December 2-3, 2006

By Joseph Maurer

"The easiest 600 you will ever do!" blared the description from when I searched for reasons to take my bike along on a trip to Melbourne. Our elder daughter had spent the year there on a student exchange program, and now urged her parents to come and visit at the end of her stay, so she could show us around and facilitate some touristic pursuits (and would not be alone for the move back home to California).

The bike with S&S couplers travelled problem-free in its suitcase, and stayed there during the first two weeks of our southeast Australian experience. We mostly followed the guide book's recommendations for a tour along the Great Ocean Road and through the Grampians mountain range, and in particular included many good trail hikes. In my mind, this counted as preparation for the ride, together with some thorough carbo-loading: the local restaurants really had very talented and ambitious chefs. On the way back from the Grampians to Melbourne, I insisted on making a little detour to get an idea of the roads I would ride on the upcoming weekend. By car, the profile seemed to be rather soft, the road surface appeared to be quite smooth, and there was no wind. However, it was extremely hot, and everything was completely dried out under the violent Australian sun.

This hit me as a surprise. Only two weeks before we arrived in Melbourne, it had snowed in the area (the newspaper had titled "It's Snovember!"), which was more shocking for the locals expecting the beginning of summer than for me who was dialed in to the beginning of winter. I was mentally and physically prepared for cold, even rain, but no heat. Also, the distances between services were substantial, and those little isolated general stores were unlikely to stay open for much of the weekend. I only had two water bottles and had left the Camelbak at home to optimize luggage volume. In an attempt to defuse the dire warnings of my wife ("you are going to shrivel to death!"), I stubbornly predicted cool weather for the weekend, with a good chance for rain. The employees and volunteers in the Maryborough Visitor Center were skeptical, though: they had been suffering from drought for seven years, ever since the last big flood in 1999....

Finally, on Friday, December 1, we drove the 120 miles west from Melbourne to this charming town of Maryborough in the center of beautiful Goldfields country. It is named after the gold rush that paralleled the one in California shortly after 1850. After yet another wonderful dinner at the restaurant attached to our motel, I rode a mile and a half to the registration and start/finish place. There, I met the friendly RBAs Tim Laugher and Pat Dorey who knew about my participation from a previous e-mail correspondence. I passed the rigorous lighting check set up by Audax Australia, and after paying the modest fee of $12 (U.S. equivalent) received the most precise and beautiful route sheets I had ever seen, with detailed maps for each section, on which the route was painstakingly highlighted. This was even more impressive when I learned that the event, which also offered 200, 300 and 400k options, drew over 70 riders. Nearly half of them had signed up for the 600k brevet.

Five minutes before the Saturday 6 a.m. start, Tim Laugher welcomed the riders, many of whom had come from quite far away: New South Wales (Sydney), even Queensland. And he introduced the single foreigner from California, easy to recognize with the bear on the California Triple Crown jersey. Needless to say, over the next 600 km, nearly all of the proverbially jolly Aussies I rode with made a point of welcoming me personally.

I was excited. This was cool: riding a big brevet in a peloton of 70, on roads so far away from home (and on the left side!), through countrysides so much more beautiful than when driving through by car. In addition, those guys were fast! As soon as one of the "soft" rollers showed its uphill side, I went anaerobic and had to sprint to stay in touch. When this pattern repeated itself often enough to leave unpleasant memories in my quads, it dawned on me—as so often in the past; but I'm a slow learner—that I was probably too enthusiastic for my own good, again. But because we would soon arrive at the first control, I decided to stick with my enthusiasm, for now. After all, it was a very special thrill for me (never happened before!) to arrive at a brevet control just when it opened.

But, enough was enough. I took my time, let all the fast guys and gals leave, and noticed that there were still riders coming in when I was ready to move on. Clearly, they were all smarter than I was. I also noticed that the route changed direction and now went directly into a pretty stiff headwind. Oh, so had we had a tailwind, before? Also, the temperatures were quite low. I had cold feet and didn't like the cold wind in my face. But I soon reminded myself that this was much better than the heat of only three days ago. And who knew: given that my weather prediction was already half successful, maybe it would even bring rain later in the day? I would be triumphant in the face of my wife and the employees of the Maryborough Visitor Center!

The route was set up as a sequence of various approximately 100 km loops in all directions around Maryborough (with simple 50 km round-trips at the end of Saturday and Sunday). This, together with a relatively modest overall elevation gain, made the claim of "easiest 600" plausible. It was extremely convenient to be able to come back to the motel room in regular intervals, even though this often added a couple of miles for me, and made me spend more time at rest stops than I would have otherwise. My wife and daughter were out to visit the touristic Sovereign Hill in Ballarat (about 40 miles away) when I came back after 200 km. I knew I would arrive much later than planned for the 300 km mark and left a message with a revised schedule. Not that the enthusiasm from earlier in the morning had waned, but the "muscle memory" in the quads had been burned in more deeply, since, and the sustained wind had made this easiest 600 a little less easy, already—and much slower, at least for me. By the way, dark clouds had come up by now, and I did indeed feel one rain drop on my face. Not enough to end the drought, but my wife and daughter later said they had to use the windshield wipers for a little moment, on their way to Ballarat. So there!

Speaking of enthusiasm.... Predictably, my wife didn't have much of it when I arrived after the third loop and prepared myself for the last out-and-back to Avoca, 27km away. However, I was really looking forward to this midnight ride, and my wife knew me well enough to quickly abandon her hopes of seeing me abandon at this point. I know it was recommended not to ride alone, in particular at night. But after over 300 km and all my private rest stops in the motel room, there happened to be nobody else around. To be honest, I actually preferred riding alone at this point. The wind was slowly dying down. I could pick my optimal pace, and enjoy all the sights and sounds of this undisturbed moonlit night on a known, rather straight (even though constantly rolling) and tranquil road. On the way out, I counted 10 riders who were on their way back, nearly all of them alone as well; and on my way back, I counted 10 more who were still behind me, again nearly all alone. The strong wind during the day had cleaned the atmosphere such that the full moon illuminated the dry yellow grass in the pastures as if it was snow. Despite the bright full moon plenty of stars could be seen. Much to my delight it was easy to identify the Southern Cross—something to write home about!

Wife and daughter stayed awake until I came back. I was so exhilarated, I couldn't just go to bed right now. Besides, I needed to do something to fight the calorie deficit, and my wife wisely had bought some bottles of my favorite Australian Carlton Draught. And so it went on until nearly 2 a.m. A three-hour sleep break should be enough. It turned out that I heard my alarm very clearly, but that my reaction to it was somewhat hesitating. Eventually, my wife (bless her heart) reminded me that I still wanted to do 250 km or something, and I managed to get back on the road by 6 a.m. Clearly, most of the other 600 km riders had left already to take advantage of the early morning hours while the wind was still resting. Only two or three of those behind me caught up, one by one, over the next hour or two. I rode together with each one for a while and we talked about God and the world and the Australian animals, until I begged them to take off now and let me finish the ride at my own pace.

I felt I had settled into good steady riding. It was a little less cold than the day before, and I had put on an additional layer, so I felt comfortable. I didn't fear or fight the wind anymore; I peacefully lived with it. It was just a matter of allowing a smaller gear, a slower speed, and it was all good. Despite the various flavors of mild discomfort so well known by long-distance cyclists, I was happy to enjoy the experience and celebrate my endurance. Towards the end of the afternoon, the left Achilles tendon started talking to me—not a big surprise. It's an old weakness of mine, and I know how to work around the trouble: keep the heel high, and push into the toes. Given that I didn't ride a single mile during the three weeks before this 600, it could have been much worse.

At 5 p.m., I came back to the start/finish control for the next-to-last time. Only 44 km were left: an out-and-back to the old gold digger town Dunolly, on a mostly flat and straight road, much of it through open pastures fully exposed to the wind which was now at its strongest. Tim Laugher and Pat Dorey offered custom-made sandwiches, all kinds of beverages, and more than adequate moral support—it was marvelous. My wife and daughter, now accustomed to me being late at checkpoints, only showed up a little later, with more provisions for this last section. Some other riders arrived. They had just completed their 600, and reported matter-of-factly how the forceful wind blew them out to Dunolly and then made them struggle on the last 22 km back to the finish. I wanted to get back on my bike and see for myself. The anticipation of completing this brevet before dinner time gave me renewed stamina which surprised me. I carefully avoided exhausting myself during the last difficult miles into the wind (my wife would hold it against my bike riding if she saw me debilitated), and still arrived at the finish "on schedule," with good attitude and exceptionally high spirits.

As indicated by the Jump the Gun name of this ride and by the proud line Paris-Brest-Paris 2007 Qualifying Distance on the brevet card, the participants jumped the gun in their qualifying series for PBP 2007. This includes myself, even though I will assure my complete PBP qualification in spring 2007 in California, and certainly hope to do more than just one additional 600 in preparation for next August. No matter what, this Australian brevet will forever have a special meaning for me. It is my first 600, and as such represents an obviously important milestone in anyone's randonneur career. But then, regardless of whether it was "The easiest 600 you will ever do!" or not, it will be the only one with images of quiet roads from one sleepy historic gold rush town to the next, with cockatoos sitting in the trees and getting all excited when a lonely cyclist passes underneath, with flocks of brightly colored rosellas being stirred up every once in a while, and with friendly "Welcome to the Central Goldfields Shire" signs at least once through each of the seven loops around Maryborough.

Unless, of course, I come back one day for another big brevet in Victoria, Australia!