In summer 2010, I planned to ride-return to a cousin’s home in Horsham, some 450 kilometres away. This, in the middle of the Australian summer, is not an easy journey. Apart from requiring many miles ridden on one of Australia’s busiest interstate highways, the first two days in my planned outing were forecast to be 41 degrees Centigrade. They were days of “Catastrophic Fire Danger,” when ideally, one would not be out in the Adelaide Hills, or anywhere, on a bicycle.
Although I had every intention of staying in motels or cabins, I needed to be ready to sleep rough on the roadside, in case of injury or breakdown. I needed to be survive a night of constant rain, even though we are in the summer drought. In fact, I rode one day in constant rain; we have bizarre weather in this country!
The critical element of summer riding is to have sufficient water. My route was determined by this figure; my preferred route has too little guaranteed access to water to be used in summer time.
The volume of water is not all that counts. It needs to be drunk constantly, “pre-drinking” at a rate which matches the loss of fluid through sweat. This rate varies dramatically. From Bordertown to Keith is 56 kilometres. I rode this in constant rain Tuesday January 12, drinking only a litre of water. On the previous day, for the 38 kilometres between Tintinara and Keith, in 45 degree midday heat, I drank 5 litres of fluid.
Too little fluid leads to dehydration, and may also hasten heat stroke. Both can be fatal. More likely the rider will be ill enough to lose concentration and sway into the path of a car. Too much liquid can lead to vomiting and then dehydration, or in rare cases Hyponatremia, which is caused by too much water and too few of the required salts in the blood.
I've learned some bitter lessons. In 1976 I rode Gladstone to Morgan (140km from our farm) on a 41 degree day. Full of pride and pleasure, I did 200km to Cullulleraine the next day, and then 140km to Euston. The next day was Hay, 212km, or 130 miles in the old language. I ran out of water way short of Hay. I could barely ride the bike, and was lucky to survive.
There comes a point where it is simply too hot to ride safely, regardless of how much liquid one has. It depends on the nature of the hills, the direction of the wind, and the temperature of the day. By the time I left for Horsham, the forecast for the first two days was 45 degrees, which meant I was unable to ride safely past 1pm.
That meant swallowing my pride on Day Two, and changing to Plan B, which did not go all the way to Horsham and return. There was not sufficient time in the six days I had for my journey.
Finally, there was the doing of the journey. After working out what I would need to ride safely, and purchasing some appropriate panniers and spare parts, I actually had to do the ride. Cycle touring with panniers is a different world to city commuting, or even a long day ride in the Hills. To begin with, the loaded bike is less stable. The panniers tend to work up a sway that will steer the bike, if the rider is not alert. Uncomfortable potholes can become deadly under the extra load.
There is no such thing as sprinting when you tour. An average of 20km/hr is excellent, and requires a special patience that does not try and force the pace. It requires strength of mind to sit in the bottom gear on a long, long hill in the heat for half an hour to the summit, and then after a few minutes respite, do it again. You need to do this for hours, probably six or seven. When it is very hot, there needs to be an extra hour in every four, for rest and food.
The Duke’s Highway is not safe before dawn, so it’s not possible to beat all the heat. You can’t ride after dark for the same reason. On the highway you watch constantly for cars. Cars, and interstate semis come from behind at high speed, and you drop off the smooth road into the rough of the verge. A rear vision mirror is essential, as you will not hear them all coming. But look too long in the mirror, and you can ride into glass, or be brought down by the slipperiness of a road reflector. Always check behind as vehicles approach from the front. When semi-trailers meet on the highway, a pushbike is extremely vulnerable.
I had a hard week, but enjoyed it. I rode in kilometres each day what I once rode in miles... the result of age, and another thing to plan around. But it was good.
At the end, I am left with a question. How is it we plan so carefully for an event like this, but wander through life? How often do I plan my spiritual journey- as much as it can be planned- and pay attention to its details? And how often do I simply get on the bike, and ride off unprepared into the dangers of summer? Perhaps there is an imbalance in the way I am living.