The Cloudrider - Part I

Images: Dan Oakman and Peter Makin

I didn’t expect it to be easy. I’d ridden enough rugged tracks and fire-trails in the mountains of South-Eastern Australia to know that. But the viciously steep, rock strewn track that lay before me was unlike anything I had ever encountered on a mountain bike. With the slopes too severe to ride, I accepted my fate: a ten-kilometre hike-a-bike. Looking skyward only added to my woes. The clouds had begun to cluster and bruise. Electricity, as the cliché goes, was in the air. Head down, I started my work.

I was deep in the Victorian high country, inching my way into the Tingaringy Wilderness near the Snowy River. Narrow ‘benches’ had been cut across the trail every one-hundred meters or so. Designed to divert water and reduce erosion, they provide the hapless biker with an almost horizontal surface on which to rest.

But these ‘benches’ come at a price. The twenty metres of track before each ‘bench’ was steeper still. Impossible to even stand without sliding backwards, some basic mountain climbing techniques were required. First, I had to lock the brakes and use the bike as an anchor. I then scraped a foothold to provide a more stable base from which I could thrust the bike forward. Then, I locked the brakes again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

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It was hot and humid. I was bucketing sweat. Soon, I became so demoralised I decided to mentally break the climb into ten sections. I then worked to finish each section before taking a rest. As I pushed, I stared at the GPS trip meter, willing it to tick over.

The storm continued to brew. After four hours of grinding toil I reached the summit. The wind picked up. Lightning flashes became brighter and more frequent. I paused for a quick photo of the immense panorama before me.

Spurred on by the pounding electrical storm that now swirled around me, I wanted to get off the mountain, fast. With night falling, I sped down the other side toward the tiny hamlet of Tubbut. It was nearly a disaster. With the weight of the bike pitched forward, the slightest over-use of the front brake de-weighted the rear of the bike, which would then swing wildly to the left or right, nearly causing me to crash. The pendulum motion could only be arrested by squatting on the top tube. This lowered my centre of gravity and allowed the rear wheel to maintain contact with the trail.

Then it started to rain. The droplets grew bigger, before a deluge soaked me to the skin. I arrived into the village exhausted and looked forward to getting into the local hall, drying out and getting a good night’s rest. But the town was deserted and the hall locked tight. I pitched camp in the local pre-school, fixed a quick dinner and collapsed into my tent.

The past 24-hours had been eventful. But it was just another day on one of the toughest bike-packing races in Australia: the Monaro Cloudride. I was five days in – and I was barely half-way.

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River deep, mountain high

The idea of a non-stop 1,000-kilometre mountain bike race over the country’s most inhospitable terrain is, at first blush, preposterous. The statistics alone are terrifying, with over 24,000 meters of elevation gain almost entirely on fire-trails or unsealed country roads.

The pitiless mastermind of this event is Steve Watson, an affable septuagenarian rider from Canberra. Steve’s only concession to the riders is that he has thoughtfully routed the race through a lovely array of regional towns and villages. As gloriously remote as the ride is, one is rarely more than a day’s ride from food, bike repair, a comfy bed or rescue. The last is significant. Every edition of the Cloudride has been a brutal war of attrition with failure rates at around fifty per cent. If the weather turns, it is even worse.

I had watched previous editions of the ride with intent, carefully noting the strategies of each rider and the reasons behind every success or failure. My training focused on strength. Six months before the event I attached a three-kilogram tent to the front of my mountain bike. I rode this to work and on plenty of hilly training rides. It wasn’t close to the battle weight of 26 kilograms, but it was enough to toughen the sinews and the soul.

Nothing builds power like pushing a touring load. Six months before the race, I spent three weeks riding the fabulous 1,000-kilometre Munda Biddi Trail in Western Australia. After this I rode a 200-kilometre road ride every month and completed a tough 600-kilometre road event a month before the start. Ten days before the race I rode another 200-kilometre day ride, this time on my mountain bike. I must confess that I did not take my tent! From then on, I did very little at all.

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I spent time perusing pre-event social media. How to save weight is a consistent theme. Such pedantry will not help you complete the Cloudride. In truth, nothing can quite prepare you for a multi-day ride of this magnitude. Fitness helps, but very few riders have failed to complete this course because they weren’t fit enough. Things can and will go wrong. Strength and tenacity are more important qualities to take with you on this journey.

And strength I would need. With food, gear and water, my bike handled like a tank but it had snowed the week before the race. I wanted to be able to pitch camp anywhere and see out any weather event. And I really didn’t want to be the guy calling for rescue because I was worried about a few extra kilograms.

Undulating country roads and shaded forest trails over to Wee Jasper, 80-kilometres west of Canberra, made for a gentle start, before some sterner climbs over to Tumut. Not planning to contest the podium, I opted for a motel. The more ambitious pressed on into the darkness.

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