Those of us that engage in social media and follow Osteohealth’s updates would probably have heard about my recent masochistic Easter break. Some of you might have even dot watched my progress as I grovelled my way around the course.
First, a bit of background. The Monaro Cloudride is a 1005km mountain bike backpacking race that runs in a big loop starting and finishing in Canberra. The course follows rutted four wheel drive tracks and wash board logging roads south via the Monaro, over the Victorian border and back up to Canberra via the Snowy Mountains. Approximately 70 odd kilometers is on paved road and I swear at least that much is unrideable hike-a-bike.
The rules are quite simple. It’s a single stage, self supported event. You start on Good Friday morning at 8am and finish when you finish, no outside assistance allowed. Without assistance, you need to carry a lot of gear with you. For me this meant a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, stove, food, plenty of water, water sterilisation gear, spare clothing, etc. All up my weighted-down bike came in at 25kg.
Many people have blogged about the course, the scenery and even race tactics before. While these are all worth mentioning, the most profound experience I had in completing the race was how it changed my body.
In 2014 for the opening edition, I attempted to race this event. Having recently completed a 350km mountain bike audax ride in 20 hours, I figured I could knock over the race in a good 3-4 days. Little did I know how difficult the course would be and I ended up pulling the pin 200km in. I had failed to reach the first re-supply town, run out of food and spent the night hugged as close as I dared to a fire trying to keep warm on a 3 degree night. Suffice to say, I had unfinished business with the Cloudride. So in 2018 as a first priority, I was going to finish the race. Then if all went well, I was going to try and finish in 5 days.
There’s not a lot that can be done to prepare for an event like the Cloudride. I had plenty of fitness from regular 400km weeks on the bike, but after the first 7 hours this means nothing. I arrived barely on time to the start line, quickly checked my bike and gear over, wondered what I had forgotten and leapt away from the start line with all the enthusiasm of a child following an ice cream van.
The first day went roughly as I expected. The leaders shot off ahead and I wistfully watched them inch away while I had to hold myself back and remember that I had to complete a whole 1000km, not just a fast 50km. I’d ridden this section before and knew what I was in for. Gravel roads predominated and I made some allies on the road. One rider I spent time with sagely pointed out that this ride was essentially a game of eating with a little bit of cycling thrown in. While I agreed with him, it was only 4 days later that I truly came to understand this sentiment.
It was also on day one that I came to meet two other important characters I would ride with regularly. Mark, a fellow Melbournian kept a similar pace to me and we ended up grinding away most of the first day together. We parted ways at the Numerella tennis club at dusk and I headed off with another rider, also named Ross.
This “other” Ross is a curious character. Something had possessed him to attempt the Cloudride on a single speed. For non-cyclists, this means one gear for all of the terrain. That one gear is pretty much only good for flats or slight up or down hills. As soon as you have to climb, you have to walk. After riding (and walking) with Ross for a while and waiting for him at the top of every hill, we ended up chatting about energy expenditure. Thinking out loud helps the time pass as you grovel your way up yet another incline. We calculated that with an average power of 180 watts we should burn through 8kg of fat over the ride. Usually about half of this could come from dietary sources, the remainder would come from body fat stores. So an unexpected weight loss of 3.5 to 4kg over the race.
Late that night the fog became too thick for me and I said goodbye to Ross and set up my tent. I was to bump into him a few more times over the ride, but mostly I just saw his footprints in the dirt every time the road pitched upwards. I have a sneaky suspicion Ross isn’t a human, but a terminator. He would rise a couple of hours before me every morning and keep going hours later than me every night. On the bike I was faster than him, but the man just never seemed to stop. Like a 2018 cycling version of Cliff Young. Ross actually finished a good day and a half ahead of me in the end and I wouldn’t be surprised if he walked 200km of the course.
Other riders passing woke me at a leisurely 7am this day. It was this morning that I gave up any ideas of racing this event, I was in it to survive. Packing up my gear, I pedalled the remaining 20km in the Nimmitibel for a big breakfast, a battery recharge and crammed as many hot cross buns as I could compress into my saddle bag. I spent the remainder of the day alone, making my way to Bombala through what I thought were horribly unrideable four wheel drive tracks. By 5pm I pulled into Bombala and met Mark at the pub. He informed me that he was staying the night in this luxurious pub accommodation (everything is relative) and indulging in a shower. I was feeling pretty good at this stage, but the next section of the course would take 8 hours and involved a significant section of following a GPS trace through the middle of someone’s farm with no roads and a creek crossing. I decided I didn’t want to do this in the dark and stayed in the pub that night.
We had planned on a 4:30am start on the bike, but I don’t use a smart phone. So when my alarm went off at 3:30 after the daylight savings change, Mark and I were both awake and ready to meet the challenges of the day with Eric, another Cloudrider that spent the night in Bombala.
The cold bit hard this morning as we climbed out of Bombala in dense fog. My Garmin told me it was 3 degrees. Our next target town was Delegate, only 30km up the road. Suffice to say we went the long way and very little road was involved.
A chilly morning start to day 3 with the sun rising behind us
The morning fog took a long time to clear from the valleys that morning and we spent several hours closely following a GPS trace on my Garmin while only being able to see 20m ahead. This was the section of the course where we were passing through farmland with no trails to guide us.
Crossing the Delegate river in heavy fog
Rolling to lunch at Delegate after 8 hours on the bike, Mark and I discussed the plan for the day. We were hoping to make our way to Tubbut that night and camp before pressing on over Mt Tingaringy the following day. It was only another 4 hours and we figured a 12 hour effort would be a good achievement. Low and behold, we arrived in Tubbut for refreshments at the community hall, graciously provided by the locals. With two coffees, food and a big dose of honey we both studied the maps and decided we would make our way over Mt Tingaringy to the Snowy River that night. We were shortly joined by another rider Brent. Misery loves company, so all three of us decided to cover the most difficult part of the course in the dark.
The “ride” over to the Snowy River was only 37km, but it took 6 hours to complete. This section was easily the toughest part of the Cloudride. Most of that 37km was unrideable. The terrain got too steep to ride, the track was loose rubble and I had no choice but to use my bike like a walking frame. Slam on the brakes, take a step forward, inch the bike forwards another 60cm as my feet gave way underneath me, then repeat. On and on we went, up the climb that was a relentless 40% gradient. Reaching the top all 3 of us were elated for a brief moment until we found out the descent was just as steep and just as unrideable. All of this was done in the dark and it was hard to tell how far we had to go. So we just ground away the kilometres until we arrived at the Snowy River at 11pm, exhausted from the 19 hour day on the bike.
Day 4 was ostensibly quite simple. We planned to ride the Barry Way, a mostly gravel road out of the Snowy River Valley and up to Jindabyne before pushing on to the Jungagunal wilderness. 4 hours in, things didn’t go quite to plan. I was cooked. It was a unique type of fatigue. My legs hurt, but not as badly as after a Saturday morning ParkRun. I was sleepy, but not like I had done an all nighter. Instead my body was telling me I needed to stop and rest. Thankfully Mark looked at me first and suggested stopping for the day in Jindabyne and making a renewed push the following day. It took all of my effort to make a 13km climb back up out of the valley and on to paved roads into Jindabyne. We got a hotel room, some lunch, some more lunch, a pub meal and a decent sleep in a real bed.
So far my body had handled the ride roughly how I expected. I had started fresh, covering plenty of distance and fatigued more each day. Everything changed on day 5. We departed Jindabyne at 5:30am and made our way out of town and up the Gungarlin River. The course had us climb up 1000m vertical out of Jindabyne and with the first severe climb of the day, my legs said no. I pushed and pushed but my body just wouldn’t cooperate. Mark disappeared off into the distance. So I got off and walked what I needed to, pedalled where I could, determined not to let the course defeat me again.
About lunch time, something curious happened. My appetite went into overdrive. It hit me suddenly at 11am and didn’t stop until 3pm, after 4 lunch breaks. During these four stops I managed to consume:
– 2 litres of orange juice
– 4 packets of cus cus
– 4 packets of quick oats
– 2 packets of instant mashed potato
– 2 bananas
– 2 apples
– 3 packets of lollies
– 4 energy gels
– 2 packets of beef jerky
– 18 muesli bars
Remarkably, once all of that food was in me, I was fine. The exhaustion was a distant memory and I mashed the pedals with a renewed enthusiasm. It was as if my body stopped fighting me and decided that it had no choice to cooperate, I just needed to provide it with fuel.
Day 5 also had the most spectacular scenery. I crossed over the Grey Mare trail in the Snowy Mountains and low and behold, saw a Grey Mare along with 15 other brumbies.
I also crossed Mt Tabletop, the high point of the Cloudride and collected a small rock to place at Mike Hall’s memorial. For those who don’t know, Mike was an accomplished ultra-endurance cyclist who died last year during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race.
Hurtling down the trail towards Cabramurra I ran over my first tiger snake of the ride. Cabramurra was a welcome reprieve for me and my returning appetite. The bistro had three course meals for $18, so I ordered 3. I then proceeded to gorge myself on 3 serves of T-bone steaks, chips, salad, broccoli soup and cheesecake. All up I think I consumed 40,000 kilojoules that day.
I was on my own this day. With renewed vigour from my prodigious energy intake I forged on to an afternoon tea stop at Batlow, running over a further two tiger snakes while hurtling downhill at 50km/h. The first two snakes I had run over were quite small but the third was a monster. With half of the snake off the road, I couldn’t quite tell how long it was but it was as thick as my forearm.
Running over the last snake gave me a huge burst of cortisol and adrenaline. The upshot was that I flinched at every stick I passed but relentlessly stomped on the pedals until I reached Batlow where I bumped into one of my competitors. He was sitting out the front of the supermarket in town eating a whole cheesecake with his hands.
It seemed like we were all experiencing the same hunger overdrive this deep into the race. I settled for 4 burgers instead then pushed on through for a late finish in Tumut. It was in Tumut that I bumped into Mark again at the pub. Our journey would continue with one final push through to the finish line.
We had 180km left when we started day 7. It was going to be a big day on the bike but by this stage my body had passed through exhaustion and I had come out the other side a stronger, skinnier version of myself.
Mark and I were on the final stretch but every hill hit us hard and it seemed every flat piece of gravel road was more corrugated washboard, slowing us down to a crawl.
With 60km to go we thought we were making good progress until the course swung away from Canberra and on to another 15km of hike-a-bike. Our average speed dropped down to 4km an hour. Right then I just wanted to crawl up into my sleeping bag and not think about the next hill. With Mark urging me onwards I thought of Ernest Shackleton crossing South Georgia and decided it was time to harden up.
Finally the hike-a-bike ended and we had a fast flowing ride into Canberra. I was elated to come across beloved pavement again and my mood started to lift. I was no longer feeling crushed. Mark and I crossed the finish line together 6 days and 12 hours after we started and I was elated to have finished the toughest sporting challenge of my life.
At the finish line in Canberra, 6 days and 12 hours later.
The Cloudride was hands down the toughest physical challenge I have ever done. However the effort required was quite different to anything else. The hard part about the Cloudride was re-supply and feeding my face. Water stops were far apart and I often found myself going three hours without water. Food was available, but it wasn’t easy to come by. I found my brain became tired with the constant challenge of steering my bike and picking a line to ride, although I felt like the rest of my mental faculties became sharper.
Most of all though, the biggest challenge was simply trying to get enough food into my stomach. With 16 to 18 hour days on the bike, my stomach simply couldn’t absorb the nutrients required to keep me going until the events of day 5. As James had said, it was a game of eating with a bit of cycling thrown in.
After I had finished, my appetite continued to stay at its crazy levels. For a week afterwards all I craved was steak and eggs. Each dinner had a kilogram of beef and most breakfasts consisted of 12 eggs. All I really suffered from was an energy deficit.
Once I had a meal and a good sleep, I actually felt really good. My pants didn’t fit anymore, I had elbow pits and hopping on the scales confirmed I had lost 4kg of body fat in the 6 days. The first night calculations were spot on.
I can understand how people finish the Cloudride in 4 days. But I’m really glad I didn’t find out what it was like to have a huge energy deficit and a sleep deficit at the same time.
While I was out on the trail I had my moments of wanting to give the organiser an ear full of abuse. I had promised myself that once I completed the course, I would never come back. But within an hour of finishing, I knew I would be back in a few years. Within a week of finishing, I decided I’d be back next year.