Sarah and Bec

The making of a randonneur

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In the world of long distance riding, the Audax club challenges the bold to be bolder still. Sarah Chaplin tells her story of taking on her biggest challenge.

The Great Southern Randonnée (GSR) is a 1,200km event that’s held every four years in Victoria’s south­west and is one of Australia’s great Audax long distance rides. It begins in Anglesea, firstly with a loop around the Bellarine Peninsula, before heading west along the Great Ocean Road. The route skims the Surf Coast, crosses the forests of the Otways, touches the Shipwreck Coast, rolls through pastoral valleys, farms and long extinct volcanoes to Port Fairy then into the majestic valleys of the Grampians. From the turnaround point at Moyston, riders retrace their journey back to Anglesea to complete the course within 90 hours (receiving equal recognition regardless of their finishing order).

Since first joining Audax, I’ve been tantalised by the challenge of the 1,200km distance and felt it would be the ultimate personal achievement. After stepping up for the Fleche Opperman 24­ hour team time trial, and laughing all the way, I felt I was ready. After all, how hard could 1,200kms be? I’d never know until I had a crack at one of these monster rides.

Posting questions on the Audax website got me in contact with Bec—an experienced randonneur—and over a meal and some fine red, we decided it would be advantageous to create a girls’ alliance to conquer the GSR.

The last day of a normal existence began with a bit of a sleep­in due to excessive Heineken ingestion the night before… carb­loading? After a dinner and last­minute checks, Bec and I set off from Anglesea at 8pm on the long ride ahead.

Not too fast, we tell ourselves, there’s 1,200kms to go. Bec and I set out east towards Port Phillip Bay at a comfortable pace, tapping out a rhythm and enjoying the sunset on a wonderful warm night. We swung around to Portarlington and were confronted with the indelible sight of the moon glistening over the quiescent bay. After the 205km loop we had returned to Anglesea and were ready for our first nap.

Day 1 Anglesea to Port Fairy 284km

At 6.30am after two hours sleep, Bec and I are progressing nicely along the Great Ocean Road. Feeling the sun rise on our backs, we watch as our shadows dance along the rock faces and admire the ocean vistas. We were mesmerised by the beauty of nature, not sensing that we were about to encounter her angry side.

On the first climb out of Apollo Bay, we started to feel the heat rising, but by the next climb we realise the sun god Helios was angry. The Garmin had the temperature creeping into the low thirties. The Lavers Hill General Store gifted some much needed chill in the form of Powerade, ice cream and an obscure opportunity to sit back and observe the gun racks mounted on the back of the local utes.

We enjoyed the next descent, except for a pot hole which I crunched with such force it dislodged my front right brake lever. A quick stop to check the wheels, fork, and frame—all good, no cracks. But, that’s when I noticed the onset of a slight headache and on the climb to Princetown, a cramp hit big time. I was in my own personal hurt locker. Bec fed me three Hammer Endurolytes (highly recommended) and I was gulping down liquid when, on queue, Tom the medical officer rolled down the hill in his happy van. What are the odds? For the next 40 minutes, I sat in air­conditioned comfort with an ice pack over my knees, cooling down. More liquids and we were back on the saddle.

The Garmins now reached 37 degrees. I’ve been told they over read in the sun—but we’re also in the sun! Climbing to The Twelve Apostles, the road starts to bubble and stones stick to our tyres. There’s no shade, the sun is burning, and my legs are on the verge of cramping again. The enjoyment of cycling starts to become a major chore. Finally, we’re descending into a checkpoint and thankfully there’s shade. Bec and I both had a cool shower, forced food down and took the time to enjoy a recovery session which turned out to be longer than expected. When we get back on our bikes, the worst of the heat was over, but we still had more climbing ahead. I managed to control my power on the climbs favouring my good leg until another cramp. More Endurolytes. We kept plugging until the heat subsided, “Well, I guess that’s the hard part of the ride out of the way.” How premature that statement was!

There is a phenomenon which happens on warm evenings every year where flying white ants launch themselves on a quest to establish new colonies. Oh joy, fresh protein! In the midst of a plague, Bec and I discovered the buggers had tried to set up new colonies in our jerseys, knicks and hair. That was one of the hardest day’s rides I had ever experienced. We were relieved to arrive in Port Fairy with a friendly crew who gave us food, a shower, and helped us with termite removal, ending up with us almost feeling human. We had been out for 20 hours and eight minutes, so time for a 90 minute nap.

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Day 2 Port Fairy to Moyston then back to Dunkeld 307km

With a 2.15am departure, Bec and I were looking forward to a better day in the saddle but we were both in ‘struggletown’. We kept tapping along into a slight headwind and offered each other encouragement on the gradual climb. This descent will be a godsend when we return, especially if the wind doesn’t change directions, we thought. But the wind was picking up and there were occasional gusts that threw driveway dirt onto our faces. We optimistically hoped that this was just a passing phase.

We arrived at Dunkeld and enjoyed a quick catnap. The pain subsided just enough to allow us to enjoy the ride ahead—an absolute classic Audax route with views to die for! All the mountain peaks seem to be arranged in picturesque disorder helping this leg become a rejuvenating ride as we traversed the valley and climbed over the Great Dividing Range. We were engulfed with the warm colours of our surroundings, before we came across a roadblock and discovered that the boys had just snuck through. Bec and I reckoned the situation offered an opportunity to rest, and a 30 minute power nap was better than nothing. We were about halfway.

Climbing out of the divide I felt a bad stinging sensation on my sit bone and … oops, blood. Thankfully Bec had a tube of Bepanthen which was more knick friendly than my Calmoseptine and, what a relief! I was trusting in that I could manage the pain as quitting wasn’t an option. We struggled back to Dunkeld to Tom the medic. He suggested a second skin and double knicks, I looked at the double skin spray he gave me and said I’d give it a crack. It was time to fuel this little diesel engine with the best meal ever, a banana split and a side of chocolate brownies. A shower followed by two and a half hours of sleep felt like luxury.

Day 3 Dunkeld to Hordern Vale 314kms

A 3am departure on wet roads—me with double knicks and a full tube of Bepanthan—meant the weather was rather chilly but we were in good spirits. We tapped our way to Hamilton and only encountered light drizzle—until, that is, we must have angered the weather gods who punished us with blowing a wet and cold gale. At this point I had to remind myself that I’d actually paid money to be part of this ride. Demoralised, we rolled into Macarthur looking like two drowned, frozen rats. So much for gaining time. We stopped for coffee and sat by a fire, but not for too long.

Impossibly, the wind got stronger and the rain heavier. “It can’t get any worse,” I thought, albeit a little prematurely. A double tanker milk truck fangs past spraying us with road muck. We cracked up laughing. Here we were, wet, cold, blown all over the road, muscles stinging, tired and covered in road muck, but on cue, up ahead was an Audax volunteer clapping and cheering us on. We instantly felt our cadence lift and our smiles return.

We finally made it to Port Fairy, after the hardest, nastiest and most insane leg I had ever ridden. Forget the heat—that wind was an incubus. We sorted ourselves out. I reverted back to my knicks, looking at the damage. I’d lost skin on both sit bones and was in considerable pain but the finish line was closer with every rotation and after food and some new clothing we were off to Port Campbell with a tail wind. Riding past The Twelve Apostles at night is another tick off the bucket list.

In our sleep­deprived state, we struggled to connect a coherent sentence. We were babbling words at each other, but it didn’t seem to matter. We were tired and just wanted to arrive safely, but not before more and more ascending.

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Day 4 Hordern Vale to Anglesea 97kms

We wake up at 4.40am with our mind firmly set on our next objective; the finish line. When we traversed over the first peak and descended into ice cold, the Garmin told us it was just 4.8 degrees. We shivered until we encountered the warming sun with its rejuvenating rays at Apollo Bay. A kind gentleman offered to drive ahead and order us a warm brew. We caught up, talked and thawed out over a coffee. Here a rider sat and boasted to us of six hours sleep. Yeah right, just what we needed to hear in our zombie state.

With 60km to go, the sun broke through and we relished a slight tailwind. At 40 km to go—and ahead of schedule—I notice that Bec needed an urgent power nap, so we stop by the side of the road, myself waving on concerned drivers. We are soon back on the bike with a smiling Bec, myself less smiley with my rear­end agony, but I get some relief from pedalling standing. At 20km to go we pass the volunteers who are yelling and clapping; what a lift. At 10km to go we hit Anglesea and one last climb.

Le Fin 1,207kms

We made it! We rolled off the bike and hugged each other. I could feel the tears starting to flow. We knew we had achieved something very special. On the road, we created a special bond, cemented through the struggles and the adversity, which has provided memories to last our lifetimes.

We finished, sneaking in under time with 89 hours and 40 something minutes. That’s 1,200km on a bike with only six hours and 30 minutes sleep in the heat, wind, rain and pain. For me, GSR was a milestone offering a sense of accomplishment and an exercise in endurance. It was a ride of angels and demons that did not offer rewards easily, but I was proud. In riding over that finish line, I knew I had become a true randonneur.

Following my GSR conquest, I’ve gone on to complete ten 1,000­plus rides including successfully finishing the famous Paris­Brest­Paris. Riding in Oppy’s tyre tracks in the iconic Audax event in France had been a dream of mine for 16 years, proving small milestones can really lead to great achievements.

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The sixth edition of the GSR will be held during the week from 13–­18 November 2016. Distances of 1,200km, 1,000km, 300km and 200km will be offered. Qualifying rides will apply for those entering the 1,000km and 1,200km distances. For more information about the GSR and the Audax community, visit audax.org.au


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