Saturday: My Sea to Summit bike ride – from Merimbula to Charlotte’s Pass

This year I did the Sea to Summit ride. It starts in Merimbula, which is on the coast, and goes 250km up to Kosciousko National Park, which is the highest point in Australia. It actually ends up in Charlottes Pass, which is a ski resort just below the peak. The purpose of the ride is to raise money for Red Kite- and organisation that helps out the families of young kids with serious illnesses like cancer.

There were 18 riders all up. Each of us paid for our costs (hotels, food, vehicles etc) and had a target of raising over $2,000.  Thank you very much to all the wonderful people that logged on and sent me a donation – I did reach my target. If you haven’t had a chance to donate please do so here. As a team we’ve raised $65,000 so far – it would be fantastic to get that a bit higher!

I’ve been involved with various fund raising and charities, doing pro bono and discounted work. I’m a bit of a sceptic when it comes to fund raising – I know that most of the money I give to the guy in the Koala suit will go to some dubious organisation that gets backpackers to collect money for a significant fee. Some pro bono projects we’ve supported through work seem to in retrospect to be more about me supporting the charity administration rather than actually doing anything of practical value. Although I am far too well mannered to use such terms, my Uncle Wally described one as:

“Ben, you’re pissing in the ocean and seeing the tide coming in”

I might be wrong, but Red Kite seems to be a bit leaner than that. They use events like these to raise money, which then goes to paying for mundane, practical things like helping a family with a petrol voucher or electricity bill. I don’t want to pay for backpackers, glitzy performances or trips around the world – I’m into mundane and practical.

Friday: the trip down
I took the day off work on Friday, and drove down to Jindabyne with Sarah and the two little people. We met up with everyone at 12pm, got bikes loaded onto the trailers, and then got a bus down to Merimbula, which is on the coast and about 3h drive -all downhill of course ??? Sarah and the kids stayed at Thredbo, so they drove off to check out the chairlifts.

Friday night: Merimbula
Just before going to bed I did a final check of all of my gear. Now as everyone knows I am extremely fastidious, organised and never forget anything. So I’m sure it will shock you as much as it shocked me to realise that somehow I’d managed to leave both sets of riding shoes in my shoe bag. In the car. Those of you familiar with a road bike will know that they have these very small (expensive) pedals that you clip your (even more expensive) cleated shoes in to. Riding in sneakers isn’t really an option, and since I only had a pair of thongs I didn’t even have that.

I rang Sarah, and she confirmed that a) the shoes were in the car, and b) no, she was too tired to wake the kids up and drive down. Shane (who I was sharing a room with), suggested I find a car and drive up and get them. I think Shane is more a big ideas guy. This seemed like a great idea for a few minutes, until we realised it meant getting back to Merimbula at around 2am, just in time to get up for the ride at 4:30. Super.

Fortunately, Damian (the organiser of the ride) was able to be cool as a cucumber and give me the impression that this kind of thing happens all the time. He just happened to have a spare pair of mountain bike shoes, would I like to borrow them? I think this was one of the impressive elements of this ride- the organisation was very good (even if mine wasn’t), and nothing really seemed to be a problem.

Saturday: beach departure
about to leave- merimbula

We got up for an early breakfast, and after waiting for a pre-ride flat tyre to get fixed (the tension got too much for Gary I suppose) we left at about 6:45 from Merimbula beach. The ride out was nice- through lots of very lush dairy farms and small foothills. Tempo was low (around 25-30km/h), and everyone was getting themselves organised and waking up. A few of us (well, Shane and I anyway) were still coming to grips with the grim reality of not having coffee before riding. We held back the tears, bit our lips and took it minute by minute. The beautiful scenery helped.

Saturday morning: Mt Darragh climb
After going up and down for a while, we went through Wyndham (elevation 293M – 33km distance) and started on the Mt Darragh climb. This is a long, gentle rise over about 20km. The gradient was around 4-6%, which if you were in a car you’d probably be in 3rd or 2nd gear. This was one of the best climbs I’ve done – spectacular scenery as you come up through a rain forest into gums and then finally up to the plains at the top with amazing views back down to the coast (elevation 920M – 57k distance).

The group had split into two bunches, with the slower guys a few minutes back. I was feeling quite good despite The Coffee Problem, and we stopped for a few minutes to refill water and snacks. I’d brought along what I usually take out for a ride- half a plantation of bananas, jelly beans, spare tubes, gas pump, etc, but I realised that with a fully stocked support van both front and rear this wasn’t really required so I offloaded this into the support wagon.

Saturday morning: Bombala

The two groups got back together again, and we headed towards Bombala. This was a frustrating part of the ride –no one seemed quite sure if we were meant to be in two groups or one. Every time we went down a dip and then over a hill, the back half of the bunch got dropped, and there were all these shouts to ease up the speed. Then there was confusion about when the back half had actually caught back on, and then to really muddy the waters someone from the back would ask to lift the tempo.  I was on second wheel and it was all getting a bit confusing. Unlike the voice setting on a GPS, you can’t really change it to some soothing  French lady you can’t actually understand.  We needed to average about 20km/h, but we were doing around 15km/h and this was over relatively flat terrain. It was like a game of Chinese Whispers – a shout at the back then got reinterpreted by some enthusiasts in the middle and then finally make it to the front different to the original call.

riding towards Bombala

After going past lots of wheat and sheep, we arrived at Bombala (elevation 733M – distance 86km), where my beloved was waiting with my shoes (and a fast track to Wife Of The Year award). I changed over my pedals and got into my road shoes. These have a much stiffer sole than mountain bike shoes (the aim of the game is for it to be as light as possible but not flex at all). So they are uncomfortable to walk in but great for riding. And sitting around in cafes.

Saturday late morning: Snowy river way
We got a bit more organised on this leg, which was out of Bombala towards Berridale, with a small climb of about 3km. I went to the back with Richard and helped ride some of the other riders back on – turns out this was a whole lot more fun than sitting up the front. One of the guys (Frank) is 60, and being able to even think about doing this ride at 60 is a pretty amazing feat. Certainly an inspiring fitness long term goal to be at in 20+ years. So Richard and I had a great time talking trash and discussing his theory that triathalon groups are actually just swinger clubs.
The wind was picking up a bit by this stage, which made the going a bit tough.   

Saturday late morning: Bike change
We got on to a gravel section, so swapped over to mountain bikes (elevation 820M – distance 123km). Although it was nice to be in a different seated position and with smaller gears (mountain bikes have very low gearing which is easier but slower to ride), this was the hardest section so far. The road flipped between gravel and bitumen, so it was worthwhile having mountain bikes – although you could probably do it all on a road bike albeit with an occasional puncture. There was another climb of about 3km which was a bit nasty – especially on a mountain bike. Apparently in previous years it has been hotter (36C) and colder (0C with sleet) over this section- so I suppose we were pretty lucky. But at the end everyone was looking a bit pooped. We changed bikes back and spent the next 30kms grinding into a headwind at a pretty slow pace. You can see the wind blowing against the trees in this shot:
rest stop after MTB stage before Dalgety - we are all stuffed
Rick manages a big smile

Saturday lunch: Dalgety
We finally arrived in the mighty metropolis of Dalgety (elevation 748m – 160km distance). We’d lost a bit of time due to the wind, so needed to keep the lunch break short. Sticking sore feet in a cold Snowy River was nice, then we had to ride over one of those cute timber bridges. Yes, you can see the river through the gaps. Yes, that is exactly the right width for a road bike wheel to drop in to. Some of the more adventurous types rode over, I schluffed (a new term I’ve learnt from reading BikeSnob).

Dalgety - the bridge that eats bike wheels
bunch riding from Dalgety
Gary is all smiles
Shane part 1

Saturday afternoon: The Hill that Should Be Illegal
From Dalgety we rode towards the Beloka Range, and the headwind didn’t make life easy. For non bike rider friends, the reason why riders form a bunch is wind resistance. On a bike this is a big deal- the two riders on the front are doing about 30% more work than the others when there is no wind. That is why the front two periodically “roll off” to the back, and the next two do the work. So this hot headwind really made a dent in our pace.

Beloka approach

Then we got to the actual Beloka hill. Clearly the Roads and Traffic Authority are completely ignorant of it’s existence – there is no way that such a road would be legal. Maybe the engineer drawing up the road had the paper on a slant so it appeared flatter. Maybe he’d been drinking. My first car would not have had a chance of making it up there. I am still trying to work out how on earth the road machinery would have laid the road. They must have driven them up another way, and then slowly lowered them down the hill on chains or something.

Before we got to the climb, Richard explained that there is a tough bit for the first section where there is a turn to the left. On the inside of the turn it is apparently 26%, and the outside is “only 18%”.  I’m not sure if that is accurate, but it is certainly how it felt. I also had in my mind that this hill was a switchback – a series of sharp turns with longer, mellower bits in between. Sadly, this was not to be.

To explain a few critical points to my non cycling friends:

  1. The gradient or steepness of a hill is measured as a percentage – height gained divided by distance. 
  2. “outside of the turn” actually means on the other side of the road as the turn veers left ie: into the oncoming traffic. Well, oncoming traffic if any motorist would be actually foolish / lost enough to be driving down. And if they were there were then there would be a pretty slim chance of them being able to stop or slow down without causing the car to actually flip over forward.
  3. 18% is steep. 26% is ridiculous. You might have done the Sydney City to Surf, and run up “Heart Break Hill” past Kambala school. That rises 80m and has a gradient of 4%. Bulli Pass out of Wollongong is 9%
  4. I love climbing hills – I really do.  I love the challenge of grinding up a hill, adjusting your body and hand position for different parts, and then finally reaching the top. This was a
    ltogether a different proposition.

I was at the back of the bunch as we got to the hill, and all the riders went quiet. I started climbing, and I’ve never had to lean down so low on my bike just to keep upright. It did feel a very real possibility that we’d all just slide back down the hill if it kicked up much more. I didn’t really have a plan- I was just trying to stay upright and going as fast as I could to get this damn hill over and done with. The first 300m bit was unpleasant, but then it eases off slightly and you come around the corner – only to see it rise up again. And again.

I was going OK, with Tamas and Richard a bit further up in front of me. Suddenly I got a sharp spasm in my right leg.  I actually thought I’d been stung by a bee or something. I had to stop and put my foot down to try to stop it. It went after a while, came back once I started riding. I got off again, stretched, and then finally rode to the top of the hill. One of the other riders was having a vomit there, which kind of summed up the way my leg felt (elevation 1200M – distance 180km)

Saturday late afternoon: Jindabyne
We rode from Beloka down in to Jindabyne at about 5:30, and had a quick stop there (were running out of light by this stage). For some reason I thought a Coke would be a good idea- even though I’ve had it before on long rides and had problems previously. At this stage I wasn’t really thinking that clearly, and years of subliminal Coca Cola Co. marketing whispered to me that a Coke was just what I needed. Not.

What I think I probably should have had was lots of water and some food gels. I’d always thought gels were for people that wanted to pay lots for a pre-masticated Mars bar (for my riding friends, “masticate” means chew)  in various exotic flavours. From speaking with other people, it seems that there is a point at which your body gives up and stops pushing blood around your stomach. When this happens, food isn’t much good as it just sits there. Things like fizzy brown soft drink probably aren’t the wisest choice either. Gels apparently do get absorbed more easily, despite the sensation of eating poorly disguised Clag Glue.

Saturday evening: Kosciouko National Park
We climbed up 6km from Jindabyne to the entrance to the National Park, which is a nice climb as you can look down and see Lake Jindabyne below. Well it would have been nice if it wasn’t 5:30 and we hadn’t been riding since first light. There was a group of about 6 of us that had broken away from the others, and one of the riders (Tamas) had this crazy idea that we’d better hurry if we wanted to get there before nightfall. He was the youngest rider, and the rest of us were too spaced out to really make much sense or argue. Tamas finally hit the afterburners and shot off.

The S2S rider’s guide had this illuminating description of the next upcoming section: 

Climb to Rennix Gap on Kosciuszko Road approximately 14km. Not much to say here other than it is a steep, long, tough climb.

The rest of the time in the park was pretty grim. Conversation was pretty much limited to “fuck” or the occasional “shit” as the next rise came into view around a corner. The temperature dropped suddenly as the sun went down, and the wind seemed to get a bit meaner. My leg spasms came back- both hamstring and calf now. They came on each time I put pressure on to go up a hill. I’d have to unclip, stretch, walk a bit, and then try riding again. Trying to get back on and clip into pedals on a hill is hard normally- at this point it was taking all my concentration. For added fun my stomach also started cramping quite hard.  Conversations with other riders were pretty much down to grunts and an occasional thumbs up. I’d ride for a bit, pass another rider, grunt and smile, hop off, stretch, they’d pass me, grunt back.

Saturday evening: Oh Van of Joy
Finally, the sun had completely gone and I had just got to the top of the hill before Perisher. It might have been the hill after Perisher. At least that is where I think I was. I may as well have been on the moon – I had absolutely no sense of direction or concept of how much further there was. It was pretty dark, there were absolutely no lights apart from these big semi trailers throwing up dust, and you could just make out the road.

Then, as if by magic, a van with big flashing lights pulled up behind me. The support crew grabbed my bike and I meekly got into a nice warm van. One by one we picked up the other riders still out– some of which happily flopped in, while others tried to valiantly outsprint the van – wobbling in front of the headlights like a drunk driver. We were all hooting and cheering while the Quattro support guys tried to walk behind them to convince them that the sun really was down and we’d run out of time. They were very kind, and I think everyone did really appreciate being pulled off that dark cold windy road. I’m sure chasing each of us down wasn’t much fun!

Saturday night: The finish
We finally arrived in a Charlotte’s Pass at about 8pm, and my little people were waving signs. Osk had taken a red traffic wand and was pretending it was a light sabre, battling imaginary creatures. Apparently he said “cool – Star Wars party!” when they arrived. Sarah was improving her odds for Wife Of The Year, having kept two little people entertained since 5:30, which is when we were scheduled to finish. After a bit over 13 hours I was a complete mess. It was a bit hard to say much about the ride afterwards (apart from the fact that I was pretty much speechless) – all we could really do is nod and smile.


My photos are here on Flickr


Update: You can watch the SBS video here


So- if you’ve enjoyed reading this post, if it made you laugh or squirm, and/or you have a distrust of backpackers in Koala suits, and haven’t had a chance to donate please do so here.

A big thank you again to everyone that has supported me- I know it might sound soppy but I really appreciate it.


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