Monday, November 28, 2016

The Great Southern Randonnee: My ride report from Down Under

The Great Southern Randonnee is a grand experience as much as a grand randonnee.  Audax Australia organizes this ride as a fully supported ride with the intent of attracting international randonneurs to Australia. They go full out to provide a great experience for riders who make the trip to Australia.

The relative isolation of Melbourne provided a unique lead up to the ride. Almost all Americans flying to Melbourne had to fly through Los Angeles and many of us happened to choose the same day to travel. So the Rolling Stone Bar and Grill in Terminal 7 at LAX became a gathering place for randonneurs from all across the US to tell stories and share a beer or two while waiting for our flights across the Pacific.  The camaraderie continued on our arrival in Melbourne. Peter Donnan, ride organizer, was there to personally welcome us and assist us with transport to our local hosts. Myself, Joe Edwards and Rod and Sue Geisert were taken to Charlie and Clare Cooke’s home in the Surrey Hills suburb of Melbourne. The Cookes would be amazing hosts for our stay and their home was our base for the Melbourne portion of our stay.

Audax Australia had added a 100k brevet to their ride schedule for the day after our arrival to give international riders a chance to test ride our reassembled bikes and get used to riding on the “proper side” of the rode. The route was a fantastic assortment of urban trails leading to Southbank, in the heart of downtown Melbourne and then south along the Ocean to Black Rock. While others were eating lunch at the turnaround, Spencer Klaassen, Rod, Joe, Mark Thomas, and I snuck across the street to a microbrewery for a quick beer.

 Festivities continued after the ride with a cookout at Peter Donnan’s home with many of the international randonneurs and several of the Australians.
The next day was moving day, as we moved bikes and other gear to the ride headquarters in Anglesea. Our group was lodged in a 3 bedroom cabin unit at the Big 4 Holiday Park. The evening ended with dinner and kangaroo watching at the Anglesea Golf Course.

Almost all of the Americans, including me, opted for the Sunday evening start. I chose the evening start because in past years, it had been the only option, and I liked the idea of sticking with the traditional GSR experience. The evening start begins with a 200km loop east of Anglesea on the Bellarine Peninsula and the west side of Port Phillip Bay before returning to Anglesea and heading out onto the Great Ocean Road.  Additionally, a night start lets you ride through the first night and day without sleep which should let you get ahead of the clock giving you more flexibility later in the ride. At least, that’s the theory. 

Most of Sunday was spent packing and repacking drop bags and nervously checking weather forecasts. The forecasts were calling for STRONG south west winds throughout Sunday evening and Monday.  At 6pm, we headed out on the Bellarine Peninsula loop. As tailwinds pushed us eastward, the pace was moderate and the mood was light. At various times, we rode along the Ocean and Port Phillip Bay. Everyone was definitely aware that the free ride wasn’t going to last and our tailwind wasn’t going to last very long.  The expected headwinds appeared as we were leaving Portarlington toward Geelong. By this point, our group for the ride had formed. I was riding with Rod, Joe, Spencer and our Australian friend, Leigh Paterson. We rode through the night rather uneventfully, despite the headwinds and arrived back in Anglesea just over 10 hours into the ride. With time in hand, we decided to take a short 1 hour nap in our cabin before tackling the 300km of headwinds towards Port Fairy.

We left Anglesea in morning twilight. The first 30k of the day was along the Great Ocean Road within sight of the Southern Ocean. 

The section featured the worst winds of the day and, although we made slow progress, we eventually made it to Lorne. Historically, GSR remained on the Great Ocean Road at this point. However, spring rains had led to sporadic road closures so GSR organizers had developed an alternative inland route. So at Lorne, we left the Great Ocean Road and climbed 10km into the Otway Mountains. After the initial 10km climb, the route meandered over rolling terrain to the town of Forrest. The control in Forrest was a combination bike shop/café. Apparently, Forrest is a major mountain biking destination.  GSR organizers had pre-purchased a sandwich for every rider at the café.

Leaving Forrest took us further into the Otways and we soon came to Turton’s Track. The Track was one of the more memorable roads of the ride. It was signed as unsuitable for busses and campers. 

The bike path width road wound through the mountainous rain forest with several miles of tight, twisting corners. Following the track a stair step climb brought us to Laver’s Hill for a pre-purchased muffin and lunch. A long decent brought us back to the Great Ocean Road near the 12 Apostles landmark. Although the scenery was spectacular, I was really dragging as we passed several scenic overlooks and into Port Campbell.

The control at Port Campbell was at a hostel and was fully staffed by GSR volunteers. The volunteers were great and rushed to fill water bottles and take meal orders. I had heard Spencer talking up Ronnie’s shepherd’s pie so I ordered a bowl. A couple bowls later I was feeling a lot better and ready to go. 

We rolled out together and headed towards the control at Wangoom, which was a local hall where a local organization was selling food and drinks. At this point, our group split up as Spencer decided to take a nap on the wood floor while the rest of us decided to finish the 44km to the overnight at Port Fairy.  Despite the promise of an evening start, we dragged into the Port Fairy overnight at 12:55am, leaving only about an hour for sleep. I tried to make my way quietly through the dormitory room at the hostel but I’m sure I made quite a bit of noise. I wasn’t much better an hour later trying to get dressed in the dark, but it seemed that almost everyone in the dorm had a very similar wakeup call.

The 50 or so miles from Port Fairy to Hamilton was lightly rolling. A large group of riders formed and much of this section was spent in a group of 12-18 riders. After leaving a food stop in Macarthur, we saw a koala bear hop out of a tree and bound along the road towards another tree. Coming into the Hamilton control gave me a good lift.  Charlie and Clare Cooke were two of the volunteers playing major roles at the control. Charlie promised to have a bottle of Cooper’s Stout ready for me when we returned for the overnight, so I had something to look forward to for the rest of the day. The run up to Dunkeld was pretty flat and we rolled along pretty well.  Joe snapped a shifter cable and Leigh saved the day by pulling one out of his bag that he didn’t even know he had.

The Grampians section following Dunkeld was stunning. The section featured two major climbs and about 70km of riding through undeveloped, wild countryside.  Although we didn’t see much wildlife on this section, the woods were full of the sounds of wild birds.

 Eventually we crossed over the Great Dividing Range and dropped for about 10km into Hall’s Gap for another controlled staffed with helpful volunteers. Hall’s Gap was teeming with wild parrots and other kinds of birds. After a short stop at Hall’s Gap, we had a short, flat 70km loop to Stawell and back before backtracking through the Grampians. I found facing the 70km section back through the Grampians to be a little intimidating in the late afternoon. The section started with about a 10km climb and then another 60km through some pretty wild country. I had mentioned that I was a little disappointed that I hadn’t seen any wild kangaroos since leaving Anglesea. As we left Hall’s Gap just before sunset, they were everywhere. It seemed that every vacant lot, yard or park had its own herd. Just as we were leaving town, I noticed a field that had several kangaroos and three emus. I definitely wasn’t expecting to that.

For most of the trek through the Grampians I rode with Rod, telling stories and keeping ourselves distracted from the miles to go. Shortly after dark, we were treated to the rising of the so-called Supermoon and the emergence of a beautiful night sky. The final decent back into Dunkeld was highlighted by Rob nearly missing a kangaroo crossing the road and me having a wallaby cross the road in front of me. The final section from Dunkeld back to Hamilton was pretty easy riding but the temperature dropped dramatically to the point that I was shivering violently and in a pretty grumpy mood by the time we got to the overnight in Hamilton at 12:30am. Luckily, Charlie was looking after me and produced the long awaited bottle of Stout. After a good meal, and another Stout begged from Clare, we were shown to our cabin for a quick shower and just over 3 hours of sleep.

Historically, GSR riders have faced headwinds on the first couple of days and tailwinds as they return to Anglesea. We would not be so fortunate. After battling 20+ mph headwinds on the first day, the winds shifted to be in our face for the return trip as well. For most of the day, the winds weren’t quite as strong as we had faced earlier in the ride but they were enough to really slow us down. However, some of the worst headwinds of the entire ride hit us as we passed through the Warrnambool area and worked back towards Port Campbell.  The portion of the Great Ocean Road passing several scenic pullouts should have been a glorious and beautiful ride. Instead it was a slow, frustrating 9 mph slog. We did stop for a couple of quick photos before eventually limping into Port Campbell for some more shepherd’s pie. 

Throughout the day, I had been looking forward to stopping at the 12 Apostles viewpoint following Port Campbell but our slow afternoon slog made me give up on getting there before sunset. At the control, however, Joe and Rod suggested we give it a shot and see if we could get there before dark. As we left, the winds seemed to let up. As we approached the pullout, I saw Bob Booth, who had DNF’d the ride earlier, standing by the side of the road waving us in. He had been following our progress on Facebook and wanted to make sure we stopped for the view. He escorted us out the walkway and to the best viewing spot, just as the light hit the magical time for photos. Bob said something like “this is the light people have been waiting all day for”. We walked up, took a couple pictures and were back on our bikes within about 15 minutes.  

We were expecting a lot of traffic after sunset when the crowds from the 12 Apostles viewpoint left. However, they must have found a different route to their hotels because we were only passed by about 5 cars over the next couple of hours. The climb up Laver’s Hill was a long, slow grind but it was made better by an amazing view of the Southern Cross followed by the rise of the Supermoon. Shortly after that, we came around a corner on the climb to see a koala bear sitting in the road. Despite several of us milling around the bear, it didn’t move for several minutes. It finally got annoyed and slowly walked into the woods at the side of the road.

The control at Laver’s Hill was a welcome sight. We had a quick meal while debating whether to sleep there for a bit or to move on to the next stop at Forrest. Eventually, we decided to sleep for an hour before leaving. Several other riders had the same thought and we left in a much larger group than we arrived with. The ride through Turton’s Track was less fun in the dark as the slow, winding route seemed to take forever. Sunrise came shortly after another food stop in Forrest. The tough climb to Benwerrin was made easier knowing that it was the last serious obstacle on the route. I followed Wolfgang down the 10km descent, leaving only 18 miles to the finish.  As we parked our bikes at the bottom to wait for our groups to reform, Wolfgang looked at me with a big smile and summed up my thoughts perfectly by exclaiming with a thick German accent, “What a fucking ride”.

We were welcomed back in Anglesea by a large group of other riders and volunteers assembled to cheer finishers. Our finishing time of 88 hours and 25 minutes was not particularly impressive, but we had a great ride.

I absolutely loved the Great Southern Randonnee.  The scenery, organization, and volunteer support were amazing.  The 2016 version of the Great Southern Randonnee had three distinct areas, each of which was as scenically spectacular as anyplace I have ever ridden. The 12 Apostles and Scenic Oceanfront, the Otways with Turton’s Track, and the Grampians were each uniquely beautiful. Basing a ride around any one of them would be worth the trip to Australia. Including all 3 took the ride to an entirely different level.