There had been a definite buzz in the FNQ cycling air about this ride for months. Listen closely and you could hear snippets of conversation about this big Audax challenge. Mostly the snippets contained words like “why” and “how far” and were punctuated with the obligatory F bombs. Occasionally there were brave statements of intent, with plottings of group collaboration and detours onto gravel, just to spice up the challenge even further.
As time drew closer, the registrations didn’t exactly flood in. Neither did they trickle in, or even slightly drizzle in. Two days before kick-off, only four brave souls had paid their money. Nonetheless, Kim was cooking up a storm and it looked like the major endurance challenge would be to consume the mountain of specially wrapped goodies appearing on the horizon.
The reappearance of an old back injury the day before brought the starting queue down to three. Wil and Linc came to Atherton on a sunny Friday afternoon, ready to join me in tackling the huge weekend ahead of us. The first major task was to navigate the piles of food Kim had prepared, while remembering his detailed instructions about which foil wrapped parcels contained which goodies. Wil did his “kid in a candy shop” impersonation, before scuttling off with his pockets bulging. Linc eyed his own supplies of museli bars and sports drinks, and quickly decided that home-made pies, chocolate brownies and egg muffins won out.
After an evening of bike tinkering, pocket packing, map discussions, Garmin loading and gear checking, we all headed off to bed ready for the 5.15am start. After a quick breakfast, I found myself on the road in the dark alone waiting for the fateful moment, while Linc and Wil continued to battle a non-obliging Garmin. I figured they could negotiate the first 500 metres of potholed dirt road without my help, and would catch me up on the road quickly enough, so headed into the darkness at 5.15am precisely.
Wil and Linc caught up within the first kilometre, and we headed towards the climb up the Herberton Range together. Togetherness then vanished, along with Wil and Linc’s tail-lights ahead of me, and I continued along this very familiar stretch of road feeling calmer as the ride progressed. It was a beautiful morning riding through Herberton and up Longlands Gap, then whistling down the Kennedy Highway and across to Malanda. Nola and Kim were waiting at the first Control at Malanda (62km), where I re-stuffed my pockets with goodies and celebrated the first milestone of the ride.
It was a lovely surprise to see Sean arriving in Malanda after he had ridden up the Gillies to find us. He offered to ride with me, but gave a dire warning that he could talk my legs off. The next 100km around Lake Eacham, to Tinnaburra, through the Yungaburra Control, onto Tinaroo and into Atherton were passed with the cheerful buzz of “stories by Sean”. As I paused to take the obligatory “I really did make it” selfie at the Avenue of Honour, Sean even found someone else to chat to – apparently a mate. Who could argue – it’s hard not to be mates with Sean.
Wil and Linc continued to pass through each Control before I arrived, and even managed time to take great snaps of the scenery along the way.
At the Yungaburra Control (111km), Sean made the happy discovery that the only vego-friendly foil packages contained chocolate brownies. He quickly decided he had more stories available, and could continue the ride. We paused for another “proof” selfie at Tinaroo, then headed into Control 3 at Atherton (166km).
Sean left at the Atherton Control planning to ride back down the Gillies, fuelled by a shiny package of chocolate brownie (thanks Kim), that apparently made it down the range, home to Cairns, past the teenage daughters and into Mary’s lunchbox that evening.
The ride from Atherton to Dimbulah was a mostly downhill and downwind cruise into the fourth Control (230km), and giving a cheery wave to Linc and Wil heading in the opposite direction. Kim and Nola were again waiting for me, and I took another short refuelling break before tackling the stretch back into Mareeba. The afternoon winds had increased, and it was a relatively slow trip eastward to Control 5 at MacD’s in Mareeba (277km).
Mark was dressed in his brightest colours, and ready to join me for a great downwind stretch to Mt Molloy. We rode into the evening and watched the sun set over the hills to the west, enjoying the easy riding and quiet road. We talked of night riding in the open spaces, with no-one around, and nothing for miles, and no-one to help if something went wrong, and all the possible things that could go wrong, and how Mark was looking forward to going to bed while Nola and I rode the next stretch – alone, in the dark, with no-one around.
We reached the 318km mark and Control 6 at Mt Molloy pub in the darkness. Linc had already passed through and was doing the out-and-back leg to Mt Carbine. Wil had decided to go to bed early, and tackle this stretch in the early hours. It was nice to have a longer break with Mark, Nola and Kim on the pub verandah. Nola prepared to ride with me to Mt Carbine, while Mark re-visited his decision to go to bed early. As we rode away into the darkness – alone, unaided, with no-one around – Mark and Kim decided they would drive out to Mt Carbine and check on us, just in case.
It was Nola’s first taste of night riding, and she quietly lived through the first few kilometres of anxiety before settling into the ride. We saw Linc a short distance out of town, already riding back to Mt Molloy. It was a beautiful quiet evening, with nothing but ourselves and the occasional Yowie lurking in the long grass by the road. Several kilometres before we reached Mt Carbine, we encountered our first set of lights from a vehicle behind us. Minutes passed and it seemed not to come any closer. We started having thoughts about ice-fuelled four-wheeled-driving axe murderers tailing us in the dark. After many anxious minutes, Mark and Kim drove by. At the Mt Carbine turnaround, they denied all responsibility for driving slowly or tailing us. They had seen us on the long straight a few kilometres ahead, dipped their lights, and continued driving at 100km/hr until they came near us. Apparently, our Audax standard visibility gear was working at peak efficiency.
We turned back towards Mt Molloy with my thoughts firmly focussed on being horizontal for a few hours. My energy levels started to dip about 10km from the pub, and the speed slowed considerably. Fortunately, one of Kim’s chocolate brownies did the trick, and my blood sugar levels surged, along with the speed. Who said it wasn’t a drug.
At Mt Molloy, I fumbled with my re-charging system, had a very welcome shower, then crashed into bed soon after midnight and knew little of anything else until 4.30am. Linc was finishing breakfast and heading off, and I was ready to go by 5am. Wil had left at some ungodly hour for the solo ride to Mt Carbine, and was just arriving back at Mt Molloy as I walked outside. Kim waved us off, while Nola and Mark formed a bleary-eyed farewell committee on the pub balcony.
It was an easy undulating ride in the darkness across to Julatten, punctuated by my Garmin deciding that it hadn’t charged at all overnight. It took a few minutes to get it going again, and I fretted that I had lost valuable kilometres in the interim. Wil and I rode around the quiet back road into the sunrise until we reached the top of the Rex Range. Being a noted wimp at descending, I suggested to Wil that he head down the range first, and I lost sight of him after the first turn.
The Rex Range is a quick descent with lots of tighter turns, and I enjoyed some “free” kilometres. Wil was emerging from the cane fields just past the the bottom of the range, and I expected him to join me for the flat down-wind ride through Mossman and on to the Daintree. However, his headlight lingered behind as I continued on. The course passed through Mossman, then took backroads through cane farming areas and unexpected roadworks to rejoin the main highway to Daintree. It was an easy downwind ride along very flat roads, and I flew happily along anticipating a very quick day of riding.
I saw Linc heading south a few kilometres from Daintree Village, and found Kim and Nola busily eating a hearty breakfast in Daintree Village when I arrived at Control 8 (459km). Wil had been unwell through yesterday afternoon and hadn’t recovered well this morning, so had withdrawn. Kim and Nola had talked to him north of Mossman, and would pick him up on their return. I felt disappointed for Wil, knowing how much planning and preparation he had put into the ride. Once again, I filled my pockets, picked at the food from Kim’s plate, and headed off.
The tone of the ride definitely changed from Daintree, with the road to Cairns pointed firmly into a raging, hot headwind. The flat coastal roads are lacking in shelter, and paddocks of tall cane can transform the average road into a wind tunnel. There was no option but to keep turning the pedals and think of other things until Control 10 in Port Douglas (518km), where I found Kim, Nola and Wil collapsed on the side of the road. I was almost ready to celebrate. The distance to the finish had dipped into double figures and I had collected my final Control signature before the end. With those happy thoughts and bulging pockets, I cruised around the very iconic palm tree lined streets of Port Douglas waiting for Cairns esplanade to appear on the horizon.
The Far North 600km wasn’t about to let me off easily. The Cook Highway traces the shores of the far north coastline and is spectacularly scenic, but unmercifully exposed to the wind. I comforted myself with the idea that I knew the road well, and that it was just one more headland to cross until I would roll into the shelter of Ellis Beach and away from the Pacific inspired winds. I held this thought for several headlands, each of which bore an uncanny resemblance to the one just before Ellis Beach. My hopes were repeatedly dashed, particularly when I found myself pedalling downhill into the wind to achieve just 12km/h.
Kim and Nola stopped at Ellis Beach, where Kim attempted to take photos to demonstrate just what 25-30 knot headwinds looked like. The photographic result looked predictably like a day in a tropical paradise. I wobbled towards them, looking decidedly spent and sat for a long while in the truck. It took several ice-blocks and more snacks until I was ready to get back on the road. Nola decided to ride with me into Cairns, not fully trusting my judgement after my last wobbly demonstration of riding on busy roads.
Meanwhile, Linc had powered past Ellis Beach to the finish on Cairns Esplanade, and joined Wil in a few celebratory beers and a swim. Linc could barely keep his eyes open, and headed home to bed after an awesome ride time of 33 hours 7 minutes.
I continued my slow ride into the wind, with Nola making encouraging noises and polite suggestions from behind. I accepted her advice to swap the main road for the bikepaths, and bumped along the concrete slabs for the last several kilometres at a safe distance from the Sunday afternoon traffic. Mary Ann and Cec were waiting with Kim when we arrived at the Cairns Esplanade, 35 hours and 16 minutes after leaving Atherton. My Garmin fortunately registered 600km as I rode into the carpark, saving me from my need to do laps of the Esplanade to make up the distance. Never has an icecream and the company of friends been so welcomed.
Thanks to Kim for all his work – before, during and after the ride. Kim’s cooking, packing, preparing, driving, organising and general soigneur work goes well beyond the call of duty. Thanks to Nola for being a volunteer throughout the ride, and for riding with me at night and during the last wobbly kilometres into Cairns. And thanks also to Mark and Sean for keeping me company during the ride, and to Mary Ann and Cec for providing the hero’s welcome into Cairns.