As I pen this article, my hometown of Bright is abuzz with mountain bikers. The Mountain Bike Australia National and Oceania Championships are in town and all the big names in Australian mountain biking are here. All the talk is about who’s the favourite, what parts of the tracks are new, and who has the latest and greatest gear. It’s almost impossible not to get swept up in the excitement!
At the same time, another very different race is also happening in town – in fact, across a bunch of towns from one side of the country to the other. I’m talking about the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5,500km, totally unsupported bike race from Fremantle to Sydney. These riders follow a preset route and make camp whenever and wherever they can, sometimes clocking over 400km in a 24 hour period. The IndiPac (as it’s often referred to) also passes right through Bright. But these riders, spaced hours and in some cases days apart from their nearest competitor, cruise through town mostly unnoticed.
As far as bike races and riders go, these two events and their respective competitors are almost polar opposites. The downhill riders in the national champs will race for around four minutes, while the IndiPac takes most competitors in excess of three weeks!
Picture credits: Getty Images/2014 Robert Alexander & Getty Images/Avik Chakraborty
At first, it’s easy to think that these events have nothing in common except for the two wheels their competitors will be using. Mountain biking originated in the 1970s, when a group of Californians started racing their modified paper-boy bikes down hillsides north of San Francisco. Whereas the IndiPac pays homage to the ‘overlander’ riders of over 100 years ago – riders who would ride incredible distances between capital cities (often across the Nullabor), with very limited resupply options. Both events have colourful but very different histories, but the uniting factor is the sense of adventure and joy that riding brings.
Whether it’s a $12K dualie or a department store bike, they still share similar hardware – two wheels, rubber tyres, chain, handlebars… the list goes on. While the quality of components will vary significantly, any bike has the potential to be an adventure machine. After all, bikes are pretty basic and they are all capable of delivering bucketloads of joy to any rider with the right mindset. If you think back to one of your most memorable riding adventures, chances are you won’t even remember the bike you were riding at the time.
My most memorable adventure was in the hills high above Telluride, Colorado. What should have been a simple descent back to town soon turned into an epic, day-long ride filled with wild encounters I’ll never forget.
Once a mining town, these days Telluride is a quaint ski town known for its epic terrain and stunning scenery. A free gondola links Telluride with neighbouring Mountain Village. Stepping off the gondola at the mid-station between Telluride and Mountain Village allows riders to make use of the vertical and ride the gravity trails back to either town. At least, that’s what I had planned. I should have realised something wasn’t quite right when the supposed ‘gravity trail’ had me climbing for a few Ks not long after I started. It was only after an hour of riding, with far more climbing than descending, that I came to the conclusion that I was no longer on the 10 minute descending trail as indicated by the trailhead signs, and that I was, in fact, completely lost. Perhaps the thin mountain air at 11,000 feet was affecting me more than I realised!
My body was working hard to meet the oxygen demands and my increased breathing rate was quickly dehydrating me. Unfortunately, I was now also out of water. Soon, the excitement I felt at the start of the day had worn off and was replaced by a feeling of panic. Lost, alone, no water, in a foreign country, high up in the mountains. I could already see the newspaper headlines lamenting my decision making! By now I was on an overgrown vehicle trail, with multiple fallen trees preventing any possible passerby traffic. As I slowly rounded a bend, feeling pretty damn sorry for myself and unable to decide my next move, I heard a noise ahead of me and looked up. Adrenaline again filled every part of my body and I unconsciously made the smartest decision of the day so far – I completely froze, more out of sheer terror than any common sense – as I spotted a black bear meandering across the trail ahead of me. This beautiful, majestic creature, easily capable of mauling me to death, was only about 20 metres away when a pair of cubs came scrambling, rather ungracefully, onto the track behind their mum. She ambled to a stop in the undergrowth, just off the path, and they caught up to her.
I remained dead still for a few minutes, too terrified to move, and waiting for them to continue on their way. But they didn’t seem to be in a hurry and were a lot more interested in each other than in me. So I eventually summoned my last nerve, got back in the saddle and rode past them – my only option if I was ever going to get home. The rest of the ride into town passed in a blur as I was still in pure amazement of what I had just experienced. I’d stumbled across animals that could have killed me with little effort, in their habitat, and been able to witness their beauty close up. Exhausted, dehydrated, but totally in awe, I arrived back well after dark. What had started out as a simple ride, on a humble bicycle, transpired into an epic adventure, full of emotional highs and lows, and memories I’ll have forever.