My plan was simple: leave the house, follow the coastline north, and see what happened.
The deadline was a family wedding in Sydney; the route already established. I’d stop pedalling when I ran out of time, take the night train back, show off my fabulous new tan-lines, and we would all live happily ever after.
It was a nice, simple plan of the type I encourage newcomers to cycle touring to try, requiring no preparation beyond throwing some gear in a pair of panniers and hitting the road.
Now, given my particular history of bicycle-mounted expeditions, you might think a ride up the Australian coastline sounds rather tawdry.
So – if you’ll indulge something of a tangent – let me put into context why I decided to ride alongside the sun-drenched beaches and through the colonial seaside towns of a rich English-speaking nation in peak holiday season.
I’m in my late thirties, which means old people think I’m young and young people think I’m old. I have a relatively (!) settled existence and am lucky enough to have found an awesome life partner. We’ve recently built a cabin in the woods, turned the old house next door into a hostel, and have a loan to pay off and a years-long list of DIY tasks to complete.
In parallel, I’m on the leadership team of an international development project, responsible for spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to make the world a better place. I also run a one-man digital publishing outfit, consult on trail development for a variety of nonprofits, run this blog and its various side projects, keep a Patreon page going… and, occasionally, take time out to travel!
Put simply, I am probably like a lot of people approaching middle age, in that I have more commitments than I remember choosing, wage daily war against overwhelm, and am basically making it up as I go along.
My days of spending years wandering the world in search of enlightenment occupy their rightful place somewhere in my early- to mid-twenties. I am more than content to splice opportunistic little bike trips like this one into the various other threads of my life.
These trips need only be long enough to bring back into focus the spirit of the pure, just-for-the-hell-of-it adventure.
They are, however, a critical part of the canvas upon which all of the above is embroidered.
Tragic would be the day I retreated permanently behind a desk, wistfully regurgitating the tropes of bygone freedoms. (Ouch!)
As my once-in-a-lifetime plan to cycle round the world has mutated into a lifetime-long plan to cycle around the world, I’m less concerned with waiting for the ideal circumstances to arise, and more with carving out chunks of time from whatever cracks appear in my schedule.
To paraphrase a longer polemic on the subject, the best time for a bike trip might be when you’ve saved enough money, or when you’ve finished building the perfect bike, or when you’ve planned the perfect route – or it might be tomorrow, because you’ve got some free time and you can think of no good reason not to just go.
That’s why my various bikes hang ready-to-ride on hooks by the workshop door. It’s why I have permanently-packed panniers (and backpacks). It’s why I’ve taken measures to shrink the distance between the appearance of an opportunity and getting my foot out the door. It’s how those chunks of time can most readily be used.
I had discovered the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail while hunting for the long-distance cycle route network I assumed every developed nation had.
It was something of a surprise to discover that no such thing appeared to exist in Australia. Most of the routes I found had been designed or curated by enthusiasts and put online for whoever wanted to give them a try, or generated via social route-planning platforms like komoot. Many sources dated back years and were no longer maintained. There was almost no mention of institutionalised long distance trails for cyclists – routes of the type developed in the US by the Adventure Cycling Association, in the UK by Sustrans, or across Europe by members of the Eurovelo partnership. Little wonder the grassroots community had stepped in to fill the void.
The origin story of the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail was therefore an unsurprising one: the dream of a local rider who’d pedalled elsewhere in the world, wondered why this beautiful coastline remained inaccessible to two-wheeled travellers, and decided to do something about it. The stated aim of the project was ‘to get you away from the busy highways’, and I’d decided that all of this was reassuring enough to roll the dice.
Based on the modest information on the trail’s website and a handful of rider reports, the trail seemed to be largely theoretical. I could expect to find pockets of infrastructure and signage within city limits and national parks, but it otherwise appeared to be a line on a map involving provincial roads, gravel tracks, shared-use paths in urban areas – and, I was soon to discover, a large number of ferry crossings.
Route planned and calendar blocked out, I’d grabbed my panniers (a new pair of Extrawheel Wayfarers, in case you were wondering, which I’m helping the company to road-test), taken my Oxford Bike Works Expedition down to Richard for a tune-up and a refit (on which more in a future post), and spent 39 hours inside a magical system that can transport you from one side of the planet to the other within the space of a single sleep-wake cycle.
And now here I was, halfway across the bay of Pittwater, aboard one of the public ferries connecting outlying towns and local leisure destinations with Sydney’s Northern Beaches, bound for Ettalong. From there, the route would take me on a circuitous loop of the Brisbane Water inlet; through the commuter town of Gosford; and then on towards the coastline proper, from where I’d be heading roughly north.
Before this trip I’d been deeply engaged in an arcane form of physical conditioning known to its practitioners as “wait training”. The basic idea is that you wait until the start of your ride, hike, paddle, or whatever; and then, at the start of the trip, you begin training for it. It’s a clever and highly efficient system that saves a lot of time and energy, and I honestly don’t know why more people don’t follow it.
(It also pairs nicely with that bicycle-free training regime I developed for newcomers to long-distance cycle touring.)
One of the more challenging aspects of “wait training” is that, at the outset of a trip, you haven’t really quantified what you’re capable of. Disembarking the ferry in Ettalong, I had conservatively estimated making it to Gosford mid-afternoon and then perhaps checking into a campsite or hostel.
And so I dutifully followed the planned route, trundling through a seemingly endless suburb of bungalows and nicely-mown lawns, later picking up a segregated cycleway in Woy Woy that ran parallel to the busy main road and the main regional railway. When I rolled onto the Gosford waterfront several hours ahead of schedule, I decided to celebrate with fish and chips – a vastly improved version of the British version – all the while eyed malevolently by a pair of pelicans.
Boosted by my progress, I decided to press on, reminded that February days at 33 degrees South were generously long, and that even a gentle cadence would carry me well beyond my original goal for the day. Meandering through the green spaces (“reserves”, to use local terminology) on the fringes of Gosford, I stopped to let a small group of road cyclists pass. One of them, a white-haired chap with calves only a lifetime of pedalling could sculpt, dropped back to say hello. He was guiding a few younger members of the club on their morning ride, and it turned out he’d ridden several sections of the coastline further north. He asked me about my trip, and we discussed the road ahead.
‘Just north of The Entrance’, he said, ‘there’s a nice little campground right by the bridge. Much better than the caravan park at the southern end.’ He continued with a list of other good camping spots, and highlighted sections of corrugated gravel road I should be aware of. ‘But looking at your bike,’ he continued, eyeing my plump tyres and generous gearing, ‘you shouldn’t have a problem with those.’
Later on I doubled back to a bike store I’d seen from the cycleway to get my kickstand mounting bolt tightened up. We’d installed the new heavy-duty kickstand in a hurry and hadn’t applied any threadlocker – one of various instances of me dishing out advice to others building their own touring bikes and then being too disorganised to follow it myself.
When I found this bolt working itself loose, I also discovered that the 8mm Allen key I’d chucked in my handlebar bag wasn’t long enough to reach the bolt head buried between the chainstays. This was another excellent example of me not taking my own advice – this time in regard to the contents of my toolkit.
Considering what happened later, both the roadie’s advice and the inadequacy of my multitool were strangely prescient.
Had I paid attention to these events instead of getting carried away with pedalling a more ego-fuelling distance, I might have avoided the misadventures that awaited me further up the road…