Changing of the guard: A poignant family ride through the Australian Outback

by Peter English

photography by Peter English

Everyone wants a new-model bike. I’m currently thinking about replacing two. There’s also a young cyclist in my family who, I’ve realised, is gunning for me. To him, I’m the calliper brakes and double chainring; the one being superseded. 

My boy, only just a teenager, is too young to chase KOMs, so he’s pushing for King of the Family instead. It’s like a Movistar docu-comedy: nobody knows who is leading the show, and I’m playing a hairy Alejandro Valverde. Up to now I’ve been the boss, and had never thought of co-leadership until Robbie McEwen tweeted about the moment his son passed him up a hill when both were trying. 

Our changing of the guard emerged in the lead-up to our family ride of the Mawson Trail in South Australia in September. The 900 km route was our Grand Tour, a long-service adventure and the next step in a journey starting with supermarket bikes and growing into midlife obsession.

Attempting the trail was a way to show both young teenagers different parts of the country and open their eyes to new realities – and adventures. The parents desperately wanted to ride. The children were acting like teens, wildly capable, increasingly fit following practice bikepacking weekends, but unable to show any excitement in case someone noticed. 

My boy just wants to ride, especially after a five-day drive from Queensland to avoid COVID hotspots; a drive which finishes with almost 500 km of desert corrugations along the Strzelecki Track. First, we have a couple of days to pack our increasingly tiny bike bags and make sure everyone is ready for up to three weeks of riding at an average of 60 km a day. 

I’m an unskilled but hopefully well-prepared mechanic, with my fingers still healing from replacing everyone’s tyres in the week before departure. Things go smoothly until trip eve when my boy and I make a final attempt to clear the desert dust off the bikes. 

There’s a rush of wind whipping towards our makeshift service course. To me it’s a mini tornado, but everyone thinks I’m being dramatic. To the locals it’s a dust devil. Two of the bikes are knocked over while my boy’s is sent spinning like it’s trialling for BMX freestyle. My only thought: “Please don’t land on the derailleur, because it’s the only really important thing I don’t have a spare of.” I still don’t know why.

The seat bends, the chain comes off, the derailleur is bumped – but luckily still on – and the gear shifting is a mess. Scared to straighten it too much in case it breaks and the trip is over before the Grand Depart, I shift the limit screws so my son has eight gears rather than 11. It’s definitely not my plan to make him slower. 

A dust devil in the Aussie outback.

Next morning we are nervous as we attach our seatpost, handlebar, and frame bags outside the pub at Blinman, a former copper mining town deep in the stunning Flinders Ranges. We are almost 500 km north of Adelaide, and in the highest town in the state. So it’s all downhill from here … 

About an hour later we are finally ready for our Team English time-trial in a range named after a sailor on a route recognising Sir Douglas Mawson, who is best remembered as an Antarctic explorer. A group of riders who finished the south-north route wave us off, and when they toot their car horns later as we pedal towards the first stretch of dirt, we think of the cyclist camaraderie we’ll share over the next few weeks.

We don’t see another bike for three days. 

Instead our four-person peloton travels with wedge-tailed eagles, brown falcons, emus, and the squawks of corellas through the valleys and gorges. There are lots of galahs, mostly in the trees. 

The profile on day one provides some groans, with 1,100 m of climbing over almost 70 km into Wilpena Pound, the most elevation until the penultimate day. On the plus side, it has the Bunyeroo Road, a gravel surface winding down to the base of the Pound, and a mountainous backdrop to the best descent of the trip. It’s a shame the tour’s Instagram highlight comes so early, but if we can’t ride another day, we’ve already banked something spectacular. 

During the tough opening my boy is already showing strength and fitness, waiting mostly patiently as we catch up. For the past couple of years, when I’ve ridden with him up the local hills, I’ve been the one pretending to be puffed at the top. More recently it’s been actual breathlessness, and he’s been ready to go further – and faster. My thoughts jump from “Maybe I’m getting sick?” to “Do I need more training?” to “No, Father Time says it’s son time.”

In the mornings he’s usually first ready, as long as he hasn’t forgotten a glove or the phone chargers. Each day starts with a stage overview, often in Carlton Kirby mode. Naturally, there are many mornings when pretend-Carlton can’t contain himself. Like the drop from Wilpena Pound into Rawnsley Park on stage 2. “What a treat we have today. Forget the sprinters, take in the vistas.” 

Over the first three days there is outback eye candy everywhere, including on all sides of the Moralana Scenic Drive (or the “26 km Corrugation Hell” Strava segment) back to the Pound or west to the Elder Ranges. We’re glad we’re on mountain bikes on the rough trails and often spiky rocks, although this will change for the final two weeks when gravel bikes will be much more suitable.

After four stages of twisting around Wilpena, we reach our first town, Hawker. It’s two-service-stations big. “Guess where this guy is taking his kids on holiday?” our mechanic shouts to his wife. “Adelaide … on a bike. Lucky kids.” I laugh, mainly because he’s just let me use his compressor on our tyres, but also because I haven’t heard that type of line since we started.

We ride on, facing our first headwind as we turn away from the central Flinders Ranges’ huge variety of hills, and into flatter, dustier country. 

The daily stages have been months in the planning, especially over the first week when help could be too-far-to-think-about away. In the first phase, route length depends on the distance between towns or, in their absence, hamlets or campsites with any type of food.

At Cradock, population 13 (only five full time, according to the sign), we start an 85 km transition from the wide-open red-and-brown outback through grazing land and green farms on the edge of Quorn. It’s the first time we all think we might just make it to Adelaide, having become familiar with the packing and long days of decreasing worry and increasing fun. From tomorrow, if we have a mechanical, someone will see us within an hour. 

Stage 5 is also important because we hand our keys to a trio of riders who promise to drive our car back to Adelaide when they reached Blinman. It will save us two days of travel, and them three bus tickets. We had met mid-ride, not far from Simmonston, a town started in the late 1800s but never finished, swapped trail notes, and pedalled off hoping to spot their lost bottle. We find it and message the news later that night. Surely they have to return our 4WD safely now? 

The next morning starts slowly and painfully. On the map, it’s supposed to be an easy 60 km, just a few lumps on the way to Melrose and our first rest day. Each morning, most of us have been smiling within the first 10 minutes; today it takes almost an hour.

The teens are tough again, but even my boy is pleased when the terrain flattens and the flies go to bother someone else. He’s been riding at the front most of the time, and during my weary moments I am drawn to the rhythmical movement of his firming calves. He is growing fitter before our eyes, and is so much better at recovery. 

We only worry when he stops talking, which hardly ever happens. When we tire of his predictions of Wi-Fi and schnitzels at the next stop, we send him back to his sister or the imaginary team car for bottle duty. After a sustained magpie attack, we make it to Melrose, and rest.

We earned the midday sleep in. I ask my daughter if her legs are sore. “Yes.” Where? “Everywhere.” I can’t convince anyone – not even my boy – to try the mountain bike trails. I attempt a recovery ride, because it’s beautiful and it’s there, but don’t enjoy what is clearly a fun park. 

Instead I think about my boy’s improvement, both on trails and gravel. He’s getting so fast that I’ve become scared for both of us on mountain bike descents. After a pre-trip run following him down Hidden Vale’s 500 Above it was me who needed the hug at the bottom. Sure, he’s inherited a friend’s Santa Cruz dualie and I’m on the hardest of hard tails, but is it worth spending $6,000 just so I can steal back a couple of stressful seconds? 

When we re-start on the Mawson it’s the weekend of Roubaix, so we pretend we’re on a recon on a Classics-style day of 12 ºC (54 ºF), rain, wind, and regular bergs. Yes, the mud in France for the 2021 edition was disgusting, but it’s nothing on Mawson muck. Thick gloops of red stick in everything, forcing cleaning every 50 metres or so, just to get the wheels moving again briefly. Nobody is allowed to think of the damage to our components. It’s only day eight, and there’s still about 500 km to go.

On the way to Laura we are stuck in a sheep jam, feeling like it’s a Tour de France farmer protest. Our predicament prompts a flock of puns and an imaginary race: Bahrain, Bardet, Bernal, Van Baarle, Nibali, and Mitch “Tail” Docker are the animators.

This is a long trip and the days can be challenging, so we try different ways to stay entertained. Some work. To my eternal shame – on a couple of levels – my boy is starting to out-pun me. Will he let me win anything?

At the end of each stage, the two of us clean the bikes, even though we realise the effort is mostly ceremonial because a new world of dust and grit dawns every morning. We press on because that’s what real bike mechanics would do, and it saves us from the daily trips for supplies.

On this day the cleaning was desperately needed. In a place where water is precious, it takes some courage to ask the caravan park owners if we can hose four push bikes. They say yes. We also get scones and cream. Country service can be great. 

The Mawson often intersects with the Heysen Trail, a 1,200 km walking track named after the artist Hans, and the ruined settler cottages dotted across the canola country outside Laura make for views that will hang in our memories forever. If you squint at the yellow, soon-to-be-margarine flowers, you can imagine sunflowers, and riding through a French summer instead of a shivery headwind. The wind farms on the peaks around here are perfectly placed. 

Today, the sun is out and we cross the Mt Lofty Ranges for the first time before descending towards Spalding, avoiding our first two snakes. Some overgrown tracks and too-spaced-out signage force a few Wahoo-assisted U-turns, and our least favourite day concludes with a gauntlet of gates. Nobody needs to stop this often near the end of an 80 km family ride.

Officially, we are flash-packing, not bikepacking. That’s because we stay inside every night instead of camping by the road. But don’t confuse “flash” with “flush”, something we’ve often wished for at rest stops, or “fancy”. We spend two nights in pubs sharing the owners’ bathrooms and mingling with the grandparents in Cradock and Hallett. We mention uber-bikepacker Sarah Hammond at times, and remind ourselves we are not hardcore – yet or ever.

In reality, it’s day 10 and the only flashes have come by the side of the road when the next bathroom is hours away. The Spalding Pub, with its cheerful new owners, has an ensuite room with air-conditioning and briefly feels five-star.

Across the Mt Lofty Ranges in Hallett, which has a general store and a café, a road sign tells us Adelaide is only 186 km away. Sorry, kids, on the zig-zagging Mawson there’s still double that to go.

Our trip motto has been “adventure, not torture” and so far there’s been plenty of the first, and not enough of the second to bother either of the teenage activists. The closest we come to real punishment is at Hallett’s “quirky” Wildongoleechie Hotel, escaping early on a gale-force morning. 

Leaving at 7am, we shiver through 7 ºC (45 ºF) (which feels like 3 ºC / 37 ºF) in wind and rain, but the detour down the Barrier Highway shaves 50 km off the route and another Mt Lofty Ranges crossing. While it feels risky, we are passed by only nine cars and a truck in two hours. Burra is an historic town but we miss its charms as we thaw out and hide from the weather. Despite all this, my boy pesters us to hang out in the bike park. 

By stage 12, with the vineyard scenery changes into Clare, my boy is realising his fitness gains as well. “I’m almost faster than you, Dad,” he says as we climb up through more sheep and canola fields in the Camel Hump Range. He is only partly right. Sometimes he is quicker.

The most dramatic shift will come a few weeks after the Mawson Trail when he beats me up Willunga Hill. He rides off at halfway, less an attack than a “see you at home for dinner, Dad.” I couldn’t be more proud when he’s clapping me in at the summit two minutes after him. Yet, at Clare, he takes a day off to watch TV. Phew.

You’ll never guess the way the brochures want everyone to tour the vineyards? Hire a bike! On our second rest day. Two riders have a day off. The others gain an appreciation for Riesling.  

Happily, the tour has reached the indulgence phase, and we all have no doubt we’ll make it to Adelaide. This is cycling mini-break territory for city slickers, and we are only a handful of bumps from the Barossa. Not even an all-afternoon wine tasting, and a tipsy turn on the Brockenchack Wines’s zipline in the nearby Eden Valley on our third rest day, can stop us. Whether this experience should be followed by a 74 km uphill traipse into the Adelaide Hills is still up for debate, especially with my boy gaining power by the hour. 

As we slog up our last real climb, a 250-metre gravel rise through more vineyards, he is again waiting for everyone, barely puffing when we reach him. The rest of us have had a couple of breaks to take in the views, back towards Tanunda, and up to Jacob’s Creek’s Steingarten plot in the Mt Lofty Ranges. “I didn’t need to stop,” he tells us.

Ultimately, I’m to blame for all this. I’ve encouraged him and his sister to ride, have fun, and improve. I realise now I’ve actually been training them to beat me. It’s the job of the dad, no matter the dents to pride. Beat me at everything, kids. Be better on a bike, and better at life.

Yet this is the boy who I still tuck in, remind about gear choices to keep his ailing chain on, and make sure he’s not about to explode during a hunger flat. It seems like yesterday he was bawling on the street after his sister shouted “I’m Mark Cavendish” and barrelled into him during a messy pre-school sprint. He bled for what felt like days. I miss that little boy, but really love this little man.

At the same time, his potential is my plateau – or worse. Can I still be Bike Dad if I’m not able to keep up? Of course I can, but my role has changed, just like it should through all the other parenting phases. He is ascending with style and the best I can do is age gracefully – and breathlessly – through middle and old age.

But how long will I be able to ride with him? Will he and his sister still let me? In the past, when I’ve waited for them or passed them drinks on the hills, I’ve asked them gently to remember these moments when they are older and their Dad is the anchor. But will they?

I think about this as we snuggle at the Cudlee Creek Tavern, a Tour Down Under landmark always mentioned by Phil Liggett, giving our stagiaires their first backpacker experience. We cut the final section a little because we can’t find accommodation in the Birdwood or Lobethal parts of the trail, but we don’t care. 

Adelaide and the promised hotel-with-pool are on the horizon, along with our finish line – the bust of Douglas Mawson on North Terrace.

After a breakfast shock of white-pepper pancakes, we are met on the trail by a cycling pen pal, with the cheering and follow-up cake making us feel like we have achieved something. Later, we pick up our car in better condition than when we left it. 

For the next few days I can’t stop staring at the children, so impressed with their achievements and commitment on our family Grand Tour. I am ready for my journey to being obsolete, those calliper brakes in a disc world. The catch has happened faster than I thought, but after 18 days on the Mawson Trail I’m adjusting to life as a not-so-super domestique.

The new models are amazing, and I get to see mine evolve every day.

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