Steve Watson once told me, “If you want to reach the clouds, you have to go up.” Steve Watson is the insanely fit (or insane, fit) 68 year old endurance rider, who is the mastermind (or mad man) behind the Monaro Cloudride. I first met Steve in Banff, AB, when we shared a room in the days prior to the 2014 Tour Divide. In Banff, he told me of a route he created through the Great Dividing Range of Australia, a 1000k clockwise loop beginning and ending in Canberra, ACT, with most of the race in the ruthless hills of New South Wales, topped off with the ass-kicking southernmost tip dipping just into Victoria. During the inaugural run in 2014, there were 10 starters, and 3 finishers, with considerable time gaps between riders. Round one can always be a wash. Looking at 2015, we had 18 starters, and 4 finish, with again, large gaps for a 1000k. Is the race drawing the wrong crowd? Or is the route really that ridiculous? The answer may be somewhere in-between. Based on route stats alone, we all knew there would be lots of hills, a claimed 24000Vm in 1000k, that’s nearly 79000ft in 621 miles for you ‘mericans. Big hills make big dreams come true, right? As I began training, it was hard to sift through the data and figure out what my goals should be. With the apparent scatter plot, I decided to go with my tried and true tactic; ignore what have others have done, stick with I know I should be able to do, and never stop pushing myself until I cross the line. That said, I devised a four stage priority attack for the Cloudride:
  1. Stay alive, thou must survive.
  2. Finish this thing, quitting is not for me.
  3. Set the pace, win the race.
  4. Shoot for the record.
With a list of starters with experience from around the world, I was not sure what I was stepping into. My training was limited to fat biking in Vermont (I discussed this a bit more in my blog, beforehand). With opposing seasons, the Australian competition had the advantage, or so I thought, coming out of their summer. Long before seeing the weather for the week, I knew, the colder it was, the better I would do. My 2013 US road tour, Tour Divide 2014, and all of my notable experience has been in less than ideal weather. My Patagonia (not sponsored) rain shell is well experienced. A week before the start, the 7 day forecast began looking wet. I wasn’t surprised, or amused. I really wanted to get some cycling short sunburn lines. No, I don’t tan. FB_IMG_1429237197137 Day 1. Canberra to a hill somewhere after Numeralla. Leaving Lonsdale St. everyone sort of seemed to fall immediately into a touring pace slumber. I wasn’t trying to blow up, show off, break away, or anything of the like, but the sun sets early, riding at night is always slower, let’s make the most of the daylight, folks. After just a few K’s on trail, we had a flat bit of pavement before we started climbing. I set into a comfortable spin, never looking back, until I hit the Kowan road, where I didn’t see anyone when I checked my shoulder to cross the street to make the right hand turn. (This felt weird, as I was on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.) Set into a good rhythm on the mellow climb, I sped right past a dogleg in the GPS track around 12 miles in. I caught the mistake within a ¼ mile and doubled back to find Patrick, a fellow American rider, equally confused by this route choice, as we crossed a ravine, clearly unsuited for riding. Perhaps it’s a test, we concluded and pushed on. Patrick and I continued to play cat and mouse for the next 10 or so miles. Being that he was on a singlespeed, I spun away quickly on the flats, and had him catching up every time I made a wrong turn (I seemed to do this a lot in the first 50 miles.) We’d match speed on the climbs and repeat through the flat. Eventually, we started getting into a series of gates, some locked, some not. Nearly matching pace through farmland, we encountered a farmer claiming we didn’t have permission to be there. We explained the situation that we were told we had permission, and proceeded towards the Kings Highway. More flat roads. I enjoyed riding with Patrick, but the gears/ss match was much in my favor, and I spun up a considerable gap in the next several miles. Little did I know, this would be the last time I would see another rider for the remainder of the race. Hill after hill, they kept coming. The rain set in. It lasted most of the day. The previously dry clay and sand mixed soils became saturated quickly. The clay stuck to the drivetrain, the sand clung on top to confirm grinding of all my new components, while the water worked its way into bearings. I gave up lubing the chain, and every few miles I would rip off some fern leaves to hold in my hand and clean the chain off. 2015_0403_23413300 A bit after 90 miles, I knew I had to find “the rock near the tree” where I would need to jump the fence, and follow the GPS line on an imaginary road. The tall grassy fields helped clean my drivetrain, as I walked, and sometimes rode, until the route slowly developed into a form of path. I was glad to be on a more obvious path just as the last bit of natural light faded away. 2015_0404_03502500 Too warm for a jacket, I rode in the rain in just a jersey and shorts, pulling up leg warmers for the descents. The rain began to ease up as the daylight weaned away. There was no resupply until Nimmitabel (236k, 147mi), supposedly 7 hours or so beyond Numeralla, which I hit on queue with estimated 8 o’clock. I rode for another hour or so, and found a flat spot to set camp, in striking distance to be in Nimmitabel right around opening time for the bakery. I could have pushed longer the first night, but why push so far and then have to wait for the bakery to open? Day 2. To the shoulder of a dirt road, beyond Delegate. Waking up, I was concerned I had been passed while I slept. I quickly broke camp and started moving. I didn’t notice any tire tracks in the sandy trail. I soon came to some steep, unrideable climbs, which, I knew were about to come. No point in stopping, so I just pushed until I could pedal again, and repeat. Still gloomy, sunrise was less than eventful, but I could eventually turn off my lights, and make my way into town, for a good warm breakfast and resupply, about 20 minutes after the bakery opened. Perfect timing! Leaving town, I spent most of the day on primarily fast roads making quick time, and feeling the high of ultra racing. On my way into Bombala (335k, 208mi), the Stevens’ (avid dot followers, and gracious landowners) cheered me into town. I hope I wasn’t too brief, but I was really looking forward to a resupply. A quick IGA stop, and I began another set of steep climbs, becoming rougher as I grew near to the Delegate River. 2015_0404_18122600 A new reroute dropped us in a field to “follow the line” that sent us through a series of deep gorges, ravines, valleys, and washouts, in a sharp, cobble rock filled pasture, eventually down the hill for our first major river crossing. 2015_0405_02242400 I was glad to get to the Delegate River during day light. At worst, the crossing was knee deep, but over some very slick rocks. A quick visit with the Stevens family, now ON their property, and I pushed on towards Delegate. The sunset and rain showers battled it out, leaving a beautiful golden sky, with a full rainbow, followed by a magnificent yellow sunset behind sharp mountain silhouettes. 2015_0405_03504500 2015_0405_03542800 I had heard Delegate (430k, 267mi) was a great stop, and I was hoping to catch the cook before 8PM. I was there in time, but the cook was gone. I was set loose in the kitchen, where I found some fruit, lettuce, sour milk, and instant coffee. An instant coffee and an orange for the morning, I left as soon as I could get beyond the advice of partially drunken locals, not to go where the route sent me next, Mt Tingaringi. I pushed on until about 157 miles for the day, found a flat spot and crawled in my tent. Day 3. Over Tingaringi, and back into Kosciuszko National Park, past Jindabyne. 2015_0405_15234600 I woke up on day 3 knowing it would be the crux of the route. Little did I know how soon. Just a few miles in, the GPS track cut left, on a hint of a road through the trees. The road went left, the track continued right. So at 3:45AM I bushwacked through thick bush, about as far from home as I can get in the world, following an imaginary line, put on an electronic device, by a guy who I met on the internet. Adventure at its finest! 2015_0405_16514500 Occasionally picking up something of a trail, only to find the GPS track doesn’t go that way, I got tangled in a ball of old barbed wire, as did my derailleurs, as I made my way forward. After a few kilometers I came out to a perfectly rideable road that had been paralleling me the whole time, but without local knowledge, or daylight for that matter, how was I to know to ignore the GPS course? The road got steeper, then rougher. This is Tingaringi! I didn’t hesitate to push; it had to be done. The sun slowly rose, along with my elevation, and I watched the final sunrise from the summit, as the low clouds filled the valleys, high peaks popping up like islands in a cotton sea. 2015_0405_16300900 “Steep unrideable descents,” claimed the course notes. “Don’t be a Bitch,” my aero pads kindly reminded me. Not quite a DH rig, but nearly, I bombed down the steep, loose rubble rock filled trail. Don’t lock the front wheel, keep it forward, slide out, before OTB (over the bars), weight back, eyes forward. BRAAAAAP……psssssssssssTTT. I felt the rear wheel clip a squared edge rock. I knew instantly it was flat. I was right. Within 5 minutes, I swapped the tube and was moving again, now running a way higher pressure, in fear of a repeat. I only had one spare tube. Not just a climb and descent, I was repeatedly slammed with unrideable hills on my way to Tingaringi Creek “gradually descending over 13k, dropping about 1100m in elevation.” What this trail note failed to mention was every time we dropped 300m, we climbed up another 299m, about 1100 times over the next 13k. And the fresh mountain Tingaringi Creek was dried up to mere mosquito puddles. Protein water? “That wasn’t so bad,” I thought, “I can start making up time now!” 2015_0405_21445400 2015_0405_18255000 (1) 2015_0405_21494900 The next 28 kilometers were advertised as rough fire trail, with some savage pinch climbs and loose steep rubble descents. IE: So steep you’ll be kicking foot steps into the loose(r) dirt/rocks on the sides, dragging your bike up, holding the brakes while you progress your feet, so the bike doesn’t roll backwards. Your shoes will be destroyed, your achilles will ache, your motivation to live, let alone proceed will shrivel to mere desire not to die alone on this gloomy day, in this remote mountain range. Just keep going, priority 2. These trails were not designed by cutting into the hill to set a reasonable grade. They were made by driving a bulldozer up, over, and down, a mountain on a path in which the machine would not slide or tip over sideways, with no regard to fore and aft pitch. All of my concern of crossing the Snowy River became a wash, as I pushed my bike up another bloody mountain, just trying to make it there. With the river finally in sight, it looked big. I passed random fallen, dried timber, debating if I should collect it to construct a raft. Reaching the river bank, seeing the islands, my concerns went away. The first few sections were a breeze. The last section, the channel, was flowing rapidly, and I could not see the bottom. A bit of scouting discovered little difference in crossing paths, so I hastily picked up my bike, as high as I could, and “jumped” in. Stupidly I had grabbed the bike on the upstream side. As the groin deep water pushed the wheels, I nearly took a swim, but managed to spin rather than be pushed, and retreated to the river bank, to try again, now with my bike downstream of me, as Steve had recommended. Close call, but I pulled through. Now on the Barry Way, I enjoyed some faster riding, only occasionally being shaken by the all too familiar washboard roads. A long valley climb provided some of the first nice views, as the clouds broke and the sun shined. As I made my way into Jindabyne (582k, 362mi), I was excited to be out of the Tingaringi area. I was considering getting a room for the night, but it was still quite early. I got a pizza and thought about it. A tracker check from my beautiful girlfriend back home and I knew I had a bit of breathing room, but Patrick was riding one hell of a race, and staying with it, even on the singlespeed. After the warm meal, I realized how much time I would waste if I got a room here. If you want to be comfortable, go to the spa. Comfortable doesn’t win races, priority 3. A bit of pavement out of town had me realizing how cooked my legs were from pushing the bike all morning. It started to rain again, so I put rain gear on to keep my clothes dry for the last few miles of my day. I passed the pumping station and was back to dirt. Although dark, I could tell there was a huge steep drop off, nearly a cliff, on my right, as I rode back into Kosciuszko National Park. Now pouring, I just waited for a flat spot and a brief break in the rain to come simultaneously, so I could quickly pitch my tent, and jump in. 2015_0407_00063100 Day 4 To almost Batlow. I thought the battle was over. I know the war is never done ‘till the finish line’, but I thought I was in the clear. A wet morning led to a heavier load with all the residual moisture on my tent. Trying to seal the wetness away from the sleeping bag, yet pack up quick, I got moving sometime around 4AM. More hills, more gates, and variable road conditions undulated through less forested countryside and pasture land. Another fantastic sunrise (red in the morning, sailors warning) was fun to watch as I bounced along the rocky trail. The route proceeded across hardly existent tracks described as “lumpy,” where clumps of grass overtook road base, limiting speed, comfort, and desire to continue. I felt like I was losing the battle. Hours of slow grinding through fields brought me to the highest elevation of the Cloudride, Tabletop Mountain. The generally slow roads continued as I made my way to Cabramurra (683k, 424mi). Trying to order lunch, I could not make up my mind what I wanted, nor did I care. I just needed lots of food, not decisions. Trying to plan my resupply with diminished mental capacity was confusing. I had only slept 12-14 hours since the beginning of the race, and I could not calculate how much I would need. Just out of Cabra, a paved decent dropped a couple thousand feet into a valley, to cross a dam, and climb back out. The rain started along with the climb, and rarely let up for the rest of the day. Out of the valley on pavement, it was back to fire trail to traverse the ridgetops. Faster trail was a much welcome change from the morning, but the weather was settling from bad to worse and temps began to plummet. The gravel like fire trail changed to clay based in the trees, as I climbed back into the clouds. 2015_0407_02032500 Visibility was low from clouds, and the daylight faded into darkness. The two track was deeply rutted from vehicle tires, each tire track about eight inches to a foot deep, the high center too slick and muddy to ride on. The tire tracks were filled with about ankle deep water, and equally as slick. As I pushed up another greasy climb, thoroughly drenched, the rain drops began to float down. It was becoming snow! Already cold, I knew I had to get out of this weather. Not wanting to quit at only about 7PM and still a bit shy of 100 miles for the day, it was a tough decision, to make, but getting out of the elements, was becoming a priority 1 concern. At the first flat spot I found, I began a fast pitch. Everything was soaked; all my clothing, my sleeping bag, my sleeping pad, my tent, my sandwich, my pride. I looked at the aero pad, right, “Don’t be a bitch”, ate the soggy sammy, and retreated in my portable hidey hole while branches fell around me. Even on the forest floor, among the 100+ foot tall gum trees (referred to as widow makers) the wind was whipping. All night bark and twigs bounced off my tent. Going to sleep so early to get out of the storm, priority 4 felt like it was fading away, but this became a real priority 1 issue. I had every bit of clothing I had with me, on. Although wet, I finally gained some warmth once I was inside my sleeping bag, and body heat dried things, a bit. Hooray synthetic insulation! Every dry night I spend in my tent, I think how I should be carrying a bivy instead of a tent. That thought never crossed my mind this night; I will continue to carry my trusty Big Anges Seedhouse SL1 (not sponsored) for nights like this. (See what we go through so ya’ll can watch a dot blink on your computer screen?!) Day 5 (14h19m) To Canberra I set my alarm for midnight, and every ½ hour after. Finally around 2:30, the storm sounded like it was calm enough to emerge. I ate in my tent, got packed, and was rolling shortly after 3AM. At least I caught up on sleep a bit. The trail a war zone of littered branches, bark and leaves, visibility limited by lingering rain drops, I rode on through the morning, still in the clouds. As I went to swerve around an oddly placed stump in the trail, it spun, two giant eyes reflecting my light, and I nearly kissed an owl as we both did our best to avoid collision. Not a quarter mile later, my front wheel followed a wet root, hidden under leaves, and I followed the route. OTB. Crashing at night is scary. Between my headlamp, the bike light, the rain, and the crash, I felt like I was being mugged in a disco at a waterpark, as I tumbled down the trail. Thankfully, nothing, body or bike was broken. I straightened out my bars and kept moving, perhaps a bit more cautiously. The rough track gave way to better forest roads, and the trees soon parted to a clear cut forested area. Daylight began to brighten the day as the road turned paved and I coasted into Batlow (777k , 483mi). Getting to town at 6 on the dot, I was hoping to find ANYTHING open. The bakery opened at 6:30am, good enough. A few bacon, egg, and cheese rolls, coffees, strawberry milks, and Powerades and I was ready for the day. (Yes, I agree, it is weird that I remember what I ate for every meal, but all the climbs and trails become a scrambled blur.) The sun was shining, but the roads were still wet, as I exited the pavement past Batlow. After a steep climb up, the ridge to Tumut (816k, 508mi) was pretty fast, with a steep dirt descent to more pavement into town. Friendly faces greeting me as I jumped the last gate before the spin into town. Having decent supplies, I grabbed a few Powerades and a lunch wrap in town and rolled out quickly. I still had a shot at priority 4. I never received trail notes beyond Tumut, so I didn’t know what to expect. Apparently a reroute from last year, a pleasant, paved climb lead to some generally fast dirt roads for a while. Back to fire trail, which was recently regraded, and S.O.F.T. and S.L.O.W. After a few miles of pushing on flat, the clay gave way to gravel, the tires cleaned off, and I started making up time again. Something felt sluggish though. My rear tire was soft, but not flat. I pulled out my pump and filled up. A half hour later, same thing. I pulled the tire, found a tiny hole, and got my patch kit. In the haste of packing, I grabbed a patch glue that was old, and nearly used up. After re-installing, I grabbed a snack and jumped on. To my depression, the tire was half flat again. I found another hole, repeat. The first patch didn’t hold. I tried to re-patch (this never works.) Running out of glue, I tried to patch the sealant tube I flatted on Tingaringi. Sealant tubes rarely take patches well; this one didn’t either. Annoyed, but thankful I brought a good pump, I pumped the rear tire to about 75psi and sprinted. I could get between 10 and 40 minutes on a pump, depending on the road surface. I turned on my phone to see if I could get signal, no luck. After about 2.5 hours of this, I was near Wee Jasper, pumping. A truck pulled over to see if I was OK. I borrowed a phone, and called to try to get a tube out to me. Once one was on the way, I proceeded with my pump and sprint ritual for probably another hour or two. I forgot about the climbs, the pain, and everything else really. The power of distraction is amazing. Steve caught me on Dr.s Flat Road and passed off a tube. It was nice not to have to stop every few miles to fill my tire to an absurd pressure! Each hill, “had to be the last”, and wasn’t. Finally to pavement, one last real climb, I was getting there! 2015_0407_21335600 2015_0407_22272200 A dot tracker and Seb Dunne (look out TD15!!) met me on the Uriarra Rd. Seb rode into town with me, a bit of local knowledge appreciated, navigating the secret city trails at night and half delusional. Past the zoo, around the lake, through the city, finally at 2119hrs, I crossed the line on Lonsdale St. where a large crowd had gathered and Stan from Monkey Wrench handed me the best beer of my life. All along, I had thought I’d lost an hour to daylight savings, giving me until 2203hrs to tie Ollie Whalley’s 2014 time, the carrot hanging on a string. Mentally, I went the wrong way, and gained an hour. I would have needed to finish before 2003hrs. Priority 4 out the door. 1-3 check. I look forward to riding with Ollie in the future, fast miles and big smiles I suspect. (Sorry Ollie, ‘kilometers’ doesn’t rhyme as well.) FB_IMG_1428638189442FB_IMG_1428638096816 FB_IMG_1428638176395 After The Monaro Cloudride has far less than a 1/3 finish rate. It is tough, and will truly test you on every level imaginable. As with all large endurance challenges, the will to go on, is often lacking. In better weather, the scenery may be rewarding. This year, it was not particularly so. The riding was often either a bit boring, or unfathomably challenging. The route is well worth the challenge, but probably not a great place to simply enjoy a few days in the saddle. I am glad to say that I’ve completed it, and while never saying never, I don’t know that I will return to try and knock off any more time. For the serious bikepacker looking for the next step to test your inner strength, I urge you to push your bicycle over the wall like hills of Mt. Tingaringi. You won’t think it’s fun in the moment, but when you’ve completed the ride, you’ll be proud to say that are a Cloudrider.
Nijat Imin, Julian Watson, Trevor Fairhurst, Calvin Decker
Nijat Imin, Julian Watson, Trevor Fairhurst, Calvin Decker

Thanks to my awesome sponsors:

Nuclear Sunrise Stichworks

Lonewolf Cycling

Surefoot

I would like to give a huge thanks to Steve Watson for the route, the challenge and the experience in general.

3 Comments

  1. Awesome read. This mat he’s what I felt on the Bicentennial National Trail, in Victoria. Some Hills (4of them) seem similar to Mt. Tinkering. I would to take a look at the elevation profile to see how it compares.
    Even though you had bad weather all along ( the weather started to turn bad, I rushed into Canberra, as I got Snowed on on the last night with a collapsed tent). And you had a bikepacking load, whereas I was pushing a remote touring sort of load.
    But I really feel I’m back there when I read your article. Good job on finishing. I could not race that, it was already hard taking my time.

  2. Lesley McGrane Trevor's Mother inLaw

    All I can say is WOW

  3. Calvin,

    I am super impressed with the fact that you managed to take some nice photos along the way.

    Congratulations.

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