Moral of the story: elevation profiles can be misleading.
Andrew Devenish-Meares and Dave “Ralph” Rubie snuck down over the weekend to ride 100km in the Coffs Coast Cycle Challenge, woefully under-prepared but confident that the coast couldn’t offer any worse hills than around Armidale, where it seems you can’t ride 200 metres without climbing something.
The challenge isn’t a race, more of a mass participation event and “mass” is the word, with 700 entrants across family, 40, 60 and 100km rides through the hinterland of Coffs Harbour, around Bellingen and back to Coffs. Feeling confident, Ralph had dismissed the elevation profile with a snort – it only climbs a maximum of 110 metres at the back of Bellingen, how hard could it be? Plus, it’s going to be 21 degrees! That’s like summer!
The weekend started with an overnight stay in Coffs Harbour and a visit to the Hoey Moey at Park Beach, where restraint (and steak!) was the order of the day. While the siren call of fourteen beers and a drunken rendition of “Am I Ever Going To See Your Face Again” might have been the usual behaviour, an unwelcome sense of responsibility had settled on the tandem crew and sighing deeply, they hit their cots early in preparation for the 8:00am start.
The start area was chaos, with the event coinciding with a local Sunday market. 700 riders, their bikes, their families, volunteers and organisers and a cadre of dirty, tie dyed hippies vied for road space in the car park at the jetty.
The tandem event (all two tandems) were slated to start 10 minutes after the single 100km riders, so we witnessed the wobbly start of hundreds of cyclists trying to filter through the start gate. Keen competitors hoping to “win” lined up eagerly at the front, hoping not to drop a single second on the exit. We left after the bunch, towing the other tandem team (a husband and wife duo whose combined age probably didn’t reach Ralph’s). Our initial feelings were good, the start of the course was a relatively easy dash across a parkway where we swapped turns before climbing towards Sawtell. Eventually younger legs got the better of us and we were dropped on the first category 4 climb, although we had already started to eat into the stragglers from the single 100km starters. This section of the course was far tougher than the route map looked, which should have served as a warning to preserve a few berries, but didn’t. Eager legs still churned through the climbs as the crew settled into their routine.
Once through Sawtell, the road undulates but offers no real challenges, it is when you turn toward Bellingen that things get tough. The road dips down towards a river on the southern side of Bellingen and is not flat for a single metre. It is steep, drops sharply, gets steep again, drops again, then builds into a massive, punishing climb out of the valley that had our crew wishing they had an effective triple chainring on the front. Leg pressure was immense as “Black Betty”, the big Trek, fought against gravity and sensibility. As each climb was signalled to the stoker, the grunts became louder, finally culminating in a “does this ever end?” on the final drag to the top of the ridge before Bellingen. Still in reasonable shape, they crested the hill with a small bunch of singles and descended carefully, the big bike much harder on brakes than a single.
Then, fatigue set in. Monstrous fatigue. The ride out of Bellingen was much tougher than the route guide suggests, with long, steep climbs and sketchy descents which gave no rest to the legs. The crew ran out of food, having consumed their meagre rations far earlier than anticipated, leaving a 30km grind home with the last 10km a tough course back through Sawtell, back over another category 4 climb and the final indignities of a block headwind coming back into Coffs and a nasty hill right at the end that nearly defeated their effort altogether.
The event itself: terrific. Beautifully organised, lots of friendly volunteers on the course to direct at every intersection. A water/food stop at the half way mark (which I think we will use next year) and a truly tough course, probably harder than Mt Yarrowyck and easily the hardest ride this crew had undertaken. Highly recommended if you want to do something different. If you had asked the crew at the 70km mark, they might have volunteered never to ride a bike again though, it is tough!