Fleche’s Big TrOppy and Fleche’s Little TrOppy

18 – 19 March 2017

Sir Hubert Ferdinand Opperman (OBE) (29.5.04 – 18.4.96) was one tough old cyclist.  Oppy’s cycling career was marked by ground-breaking feats of endurance that left mere mortals awed, astonished and occasionally horrified.

In Far North Queensland, we did our Audax Australia patron proud in his namesake event – the Fleche Opperman All Day Trial.  Or as we called it, Fleche’s Big TrOppy and Fleche’s Little TrOppy.  It was a ground-breaking first for Far North Queensland, with 28 riders organising themselves into seven teams for 24 hours of cycling bliss in the tropics.

Oppy didn’t set out with his sights on a European cycling career.  After all, he was cheerfully winning every major Australian cycling title in the 1920’s, including the Australian Road Race Championship four times.  But public pressure, and a fund-raising campaign, had him sailing away to France in 1928 bound for the Tour de France.

In a similar vein, Audax had been chugging along nicely in FNQ, but there had been no plans to run an Oppy.  But public pressure, in the form of a team submitting a course map and a plea for an event, changed all that.  The team (which will remain nameless, despite taking their inspiration from the internal organs of cows) ultimately decided to focus on other things this year and were non-starters.

But the Oppy concept was launched and became an unstoppable force, with teams twisting their heads around the ride rules, mapping courses, organising logistics and co-opting team members.  With the finishing point in Port Douglas, Far North Queensland offers some appealing options for courses.  Many hours of plotting and planning were expended in extracting the longest distance for the least effort, while ensuring that all the best coffee shops could be visited and a pub was being passed conveniently around lunchtime.

In tackling Fleche’s Little TrOppy, Teams “Small N Dainty”, Hawaii Four-O and Cassowary Coast Cyclones headed to the Tablelands for a mountain start, having noted that Port Douglas was at sea level and descending always beats climbing.  Cairns Strava Crew Red, Cairns Strava Crew Blue and Team Tailwind decided to stick with a day on the flatlands around Cairns, realising that undulations abound on the Tablelands, and that there is no such thing as a free ride.  All teams wisely chose to travel south to north, showing a healthy respect for the prevailing south-easterly winds of our area.  The wind gods thumbed their noses at the Oppy, and decided to blow from the north for much of the day.

Despite the best laid plans for a cruisy day out, there were reports of Little TrOppy teams hammering their way between coffee shops and pub stops.  Cyclists were found rigidly twisted in all manner of odd shapes on the side of the road and in one motel pool, as bodies extracted vengeance for a caffeine fuelled day of belting it out in the heat.  Others pottered along through the sticky heat of Cairns and Gordonvale to complete their 155km, before going home to bed to prepare for the final 25km into Port Douglas on Sunday morning.

While the Little TrOppy teams were safely tucked up in bed, or otherwise celebrating their ride, my awesome Big TrOppy team remained dedicated to the cause.  Organising a 360km team has added a new dimension to my already steep Audax learning curve.  I learned that saying “Do you want to ride 360km with me?” is not the most rewarding line in friendship formation.  And that determination, enthusiasm and cheerful naivety are perfect qualities for a Big TrOppy team member.

Our Big TrOppy team, The Extremes, continued Sir Hubert’s example of starting with an unlikely pedigree, taking an unconventional approach and achieving an Australian first.  While Audax Australia ponders how to increase female participation, particularly in longer rides, The Extremes had four girls and Ian.  (We thought a bit of testosterone may come in handy if we encountered wild beasties in the dark, so we flew some in from down south).  Our team name originated after our memorable night time training ride in a tropical downpour around Gordonvale.  It was a night of numerous near misses with rabbits and bandicoots scuttling out of the cane paddocks, weaving around the world’s hugest canetoads, encountering an enormous python nearly blocking the road, having our path blocked by a flooded creek crossing, taking a long highway detour and a helmet-cracking up-ending on the cane train lines.  (Ian had sensibly decided to stay down south for this team bonding experience.)

After much pre-ride plotting and planning, The Extremes – Paula, Marina, Snowy, Ian and Gayle – gathered on the Tablelands on Friday night for final preparations.  The pile of food and gear grew, until there was enough to fuel several armies, and possibly a naval fleet or two.  Our amazing support angel, Katie, bravely tackled the course maps, trying to fathom where she needed to be, and when, and what food had to be organised, and how to sign brevet cards, and what to remind us of, and why Ian didn’t remember to bring her SatNav, and what she could do for the long hours in between frenetic control stops.

Our ride sensibly started from the highest point on the highest gazetted road in Queensland giving us a blissful 20km of barely interrupted downhill to start our big adventure.  We reached our first 50km control at Bromfield Swamp in high spirits having averaged 27.5km/h, with the team congratulating me on the wonderful course.  I gently broke the news to them that the next 50km was more “undulating”, and our pace may slow somewhat through the backroads of the Tablelands.  Our next leg wound through Malanda, Peeramon and Yungaburra to our second control in Atherton.  Concern about the average speed having dropped by several kilometres per hour were swept away by the carpark feast Katie had laid out.  Valuable minutes quickly slipped away as we tackled the frenzy of feeding, restocking supplies, pumping Marina’s tyres (they roll better above 80 psi) and visiting a real toilet.

Our third 50km leg was another relaxed affair, with the terrain again pointing mostly downhill.  Just north of Tolga, we encountered a particularly localised tropical downpour, which lasted for a few hundred metres but still managed to give us a thorough drenching.  Katie was waiting at our third control in the middle of the scrub with a beautiful fruit platter heading up our menu options.  Oppy would have been proud of our efforts to avoid wasting valuable time with excessive discretion in answering the call of nature.  Although we didn’t perfect his array of peeing from the bike techniques, we had abandoned most pretences of modesty at this stage as we ducked only slightly into the bush to spend a penny.

It was then on to Dimbulah, with another mostly downhill and downwind leg, arriving at our 189km mark just as the rain again started to fall.  It was a landmark moment for Ian, who had just passed his longest-ever ride point.  We lingered for about 20 minutes in the shelter shed in the park, trying to cram in more food, change into fresh nicks, check lights and batteries and gear up for the next 73km stretch.  There is a limited supply of roads in Far North Queensland, and the distance between Atherton and Port Douglas is just 135km.  Some backtracking was going to be inevitable in plotting a 360km Big TrOppy course, and Stage Five was a cracker, heading mostly back to the south and slightly back uphill.  Adding to the challenge, the wind gods chose that precise moment to resume their normal south-easterly habits.

Darkness fell as we headed back towards Walkamin, bringing the slight advantage that we could drop all efforts at scampering modestly into the scrub at each rest break.  Soon after passing the 200km point, Marina and Snowy surpassed their longest-ever ride records which they had set just a few short weeks before.  I reached this milestone at 235km, and Paula after 260km.  We rolled into our 262km control in Mareeba just after 8pm to find Katie defying local customs and preparing a healthy feast in the McDonalds carpark.  With tummies and legs becoming increasingly delicate, Paula decided to balance her nutritional needs with a straight shot of Coke, Snowy tucked into potatoes and sandwiches, and I downed yet another egg muffin and banana.  We watched the line of cars queuing in the drive-through for their load of cholesterol and preservative laden food-equivalents, and noted the lively behaviour of the locals out for their Saturday night adventures, before heading for the quiet back road out of town.

We reached Mt Molloy at 10.20pm and celebrated our efforts in cracking the 300km mark.  It was a major mental milestone, with the remaining 35km to our overnight stop in Mossman seeming like a doddle.  Once again Katie was waiting for us with food at the ready, and my requested McDonalds cappuccino from Mareeba perfectly cooled.  There were no other signs of life in Mt Molloy and we enjoyed an uninterrupted night time picnic stretched out on the footpath.

The ride from Mt Molloy passes through Julatten and down the Rex Range to the Cook Highway on the coast.  Feeling assured that we were going to complete the Big TrOppy lifted our spirits, and we delighted in the night riding and absence of vehicles on the road.  We paused on a well-manicured lawn in front of a property at the top of the range to refuel and discuss our strategy for descending the tight corners in the dark.  No doubt the owners of the property will be puzzled by the five patches of brighter green grass on their road reserve in a few days.  We then eased ourselves carefully down the range, opting for cramping hands on brake levers rather than over-cooking the turns and foregoing a successful Big TrOppy finish.

It was a few short kilometres from the bottom of the range to our overnight stop in Mossman.  The process would have been simplified had I remembered the location of the caravan park.  Snowy made a quick phone call to Mark, who had joined Katie as our second support angel.  Minutes later, we saw torch lights waving at us a few hundred metres down the road, and soon rode in to a hero’s welcome.  It was 12.20pm and we had finally reached our 335km control.  The Extremes were treated like royalty, as Katie and Mark had lugged our mountain of gear into the cabins, and Mark had a tasty chicken dish ready to go.  Few showers in living memory have felt so wonderful, and our support crew encouraged us to leave our dirty dishes and head to bed.

I fell asleep to the gentle rumble of my team comparing aches and pains, and woke within what seemed like several seconds to two 4.30am alarms going off in perfect synchrony.  Paula shared her cheerful dream that she had died during the night after her day of exertion, and Marina took a little extra shaking to clear the bed.  Mark had breakfast laid out, and we were back on the bikes by 5.15am for our last 25km into Port Douglas, leaving our support crew to the task of cleaning the cabins, re-loading the vehicles and joining us at the finish in Port Douglas.

The last 25km was planned as a flat ride, with a short loop out to Cooya Beach and down the highway into Port Douglas.  It was an easy and trouble-free run in the early morning darkness, navigating by Snowy’s Garmin and the street names penned on my arm.  The sun rose as we headed down the highway counting down the kilometres to the finish.  Emotions were running high as The Extremes rode down the palm lined road into Port Douglas, along the Esplanade, past the surf club and down the main street of touristy shops and trendy cafés.  Small N Dainty were waiting in the marina carpark to direct us along the boardwalk to the Lure Restaurant, where The Extremes finished with a processional ride into a wonderful welcome of clapping and cheering and hugs all around.

We joined Small N Dainty in the welcoming party for the arrival of Hawaii Four-O, Team Tailwind, Cassowary Coast Cyclones, Cairns Strava Crew Red and Cairns Strava Crew Blue.  We also welcomed the “Spirit of the Oppy” boys, who had charted a course and ridden 460km, but somehow omitted the bit about registering.  It was great to have our wonderful Audax volunteers, Mal and Pat, with us again to sign and collect Brevets, given that most riders were well beyond attending to minor details at this stage.  Our bikes lined the balustrade against a beautiful backdrop of yachts and early morning sun on the marina, and the boardwalk restaurant was soon buzzing with excited cyclists swapping stories and tucking into coffee and great food.

Oppy was an endurance cycling legend who kept riding until his wife badgered him off his bike as a 90 year old, when he took to a wind trainer instead.  He would have been proud of Far North Queensland cyclists who embraced the challenge of the Big TrOppy and the Little TrOppy.

Thank you to everyone who joined the ride and to all those who supported Big TrOppy and Little TrOppy cyclists to achieve their goals.  See you in 2018.

(21 March 2017)

"No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle" Winston Churchill