was the result of the sleep failure. Only the occasional stump fire spewing sparks ahead of the impending burn ban broke up the monotony of the relatively featureless terrain. I reminded myself that I quit on this stretch in 2001 and that I was determined not to do so again.
“Oh look, it’s Mark,” I hear through a bit of a fog as I catnapped on the sidewalk outside the public restrooms in the small town of MacArthur, 50 kilometers into this stretch. Keri-Ann and Tim were coming through, as were a few other riders. I stumbled back onto the bike seeking company for the next 35 kilometers into Hamilton. With my anemic pace, this effort proved only modestly successful, but I ran into a group of riders at the dreary service station control in Hamilton.
I headed out of Hamilton solo but was soon joined by Peter Donnan for the 30 kilometer stretch to Dunkeld, where he dropped me off at the town park in the first light of morning for another go at a nap. The baby changing room looked like a cozy spot, but the door opened only a bit before hitting another dozing rider. I leaned on the wall outside instead. As I started to drift off, I sensed a companion presence and opened my eyes to find the biggest spider I’ve ever seen perched on my knee. (Presumably a huntsman spider). That sight proved more invigorating than any coffee and I remounted my bike for the trip into the Grampians National Park.
The wildlife of Dunkeld had not finished with me. Not 3 kilometers out of town, I’m startled with what feels like a stone smacking into my helmet. The flutter of wings tells me that it’s not a stone. My sleepy brain figures out that it must be a magpie. (“Spring in Australia is magpie season, when a small minority of breeding magpies around the country become aggressive and swoop and attack those who approach their nests, especially bike riders.” - Wikipedia). Just as I figure this out, SMACK - he nails me again. Not interested in finding out just how many times the bird (birds?) would attack the same cyclist, I sprint off -- aided by a handy bit of downhill. I catch up to the riders ahead and proudly report my initiation into the fraternity of magpie-swooped Australian cyclists. If you ever see cyclists with cable ties sticking straight up from their helmets, they’ve probably been riding in Australia. Barry Moore showed me this defense before the GSR, but then told me that the magpie-swooping season was over and that he’d be taking the cable ties off before the ride. Barry’s cycling is much better than his ornithology.
The next 65 kilometers brought some of the most spectacular scenery of the ride. At the southern gateway to the Grampians, the morning sun turned Mt. Abrupt orange. The road rose over a foothill and then down into the park. Kangaroos (or perhaps wallabies - I’m fuzzy on which is which) would bound out of the bush, hop along the road for a bit, and then bound back into the bush. A few stumpy-tailed lizards oozed along the roadway; many more had met their fate at the hands of passing vehicles. Traffic was low and the surroundings captivating; I felt strong and full of energy for the first time this day.
Anticipation of the control in Halls Gap provided further impetus. The hospitality of Pam and Grant Palmer is legendary. Missing their control in 2001 was yet another reason to regret my DNF. Sure enough, I pulled in around 9:30 to a roaring outdoor fire, delicious soup and other goodies, and kind ministrations from Pam and Grant. I briefly retired to a bunk for a nap, but decided that I was more interested in riding. I felt great, despite the contrary evidence of a contemporaneous photo.
Peter Donnan and I left together around 10:15AM for the 65 kilometer out-and-back segment to/from Moyston. The road, at least at the start, was less flat than advertised, but nonetheless was a nice break from the hillclimbing before Halls Gap. The opportunities offered to see other riders spaced out on the road make out-and-backs great fun on long rides. We saw the leading riders as we headed out and the rest of the field as we returned. The store at Moyston marked the turnaround point for the GSR, but because of the initial loop to the east, it was well past the halfway point of the event. Only 500 kilometers to go. A celebratory ice cream bar seemed in order. A tailwind back to Halls Gap rewarded our work into the wind on the way out and Peter and I arrived back at the control at around 2PM and availed ourselves of more of Pam and Grant's hospitality.
The 65 kilometers back to Dunkeld provided the same great scenery as we had in the morning, but somehow the hills seemed steeper, longer, and more numerous. In particular the climb back out of the park sapped my energy. Peter and I stopped for a soda in town and took a break. The next 30 kilometers from Dunkeld to Hamilton seemed twice that distance. All told it was almost 6 hours for the 100 kilometers between Halls Gap and Hamilton and we arrived at the control about 8PM.
Rando Purgatory (840-925km)
On the return trip, Hamilton had a manned control. Although a vast improvement over the morning’s gas station stop, it somehow didn’t do much for me. I wasn’t interested in the food offerings and decided not to nap. Clean clothes, a shower, and a real bed awaited back in Port Fairy and I really wanted to get there.
After some faffing around at the control, I headed off with Peter Donnan and Greg Lansom. Without their company, I might still be wandering aimlessly on the Hamilton-Port Fairy road. At this point, I was well over 50 hours without sleep. The road seemed endless. I was somewhere in a land beyond Tired and bordering on Delirium. I couldn’t keep firmly in mind exactly what it was that I was doing out there. For a while I was convinced that I was a headlight and taillight tester, but couldn’t keep track of what I was supposed to be testing. Occasionally I would drift into the shoulder, which would momentarily bring alertness. Then a whole cycle of weirdness would start again. Complete rando freak show.
About 25 kilometers before Port Fairy, I could see its lights. But I would ride and ride and they seemed to get no closer. Nothing about the terrain was difficult, but the distance felt infinite. Rarely has my rando soul been more tortured.
Eventually, of course, we reached Port Fairy and despite a few questionable turns found ourselves in the randonneur heaven of the youth hostel control. Despite the time-warping ride in, we were 12 hours up on the clock on arrival. Kind volunteers brought welcome food and plenty of encouragement. This time, Martin Haynes had a beer in his hand for me. After a delicious dinner and a hot shower, I crawled into the top bunk with my beer bottle. I finished it off and fell happily and deeply asleep for the first time in days. Bliss.
Port to Port - Reprise (925-1053km)
Peter and I awoke and had a fine breakfast before heading out in daylight around 6:00. Despite the squalls heard on the roof during breakfast, dry weather greeted us on the road. We were in great shape for time, with more than 28 hours to cover the last 290 kilometers and with 7 hours up on the clock. The long slog to Cobden brought us back to the bakery. A bacon and egg pie made a great second breakfast and another “long black” coffee stoked the fires for the trip to Port Campbell.
Although the 40 kilometers from Cobden to Port Campbell gives up elevation as the road returns to the sea, this leg sure had more ups and downs than I remembered from Tuesday. But the weather was beautiful and the riding joyful.
In before 2PM, we once again had about 10 hours up on the clock and only about 160km to go. The Port Campbell control was wonderful. I took a shower and changed shorts and then sat down to lunch. Merryn offered banana splits and I opted to start lunch with ice cream. Peter Donnan, who was brought up to eat the good-for-you food before dessert, looked over jealously. Quite a few riders were around and the atmosphere was festive. Jan Erik celebrated his birthday with a nap on the grass.
The Otways - Reprise (1053-1151km)
From Port Campbell we returned to the lovely road along the ocean.
The scenic ocean stretch gave way to those “toughest hills of the ride” - a bit tougher the second time around. Greg caught up and snapped a few pictures.
Earlier, Peter Donnan had tagged me with a nice euphemism for slow, saying that I was “a diesel” chugging steadily up the hills at a grind-it-out cadence. Along the way up to Lavers Hill, however, the diesel stalled and I sat on a guard rail looking for some spark to continue. A bag of Clif Blox (Black Cherry, with caffeine) provided the necessary fuel and I caught up with Peter and Greg and other riders hanging out at the store in Lavers Hill.
After Lavers Hill the route takes in some pretty sections down to the ocean at Glenaire/Castle Cove, then rolls along nice flats to Hordern Vale, and then climbs uphill again. No koala sightings this time, just some good riding (and more slow dieseling up the hill) in the last light of the day. A screaming descent brought me to the Apollo Bay control, just a few minutes behind Peter and Greg.
Andy of the Magnificent Moores brought his family to the Apollo Bay control to care for the riders. His son Aidan checked us in and his daughter Siobhan made wonderful food. I had soup, pasta, and other goodies. Peter, Greg and I decided to ride into the finish. Other riders were choosing to stay the night and to finish the ride in the morning. We may have been the last night departures and would have left sooner except that I spied another rider eating something I had missed. Our departure had to wait for a made-to-order grilled cheese sandwich with tomatoes and ham.
To the Finish (1151-1215km)
The Great Ocean Road from Apollo Bay to Airey’s Inlet is beautiful. Many of the riders opting to sleep at Apollo Bay did so with the idea of riding this scenic section by daylight. Peter, Greg, and I enjoyed a different, but no less marvelous, experience. Minimal traffic, maximal stars, and a wonderful soundtrack of surf below. Interrupted only by a short break in Lorne and a pause to fix a balky shifter on Greg’s bike, these 64 kilometers were a magical end to the ride.
Well maybe 63 kilometers of magic. The motel in Aireys Inlet sits on top of a hill. I attacked the hill for all I was worth for a triumphant finish. Unfortunately, all I was worth at that point was about half of the hill. So instead, I limped into the finish deep in my granny gear. Greg and Peter waited so we could finish together.
Over beer we celebrated. The next morning, a different finisher was heard on the phone telling her husband that she wouldn’t be home for a while, because everyone was still busy “talking about how good we are.” It took us a while, and another beer, to get off to sleep because I, too, needed to talk about how good we were. Funny, I certainly remember feeling a lot better than the picture suggests!
My time of 80:10 was my second best 1200km time in nine finishes. The monkey that had been on my back since 2001 found itself suddenly homeless.
Many pictures borrowed from GSR gallery. Thanks to all the photographers.