The Big NSW Bike Ride

The 1995 Big NSW Bike Ride started in the small Southern Highlands town of Bundanoon and finished 8 days later in another small NSW town, Milton, just inland from the coast. While I am a mad keen cyclist I had never been on a ride anywhere near as long, my longest cyling was 2 days the previous October in the Southern Highlands where I had managed 80km and 75km on two successive days. Over 600km in 7 days of cycling seemed like a big ask, particularly after surgery to rejoin a broken Achilles tendon in October. I’d done some training, both on the bike and in the gym but expected to be half dead by the end.

The two days before the ride I spent packing and unpacking several times and checking all my gear, including a trial at putting up my brand new tent. The excitment was getting quite intense.

The trip was fun even before we reached the start. The first joy was a wonderful train trip on the old steam train 3801, with almost all the staff volunteers who would answer any silly question you had about the train and the chance to buy a couple of souvenirs (the 3801 cloth badge now has a place on my cycling jacket). The train had to stop at Moss Vale for a while to let the “tilt train” go past and while we were slightly ahead of schedule it was late. This gave me a chance to see that not everyone on the Ride was a fit athlete, a few (myself included) camped out during the delay on the verandah of the pub and held back the cold and wet with a little brandy or bourbon.

The start was a bit chaotic, with the staff trying to get 1500 cyclists off trains and buses, their luggage onto the two luggage trucks and the cyclists equipped with their ride information packs and numbers while the rain came down. We did get on the road though, only a little late and waved off by the Premier. We then had a good days riding till we arrived at our first camp site, Moss Vale High School. As it had been a wet day I had hustled through the 58km leg and arrived quite early, in time to watch a small town appear on the two level playing fields. After I had my tent up the showers were ready. The showers are amazing, there are two enclosed semi-trailers which have around a dozen showers already set up (including water heaters) on them. They only require attaching to a water supply and a small generator for power to the lights.

Then came my next shock, having forgotten my plates and utensils I needed to buy some. Bicycle New South Wales was well ahead of me, with a well stocked general store that had almost anything you might need for the week ahead including T-shirts, caps, sloppy joes, sun cream, batteries and even postcards and stamps. The prices were reasonable, I could have bought everything cheaper at the supermarket, but with a captive market Bicycle New South Wales were certainly not overcharging.

My next discovery was the “Brasserie” a large tent that sold a few sorts of beer, a couple of types of wine, coffee, soft drinks and somewhere to sit (if you were lucky, it was a busy place) while you consumed them and listened to some live music. Prices here were good as well, with beer and coffee both at reasonable prices.

I was also pleasantly surprised at the quality and amount of dinner. Considering there was 1700 people to feed it was tasty, nourishing and plentiful. To wash up your plates there was another neat piece of design, long tables with built in troughs and nozzles that squirt out a tiny but constant stream of warm water, tied to every nozzle a washing up brush. The amount of innovation that has gone into maximizing the facilities while making the camp easy to set up for the volunteers is incredible.

After dinner I took the free shuttle bus the short distance into town to see how the beer tasted at some of the pubs in town. I certainly wasn’t the only person, socialising is a great feature of the rides. Then back to camp to discover that the next days route had been changed, our second camping ground at Robertson was almost under water it was so wet. We were going to stay at Moss Vale High another night and the route would turn back towards Moss Vale for the last few kilometres. This meant that you could totally ignore day two if you wanted, I decided that I’d ride it anyway, it was on the schedule as 76km but had blown out to 80km with the route change. The planners had worked fast and kept the lunch spot (just before the one killer hill of the day) at the same spot.

Day 2

Breakfast was another nice surprise. Porridge, eggs, toast and fruit warmed me up ready for the day ahead. Once again there was enough of everything, when I asked for more porridge on my plate (instead of muesli) the lady serving didn’t hesitate to add some more.

The second day was another almost entirely in the rain. My new Netti cycling jacket was getting a good work out, but I was having a hard time with rain in my eyes. If I wore my night cycling glasses the water on the lenses cut vision, without them my face and eyes stung with the rain hitting them at speed. I settled for wearing the glasses and peering out through the water and above them. We quite quickly reached Berrima, where it was still a little early for all the coffee shops to be open, not even the Lolly Swagman was open to get a sugar hit so I continued on. I remembered a great coffee shop in Bowral from my trip up in October for GEAR (another great cycling event) so I thought I’d power on to there.

The coffee shop at Bowral was inviting, with an open fire, linen tablecloths and the smell of fine coffee. I joined a small group of other cyclists to have a coffee and dry my gloves. As I was sitting there the place was overwhelmed by more and more wet cyclists dripping all over the persian rugs and draping wet jackets all over the furniture. The staff in this refined coffee shop remained courteous and helpful throughout. The welcome we cyclists received in the Southern Highlands was warm enough to overcome the cold of the weather.

Lunch was fair, throughout the week they could only be described as reasonable, but it must be hard to serve that many people out on the road. I came to rely on a stop for either morning or afternoon tea (sometimes both <g>) to get me through the day. All week I consumed huge amounts of food and still lost weight during the trip, all that exercise was doing wonders for me. It was at Berrima Airfield and the local aero club had opened up their canteen. They were doing a roaring trade in coffee and cake, not to mention everyone was huddling under their shelter to eat in the dry.

At the end of the second day my knee had blown up like a balloon so I sought some help for it. I then discovered that not only was St John’s Ambulance giving first aid but there was a doctor on site who bulked billed. She told me my knee was no big problem, just some liquid with no damage and St John’s strapped it up with an elastic bandage.

I continued to be impressed throughout the ride on the professionalism of the volunteers and the ease with which they erected a small town every night. They would take an empty field and set up public showers and toilets, an information tent, the kitchens and servery, the general store and the brasserie. A Telecom technician installed 8 pay phones (I used my Optus card and it too worked wonders), a couple of private vendors set up little stalls selling icecreams and hot filled potatoes (just great for getting me through the gap between finishing and dinner). Then every night there was a free movie, except for one night with a talent show and the last night there was a huge party.

Day 3

The third day dawned with a small chance of the weather lifting, unfortunately not till late afternoon. We were riding to Kiama, 45km away, where we had a rest day. As all the cyclists were packing up and the trucks pulling out you could see the devastation we had done in two days to the sports fields at Moss Vale High. We had over 1500 people walking the grass into mud tracks and getting the many semi-trailers out of the fields required the council to build two new driveways out of gravel. Despite these the trucks had a hard time getting out, some being towed by tractors and gouging out the grass as they left. Already the council had said they would help repair the damage and Bicycle New South Wales was raising money that morning and for the rest of the Ride to thank them, over $800 was given to the School by ther riders (I must have been an above average donation – I chipped in $2).

First stop was the pub at Robertson who had been ready for a huge number of riders the night before, except the weather had kept us in Moss Vale. The pub was open and serving hot food and coffee (I had a little extra warmth in mine, I shared a brandy top up with some other riders).

Then we had to get down Macquarie Pass. To make it safer we were stopped at the top and bunches of riders (there was about 30 to 40 in my bunch) were escorted down behind a pace truck manned by the Volunteer Rescue Association. I thought the entire exercise was well run and extremely safe.

Almost at the end of the day’s ride I couldn’t resist a beer at the small pub at Jamberoo, where I discovered some of my fellow riders were staying. After three days in the rain I thought two nights in the pub were a great idea and they had a room free. Then the one big hill of the day, up Saddleback Mountain and down the other side before I could call the day’s cycling over, I took the flatter road closer to the coast to get back to the pub.

Day Four (Rest Day)

The rest day saw me, like so many others, in the laundry cleaning and drying a lot of gear as well as checking out the local sights and some of the entertainment the pubs in town laid on for us.

BNSW had also organised a large number of activities such as horse riding, a trip to Jamberoo fun park for grass skiing and walks through the parks close to Kiama.

I was delighted by the effort towns along the way put into supporting the ride, riders and the MS Society (the charity that benefits from the ride). In Huskisson, one of the overnight stops, they had closed off a small street for a fair and the local cinema was giving discounts to riders and a dollar from each ticket sold to MS. Another example, Kangaroo Valley (where riders outnumbered locals about 5 or 6 to 1), not only did the local pub have a band in it’s back yard that played till well after official closing but all the shops were open till well after 11pm (I had an icecream on the way home from the pub) and were back open at 6AM so you could have another ice cream or perhaps a cappucino before hitting the road.

In Kiama there were three pubs that had laid on music and cheap food, a sausage sizzle was a typical example. The one closest to the camping ground (in a very nice park, right next to the water) was the busiest; cyclists it seems don’t like walking, certainly not past a pub<g>.

Day Five

This day was Bandaged Bear Day back in Sydney so I started the day by giving away a couple of small Bandaged Bears and putting another load on the cables running from my brake handles so they were handy to give away later in the day. I also put a large Bandaged Bear on my rack, wrapped in a plastic bag to keep him dry. The kids (and there were quite a few riding with their parents) appreciated the gift. On to Kangaroo Valley, 55km away.

The riding was almost all flat till we hit the hill into Kangaroo Valley. This was the largest climb of the entire ride, a rise of about 450 metres. That was a real push to get up, but once again my bike and I just kept on going till we hit the top. The descent was superb, not only was it great to be going down after the hard work of getting up but every bend revealed more of this beautiful valley and a pushbike allows you to enjoy the view instead of speeding past it. About half way down I had to stop and cry I was so overwhelmed at a sunlit valley emerging from between the trees after days of rain.

I’ve already mentioned the hospitality of the town that night. I had a great time and don’t want to admit the time I got back to my tent.

Day Six

Day six started with another big hill, this time we had to climb out of Kangaroo Valley and head back to the coast and Huskisson, 75km away. The hill seemed worse getting out but I felt good when I reached the top, again without having to get off and push. It was actually lower than the hill into the valley, but a little steeper. That meant I had climbed the three worst hills of the ride without getting off the bike and I knew I was fitter than when I started the Ride. The rest of the days ride was quite flat.

Lunch was at the Maritime Aviation Museum connected to HMAS Albatross and many, myself included, took the opportunity to have a rest and tour the Museum. We were also treated to the sight of the helicopter pilots training in the big marine ‘copters. After lunch we had to cycle along a dirt road used by lots of timber trucks. It was probably the worst road of the entire ride and left me exhausted. It was one of the few times that I wanted to be on a mountain bike. BNSW try and minimise the amount of dirt roads for the Ride, I know that in 1996 they have managed to find a good course without any dirt sections.

This was the first day where I really had to push myself to finish the day, but I made it. The stop was at Huskisson, where I took advantage of the discount offered to cyclists to see a movie in the local town (though I still managed to sit through “Four Weddings & A Funeral” free at the camping ground).

The Rest

I’m not going to describe the rest of the ride day by day, suffice to say it was very good cycling with better weather and flatter roads. The final night, Saturday was a big farewell pyjama party with live music, prizes and an auction. Thankfully we had finished cycling as there was more than one hangover in camp (including at least two inside my head) the next morning.

The ride was finished and I had a wonderful sense of accomplishment, I’d ridden every kilometre of the course, up every hill and hadn’t walked once. I was fitter, cycling better on a bike working better and a damn sight happier than when I left Milton just 8 days earlier.

If you want to spend a week cycling with a great bunch of people or you want an easy introduction to cycle tours then come along and join me, I intend to go on every Big Ride from now till the turn of the century at least. If you have family members who don’t ride then they can still come along – they can join the volunteer team and spend the week with not only the cyclists but a great team of more than 200 people that make the camp hum every night and morning. So join me on the 1998 Big NSW Bike Ride.

 

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