Thursday, 9 April 2015

Cloudride 1000... the fine line between tough and pointless

Well, as promised here's the Cloudride post mortem.  Apologies for the lack of photos but I was busy.

Right at the outset, I need to point out that (a) I didn't finish (actually it was a pretty dismal effort) and (b) the level of toughness and grit shown by those who pressed on - finisher or not - is amazing.

I felt a little underdone coming into the ride, both fitness wise and in terms of preparation.  I had made my own cue sheets for the course and felt I pretty good handle on things but I probably hadn't invested a huge amount of time in ensuring that I was fully prepared.

Ok, I'm prepared to admit that there was a little 'I've done Tour Divide and know how to suffer... how bad could this be?'  How wrong can you get?

I had worked out that the two 'extreme' sections were likely to be day 1 - based on the experiences last year there was no way I'd get to Nimmitabel and then the section from Delegate to Jindabyne which would be another overnight stay with no resupply.

After setting off in an overcast but dry morning, I handled the ride through to Bungendore pretty well.  There's a little bit of climbing through this section but the riding is lovely - mostly 2nd class forest roads.  Even the little flat cruise to Hoskinstown on tar was fun (although by now the drizzle had set in).

A quick water resupply and time check showed I was well ahead of my rough timing so things were travelling well.

Of course then it turned to shit.

The real climbing begins after Hoskinstown - smooth surface but constant stuff and pretty steep.  Nightmare single speed territory.  But I was overall feeling quite positive - I was mentally prepared for walking the steep sections so all was good.

But... as we gained elevation the mist and drizzle turned into actual rain.  The track we were on was soft and had been freshly scraped - nice in the dry but with a bit of moisture it was slow and awful.  I found getting on top of my gearing (about 32:18) almost impossible and ended up either walking or killing the energy I had... the net result being more walking.

Probably the bit that did me in was the Cowangerrong Firetrail and its 750+m of elevation gain over 23km or so.  It took me about 4 hours to crest it.  Slow going.  Even then, getting down to the Jerrabattgulla Creek also took an age as the rain had turned the old logging track (which wasn't remotely close to the GPS trace) into a muddy slip and slide.

After refilling it was another 90 minutes of trudging up a muddy track onto a decently formed road.

At this point it was about 9pm.  I'd done about 120km. I was wet.  I was cold.  It was still raining.

By now I had abandoned any thought of perhaps getting to Numerella but kept pushing on to minimise the amount of time I'd have to 'make up' the next day.

I finally pulled the pin at 140km or so at about 11pm.  Luckily the rain had stopped.

Well, so after the rain came the fog / mist.  My ZPacks tent and bivy combo is awesome for keeping you dry in direct rain but thick mist just settles on everything.  The combination of the moisture in the air and the wet body in the sleeping bag made for a very sleepless night.

Oh and a sodden sleeping bag the next morning - down is super light and warm but get it wet and its useless!

I was underway at 5:30 am the next morning and managed the difficult nav section off the Rocky Range Firetrap pretty well but I was just slow.  Too Slow.

By now I was pretty much fed up and had let the negativity creep in and was having difficulty keeping motivated.  Even the open roads on the way to Numerella didn't cheer me up.

Once I arrived in (more or less) civilisation I just sat down and opened my last 'real' food and just sat and contemplated what to do next.

From where I was I figured it would be a good 5-7 hours to Nimmitabel which created the real possibility of perhaps spending a night in a wet sleeping bag - especially if I wasn't able to get somewhere to stay where I could dry my gear.

On the positive side, although I was slow, I was still making decent time although my achilles  tendons were starting to get quite sore - fine whilst riding but each hike a bike section was getting more punishing.

But, in the end it was thinking ahead - at my pace and given the gear I was carrying I probably was not equipped to spend 48 hours between service stops.  Managing that is a whole different strategy to my 'fast and light' TDR setup.

So, having decided that I wasn't going to manage that section I decided to call it early and let Steve know I was pulling the pin.  I ended up riding the tar to Cooma (which is actually a really fun ride!) and got a lift back to Canberra with tail firmly between the legs.

The what and why's of not completing were pretty simple in the end.  I stopped having fun and couldn't get into really enjoying this ride and well, after all we do this for fun and if you aren't having any then its just an exercise in self flagellation.

Now, you might be reading this and thinking it was pretty crap but there are some things about this ride which other backpacking style events should take notice of.

Firstly, the general organisation of the thing is top notch.  Steve Watson has put a lot of effort into the course notes and they need to be read.  Re read.  Read again.  And then tattooed on your arms.  My experience just in the first day was that sometimes the GPS trace of the course was inaccurate (and in a few cases wildly so) but Steve's course notes were always spot on.

On top of that, he also recognises the difficulty (and indeed, danger) of the country we're riding through and his efforts to retrieve broken riders who need rescue have been awesome (as of writing there is one finisher and 3 left on course out of 18 starters).

Doing the Tour Divide your planning is aided by comprehensive maps and a guide book and Steve's notes are an admirable substitute.

Now, the things I didn't like!

Firstly, its masochistically difficult.  In both years only a few have finished and the course has destroyed seasoned riders.  A sub 5 day ride on this course means you are the sort of rider that has a shot at winning Tour Divide (Ollie who won year 1 is a TDR winner and Calvin this year placed 2nd).

The sheer amount of climbing boggles the mind - at 24,000VM in its 1000km length that's more than 8000VM more than the most difficult 1000km stretch of Tour Divide.  Actually, if you took all of the biggest climbing days from my TDR ride and added them together you still don't get that much climbing in 1000km.

But the difficulty in the course is not actually the climbing.  Its the logistics.

The resupply points are pretty few and far between - especially in the first 600km or so.  The need to be totally self sufficient (not even a farmhouse to wander into and beg for help) means that you are reliant on hitting towns between the hours of about 9-5 in order to find a store to buy more food.  Arrive 30 minutes late and you effectively loose 14 hours while you wait for the shops to re-open.

This means that for the truly mind-numbingly fast, sub 5 days is do-able but for the rest of the pack a few slow hours quickly turns into a day or two's delay.  Added to this is that with less pace comes the need to carry more food and gear which means more weight and in turn less pace (called a vicious circle!).

For instance if I was going back I'd add cooking equipment and the sort of food that goes along with that.  That is a bit of a re-think to how I've packed for events like Tour Divide or the New Zealand Brevets.

Finishing Cloudride is truly an achievement and those that get through it have my utmost respect.  For me though, the unforgiving nature of the course and how its laid out mean that to attempt it you're either a gun and aiming for sub 5 days or, you need to be prepared to chill and take it a bit slower and pack accordingly.

Its probably never going to be an event for the masses (like Tour Divide / Highland Trail Race / Colorado Trail Race etc) as at times it feels like its tough just for the sake of being tough.  But then again, as one of the ultimate tests of self its right up there and it is in our back yard.

Being constructive, I would say that a perhaps a Cloudride 'light' course which skips some of the more masochistic sections would be a great addition.  I really enjoyed all of the experiences around the race and actually loved riding in the alps.  I'm also glad I had a chance to spend a little time with Steve (even though it was forced) this guy loves the country and his knowledge of where to ride is amazing - its nice to meet a race organiser that has gone out of their way to put something together just to show off places they love.

Last year's race served as a warning as to its toughness and the field grew for this year so me being soft I guess just adds to its reputation I suppose... personally the current course didn't suit me but Steve, throw together a slightly softer (there... I said it) option and I'll be the first to sign up :)


  1. Arran, you are spot-on with my summation when I was weighing up whether to do this race or not.
    I figured it was just too difficult both physically and logistically for an "average joe" to realistically (meaning still enjoying oneself) have a crack at. If there were twice as many small towns/resupply points then the consequences for missing trading hours wouldn't be so dire. Tough is good but tough, just for tough's sake, is stupid and won't attract people. But then, that might be the point?

  2. Yup. Seems you go Sub 5, or the next finisher was about 7 and then last two at 9 days. 9 days for a 1000km ride is probably not what I'm looking for but then again there are plenty who are :) Just need more events to get the variety!

  3. Great honest wrap up, thanks Arran