Cycling in Sydney Australia
My wife loves planning cycle tours. I don't. But I do like riding them. I indulge, even encourage, her fantasies because she has often designed superb trips in out-of-the-way places on near-deserted roads amid fabulous scenery in both Australia and overseas.
Over the years, cycle-touring has changed for us. In the time BC (before children), we had toured on solo bikes for months at a time in Europe and North America. We toured in Tasmania and NSW with one child, in a child trailer; in New Zealand with two children, one in the child trailer and one on a trailer-bike; and again in Tasmania with two children on trailer bikes. Now that the children are older – 14 and 10 – they can, of course, ride their own bikes but, we feel, the challenges of distance, terrain, uncertain road conditions and luggage-carrying make that impractical for touring.
Enter the idea of a family tandem tour. With the problem posed by us owning only one tandem solved (Part 1), an interesting 400 km route in the NSW Central West which my wife had researched looked attractive. It required we ride for a total of nine days from Muswellbrook to Lithgow in, around and over the Great Dividing Range, with an additional two “rest” days, one in Mudgee, the other in Hill End.
It would be hilly and we would need camping equipment for two nights (Sandy Hollow and Bylong) where no indoor accommodation was available. Daily distances, however, would be “moderate” and the tandems had very low gearing. (I changed the new Apollo's chainrings to 44-32-22 to give some ultra-lows in combination with the 32T cog on the cassette. The Green Machine has a 24T chainring which I have always found satisfactorily low.)
An added complication was that, with indoor accommodation pre-booked and mostly pre-paid, we were locked in to a schedule which bad weather could easily disrupt with disastrous consequences. Also, this would be my wife's first real experience at captaining a tandem and the children's first tour when they would have to pedal as much as we did. Considering, too, the children's view that separation from life's essentials – television and video games – for more than 24 hours at a time constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment, were we biting off more than we could chew?
We just hoped that luck would be on our side.
Part of the adventure was the train trip(s) to our start point. It required three, changing from a suburban service to the InterCity train at Sydney Terminal, then to the Hunter Line train at Hamilton, near Newcastle. The short trip at midday on the uncrowded North Shore Line train was uneventful. Even the Inter City journey was no drama; our over-long bikes still fitted on the hooks provided, though they protruded into the carriages' vestibule areas. No-one, to our relief, complained and passengers could still move between carriages as so many seem to need to do during long trips.
Tandems on trains:
On the InterCity train, each hung from a hook,
at the end of different carriages.
At Hamilton, the two-car Scone-bound train was crowded. Two bikes and a number of passengers already occupied the only available space and four bikes, including our heavily-laden vehicles needed to get on. The other cyclists, a father and son reminiscent of the “carnies” characters from “The Simpsons”, solved the problem, rousting passengers out of the flip-up seating area and herding bicycles and riders in there. Again, no-one complained, probably because they were too intimidated.
First potential hurdles overcome, we rolled up to our booked Muswellbrook B&B accommodation to be greeted with surprise and a measure of horror by the host who had accidentally recorded the booking for the next month. As luck would have it, the place was vacant so we weren't turned away. Pheww!
The only problem on our first riding day came at the start: adding a couple of km by taking the wrong road out of Muswellbrook and having to retrace our wheeltracks. Fortunately the weather was beautiful and we reached our Sandy Hollow campsite via quiet roads and the odd hill climb, with a fascinating wildlife encounter – a sulphur-crested cockatoo and a magpie dive-bombing a large goanna which had apparently raided their nests.
Hills multiplied next day as we headed to Bylong and the temperature rose. Summer had surely arrived. Everyone suffered on slow climbs in the heat of midday and bodies unaccustomed to long hours in the saddle after fitful sleep in tents began to complain. Day three was worse: our first crossing of the Great Divide at Munghorn Gap took us very slowly up a seemingly endless rise to 685 metres. Compared to some climbs my wife and I have conquered in the US and Europe, this was barely a bump in the road but we had never done such climbs on heavily-laden tandems with children as stokers.
LEFT: A tour highpoint. A sign-photo is obligatory.
The Apollo team resorted to walking occasionally. Still, we could congratulate ourselves for picking one of the lowest crossings of the Divide anywhere!
Overnight, at Cooyal Pub where accommodation took the form of rooms in unattractive temporary buildings called “dongas”, a major thunderstorm drenched the landscape, waking us from deep sleep. Yet morning dawned fine and dry and terrain relented, giving us a mostly flat, tailwind run to Gulgong.
A flooded causeway highlighted the easy ride from Cooyal to Gulgong, despite causing slightly damp feet
Similarly, heavy rain hit Gulgong, where we were safely ensconced in a motel. Sunshine returned as we rode on to Mudgee the next day but the infamous Mudgee Maggies welcomed us in numbers.
So, five days in to the tour, we had overcome all obstacles, were feeling fitter, the children seemed happy and we had missed all the bad stuff weather had thrown at us. This was going to work! We had earned a rest day and had a delightful place to stay.
“That's a big chook!” Mudgee Getaway Cottages, featuring vast expanses of lawn, garden, playing fields and animal-filled paddocks on the banks of the Cudgegong River, offer much to keep children happy.
Leaving Mudgee, though, we feared things were about to come unstuck. Facing one of our longest and hilliest days to reach Hill End, a fearsome climb separated us from Hargraves, the village with the only shop along the way.
The moment we turned onto the Hill End Rd, outside Mudgee, rain began to fall lightly. Reassured by the forecast for “patchy rain”, we persevered.
The Apollo team rides through misty rain and is coaxed upwards during a pedestrian-paced climb of the hills between Mudgee and Hill End
As we climbed, and climbed, and climbed, towards Hargraves, the temperature was doing the opposite. Our exertions meant we didn't really notice until we stopped to rest. What we did notice was that our supposedly waterproof, breathable Gore-Tex cycling jackets were letting in a fair bit of the wet stuff. A lot of walking by the Apollo team and slow riding by the Greenies finally took us to the shop, lunch and a thunderstorm, which we shivered through in the Hargraves “pub”, the shed next door.
As our luck would have it, the storm soon eased, and the road dried quickly, so we again avoided being stalled by unrideable conditions.
Easy riding on dirt towards Sofala. The slick high-pressure tyres coped well with the generally smooth dirt roads we encountered.
Our rest day at Hill End featured the coldest, wettest, windiest weather so far and, again, we dodged a bullet. Fine and mild weather blessed our passage when, the day after, we rode out via Sofala towards Wattle Flat on undulating road, partly unsealed.
With just two days' riding left, I had no thought of failure to complete our appointed route. We set off for Tarana, hardly realising that winter had returned with low cloud and the occasional shower. Surely we had ridden in worse conditions to Hill End? “Nothing will stop us now,” I told myself, not considering that the 5-deg C temperature hadn't changed since dawn and that windchill from the increasing damp was intensifying the cold. Uncharacteristically, much of our route was downhill so we weren't warming up with exertion.
Soon there were ever-louder sobs coming from the rear Apollo rider. My daughter was not enjoying the ride and appeared in danger of hypothermia. My wife said her own hands were so cold she could hardly control the bike. My son had his hands on my back as we rode, up under my rain jacket, desperately trying to keep his fingers from freezing. Fortunately my own hands were still working but I wished we had all brought full-fingered woollen gloves...
The final straw came with over 30 hillier km still to ride. We turned off our already minor road onto a tiny country lane. After a kilometre, with cold rain falling steadily, this became unsealed, muddy and slippery. We turned back, deciding to find refuge in nearby Bathurst, a city we'd originally avoided because all accommodation had been booked out by a weekend football tournament.
After only about 10 more kilometres of torture for the children – my wife expected to be stopped by a passing motorist who could hear our daughter's wailing and be accused of maltreating her offspring – we arrived at Kelso shopping centre, just outside Bathurst. It was a disappointment: toilets locked, many shops vacant and boarded up, the few open not selling hot drinks. At least there was shelter from rain and wind and we donned dry clothes. But we were not out of the woods because there was no prospect of improved weather, nor of a dry room for the night, nor of making it the 50 km to our booking at Tarana. The children wanted to go home – no more cycling, they demanded. Checkmate!
Or so it appeared. During a short break in the rain we crossed the Macquarie River bridge to the Bathurst tourist information office where the staff were amazingly helpful. There was still no vacancy in town but we could get the XPT to Sydney that Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately we couldn't get our bikes on the train (XPT means Xtremely Poor Transport for bicycles) so we needed to find somewhere to store them. Many phone calls by a tourist office staffer located Lloyd, the owner of Vale Rd Self Storage, who explained that a real estate agency (not answering calls) managed the units and he didn't know which would be vacant. No matter, he said, "bring them to my house and you can leave them in the garage". For free. For as long as you need.
Leaving children minding luggage at the station, we rode the bare bikes to the address supplied. Lloyd welcomed us like old friends, opened his large garage already full of his children's and grand-children's bikes, and even insisted on driving us the 500 metres back to the station. We accepted, as the rain was coming down harder than ever.
The tour had been aborted just 70 km short of its ultimate goal but the 400 km we had ridden was still a significant and satisfying achievement for us as a family.
My wife and I returned to Bathurst a few days later and had a delightful time riding lightly-laden tandems solo to Lithgow on traffic-free roads in perfect weather.
So, what did we learn? Firstly, we shouldn't have just hoped that luck would be on our side. Sometime or other it has to turn bad. Also, I think we overestimated our own abilities and underestimated the difficulty of the terrain. Loaded tandems are much harder to pedal up hills than loaded solos and high-rider front racks don't help handling. Young children stokers are not as strong as adults, though our son never flagged on the heavier bike. Daily stages should have been shorter (though distances in Australia between towns with places to stay can be unavoidably long) and we should have had more rest days. Alternate riding and rest days might have been advisable on this route, although some of the places we stayed were... well... one night was quite enough! Somewhat contradictorily, we needed more warm and waterproof clothing but less luggage overall. More culling of stuff we took in the light of what was used and unused is necessary. While avoiding total disaster this time, given the vagaries of weather, we'd be careful in future of locking in an itinerary with accommodation paid for in advance. And we would try to time future tours for less busy times in major centres. Of course, you can't plan for every eventuality and improvisation on the spur of the moment is often also necessary. We didn't panic, we didn't descend into bickering, we solved problems as they arose. All in all, success!
Muswellbrook to Sandy Hollow 40 km
Sandy Hollow to Bylong 63 km
Bylong to Cooyal 48 km
Cooyal to Gulgong 26.5 km
Gulgong to Mudgee 46 km
Mudgee to Hill End 74 km
Hill End to Wattle Flat 45 km
(Wattle Flat to Tarana 72 km – aborted)
Wattle Flat to Bathurst 50 km
Bathurst to Lithgow 71 km (lightly-laden, no stokers)
Map of the route.
The end in sight. Lithgow is just over the crest of the hill, after the long, long climb from Lake Lyell.