Words by Kyle Roberts, Photos by Kyle, Lewis Ciddor, and David McCourt
Like many other Metro-Melbourne based adventure cyclists, I found the winter of 2020 and impending second wave lockdown challenging. Local COVID-19 restrictions had all but stomped out any smouldering aspirations we clung to for outdoor events or training regimes. I’d developed a borderline obsession with past ‘tales from the trail’ articulated through podcasts such as Ross Burrage’s The Hidden Athlete and Lewis Ciddor’s Overland Archive. I’ll admit I was getting pretty darn good at living vicariously through the glory of others. So, when Facebook alerted me that the GDT 400 was set to take place in just over two weeks, in perfect symmetry to the end of lockdown, all that pent-up outdoor adventure stoke erupted inside me and I panic-enrolled for a major event I knew almost nothing about.
I’d soon learn this 400 km self-supported, ultra-endurance bikepacking race through Australia’s historic gold mining region was much more of a mountain biking event than I’d originally realised, and it certainly was not for the fainthearted. Since migrating from Canada about five years prior, I’d developed a keen interest in recreational endurance road cycling, but my mountain biking skills were embarrassingly limited (to none). Nevertheless, I had about two weeks to prepare and the first order of business was an obvious one: get a ‘freaking’ mountain bike. Before I knew it, I was meeting a bloke from Bacchus Marsh in a petrol station parking lot to exchange one thousand bucks for a used 2011 Giant XTC Cross-Country mountain bike. From there, I commandeered a few bags from a friend, loaded them up with what I thought one might need, and hit the Yarra Trails in Melbourne’s North East as much as my schedule would permit. The goal being to build some last-minute mountain biking competency with a loaded bike. Fortunately, I had completed a virtual indoor ‘Everesting’ for a mental health charity four weeks prior, so I was able to sort of piggy-back on that fitness and put it towards my slap-dash, two-week ‘GDT Training Plan and Taper’.
Fast-forward two weeks and we are at the start line for the GDT 400 (aka Bendigo Train Station) and the Saturday 8:30 a.m. start wave is getting ready to roll. Traditionally, the race features a grand depart from the station’s southern platform parking lot, but this year due to COVID-19 restrictions the race took off in eight waves. Each start wave had up to 10 riders who rolled out together with the first group leaving at 8 a.m. on Friday and the last group at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday. Given that this was my first experience of a bikepacking race, I was quite anxious at the thought of what was about to ensue. I remember trying to contain the fact that I was actually shaking with fear. Looking back, I’d say that uneasy feeling was likely unanimous amongst the group. Pretty much everyone, aside from a little nervous chatter, was surprisingly quiet.
For those unfamiliar with this kind of unsupported event, there is no big blow-up start line or overly excited commentator on loudspeaker playing Top 40 Dance Hits and counting down to an impending “BANG” and explosion of multi-coloured confetti. Instead, I believe it was me who looked at my watch and awkwardly said, “I reckon that’s us,” and then we were off! I suppose it’s worth mentioning, if I haven’t already made it obvious, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Therefore, I had no clue what sort of finish time I was going for, which made it difficult to formulate a race plan other than to wing it and see how I went. Having more experience on roads than trails, I found it hard to believe that 400km could take over 24 hours to complete. The limited pre-race research I’d done taught me that a 24-hour finish time would put me close to the course record, and given that I was an absolute newbie on the MTB I knew there was no way in hell that was happening. Either way, when the clock struck 8:30 a.m., I’m not sure if it was just my nerves or pure foolishness, but I launched out of that metaphorical start gate full gas like a little greyhound pup and didn’t stop frantically spinning my pedals until I hit Castlemaine, 50km down The Goldfields Track. As I rolled into Castlemaine, it dawned on me that a little extra research in the location of places to resupply would have been smart. Instead, I pretty much ran into the Castlemaine IGA grocery store like a chook with its head cut off screaming, “someone give me water!” Okay, that’s not exactly how it happened, but by the time I finished filling my water bottles, nearly 10 minutes had passed and most of the riders in my wave had already rolled through town.
The GDT taught me that “bikepacking racing” is less like a traditional “race” and more like a personal test. Your challenge is to not only take care of your basic physical needs such as food, water, and shelter, but also to interpret your inner thought processes to achieve your true potential. Almost everyone around you is only trying to do the same thing. No experienced rider is looking at you on the start line and thinking, “I just need to pass that person in order to succeed.” It would be far too fickle to compare your efforts with anyone around you. Otherwise, how would you react when you’ve been riding 24 hours straight to hold the lead and someone just rolls past you? If your sense of accomplishment is only relative to that of others, will the sleep-deprived frustration be enough to make you give up altogether? In reality, your position in relation to others at the beginning of the ride means almost nothing. The race isn’t won until it’s won and these races are sometimes so ridiculously long that almost anything can happen right up until the finish. From my experience (albeit limited), instead of battling it out, everyone in a bikepacking race tends to be racing next to each other; not against each other.
From Castlemaine, we still had an exceptionally long way to go. I found it easier to focus on the present moment rather than the destination. Regardless, next up would be Daylesford at approximately 100kms, and then the course juts west to just outside of Creswick. After Creswick, we’d turn back south until just past Ballarat at the 185km mark, signifying the end of The Goldfields Track. From there, a transit stage would see us riding straight east to Bacchus Marsh at around 240km. Onwards from Bacchus to The Great Dividing Trail (GDT) which travels back up north through Lerdederg State Park, and to Daylesford again at 330kms. Then finally Fryerstown (370km), followed by Castlemaine Train Station at 383Kms where the race ends. For anyone who hasn’t ridden these sections of trail, picture countless shades of yellowy-orange singletrack and rugged doubletrack weaving through eucalypt forest accentuated with tree ferns, kangaroos, wallabies, blue-tongue lizards, and a healthy population of native snakes. The route meanders through historic goldmining territory and you are often presented with the decaying infrastructure of the 19th century, which offers a confronting glimpse into nature’s ability to reclaim the scars of the past. If you haven’t experienced this area by bike you are missing out.
In the two weeks leading up to the GDT 400, my biggest anxiety was how I’d hold up to riding alone through the wilderness at night, after having ridden all day. I’d ridden at night before, but I’d never ridden through it. Big difference. For that reason, I booked myself some back-up accommodation in Bacchus Marsh just in case I needed to collapse in a heap for a while. I also had an emergency bivvy and down jacket, but I figured getting to Bacchus Marsh on day one would be such a big achievement in itself that it might offer some incentive to get there. In reality, when the sun dropped down below the horizon, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I felt better than I had the entire race. I was in my element. Suddenly, I felt an all-new sense of adventure as if I had just started pedalling again. And so, when I saw the glow of Bacchus Marsh in the distance and started the long, fast descent along Ingliston Road and into town at 2:30 a.m., I didn’t even consider stopping to sleep. Instead, I pulled into McDonald’s where a few others riders were getting their energy fix on, enjoyed a few cokes, boxes of fries, and hot apple pies with them, and then headed out into the night toward Lerderderg State Park.
At that point, although I had been riding for close to 20 hours, I felt really good. The trail steadily climbed out of Bacchus Marsh into the park and it was almost relaxing to set a high cadence and spin up those rugged tracks into the moonlight. I was transfixed by the trail and the sleep deprivation made it feel like I was in a peaceful trance. Every now and then a kangaroo or wallaby would jump out in front of my headlight, causing me to jump on my brakes and refocus for a second, but oddly enough I had no real interest in stopping.
Before I’d started the ride, I made a little cue sheet that had the distances to each milestone on route, and I’d written my future self a little note that indicated at approximately 300km I will have finished the majority of the climbing and the trail would gradually descend all the way back to Castlemaine. For that reason, I knew as long as I made it to the 300km mark it would be an easy last 83kms as I gracefully descended back down to Daylesford and then onwards to Castlemaine. In reality, this could not have been further from the truth. Coupled with the inevitable nature of fatigue, this would ultimately be my demise. When the sun came up, I felt undead.
Like a zombie rolling along Byers Back Track on the edge of Lerderderg Gorge, the sheer cliff face on the side of the trail was more than I was willing to roll the dice at in my sleep-deprived state. Knowing that one wrong move off the side would mean an end to more than just the race, I pretty much walked my bike along the entire 3km stretch. The last dozen or so kilometres to hit the imaginary 300km mark where I had envisioned the trail would start its relaxing descent seemed to take days. When I finally did hit the last “highpoint” of the ride it most certainly didn’t get any easier. This is where I really lost the composure I’d managed to hold onto for the first three-quarters of the race. A little due diligence and closer scrutiny during the planning phase would have highlighted that although the trail did trend downwards, the elevation profile was more like a sawtooth and there was certainly not going to be any rewarding cruise to the finish.
For the next 50kms, my expectations of an acceptable average pace steadily diminished as the trail becomes exceedingly insurmountable. It felt like I was hopping on and off my bike every 50 meters to push it around a bog or carry it over a fallen tree. I was lucky to be covering 10km an hour at that stage and I was using every last ounce of energy left to do so. It was now late in the morning and the humidity was building fast. Storm clouds gathered as the sun lifted high in the sky, and they would roll overhead every 30 minutes or so, bringing with them intensely high winds, dark skies, and steamy rain. I plugged onwards through the heat, but each time I checked my odometer the minimal distances covered were almost too much to bear. Eventually, I met up with a few riders from the Friday wave as we rolled towards Daylesford. Their happy faces and optimistic attitudes were temporarily uplifting to me and I enjoyed speaking with them as a respite from the internal grind I was experiencing. We pulled into the bakery in the centre of town, which was where it all suddenly went downhill for me. Daylesford is a tourist destination in the summer months, and given that this was the first weekend after lockdown, the town was absolutely chock-a-blocked with cars and people. It would have been pretty overwhelming for anyone, let alone a rider who had just ridden through the night without sleeping for 29 hours.
I remember walking into the hot, busy bakery with my heavy cotton COVID-19 mask on. The room felt like it was spinning around me as I cued up to order. I was sure I was going to throw up, faint, and cry at the same time. I managed to buy a couple of things but when I got outside, I knew I was done for. I was completely overcome with the feeling that I needed to get out of the heat to sleep. There was no convincing me otherwise. I called a motel in town and asked for a room. Fortunately, they had a spare. I walked inside the motel looking like I had been through some shit. They showed me to a nice room with the air conditioning already on for my arrival. I texted my partner Maggie and my family to give them the news. I was pulling out 60km of the finish line. At that stage, I was telling myself that I would sleep for a few hours and then continue on, but there were heavy storms forecast that night and I think I knew deep down that this would be the end of my race. I took off my disgusting bib shorts and muddy jersey, ran myself a shower, and stood underneath the hot water.
It’s funny, sometimes all you need is to give up for five minutes. What’s the harm in it, really? I just needed to throw in the towel for a minute and tell everyone back home that I was giving up because it was too hard, and I simply couldn’t go any further. But, in doing so, I realised I wasn’t actually done. After only 15 minutes in my fancy air-conditioned motel room, I knew I still had more to give. I thought of an inspiring ultra-cyclist I had heard interviewed a few times by the name of Abdullah Zeinab. He often speaks about races coming down to only a few pivotal moments. I realized this was my moment. It was a difficult pill to swallow but I drank a couple of cans of Coke, ate a few potato cakes, and gave myself a swift kick in the backside out that motel room door. The feeling of being back on the bike and knowing that I was no longer giving up and I could finish this thing if I just kept pedalling was enough to give me the extra momentum I needed to get rolling again. What lied ahead would be the most challenging terrain of the course for me, but also some of the most beautiful.
The sections of trail through Castlemaine Diggings National Heritage Park were absolutely relentless. There is this wild section of singletrack perched along the mounds of the old gold mining water race that endlessly zigzags back and forth through tree ferns and all the way back down to the edge of Castlemaine. It was absolutely magical in my sleep-deprived state. I hope one day I’ll get to return to that trail in a clearer state of mind. Eventually, I popped out onto a paved section of road that I could see descended north into town. One last time, I tucked into my makeshift aero bars and pedalled as hard as I could. The wind blew through my hair and instantly cooled me down. It felt so good to be rolling on a smooth surface again. When I turned into the station there was only one other person around. It was a fellow rider I’d met along the route who goes by the alias of Froggetti Wet Bottom. As tradition dictates, you must get your photograph in front of the Castlemaine Station clock in order to corroborate your finish time, which in turn marks the end of your journey.
After over 35 hours of riding without sleep and hardly any rest, I had finally finished the hardest bike ride of my life in around 10th place. I certainly found my limit out there, but I also learnt an incredible amount about myself in the process. If there’s one note I would like to finish on, it’s to the people I met along the way. To the staff at Spoke N Sprocket and Commuter Cycles who helped me prepare, the GDT Race Director who made it all possible, and most of all the people riding their bikes for the love of bikepacking; thank you to every single one of you for your gratitude, inspirational conversation, and outright selflessness. It was an experience I will hold onto for the rest of my life.
Congrats to everyone who participated in this year’s GDT 400. Connor Sens took first place with a time of 21 hours, 17 minutes, setting a new course record. Mitchel Luke took second with a time of 21 hours, 39 minutes, followed by Chris Drummond in 1 day, 39 minutes. The first woman to finish was Monica Nitz, though we haven’t found her finish time yet. The 2021 GDT 400 is scheduled for early November.
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