Words : Chris Visvis, Jonny Odams, Charlie Coquillard / Pictures: Charlie Coquillard - 07/12/2020
Finding the limit.
Sydney to Canberra on gravel roads, 413 KM , 7365 meters of elevation, and the guarantee of an unforgettable ride. Mix that up with 40° heat, 60km/h headwinds, and you have one hell of a challenge.
Even for Jonny's incredible fitness and skills on the bike, it was going to be a tough one. Chris decided to join him halfway for the most extended leg, Nowra to Canberra, and last-minute railed me in so I could document what was going to be a never-done-before ride.
Dive into NSW's backcountry road with our two riders while they suffer through this ride, pushing their bodies and mind to their limit.
The day started pretty easy. We stayed at Jonny's mate place Josh in Nowra, after he already had punched the 181 Km and 3400m of elevation from Sydney.
After giving the dog a few pats, treated him to leftover chicken, and drunk a strong black coffee, we were on our way. I'm personally not a massive fan of very long rides, so I asked Jonny how this idea sprung to his mind.
"I've always wanted to ride to Canberra from Sydney but never really got the chance to. I thought gravel was a good idea because it has never been done before. It was a good challenge. People do it on the road all the time, so I wanted to do something a bit different.
I honestly had no idea what I was getting myself into; I never rode those stretch of trails/road before, so I spent a lot of time on Strava and Google Maps to scope out the route, and created an itinerary from that."
Then I asked Chris what pushed him to follow Jonny in his crazy endeavor.
"To be fair, I work 9-5 in a very structured and planned job, and it's pretty dull. I love adventuring, but I don't get any of that during the week, so the idea of riding outside the box was appealing.
Doing something unstructured out of my field and throwing myself into the unknown seemed like an excellent way to have fun on the weekend. So when Jonny called me on Wednesday, I dropped all my end of the week plans and jumped on it. "
Road to the pain cave.
The first 30Km started with a road, changing to gravel as we accessed the bushland passed Nowra. After an epic descent into the national park's depth, I could not go any further in the car; a fence was blocking the way. I had to leave our two heroes by themselves, battling the wind and the midday heat creeping in. I would re-join them 30k later.
You guys were pretty fresh when I left you, and by the time I met you again, you were battered, out of breath, and sweatier than what I've ever seen before; what got you?
"There was that first climb after this super long downhill, after the gate where you left us. Honestly, I never rode anything that steep; it was a straight wall going from the bottom of the valley to the top. We muscled up the first bit, then we had to walk, couldn't even ride up it.
After that, between KM40-60 (Hour 2-3-, my blood sugar got really low, I got dizzy, and I had to stop. I took a hit there, and it was hard to get back on the saddle, knowing how much we still had to go. There were also many sandy sections during that period, meaning we couldn't go very fast, and the front wheel kept washing off. That means there was no way to switch off, it's 100% focus, or you fall off, and that was extremely exhausting."
When I found them again, both of them were out of water, and they had designed new patterns on their essential jerseys.
When mother nature throws a tantrum.
After a quick sit down, a banana, and having filled up their water bottle, they were back on the road, deciding to skip the next gravel bit and stick to the road to save time and energy. The average was lower than expected, and the last 30K had been hard. In normal conditions, it probably would have been fine, but mother nature wasn't joking today.
" We just couldn't drink enough water! What we were drinking just turned into sweat straight away; look at those jerseys. We went through 1.5L of water each and weren't even halfway. Thankfully you were here with some spare water; otherwise we just wouldn't have made it any further.
The wind wasn't too bad within the trees, but as soon as we hit the road, then later the great plains and fields, it got super hectic. It got tiring pretty quick because it was either sideswiping us or blowing against us, making the average speed super slow. It was pretty dangerous to be fair; some of those gusts of winds were extremely strong. As the day went on, the wind got warmer and warmer; my mouth felt like custard by the end.
On the other end, the scenery was beautiful; it almost felt like we were in another country like New Zealand. Great grassy plains, blossoming flowers, and the wind cutting shapes in the tall grass made the ride special. It's crazy that in between Sydney and Canberra, you can find such secluded and calm places where you don't cross another soul for hours."
The Coke of salvation.
We stopped for another break later on, in that town of Nerriga. When I say town, let's call it a tiny village; we spotted about four houses and one coffee shop/ pub /restaurant /convenience store that seems to be on the way of every person going from nowhere to nowhere.
Standing proudly in front of the village's totem, on the longest road you can take from Canberra to Sydney, this colorful establishment sold us a few overpriced cokes and cold bottles of water, allowing the boys to get a bit more sugar into them.
By that point, everyone was already quite worn out, and we were about to hit the gravel again.
Sugar danger zone.
Chris is a great rider that puts watts down despite having Diabetes. Conditions were harsh, and the ride was next level hard, which pushed him to his limit. He got dizzy a few times and had to stop and lay down. I asked him how to manage such incredible efforts with that type of condition.
" You can't do anything about it except manage it, so you have to monitor your blood sugars at all times. I always ride with a little device that I have "plugged into" me, which displays my levels and allows me to manage them. Sometimes I pull it out during races, and I always get questions like, "what the hell were you doing fiddling with your iPod mid-race?"
On strenuous efforts, it's like everyone else; you need to be careful at what you eat and what you drink, make sure you get enough in, just have to be extra cautious. Having low blood sugar is really bad, so I always carry jelly beans and sweets, just in case. I'm continuously on the lookout for a dip in my sugar levels. And one thing that you learn with experience: Time goes fast when you're cooked.
After 120K and that last stop in no man's land, I could feel the bodies and spirits were getting pretty worn. It was hot, windy (in the wrong direction), and it did not look enjoyable anymore. I saw Chris on the side of the road stopped because he kept cramping, and that's when I realise we probably wouldn't make it to Canberra.
When did you guys decide to call it?
Chris: When I was lying down on the road, dizzy, and I literally couldn't get up, I decided I was good. It's silly to push any harder when you can barely get back in the saddle. On the scale of difficulty, this was probably a 7.5 / 10. I went deep and low on sugar, so that kind of killed me. I've had more challenging rides than this before, but the wind and the heat just made it impossible. I never cramp, and today I cramped like crazy; it has never happened before.
Jonny : After I saw Chris stop, I was thinking it wasn't safe to keep going. The wind was blowing like crazy, uphills kept coming up, and it was just too hot; our bodies couldn't handle it, we were sweating so much. I doubt we would have made it to Canberra, and if we did, it would have been super late. It's just the conditions that made it super hard. It's totally doable. But 35° average temperature and 60km/h wind just made it too hard. Thinking back now, I think we should have done Canberra - Sydney; the elevation isn't quite as bad.
Conquer we shall.
They decided to call it at Braidwood, about 100km away from Canberra. Both happy to have made it that far and in one piece despite the conditions, but not ready to give up on the idea just yet. What an epic ride that was.
What was your favorite part of the ride?
Chris: The first big descent was nuts, you could see the whole valley so far ahead, and it was a never finishing downhill run at high speed, really awesome.
All along the way, you can see the regrowth on the tree from last year's bushfire; all the green is building up on the trees. It's cool to see how quickly nature adapts and comes back from such a catastrophe.
Jonny: That first descent was indeed very cool, so much speed and fun before getting into the tough part. Also, smooth gravel roads are so cool. We just don't get that in Sydney; they're all beaten up or not maintained and very rocky. Here you get silky smooth gravel roads, which makes the ride very enjoyable.
Oh, by the way, we're definitely coming back to get it done. We will need to pick a better day for it, but we're not going to stay undefeated. We might consider doing the other way around next time, I'll have to study the itinerary, but it's happening. "
I'm glad I was part of such an incredible adventure and happy everyone got home safely. Hopefully, we'll be there to cover the next attempt when the weather is a bit less "Australian".