Words by Danielle Scott
Photos by Maty Dixon
The Climb: Gloucester to Cobark Lookout, Barrington Tops
This ride was all about the climb.
Hearing about ‘the climb’ for the past couple of years and having already paid money to do it as part of a major event in six months’ time had set the scene for it to become a mythological beast, fully sustained by my fears and doubts. Turning up to a gravel event carrying a mythological beast doesn’t make the climbing any easier though, so my partner (and four-time Thunderbolt’s Adventure finisher) Maty, mapped out a little hundred and sixteen kilometre training ride which incorporated the 7km screamer.
Our adventure had begun the day before – how were we going to make sure we had enough to drink? There were many water crossings, but who knew whether the water was a cocktail of chemical runoff, or inhabited by parasites from cow dung or from the local cows themselves, who were very numerous and stood in the streams to drink.
Water purifying tablets took half an hour to kick in and they’d kill parasites and bacteria but not chemicals. Maty’s ingenious solution was a nod to Australian cultural imperialism (him having moved here from New Zealand aged 10), and saw us driving cross-country to leave a 5 litre goon bag full of water near a bridge at the base of the climb. We hid it between a clump of grass and the trunk of an oak tree, in shade and shadow so it was cool and inconspicuous. Maty also took the opportunity to point out the first fifty metres or so of the beast, clearly visible from the drop off point. I nodded solemnly and was very glad to have come face to face with even such a tiny portion. I would now know when it started.
By the time we got back to Gloucester, the pub was in full swing serving food, drink and televised sporting events to the locals and tourists spilling out onto every available table and stool. Schnitty and battered whiting were our fuels of choice, accompanied respectively by the time-honoured choices of veg and mash, chips and salad.
Sleep, sleep, please go to sleep…before 5am! I knew I’d probably be ok the next day, but an unfamiliar bed and the thought of an impending precipice were playing piggy in the middle with my head. After falling into a deep sleep only half an hour before the alarm went off, I groaned awake, grateful that I’d at least had the sense to pack most of the necessities the night before.
As we rolled out from the car park, I reminded myself to relax and in particular, to ‘unfold’. Having committed to training for the aforementioned major event (Thunderbolt’s), I’d begun taking apart every aspect of my technique and riding habits which were causing undue discomfort over long gravel rides, and which had been picked up over decades of road riding, racing and always trying to keep up with ‘the blokes’. One of these habits was the way I sat on the bike – with a posterior pelvic tilt, back curved, shoulders and elbows down – almost a crouch. After realising what a constrained and shrinking posture this was, totally unsuited to gravel (or any) riding, I’d been making a conscious effort to ‘unfold’ my body, sitting up, looking up and straightening my pelvis. When possible, I placed my hands on the top of the handlebars and became aware of my legs pushing straight down under my weight. ‘Relax and unfold’ thus became a mental mantra for whenever the crouch crept back.
Cool and misty moving into humid and hot, the first 50km was rolling and rural, with river crossings relieving the heat. The top of one rise opened into a breathtaking panorama of forest and foothills fronting mountains, blue sky and puffy clouds. It’s majesty highlighted our insignificance. In the big scheme of things, I thought, we’re not important, but to each other and to our individual selves we are, to acknowledge, respect and travel through this land as best we can on our bicycles.
At last we reached goon bag bridge, a bit weary but ready for a drink (of water…) and a moment of composure before the up and up. Every hour had been punctuated by a replenishing carb of some sort, each tasting a little less inviting than the last. This time it was a briôche bun, an item I may never eat again.
And so we began.
A steady pace, a sustainable pace…was it? Not quite. A slope with no relief, no flat bits, joined forces with a slight twinge in my lower back and before long a mischievous inner voice was nudging, cajoling then threatening that I’d be a fool not to stop, so eventually I did. “Stopping was defeat,” “I’d never be able to pick up the pace again,” “I’d ruined the ride for Maty” (who kindly stopped with me) and a tumble of other self-defeating sillinesses marched mindward.
But they were wrong, I needed a rest, and as it turned out, this early in the training schedule Maty did too. We ate and drank, got back on and went a bit further. I stopped again and walked a little after the halfway mark, but then, encouraged by my experienced companion, got back on and completed the rest of the climb without stopping. There were zig zags, a lot of silence so we could breathe and maintain focus, but there was also an unspoken commitment to doing whatever it took to stay just within our physical and mental limits.
Reaching the almost flat gravel a kilometre or so before Cobark Lookout was some kind of bliss, and so was the one Pink Lady apple we’d dragged up the hill with us and shared at the very top…sweet, juicy and crisp. Two couples hopped out of their 4WD to look at the incredible view across Barrington Tops as we plonked ourselves onto the lookout benches and they asked if we were on ebikes? We can’t have seemed as exhausted as we felt, but their eyes widened and their mouths took on contorted shapes when we said we weren’t.
It took one hour forty up, but with gravity on our side, just 12 minutes down and we were back at the water station, draining the goon bag. After stashing it in a bike bag and resuming play, we turned into territory that was new to Maty as well. Mud Hut Road promised to be picturesque gravel returning us to Gloucester via the the north east and it was, but the initial climb was very reminiscent of the one we’d just completed. It required the same suite of acceptances and efforts as the last one but was thankfully only half the length. As well there were beautiful, pebbly, babbling and distracting brooks flowing below, beside and across our path as the road wound around the mountain. Rainforest trees, vines and ferns looked lush and ancient.
When it was time to go up and across Bowman’s Farm Road like the Thunderbolt Adventure does, we instead took the more direct way back to Gloucester. The day had been enough for what we we, or mainly I, needed to face and to prove, and would only be 4km short of the total distance planned. We each took a side and the smoothest possible path along the very edges of the flat, rutted riverside road.
Around 15km from Gloucester and back on the tarmac, the rolling hills were still unrelenting, tired legs and bodies requiring the same gears as the toughest inclines. 10km on we reached Barrington, a kind of semi-rural suburban outpost featuring a combination general store, milk bar, café and service station. Fatigue, thirst and hunger are basic survival prompts, but when you’re faced with an unlimited array of sugar, fat and carbonation, brain and body can get into a ridiculous tussle. I did what I thought was sensible and had some lightly sparkling mineral water and a Golden Gaytime (when is a Gaytime ever sensible?) but Mat went straight for the Coca Cola and Kettle chips, followed by a Calippo. I think he was way more satiated or at least sugared-up by the time we left, especially after having a slightly surreal conversation with members of a band from Melbourne called ‘Bollard’ who were touring NSW.
After some more short-but-steeps, potholey edges and increasingly close-range traffic, we finally cruised into the carpark at Gloucester after a full day out on the road. It felt like a triumph, not necessarily for reaching the end in one piece, but for diving into the physical, mental and emotional challenges and joys.
That first climb did turn out to be a merciless beast, no mythology required, but it didn’t eat me alive. Instead, I became absolutely and utterly present, submitting myself to the difficulty, even accepting that I needed to stop and recover a couple of times. It also demanded that I carry on, and carry on for the whole ride with patience, good humour and perseverance; without desperately wishing for the ride to end about 20km before it actually did. Having experienced that intense level of presence made me feel like a different person in the days and weeks after. Even now, I feel more grounded and calm about future rides – and life in general!
Buying food from Gloucester Woolworths for the drive home was even more of a rational-mind-versus-beat-up body struggle than Barrington General Store and we walked out with grapes, kombucha, chokitos and chocolate milk. A month later, however, I still hadn’t eaten another briôche bun.
Ride with GPS link: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/44906124