In Which we Have TWO Fiery Encounters

As I headed off towards Warburton I have to admit that I was still feeling rather robbed. A lot of our riders had been really excited at the prospect of riding the Great Southern Rail Trail on Australia Day, but when the forecast came through for 40C heat and extreme fire danger, I had to make the difficult decision to cancel the ride. As partial compensation for the missed ride we had, at the lat minute scheduled a “special” Warburton Trail Ride for Tuesday 24th. At least the weather was fine and cool with the temperature only in the low 20s.

The ringing of my mobile phone quickly broke my daydreaming. I pulled to the side of the road and found that it was Gary on the other end. “We’ve just picked up a call on the scanner”, he said, “looks like a big fire in Warburton – the trail’s closed”. This left me on the horns of a dilemma – surely we couldn’t cancel another ride, just because of a little fire? If we stopped riding every time there was a major conflagration, we would get in even less rides than Hooters does. I decided to keep going to Mt Evelyn and reassess the situation.

I soon found “Tubby” Clarke sitting outside COGS cafe and told him about the fire. Although we both looked towards Warburton we could see no sign of smoke, although we did watch a bright red fire car race through at high speed with lights and sirens blazing. At least I knew that with Tubby by my side on the trial I would at least be ensured of an official Police escort, since he was due to enter the Academy within a few days. What could possibly go wrong?

We headed off, thoroughly enjoying the cool conditions (but not the howling head wind that fought us right from the start). It looked like we were going to have the smallest peloton for many weeks, but were soon met by Crasher. I could see that the cooler weather had elevated Crasher’s steroid levels because his pupils were contracted and he seemed even more animated than usual. A little further on we were joined by Big Al and “Jonny Next Door”. I was trying to count the number of rides that Jon has now completed and came to the conclusion that he must be now qualified to get the coveted yellow jersey. That would surely count more for him than all his greatest race car victories at Winton.

At Woori Yallock Hooters and the Spanner were waiting to start. There was still no sign of smoke ahead, but all around us was the ominous sounds of sirens and racing engines. Gary’s words were echoing in my mind somewhere but I couldn’t quite remember exactly what he had said. I think it was that the Ghost Riders would be required at Warburton to help with the defense of the town and the trail. After all, we knew the trail better than anyone else on the planet.

On the section towards Launching Place the situation became even more interesting. We were now joined by a collection of low flying helicopters. I thought at first that they might have come out to provide us a fast escort to Warburton, so we waved to acknowledge that we were finally on our way and, that soon their prayers would be answered. We had even made sure that our water bottles were fully charged for the battle that would lie ahead. To my surprise the helicopters seemed to ignore us and proceeded to land in a nearby paddock to fill up with water from a dam.

It was a fascinating sight watching how skillfully the pilots managed to hover over the surface while the giant umbilical hose sucked water into the storage tanks. Every couple of minutes the process repeated itself. I was so intrigued by the sight that I had not notice the other riders head off without me. When I looked back, they were already 600 metres or so ahead of me. It was not until Milgrove that we were all finally back together again.

Although we still could not see any smoke, the activity all around was quite amazing. With the helicopters buzzing overhead and a succession of police cars and fire engines racing up the highway, it felt like we were heading into a war zone. Since we were now almost at the front we remounted for the final section, but only managed to proceed for another km or so before our progress was blocked by some burly, pistol packing police.

I assumed that they must have been waiting there for our arrival, so I was not prepared when I heard “You can’t go any further boys, the trail is under threat”. Did I hear it right ? Did he call us “boys”? I thought back to Mohammad Ali’s reaction when Bert Newton called him a “boy”. Was this guy being disrespectful or just trying to be friendly? Maybe this guy was from out of the district and did not know who we were?

As I was pondering just important issues, a friendly local guy walked over and started talking to me. He turned out be another avid fan who was very interested in joining our group. Now THAT was more like it. We spent some time chatting to him about bikes and riding, before the emergency services people told us that the major danger was past. Apparently our presence must have inspired them to prevail over the fire in very quick time. It was good to see that it had been another fairy tale ending, well almost.

With the situation in Warburton apparently under control we turned back to Milgrove to enjoy a cup of coffee at our new coffee shop. You can imagine our disappointment when there was a large CLOSED sign on the door. Apparently it is always shut on Mondays and Tuesday. A pity we had not noticed that earlier. We had no alternative than to start the long ride back, without the aid of food or coffee. No wonder Bob was getting even more psyched up than usual. This might have something to do with what happened next.

We were cycling in tight formation back from Milgrove when we noticed a female cyclist riding towards us. Bob, who had been riding in the right hand lane, moved over three centimetres to allow her to pass by. She was obviously not amused and shouted some obscenity about Bob’s age and state of mind. That was worse than throwing a lighted match into a barrel of acetone. Bob immediately spat his dummy and shook violently with the effects of steroid deprivation. “She needs to learn how to ride” he shouted. “She would never win any races if she can’t survive in the peloton”. I tried to tell him that she was probably more interested in seeing her children grow up than winning a “National Title”, but by this time he was out of control. It was not until we reached Yarra Junction that he finally started to regain some semblance of coherence, although he was still making so much noise that people in the street stopped to stare at him

Jon pulled up alongside me and asked “Is he always like that?” As an experienced Psychologist I don’t think Jon had ever seen such a collection of dangerous psychoses in the one person in his whole career. I had to explain that he was only like this when his chemicals were out of balance. Jon shook his head and looked stunned.

At Yarra Junction the coffee was good but the prices were exhorbitant. We felt that $7.50 for a cup of coffee and a cake was bit over the top. It made us glad that the Milgrove coffee shop is much more reasonable with it’s pricing.

The remainder of the ride back to Woori Yallock went without further incident, although I was disappointed that the tail wind that I been expecting had somehow mysteriously manifested itself as a raging head wind instead. Once again, clear evidence of the incontravertible existence of the evil BDOH*.

As Tubby, Crasher and I rode the final section back to Mt Evelyn it gave me a chance to reflect on the interesting ride we had just experienced. Although our peloton size had been down, we had certainly made up for it with a double dose of action and excitement. On a more serious note, I had to be impressed by the efficient way that the fire services had responded to the potential threat at Warburton. These guys are the “real legends” in my book.

* BDOH = Bi Directional Opposing Headwind. That mysterious phenomenon that almost always guarantees that you will be opposed by a headwind on both your outward and return journeys. In it’s most extreme manifestation it can mean that two cyclists riding towards each other from opposite directions will both complain to the other about the head wind they are battling through.