Audax Petit Oppy Challenge 2014, 3 Guys & Lots of Gravel

Gravel grinding along the river

Gravel grinding along the river

On the morning of Sunday 16th March you may have spotted some small groups of cyclists on Sydney’s roads, perhaps looking more haggard than the usual bunch rides that got up at dawn. That’s because they had been riding for nearly 24 hours as part of the annual Fleche Opperman 24 hour trial and were rushing to the 9am finish at Parramatta Park.

Sounds like madness, and I’d agree. That’s why I only signed up for the half version, the “Petit Oppy” requiring only 180 km of riding in 12 hours, and allowing a night’s sleep. I managed to convince a good friend to abandon his wife and child for the weekend, and he managed to convince another friend, and so it was that we made up the minimum number and managed to get a team registered.

The fun starts with trying to plan your route – you must finish at 9am at Parramatta Park and cover the minimum distance, but otherwise you can pretty much do whatever you want. Knowing that we would have zero time to train, I figured a nice gentle ride alongside some rivers would be the best option. With some helpful route advice from the ride organisers Ian and Katherine, we jumped on the train for Windsor and set off on this route on the Saturday.

Views from the road

Views from the road

Riding along River Rd and St Albans Rd enjoying views of the Hawkesbury just below is a particular treat, with very little passing traffic and just enough bends and rolls to keep you entertained. And you get to finish it off with lunch at the Settler’s Arms (a nice little historic pub that is definitely worth the stop).

Returning via the other river bank along Settlers Rd is another story. It’s almost all gravel, so you have to stay sharp and pick the wheel lines where the surface is smoothest, until they strangely end and you have to hop over to another one without slipping in between. Even so, it’s a lot of fun, but probably best avoided in the wet. Luckily for us, the weather had been glorious all morning.

After the Wiseman’s Ferry crossing, we had been warned off climbing up Old Northern Rd with all its traffic, and turned off to do our climbing via Laughton Gully… where we found more gravel. It was about now that my gut rebelled against the pie I had eaten at the Settlers Arms (nothing to do with the pie, which was fantastic) and the gravelly ascent of 270m really took it out of me. Each time a car came down in the other direction and we were forced to stop and stand off the road (it’s only one lane, but two-way to traffic) it became harder and harder to swing my leg back over the saddle and re-start.

After a while I recovered and was able to hold the pace again, and we continued on to our second checkpoint near Cattai. We stopped to refill our bidons and take a breather at a service station, and watched the storm clouds gathering to the South. “It’s ok,” I said “We’re heading off to the East, I think we’ll miss it.” One road-closed sign later, we found ourselves heading South, straight at the roiling dark clouds. Within a few minutes the heavens opened and we were forced off the road, blinded by the rain. As I fumbled with my Garmin trying to find an alternate route, a peal of thunder sounded out that felt like it had come from inside me, and I looked up at my riding buddies who pointed to the paddock across the road and said “The lightning struck right there…” We decided then and there to abort the ride and high-tailed it back to the servo to wait for the rain to ease so we could make it to the nearest train station.

While the rain hammered down and we tried to dry off, we checked the BOM website and calculated that the storm front was moving fast, and would pass pretty quickly, and we should be able to ride along behind it. Sure enough, the rain eased, then abruptly stopped, and we decided to see the ride through to the bitter end. After a long delay, we got back on our saddles and rolled out, along roads wet from the recent downpour, but with steam rising off the macadam due to the morning heat.

Fatigue was setting in, and the pace slowed. Getting back to the suburbs and having to negotiate lights and roundabouts slowed us even more, but thanks to the rain delay we found ourselves riding through the Hills just before sunset, with a view through storm-cleared air back to the mountains which helped us forget the weary legs. The night-time ride along the Parramatta River cycleway with city lights reflected in the still water was similarly picturesque and distracting. After a night of very sound sleep, we all managed to get back on the bikes and make the final leg out to the finish to meet up with all the teams who had done the “real” Oppy Challenge. Hearing the tales of their rides made the three of us decide there and then to have a tilt at the full 24 hours in 2015!

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