Cyclists are notoriously underwhelmed about their current level of fitness. This surprises me, especially given how much easier I find it to climb stairs, or double time it on foot, compared to many non-athletic mates. Still, if you keep your ears open at any bike event before the gun goes off, the number of people whinging about their lack of pre-race fitness is remarkable. It seems as though many bikers are only satisfied with their form in retrospect: “I was flying that day.” “I wish I was as quick now as I was this time last year.” “If only I could find my form again.” For me, my favourite thing about the Sydney to Gong ride, is the way it makes so many people, 10,000 in fact, reflect on what they can do with the bodies they have now.
In its 30th year now, the Gong ride raises a tonne of money for people with Multiple Sclerosis. Each rider is asked to fundraise $250 which contributes to an ambitious, but achievable, $4.5 million. After signing up to do the ride with a 22-strong crew from the Bicycle Garage shop, I was surprised by the generosity of friends and family who not only donated, but shared stories about people they new who had been diagnosed with MS. Stories that make you stop, listen and think.
While the 90km ride from St Peters to Woolongong is a big feat for most riders, the Bicycle Garage crew planned to add an extra layer of challenge by riding half way home again. In this way, despite my nice bike and current fitness making the ride to the Gong easier for me than for some others, unknowns about the pace of the group and how the extra kilometres would stack up had me as nervous as any first time rider on Gong Ride Eve. Fortunately things turned out pretty well: the pace was comfortable, the views stunning, the group admirable and the atmosphere unlike any other ride I’ve ever done.
The two main climbs were flat by Euro standards, but they turned the hurt on for us. Armed with the fundraising objective of the ride, and an acute appreciation of how lucky I am to be healthy now (and how quickly that can all change), any pain on the climbs was met with a reminder that right now, I can do this. And I have a choice. So I chose to keep pedaling and savoured every bit of the journey.
I learned a few other things too. Firstly, bento bags on a road bike are a bad idea. Not only did mine make for ‘knees out’ climbing, it proved redundant. Apparently you only need to carry half as much food on the road as you do on the dirt – the impact of reduced mental clarity is not as severe, heart rates don’t stay as high for as long, and rest stops tend to happen at places with grills and espresso machines. I discovered that my new road bike is super quick on descents, that the brakes are quite powerful and that my iPod doesn’t take very clear photos (sorry about that). I was also reminded about how fun it is to go for a big riding adventure with people I regularly join for shorter ones.
The return train didn’t stop at Waterfall as we’d hoped, but it pulled in a few stops down the hill at Engadine and the riding resumed. My ten dollar stop watch tells me the total ride time was 56 minutes, but it also resets every hour leading me to believe the that real journey was closer to five hours. The number of people still pedaling up the highway while we were pedaling down suggests that the Gong ride is certainly an all day excursion for many others. I’ve also been told that if I want a ‘true’ Gong experience, I need to leave later (when the crowds are thicker), and complete the journey on a mountain bike from Kmart. Those riders are something else!
Thank you to the Bicycle Garage freight train for towing me to the coast and back, and thank you to all the friends and family that supported us to do so. Together we raised a bit over $3000 and hope to be back there next year to keep the tally rising and the legs turning. In the mean time, every time I hurt on a hill, I’ll be glad for the opportunity to do so. What will you do?