A little while back my friend JC was on the verge of returning home to Adelaide for Xmas from Melbourne.
A keen cyclist, keener on going up rather than anything else and in the shortest and steepest fashion possible, especially off-road, he has a certain knack for the pedals.
Back in the Day
Over the course of months riding together the mountain bike rides extended from 3 to 4 to 5, even 6 hours duration covering all the landscapes around Kinglake, the Dandenongs and further afield.
The dial really got turned up when JC began to ride to the start of the rides. A 2-hour commute to the beginning of a 5-hour ride became normal. The same ride home just a warm-down.
Garminating and Up
Talk usually centred around garminating – using a Garmin device and the internet to find new trails, routes and the ultimate KPI goal, achieving 1000m of altitude gain for every 30kms travelled.
Sometimes we even descended going up. (Check out Everard Track out Kinglake way and you’ll discover the joys of a saw-tooth profile descent, even more so after a lazy 80kms off-roading).
During these heady days of 20% dirt-road climbs, more uppage than a sherper can handle and enough post-ride lattes and Svaks cherry danishes (only available on weekends – avoid weekday disappointment!) to keep us amused, JC also spent time competing in endurance MTB races, solo and in teams.
Things really stirred up when he and his teammate tackled a 24hr MTB race and discarded the typical lap-on, lap-off approach and threw in two 6-hr blocks each followed by alternating 3-hr blocks. Did they win? The mental game was won even before the first change-over. If you were a competing team, what would you be thinking?
This represents the core of what it takes. There is training to lift physical prowess, there is fuelling for long-term performance but in the end the mind is what decides where and how to go.
Xmas is Coming
With Xmas approaching, a single-speed bike, a GPS device, a space-blanket and some other little things, JC took a new leap, why not ride to Adelaide from Melbourne, all 800kms of it.
Plans were hatched, routes plotted, bike prepared – all one gear of it, pack packed.
With a late night reducing the sleep beforehand to 2 hrs, the alarm clock wailed and at 6am the bike and rider crept out into the night.
One Gear, Many Metrics
One gear, one direction, one aim: to reach Adelaide overnight.
Sparing you the torture of the 40 hours straight it took to ride on a single-speed to Adelaide, the highlights included a 2-3hour sleep on a park bench in Naracoorte (~470kms) under a space blanket because the motel wouldn’t answer the night bell. After an hour wasted lapping the town looking for a motel that would respond, the bench got the tick.
The rest is all time in the saddle. And not to put it lightly, but JC rode the 800kms to Adelaide in just under 40hrs straight. No support, just a bike, the right gear and a capacity to deal with all the mental challenges that crop up. Not a bad commute.
It’s part of something bigger though.
Foundations and Kaizen
It may be seen that over time JC has built a foundation of experience, tackling bigger and longer challenges in a graduated fashion, seeking to explore the bounds of capacity and the boundless adventure.
You may ask, Why? But you’d receive a response, Why wouldn’t you?
Hitting fast forward, there now lies an even bigger challenge ahead for JC.
The Horizon and Divide
In a short while he’ll be tackling the Tour Divide challenge, a ride from Canada to Mexico, via the USA. This is an event open to anyone who dares. Tradition has created a single day, le Grand Depart, when a clump of cyclists set off to tackle the route but it can be approached any day of the year. There’s no prize, no entry fee, no spectators. You do it because you want to.
The fastest time recorded last year was by the 26-year old Rookie, Ollie Whalley of Christchurch, NZ, who set a new course record finishing in 16 days, 2 hours, 46 minutes. The average is around just under 300 kms per day. Keep in mind this is fully self-supported, carrying your own spares, sleeping equipment, credit card and anything else you choose.
Some may just rock-up to the start line and have a crack.
JC has thought about this event for well over the last year and a half. It could be said that really it’s not a three-week event; it’s an 18 months event with a three-week final stage.
JC’s vision shows in every day, every ride and every piece of preparation. For a long time when asked about the future race, he’d mention that he’s still ‘pretending’ to do it. All part of the mental approach, balancing today’s prep in one hand and the potential future state in the other.
There is the threat of bear attacks during the first stage of the ‘race’. How do you train for that? You read a book about how to limit your chances of being attacked or even hurt during an attack. Not something we care too much about in Australia normally. And that’s another challenge, working out how to best replicate the conditions expected to be faced in the US whilst training in Australia.
How about fitness for this kind of event? Most competitors will only sleep between 4-6hrs any night during the event. How do you prepare for that? Bike-packing!
During the last year, JC and his pals have taken weekends and ridden to the VIC/NSW border, Lake Eildon, The Great Divide and Mawson trails, competed in events and ridden to and from the start all whilst being totally self sufficient. That means sleeping under the stars in a bivouac, or skipping sleep altogether, and managing any problems that occur, like blown out wheels, torn tyres, unreliable water supplies, impassable trails and farmers with shotguns.
We’re talking around 260kms per day in all conditions from fire-roads, single-track to no track at all. All whilst riding lean, carrying as little but as important stuff as possible. Not a pannier in sight either mind you.
At the time of writing, the key parameter that remain untested include trudging through snow. Not so easy to tackle that one in Victoria, but possible.
There has been a ceremonial ticking-off of boxes each week and each month to leave as few stones unturned as possible. What if the trail is unrideable and you have to walk a whole section of the Tour Divide? Walk to work day is the answer, clocking up 5 hours of walk time for conditioning at least once a week.
How about getting on your nobby-tired rigid 29er MTB bike and getting out on a bunch ride at 5am in the morning chasing the roadies in full whippet gear around Lower Plenty? In your baggy shorts and no hint of a razor anywhere near those calves. The disdain of the roadie community against hairy legs may be just enough to put you off, but the bigger picture looms.
What if you’re vegetarian and by some bad stroke of luck the only thing available to eat through the north of the US is fried chicken? And you’ve run out of your own supplies? Well, you’d better start getting used to eating meat again. Over a four week period JC has had to re-condition his body to accept chicken. No easy feat when you consider that to deal with that foreign product it feels like your body is processing poison. Ever had food-poisoning? Introducing a new substance to your system may not be far off that feeling, except you’re actually making a conscious choice to eat it knowing the likely results. All part of the training program.
If you’re going to want to go fast, then aero position surely is the best way to fly. How do you get aero on an MTB 29er when it’s set up for off-road work and the position is all angled towards handling and agility? Get some aero bars, perform some mods and then get out there on famous Beach Rd and belt out 4-5hrs on the aero bars to get comfortable. In your baggies of course!
There is almost an answer to every perceivable hurdle that may present on the Tour Divide challenge. Almost every one has been considered and tested in one form or another.
It’s a Long Journey
It is difficult to do justice to the preparations executed nor the training efforts nor the levels of mental conditioning that have taken place in the lead up to the Tour Divide challenge. Needless to say, the journey to get to the journey represents a massive metamorphosis and more learning about self-sufficiency, temperament, self-awareness and conditioning than could be expected from the every day approach to a stage or one-day race.
It’s not over yet either. With weeks to go to the beginning of the event, there is still the 500km ride from the Vancouver airport to the start line. All in the name of final checks and balances to ease into the event.
But that will be another story….
What it Takes
Looking within, I think it’s in all of us. What it takes. It’s a capacity to envision, a desire to be prepared, a want to find something else we didn’t know was there. Maybe it’s adventure, perhaps pioneering, even the desire to test our mettle. Whatever the outlet, the representation, the stage we choose to play on, what it takes is right there. A grain of sand or a concrete slab, it’s all something to start to build on.
Why wouldn’t you?
Best of Luck to JC for the next journey. And for whatever lay in wait after that!
Thanks to JC for many rewarding kilometres, uncharted trails and for shining a light on what it takes.
*All photo credits – JC.