Well the day started off brightly enough with a good bunch of hardy souls ready to roll outside Bullen’s bike shop at 7am. There was a jovial air to the proceedings with plenty of retro gear and some extra-heavy plain gauge steel frames being given a special airing, notably the Jock Bullen 1984 Sean Kelly Paris Roubaix Special and Clint’s 2014 Armidale Refuse Depot Tip Special (in beige) which was being ridden by a rather brave (possibly foolish, but definitely brave) Rhys Williams backing up his Tour de Rocks weekend and already with 250K in his weary legs.
The bunch rolled out of town heading West along Old Inverell Road at a steady pace and by the time the first gentle climbs were behind, the sun had burned through the early morning mist with the promise of a stunning day ahead. At the intersection with Primrose Hill Road the peloton encountered Sector 1 and immediately attacks went off the front with real urgency. Riders rapidly tore through the sheep droppings and were quickly strung out along a good section of flat-ish road. Quite who was inflicting all this pain at the front is not known to the author as at this point Paul Williams, riding the Phil Hess Rotten Tyre Special, announced he’d got a puncture. Railway boom gates were lowered and a number of phone calls were made in an attempt to halt the breakaway groups ahead. Eventually the riders were stopped when Rhys answered his phone although in doing so he had strewn the contents of his jersey pockets across the gravel during the process while focused on wrestling the 20kg Tip Special to a halt.
With riders waiting patiently in the sunshine, and most of the items returned to Rhys’s pockets, the group was soon back together having successfully dealt with Sector 1. Ben Harris had identified and suggested a couple of extra “interesting” turns to improve the dirt:tarmac ratio and after 33k a right-hand turn was taken onto the uncharted and aptly named Nelson’s Road. The surface of Sector 2 was definitely “interesting” and looked as though it had indeed been built by someone with one arm and one eye. This turned out to be a fairly rapid downhill stretch on which the vibrations became sufficiently severe to impact vision. Consequently there was limited opportunity in which to spot the presence of holes or large rocks ahead. Somehow the worst of it was navigated without major incident although a broken saddle was reported on the Tip Special. A short reprieve of sealed road and then back onto Williams Road for Sector 3 – another downhill roller coaster from which riders emerged onto Thunderbolt’s Way.
At this point it became clear that the previous two sectors had involved fairly sizable descents and riders were now faced with the long climb out of Rocky River. The Real Steel bikes charged at the lower slopes and were doing quite well until gravity took over and they quickly dropped to the back (and then off the back) of the bunch although they did manage to hit 80kph on the big dipper coming into Uralla. The mood was now high as the bunch negotiated the highway crossing, and when shortly afterwards they reached the sanctuary of Gostwyck Chapel, already over half distance with just one puncture, rations were broken out in celebration.
Celebrations were short-lived however. On the road out of Gostwyck, a series of cattle grids were encountered that appeared to be missing quite a few pieces of grid. Billy led some synchronised bunny hopping in the lead group but the chasing pack suffered badly in this respect and the peloton was split while the main pack dealt with another puncture while the lead bunch inspected bikes to see what had fallen off. Before too long the group was back together and ready for Sector 4 – the longest stretch of gravel so far and one with a 5-star UCI rating. This is where the wheels came off, quite literally in Billy’s case. An innocuous puncture was dealt with relatively quickly but this was followed by 2 more further up the road and simultaneously other riders appeared to be stricken by the same problem. Paul was going through an alarming number of donated inner tubes as he made sporadic progress on the Rotten Tyre Special and when riders eventually emerged onto the sealed Enmore Road, some were now walking and the puncture count was up to 11.
Riding as a pack once more and now on solid ground, the pace picked up but with noon fast-approaching the left turn onto Blacks Lane and Sector 5 was only navigated by 7 hardy souls. The remainder took the direct route home to Armidale licking their wounds and listening to the cacophany emanating from President Tindale’s gears which became even more raucous as the last remaining strand of cable to the rear derailleur gave up the ghost and left him to grind home in top gear.
Wilf attacked up Black’s Lane (again) which was probably the smoothest section of dirt road on the whole ride. The turn at the top was carefully navigated and soon the sector was behind with zero incidents. Upon reaching the memorial the Tindale group could be seen ahead grinding up the hill but the magnificent seven elected to stick with the official route rather than chase and turned left up Knobs Road and over the hill onto Simmons Road.
With the end of Sector 6 (the final piece of dirt) in sight it seemed there would be no more punctures, but as the hard-charging Wilf crested the last rise and battled with corrugations deeper than a Smeatons meat pie, the sound of alloy grinding on rocks could be heard once more. It took 2 more tubes to fix that one but finally the dirt was done and the final run-in to the velodrome commenced…
Swanny led the bunch down Mann St where the talking stopped and cat and mouse games began. With PC holding the key to the gate, there was likely to be some jostling for position at the barrier but as the packed velodrome loomed into sight it was clear the gates were wide open and there would be no let up from here on in. At mid-lap on the first circuit, water bottles were jettisoned and clearly we were in for a no-nonsense bunch sprint but with Swanny keeping the pace high at the front, it was questionable whether anyone could actually get level with him, let alone past him. More bottles were thrown to the crowds as the final lap commenced with Wilf slotting into second place in the paceline with Keglegs and Captain Creagan well placed and watching further back and Bob and Paul ready to launch an unseen attack at any moment. Through the esses there was still no change in position but then with half a lap to go, BHP’s finest 1980’s steel started to move, Wilf tried to react on his European steed but he was no match for the Jock Bullen special which was now in full flight and majestically carving up the outside of the pack. Within seconds the local machine had 5 bike lengths on the bunch and was hugging the corner at near supersonic speeds with only the home straight between it and certain victory. The crowds were on their feet cheering and baying for the local hero, when suddenly the dark, muscular shadow of Keglegs loomed onto the tarmac alongside the red rocket. He had somehow made it up the hill and was now pushing out thousands of watts, grinding down the straight in his 56 x 11, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. With just moments to spare, he surged to the front and charged across the line to victory.
As the crowds dispersed and headed for the local bars and cafes, the remaining riders collapsed, exhausted after over 5 hours of competitive, hard-fought battle across the unforgiving Dangarsleigh landscape. Congratulations to Phil Thomas, worthy winner of the 3rd Armidale Cycling Club Thunderbolt Roubaix.
Thanks to Phil for also providing the above YouTube footage of what was a fantastic day – in spite of the punctures!