In Which we survive Midwinter

Although I have never been to Antarctica, the view that greeted me at Mt Evelyn surely gave me an accurate impression of what the great white continent to our South must be like. With the ice hanging from the trees, and the rain sheeting down from leaden skies I huddled in my car with the engine running. This did NOT look like the “one or two showers” that the so called experts at the Weather Bureau had promised.

The time ticked by to nearly 1 pm with no other riders appearing. I almost began to hope that I was the only one who had chosen to ride. This would give me a great excuse to forget all about the ride and head straight back to the warmth of my office. In fact I was all ready to head off when I noticed a forlorn yellow shape battling up the hill. Because of the limited visibility that it was only when he finally arrived at the summit that I could see that it was Legs Warren.

Because Peter’s lips had frozen he was not able to speak for a short while but eventually he stammered that he had “r-r-ridden all the w-w-way from W-W-Woori Yallock”. Frostbite is never a pretty sight and it was obvious that the elements had taken a fearful toll on Peter’s face – it was not until I saw him in his shop the next day that I realised that he always looks like that.

While I stood in the sleet, hoping that my tyres would not freeze, we were met by Little John. I have to admit that John has more sheer determination than just about anyone else I know. Together we had already completed some epic winter rides, the most extreme being our god forsaken ride to Mornington last year. How could we ever forget pushing into the teeth of a gale with ice encrusted bikes?

Although quitting would have been the sensible thing to do, we knew that the reputation of the Ghost Riders was at stake. “Come on, it’s not so bad”, I exhorted while breaking the icicles off from under my saddle. “The sun might even break through later”. We headed off down the trail, trying desparately to stay upright as we slipped about on the black ice and frozen horse manure.

My fingers, nose and most other extremities quickly froze solid but fortunately the first few kilometres was downhill and therefore required little effort to keep going. At Wandin we met up with another Ghost Rider who had been battling his way through the blizzard for most of the morning. Gary’s eyes were wide open with a combination of frostbite and terror. I half expected to repeat those famous words ” I am going out and I may be some time”, but instead he just turned around and joined the peloton. I was worried that if I opened my mouth to talk, my teeth would probably fall out so we pedalled on in silence.

I have heard that polar bears can be very fearful creatures and, in my sub-zero delirium, I kept imagining that any minute we would be set upon by one those ferocious beasts. I also kept seeing mental images of Bob at home, safely huddled under his doona, with his computer keyboard and mouse to keep him company. In these conditions we really could not expect the peloton to grow any larger than the four of us who had turned out.

You could imagine my utter surprise when we were joined by Hooters not far from Woori Yallock. With the icy rain streaming from his face he looked me in the eye and yelled “Why did we do this?”. I could think of no real answer to his very real question. The cold must have affected Hooter’s brain was well because he actually purchased a pair of Ghost Rider knicks from Peter. Maybe his character was finally being strangthened in the cruel forge of a Warburton winter.

It was also a pleasant surprise to find that Chris McKay and Cheryl also joined us at the station car park. The peloton had thus grown to seven riders. I was (almost) ashamed to think that I had been tempted to cancel the ride. It is at times like this that I can almost start to believe that we really have made some progress over the past three years.

The rest of the ride to Warburton is little difficult for me to recall as I think my eyes may have frozen shut at some stage. Fortunately I know the trail pretty well after so many transits and we all managed to reach the coffee shop safely. We passed the next 30 minutes in the warmth INSIDE the shop while we watched large lumps of ice float down the swollen Yarra River. The rain and sleet were still beating against the glass and giving a relentless preview of what we still had to face on the return ride.

While we were enjoying the temporary respite of the coffee shop our gloves had been freezing solid outside. Putting back on a cold, wet helmet is a bit like plunging your head into an ice bucket and I was also conscious of an unpleasant wetness between my legs (NOT caused by incontinence). Chris, however, seemed to be thriving in the harsh conditions and was keen to get underway. I suspect that she will quickly become a very competitive rider.

We all knew that there were no shortcuts on the return ride, and resigned ourselves to the task in hand. In fact the time passed relatively quickly and, once you are soaked through, you can’t get any wetter. Back at the Woori Yallock carpark Chris announced that the ride had been “too easy” and that she would “certainly be looking for a bigger challenge next week”. I looked at Hooters, who had been riding for three years, and was still to face any sort of challenge. He grinned and looked blankly into space.

It was left to just Little John and me to complete the rest of the long ride back to Mt Evelyn. We settled down to a steady pace and, in spite of the conditions, we were safely back at the cars by 5 pm. It really had been a miserable afternoon, but we were both really glad that we had stuck it out and prevailed. I also felt again that our friendship had grown even stronger through the experience. Thanks to all those who participated – Well done.

Now that mid winter has passed, how many sleeps is it till springtime?