Cycle touring is surely the most fun you can have on two wheels. Traversing peaceful countryside on a bicycle carrying everything you need for a camping holiday is the ultimate in travelling freedom. So, touring by tandem should be twice the fun. Of course, the potential for disaster may also multiply, even exponentially, as happened one recent summer day -- a day when the rules of tandem mathematics went wild.
A bright, hot sun blazing from a clear dawn in the mountains promised a fine week of inland exploration. My wife and I swung aboard our tandem aiming to rendezvous with some cycling friends at the mountains' foot. Unfortunately, I had miscalculated the distance. Discovering that it was closer to 50km rather than the anticipated 20, and that there was a lot more uphill than I expected, I knew we had to pedal hard or be very late. Soon, though, I was feeling asthmatic and we were reduced to a virtual crawl up each hill.
The next hint that the day held some surprises took the form of a sabre-toothed, snarling dog surging out of a house on the other side of the road, its canine pea-brain clearly focused on double-murder. Not that it had the chance to carry out its dastardly plot. An oncoming car sideswiped it, sending it yelping back the way it had come.
Then, as we descended on a precipitous, winding section, there was another glitch, a minor technicality with the brakes -- they didn't seem to be working. Given its head, the loaded tandem accelerated rapidly -- effortlessly -- to over 70km/h on the steep grade. Overtaking a slow-moving car was easy. Slowing for the next sharp left-hand bend was not. Fortunately tandems hold the road like they are on rails but, on a second left-hand bend, the brake levers were bottoming on the handlebars. I was wrestling the bike, willing it to stay on the correct side of double unbroken lines. Neither the speed nor the gradient was diminishing.
Begging the bike to turn, the tyres to bite and the heavens to be merciful, we leaned hard into a final sweeping right-hander and lined up for the run to the bottom. Brakes still locked on... teeth gritted... rims smoking... but... we were going to be all right.
As the slope finally eased, the overheated brakes at last did their stuff. We came to a halt. Breathing a sigh of relief, I shook my hands to restore feeling to numb fingers. My partner, however, found it necessary to sprawl on the ground, shaking and whimpering for some minutes. She frequently reminds me of the 11th Commandment -- the one which applies specifically to tandem captains: Thou shalt not terrify thy stoker.
When we at last joined our friends at the nearby train station, they had voted on taking a bus, (there, of course, being no trains on this train line) for the first leg of the trip. In milder conditions, the area gives great scope for cycle exploration -- off the main road, which itself is punctuated by characterful villages, are old, nearly-perfectly-preserved gold-mining towns, and the road was also the gateway to wilderness areas beckoning the adventurous walker or mountain biker.
That day, however, the strengthening summer heat and threat of nearby bushfires had dimmed the appeal of a day's ride through exposed, sparsely populated countryside. With passenger trains on the line permanently `bustituted', and the bus driver making it clear he found the prospect of carrying several bikes, including a tandem, quite unappealing, we rode off with two companions, leaving the driver and remainder of our group engaged in spirited negotiations mediated by the local station master.
One of these companions we hardly saw again. John, in later years a multiple winner of a gruelling annual endurance cycling event, soon punctured and we left him to fix it alone, pedalling on at our normal pace. Riding an unladen racing bike while the rest of us were loaded with camping equipment, he caught us an absurdly short time later and thanked us -- in all seriousness, I am sure -- for waiting for him! After completing several orbits of us -- he'd ride ahead out of sight, turn and come back past us, disappear from view behind, turn again, catch up, overtake, then repeat the exercise -- he politely asked: “How do you manage to ride so slowly?” At the apogee of one orbit, he vanished literally into a cloud of smoke, not to be seen again that day. Our other companion, Geoff, a keen exponent of conserving energy (especially his own), specialised in 'wheel-sucking'. He rode constantly close behind us.
Though no flames had yet appeared above the low hills to either side, ever-present bushfire smoke drifted into our nostrils, making us uneasy. Our little peloton stopped at each town along the way to guzzle tall glasses of lemon squash at the local pubs. Low in population at any time, these settlements were almost deserted that day. “Everyone's off fighting the fires”, was one barman's laconic refrain.
Adding to our anxiety, our destination, still over 100 hilly kilometres away, didn't seem to be nearing fast enough. We were trying to press the pace when Geoff punctured atop a hill. As he effected a repair in the meagre shade of a lone eucalypt, we tried to calculate our chances of reaching town before nightfall.
Mobile again, we optimistically began a long descent, the tandem's momentum building up to a cracking pace with Geoff still mere millimetres behind on our wheel. We were cruising at 50 km/h even on the flat, when two cars approached around a bend ahead. The second car was close behind the first -- way too close, as it turned out, on this tortuous road.
The driver of the rear car must have allowed his nearside wheels to drift onto the gravel shoulder, then touched his brakes on realising he was too close to the vehicle in front. The car suddenly slewed. Its rear end overtook its front in a cloud of dust, then the car began to roll -- in slow motion, as things do at such times -- onto its roof on our side of the road. Forgetting Geoff, I instinctively slammed on our brakes. Surprise -- they worked! The car, on completing its third roll just in front of us, left the roadway altogether, crashed through a fence and disappeared into a deep ditch beside where we had screeched to a halt. All that marked the spot was a panicked cow making a hasty getaway across the paddock.
Agape and disbelieving, my wife and I vaguely became aware of an angry, raised voice from the road behind us. Looking back, we saw Geoff spreadeagled on the rough surface amid the wreckage of his rig, clutching his shoulder through his shredded shirt and struggling to free his feet from his pedals. Succeeding, and regaining the vertical, he asked in heavily embroidered language, just why we had stopped so suddenly when we knew he was right on our wheel.
“The, the car...”, we began incoherently, “The car that rolled in front of us.”
"What $*#@%^& car?" demanded Geoff, his gaze following our pointing fingers to the cantering cow.
His view ahead completely obstructed by us, Geoff had never seen the car, only our bike apparently coming backwards at him with our rapid braking. We had never felt the impact which caused him and his bike to somersault as his front wheel was stopped by our rear panniers, although we later discovered a clear tyre print on the back of one bag.
Geoff wanted to know, if there really was a car crashed in the ditch, why we were standing there, giving our own best impression of paralysed bovine stupidity, instead of rushing to see if the occupants needed help. At this point, two figures staggered from the ditch: the car's driver and his sole passenger.
Their injuries appeared to be confined to one bleeding nose and understandable dizziness. Geoff's concern for them was quickly replaced by a desire to enhance the former injury as we gave him our version of events. We left him to unleash his rich vocabulary on his new audience and turned our attention to flagging down help.
The next vehicle to appear, as if by design, was driven by an off-duty policeman with a CB radio. He quickly took command of the situation, summoning assistance, for which we were grateful, and commenting to us about the dangers of 'pushies', which we found gratuitously offensive. The effect of his radio calls was that we were soon besieged by most of the emergency vehicles which had been dealing with fires within a wide radius. As well, three ambulances arrived from surrounding towns, their crews keen to collect the multiple mangled bodies of cyclists reportedly strewn along the road.
Although our two bicycles and the damaged car were all off the road, the parked emergency vehicles were creating a local traffic jam by blocking one of the only two lanes. Lacking any other task, the workers organised themselves to direct traffic around their own trucks.
There was some debate about whether any ambulance was required. Geoff briefly boarded one. On discovering that the trip to hospital would inflict more pain on his hip pocket than he was suffering from bruises and abrasions, he decided both he and his bike were capable of continuing.
In waning light, we now had no hope of reaching town that day. We aimed instead for a not-too-distant dam where camping is permitted on the shores. Before complete darkness fell, we pitched our tents in the eerily deserted camping ground, prepared a hasty meal and ministered further to Geoff's minor wounds. Then we realised the darkness was not total. Licking the crests of hills ringing us was a rim of orange flame...