Keeping in mind that this was going to be (almost) the shortest day of the year we always knew that there would be challenges ahead, not the least of which would be the relentless battle against the setting sun. Although I had originally planned to start from the normal spot at Mt Evelyn, I eventually had to take a reality check and decided to start at Woori Yallock instead. After all, John and Mal had already told me that they would be starting from there, so we could at least all complete a shortened ride together.
I arrived at Woori Yallock at about 1.15 and carefully surveyed the threatening skies. Although there was no wind, the air temperature was hovering somewhere near zero and the dim sad outline of the sun was already ominously close to the horizon. It started to look a bit like a Siberian winter. Even the normally dry trail ahead was liberally dabbled with surface water and storm debris. This was not going to be a ride for the faint-hearted.
While I was preparing for cool running John arrived with his son Pete. He took a look around, rubbed his hands vigorously and asked “Why DO we do this?”. I shrugged my shoulders and pretended not to hear. Pete mounted his bike and took off in a shower of sparks and shrieking metal. This was not a good start to the ride, although a short examination showed the real cause of the problem was nothing more than a piece of metal rubbing on the chain. I think it was a leftover brace from one of John’s previous hooter struts. The offending piece of metal was soon bent out of harm’s way and we were off at last. There was still no sign of Mal, but he did ring to say that he would surely catch up to us along the track.
“It’s pretty cold” I said, “let’s try to ride fast to warm up”. “Not TOO fast” John responded, “we are meant to be doing this for FUN”. So off we headed under dark cloudy skies with the sun just skimming the horizon.
“It’s getting even colder” I noted a little further up the track. John thought for a moment and then exclaimed “Why do we do THIS?” Pete said nothing but just kept pedalling with a determined look on his face.
As we steadily made our way towards Launching Place I started to wonder if any riders had died of exposure on the Warby Trail. This was certainly a far cry from the hot,dry days of summer sunshine and iced coffees and the balmy Spring rides spent sipping cappucinos on the river bank. I guess it takes a certain kind of dedication to ride in this type of weather.
“I wonder what’s happened to Mal” I said as we approached Launching Place. “Let’s stop so I can unfreeze my hands from the handle bars” said John. Pete said nothing but just kept pedalling with a determined look on his face.
At the traffic lights I rang Mal on the mobile to see how far he was behind us. “I am running a little late, but I will meet you at Warburton” he promised (from the warmth of his centrally heated office chair).
So the three of us continued steadfastly up the trail. Through huge puddles and fields of mud we rode. Our frozen muscles complained, but we fixed our focus and forged on regardless. The sun threatened to set at any moment, although our watches claimed it was 2.15 pm. The clouds grew even blacker and the smell of ice was heavy on the air.
I tried to pedal harder but the progress was painfully slow. The cycle computer seemed stuck on 10.2 km for the past 10 minutes. Had we become entrenched in some sort of cosmic nightmare, some weird sort of cycling wormhole where time and distance stand still forever? Would I be eternally doomed to ride a never ending frozen Warby Trail, accompanied by John’s perpetual torment of “Why did we do this?”.
As I contemplated such horrific thoughts I discovered the true cause of the problem was that I had inadvertantly switched the computer to average speed, instead of distance. When I flicked it back to the correct setting I was immensely relieved to see that the outward jorney was indeed almost complete. A hot cappucino was almost in my grasp (and in my belly).
John glanced down at the nearby river and asked “what’s that floating in the water?”. I followed his gaze and replied “Just blocks of ice from the Donna Buang Glacier”. I guess riding on the shortest day of the year does have some rather unique aspects after all.
We did eventually reach the coffee shop where I was expecting to see Mal waiting to meet us with three steaming hot cups of coffee. Unfortunately there was no sign of Mal, but we were met by an even more amazing sight. There in front of our eyes we could see that the Yarra had another huge tributary running into it, right down the main street, past the coffee shop, down the bank and into the water. Large amounts of dirt, rocks, bitumen slabs, local bogans and other debris had been carried along in the torrent.
As we watched we could soon see that a huge crew of professional engineers and water workers had also gathered to watch the spectacle. When I asked one of the resting engineers what had caused the problem he replied that “all the pipes had frozen solid, causing a massive burst”.
When I asked him why they hadn’t started work to fix the problem he replied that “if we wait for another hour we will be on overtime penalty rates”. I guess that made perfect sense.
We retreated back to the coffee shop to watch the disaster from a safe distance, and also to receive a call from Mal informing us that it was too cold for a ride. He had apparently decided to stay home and watch his old videos of the Tour de France instead.
After filling ourselves with hot caffeine and trying to encourage the blood back into our ears and fingers we knew that the time had come for the return ride. Although the sun was almost below the horizon and the Yarra had now almost frozen over, we could at least comfort ourselves with the fact that we only had to ride back as far as Woori Yallock.
So we pointed our bikes back to the setting set and headed off. “I’ve lost all sensation below my knees” I said after a couple of kilometres. “I’ll never be able to sing bass parts any more” John added. Pete said nothing but just kept pedalling with a determined look on his face.
It was at about this point that we realised that we had not seen another rider all day. Obviously everyone else had been able to read the omens better and were safely closeted away near their heaters. I have always maintained that Warby Riders are cut from a different cloth than other men (it’s called lycra).
By 3.30 pm the light had almost failed completely and I also had the unpleasant feeling that all was not well as I rode along. At first I thought it was probably just due to the cold and the fact that I had lost all feeling below my neck, but a quick glance down revealed the true story – my front tyre was rapidly deflating. Obviously the tube had frozen inside the tyre and started to crack.
Since we were only a few km from the cars I did not want to stop and change tubes (also my fingers were frozen sold). I decided to just keep stopping and pump air into it every couple of minutes until we were back at the cars.
By the time we finally arrived back at the cars at about 4 pm, the stars were twinkling in an icy sky. In the south we could see the distinct glow of the Aurora Borealis (or maybe it was the lights of Woori Yallock). I started to think of the lives of great Polar explorers like Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen as I cracked the icy layers from my leggings. John asked “Why did we do that?” and Pete said nothing as he climbed wearily into the car.
Although this had indeed been a frigid ride, we could at least console ourselves with the fact that the days would now start to get a little longer with each passing ride. I also recalled that someone had once said “that which does not kill us, actually makes us stronger”. Possibly true, but it was a good feeling to be back in the car with the heater turned up and heading back home for dinner.