No Place Like Home – Hells500 2015 Epic

– 502 km, 10,335m, 24:20 elapsed, 21:30 ride time …

Announcement of the Hells500 Epic challenge for 2015 and it’s free range, constrained only by the requirement to clock at least 400km and 10,000m ascent within a 36 hour time limit, with sleeping permitted. I’m all out of cycling weekend away brownie points, but happily Canberra is pretty much surrounded by hills that just beg to be climbed by bike. All I need to do is string them all together and I should be able to come up with a ride that is a sort of ‘tip of the lid’ to my home town ….

Fast forward to Easter weekend – the designated kick off for the 2015 challenge. My level of enthusiasm has fluctuated in line with the weather forecast. Shall I plan for a 60% chance of rain? or take the glass half full approach and focus on the 40% dry option? At 6:30am on Good Friday, the only thing that gets me out of bed is that I’ve arranged to meet some friends for the first 60k of my planned route. At this stage I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole thing … but eventually I have to make a decision. I decide that I’ll feel worse sitting around watching the weather, so I have an oh bloody hell, I’ll give it a go moment and it’s on.

First up was a spin around five local hill climbs – I do these regularly with mates so it doesn’t feel particularly epic. All good. Most of the crew head off for coffee, then Jen rolled up, planning to ride with me until her legs fell off. Fortunately this takes a while and it’s nice to have company to distract me from the enormity of what lies ahead. The route is basically a series of out and back climbs, linked together by one of Canberra’s loveliest back roads which skirts the south-west of the city and the base of the Brindabella Ranges. Many of the climbs feature in the annual ‘Fitz’s Challenge’ ride, and are notorious for leg munching gradients. The ride out to Corin Dam was early on the agenda and I zoned out as we climbed into the cloud, focusing on road and rhythm. Then glanced up as Jen gasped, looking across to the edge of the road where a wedge-tailed eagle poised, watching us disdainfully, before taking off in a powerfully elegant stretch of wings. Jen and I stared at each other – there were no words, it was just breathtaking. Even in damp, cold conditions this is a special place to ride.

Next up was an undulating stretch of road with some evil steep pinches as we headed into Namadgi National Park. Normally we use Rendezvous Creek as the turnaround point, but I’d noticed on an earlier ride that the sealed road continued for another couple of kilometres, climbing steeply. I’d actually only ridden down this, so the level of hurt was a little unexpected, but it was certainly a good way to rack up a few extra vertical metres. We met up with Ed again at the turnoff out to the Orroral Valley. It was time for Jen to head for home, and Ed joined me for the Orroral leg. The out and back thing was working really well for me as I could focus on each section and get it done. By the time I returned from the run out to Honeysuckle Tracking Station it was time to add lights – I’d had 12 hours of daylight and was now faced with a solid 12 hours of night riding. Mild temperatures, quiet roads and still conditions combined for a magic ride. There was a slight change of plan at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, where I’d intended to do the 15km loop road. But forgotten that a large gate blocks access after dark. Given the high likelihood of colliding with one of our national emblems in the reserve, leaving this one out was a no-brainer. A quick run out to the Space Station, and it was off out to the end of the bitumen at Condor Creek. At this point I was, somewhat bizarrely, feeling great. Pumped, loving the ride and feeling strong. Without coffee. Whatever it was, it was good.

A brief dirt section soon rattled the joy out of me, this, followed by a near miss with a bloody enormous roo meant that I was a little shaken when I stopped at the car on the road to Wee Jasper. The next section was slower, concentrating hard on the descents as I scanned the road edge for homicidal marsupials. There is a healthy population of common wombats along the Wee Jasper Road – I saw at least eight, happy that they were content to remain well out of my way.

Being pulled up by the police at 1:30am was a little surreal – even weirder, they were looking for a missing cyclist. I found it difficult to believe that there was more than one person out riding in the middle of nowhere at 1:30am on Easter Saturday. And they seemed to be struggling equally with the concept that I was 380 km in to a 500 km ride.

I seemed to be flying up the climbs heading back towards Canberra. This is a huge mental advantage of night riding, when you can’t see your GPS, and the sensation of speed is not sullied by the cold, hard reality of actual progress. Nevertheless, I returned to Uriarra Crossing earlier than expected and being just 30 km from home, was able to free my long suffering husband from further support duties.

Riding to within 75 m of home, but continuing past, was a bit harsh. But although over the 10,000m ascent target, I was still 30 km short of my 500 km goal. Time to grit the teeth, keep turning the pedals. Fittingly, it started to drizzle rain as I ploughed on towards Sutton. I went into autopilot mode, having ridden this section a gazillion times. The sky lightened and I started to see other cyclists heading out. I felt like crying – nearly over. Counting down the last few km, this is crazy, nuts, bonkers, totally freaking insane. Home. Stopping hurt. It was done. An Epic 24 hours indeed.

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