Sydney to Melbourne. You’ve all done it, usually in an overstuffed plane or barrelling up or down the highway in a car. Each time, you fly over or race by one of the oldest and most majestic national parks in the world. The Royal National Park, which we rode through today, is an ancient blanket of coastal bush, scrub and woodland, hugging the sea south of Sydney. Today was cloudy, humid and gusty. It added to the park’s mystique, and was a fitting introduction to Chain Reaction’s 2019 Victorian ride.
After a surprisingly relaxed departure from Cronulla beach the pace was on and we soon found ourselves in the park. We rode in teams. After the plunge to Audley, on the Hacking River, we climbed Artillery Hill, a steep, breath-robbing ramp back up to the plateau. Sydney sits on a great foundation of sedimentary rock some 4.5km thick in the park, laid down about 300 million years ago. The rocks and soil are a golden colour, that famous Sydney sandstone. Across the park, exposed sandstone walls and cliffs and their infinite variations of colour hint at the eons that have passed here, and more recently, the presence of the Gweagle and Tagary people who made the parklands their home. Many of our riders have spent hours in the Dandenongs, east of Melbourne, training for the ride. The park flora here is different: angrier, scrub, shorter trees, more gnarled and twisted at the top, far less of the moist and mossy glades that make the 'Nongs so magical. It seems harsher, spookier here, but beautiful.
Our first drinks break was at the park's southern exit, past the cliff-top hamlet of Otford at Bald Hill, perched above the town of Stanwell Park. Bald Hill is where Lawrence Hargrave first flew his famous box kite 136 years ago. Now, it's all hang-gliders and para gliders (though not today in the dreary drizzle). We flew down the coast road, past the quaint and similarly named seaside towns of Wombarra, Austinmer, Bellambi, Corrimal and Fairy Meadow. We were all excited to ride over the remarkable Sea Cliff Bridge, which towers over the massive rock shelves below, and in turn is towered over by the sheer sandstone cliffs of the Illawarra Escarpment. The strip between the sea and the top of the escarpment, sometimes only a few kilometres wide, is something drawn from the set of 'Jurassic Park': deep green, steep and seemingly impenatrable.
In contrast to the gargantuan landscape are the little towns replete with 'Beach Hotels' and plenty of surfboard art on the walls of old cinemas and disused Masonic lodges renovated as coastal cafes. Only one thing seemed out of place and that was the dad and two kids 'couch surfing' their couch, wrapped in plastic, over the railway bridge and down the main street of Thirroul! The locals usually gawk at the peleton, but in this time the passing peloton was gawking at the couch surfers.
After a drink stop near Wollongong lighthouse, where a troupe of kids turned out to clap and cheer us along (always a special moment), we climbed up the escarpment to Mt Keira.
The first few kilometres were brutally steep before softening to just plain steep as the road snaked through the bush, allowing riders a quick glance at the sea, far below. Did I mention the humidity? We were all dripping with the exertion. We were constantly reminded that we were up high: View Street, Mount Street, High Street, all in Kembla Heights.
We fell on the plentiful food, Coke and coffee at the lunch stop at the Mt Kembla Village Hotel before riding off the escarpment and into Port Kembla, home to the enormous steelworks, with its rust-tinged storage stacks and fire flaming chimneys.
The last stretch, past Lake Illawarra and Shellharbour was typical 'end of the day, eat-the-wind, wait-for-the-massage, we'll be there soon' kilometres. When we rode into Kiama Shores Motel the riders could not get to their rooms and then to the pool and massage tables quickly enough. On the topic of massages, this is no holiday camp - 150+kms for 7 days, climbing the equivalent of more than 2kms (or more) into the sky each day is hard yakka. That's not a complaint, just a fair reflection of the work the riders and crew do to make a Chain Reaction ride happen. And of course, if it were a holiday rather than something to endure and achieve, our very generous donors would hardly be so generous. Still, when you're a desk jockey with delusions of cycling grandeur climbing slowly up the steeps, it's easy to put the momentary discomfort aside when you think why we're doing this and the remarkable support it elicits from our donors. But I, for one, could not do this ride day after day if it weren't for the coveted massage at the end of the day's ride. And today's was essential, as tomorrow's ride is a monster.
It's a great bunch of crew and riders. There's a real crackle to it. Some of that centres around this year's iteration of Jellis Craig, bursting with 12 riders. The instant questions are: Is that too many? How will they manage their massage roster. Will Emil Foller have to pull rank to get an early massage? But perhaps the biggest question is, what were they thinking with their 'Green Zebra Safari' kit this year? No doubt the answers will be revealed over the next few days, as we wend our way south.
Finally, a special mention to Tim Jamieson from Team Henley. Tim, from Dulux, a Henley supplier, went entirely above and beyond the call of his team duties by scoping out a potential greenfields site adjacent to the road at Port Kembla. While wooded and green, he decided the site wasn't totally suitable. Chapeau Tim!
133km / 5hrs 31 mins riding / 2060 vertical metres climbed
Blue - Mark Glenn
White - Adam Gandolfo
Polka Dot - John Hunt
Green - Angus Clark
Black - Roger Teale
Orange - Andrew Staedler