The Monaro Cloudride for me had always been two words which evoked both anxiety and desire at the same time. Since I first heard about it in 2013 I had considered the event an otherworldly feat of human endurance, an intangible goal as high out of reach as the clouds into which the route ascended. Still, this notion of self-supported adventure racing where the course was so long that you had to sleep along the way, was coming into my consciousness at just the time that conventional one day XC racing was starting to lose its appeal. These so-called ‘bikepacking’ events seemed to be a form of racing where you needn’t be finishing at the pointy end of the field to be considered successful at it. It was a personal challenge, and for those capable could also see how they compared with others.
Fast forward to 2017 and I had a few bigger stage races under the belt and had been collecting bikepacking gear and had done a couple of overnighters. With life commitments getting more and more serious I didn’t want to put this challenge off any longer so three months out I signed up and began training in earnest. As the event drew closer my stress and anxiety levels began to grow. I hadn’t had a lot of high country experience and I knew I don’t deal well with the cold. There were plummeting temperatures and snow falls in Cabramurra the week before the event and I had visions of being barred up in a mountain hut in a blizzard waiting to be rescued.
The night before the race we all met up for dinner and some last minute briefing from race director Steve Watson. I was conscious about eating as much as I could to charge the energy stores for the hard days to come and tried to conceal my nerves amongst the other seemingly well relaxed riders. I could barely sleep that night. I was so ready I could not wait to get started.
Half way through the first day I was struggling. Riders had passed me and I felt like I was never going to see them again. My mind already started to tell me that I wasn’t really as good at this as what I thought I was going to be, and that the five riders ahead of me were the real deal and would continue to push on. It took eight hours to arrive in Tumut at 150km. It would be the last food resupply for a while and being the Easter long weekend there were limited opening hours all along the route. About the only thing open which was fast and convenient was McDonalds, and I broke a seventeen year abstinence of eating that food due to ethical reasons so that I could continue on with this race. I tell you, the energy surge I got after that meal was amazing. I blasted through the Hume and Hovel walking/single track around the edge of the Blowering Dam like I was out for a 2 hour XC ride. I caught up to Trevor and went past him, then later caught up with Jessica who had just been communicating with Steve about a last minute reroute around some vicious overgrown blackberries. Steve Fitchett had been out in the front and had followed the official route, only to tear his arms and legs to ribbons dragging himself and bike though the blackberries.
The three of us rode into Batlow at 10.30pm in search of food. Amazingly the pub was still open and we graciously bought bags of chips and soft drink. The barman was more than a little bemused when we claimed we were now heading up to Cabramurra via some off-road route.
Hang on I said, we’re heading where? It had gotten cold, and we had ridden 200km in 14 hours and Jess wanted to make it to Obrien’s hut at the 285km mark and 1500m above sea level. We put on all our clothing and started the slow grind. Later I pulled out a cheeseburger. It turns out those things really are microwaved plastic and cardboard and it was totally inedible. At some point Jess and Steve dropped behind and I had found a rhythm on the climb and continued on alone. After some time had passed it dawned on me how remote my location was and the thunderous sound of wild brumby hooves beating on the turf only ten metres away reminded me that I was far from alone out here but a touch out of my comfort zone. I have never led a race before and it was an empowering feeling to know that the riders behind would be following my tyre tracks and I was pioneering on ahead where possibly not many people had ridden bikes before.
At 3am I thought this is probably far enough for day one, and surely Jess and Steve had packed it in for the day also. 265km in 19 hours with 5500m elevation gain. I set up my tent right on the side of the track and got in and barely ten minutes later I heard the unmistakable sound of tyres cutting through the hard pack and a light breaking through the darkness. You have got to be kidding! I assumed it was Steve and wondered how far he would get. I needed to rest so I set my alarm for three hours.
I was out at first light and found myself in a vastly different landscape then what I had last seen. The terrain was getting very tough and there was some hike a bike.
I made it all the way to Cabramurra without seeing anyone and wondered if Steve had slept in the hut. About 15 minutes later Steve showed up at the bistro and told me that it was Jess who had forged on last night and that she probably pushed all the way past Cabramurra and kept going. But you couldn’t do that. This is the only resupply until Jindabyne and that’s a ten hour ride. Surely she is still behind somewhere?
I rode with Steve for about half an hour along the Bicentennial Network trail, which is an overland hiking route linking Selwyn Snow Resort with Jindabyne. Very slow going here with rutted grassy trails and loose rocks everywhere. There was no flow and pedalling was hard. Steve was on 40mm tyres and had front suspension. He was a little more cautious on the descents than me with a 2.35” front tyre and rigid fork, but he would soon make ground on me on the climbs and before long he was gone. That was the last time I would see another rider until the wombat incident in a couple of days.
By 9pm I was totally spent and felt unable to continue for the day. Jindabyne was too far and nothing would be open when I got there. Better to get an early start and be at Jindy for when something hopefully opens up. I had only travelled 105km and 3000m elevation in 15 hours. I checked the tracker for the first time and saw that indeed Jess was up ahead and was making her way down the Barry Way, some six hours ahead of me. Trevor and Adam were maybe two and four hours behind me.
I awoke to the sound of another bike passing me. It was Adam. He had done a long pull to get that far and was probably quite tired at that point. I got up in another half hour and was on the bike by 4am. I would not stop riding until 2am the following morning when I arrived in Bombala.
By then I had conquered what was probably the crux of the Cloudride which is to ford the Snowy River and then hike 10km of unfathomably steep Tingaringy Wilderness Fire Trail. Now, Steve Watson in his typical understated fashion had not really emphasised the difficulty in moving oneself and ones bike over this 10km and 1100 vertical metre trail, but fortunately I had done some physical preparation for this sort of thing and yet it still took 3.45 hours to reach the summit.
Not wanting to take too much weight over this climb I just filled up one bottle from the Snowy River even with the words of Steve in the back of my head ‘treat this water with suspicion’, and I had hardly taken any food from Jindabyne thinking that I would easily get to Delegate in opening hours.
Well I got to Delegate at 10.30pm, cold, tired and hungry. The only thing open was the public toilet where I took some refuge while I checked the tracker to see what damage had been done that day. Jess and Steve were just up ahead at the next town which was about 3.5 hours away although it looked like Jess had stopped for a while and Steve was moving on. More pressingly Adam was moving up from behind and had passed the hike a bike and was already through Tubbut. Must keep going. So on I forged through the open plains of the Monaro district with endless back dirt roads and suicidal wombats that silently scuttled across the road around every bend. I am seriously surprised I didn’t see remnants of vehicles that had been rendered inoperable by collisions with these nocturnal creatures, as there were just as many dead ones as live ones. And if it wasn’t the wombats it was the kangaroos and many a time I narrowly avoided hip and shouldering one of these things trying to race me.
I only had water, Nodoze and chocolate bars to fuel me all day and I was running on adrenaline alone. Arriving at Bombala was bleak and lonely. I circled around searching for stealth camp spots and opted for the showgrounds where there was a roofed animal pavilion with little timber pens that would make a great home for the next few hours.
I pulled out my inflatable mat and down quilt and crawled in with all my riding clothes on and pulled that quilt hard around my ears and let myself lay there until the sun came up. Given the demands of the last few days it felt like 5-star camping and I drifted in and out of sleep with a warm sense of achievement and contentment.
I was very happy to see Bombala had a well-stocked supermarket and bakery that were open. I bought a little more food here than previous, not wanting to take any more chances. According to the tracker Jess was still here in a hotel maybe, and Adam was moving. I headed off feeling a little bit renewed and the weather was still sunny and clear. I rider on a CX bike came towards me and said that he had been following the race and had gone out to try and find Jess as apparently her tracker wasn’t working. That means she is probably up ahead but how far? OK thanks man gotta go! It was now definitely feeling like a race to make as much ground as possible with only 350km to go. And at this point a three hour gap between riders could easily be lost by sleeping too long or spending too long in a town, or having a mechanical problem. If we were all feeling equally fatigued and not able to ride hard, then stopping less was going to make all the difference in how this race would play out.
Approaching Nimitabel I was floundering and needed a little motivation. I checked the tracker and saw that Jess was still in the town, and she had posted on Facebook a picture of her having a meal. That was all the motivation I needed, food and a competitor just ahead. I raced into town on the bitumen road really expecting to see her coming the other direction before heading back out onto the course proper. In my haste I ate only a pie and a sausage roll, drank a ginger beer and a milkshake, filled my bottles with water and grabbed a sandwich to go. The next town was 220km away but I was sleep-deprived and overcome with race intentions and had just made a big mistake.
The cold came, night fell, the wombats emerged, I was edgy and running on caffeine and sugar. I could see myself looking down over my right shoulder and thinking, this guy is fucked. He’s out in the middle of nowhere riding his bike at night with no food and he has a long way to go to get himself out of this situation. Then I would go back into my body and think oh no, this is actually me and I’m actually here and now doing this. I had dreamt about doing a bikepacking race for a long time and now here I was knee deep in it with all the associated glamour. Despite having come this far and riding close behind a couple of 24 hour champions, I could not muster up one positive emotion.
We were going through a lot of farming country and had to stop and open countless cattle gates. Every time I got off the bike I felt frail and week and unbalanced and struggled to clip my feet back into the pedals. It was then that a vehicle approaching me slowed down and a voice said, can you stop for a minute I want to talk to you. I looked in the car and saw Jess sitting in the passenger seat looking very spaced out. I wondered what the hell is going on here. He gave me some elaborate story about how she had hit a wombat and then gone to a nearby house to seek help, and now he was taking her to hospital in Cooma. Are you OK Jess, have you called Steve? She mumbled something I couldn’t really hear and the driver said they had called Norm and he was aware of the situation. I guess the story checks out. I continued on and sure enough not far along was the wombat which had clearly come off second best. I guess I was now in second position but didn’t know how to feel about what had just transpired. It wasn’t fair at all, but it wasn’t even racing at that point anyway it was just surviving what I hoped would be my last night out. I was thinking about Jess as I rode for a bit and also the dark times that had befallen the endurance cycling world over the last few weeks. The road had turned horribly corrugated and I was off and walking anything over a 5% gradient. I was getting nowhere and my delusions of pulling an all-nighter to get this thing done had vaporised. I didn’t have any phone reception and couldn’t check the tracker so I didn’t know how close Adam was behind or Steve in front. If Adam caught up to me there would have been nothing I could do anyway so I pitched the tent in some long wet grass by a cow paddock and set the alarm for 4am.
I was excited by the prospect of finishing this today but lacking all the vital ingredients necessary to ride 200km. I had another spontaneous nosebleed and doused everything in the path of the blood flow as I rode.
I came across a feed zone set up by what must have been a ‘trail angel’, an anonymous person who provides serendipitous assistance to riders in these sorts of events. So it was coke and bananas for breakfast and onwards I forged. By the time I got to the Tallaganda National Park at about 100km to go I had completely depleted my glycogen stores and my muscles were empty. I could only ride the flats and the downhills and my granny gear still wasn’t enough for the normally easily rideable climbs. I had run out of choices though. At this point the only way to get out of here was to move myself, even if its one step at a time. I was desperate and hopeless and could only allow one thought to pervade my consciousness – keep – moving – forward.
Finally I descended out of the last pass though the National Park and remembered that there was a 20km section of flat bitumen into Bungendore. This is what had been motivating me on. Waiting for me was an older guy on a road bike who had been following me on the tracker and had come to ride with me into town and offer me food. We rode next to each other as he passed me bananas and energy bars and my spirits and energy levels immediately lifted. Some other dot watchers on the side of the ride were taking photos and cheering and I had a tear come to my eye. I had never experienced this kind of attention from strangers before for doing something which is really so personal and individual, but amongst like-minded people there is an empathy and a respect freely exchanged.
Sitting at a café in Bungendore I felt so relieved to have made it and I knew that the hard work was done. I ordered lots of food and coffee, not that I could eat it all but it just seemed the right thing to do and I wanted to enjoy this last 40km into Canberra with a full warm belly.
Night fell for the last time over the pines to the east of the city and then the lights appeared which signalled my return to civilization and the end to what had been an adventure full of everything that I had expected it to be, including the experience of some extreme lows. I had been longing for the time I would be back at home sitting on my couch with a cup of tea, the dog on my lap and my wife next to me and I felt like I could really appreciate those simple pleasures of home life, content with the knowledge that I had taken myself so far out of my comfort zone that I could truly understand that its not the unobtainable extravagances in life which we think will make us happy, but sometimes it’s the basic comforts that we already have and the people around us that we need to cherish.
Its true that the last couple of days were pretty dark for me. I knew it would be like that and that it would almost be necessary to endure in order to accomplish such a feat. In the first days when you are unstoppable and atop the mountain you turn a switch in your head that says I can do this.
You let your body know what you want it to do and one way or another you are going to get to the end. That is a powerful feeling that money cannot buy. Rolling through the bike paths of Canberra I wondered if anybody around me in their cars knew what I had just done? It didn’t matter, I knew. I soaked up those last quiet kilometres knowing that soon enough it would be back to normal life, but this was my moment to savour. I was at peace and the suffering was replaced by pure self-satisfaction.