Riding long distances is like cutting a large tree trunk in half with a tiny handsaw. Push too hard, too early and you’ll snap the blade, the equivalent of your body, and your ride is over.
The first 50km is like cutting through the bark. Where your standard mid-week ride poses no problems in discomfort or energy levels, for some reason, when you set out on a long ride you’re acutely aware of imperfections and annoyances.
Mentally you’re preparing yourself for the long day ahead, making sure each piece of the puzzle is in place; allowing for mechanical and mental problems. Oh yes, slicing the log, smelling the wood, mashing up a hill, looking out over the ocean, feeling free.
A car passes with bikes strapped to the roof. It could be bucketing down, or a raging inferno, but you know the people inside the car are jealous. You know because when you’ve been driving and you see a cyclist you want to stop and join in. When you’re riding it is you with machine with landscape. Whereas when you’re in a car it’s you and machine and landscape.
But it’s never as easy as it seems from inside the tinted windows. You cannot force your way up the road, you have to settle into a rhythm, let the blade do the work, let your legs find the right gear combo.
The festive season is a strange time, especially in Perth, one of the most remote cities in the world. Many friends who have left for bigger and better things return for a week or two to see their family. It’s also a time when everyone gets smashed on booze in what is known as the ‘silly season’.
Over the last five years, I’d extended the silly season out beyond the festive season and drank and smoked for too much and for too long.
Genuine heroics are riding more than 200km in a day, not drinking a carton of beer in an afternoon.
So, in March 2012, I stopped drinking and smoking altogether. In June, I rode my bicycle over 4000km from Darwin to Perth, raising $20,000 for Lifeline (suicide prevention) in the process. You can read about that here. In 2012 I estimate I’ve ridden about 20,000km. The self destruction has been transformed into voluntary suffering. I feel a lot better for it.
So instead of getting drunk this Christmas, I’m going to ride, a lot. The challenge I’ve set myself is to ride a loop here in Perth, known as the 5 Dams Ride. The ride is about 240km long with 2600 metres of climbing. The ride heads straight up the hills to Mundaring Dam, and then follows the scarp to Churchman Brook Dam, Wungong Dam, Canning Dam and then Serpentine Dam. You then descend back down to the flats and follow the freeway bike path 50km back to the city. It’s a long day.
For the Festive 500 I am doing the Five Dams two days in a row, back to back. Sharpen the hand saw, we’re chopping the trunk.
My cycling partner pulled out just before Christmas. The weather forecast was too much for him. On Boxing day the forecast read:
Dec 27: 38C (100F)
Dec 28: 41C (105F)
Dec 29: 42C (107F)
Dec 30: 41C (105F)
Dec 31: 38C (100F)
With the temperature ‘coolest’ on the 27th the first 5 Dams Ride would have to be that day. Seldom do I feel so reluctant as I set out for a ride. Looking out my window was a raging block head wind coming straight in off the desert that I would be riding into for the first 40km. I set off at 5am.
Half way up the first hill I was passed by another cyclist. He had only one water bottle, and few supplies in his back pocket, so I knew he wasn’t going far. Not long after I rode over a small twig, puncturing the tire. Find some shade and change the tire. So early into a long ride you feel a bit of dread as you think maybe there will be a series of flats that end the ride.
Every scrap of shade. Each drop of water. Every ounce of energy needs preserving. Dehydration means the end of your ride. It can take 2-3 hours to rehydrate. In 35 celsius + degree heat you cannot allow your body to overheat. Cannot let your heart rate reach maximum. Once you overheat it takes much longer to cool your body again.
The road is like a mirror. The temperature can be 10 celsius degrees hotter than in the shade. The second water bottle is used as a shower.
Motorbikes roared like barking dogs. Cicadas chirped constantly. Ravens picked at overflowing bins. Snakes slid over the tarmac. Goannas ran in short bursts. The roads were quiet, deserted. By 9 a.m. the air temperature was 33 celsius. Due to water restrictions I had to buy water at the service station, the outside taps were locked.
At a small milling town, Jarrahdale, I sat out the hottest part of the day (12-2pm). Not long after I cycled through the last dam, Serpentine, where the temperature was 42 celsius (107F). Further along I paused to take photos of shirtless prisoners pacing the oval at Karnet prison.
By now I was steaming. My second water bottle used almost entirely on my body. Arm screens soaked. As you approach the South West Hwy, you descend off the scarp and on to the plain. The wind must have blown the salt/sweat on my forehead into my eyes which made them sting and burn and water. Remove sunnies and wash face. At a closed service station I drank about two litres of water and doused myself after letting the tap run for about a minute to let the pipes run cold.
Arrived home 12 hours after setting out. Ten hours moving time.
Day 2: A 50km ride around the Swan River in Perth. Max temperature 42C degrees.
I had given up on the idea of riding the 5 Dams two days in row. The temperatures were too hot. Instead I broke the days up, with a small ride in between, as I needed to make up the kilometers. The next 5 Dams ride would mainly be at night. I would set out at 3pm.
One thing I’ve learnt over the years is taking pleasure in the ritual of repetition. I have learnt to enjoy riding the same routes over and over again. You notice more change this way. The ritual begins with getting ready. From checking the screws on your cleats, to strapping on the bib shorts, to applying sun screen. It is only by taking the same route you notice differences.
When I set out at 3pm the temperature was 40 celsius degrees. Again, I started the long ascent up the scarp. The sun burning down on my back. There was going to be good moonlight later on.
As all supply shops were to be closed I arranged to meet my old friend Lorenz, who had kindly agreed to meet me at Churchman Brook dam. In his car were bottles of sports drink, bananas, muesli bars and some cold gazpacho soup he had prepared.
About a dozen march flies attacked our legs at once. Some people call them horse flies. They are massive. Some about an inch long. They have a big spike straight out of their heads which they drive into your skin. They draw blood. They hurt. They are like the terminator. You can swat them and five minutes later they’ll be flying again.
Lorenz and I arranged to meet at Wungong dam, but the authorities had locked the gates and access was limited. I raced to the next gate to meet him hoping he was there waiting. As I approached to within 50m his car started and he drove off. Hopefully he wasn’t going far because without him the ride was over. The next open shop was 100km away. I waited at the highway. All the animals were coming out. Foxes and kangaroos. Bats.
Lorenz’s car came along and I ate soup. I rode on into the darkness. As your sense of sight becomes limited your other senses kick in to take over. Your sense of smell and hearing are heightened.
A large moon lit up the road. Lorenz waited at Serpentine dam and I stocked up on supplies and we said goodbye. The time was about 11:30pm. 80km to go. You feel like you’re going faster in the dark. A pothole could spell disaster. Near the prison a kangaroo ran alongside me and then veered out onto the road. I missed it by about a metre.
Along the freeway bike path home huntsman spiders had cast their webs across. Every 5km or so I would ride through one. After about 20km I had these streamers of web flowing from my handlebars. I had to check there were no spiders on my jersey.
At about 2am I rode through a small scrub fire under control by fire fighters. I was both physically and mentally drained. I saw a large factory building I had never seen before.
As I re-entered the city the streets were lined with nightclub stragglers. A wry smile came over my face. Not a year earlier I was one of them. A feeling of relief. The last slice of the blade. I’d broken through the bark on the other side. The trunk lay in two in my imagination. I finally got to bed at 4 a.m.
Total distance: 532km.
Garmin links here:
Text and bridge photo by James. Photos by Lorenz.