Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sydney to the Gong Ride Part III: The Ride Home

So, the fundraising had happened, the ride had been done and the costume worn.  Sarah, St Pete, Emily and I were happily lounging around the finish line in Wollongong enjoying the festivities.

But I knew it wasn't over.

My colleagues at work were eagerly awaiting the news of my return ride home and a promise was a promise.

While the entertainment in the park was really enjoyable and the weather picture perfect, I knew I shouldn't hang around too long otherwise I'd get too comfortable, the body would start realising it was tired, and I'd never get going again.  I had a monster climb to negotiate back up to Waterfall and then find my way back across Sydney proper to the Harbour Bridge and home.  And as the minutes passed the temperature was also rising.  Gale force southerlies had been predicted for the afternoon and while this meant a tail wind heading home it also meant hot winds.

An hour after rolling over the finish line, then, I was starting the Garmin again and saying goodbye to St Pete, Sarah and Emily.  They were all making their way back to the train and taking the civilised route home.

I wouldn't be.

Instead I started retracing my route north and slowly warming the legs up again.  I was in no rush.  I had all afternoon to do this - it was just a case of ticking over the kilometres.  The temperature by this stage had topped 30 degrees.  And it would stay between 30-38 degrees for the next 3 hours.  And I was still in a velvet bee costume.

Hmm, who's idea was this again?  Oh, that's right, mine….

As I was heading north there were still streams of cyclists heading towards the finish.  You could tell the heat was getting to them, as well as the distance.  Hills were being walked but the spirits were still high and this Queen Bee got plenty of smiles and cheers as she rode in the opposite direction.  At Thirroul I was definitely feeling the heat, though, and as I approached I saw a mirage in the distance.

Opposite me was the most welcome sight I had ever seen - a Juice Junkie sign.

Bergie's Fish Cafe in Thirroul was roadside and its associated juice bar, Juice Junkie opened in September this year and it's ice cold juice menu looked amazing.  Especially in 32 degrees!!!  It didn't take much self-talk to decide to stop for a break and have a watermelon concoction.

Rehydrated and with a core body temperature a couple of degrees lower I set off again, ready to take on the climb up to Waterfall.  And what a climb.  The first section, up to Stanwell Tops took me to the intersection where the cops had previously helped reattach my wings.  They were still there and it was a great excuse to stop for a couple of minutes and check the traffic management situation.  Heading right would have taken me back through the national park the way we had come down.  However the road was still closed for cyclists coming the other way and so I had no choice but to go left…a much shorter and sharper trip up to the highway…

Off I went then, and started the long grind to the top.  Part way up I spotted this great view of where I had come from and so had to take a photo for the blog….  No, it had nothing to do with needing to find a reason to stop for a couple of minutes…

Did I mention it was hot?

Anyway, I carried onwards and upwards - slowly - and shared greetings with the half dozen or so guys also making their way back.  And yes, I'm saying guys in the masculine sense.  There was a distinct lack of female company along the route and I was getting some "hard core" comments from the blokes.  But come on girls, where were you all?!!!

Finally I made it up to Pacific Highway and found myself up on the highway.  Unfortunately by the time I got there I ran into a couple of problems, the main one being my now empty drink bottle.

No, there was no leak in it - in the heat I had drunk it dry.

Yes - on the way down to Wollongong I had drunk around 3/4 of the bottle (plus the cup of coffee at Loftus Oval) over the full distance.  However the new bottle I had started out with in Wollongong was drained completely and I hadn't even completed 30km.

And by this stage the wind had got up.  This was good and bad.  Good as I was able to put my head down and make a beeline for Waterfall, the first opportunity to stop and replenish fluids.  Bad because it was a hot, dry, (did I mention hot?) wind.

To add to the challenging situation the hot, dry, wind, also decided to a strong, hot, dry, wind.  As a result, the inevitable happened and the wings took to the air and headed off down a bank.  For a split second I thought about trying to retrieve them but at the same time realised I had no way of putting them back on by myself (bit of a design flaw there….) and even less chance of carrying them the remaining 60km home.  At that point I was also far more focused on getting some more cold drink into me than trying to rescue a pair of flyaway wings.  So I put them behind me, put it down to experience (next time, leave the wings with St Pete and ride without them), put my head down and made a beeline for Waterfall.

Waterfall is a suburb on the outskirts of Sydney, known mainly as an access point for the Royal National Park and host to a stop on the train line to Wollongong.  With the exception of the train station there's nothing there (visible from the highway running through it), except a fish and chip shop - Legendary Fish & Chips.  And that's where I stopped next.

This day deserves a Coke
The plan was to buy an ice cold drink there and maybe a Powerade or similar to refill the bottle with.  As I pulled up on the side of the road and got off my bike there was another cyclist already sitting outside at one of the tables having a drink.  After expressing his amazement of me riding back to Sydney in a bee costume he said "take your water bottle inside - they're doing free water refills".


In I went, water bottle in hand and grabbed a 600ml bottle of coke from the fridge to buy.  Sure enough, the guy at the counter not only filled my bottle with water but topped it up with shaved ice as well.  It was such a great thing for them to do - if you are ever passing through Waterfall, make sure you give these guys some love and stop in for some fish and chips at Legendary Fish & Chips.  You can't miss them, they're right opposite the train station on the main highway.

The temperature wasn't getting any cooler and so after I'd downed the coke I jumped on the bike and carried on north along the Princes Highway towards Sydney.  Waterfall is the highest point in the Royal National Park and so it was essentially a downhill run from here to the northern border of the Park and the outskirts of suburban Sydney proper.  I say essentially as it was along this stretch that I had my first argument with the Garmin Edge, which decided I needed to leave the highway and take a left turn for no apparent reason.  I did well at ignoring its entreaties for a while - after all I had a decent bike lane to sit in and I knew I was heading in the right direction.  It finally caught me at a weak moment, though, and I foolishly decided that maybe it knew a route that I didn't know and, after all, why buy the thing if I couldn't trust it's obviously superior route-finding abilities.

Ha, how stupid was I?  One kilometre after taking said left turn I ended up in a dead end street requiring a retracing of route back to the Princes Highway and a vow to stay true to my gut forever more…

Before long I was out of the Park and heading through Gymea, Miranda, Taren Point and over the bridge to Sans Souci.  The temperatures were still incredibly hot and by this time I was dreaming of ice cream and I was sure there was a mobile ice cream van at the car park at Ramsgate Beach.

Unlike the Garmin Edge, my gut didn't lie and I rolled into that carpark determined to sit down for five minutes and devour a soft serve cone.  Which I did.  In the howling wind.  And 38 degrees.  It tasted REALLY great!

Ice cream time!
 The next section of this epic ride was also going to be the most difficult - navigationally.  I now had to find my way across Sydney and navigate my way through the heaviest traffic and this is where I had to put my trust in the Garmin.  This part of the ride is the reason why I take the train to Miranda when I'm riding in the southern suburbs as riding through the centre of the city just isn't bike-friendly when you're on your own.  

Previous hesitations aside I set off and let myself be guided.  Slowly and surely I made my way north and things seemed to be going OK with views of the Sydney Tower providing a reassuring point to "sight" against and ensure I wasn't being led astray by my little maps wizard.  The route took me through Petersham, Liechhardt, Lilyfield and Rozelle, which seemed a bit further out to the west than I had anticipated, however I figured we'd take a turn soon and start going east towards the CBD and harbour bridge.
At Rozelle I came to a T-Intersection and the Garmin confidently says "turn left".  I'm stopped at the lights and look at the intersection and see the helpful bike route signs.  The signs provide two options.  Head left to Parramatta.  Head right to the City.

Hmm.  The Garmin wants me to go to Parramatta?  Who is it kidding?

I was getting pretty tired by this stage - the heat and wind (and almost getting run over by a bus) had combined to take it out of me but, despite the fatigue, I still had sufficient common sense on board to realise that I did not want to be heading towards Parramatta.

I therefore decided to part ways with the Garmin (directionally-speaking) and, much to its disgust, I took the right hand turn onto Victoria Road and shortly thereafter over Anzac Bridge.  At this point I also figured out what my little buddy's problem was.  And this is important for any Garmin Edge owners in Sydney….

The route finding on the Garmin navigation maps for Sydney do not know how to direct bikes across the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

That's right.  I had encountered it on my first few rides with the Edge but figured it was something I was doing wrong.  However, no, it doesn't recognise the bike lane that goes across the bridge and so it was going to try and direct me towards Parramatta and cross the river further west and bring me home on the northern side of the river via Lane Cove and North Sydney.  Probably an additional 20km which, in the weather conditions, I wasn't in the least bit interested in entertaining.

All that didn't matter by this stage, though and the sight below was a very welcome one - the steps at the northern end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge and my finish point.  As I was taking this photo, St Pete had been tracking my progress, knew I was almost home and was walking down to meet me.  

Another very welcome sight!

So I did it.  The Sydney to Gong ride and back home again and a smidgeon under 180km.  Pretty happy with that.

In the days and months since I've had plenty of time to reflect on the experience and think about anything I'd do differently next time.

  • Would I do the Gong Ride again?  Absolutely.  It was such a fun day out.  Fantastic atmosphere and stunning route, so scenic.  And for anyone outside Sydney, this is definitely worth a trip over for the weekend.
  • Would I do the Gong Ride in a costume again? Absolutely.  It was a great way to add some fun to the day, not only for myself, but for the other riders as well.
  • Would I do the return ride home again?  Yes, although I'd probably be more flexible with my intentions and planning.  It would have been great to have stayed longer in Wollongong and enjoy the park festivities at the finish line.  As it was St Pete came down on the train but only spent about an hour there before I was turning around and heading north again.  Next time it would be good to make his journey down more worthwhile.  Also, if it is that hot again I'd like the flexibility to cancel the ride home and save it for a cooler day.
  • Would I do the return ride home in a costume again?  Probably not.  This is the only thing I'd change next time.  Especially given the conditions, but in any case, there was no real purpose and nothing to be gained from wearing the costume home again.  Being later in the day the wind had got up causing me to lose the wings and the elevated temperatures meant I just ended up overheating for the bulk of the ride, which could have been largely alleviated by not wearing velvet! Next time I'll change back into regular riding gear for the return ride home … unless someone donates a significant sum of money to the cause!

Until next year - Bzzzz :)

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sydney to the Gong Ride Part II - The Ride

So the costume was ready and fundraising complete.  All I had to do now was enjoy the day out and do the ride.

Oh, and ride home again.  But that's for the next instalment….

The morning arrived and by 5.00am we were outside our apartment block meeting Sarah and daughter Emily.  Sarah is a bootcamp buddy and tends to respond to my madcap ideas better than most!  We had done the Rebel Run with her the weekend before and she was keen to dust the cobwebs off her bike and join me on the ride.  Try as I might, though, she was less keen to join me on the return trip!

But that's OK, we were out to have some fun, enjoy the atmosphere, and then meet St Pete and Emily at the other end - they would head to Wollongong and hopefully arrive in time to see us finish.

So onto the train, in the dark, and onto St Peters Railway Station.  The start area of the ride was conveniently located at Sydney Park, directly opposite the station, so really well set up for people to take public transport and leave their cars at home.

At the start line
We had been given slightly different start times.  The first start time was 6.00am, however Sarah's was 6.15am and I was 6.30am.  Given the ride was untimed we figured though it wouldn't be a problem if we started together and so the aim was to go with the 6.15am group.  As it happened we turned up at the park, had a brief wander around to get our bearings and then saw people starting to line up in the start chute and so headed over to join them.  What we didn't realise at the time was that we would actually end up going with the first group.

Queen Bee is ready to go … bzzzz...
Being untimed, it really didn't matter.  Plus, despite being told several times during the start line briefing that "this is not a race", all these early guys were looking way too serious, and so this Queen Bee figured they could do with a bit of fun up the front!

Sometime after 6.00am the gun finally went off and we were on our way.  Down Princes Highway, through Tempe and then heading east to Brighton-Le-Sands and Ramsgate Beach.

This part of the route was all about getting warmed up.  The weather was starting out well - no wind and clear skies - it was going to be a stunner of a day.  Despite this not being a race, some groups were already obviously keen to hammer it and we happily let them go.

At Ramsgate Beach we passed the first water stop but didn't bother stopping for it.  It was early in the ride and we were rolling along well.  Over the bridge to Taren Point, through Miranda and Kirrawee and we were finally leaving the metropolis and reaching the start of the Royal National Park, the scenic part of the ride.

At the 30km mark we reached the morning tea stop, at Loftus Oval.  Yes, morning tea!  I told you this was a fun ride…..!

Muffins, tea, coffee and a water station to refill bottles were all laid on for the riders.  A festival atmosphere was around with music playing through outdoor speakers inside big wheelie bins throughout the field.  The muffins were devoured, closely followed by a nice hot cup of coffee, and it was good to provide some entertainment for the volunteers.  They were all in great spirits and loved having a Queen Bee turn up for some food.  I even had a couple of people stop to take my photo.  Bzzz.

Sarah arriving at Otford Lookout
Refuelled, we got back on the bikes and cruised along the highway to Waterfall where we were due to make a left turn off the highway and enter the National Park proper.  This was also the point of our first major descent and we were stopped at the top of the hill to wait for an escort who would drive down ahead of us.

As always, these drops were highlights for me and I'm sure a few people did a double-take at having a bee literally fly past them going down the hill.  I was getting plenty of positive comments from people as they went past or I went past them, although the funniest remark came from one guy who mistook the wings for another creature.  "Hey, I'm pushing too hard, I'm seeing fairies!", he yelled up ahead to his riding partners as he went past me.  Couldn't help thinking that he'd feel a right fairy if he let me pass him later on…bzzzz.

This section of the road through the national park was stunning.  Great road conditions, stunning bush to ride through and we undulated our way out the other end to the Otford Lookout where we had our first amazing views out over the ocean and first glimpse of the Ocean Road Bridge.

This provided another excuse for a brief stop for photos and to check out the views.  Did I mention it was stunning?

Otford Lookout
After leaving Otford Lookout we continued our way south along the coastline to Stanwell Tops and the start of our second major descent where we had to pause again to wait for another escort.  At this point the wind started getting up and, as we headed around the corner to start rollin downhill, a huge gust of wind came up and my wing popped off the back on one side.


I stopped by the side of the road and tried in vain to pop it back on, but my contortionist efforts with my arms wasn't happening.  By this stage Sarah had disappeared down the hill and had no idea that I had stopped.  There was nothing else for it but to run the 50m back up the hill to where the cops were managing the intersection and ask one of them to help this bee in distress.  I headed up the hill but found myself on the opposite side of the road to them.  Inbetween us were thousands of cyclists streaming past and so I had to wait for what seemed like an eternity for a gap to appear so I could get across.  Where did all these riders come from?!!!

Wing finally reattached I got going again and stormed down the hill, on a mission to try and catch Sarah again.  At the bottom of the hill we ride through Coalcliff and then get to ride over the Great Ocean Bridge, a section of the road that is built out over the ocean and appears in many tourist magazine shots.  Just after the bridge I finally caught Sarah - she had no idea what had happened and was starting to get worried as an ambulance had just gone past.  But I wasn't in it and thankfully rolled up just in time for her to not panic completely!

Soon after we came together again we reached Scarborough and a welcome fruit stop.  This time fruit and oranges were on offer, as well as another opportunity to fill water bottles.

This final section of the ride follows the coastline south, through Wombarra, Coledale, Austinmer and Thirroul before starting to use cycle ways and arriving at the northern outskirts of Wollongong and finish at Stuart Park.

As we started to see various industrial areas we also started to get distance indicators from the volunteers on the side of the road.  At one point we were told we had 15km to go and I looked at the Garmin to find that we had only done 62km.  Hmm.  If we were going to complete 90km then this was going to be a bit short.  But, don't worry, I thought, maybe their distances are a bit out.

On the outskirts of Wollongong and we go past another volunteer on a corner shouting out "only 5km to go".  Another check of the Garmin and it's reading 77km.  Definitely short.  Even more importantly, I was conscious that we might get in too early for St Pete and Emily to see us finish.  A quick stop and phone call to them confirmed that would be the case, but we were given the green light to carry on and not worry about it.  So we did, and soon after rolled over the finish line with high fives and about 3 hours 30min ride time under our belts.

Sydney to the Gong Ride: DONE!
About 20 minutes later St Pete and Emily found us, lounging on the grass eating our lunch, enjoying the atmosphere and the sense of achievement of making it to Wollongong in one piece.

What a great day it was.  Oh wait, it wasn't over.  Did someone say ride home?