Part 1. by James Garriock
The riding thing started off innocently enough as a convenient way to get to work. Then you went for a few rides on the weekend, and hooked up with friends. You can do it any time, you don’t have to drive to get there and it made you feel like a kid again.Somehow you’d always wanted to do the Around the Bay, and you did it, then you travelled down for the Amy Gillet as well. When you first heard about the Peaks Challenge you thought the riders were mad, but then you found yourself doing it, and doing it again and again.You’d ridden every road in the hills how many times? Then a friend gets a CX, and so do you, and it opens up a whole parallel universe of roads, all connecting the same places but in different ways, like the nervous system and the vascular system.You find a new world of content too, and start spending time on bikepacking.com and Melbourne Randonneur and Adventure Cycling Victoria and There Will Be Gravel and The Overland Archive. Then new events and routes drift into your consciousness like the Around the Bay did all those years before: Searching for the Bunyip, the Mawson Trail, the BNT, Tour Aotearoa, Munda Biddi, the Hunt 1000 and Tour Divide.But I didn’t have three weeks for Tour Divide or even ten days for the Hunt 1000, so I cashed in all my domestic chips for a shot at the Monaro Cloudride 1000, a “mountain bike” event running from Canberra south all the way to Victoria and back. Steve Watson organises the race for the love of it, and he is a legend of the Australian bikepacking scene. He doesn’t curate his social media presence anything like as much as the Curve crew, but why should he? Steve isn’t trying to make a living from it, he’s just trying to spread the spirit of adventure and audacity.So this story is for you, you dirty groadie you. I’ll tell you what I did right, what I did wrong, and why you should be doing events like the Cloudride.But the first thing you are wondering about is the bike, and multi surface rides like this one aren’t about choosing the perfect bike but the bike that is least imperfect. Not all of these bikepacking events are the same. For example, the Tour Aotearoa is about 60% sealed.There are four key choices about your bike: bars, tyres, sus and gearing, so let’s get through them one by one. You know the pros and cons of Fe and Ti and C and Al so I won’t waste time on the periodic table.Bars: there are three kinds, drop, flat or Jones. Ride what you have – you probably have drops. I used aero bars because they seemed popular on gravel events, Tour Divide and Tour Aotearoa, but it was a waste of time. Not only did I rarely go fast enough to warrant their use, but the elbow pads stopped me from using the bar tops. If you must use aerobars, get the flip up ones.Suspension: this is really a related topic of tyres, so I’m going to propose a rule of thumb, which is basically unencumbered by knowledge, so feel free to disagree, but here goes: front sus is worth 10mm of tyre width and rear sus is worth 5mm. Read on.Tyres: For the Cloudride you need 60mm (2.4 inch) tyres without sus as a minimum, or 50mm with front sus, or 45mm with dual sus but that would be a bit weird. On that scale a sus headstem like the one made by redshift sports might be worth 5mm on the tyres. You could also ride plus tyres (2.6-3 inches) without suspension quite happily or a hardtail MTB with stock tyres. Oh yeah, and if you’re not riding tubeless you’re nuts. We had about 50kms of blackberries and they gave me at least a dozen punctures without getting a single flat. I rode Riddlers, which were great, but Ikons would also be good. Something with traction but not too much. Gearing: when you read about how far people go in these events and how long it takes them you wonder whether they are riding one legged. Or maybe you think they are just touring….whatever it is, you couldn’t go that slow if you tried. Your CX’s lowest gear is a 46x34 and you ran out once, but that hill was nuts. When I decided to go for 38x46 on my g bike I had friends say “I can’t ride that slowly!”So before you compare my gear choices to what you might need you probably need to know what sort of rider I am, which is OK but nothing special. My ftp on the start line was 4.5w/kg, I do the Peaks Challenge (235km and 4,000 m vert) fairly comfortably in under nine hours and my endurance is good. And what gearing did I use? I took off my 38 front ring and put a 30 tooth ring on, so my lowest gear was 30x46 and my biggest was 30x9. Was that right? Did I run out of gears at the bottom or the top? Let’s just say that if someone had offered me a 28 tooth front I would have taken it, but 30 was fine. Hard to believe? I spent 54% of my moving time on the Cloudride travelling at less than 10kmph.I used a single, narrow/wide, elliptical ring and I’d highly recommend it. I never once dropped a chain or even had chain slap. One by can be frustrating on the road when you need to go at the same speed as those around you, and when a shift from the 10 to the 12 tooth means a drop from 48 to 40 kmph. On the Cloudride it never once frustrated me.So there it is, you need a bike made of something, you need handle bars, you need 60mm of tyre width (2.4) but you can go skinnier with sus, you need Goldilocks tread, and 1x1.5 as your lowest gear, whether that’s 30x46 or 28x44 or 34x50.In the next instalment I’ll tell you about the three mistakes I made on the Cloudride.
James is in recovery mode somewhere on the Baltic ...... water treatment for his hands and head it would seem! He sent me a nice post card .... and
Part 2 of his Cloudride write-up.
In my first instalment we were talking about the bike: bars, suspension, tyres and gears. This time I want to tell you about the three biggest mistakes I made on the Cloudride: wrong bike, wrong eating and wrong stopping. It's going to be great therapy for me, settle in.PART TWO:As you might recall, I had a drop bar bike with 45mm tyres and no suspension. The right bike would be a dual sus 29er, or less sus and more rubber, you choose. This doesn’t apply to the Tour Divide or Tour Aotearoa or the Munda Biddi or any other rides though. The Cloudride has more than 20,000m of vert in 1,000 ks. That’s 20m/km. Compare that to Tour Divide at 11m/km or Tour Aotearoa at less than 10m/km. The Cloudride is one hilly walk in the park. Since the ride starts and finishes at the same elevation, there is also 20,000 of descent, some of which you’ll also be walking. So that’s 20,000m of up in just 500km, which is an average or 4%...as long as there’s no flat bits. From Jindy to CBR you’ll spend one sixth of your time over 10%...jus’ sayin.The other thing that makes a dual sus 29er the right bike for the Cloudride is the surface. The Tour Aotearoa is about 60% sealed, the Cloudride is less than 10% sealed. Moreover, there are hundreds of kilometres of bush tracks and high country tussocks, which will hurt your rear end a lot, but not as much as they’ll hurt your wrists.
The reason why this article has taken four months to write is that the sensation is only just returning to all my fingers. With a full sus 29er, you’ll be slower on the bitumen but faster everywhere else, and there’s not much bitumen. In particular, you’ll be needing traction up hills like out of the Tantawangalo; but you’ll also be faster on bumpy downhills like coming off the Brindabellas, and much faster on rock strewn paths like Island Bend fire trail, Grey Mare fire trail, the Hume and Hovell walking track, or the farm road odyssey from Bomby to Delegate. Who knows how much more power I could have put down if I had a full sus bike with 60mm instead of 45mm tyres. Hours of time savings that’s for sure. Then there’s the stopping. Once the person in front of you is more than ten hours ahead, and the person behind you is ten hours behind, the urgency kind of goes out of the race. I stopped for more time than was necessary for two reasons: the desire to have a yak, and pure muddle headed dumbarsedness. You meet great people on the way and a chat is so much nicer than facing the road. Then there’s the cloud of stupid that sits above your head when you’re over tired. Like the time I headed into town needing two things, a bathroom and water; and had budgeted 20 minutes to find them, and buy some food. Ninety minutes later I left town with a full stomach, a need for a bathroom and empty water bottles. My final major time eater was eating. I had a pretty good plan which summarised the food I had to buy in each town, where to buy it, opening hours, the grams of carbohydrates I’d be getting and the grams I’d require. Fail. I kept up with the plan on day one, eating two giant burritos, three ham and cheese croissants, six hot cross buns and much more in addition to bars and 200grams of malto, and a big dinner. I was on plan, and flying. But the bulk caught up with me and I just couldn’t face more food. In the end I bonked on the way into Jindabyne, on Island Bend fire trail even though I had a full sized family pizza on board, into Cabramurra, and on my last night over the Brindabellas. Eating is a tough gig.The first solution is to carry more maltodextrin and to add it to everything so it doesn’t hurt your guts. Secondly, analyse bulk as well as energy in food choices. Thirdly, make it easy to eat once you’ve bought it. For the sake of aero I had no front roll and no chaff bags either, and that made it harder to access food. The Cloudride runs clockwise in even years and anti-clockwise in odd years. In 2018, I took 48 hours to do the first 500 k then 68 to do the second. Is the western half of the course harder than the eastern, or did I just die a thousand deaths? Fortunately strava and spot trackers are the analyst’s friend. Although the data are imperfect due to course variations, the message is clear. The eastern half of the course is about ten hours quicker, and in addition most riders fatigue by about ten hours in their second half of the race, regardless of their direction. So I did three big things wrongly, and a myriad of little ones too. But there were a few good choices that maybe you can learn from as well. The first of which was a philosophy of having one item for each job. Glasses are an example; some people take three pairs, sunglasses, clear glasses and reading glasses. I took prescription photochromatic glasses. I walked across the Snowy in socks that I had planned to throw away afterwards. Putting on dry socks after the last major river crossing was a joy. My water strategy also worked well, one large bottle, one small bottle, and a 1 litre plastic bladder which I filled and carried in my jersey ahead of long dry stretches. My lights turned out to be perfect. A dynamo light was complemented by a helmet mounted battery light. The Cloudride is well named, you’ll spend a lot of time riding in cloud. When you are, a helmet light is next to useless, it only illuminates the fog in front of your face. What you need is a light mounted as low down as possible. Perhaps my best decision was riding with Trevor Fairhurst, four time Cloudrider, hardman triathlete, and his bio also suggests that he’s a decent shot. We rode all the way to the Snowy together. Trev’s superpower is finding high country huts.On night one we were wandering along at around 11pm when Trev said “apparently there’s a hut just a few hundred meters off the trail around here”. Sure enough, a few minutes later we were cosy and dry and getting a couple of hours of shut eye. In the soft light of morning, only a kilometre or two down the road we found competitor Scotty Preston dragging his sleepy head out of a ditch to rejoin the fight. Nice one Trev. He also showed me where to cross the Delegate River, which could have been treacherous. Other things that went well included dropping the saddle for the hell descent down Tingaringy. Since most saddle packs don’t play well with dropper posts, I took a tiny torque wrench for the job. Lastly, my warm clothes were also my sleeping clothes, so I only took a +10degree bag, a liner and a bivvy. It worked down to almost freezing. In the final instalment you’ll read about the race itself, feral horses, a suicidal bunny, a time machine and the dude of the century. Thanks for reading.
“Jaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaames! How ya doing? You must have a hunger up.
Wait up people there’s a Cloudrider to feed”
I’d stumbled into the café in the town of Delegate with a proper hunger for sure; but the welcome cheered me up well beyond the food. Seeing the Cloudride satellite tracking page on their office computer made me feel part of something bigger.
Below: PC in the Delegate café tracking inbound, high value customers
Experiences like this make the Cloudride and other organised bikepacking races/events special. In Nimmitibel the publican had us sign a photo of the course for later display on the wall “I dunno where you skinny buggers put it but youse sure can eat like a timber worker”. But after a warm welcome and warm dinner it was out into the inky blackness with random wildlife playing a game of “who can get closest to being hit by the cyclist”.
“What can I do you for luv?” said the woman at the Bomby Bakery; “yeah a sausage roll please” “anything else?” “sure, and a salad roll to take away” “anything else darl?” “half a dozen hot cross buns please” “anything else?” “why not, how about a serve of pancakes with maple syrup and ice cream” “anything else?” “an espresso, and a large cappuccino too actually” “anything else?” “some pecan pie, thanks very much” “anything else?” “oh come on, that’s not enough???”
The “trail” across private property before the Delegate River. In Steve’s words “I’ve just done a straight line across there, you’ll work it out”
While packing the calories away, four weekend riders started inspecting my bike on the street. Like, really inspecting it; pointing and discussing, noting and commenting. Then they came inside tentatively and walked up to me. “James?” one asked, I couldn’t have been more shocked “ah,…yeah” I sputtered, flakes of sausage roll and pancake (they go so well together) flying across the table. “We ride with the group in Pambula where you ride sometimes so we thought we’d ride up and say hi”. That’s a 160k round trip with 2,300 of vert, a pretty big ask for the chance to have a yak to a stinky and incoherent Cloudrider. What a humbling gesture, and one that I couldn’t get out of my mind in the following days.
By the following night I was in the Tubbut community hall with one legend, Trev Fairhurst, just as another legend, Jess Douglas, was pulling out. A great place for a few hours of sleep and an early morning to tackle the terrible Tingaringy. This is the halfway point of the race and has been called many things over the years. Matt Turner called it “the crux of the Cloudride which is to…hike 10km of unfathomably steep Tingaringy Wilderness Fire Trail.” Ross Hamilton said “it was only 37km, but it took 6 hours to complete. This section was easily the toughest part of the Cloudride. Most of that 37km was unrideable.“ Jess called it “M#!#@(%^(!!^% C@^$ H*!!” and that wasn’t the worst. Organiser Steve Watson later confided to me that he’s only ridden half of it, and I commend him for that wise decision.
Above: In the Tubbut Community Hall with Jess before the Tingaringy wiped the smile off our faces
Fortunately, I had ridden the Tingaringy over New Year’s and knew what lay ahead. That’s a lie, I had walked the Tingaringy and knew what lay ahead. Leaving in time for dawn to break at the summit, we were able to descend in the light. On a rare rideable bit I came around a corner at speed and startled some feral horses. For a few moments I was rolling amongst them, before they wheeled around and disappeared over an escarpment and into the abyss. The world had gone from silent to thundering to silent again in a matter of moments and I was left a skinbag full of adrenaline and wonder.
Below: The view from on top of the Tingaringy.
The Cloudride goes through Yuin, Ngarigo, Jaitmathang and Bidawal country and I acknowledge those people and pay my respects to them. No sane person would choose to go over the Tingaringy, and indeed the indigenous people had a far more sensible route up to the high country called the Bundian Way. This was surveyed in 2010 and would be a cracking bikepacking tour if all the land could be accessed, with the prize of eating a Bogong moth to symbolise successful completion.
Late that same night I was cold, tired, hungry and deep into the KNP. There hadn’t been any sign of another human for hours. Rolling down to the Gungarlin River I was greeted by a blazing campfire on the other side. Two top fellas invited me to sit down and warm my toes in front of the fire. “There are a couple of people in front of you but they didn’t stop, they were in a hurry”. It was a great chance to connect with others, have a yarn, and swallow the jumbo sized family pizza that I’d been carrying since lunch in Jindabyne. What followed was a hard and bone cold night traversing farms on the high plains, fording streams and warding off the midnight demons. Neither the clock nor the bike seemed to move, but the scenery in the light of the full moon more than made up for it.
Below: Tabletop mountain “trail” at dawn
The art of the last-second, death-defying dash in front of vehicles is not unique to skippy and his mates. The next night I was descending through pine plantations into Batlow amid sustained rabbity crossfire. Their brinkmanship was very impressive until one little fella took things a step to far. Wait, wait, wait, GO! It took off like it had stolen something and hit my front rim with its skull at maximum velocity. Tonk. The front wheel was knocked off course but looking behind all I could see was a furry little and very still ball on the road. Helmets should be mandatory for roadside bunnies.
I was keen to get to Batlow because the publican had left two entire dinners in a supermarket esky bag under an outdoor table for me. Rolling in around midnight I set the table, got out the cutlery and ate in freezing solitude. After a three hour nap in a local park I returned to the scene of the dine and ate the second meal before hitting the road, my spirits lifted by food and bitumen. As usual, after just a couple of kms the little line on the GPS turned first onto a gravel road, then down some poor soul’s driveway, past their sheds and down to the river which I had to ford. From there it was 90 minutes of cussing up a blackberry stewn path, then on to the Hume and Hovell trail.
Tired? Yes. Race clock was over 90 hours, and the fatigue had come to tease me. I sat down on an embankment in a pine forest for a quick bite; it was only weeks later that strava showed me I’d been there for half an hour, asleep while sitting up. Later that same day climbing the Brindabella Range on disused double track I recall seeing a perfectly formed tuft of grass in the middle of the trail. The next thing I knew was that I woke up with my head on the tuft, with no recollection of getting off the bike or lying down. My helmet and glasses were still on and had dug into my face, and I’d left a little dribbled thank you on the grass for services rendered. It made me glad to be doing an offroad event.
In this general state of knackeredness I tackled the Hume and Hovell trail. Actually the trail tackled me. You know those rough hewn steps you find in National Parks, the uneven ones made from timber with rock and rubble fill? I came around a corner and was faced with a staircase that I wouldn’t have ridden down on my CX bike even if it was unloaded and I was fresh, but by the time I’d made that mental note I was already bucking my way down. It was one of those staircases when the only time you could dismount was when there was a wheel on each of two steps and you couldn’t reach the ground. At the bottom of the staircase was a hard left turn and a strategically placed tree on the inside of the corner. On the outside was an eight foot high wall of blackberries. I’m not really one for negative self talk but “there’s no way I’m making that corner” “I wonder how much this is going to hurt?” and “if it is a soft landing I could have a sleep in there” all wafted slowly through my mind as I wobbled my way down the stairs. Sure enough, I executed an elegant high side dismount with tuck and half pike straight into the wall of thorns. These suckers were huge, in fact I used some of my unlimited time buried in them to make accurate comparisons of their thickness to that of my thumb, and those brambles were thicker for sure.
It says a bit about how gawn I was that I really did contemplate having a sleep before extracting myself. I also calculated how many hours back Trev was, and wondered whether I could wait for him and get a bit of help. Ultimately, it took about ten minutes of torn clothes and skin to get myself out. Little did I know that the day had only just begun.
After refuelling at the excellent Coffee Peddler in Tumut (run by a professional cycling coach with 20 years’ experience; you should have seen his face when I told him I had 1,200 TSS on the clock already) there were only two hills to go. By this time I’m only pushing 130w and it’s coming apart at the seams. I was aiming for a refuel at Wee Jasper, which has one shop. Making it there before the shop closed became my tiny world into which I poured what little I had left. People had told me not to expect too much at the shop but it grew sophisticated, welcoming and plentiful in my imagination. Wee Jasper itself is a set of encampments along the river as the valley begins to open out. I was dry and hungry, and the shop was my only hope…but where was it? I rode from one set of houses to the next not knowing whether the town was in front of me or behind. Finally, in desperation I had to stop. There was a 4x4 ute and a man by the road so I pulled up, but when he turned to face me it was as though I had come face to face with my nightmares. This dude was the human embodiment of all my prejudices. It was the guy who, in my darkest hours, is the one who is going to run me down on some quiet country road. He wasn’t young, he had no front teeth (I kid you not), and his roo bar preposterously big. His ute was old and dusty, and so were his clothes, and as he slowly looked me up and down I regretted stopping immensely.
By that time it just would have been weird to ride off, so I asked where the shop was. “Down there mate” he said; then after a pause, “but it’s closed you know”. “What? Why? How?” I was devastated, and just a bit overtired. “they’ve gawn home, it’s a bloody nice day you know”. “why? You in a hurry mate? Shouldda driven if yer in a hurry”.
I don’t mind saying that by this time I was pretty overwrought, as though my salad roll and choccy bar actually mattered. In truth it didn’t – I was 10 hours ahead of my nearest competitor and 10 hours behind second place, so nothing was going to change. And what was I racing for exactly? Nothing. A race with no prize.
But that’s not what I said; instead, it all poured out as if this guy cared. But when he found out where I was going, and where I’d been, his demeanor changed at once. “Up there! On that? Strewth.” “Doctors Flat Rd and then Uriarra, geez cobber you’re in for it” But I didn’t have the calories for it, that much was clear to me. “Mate, well Wee Jasper isn’t gunna let you down, no siree” and with that he climbed into his ute, spun the wheels in a big 180 and sped off back up the road.
Too tired to care, I lay down in a meagre patch of shade, and after a few minutes I heard someone thrashing a motor and a great dust cloud appear from over the hill. Seconds later my guardian angel was back. He had made me two roast beef rolls, and added a bunch of grapes, a banana, a tub of yoghurt and a small bottle of water. I was speechless. Here was a man who represented all my prejudices confounding them with generosity and kindness. What could I say, how could I repay? There was nothing for it but to humbly offer my thanks and promise him that I’d tell anyone who would listen that Wee Jasper didn’t let me down.
As I pedalled off into the valley bathed in the now setting sun I felt elation to match the misery that had nearly overcome me just half an hour before. Soon enough though, the maths began, and I still had a woefully inadequate number of calories for the job at hand. A few hours later I was in all kinds of trouble with a hunger flat I couldn’t fix. The cloud had set in and I was averaging seven kmph. Aware of my fatigue I walked every time I felt unsure; the risks were too high up there on a cold night with nobody around.
And then it happened. The downhill was short and the cloud was thick, so I couldn’t have been going more than 20, but the single lane had brush right up to it and a little embankment; just perfect for an ambush. Like a furry brown cannon ball the wombat shot out a meter or so in front of me without even time for me to hit the anchors. I hit its hindquarters hard, and my seat bucked me high into the air. I was up there so high I had a good chance to study the ground that was quickly rising up to meet my face when all of a sudden it was over, the rear wheel grounded and I rolled onwards. Seconds later the adrenaline hit and I was a quivering mess, my hands shook so much I couldn’t keep the bike straight and had to stop riding.
Nauseous with fatigue, shaking from my wombat suicide bomber and hungry beyond words the final night of the Cloudride passed excruciatingly slowly. The last kilometres were especially awful, where the course turns away from the suburbs and into a pine forest instead of down to the finish line. It felt like I was skulking around Canberra like a low life instead of the triumphal entry I’d earned. But there at the end, at 3am, was Steve Watson, organiser and tireless supporter. I swallowed three meat pies at a servo before falling asleep somewhere in a park.
When morning broke my first order of business was the local swimming pool where I knew I could get a shower. Rolling gingerly down Lonsdale St I ran across the local roadie bunch who took one look at me, knew me by name (or by dot) and took me to their local café. A coffee and a pastry and the chit chat of cyclists at cafes the world over again gave me a lift.
Right: Shootin’ the breeze in the café with the Canberra peleton.
So it’s time to return to the original question, why should you do the Cloudride. I reckon there’s three reasons: Firstly, the course. The Monaro is amazing, plus you get Tantawangalo, Tingaringy, the Jagungal and Brindabellas thrown in for free. And Steve arranges for the Cloudride to traverse private property that would otherwise be inaccessible, so you can’t just go and ride the course any day you feel like.
Secondly, the people. From the crazy competitors to the crazy locals the people make you feel like you’re part of something bigger.
Finally, the challenge. This is a serious undertaking, one that you might not put yourself though voluntarily. But as everyone who does these things says, you can do more than you can possibly imagine.
I must thank all those who supported me, but particularly my riding mates who I count myself blessed to know. Steve Watson must also be acknowledged, he’s an inspiration and does countless hours of unpaid work to help more people experience bikepacking. Bicycle Network and Hub kit also helped: zero saddle sores is quite the achievement! Ultimately though, without the support of my family these kinds of endeavours would be both impossible and pointless.