The Destination is a Journey: Bike Touring Australia

Good god damn the headwind was deafening. Any internal dialog I had was blown away and left miles down the road. I could scream right in the wind’s smug face just for the sound of something different than the violent whipping of air around my ears, but I’d only get my own impotent words thrown back at me. I looked up from my wheel to see the road stretch out in front of me, no left or right to diminish this frontal assault to at least a guttering crosswind. My legs ticked out a rhythm I knew I could hold indefinitely, as long as indefinitely had an eventual end. I wasn’t sure where Dustin was; he either couldn’t or wouldn’t hold my wheel no matter the speed. Later that day, I tried selling him safety in numbers but he said it was all suffering one way or another even if misery did love company. Deep miles and heavy headwind make that kind of thinking make sense. We were already over 200 miles into this ride, both of us having had food poisoning in one way or another and more sun than our winter-worn skin has seen in months and still another 400 miles left. Whose terrible idea was this anyway?

Just a few days earlier, we landed in Adelaide, a city roughly the same age as my own San Francisco but twice the population and half as dense. We were high with ambition to ride the 600 or so miles to Melbourne along Australia's Great Ocean Road by way of the Princess Highway. On paper it sounded like a quick lick through Lollipopland with an occasional wombat sighting. The days weren’t long, or supposed to be anyways. Given our time frame, we would average out to about 100 miles a day over six days. It was the early part of February, still knee deep in winter back at home in California, which cultivated the allure of long warm days in Australia to knock out the ride. I figured it was perfect for putting in the miles I missed due to the cocktail of rain and sickness I kept catching over the holidays. As long as I was awake, I wanted to be riding.

Ritchey Bike Touring Australia

Australia is a funny place. Not like Martin Short funny, but funny in that it felt strangely like home, both geographically with the abundance of similar flora and historically - a colonial upstart that blossomed from a happenstance discovery and search for something new. Hell, even the slight affect of the local's accent felt like the drawl of a Central Valley farmer, sun tanned arm cocked out the window of a pickup. In fact, the journey of Australia to the country of today is not unlike that of the United States. First discovered by the anglo-saxon world in 1606 by Dutchman Willem Janszoon, he was soon followed by a series of other ambitious European explorers seeking a new world beyond the southern horizon. It wasn’t until the fall of the American colonies from British rule in the 1770’s did Sir Joseph Banks deem Australia hospitable for colonization and capable for expanding the Empire. In less than two decades, Australia's once serene landscape transformed into a bustling colony built on the backs of a hodgepodge of petty criminals and adventurers looking to make a name and dollar for themselves in this new land. Of course this came at a price to the indigenous peoples, flora and fauna, but that is a different story,

Maybe it was this sense of discovering a world already under my nose that perk my interest. The extent of my knowledge of the land was based entirely on a couple stage races seen on TV, Crocodile Dundee II and stories an old messenger friend regaled me years prior. I had always threatened to go, so why wait any longer. In particular, my interest in Australia was limited to a few select destinations: Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth- in that order. Orchestrating a bike tour with limited time negated two cities; with Perth being the extreme odd duck out, I lumped in ever popular Sydney as well because popularity only goes so far. There set a simple goal in mind: a six-day trip  from Adelaide to Melbourne, roughly the same distance as San Francisco to Los Angeles - an analogy I could fathom and understand. I took a few notes from friends and drafted a route with a few days bookending the trip. Because misery loves company, I called on my friend Dustin to join me.

Dustin Down Under

Dustin was dubious of the trip from the start. His strengths lie in hearty yet rigorous climbs, mixed terrain and unforeseen routes. This ride matched only one of these attributes. Nevertheless, after a certain amount of goading he was game. We packed our Break-Aways, double checked our passport expiration dates and caught the 14-hour flight to a continent across the dateline and another hemisphere.

From the onset of the trip, I could feel the tension in Dustin’s apprehension. Our civility and friendship was being tested since the plane made touchdown. Maybe it was his coping mechanism for discomfort, but I soon felt like his whipping boy tasked with dragging a child to the dentist, or pushing lambs to slaughter. While it’s easy for me to turn emotionally dark and salt the Earth, I bit my tongue from snapping back. I felt as though the weight of our journey rode squarely upon my shoulders. It was, after all, my idea to do this. The success of any of this felt like it was mine to manifest, and knowing his aversion to this level of challenge, that same elusive success felt like mine to assuage. I thought once we got under way, the tarmac would equalize our egos and we would be back to level.

Ritchey Bike Touring Australia on Gravel

Riding distances like we were has a way of taking a toll on a person. While everyone deals with adversity differently, the effect is the same. It’s like the miles slowly strip away persona with each pedal stroke, shedding thin layers of ego protecting the id from being exposed to the horrible reality of the situation: with still many miles to go, there isn’t any where to hide. After 80 miles of diffused sun and growing headwind on the first day, Dustin declared he was over it. Without some sense of cruel irony, he suffered food poisoning less than twelve hours later just to drive the point home.

Why we started the next day is beyond me. Retrospect aside, the day was against us from the onset. I knew Dustin was in a world of hurt. His night was spent getting up every couple hours to be sick out of one end or another. Each time, I could hear him breaking emotionally, I’m sure he was convinced his sickness would last forever. We had 90 miles to ride that day, and somewhere around noon the wind was going to turn ugly, so time wasn’t on our side. Maybe it was ego that drove us, but we mounted up anyway. We barely made 20 miles in four hours before we hit a waystation, a single family home-looking building that contained a bar, restaurant and lodging with a weather-worn children's play set out front. Dustin had to call it. He took a fifty-dollar room, and I rolled on understanding he needed the rest and would take the bus the next day, leapfrogging to the next town of Mount Gambier where we would meet.

Tools of the trade down under. Ritchey bike travel in Australia

Mount Gambier, where my story began, is a medium sized city barely 200 years old, and stuck firmly in the late 80’s - or at least how awkward I remember the 80’s being. The city was a strange mix of faded denim clad locals, the hotel bar that felt like the inspiration for Cheers and a series of vehicles that seemed strangely out of date. Though this is where Dustin met me after his recuperation to continue our ride together, it was here where we began two different rides. I couldn’t say what my motivation was to keep riding, nor could I figure out his. In some ways I believe his story turned from hearty adventure to survival mode. Whether he would tell me or not, I could read it in his actions.

Shortly after sunrise, we struck out on the road again. Knowing he was still knackered from being sick, I let him choose the pace out of town, something he was comfortable with. Once I understood the speed and rhythm, I pulled through hoping to alleviate some of the brunt of the wind. But soon he wordlessly dropped off, and it would be miles before I realized he wasn’t on my wheel. Under the guise of photographing something minute that grabbed my attention, I pulled to the side of the road waiting for him to roll through, head down trudging forward. Thirty wordless miles went like this before I lost him. Maybe this was a form of protest to the rigors of the ride or maybe it was some sense of hurt pride in not being able to take pulls, or even the simple understanding I was just trying to help. Thus our days were outlined like this. Riding at two different paces, meeting at locations of note along the way for brief encounters before setting off to finish the day; slowly making our way to Melbourne and eventually home.

Roadkill down under. Ritchey bike travel in Australia.

Maybe this is where I could deviate a little and recount every line in chip seal, or change in pavement from Adelaide to Melbourne. Pass along descriptions of the lush rolling hills of south of Warnambool, littered with plump dairy cows feeding off rich grass. I could tell tales about ordering one long black coffee after another in Port Campbell just to keep warm while waiting for Dustin to arrive. There were countless carcasses of roadkill frozen in rigor along the roadside, decapitated and/or faceless from the poor outcome of encountering a ute’s 100 klick-per-hour brush guard in the middle of the night. How about the off camber left on a descent above Echunga that took out my rear wheel, driving me into the gravel shoulder on the opposite of the road? Or the deep fear I was loathe to admit that we might be truly lost, yet trudging faithfully forward through sand trails long overgrown deep inside Cobboboonee Park. But that doesn’t feel like the story either.

Days rolled by, each mile promising an end to the riding just around a bend or over a hill or past the horizon. Thinking about the tension that rose betweens us helped me understand our relationship better. I’ve known Dustin for over 15 years. Friendships like these aren’t just grown on trees, in fact they aren’t easy. In some ways he’s like family, and just like family can trigger irritation at the twitch of an eyebrow or an unintended word used at the wrong time. There are limits to riding like this, and limits to friendships like this. One way or another we pushed them to a precipitous mark. Surely the feeling was mutual as it seemed he was just counting down the hours till his flight home. Hell, maybe I was too, but can’t bring myself to admit it.

The ride came to an unceremonious end at a train station about 40 miles south of Melbourne in the strangely congested city of Geelong. I had waited for Dustin at a roadside gas station for two and half hours before I doubled back to look for him only to get a message he opted for an alternative route and was already at the station. My concerned turned to unrepeatable ire as I let loose on the road to make up for the lost time, allowing my legs to fill with burning lactic acid. Slowly, as the suburbs of the city opened its arms, the deafening blast of headwind was traded for urban bustle and an ever present buzz of commotion. LIke waking from an unexpected nap, the sudden shock of riding three lane traffic was a stark contrast to navigating an ever unfurling road that lay patiently ahead forever waiting to be ridden. Somewhere out there, my Lollipopland came and went, and I hadn’t yet gotten my licks in.

Ritchey Bike Touring Australia

In the end, the part of the journey that was confusing was how comfortably akin to home our route felt, from the sweetness of the air, to the moist ocean wind pushing against my side. If it weren’t for how horribly blue the Indian Ocean was, I would have confused myself for riding the stretch of Highway 1 from Jenner to Stinson. To say the land was beautiful would be a disservice knowing the vastness of the English vocabulary. And to say the ride was challenging would be without expressing just how emotionally dense it became. Instead, it felt like a favorite song, that one that coincides with falling in love for the first time. Sure it was long forgotten but suddenly when it came over the speakers of the jukebox at the bar all the quarters in the world couldn’t play it enough until last call. This ride, journey, was that song. The road was a haunting melody, undulations in topography were harmony, and the changing scenery to my sides were the tempo to which my song played until days end. Day after day, I couldn’t wait to just hit repeat and experience every beautifully painful moment all over again. In some ways, it’s what I hope purgatory to be. Anxiously, I find it both terrifying and alluring.