This story was original penned for Ride Magazine and has been on the to-do list for sharing here on the site. Here it is with a super-extended photo gallery and video from the jaunt.
I remember my first epic ride like it was yesterday – I was 5.
My blue Hallmark BMX was all conquering of the dirt driveway of my parents home. It’d got serious amounts of air off the plywood ramp that was elevated by the height of a house brick I’d set up on the front lawn. I begged Dad to let me ride off our property to the end of the street – and back. On the south side of there was no footpath – just a rough scratching in the dirt, with corrugations from the cattle trucks that transported the livestock in the adjoining paddock, lined with a tired barbed wire fence. Once permission was obtained it heralded an exciting chapter in my life. Adventure.
Epic, by definition is an exceptionally long and arduous task or activity, or as a descriptor – heroic or grand in scale or character. This is where it all becomes relative. In recent times the word has been bandied around with such light regard that the weight of it has been lost. Hubert Opperman riding nearly 3000 miles from Fremantle to Sydney, at times carrying his bike through sand qualifies to me as ‘epic’.
In 2009, I rode from Melbourne to Adelaide for Town Down Under in three days – only to be the footnote for Jesse Carlsson who was inspired by my ride to do the same on his singlespeed – in half the time. Not sleeping greatly reduced his travel time. Jesse would go on to make ultra-endurance events his staple and recently won the 6,772km Trans-America Race in a time just shy of 19 days. I’ll save you pulling out your calculator but that is around 360km per day on 4 hours sleep. I could go on about the grandness of this feat, but I’ll summise it as ‘epic’.
Drew Ginn recently attempted to break the 24hour distance record of 890km – a record once set in 1939 by Opperman with a distance of 814km. Drew is no stranger to epic with enough gold medals to sink a small boat, so when he fell shy of the record posting an incredible 836km, to me it put three events in epic perspective. Drew’s own attempt at the bumpy Brunswick Velodrome, that of the current record holders benchmark, and of Oppy’s – set on a hugely primitive machine, little sports science knowledge achieving a distance only marginally less – 80 years prior.
My recent ride from Stratford to Bright via Dargo and the High Plains road was certainly long, arduous. The most arduous task however, was fleeing work and family for an extended period, mid week no less, coordinating the same with another riding companion. This constant challenge is the only real hurdle to overcome – the riding is the relatively easy bit.
The alarm was set for 4:55am and for 5 minute intervals after just on the odd chance I was sleeping particularly heavily but the excitement of uninterrupted riding had me awake before it even had a chance to sound. My bag was packed and for curiosities sake I dropped it on the scales – 7.2kg. It contained the essentials. Camera, two lenses, spares, first aid, snacks, jacket, merino tee, shorts and thongs. Two espresso’s and a toasted sandwich later I rolled out into the darkness. Caulfield Station was the first destination, a cruisy 30 clicks in a southerly direction.
Our V-Line train was scheduled for 7:28 and I had ample time to scour the local area to find a bakery for another coffee, toasted sandwich and sweet treat. Between bites of my breakfast, commuters piled onto trains bound for the city. Dave, my riding companion arrived and minutes later so did our train – destination STRATFORD.
While the train whistled it’s way through Gippsland, Dave pulled out the map and showed the start and end points. He threw some numbers of elevation to me which to this day still mean nothing. If it’s half climbing, it has to be half descending which is only half a ride – at least that’s the logic I followed. We rolled out of Stratford under patchy skies and a light breeze that was enough to let you know it was there.
A picturesque pub in Briagolong seemed like a nice spot to adjust our packs and the publican greeted us to remove the remnants of last nights patrons. After informing us the bar wouldn’t be open for another hour the discussion turned to where we were headed. The Freestone Creek Road all the way to Dargo was our plan and the publican immediately brought up the Alpine Endurance Race which was held during the 90’s, starting and finishing at the Briagolong Pub. ‘Hang on – I’ll get the trophy!’. Racers chose mountain bikes to cover the terrain, and the unsealed hilly route took the winner 5 hours to complete. Asking the publican how rough the road was he reply was a confident ‘you could get up it in a Commodore. It’s tough coming back – gotta get up the hill at Castleburn’. I understood his road rating reference completely, but I would argue you can get a Commodore or any other two-wheel drive in a pretty precarious places based on my own experience from my 20s. I figured the road would be bumpy at worst.
With that in mind we set out along Freestone Creek road and the sealed bitumen soon turned to dirt. The clouds now blanketed us and rain began to lightly fall. It occurred to me that only 3 cars had passed us to this point and I decided to keep a tally.
The rain started to fall harder. Then harder again. We considered throwing on the jackets but given it was warm we kept trucking. The gravel road is a gorgeous meander through lust forest with the river never far from view, if you could see it through the torrential rain that was now falling. Surely it had to ease soon. It came close to lunch time and it was time to eat and relinquish hope of keeping the jacket off.
Hours later we reached the sealed Dargo road which brought a small sense of relief. Stopping to eat made no sense as there was no refuge from the rain, so I pedalled one hand on bars, one hand forcing muesli bars in my mouth. It was on the first descent that Dave soon realised his ability to brake was akin to Barney Rubble. At the top of Castleburn the road dips sharply down into the Dargo valley and it’s a lightning fast straight line to the bottom. I let go of all brakes and in no time was flying – grimacing at the hail which was now falling. At 70kph an hour it felt like my face was in a sand blaster, and through squinted eyes I hoped a kangaroo or stag didn’t decide to cross my path. The long and fast blast finally eased and eventually I came to a halt and waited where a red-bellied black snake had also come to a permanent rest. Dave and I both had the same expression on our faces. That section was low on the scale of fun. The Briagolong Publican’s sentiments about this part of the route rang true. Traversing back up this climb would be a tough slog and you could definitely get a Commodore here.
The rain seemed to ease and we were in the home straight. A greeting sign for the hamlet of Waterford appeared and a bolt of lightning that made the sun seem dim illuminated the valley. 1….2…3…. BOOM. Shortly after another giant flash turned the greyish day into a brilliant white all around and it signalled more rain – really heavy rain. I didn’t have to pull my gloves or shoes off to know my extremities would be pruned. A little pinch out of Waterford told me that my legs had done enough today and were ready for a rest. The Dargo Inn came into view and we sought refuge under it’s verandah. Total car count for the day – 4. Not bad.
The owners offered to launder our clothes and dry them while we took a shower. The only difference between todays ride and the shower in our cabin was I could control the temperature and duration of the latter – and fortunately it was nice and hot. Our cabin was quickly converted into a laundry with garments suspended over the single bar heater, jackets hung from doors and shoes stuffed with the pages from the local paper. Hopefully it’d all be dry to pull on again tomorrow.
Over a parma and 3 pots we enjoyed conversations with locals who were waltzing though the bar after work – leaving to be home for dinner. The running commentary from those sitting at the bar about The Block and Bachelorette was better than Seinfeld in his prime. Everyone wanted to know what two lycra clad guys from the big smoke were doing in their bar. The conversation quickly turned to our plan for tomorrow and the road we had chosen. It was still being graded in preparation for being opened for the summer months. Jokes started to fly about how we’d be walking in foot deep mud all the way to Bright. Just what we needed to hear. Outside it continued to rain cats and stray dogs. We asked if there was phone reception and the publican said yes – if you stand out from under the verandah. I watched Dave make a quick call from the eaves of the pub and relay a message we’d made it safely to Dargo.
There was no place to refuel between Dargo and Harrietville – a distance of only 90km as the crow flies but it was the climbing required to get there that was of concern. Dave carried a third bidon but the Publican assured us we could fill up at the spring at Mt Ewen. ‘Best water in Dargo‘ he said. That sounded good enough to me so I stuck with my original plan of two bidons, ordered the cheesecake and with a full belly headed to bed.
The owners of the general store had graciously opened half an hour earlier to for us to eat breakfast and start the day with a much needed coffee. The ‘two guys on push bikes’ were the talk of the town, as were the recently spotted Stocco father and son pair who were on the run from police and last seen at Yea – not that far away. Only a kilometre or so after leaving Dargo the road goes up and not in a polite way. The final kilometres of the Stratford-Dargo race take this same route. At the first sharp turn I knew it was time to ditch the jacket as things were about to heat up. Whatever the gradient was in number terms, I define it as steep. Steep enough to be in the smallest gear and go to reach for one smaller seconds later. All you could hear was the sound of the tread on tarmac – until Dave broke into song. In operatic scales he started singing ‘Daniel Boone was a man – he was a big man!‘ at which point I started to laugh so hard I lost speed and nearly fell off my steed. It was better than he previous ride choice of ‘Barbie Girl’ which has a tendency to get stuck in your head for the longest time.
Mt Ewen and it’s famous ‘spring’ were apparently marked on the road. As we passed a road side stream I wondered if that was perhaps it. Continuing on the ‘best water in Dargo‘ never eventuated, but the skies opened again bringing no shortage of it. Through the many switchbacks Daniel Boone had left my head and was replaced by NWA’s Express Yourself.
The sealed section reaches it’s steepest part some 20 clicks out where the Stratford – Dargo race ends, and then the road turns to dirt. I was pleased that it wasn’t a bog, had been graded and was in remarkably good shape. Shortlived as it was turn out. As we reached the high plains highest elevations the freshly graded road became softer and softer. We snaked across it hoping for it to be firmer at some point but it was in vain. So soft you’d be riding and it felt like someone grabbed your seat post and yanked you to a halt. Dave’s tyres were collecting so much clay that he was stopping every so often to clear it from the sidewalls. Demoralising, but we forged on through the bog knowing that there was only another 40 kilometres of it to be covered.
Ambling along in the shoulder of the road I heard a very clear ‘OH NO’ from behind me. My first thought – a puncture. Dave was looking down at his rear wheel. I stopped and headed back to him. The derailleur hanger had snapped, turning the chain into a tangled mess. I evaluated our predicament. Middle of nowhere. No reception. Mechanical failure. 40km of bog between us and the next sealed road. This was bad. It might get epic after all.
It was cold, still raining and we had seen one car to this point – which had turned around and gone back to Dargo. We had one viable option better than Dave walking – make a ghetto singlespeed conversion. I’d attempted this previously as a bike courier in London after experiencing a similar problem. At Farringdon and Fleet streets I got my hands covered in chain filth trying to make it work – and it didn’t. In theory you select the gear you want, break and shorten the chain, rejoin and ride off. Problem is the chain rarely gets the amount of tension it requires to stop it from slipping. Dave chose his gear – I said go one cog up but he said he’d prefer to grind more than spin. We mocked it up and it was close but I had a feeling there was too much slack. With a spare connecting link in his spares we rejoined the chained and he rode off – with a slip, slip. After a short word with the Gods of Cycling I knew what the answer was. Force the chain up a cog to take out the slack. With a ‘ping’ the chain reluctantly went up a notch and was so tight you could barely turn the cranks with your arms. Still – better than walking.
The gear held, but the road and weather got no easier. My camera lens had taken on far too much moisture to be useful and was just expensive ballast. We were nearing the end of the High Plains road and finally received a break in the weather. After being covered in cloud all day, the spectacular views of the Victorian High Country were now on display. Just before the High Plains road reconnects with the Great Alpine road there is a short sealed section that drops and then rockets straight back up like a roller coaster into the sky. The last slap in the face of what had been a testing stretch since we left Dargo.
With the worst behind us, the next 40 kilometres is a well traversed stretch that heads for Harrietville and on to Bright. Typically this is where Dave and I would swap turns and bolt for Bright like horses heading home, but he was topping out at 20kph stuck in his single gear. Instead, it was a chance to reminisce on the bullet we’d just dodged and the joy of escaping normal life to go ride bikes with mates – without distraction. Dave would say ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ and it’s something I hold dear. No one remembers or talks about the rides where the weather was great, the road was flat and everything went to plan. For that I’m grateful to add this two-day journey to the catalogue of rides one might describe as epic – at least relatively.
If you can conquer that ever present hurdle of getting away from it all – the hardest part is done.