Racing The Mallee Blast (Torquay Start)
Words by Stephen Lane
Photos individually credited
For starters…. I under estimated this course. It was bloody hard! As much as I thought it was going to be ‘flat and fast’, It was not. The overall distance, the headwinds, the rough and sandy roads. All combined it made for a killer of a course that took a lot of mental fortitude and focus.
If you are interested in my pre-ride bike run through check out my video on my YouTube Channel. As you will see by my joking in the video. I certainly did not expect this course to be so rough!
Starting the Mallee Blast in Torquay
I rolled out at 7:30am from Torquay and I had the Northbound 500 riders all 30 minutes up the road (they left at 7:00am). My goal was to go out hard, get a gap on my fellow 1000km competitors and then manage that gap to the end. In doing this I rode through a lot of 500km Northbound riders which made for a bit of fun in the early stages of the ride. By the 200km mark I only had Mitchell Luke ahead of me and I used him as a carrot to try and keep the pace up to see if I could catch him before Swan Hill. I had a secret little goal and was hoping to make it to Swan Hill before the sun came up the next morning. I estimated it would take me about 20 hours. But I wasn’t sure if it was wise to push this long on the first day without a rest as I still had the entire 500km southbound still to go! But in my experience, as long as the legs are good, I always want to keep pedalling.
With a good tailwind and fast roads, my average speed was up just below 30km/h before we hit the slower sections of the Great Dividing Trail that lead into Bendigo. This made for some pretty tough riding that never seemed to end! Just before Bendigo, on the aqueduct trail, I hit a massive pot hole and nearly came off the bike. My left shifter rotated in and my Di2 gears stopped working. It took me a good 15 to 20 minutes to try and get things sorted and get my gears working again.
These were some tense moments as I thought my ride might be over!
Back riding again I realised I wouldn’t catch Mitch and I started to focus on getting myself safely to the end. I stopped in Bendigo at McDonalds at about 6:30pm and loaded up on nearly $50 worth of food and then set off again weaving my way out of town on more slow gravel trails. I was starting to think I would never make it to Swan Hill! But after a while the route turned to a mix of big long straight gravel and bitumen roads and the pace picked up again.
Swan Hill – 500km, half way
I love riding at night and find that I get in a flow and time just flies by. I contemplated stopping for a quick nap but I was on a mission to get to Swan Hill. I was ticking the towns off one by one. Mitiamo, Pyramid Hill, Kerang. I was stopping briefly to top up water bottles but otherwise I was always on the move. The moon came up in the early morning and was amazingly big and orange. It made the scene of the night pretty special.
Finally I came to the outskirts of Swan Hill and it started to sink in that shit… I have to turn around and ride all the home again.. Into a head wind! Mentally I was feeling OK. Physically the legs and body were fine. I reached the end of the 490km Northbound course in about 22 hours. I stopped at McDonalds again had loaded up with some breakfast items. Eating gets pretty hard after a while and I had to force myself to cram in as much as I could manage.
I loaded up the south bound route on my Garmin Edge 1000 Plus and started following it. About 5 minutes later I realised something was wrong and the route wasn’t taking me the way I was supposed to be going! The file had corrupted and was straight lining through town blocks and not taking me on roads! For the rest of the ride I had to resort to using my back up maps on my iPhone using RidewithGPS. It made navigation a lot harder and I made a lot of simple errors in the ensuing 30 hours of riding!
Somewhat frustrated and cranky at what was happening I stopped and tried to sleep on the outskirts of town but the sun was up and I had missed my opportunity to sleep. I lay there for about 5 minutes then quickly packed up and got going again. The first few gravel roads heading south were pretty horrid. Soft sand, rocky and super slow.
This was going to be a long trip home!
The Long Trip Home
I had heard that that hardest part of the course was the stretch from St Arnaud to Avoca so I just set out to get to there as steadily as I could manage. The flat, rough gravel roads and head winds were relentless. They just never let up. On that terrain you are always on the pedals. No freewheeling. For me that is the hardest type of riding so I was looking forward to the hills and technical section coming up. The next 10 hours or so are a blur. I was just in the zone, following the map and listening to audio books to keep my attention away from the torturous roads.
I made it to St Arnaud at about 4:30pm and then entered the Kara Kara National park. The trail we rode through the park was hectic. Steep hills, super rocky and probably beyond a gravel bike with 40mm tyres. Funnily enough though after a couple of Panadol and 200mg of caffeine that section of the route was probably the best I felt for the entire ride. When I have to concentrate on dodging rocks and picking the right lines I find I get into a state of flow where my body goes numb and I just get it done. Of that whole super steep and rocky section I only walked up a hand full of small hills, some of which would have been 20%+ gradient. I was actually amazed at how I felt. This state of flow is the zone I love to be in and is why I love these ultra-distance events.
I made it through that section, probably the toughest of the entire route just before sunset. I had two riders about 40km behind me. Chris D and Ben R4G. I saw they had stopped in St Arnaud for a while then started moving again and were about to ride that entire Kara Kara section in the dark. I was actually scared for them given how tough and sketchy I had just found it.
I was starting to get back into some familiar territory. I knew the towns of Clunes and Ballarat so I was looking forward to starting to re-gain some bearings of where I was instead of just following a line on a map! The next section through Avoca was again way harder than I thought and it never seemed to end. I seemed to be climbing for ever and mentally I was starting to fade. I hadn’t slept for over 40 hours and I thought it best to have a sleep. I had a big enough lead that I could afford to rest for a few hours at least and still be safely out in front.
I stopped in behind a fire station in Burnbank, ate as much as I could stomach and then set my alarm for 45 min. I wanted to keep the stop short as I was worried if I stopped for too long my legs wouldn’t want to get going again. From the moment I closed my eyes I was asleep. I slept a solid 43min until my alarm went off. The sleep had improved my mental game but my legs didn’t like pedalling anymore. I had ridden some of the trail through Creswick State Forrest before and I knew it was going to be a maze of single track and fire trails. It seemed to take forever to get back to familiar roads on the outskirts of Ballarat.
Ballarat to Torquay
Again, I pulled into McDonalds in Ballarat, I needed a good feed to get me through the final 130km home. It was about 5:45am and McDonalds didn’t open until 6:00am so I spent the next 15 minutes re-packing my bike to try and tidy things up and get organised again. As the ride goes on packing and re-packing equipment starts to get pretty sloppy and I had been stopping a lot to find things that I stupidly couldn’t find in any of my bike bags!
6:00am ticked by.. 6:10am and despite me standing at the front door the staff still hadn’t opened the doors! I cracked and just rode off to a service station and got a few things to get me home.
For me the last 130km was by far the hardest of the whole ride. At least mentally it was. 130km didn’t seem like that far as I felt I was close the finish. But in fact it was 7 hours of strong headwinds and lots of surprises in the form of sandy near impossible to ride tracks through a few small bush sections near Teesdale and Inverleigh. There were moments where I was yelling in frustration at the wind to just F$%K OFF. My thoughts were getting pretty negative but I managed to flick a switch and focus on the positives and that really seemed to help the legs.
I know Torquay pretty well and knew I was entering town via the Great Ocean Road. I had the image of the final climb and decent in my head where I then turn right and roll the final few kilometres home along the beach. Flying down that last big hill was when I finally knew this ride was almost done. Before long I was at the finish, the same point I had started from 53 hours 43 min earlier. 1017km of Mallee Blast mayhem, 1028km if you count all of my off route sections to get food and back track when I had missed turns!
The finishes of these ultra-distance bike packing events are always a bit weird. My parents were there to meet me but mostly there were ‘normal’ people just hanging out at the café wondering why the hell a Zombie on a bike was getting so much attention. There were a few other riders. Some had just completed the 500km south bound event and a few were about to continue their journey north to complete the 1000km event after starting in Swan Hill.
I saw that Ross Burrage, the creator of the route and organiser of the event was nearby getting food. Ross was riding the event and had just done the 500km south bound section and was about to start the northbound ride back to Swan Hill where he started. I packed the bike in the car and we drove up to find Ross. It was great to see him and let him know what I thought of his damn course!
All up that was the biggest ride I have ever done. And I dare say it probably had some of the toughest mental challenges I have ever faced on a bike.