Ride a cheap bike from Sydney to Cairns they said, it’ll be fun they said… or at least that’s what I thought, but nobody had said it.
For some, the COVID-19 pandemic will be remembered as a quiet time, a time of reflection, time with family, and most importantly, time being creative with toilet paper alternatives, but I’ll remember it as a time that my legs, ass, and lower back hated me day in and day out.
In the midst of the pandemic I found myself at the end of my rental agreement with no job and a girlfriend that had recently returned to her Canadian homeland for the unforeseen future, so I did what any stir-crazy adventurer does: grabbed myself a $120 Big W mountain bike, a couple of used panniers, an outfit that was a shock to the senses but a relief to my derrière, and set out with a mission to cycle up the East Coast of Australia.
Now I must prelude this story, and lower your hopes, by saying this wasn’t a successful adventure by any ordinary definition. With a deplorable level of planning and preparation, I decided to take my less-than-suitable, well-used, entry-level mountain bike on an adventure from my hometown of Smithfield in the south-western suburbs of Sydney, to Cairns, in Queensland.
I had six weeks to undertake the journey so I could be home in time for my Dad’s surprise 60th birthday party.
That’s roughly 2,500km in six weeks, with no training, no proper equipment, and no daily plan.
About 60km a day seemed reasonable to my untrained spirit, and with a lack of risk from failure, I saw no reason to think otherwise.
The Great Pedal North
Launch day came around in no time and the day couldn’t have been better. The weather was perfect, my ride was pimped, and I had the kind of energy inside of me that I hadn’t felt in a while. I rode no more than one kilometre into my journey before I came across my first hiccup – my back brake cable had sprung out of its caliper, probably from the excessive weight pressing down on it from the luggage in the panniers.
No worries though, it was an easy fix, and it gave me a sense of independence to instantly solve a problem.
Then came midday – after riding through the beautiful bike tracks of Parramatta, I found myself taking a well-deserved break in a park in North Ryde. I felt like this trip was going to be a breeze if what I’d experienced so far was a sign of what was to come. But that’s the funny thing about expectations vs reality.
A couple of hours after taking a break, the internal struggles began. I hadn’t mapped out my route, which had me detouring through Lane Cove National Park. Awesome! It had a massive hill to drop down and because Palm Beach was my first planned stop for the night, my logical (read: illogical) conclusion was that I needed to ‘drop down to sea level’ at some point anyway.
I was sorely disappointed when I realised that I had to climb back up the same gradient to get out the other side of the park. Along the way, I had every pro-cyclist, amateur, and kid on training wheels giving me weird stares until one named James rode beside me and asked where the bloody hell I could have come from with all the ill-prepared gear I was lugging.
I told him I was just setting out and he couldn’t hold back a laugh.
‘That bike won’t make it out of the city, let alone Cairns mate’.
But he could see the determination in my eyes, so instead of mocking me, he did his best to guide me back on track towards Palm Beach and gave me some instant repair patches – which would certainly come in handy three weeks and one flat tyre later.
The Power of Positivity
I discovered quickly that there’s this feeling one gets when undertaking a longer than usual adventure – at the beginning of each leg of the journey the brain’s psychological immunity is great at providing us with positives in the face of any adversities we may encounter, but just like a drug, it quickly wears off and eventually stops working like it used to. The first half of the first day seemed to move quickly and gracefully, but the second half was tortuous. It dragged on, and daylight quickly fell to darkness.
I mistakenly made my way into peak hour traffic, nervously riding between cars filled with people furious to get home after a long day at work along the infamous Mona Vale Rd. But eventually, I was amongst the quieter streets of Palm Beach and could take a breath.
It was 9pm and I called my parents to tell them I was close to my destination (and close to breaking down).
They told me to consider coming home, aborting the mission and not to be ashamed if I bit off more than I could chew.
But I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of giving up so quickly, so two large pizzas later, and with the stubbornness of a toddler who just learnt the word ‘no’, I prevailed and found a nice grassy patch between peoples houses to call my home for the night. Day one over!
Building Resilience and Glutes
Over the next few days my patience was tested more and more as my gear, and body started to fail me. My dodgy Decathlon pannier rack, which I’m sure is great for the morning journey to work and back, collapsed several times over the next 24 hours, splaying my luggage all over highways and nearly causing me to cheese grate my face on the asphalt.
Although my bike was technically an 18-speed machine, I quickly found myself working off only four functional gears, and, much to my dismay, the brakes were so far gone that I had a choice to make – always ride with one brake slightly on at all times, or disengage them and ride brakeless from here on in.
Unfortunately, I had no idea how to quickly stop a 30kg lump of steel without brakes, so the rest of my journey, until I found an abandoned bike in Brisbane and resourcefully swapped out the brakes, would involve a bit of friction – pedalling downhill anyone?
Keepin’ On Despite… Everything
By the time I reached The Entrance, which should have been a very easy milestone, I was exhausted and questioning what to do next. Do I buy a new bike and do this thing properly? Do I grab the first train home? Or do I push on because I knew this would be a struggle before it even began?
Lucky for you dear reader, I am very stubborn (you might have worked this out – Ed) and so our adventure continues!
I went to The Entrance Automotive mechanic and had the luck of meeting the owner. Dan went out of his way to fix my pannier rack with a heavy gauge bolt – this thing was going nowhere now – and left some of my less-than-treasured belongings to the long term residents of The Entrance Backpackers, making my load just a tad lighter before setting forth on my next chapter
Over the next week things were looking up! The bike hadn’t formed any new problems, the weather was on a high streak, and my daily motivation grew with each new kilometre. I still wasn’t too impressed with NSW’s lack of scenic, long-distance bike trails, but I couldn’t do much about that.
I made some unforgettable friends as I pedalled through Port Macquarie and Yarrahapini, and just as importantly, I’d also discovered a new way of riding thanks to a fellow rider doing a similar trip to mine but in reverse. If you time it right, riding along the compacted sands of a beach during low tide can spare you from the monotony of the Pacific Highway and give you an incredibly scenic view, morning dolphins included!
A Pivotal Change
Something very important also started to happen at this point in the trip. My support group of family and friends went from supporting my return home if it all got too difficult, to pushing me to get to each new checkpoint on the daily. Phone calls at night would let me know that they were sharing this story with their own family and friends and piquing everybody’s curiosity about the crazy guy on a Big W bike. It was becoming a shared success, no longer just my own, and we were now all in this together. It gave me more energy to keep going each day.
My next big decision came when I reached Mullaway, and seemed to be only a few days away from reaching the NSW/QLD border. I was staying for the first time with an amazing local host family that graciously took me in for two nights and showed me their beautiful area along the Northern NSW coastline. Lucky for me, Samantha and her family kept on top of the news, because they’d informed me of the upcoming border closure between QLD and NSW.
I had 24 hours to make a decision and if I missed the deadline, that’d be it – journey over. As I was never going to ride over the border within a day, I decided my best bet at keeping the spirit of adventure alive was cheating my way north and riding back to Coffs Harbour to catch the very last train to Brisbane that night. It felt like it was a dishonour to my plans, but I reminded myself that my plans were built to be broken and this was just the beginning of a new chapter.
I Choo Choo Choose You
My pain in the ass bike wouldn’t fit in the box that the train required it to be in, but my awesome new friend Yohay helped me force it in and get to the station on time. The train conductor didn’t like my chances of being allowed to enter Brisbane, and I wasn’t sure how the next few hours would pan out, but it was certainly worth a shot.
After several long, but comfy hours moving slowly north, I was finally at Brisbane Central Station. The scene around me was absurd. Wherever I looked, masked people were nervously lined up waiting to be questioned by police about their whereabouts in the two weeks prior to arriving at this moment. Some families were joyful to be moving onward, whereas others were left in tears as they were rejected and separated from their loved ones.
You can imagine my anxiety trying to explain that I’d spent the past two weeks sleeping wherever my tent found a flat spot, but fortunately, it had been more than two weeks since I had moved through a hot spot and I was allowed to enter the state.
I spent the next week in Brisbane with my friend Sarina, taking proper rest and laying out ideas for the rest of the journey. For those that’ve followed along and tried to calculate the timings of my journey thus far, it’ll be obvious that with the speed I’ve been touring, I wasn’t making it to Cairns within six weeks after all.
So where was I planning on taking this challenge? I wasn’t quite sure at this point, to be honest, but I knew I’d figure it out where all great things are figured out – back on the road.
Back On The Road – Queensland Styles
My journey through Queensland was quite a smooth one. Thankfully I have no tales of crocs chasing my back tyres, or snuggling up beside me as I slept in my tent – I’d leave those stories to those who’d successfully make it further north. I saw the beautiful sights of the Glass House Mountains, which were worth the detour, discovered what all the fuss was about in Noosa, and finally embarked on one last crazy mission – riding entirely along the expansive coastline of Great Sandy National Park.
I did have plans to continue biking along Fraser Island, but by the time I’d dragged my bike across, wait, make that through the dunes of Great Sandy, my spirit was as abrased as the cassette of my rear wheel. My trusty mechanical steed and I were both worn and knew it was time to lay this challenge to rest.
If You Know You Know
I jumped on workaways to see if there were any interesting jobs to be done, people to be met, or places to see, and ended up finding a couple named Damian and Nat who had new farmland that needed attending to in Bundaberg. So, in a final journey together, my bike and I crossed from Rainbow Beach to North Gympie station to bid our farewells.
I was saddened to think that this was it, the perfectly unprepared duo was being separated once and for all. I didn’t think lugging the bike around with me was the best idea, so I wrote its story on a few loose pages, tucked them into the front basket, and left the bike unchained to whoever might find it useful. To start their own journey with it.
That bike, as crazy as it sounds, was my sole source of consistent company throughout this crazy adventure. It may have been an unreliable piece of transport, but at least it was consistently unreliable, and did nothing more, nor less, than I had expected it to.
And what did I have to gain from such a monumentally failed expedition? Learning that not all big adventures this amazing world has to offer require a lifetime supply of preparation, skills, or expensive equipment. With the right eagerness and a healthy sense of curiosity, tales you’ll be telling your grandkids (or grandpuppies) are only a bike ride or two away!
Oh, and I also learnt that all my pants from here on in should have the cloud-like cushioning that a cycling bib provides.