Cycling is not a sport. Cycling is fiction. You watch a movie or read a novel and you know it’s not real. The story, the characters, nothing is real but you watch it anyway, you want to know what’s next and how it ends. The story’s not real but you talk about it as if it is. You say, he should’ve done this instead of that as if there was no script, as if the whole thing wasn’t filmed last year in Hollywood. A fiction you imagine as a real thing.
Cycling is like that. It’s a show.
It started as a way to sell newspapers and bicycles. No live broadcast from helicopters droning above the peloton as wasps and no cameramen on motorbikes. Newspaper journos sourced their stories from riders, mechanics, team bosses and spectators. Information crumbs. You had to connect the dots and make a story, a story that sells.
The heroes, everyone loves a hero story. From Odysseus and Achilles, move to Coppi and Bartali, give them Jacques Anquetil, give them Eddy Merckx. Cook a myth, make it epic. No one cares how truthful the story is as long as it’s epic. Throw in some dirt, everyone loves dirt. Clean is boring. Tell them about chicaneries and betrayals, add some spice wrapped in layers of lies. Mystery and the mythical heroes sell. Give them that.
We get on our bikes and ride for seven hours to dig into the lore of cycling. Leave your carbon fibre marvel at home. Wrong era. This is when they ruined the narrative with their pharisaic revelations and treated us with their cold facts as if we played golf all our lives and discovered cycling yesterday.
This is when the carbon bikes came in. Twenty-first century engineering delivered to the manufacturer’s specifications by the yes-men on the other side of the planet, all alike, light, laterally stiff and vertically compliant. What colour do you want? Do you want your name on it? Your dog’s name? Tell us how many sugars you put in your coffee and we’ll tell you what frame size you need. Choose between large, medium, and small. We have figured out how to fit everyone. These obese bikes, they’re from that time when multinationals stepped in to play the cycling game and stopped the show. Calculate who wins what. How much is for the Tour de France?
We get on our steel bikes and ride for seven hours. The show must go on.
Our show now.
Smooth tarmac, that’s not enough. Let’s throw in some gravel. You like dirt, right? Fifteen kilometres to stretch the muscles and then it’s on.
First gravel climb is a wake up call. Your shifters, they’re not where you think they are, they’re where they used to be when shifting gears was a skill that took time to learn.
Hands on the bar tops. Loose. Don’t fight it, let the bike find its path. Push. Loose hands, reach for the shifter, you need that 23T cog. Now.
You can’t relax on a downhill covered in dust and rocks. Get up on the pedals, move the weight from the rear wheel to save it from a snake bite. Look ahead to slow down on time before a curve because on gravel, you can’t lean your bike too much into a corner. The guy who didn’t do that and passed me on the right, he’s in the ditch with a broken collarbone, whacked into a pile of boulders full speed, bike’s toast. It’s how the story goes.
My borrowed bike, Carrera Titanized, came with a 10-speed 12-29T cassette. Twelve to 15 in one-tooth steps, 15 to 23 two-teeth steps, and then the 26 and the 29 big cogs. Smart layout for European cols except we’re on a Sunshine Coast, who the heck needs a 29? In the garage somewhere laid a 12-23T cassette from my once owned Campagnolo CAAD8. Swap? Sixteen and 18 cogs to replace 26 and 29. A nice one-tooth range between 12 and 19.
Can’t be bothered.
Sometimes, laziness is a virtue. They told me there are some steep pinches on the Imperial Noosa Strade Bianche. How steep? Smiles. Something about Black Mountain Road, Andersons, Sankeys and Shadbolt…..
This is where that 29 cog saved my ass the first time, on the Black Mountain climb. It looks at you from above and wants to ask you if you’re game to climb this. Try me, see how you go.
You don’t want to lose momentum on a hill like that, shift early. A smooth drop to the 39T ring and a sweep from 17 to 23 two seconds later. Like in the old days.
It starts eating into your legs without delay and then the burning muscles greeting. Hello pain. Push. It steepens. Another shift and a quick look downstairs — whoa, one more cog there, the handsome 29T. Who was the idiot who thought he’ll be fine with a 12-23T cassette on these gravel climbs?
Ease up for a moment to slacken the pressure on the chain and pull the lever one last time to make it to the top.
The legs are two beef sausages on a barbeque hissing anger at the flame that burns them. The climb has no switchbacks, it snakes sideways and you hope to see the top after each bend and it’s not coming, you can’t see it.
The guy next to me on a purple Miyata is riding in joggers and one toeclip. Lean, with shaved legs, he didn’t stumble into the 160-kilometre Strade by mistake. Forgot his shoes at home?
Years ago, my teammate forgot his shoes in the hotel but came third on the mountaintop finish stage wearing joggers anyway. This is a second guy I’ve met in 40 years who can ride hard without cleats.
He drops behind when the road points to the treetops at the end of the climb and then we bomb down the other side; now it’s Andersons Road, the iconic descent of NSB.
Shooting rocks from left and right, someone with no fear passes me on the straight as if he’s driving a Humvee.
What are we doing, 60, 70 km/h? On hard surface, anything under 80 is breezy. Reach 90 and you can tell your friends what it’s like to be a human missile. Everything but the road ahead is out of focus. Spokes, they hum with a sound of a ceiling fan and the brake pads stink if you pull on the levers hard. On the dirt mixed with rocks, you drift like a dead fish in a torrent when you hit 70 km/h. That double-layered bar tape you put on to shield your hands from road’s shudder, it doesn’t help, not on a descent every bone in your body fights with.
A sharp left on the Middle Creek Road and life is great again on the bitumen.
The mad descender is 200 metres ahead and the Miyata one-toeclip loco is 100 meters behind. Someone else is still on the downhill blowing dust.
It’s not a race.
I wait and we drive tempo to catch the guy at the front. Not a race, it’s how the story goes.
The first brevet point has enough water for a battalion, coffee, bakery, and fruit. One bottle on my bike needs a refill. A stamp in the brevet card and it’s another gravel wall up the road again.
Sometimes, it feels like you’ve punctured your rear wheel and you keep looking at it and keep looking at it. Is it? Losing air or not? You bob on the bike and still don’t know. Give yourself a minute to see if you’re wigging out or you do in fact lose air and then that first touch of the rim against the asphalt and you don’t have to look at the tyre, it’s out of work.
This is not a race and me and my three pals, we all stop. The Miyata guy’s name is Julian. He’s from Spain and speaks English as if he started to learn it a week ago. I ask him about the shoes and he says words that don’t make any sense. All good, amigo. If there’s a medal at the end of this ride, they should give it to you.
The mad descender on 32 mm tyres is Scott from Caboolture and the fourth guy who weighs no more than 65 kilos and is riding a 1970s Peugeot is Daniel from the States. A Russian, an American, a Spaniard, and an Aussie somewhere in Sunshine Coast Hinterland stopped to repair the Russian’s punctured wheel. Not a joke.
The air pressure from the CO2 cartridge cracks the inflator when I screw it on and I borrow one from Scott to pump the tyre with my last cartridge. Two spare tubes, two cartridges, one inflator. Back in the hotel room, this made sense. Now, it frets me. One tube left and no carbon dioxide packed for you in China into a neat cylinder. Two years ago I punctured four times at the beginning of a 25-kilometre-long gravel road and rode the rest of it on two flat wheels. Can’t do this on a borrowed bike.
Ten minutes later Julian blows his rear tyre and we stop again. It’s not a race.
My right jersey pocket has 12 dry Turkish dates in it and I watch Julian push air into the spare tube with a mini pump and chew three dates one after another and wash them down with lukewarm water. Above, not a single cloud, perfect riding temperature and you don’t have to turn yourself inside out chasing a breakaway or breaking away because this is not a race.
I tell Scott, imagine what a mess this ride would be if it rained and he laughs and tells me it never rains on the Noosa Strade Bianche day. We’re on the Sunshine Coast.
Scott, he’s done the Strade a few times and knows the route. It’s marked with arrows but if you’re like me, you’d miss one and find yourself doing an extra hour or two.
One brevet point has a stall with Chianti wine in squat fiaschi wrapped in straw baskets, mud cakes, and sliced watermelons. I know someone who doesn’t eat watermelons and me, my stomach turns when I look at mud cakes. Chianti, yeah sure, back in the hotel room with legs up against the wall, why not. Now, with three hours still to ride, don’t think so. Watermelons for me, thanks.
After four hours, my hands whimper and legs start to cement from the strain the muscles have endured grinding the cranks over the hills. It’s not a race but you can’t snub the fatigue, not when you spend five hours in the saddle.
It’s about here, after five hours, the dust and the gravel don’t look fun anymore and you stop telling yourself it’s not a race. It’s not. But, the aching legs and the empty jersey pockets, a water bottle that weighs no more than a feather, this is a page from a book I have read before. Dig a little deeper, you’re tired anyway. Make it count.
It’s silent on the climb to the Kin Kin range because no one’s around. The smooth charcoal asphalt breathes baked air at my legs and the chest and at the top of the climb I grab the water bottle and take the hands off the handlebar and squeeze the water down my throat looking at the sky, swallow, and squeeze again.
The next two strade bianche sections I ride alone between still bush walls on the sides of the road and listen to air pumping in and out of my lungs and sweat, it runs down from under the helmet and splits into creeks on my forehead flooding and burning my eyes as if someone spurted acid in my face and I can’t take my glasses off to wipe the sweat because I have to hold on to the handlebar going up. Near the top is a fallen log blocking the road and when I come closer, it’s a goanna, calm as a statue and not running away like every other goanna I’d seen until he’s metres away from my front wheel.
At the top of the Black Mountain is the second to last brevet point with water, mud cakes, and watermelons. I stamp the card and ask how far is the finish. Twenty or thirty they tell me. Ten kilometres is small change when you’re sitting in a shade next to a car. For me right now, 20 sounds a lot better than 30. Thirty it is then. More watermelon please.
I sit on the Carrera’s top tube, rehydrate with watermelon and wait for my crew. Julian and Scott come without the American. We figure he took a wrong turn somewhere.
In Cooroy, I smell the finish and no more gravel except I’m wrong about the gravel. Big dog on the Cooroy Mountain Road, fast rolling, slight downhill and two more gravel walls for desert I didn’t ask for and I come out on a bitumen road I’ve been on before and it’s 10, maybe 12 to go, legs about to cramp, a sharp right on Gyndier Drive for a two-kilometre downhill and it’s four kilometres from here to Noosa Marina.
Cold beer is the best beer brand in the world.