Nobody once told me that spending 16 hours in an airplane is the perfect way to prepare for two days of all-day riding with a couple thousand meters of climbing each.
Nobody, it turns out, was right.
Andy Van Bergen, who you may know as the creator of Everesting but I know as my favorite in-house cyclo-masochist, thought it would be funny to inform me of his plan while I was somewhere over the Pacific, en route on a Boeing 787 from Los Angeles to Melbourne for two weeks of CyclingTips work meetings. “I’ll pick you up at the airport,” he said, the message pinging me over the plane’s wifi. “We’ll go and get a parma.”
Sounds good. I’ve heard of the fabled Aussie parma, and though I’m not entirely sure what it is I’m guessing it has something to do with chicken parmesan, which is delicious. I’m in.
“It’s kinda far,” he wrote, ten minutes later.
“How far? Bad traffic?” I responded.
“Traffic probably not the problem,” he said.
Andy stood leaning against his white Subaru in the passenger pickup loop of Melbourne Airport, which is when I noticed the two matching gravel bikes on his roof and also the sly grin on his face.
“Hungry?” He asked.
“I have no idea,” I said. It was 11am in Melbourne, something near dinner time for my Colorado clock, but my body was still in transcontinental warp mode. “What are we doing?” I pointed at the bikes.
“Riding to parma mate.” More grins.
“Well we’ll drive a bit, then about 60k by bike. And we have to get there by 7:30, before the kitchen closes.”
Who doesn’t love a little adventure for adventure’s sake? Most of us live in a world in which actual, unintentional hardship is rare or nonexistent; we have first world problems, not real problems. Yet there’s something oddly human in the desire to make oneself just slightly uncomfortable, or feel slightly out of depth. I think that’s why we all ride bikes.
Andy drove us out to… Okay, I have no idea where we were. It took just over two hours in the Subaru. We went past a lot of green, rolling hills. It looked like California. I saw zero kangaroos, except a dead one. Our destination was a quaint little town, similar in look and feel to many of the tiny old mining towns left over from the gold and silver rushes of any continent. Old wood and tin roofs and hammered aluminum signs with a few layers of cracking paint.
We were 60 kilometers from dinner, and had six hours before the kitchen closed. Andy pulled the bikes off the roof, we threw my pedals on and set the saddle height, and I chucked an extra T-shirt, a jacket, and another pair of bib shorts in my bag.
Fun fact: When you borrow a Canyon in Australia, they put the brakes on backwards. Left hand, rear brake; right hand, front brake. Andy insisted that, in fact, no, I was the one who was backwards, and I should try harder to assimilate to local customs. I insisted that I might die with backwards brakes. He re-insisted that I should suck it up. So I did.
Between us and parma (which is chicken parmesan, I confirmed, but with extra hammer): A couple quite large mountains, which we’d traverse via a collection of crushed gravel roads and marginally maintained double track. The plan was to spend the night in Woods Point, home of the remotest parma Andy could come up with, in the only hotel in a town of 90 people, then ride onward to Walhalla (population: 20), where we’d hitchhike back to Andy’s car. This would be possible thanks to a preponderance of what Andy called “tradies,” which is apparently someone who does a trade and drives around in a sedan that someone years ago decided to mate with a pickup truck. It’s not entirely clear why.
The early kilometers were easy, a rolling mix of pavement and gravel along the banks of a river Andy insisted contained no dangerous animals. I’ve seen the Discovery Channel Australia Specials, so I know that he was lying.
We turned right and onto the first climb of the day. At this point, it had been approximately 30 hours since I left my house in Colorado, and as I huffed it upwards, skirting rocks and trying to hang on to Andy’s wheel, the slightly preposterous reality of what I was doing began to set in.
A day ago I was, quite literally, on the other side of the world. Now I’m on a climb I’ve never ridden in an area I don’t have a name for on a bike that’s not mine riding to a town I know nothing about via a route that remains an absolute mystery in order to eat a meal that’s apparently quintessentially Australian but I’m pretty sure is actually Italian, with brakes on backwards and a riding partner I know mostly via Slack and email in whom I’ve placed quite a lot of trust.
How great is that?
I nearly ran over a lizard. Andy called it a Blue Tongue, I think, and then picked it up without a second thought, thus conforming to all Steve-Irwin-related Australian stereotypes.
It’s not poisonous, allegedly.
We topped out on the first climb, quite proud of ourselves, and dropped down the other side. Ripping is a word I like to use for good descents, because that’s what it feels like, and it’s almost onomatopoetic. Rip rip rip rip. You’re just ripping, throwing skids and countersteers and then remembering that holy hell man your damn brakes are on backwards slow down ya moron.
Thanks, intelligent part of my brain, for catching up with the old, reptilian bit that just likes ripping.
We forded a stream, and got our shoes wet. I sat down on a huge log, taking a little post-descent breather, and Andy came over and opened up my saddle bag, reaching his hand way down inside it. I thought he was stealing my dry socks at first, but no. He’d hidden beers in there, which I’d unknowingly carried all the way over the first climb. But can you be mad at someone who just pulled beers out of nowhere?
According to our map, we had just about 30km to go. We either didn’t have a good elevation profile, or Andy wasn’t sharing it with me. I’m pretty sure it was the latter. So we had a mid-ride beer, sitting on that huge log next to the stream. Three hours before the pub kitchen closed — plenty of time.
In Colorado, where I live, mountains are really obvious. They kind of hit you over the head with their mountain-ness, all pointy and rocky and sticking up into the kind of deep blue sky you only get at high elevations. There aren’t many trees to block your view of said mountains, so they rarely sneak up on you.
We’d been climbing for forty minutes before I realized that a mountain had snuck up on us. How was this possible? How does a climb this long just pop out of nowhere? I asked Andy, and he just said something about this being where wombats live. We ticked up for another 15 minutes, snaking back and forth through dense forest, until we’d climbed just over 1000 meters and a white sign welcomed us to the road’s high point. We both ate a huge handful of candy, and Andy assured me it was all downhill from here.
The sun dipped down toward the horizon and blasted through a grove of burned out trees and onto the crushed gravel road underneath us. To our right were remnants of a decade-old bush fire, so that we descended through tight lines of contrasting sun and shade. At the time, I thought it felt kind of like descending down the side of a zebra, and though that’s a strange analogy, I’m going with it anyway.
We came into one of those old mining towns that’s at once carefully preserved and clearly decaying. There’s still an active mine nearby, apparently — tradies in fluorescent orange and work boots greeted us with looks of utter confusion as we stepped into what was clearly their bar. Andy ordered two parmas. I got fries with mine; he got the same and called them chips. The flattened, breaded chicken was the size of my head, and the beer was even better than the stuff we had down by the stream.
When I was a kid, an adventure meant going a bit farther through the woods behind my house than we went last time. Who knows what lies beyond the tall pine, we’d say, as we crept toward it armed with water balloons and healthy imaginations.
There are lots of different ways to look at adventure. There’s the Dirty Kanza way, where you pit yourself against something physically foreboding — 200 miles across Kansas on chipped up, flinty gravel roads. These are athletic endeavors, very much about the journey and not the destination. Then there’s the bikepacking way, where you purposefully strip away the cuddly softness of modern life and force yourself to live with the decisions you made while packing your bags before you left. An adventure can be as simple as going a bit farther, or a bit faster, carrying a bit less or a bit more.
You can mix and match, too. That’s what we did. We hit out on two relatively hard days on the bike, and matched them with a bit of modern life (beds), but still took from ourselves a couple things that are, for all their shallowness, very much hallmarks of our everyday lives. No cell signal, no wifi; wearing what we could carry; eating and drinking and sleeping at places we found on the road. Andy sprung this one on me, which made a straightforward two-day ride anything but.
Adventures don’t have to be epic, in fact they rarely are. All you really need is the unknown.