The best-known cycling event in Australia is the Gong Ride, a rollicking 82-km ride from Sydney to Wollongong passing through Royal National Park and some impressive coastal scenery. This has been on my bucket list for a while, but 1,000 meters of ascent and tales of horrendous bicycle pileups on the downhill stretches scared me enough that this year, I settled for the 2nd-most famous option, the mildly less ambitious Spring Cycle.
The Spring Cycle’s primary selling point is that it’s the only event where the Harbour Bridge and a large chunk of nearby freeways are opened up to cyclists, offering a great opportunity to take in the views without being on the receiving end of vehicular homicide. The course comes in 10, 15, 50 and 105 km variants, but to scare off the Lance Armstrong wannabes, there’s no timing, winners or prizes, just finishers.
Now I ride to work a couple of times a week, but my commute clocks in at under 8 km and it’s been years since I last rode over 20 km, so I picked the 50. As “training”, I tried adding a couple of extra laps around the Bay Run to my commute on a few days, the longest of which clocked in at 24 km in just over an hour. (I was planning to train a bit more, maybe on the M7 cycleway, but travel coupled with a major bout of food poisoning put paid to that.) Conclusion: a bit tough on the butt, but otherwise eminently survivable.
However, as the date approached, Sydney was swamped with unseasonal heavy rains and the forecast for the day was looking miserable, with 100% precipitation predicted throughout the morning. What’s more, since my starting time was at 7 AM sharp, I had to leave home before 6 AM and ride 7 km just to catch the nearest train going to the starting point at North Sydney. Was this worth the effort? And would anybody else be crazy to show up?
The Big Event
On Sunday morning, my alarm rang at 5:30 AM. It was cold and pitch dark outside and pissing down with rain. Why, exactly, was I paying good money to do this? (Observe my selfie of delight as I contemplated this.) But there was no backing down now, so I pulled on my gear and set off.
The ride to the station was eerie: I had never seen Sydney this quiet, and I could just fly along the deserted roads, an incredible feeling despite the driving rain. As I rode, the sky slowly lightened up, the sun finally peeping over the horizon when I got to Summer Hill station. My train to Central had a smattering of other Spring Cyclists mixed with bemused early risers, but in Central it was pretty much all cyclists and from North Sydney you could simply follow the crowd to the starting line.
The website said you should get there 30 minutes early, but I arrived at pretty much 7:00 AM on the dot and that was plenty. I was surprised to find thousands of others raring to go, but there was no registration or ID checking or any other hoo-ha, just line up in the funnel along and wait, with the starting pistol firing a few minutes past 7.
The first leg downhill was painfully slow, with everybody squeezed into a few lanes of road. I tried to find a middle ground between the slow Sunday cyclists and the lycra brigade, but for most part this just led to various kamikaze idiots passing on both sides. Riding in a dense crowd like this took some getting used to: any sudden changes in speed or direction, on your part or others’, could easily lead to a crash.
By the time we got to the on-ramp to the Harbour Bridge, though, the crowd had opened up and there were some nice views — with, once again, more driving rain. The bridge was windy and the stretch of Cahill Expressway over Circular Quay (ooh, Opera House!) to the Botanic Gardens was directly into the wind, in retrospect the only bit of the entire journey where the rain was distinctly unpleasant. The course does a tight U-turn here and heads back through a tunnel towards Millers Point, and with the wind now at my back and a nice downhill slope it was downright exhilarating. You couldn’t help but think: “Look at all this incredible infrastructure we dedicate solely to cars! What if just one lane of this was freed up for bicycles, not once a year for a few hours, but every day?”
At Millers Point the route had one gnarly stretch with cobblestone on a turn off a downhill slope, and one lycra champion going too fast did a painful-looking wipeout. Soon enough we were back on the Western Distributor (whee!) and before I knew we had hit the 10 km mark in Pyrmont, where the City Ride ends.
Much of the rest of the journey was on shared roads, but bicyclists still dominated and there were a few amusing moments where a lone car found themselves trapped in a swarm of bikes at traffic lights, as opposed to the usual commute scenario where it’s the other way around. The next 20 km were mostly on the back streets of the Inner West, with frequent turns and the odd hill. However, the route is well signposted and there were volunteers posted at virtually every corner, plus police stopping traffic at every crossing of larger road, so the route felt quite safe and there was zero chance of getting lost. Somewhat to my own surprise I found myself powering past almost everybody else on the ascents, but falling behind on the descents, where I seemed to be the only person using the brakes. Intellectually, I know it’s safer to go fast to try to match the speeds of cars in traffic, but I’m still freaked out by the idea of hitting a bump in the road or having to brake for a car pulling out at speed…
By this time the rain had slowed down from a urinous torrent to an incontinent dribble. After a very short break at the official 20 km rest area at Greenway in Haberfield (water available, none of the rumoured bananas in sight though) I plowed on, past my family who’s gotten out of a bed at 8 in the morning on a Sunday to cheer me on (thanks!), finally escaping the maze of minor roads at Sydney Olympic Park. The final 20 km was almost entirely on dedicated bike trails and seemed to just fly by, although there were a number of spots where you had to slow down for massive puddles covering the entire road. A final break in Meadowbank Park, where I finally peeled off my rain gear, then a madcap dash through a near-deserted Olympic Park, and before I knew it I was at the finish line. Surprisingly painless and fun!
Here’s what I used on the day:
- Bike: Avanti Inc 1. Flat bar “urban” commuter bike, cost me $700 new four years ago and pretty beat-up looking after near-daily use since then, but still ticking away nicely. Professionally serviced about a month before.
- Lights: Some random “8000 lumen” $10 flashlight off Aliexpress. The lumen count is a blatant lie, but when paired with a genuine (non-Aliexpress) 18650 battery, it gave off plenty of light even for the pre-dawn stretch.
- Other accessories: rear mudguard (mandatory unless you want a mud stripe to your neck) and bottle holder.
- Rain gear: Altura Night Vision Hood ($10 on Wiggle) and the dhb Waterproof Jacket ($50 on sale at Wiggle). These were perfect, the hood fit nicely under my helmet and the visor kept the rain off my face.
- Clothing: Regular (non-bike) mesh sports T-shirt & shorts, both 100% polyester. Kept me cool & dry.
- Underwear: Pair of cheap-ass, ridiculous-looking “3D gel” padded cycling shorts (see pic) off Aliexpress. Marginally better than nothing, but not by much.
- Shoes: No cleats or clips here, I used regular sneakers worn with two layers: regular socks and — pro tip approaching — a disposable Coles garbage bag wrapped around each sock and cut to size. Not perfect, but kept my feet nice and dry for the first 40 km or so.
- Bag: A random Reebok fanny pack/bum bag borrowed from my wife, just large enough to hold my rolled-up rain gear, my phone in a ziploc bag and a few snacks.
That’s it! You’ll notice that precisely none of this is high-end or features lycra. The only thing that didn’t work very well was the combo of Avanti’s default rock-hard, near-unpadded seat and the crappy no-brand cycling shorts; I plan to investigate upgrading both before the next long ride. (Screw you, Rule #61.)
Two extra tips gleaned from advice on the Internets about prolonged cycling in the rain:
- I use contact lenses and was very happy I did, since an earlier test ride had demonstrated that glasses and rain are not just a bad combo, but actively dangerous.
- To prevent chafing, I liberally slathered my inner thighs and groin with a combo of Vaseline & moisturising lotion. Dunno if it was necessary, since the polyester shorts did an astonishingly good job of keeping my undies dry, but it certainly didn’t seem to hurt.
My thoroughly unscientific diet on the day:
- Breakfast: One of those disgusting Up and Go “liquid breakfast” packs that taste like thick, oily, lukewarm cocoa, plus an oatmeal bar, both consumed on the train.
- First break snack: Googy protein bar. Has the taste, texture and general sex appeal of a slab of compressed coffee grounds, only minus the good part (caffeine). Good thing I had plenty of water to choke it down.
- Second break snack: A few pieces of good old trusty milk chocolate.
- Celebratory arrival brunch: $10 spinach & cheese gözleme, served up at the rather sad arrival village. It tasted like salt, grease, and victory.
If you’ve been thinking about Spring Cycle but aren’t sure you can/want to/is it worth it, the answer is yes, you can and should. For me, A+ would do again and I’m planning to, although next time I’ll probably drag along the kids and do the 10 km version.