Sitting battered and bruised on my loungeroom floor after my second nap for the day, swallowing antibiotics, drinking tea and wondering where along the line gravity doubled precisely, it’s hard not to reflect on what I have put myself through. After catching the sunrise on the Old Bullock Track, collecting friends as I rode into the Adelaide CBD, I completed the 2022 Race to (from) the Rock(s) course about ten days after I rode out of the Sydney CBD. I’m still a novice in this space of ultra-endurance, and when I set out on these trips, I’m never quite sure if I’ll have what it takes (whatever that is) to get through all the obstacles. -
Words and Photos by April Drage
Almost immediately after my first ultra-endurance event, Race to the Rock 2020, I decided to ride the 2021 event just to ensure it wasn’t a fluke that I got through the first one. When this route was announced, I was equally excited (the route finishes in my home city, Adelaide) and devastated because it looked well beyond my ability; rocky, technical and downright dangerous in parts. But I just couldn’t let it go. Or wrap my brain around the lite version that skirted around the most challenging parts of the course. This route has had me waking up at all hours, having nightmares about falling off of cliffs, being bundled into the boot of cars in remote locations and being scared and alone. I appreciate that my brain is wired a little differently than most in my adult life. I have a wild imagination that tends towards a level of anxiety that would make life unmanageable if I set it free. With this hardwiring issue well managed during the day, my brain tends to take liberties and run free whilst I sleep. When the 2021 event was postponed due to COVID, with a possible new date of April 2022 suggested, I resigned myself to many more months of managing sleep. Mentally and physically, I tried preparing my mind for the best approach to bike set-up for a course that appeared to require multiple contingencies. This included a wide range of temperatures and conditions, plus enough supplies for some substantial remote sections.
When there was no announcement of a grand depart as the new year rolled around, I knew the event would inevitably not run in April. Leaving me with a quandary and asking myself the value of a grand depart; does it add much to safety? Would I ride it much differently in a solo pursuit? Essentially, my answer to these questions was “no” I love the time spent in my own company, working at my own pace, and planning anyway. Besides, for the sake of my sanity and those around me, I could not postpone getting this adventure out of my system, just to sleep again and get this particular monkey off my back. My mate David Rossi was also keen to head out over Easter, riding the course at his own pace, so we worked on logistics and undertook our preparations.
My confidence and experience have grown over the last two years. I’ve moved away from making firm plans when it comes to the route breakdown but like to familiarise myself with the nuts and bolts of the course to inform my decision making when I’m out there. For example, knowing which resupply points cannot be missed and where to find additional water. Another layer of the challenge was added to this venture, undertaking the first section over Easter (public holiday hours) and the recent mass flooding throughout New South Wales.
In the early hours of Good Friday in perfect weather conditions, after a short sleep at a nearby motel, my friend David and I rolled out of Sydney Harbour. The early sections of the course are a clever mixture of urban commuting, MTB trail, swamplands, and a roadie ride. I was amazed at how I was delivered the key sightseeing features of this particular big city (the harbour bridge and opera house) whilst avoiding all of the things I don’t like about big cities (busy roads and junk miles). By the time we rode, hiked, swam, and bush bashed our way out of Sydney and onto that first ferry at Palm Beach (6 or so hours later), I felt like I had been everywhere but also gotten nowhere. A masterstroke of route craft genius.
The section of the route commencing from Wagstaffe delivered far more back-breaking labour than the vertical meters would suggest. The roughly 200 km stretch past Wagstaffe was just over 3000 vertical meters. However, it’s amazing how challenging it is to pace yourself when those metres are achieved by undertaking challenging hiking trails on a loaded touring bike. I’d read all the information supplied about this route, with the takeaway that there will be gradients I might be “surprised” by. I may even need to take my bikepacking bags off (making several trips) to navigate some of the terrain safely. I found (and did not expect) that the brutally steep hiking sections are inconveniently scattered throughout, so if one had to unload their bike to get through it all, that would make for one painfully long excursion full of a LOT of back and forth. My rule for packing for such adventures is “if I can’t lift it, I can’t pack it” served me well for this section.
Despite being able to wrangle my bike when necessary, the impact of hiking, lifting, and hauling had me making involuntary noises you hear tennis players occasionally making when executing a high powered return. I was also talking to myself out loud and in the third person; “you’ve got this Pril, up you go, good job Xena, you just stay put there, I’m coming”.
I found myself laughing out loud at just how damn ridiculous this scenario was, especially when a gentleman on a bike riding down one particular trail suggested that the trail would be easier if undertaken in the opposite direction. David ‘rode’ ahead for a while; I wasn’t sure whether this was the moment we had parted ways or whether he would take a more extended break in West Gosford. I rolled into West Gosford so much later than expected, having burnt way too many matches so early in the piece on such a long adventure; unavoidable given how much physical labour was involved in moving my bike. However, I soon found David, and we sat on a footpath near rubbish bins, eating pizza whilst trying to remove my wet socks, preparing for the cold night ahead. Not so hygienic and glamourous.
I rode, walked and was relaxed somewhat through that first night. David stopped for a nap, and we caught up again as morning broke. On the Old Great North Road, David's bike suffered its first significant mechanical while navigating another concerningly deep puddle. A solid slice to the tread and the sidewall of his brand new rear tyre. After some clever sewing, glue, tyre boots and a fresh tube, he was back in business. Meanwhile, I lay in the dirt, my feet resting on my bike, cracking (no doubt hilarious) jokes and offering my 2 cents over the Bear Grylls experimental tyre repair (I love this stuff!). Tyre repaired, cue more hiking, spiders, fallen trees and an off-hand (yet amusing) review of the course thus far from David “I just kinda wish there was a little more riding of the bikes”; a fair assessment. A beautifully sunny morning in Wiseman’s Ferry highlighted how significant the recent flooding had been. There were road workers abound, orange witches hats everywhere and sections of the road meters below where it once was. We continued weary but in good spirits and decided that a nap in the sunshine in the afternoon near Colo would do us both some good. Rolling out of Colo through to Bilpin in the glorious late afternoon light, the (at last rideable!) climbing gave us a lift; the terrain a stark contrast to the route we had experienced thus far. Little did we know that this style of actual riding was going to be so short-lived.
Before long, we found ourselves slip-sliding in, at times, shin-deep water, the sort of wet trails that aren’t so easy to ride through in the dark. We were presented with another bit of challenge by the time we got to the bottom of Mount Irvine Road around 10 pm. The safe option of crossing Bowens Creek was unavailable due to a landslide and higher than usual water levels. However, crossing the bridge was also certainly a risk, but no more than hiking back up the slippery, washed-out track (complete with landslides, fallen trees, massive drops and no guard rails) that led us to the bridge in the first place.
Having survived this bridge crossing, a genuinely scary element of the course, we continued through densely wooded areas of the Greater Blue Mountains through to Lithgow. During this section, David stopped for a dirt nap, and I cruised on for another couple of hours before finding a trailside rest area too inviting to resist. After a couple of cozy hours of sleeping in this stunning location, I was back on the trail. With no phone reception, I didn’t know where David was or if I would see him again. Within half an hour, I came upon him on the side of the road. He seemed concerned, and as soon as he started pedalling, I could understand why. A disturbing metal crunching noise was evident with each pedal stroke. We accurately assessed this to be a damaged drive side bottom bracket bearing. So we worked out how we could fix this when we arrived in Lithgow. Due to conditions, we deviated slightly from the route soon after, getting stranded in even more remote sections of the mountains. It was less than 2 degrees, and we regretted this less than fantastic life decision.
In the frosty early hours of the following day, David borrowed a collection of tools from a 7-eleven and dismantled his bike to the extent necessary. Unfortunately, we confirmed that the bottom bracket bearings were beyond repair. We sent out messages to local bike shops seeking the requisite parts, spoke to some locals, drank a lot of coffee and waited to see what response we would receive. Finally, an amazingly helpful bike mechanic “Scotty” from a shop in Orange, was able to come to the rescue. We decided that David would catch the train to meet him (on Easter Sunday, no less), and I would continue on solo.
In no time at all, after rolling out of Lithgow, I was awestruck once more by the scenery, a theme that would continue over the following 300 km as I traversed Ben Bullen State Forest and beyond. I felt so disappointed for David, missing out on this section of absolute gold, the sort of riding I knew he would enjoy. At times the brutally steep and deeply rutted tracks were busy with dirt bikes and 4WD traffic. There was so much mud, but none of this could detract in any meaningful way from the beauty that surrounded me; think of enormous cliff faces, earthy tones and clear blue skies.
I felt so strong and positive that I just couldn’t help but continue riding into the night, through Portland and onward to Sofala. I passed through forests, rode through so much water on the causeways, up and down dirt hills as the bright moon cast a surreal and magical light over what felt at times like an enchanted forest. Wildlife was abundant, and the scale of the beauty of it all overwhelming. The temperature had also dropped significantly by the time I reached Sofala. This town in the moonlight had the atmosphere of the wild west, a tiny main street with an olde kind of appeal. I had planned to nap here, but it was cold and didn’t seem the best choice. So I began the long steep bitumen climb out of Sofala to warm up before napping on the side of the road until sunrise.
Feeling refreshed and enthused by an extraordinary sunrise featuring low fog and some crazy colours, I powered up the sustained bitumen climb. This climb ultimately gave way to a descent and hero gravel at long last for a bit of reprieve before the day's main event: the Bridle Track. This track is a very special (albeit rather challenging) section, with a varied but consistently rocky surface, river views and solid climbs; pretty much a dream for me (minus the rocks). The scale and length of this track are something to behold.
Arriving in Hill End, the temperature had climbed about as much as I had. I was determined to reach Long Point to cross the Macquarie River during daylight hours, so I wasted no time inhaling two gluten-free quiches, juice and an ice block before riding out of town in the afternoon sunshine. I was most excited to find that this part of the course was largely dry but smattered with some seriously pinchy (fun!) rollers that seemed to go on forever, before finally descending to the river. I was greeted almost immediately by a family playing in the river. They were intrigued as I stashed all my electronics into a dry bag and then put the lot into a backpack as extra insurance against misadventure. They asked if I had crossed water that deep (mid-thigh on me, ¾ of Xena’s wheels submerged) before (I hadn’t) and offered to accompany me across the water as a little extra insurance. The floor of the river is uneven, and the water flows steadily. I accepted their kind offer and chatted with their adorable girls as we made it safely to the other side. Wet feet and all, straight into a sandy, punchy gravel climb out. I squiggled my way up the, at times, very loose and eye-watering steep gradients, intermittently passed by cars that tooted and cheered as I tried to both maintain traction and stay clear of their path. The hits kept coming on the tough slog to Orange. Fatigued by my early enthusiasm, even the bitumen climbs had my legs burning. I finally crawled into Orange at about 10 pm. Arriving felt like a huge milestone; most of the climbing and challenging terrain was behind me. I made my way to the nearest caravan park, put my sopping wet socks into a clothes dryer and fell asleep on the laundry room floor.
I’d heard a lot about Orange as being on-trend as a gravel destination for cyclists, and whilst it held some interest for me, the images I had seen appeared to be so curated that it was almost off-putting. I rolled out to catch the sunrise on that crisp autumn morning and forgave Orange immediately for being so pristine and idyllic. That morning offered up a stunning bitumen climb towards Mt Canobolas, which rapidly deteriorated into an awkward on the bike, off the bike, slog-fest up a crazy long, steep fire road to the peak of the climb.
Some reprieve came soon after, interspersed with a little more hike a bike on fire roads. Just when I thought I was on the home stretch to Forbes, I could see that the 10-20 mm rain forecast might be a bit more exciting than I anticipated. I watched the dark clouds and lightning from a distance for a long while before I found myself in the middle of it all. At times it was hard to keep the bike upright. The force of the wind and the sheer volume of water coming at me was at times oppressive. It felt like time simultaneously stopped and also went on forever. When the rain finally stopped, I found myself dealing with the aftermath (a theme that continued in the days that followed); it turns out that the Yamma State Forest turns into peanut butter in the wet. I attempted the single track on the course but struggled to follow the trail due to the volume of water sitting on the surface. Finally, I diverted to the main track through the park. I fell into deep puddles of mud and hiked as best I could. Making any progress at all seemed to take a very long time. Many hours later than expected, I arrived at a petrol station on the outskirts of Forbes, drenched, freezing and in search of a hose. Despite this rather dismal scene, it didn’t take much for me to feel enthused about my adventure once more when the service station attendant offered me the fire hose to clean the mud off my bike. Who doesn’t want to use a fire hose; I’d have said yes even if I had nothing that needed hosing down.
This recipe for a good time was followed by staying indoors at a nearby motel. A hot shower, a cup of tea and a late start allow for a solid resupply and assess my options in light of all the water the area had received in that storm. By this stage, I heard that David had returned to the course after Orange but had accepted a ride in a ute somewhere beyond Forbes to save himself and his bike from a large section of death mud; this gave me pause. A few hot tips about the trail ahead from mud master Sarah Hammond and I was ready to roll the dice and work around as necessary.
To my surprise, lucky breaks with the weather resulted in a reasonably straightforward run to Euabalong. I had intended to ride through this tiny town, but as David’s misadventure began not so far from there, it didn’t seem like the most reliable area for some dry wild camping during the night. I’d also established that bush bashing through mud is much faster in daylight. So I raided a local rainwater tank and found a place to camp at the local free camping area. Meanwhile some colourful locals made for an interesting night. I rolled out at 3 am, found some mega mud, detoured around that little section on the road before hitting the next patch of mud, with a much more forgiving high verge alongside the train line. I found this day, with its lack of climbing, yet cocktail of slow surfaces- bumping up and down over rocks, slogging into a headwind through constant mud and other varieties of dry but also wet surfaces took a massive toll on me. As the light faded, the progress was slow but offered beautiful vistas, occasional train sightings, all the goats my heart desired and a surprising number of baby pigs. So I can’t complain about any of this. By the time I was approaching Ivanhoe, I had realised that I was feeling uncharacteristically cooked because I hadn’t managed to acquire a proper meal in quite some time. Nutrition makes a huge difference for me; it’s like a switch gets flicked, and l can ride forever with the right fuel. I was concerned that I might struggle across the next 300 km stretch without services if under fuelled.
I assessed my likely arrival time and messaged my husband on my Garmin inReach, explaining that I was struggling and that a meal would be a game-changer. He kindly called ahead to the pub in Ivanhoe and arranged for them to leave something out for me when they closed. I finally reached Ivanhoe, greeted by the biggest vegetable frittata I had ever seen and promptly fell asleep. To my surprise, when I awoke, it was 6 am; I had slept through my alarm (this never happens). Of course, rested and fed isn’t a bad thing when you need to crunch through a bunch of miles and you’ve heard that the road you’re supposed to be travelling on was closed because of the rain a couple of days prior.
I had been looking forward to Mungo National Park, a highlight of the trip. But, ultimately, as the terrain was so slow going, mud, deep ruts and all sorts, I decided to roll through the night rather than camp out. The stars were incredible, the conditions perfect for night riding. The only drawback to this evening’s communing with nature was a persistent spotlight I kept an eye on for hours, swirling in the distance. By about 3 am, this swirling light came careering towards me in the form of a ute with a high sided trailer full of dead kangaroos. It darted on and off the road, stopping suddenly to collect some more kill for the load. “Wow”, I thought to myself, “isn’t this every solo female traveller’s fantasy to to be alone in the dark with a a rogue unit with a shotgun”. I didn’t feel scared by this encounter, but it didn't leave me inspired to hang around and make camp either.
It was a relief to reach Mildura, the long remote sections behind me. I also realised that my rough theoretical goal of no longer than 10 days to complete the course was, despite all the setbacks caused by the rain, surprisingly still within reach, although just barely. Moreover, a substantial resupply at Mildura means that I wouldn’t need to stop again until the Riverland.
A touch of single track, up and down before hitting the Old Mail Route, which also had the appearance of a red river. By this point, I was riding squarely into the afternoon sun and established that if I didn’t put in a bit of effort, I would find myself trying to navigate mud in the dark, a much slower proposition. With that inspiration, I put the hammer down, darting through rideable mud, crossing over bushes and any other not-mud necessary to keep rolling. Sweating buckets in the heat, chugging water and wasting no time, some hours of power,, and I was out of there. Back on a sealed road, cheering myself on for putting on such a performance so I could at least get a little sleep before the 300+ kilometre distance from the Riverland to Adelaide the following day. I was physically spent but content when I made camp near Renmark; the rest of the route was familiar to me, and I was almost home.
A 4 am start, mixed terrain, river views, sunrise, promptly followed by much warmer conditions than I expected (HOT), on top of the energy expended in my hours of power the previous afternoon, left me feeling pretty shattered by the time midday rolled around. I was so spent, that I had decided to take a break, have a soft drink and freshen up at the next opportunity. Unfortunately, not long after I made this decision, a little inattention resulted in a silly stack and (yet another) gash to the leg. I took some time in Blanchetown, chatted to locals, patched myself up and relaxed for a while before all the climbing started. I looked forward to the Pipeline Road climb and was even more delighted to find a friend, Kay Haarsma, waiting for me en route with the news she had left some goodies for me on the trail ahead. I felt surprisingly good climbing again. My concerns that it would be a painful crawl proved unfounded. After eating up the climb (along with many sandwiches), I made it to Angaston to reset for the night of riding; helmet light and layers on, podcasts selected.
What followed was a tough climb, complete with fences to jump, tangles with barbed wire, then getting lost in a forest, plus some hike a bike. My mojo was all but lost. Despite this, nothing could wipe the smile off of my face. It was a still, mild night, and I was receiving messages of encouragement from my friends. I knew that no matter how slow I rode, how long it took, I would make it home. I anticipated that a sunrise near Cleland seemed likely; what a perfect way to finish this journey. My friend Kelly offered to join me in the early hours; this made the night feel shorter again. Despite fatigue setting in over the last few hours of that ride, I tried hard not to wish it over. These final hours of an adventure, when the efforts and experiences are fresh in the mind and body, don’t come along so often, so I try to enjoy them. I might have lost that feeling just a little when hiking through blackberry bushes and again as I finally started to descend, saying to Kelly (with glee), “let’s get the FUCK outta here”, and laughed.
It was the perfect end to the perfect journey. I collected friends along the way as Anzac Day dawn services took place, as I rolled into the Adelaide CBD. By the time I finally hopped off my bike at the end of the course, I was unashamedly delirious. I noted that my friends observed my posture; even off the bike, I was at this point almost unable to stand completely upright. Wow, I worked hard to achieve that particular feat. No regrets, no takebacks, what a ride!
In the short time after this ride, I’ve been asked many questions about the amount of night riding I’ve being doing. Aren’t you scared or lonely? They quite rightly ask. Night riding, especially solo, scared the hell out of me until recently; brighter lights and experience have cured me of this. It’s hard to articulate what goes on for me during most of these nights; the bike feels more than ever like an arbitrary tool to move through landscapes and recognise myself within them. There is a feeling of quiet, deep peace, tranquillity, a connectedness to energy so much greater than just one older woman on a bike in the bush. What’s not to love about that? It’s powerful and meditative, breath and rhythm, there are fewer distractions on offer at night; it’s the extreme opposite of loneliness and isolation. It’s also a time for reflection and reminiscing. The cover of darkness seems a genuinely private space and seems to invoke this kind of experience.
A few friends have queried why I don’t take more time to stop and smell the roses or rest more to make it more enjoyable. My riding style involves doing whatever I can to put in as little effort as possible. I have a real aversion to the breathlessness that results from strenuous efforts. On reflection, I think this is because my brain and body read this feeling the same way it reads lung crushing anxiety; there’s a weight to it that I instinctively don’t want to carry and makes me feel stressed. I suspect this is part of why I’ve found my way into endurance cycling. For me it’s not about pushing myself or rushing around. It’s about slowing down to my rhythm and throwing out any ideas about how much sleep I need and what the structure of any given day should look like. It’s liberating and seems to take me far beyond the concept of smelling roses; this is neither holiday nor smash fest. It’s just me, out there alone, breathing deeply and opening myself up to whatever experience and lessons life decides to offer.