This is Pistol, my surprise house guest, come to Perth to shatter the tranquillity of my bachelor life. Pistol has recently finished some sort of degree in engineering, which to me explains the savant half of his equation, and he has come to Perth looking for work or a better life or some such thing. At the moment, he is spending his days working at a boat builder’s and his evenings alternately amusing or annoying me. He sails with my brother so I half-suspect he’s also come to Perth to escape the constant mockery and threats that this entails, both on and off the water. He is also sure to read this blog entry and quote it extensively back at me.
Pistol is a wellspring of over-ambitious plans. Just yesterday he told me he intends to cycle 500km during the five-day Easter break that is coming up at the end of the week*. The most he has ever previously cycled in a day was 90km in a charity ride in Sydney. However, this is a tremendous improvement on his previous over-ambitious plan, which was to ride yesterday’s 240km five dams ride.
*That’s two days ago now – this is turning into quite a long blog entry. However, today he has taken his bicycle to his work. His new ambition is to ride 100km home after his work today.
Since he arrived and heard I was doing this ride, he has been informing me repeatedly that not only was he going to join the ride but he was going to show me up by doing it wearing a pair of thongs (jandals, flip-flops) on his feet and a silly hat or pink top or something. By mid-week I realised he was actually serious about doing it and was ignoring my discouragements because he thought I just didn’t want him embarrassing me. Although part of me strongly wanted him to do the ride so I could hear all about his suffering later, my conscience forced me to sit him down and give him a serious lecture. I explained that this ride was nearly three times as long as the longest he had ever ridden before. I tried to get across to him the hyperbolic nature of bicycle pain. Once your bottom starts hurting or your shoulders ache, the pain isn’t going to go away until you stop riding. In fact, it’ll probably get worse. If the pain starts after 120km, you have to live with that pain for another 120km and, what’s more, because that 120km is the half-way point of the ride, there are no short cuts home any more. He took all this in and still insisted he was riding, so with a clear conscience I started looking forward to his downfall.
The five dams is an organised ride out from Perth toward the hills in the east and to Mundaring Weir, the northernmost of the dams. From there it goes through hilly countryside south until Serpentine Dam, turns west and comes out of the hills, goes across flat land until the freeway and then cyclists can go up the freeway bike path back to Perth. There is also a three dams option which doesn’t go as far south and is about 150km. Or, if you prefer a more visual approach, the five dams course looks like this:
When I got back to Perth in January, I had talked with frequent Blogorollo commenter Chong about doing this ride but we had been a bit reluctant because a) it is another of these rides that costs a bit more than it ought to and b) Chong has been studying for important work-related exams and wouldn’t have such a lot of time to train for it. At first he was concerned that the ride was the same weekend as his exam but when it turned out to be a week after, we went ahead and entered.
Once entered, the ride organisers, BWA – the same as for the Waroona ride two weeks ago – kindly started emailing me helpful and grammatically erroneous updates and advice such as “Remember –Hydrate and nutrition during the long rides is vital.” On March 11, we were emailed a training program which included retro-training all the way back to January 17th. Chong and I were horrified to discover thatnot only did we not have a time machine but there was no way we were going to get around the parcours* because we not been spending our Monday evenings doing pilates, yoga or stretching.
*In my cycling snobbery, I’ve decided never to use an English word when there is an existing French one with the same meaning.
If our inability to go back in time and do pilates in January was not bad enough, we were frankly disrespectful of master plan in the final week. Compare the vision:
with the reality:
Pistol cooked up a big spaghetti bolognese for me on Wednesday, not Thursday, and although I had a big macaroni cheese on Saturday, instead of having a day off – hydrate, I went for a 100km bike ride. Chong was flush with exam success but neither of us had many kilometres in our legs over the past couple of weeks so we were keen to go for a not-too-demanding hilly ride on Saturday morning. We met at the Elite Racing Cycles shop and a group of six of us headed for the hills, leaving the other regulars to do the usual 6:30 parcours to Fremantle and back.
Chong and I were joined by Thierry and John, who you will remember fro our Waroona ride, Logan, who is one of the top cyclists in WA at the moment and recently won the state criterium championship, and Alex, who I’ve only met this year and rides infrequently with ERC. It’s only now that I realise I lacked the presence of mind to whip out my camera and photograph Alex, as he showed up in the complete king of the mountain outfit – polka dot shirt, shorts, arm warmers, socks and possibly gloves. It’s a sight to behold. I shall have to keep my camera handy for future opportunities*.
*My secret spy has been lurking with his camera, waiting for the opportunity to papparaz Alex in his full KoM glory. Here he is with socks, gloves and baguette. Only the polka dot arm warmers are missing:
At the first sight of the hills, Thierry and John vanished into the distance but Chong and I were not going to be tempted into anything more than a moderate pace. Logan was having an easy ride and was therefore much quicker than us but happy to wait quite often and Alex’s vision for the day was to go as hard as he could to keep up before turning around to go home. Chong, Logan and I ended up riding much of the way together.
We regrouped with Thierry and John at Mundaring Weir but had already lost Alex. John and Thierry again took off at pace – this was their main ride for the week after all – and Chong and I ended up following Logan down a different, longer route. This led to some problems as Chong and I both realised we hadn’t had breakfast and we left Logan to do more cycling in the hills while we limped home nursing our hunger knocks. I don’t know where it comes from that cyclists refer to a hunger knock, or running out of energy from lack of eating, as ‘bonking’. It’s bad enough that we shave our legs and wear tight-fitting clothes but if a work colleague asked me about a ride, what would they think if I replied: ‘it was a good day, but we all bonked on the way home’? Nonetheless, Chong and I had learnt our lesson and went home to stock up on energy food in preparation for the early start the next day.
Back home, in addition to finally making me snap and provoking a temper tantrum on twitter, Pistol had been out shopping for the big ride the next day. He’d bought a pair of cycling shorts, muesli bars, drinks, a jar of peaches and a can of baked beans. He put the baked beans down as panic buying. The reason for the food and drink was that he wasn’t actually a legitimate entrant of the event. The roads aren’t closed, so there’s nothing to stop someone from just riding the route along with everyone else. He’d done the shopping, but what he hadn’t done was take was take my brother’s bike, which he was going to use for the ride, out of its bag, assembling it and making it fit him. We pieced it together and got the seat post about right but I had very real doubts about his being able to do such a long ride on a bike he had never even ridden on before. I ended up convincing him to at least only attempt the three dams course and sat him down with the map to show him where to go.
I had no confidence at all that Pistol had taken in any of my directions but he then got all excited again and told me I was going to be very impressed with his next move. In addition to the food and drink, he’d bought some tape.
There was a fundamental flaw with the extra water bottles, but I’ll come to that later. He then went on to show me the pink silk pyjama top that he had bought from a second-hand store to wear for the ride. I offered him an old cycling top of mine which is now too big for me. He wouldn’t be making quite the same statement but at least he would have pockets to carry the bananas and muesli bars in. We hit the sack early, all ready for a big day the next day.
Start time for the big ride was 5:45am and Chong was getting to my place at 5:30 so we could ride to the start together. Pistol woke me up by going to the toilet at 4:30 but he’d managed to get back to bed by the time I got up. He tried to tell me that the three dams ride didn’t start until seven but I was having none of it and made him get up and get ready. It was darker that I had thought it would be so I put my good lights on my bike and fitted Pistol’s with a feeble front light. Chong arrived on time, met Pistol for the first time, Pistol made those important first impressions, and we headed to the start together.
It was soon apparent that Pistol was having a problem. We stopped at some lights and he hopped off and tried spinning the rear wheel but the brakes were on tight. We loosened the brake release and got the wheel spinning again but he had problems again by the time we got to the start area. I went off to pick up our race (but it’s not a race – it’s a participation ride) numbers and transponder which I have no faith in since the Waroona ride and by the time I got back, Pistol had loosened his brake cable and was unable to get it back tight again. Chong was gradually moving his bicycle further away and pretending to be interested in a point in the distance. After a bit of playing with the brakes, I asked Pistol if he had taped over the brake cables. We untaped the bottles and – hello – the brakes were working again. By this time, Chong was sending a clear message that it was time to get going so we left Pistol to whatever fate awaited him and hit the road.
There was no group start to the event. You just picked up your transponder and headed off when you were ready. While we were messing around with Pistol’s brakes, a lot of the people milling about had taken off but we were pretty content to be riding on our own. We had already hammered out a strategy of not taking off too fast or trying to keep up with anyone who was setting too quick a pace. We got passed quite early by one group of four and it already seemed to us that the bloke at the front was doing all the work while the other three were struggling to keep up.
The parcours out of town actually took us along some of Perth’s least attractive cycling roads – narrow, two-lane roads with wide drains jutting out into the middle of the lane – but it was early enough in the morning that we could just take up the left lane without troubling traffic. Chong and I cruised along at a comfortable pace and realised we had picked up a few riders behind us but it wasn’t until we had nearly arrived at the bottom of Perth’s hills and a few riders decided to take a turn at the front that we saw we had somehow managed to gather quite a bunch. We really hadn’t been going very fast but from the comments I overheard between other riders, they were all too scared or lazy to take a turn at the front for fear of wearing themselves out. Most of these guys were only doing the three dams, too. Cowards.
The group dispersed once we started climbing up the hill in the longest but certainly not the steepest climb of the day. The five and three dams rides are not individual events – you had to enter with a partner – and it was at this point that early cracks started showing in some of the teams. Every so often an enthusiastic rider would pass me on the climb but there would be no sign of his partner. Likewise, we watched the less-fit partner of several pairs slowly drift further away from the rear wheel of his apparently unsympathetic buddy*. Chong and I had no intention of tiring ourselves on this climb and determined only to pass riders who were clearly struggling. Our only other goal was to take note of any quirks or unfashionable elements in the riders around us so we could scoff at them later when we were out of earshot. My personal favourite was a rider who I nicknamed (in my head) Knees McAfferty. His seat was a good three inches too low and as he cycled, his were splayed wider than his handlebars. He was a joy to watch climbing until, alas, his exertions were not enough and he slipped slowly behind us.
*I am using the pronoun his here, not because I am sexist but because these riders were all men. We did see quite a few women entrants during the ride but none who had been separated from their partner.
Despite my incessant complaints about the cost of this event, the five dams was quite well organised. It seems that when you hand over great wads of cash to ride a course that you could just as easily ride by yourself any day of the year, it comes with the expectation that you have paid money in order not to trouble your mind with thinking. The course was much too long for marshalls at every corner but it was well marked out with bright yellow directional signs showing us the way, as well as exhorting the riders to: drink, drink, drink; don’t stop drinking; eat, eat, eat; drink, eat, drink; don’t stop eating; eat, drink, eat; and don’t stop ’till you get enough. I may have made the last one of those up. The six check-points all provided water, powdered energy drink and something to eat. This was the difference between paying and non-paying riders. We did see a few riders without race (but it’s not a race) numbers and promptly nicknamed them Pistols. I may well be a Pistol myself next year and save some money by being self-catering.
The first check point was at Mundaring Weir and it was here that we learnt where our entrance fee had gone. They had blown the lot on bananas. Thanks to this year’s tropical cyclones, bananas have become a luxury item in Australia. The supermarket up the road from me has them at $15 a kilo. They have almost become a status symbol and here we were living the high life with bucket after bucket of bananas.
At these early checkpoints, the temptation is not to linger but to get the card stamped, fill the bottles and dash off as quickly as possible. Chong and I reasoned that a longer break to stop and stretch was an investment in fewer aches and pains later in the ride. Chong nobly helped this cause by going to the toilet at just about every checkpoint.
Because of our long pauses at the checkpoints, we found ourselves passing the same people fairly often. I was glad to see Knees McIlroy was still battling away although later in the ride, I noticed he and his partner appeared to downgraded their ambitions and changed from the five dams to the three dams parcours. Either that or they had turned up the pace and given us a hiding while we were preoccupied poking fun at the other riders, the road signs or each other. I revealed how low my maths has sunk by proclaiming, after 40km, that we were one-eighth of the way around the course. Chong was kind enough to help me with all my fractions for the rest of the ride.
Lunch was really good. There was no shortage of food and we happily lingered for ages. A little bit too long, in fact. I had to give a donation to some woman who is climbing Mt Kilimanjaro to raise money for Leukemia. This sparked some later conversation between Chong and me about this kind of charity fund-raising. Why do people never do dull, tedious things in the name of charity? It’s all climbing mountains and cycling across continents. Where are the people doing three weeks’ worth of ironing to raise money for a good cause?*
*Slight hypocrisy alert here – I hope to be blogging regularly during my upcoming cycling trip around Hokkaido and will be regularly reminding people that they can donate to help the tsunami victims. In fact, here’s a link to the Australian Red Cross.
One problem with having all the checkpoints at dams is that they seem to build these things at the bottom of hills. The climb out after lunch was a steepish one and it took the legs a little while to find their groove again. We passed a pair of riders who we seemed to pass on the first climb out of every checkpoint and whose reaction to my cheery but increasingly less witty humorous comments as we passed them wilted from polite chuckle early in the ride to stone cold silence the last time we passed them. They still smiled at us when we saw them after the finish so I like to humour myself that they were just tired and not fed up with that jerk who kept passing them.
Because of the slightly different routes and different start times, Canning Dam, our fourth dam but the three dams riders’ second dam, was where we came across the largest group of three dams riders and met up with a few other ERC people. The ride out from the Canning Dam was a good, steep climb and we had fun exhibiting our superiority over the three dams riders by cruising past them with nonchalant expressions on our faces. At least that’s how we like to think we looked. On Albany Highway, we turned left while the three dams riders turned right and we put our heads down for the worst stretch of road on the ride.
Albany Highway has a speed limit of 110km/h and for most of this stretch is a single-carriageway with a very narrow shoulder. Most cars passed us pretty considerately although at that speed even passing cars giving a wide berth feel much closer than they are. However, one road train driver was deliberately passing cyclists as close as he could. After he passed us way too close with no oncoming traffic at all, I watched him veering toward each cyclist he passed. Infuriatingly and pointlessly dangerous behaviour. Unfortunately I failed to get his number plate as he passed us.
After leading us up the climb out of Canning Dam, Chong was really hitting his straps and did most of the work along Albany Highway and we were setting a cracking pace, overtaking cyclist who had either dumped or been dumped by their partners, until Chong let the side down by getting a flat.
While Chong fixed his flat, I sat on my backside offering him redundant advice and waving to passing cyclists. We caught most of them back by the time we turned off Albany Highway and headed for Serpentine Dam, our last of the day. Back on quiet country roads, we could start riding two abreast again so we could continue chatting, enjoying the ride and literally using the word literally in as many sentences as possible. I would say we literally said literally a million times. We were literally shouted at by a haggard-looking lady in a clapped out car but unfortunately I have no idea what she said as her high-pitched squeaky voice was drowned out by her high-pitched squeaky brakes. And they say only animal owners begin to resemble their pets. Luckily she figured out that when you can see at least a kilometre or so ahead of you and there are no approaching cars, it is possible to move into the opposite lane and continue driving.
After Serpentine Dam, we descended out of the hills and on to the flat land where we were just a little late to be held up by a train, just as sometimes happens in pro races in Europe. I took a photo of the intersection anyway.
We kept up a good speed into a south-westerly wind until we got to the freeway bike path where we had the wind behind us all the way home. The sixth checkpoint was on the bike path and was the first one where we felt we could just stamp our cards and clear off. Just as we were about to leave, a rider asked us if we had a chain-breaking tool as his chain had broken and he needed to fix it. Being scrupulously honest, Chong admitted he did have one and we had a longer than expected break. It would be a bit churlish to complain that this was going to cost us a handful of minutes in a 10-hour ride and it gave us a nice chance to rest our (luckily only mildly) aching shoulders and backsides and refill our bottles with water we didn’t think we would need but which, in fact, we did.
The tailwind and flat path for the last 40km were a treat and we watched our average speed climb steadily all the way home. We finished with an average speed of 23.9 and an average moving speed of 27.7. Our official time was exactly 10 hours and seven seconds. I was hoping to be met by Pistol at the finish line holding a couple of cold beers for the both of us but this is the sort of delusional fantasy you come up with when riding for this long. Instead, the coffee van packed up and left before we had time to claim free coffee and we got to listen to the organisers get on the microphone and big-note themselves claiming this was the best-organised ride in Australia, if not the world.
But what of Pistol, you ask? You’ve read through this enormous post motivated by the possibility that Pistol ended up in a ditch trying to untape a muesli bar form his forks or spent the day trying to follow pretty girls on bicycles only to be met with strong rebuffs and a possible restraining order but unfortunately, you are to be disappointed. Pistol managed to go the wrong way at the very first turn. His description of where he went doesn’t match that of any path that I’m aware of but he tells me he ended up riding to Fremantle, where he ate his bananas and a muesli bar and by the time he got home, he had done 70km. And he didn’t even think to have cold beer waiting for me in the fridge when I got home.
Righto – I had better post this and go to work. It’s my longest post ever and I’ve still missed out quite lot. If you managed to read it all, I can only congratulate you. I’m sure if you check the comments, Chong (and maybe even Pistol) will be along soon to comment on anything I may have left out.