What has become a tradition, our annual HECTIC500 return ride to Wollongong helps to fill in the week between Christmas and NYE, making a big dent in 500 kms for the week. 2023 will be one to remember.
Boxing Day was a weird weather day - blue skies with very localised thunderstorms, intense enough to cause some havoc for the start of the Sydney-to-Hobart. “All that should be gone tomorrow” in time for our Wollongong Longest Day. The forecast was perfect along our route, though the weather news was still talking about localised storms. “We should be fine.”
Hannah had packed enough for a couple of picnic’s and so much rain gear that she had no room for a banana (which Carlos was carrying for her, fitting only just between his caffeine powder supplies). Did she know something?
We started early in order to finish riding mid-afternoon. A solid turnout with 17 of us rolling at the start, meeting Dan on the way. The sun was our companion, guiding us through stunning roads and cicada-filled trees of the Royal National Park. Spirits were high, fueled by the thrill of an all-day ride, a brunch stop, and the sun on our back. There was a bit of climbing ahead, with everyone aware of the Bald Hill climb on the return leg. As we got further into the ride, Lewis and Hannah, who had planned for the train return, weren’t going to miss out on riding, even if it meant a climb.
We made our brunch appointment at 09:30, and with a large order thrown onto a busy morning cafe, we were finally ready to roll for the return by 11:00. Just before leaving, we reminded Dan to put his skewer back in before leaving - his latest trick to disarm bike thieves.
We said farewell to those that decided on the train and took off with a tailwind to tackle the rolling beachhead risers along the ocean coast back to Sydney - oh, and the Bald Hill climb. The first half of the Bald Hill climb to Stanwell Tops is a constant 10+% gradient and the lack of shoulder, sharing a single lane with cars, with nowhere to stop makes it a little challenging. Everyone was pleased to catch a breath before the next section to Helensburgh. We just needed to find Gregg, who had followed the road for another look out from Stanwell Tops. Timmy, always keen for a bit more climbing, went to find him.
Don’t forget to take the first right into Helensburgh! We were targeting the petrol station for a drink stop and chance to cool down. Everyone bought their refreshing guilty pleasure and it was a good opportunity to check on how everyone was feeling. A bit tired and sweaty - but from here it was only 50 kms remaining, mostly flat and fast from here. “It is full gas from here!” smiled Carlos.
The road from Helensburgh to Waterfall was slower than expected. Debris on the side of the road from recent storms produced punctures. As we waited for repairs and riders to catch up, we counted down the kms and felt we were still on time for mid-afternoon. Hannah looked at the ominous skies and suggested we were racing the rain. “Nah…we will be alright.” Little did we know.
As we waited for the third puncture in a Heathcote servo, we stoked energy levels with coke and ice creams, seeking shelter from the sun under the awning. We made this our last stop, planning to skip Sutherland on the fast track home. We were still planning to make it home by 3pm.
The group rolled in with Lewis’ flattish tyre and loose valve core. We tightened the valve and played with gas and pumps to get air into the tube - it remained stubbornly soft, but enough to get home. “Why am I getting so wet under the shelter?” I turned around and everyone was looking into the torrential rain above us. Timmy advised that the current forecast for Heathcote was like this for the next hour or so!
The storm erupted with ferocity, unleashing its wrath upon Heathcote, directly above our heads. Forget the deafening thunder, each lightning bolt seemed to strike closer and closer. It was thrilling, but it was untamed and we were in it, still needing to get home.
Kev proclaimed “I don’t ride in the rain” to which Carlos was dismissive, and went dancing through the servo celebrating the storm. The rain got heavier, and heavier, louder, and closer each minute.
It was now getting cold - a massive contrast to 10 minutes ago sucking on cans of drink. The jovial atmosphere shifted to one of trepidation, and the thought of getting 14 riders home in torrential rain, on already water-swollen roads, and electricity in the sky, was now on our minds. It wasn’t worth any chance, especially if you can cross the road and catch the train from Heathcote! It was time for swift decisions. Calling the end of the ride at Heathcote and catching the train became our new plan.
As we made our way quickly over the road to the footbridge, rain was heavy and visibly large, looking like hail. Less than 10 metres from us, a lightning bolt struck the bin being lifted by the garbage truck in the servo, lighting our immediate area. “What was that?”
“Is the footbridge covered?” “Yeah it has a roof.” That meant nothing. A harrowing journey over the footbridge to the train platform ensued, navigating wind-blown bikes and pelting horizontal rain. Lightning struck ominously close (within 5 metres), startling us to white. Fear gripped us, as each thunderclap resonated through the air, as we quickly looked for some non-metallic safety. Carlos and Gregg ran for the train platform.
Hannah arrived across the bridge distraught. Four of us got into the next lift, but arriving at the ground level, the door opened…Hannah didn’t move. She was terrified. “Get out!” Without a push, she wasn’t planning on going out into the open air.
Everyone was safe on the train platform and we took a moment to compose ourselves before the train arrived. Hannah’s rain coat was drenched but at least she had one. She certainly wasn’t laughing and pleased about it, she was terrified.
In hindsight, the punctures slowed us down enough to avoid being caught on the road in this storm. Though Dan had left us at the servo, pushing on to home in the Shire - he found hail and lots of heavy rain on his way back. He took on the storm.
The train was warm and logistical focus became where the storm was headed, where each of us would get off and trek home. It did look like our train was tracking the storm perfectly, dammit. As some of us left the train at Wolli Creek for a short ride home around the airport, tired James smiled and confirmed he was going to Central for the tram back to Kingsford for an even shorter ride home. Carlos went all the way to Edgecliff for a couple of kms downhill to home.
The MC Longest Day to Wollongong will be remembered not just for the kms covered or the scenery through the National Park, on to the Sea Cliff Bridge, but for the unexpected encounter with nature's fury. It was a ride that tested our mettle, reminding us of the unpredictability and awe-inspiring beauty that awaits those who dare to embrace the open road. What was meant to be an epic cycling adventure turned into a thrilling dance with nature's forces.
Another great MC adventure!
- Lewis longest ride
- 3 flats on the ride, and 2 bonus flats for Timmy and Ecky after the train
- Timmy’s first ride past Waterfall. I am not sure how he hasn’t ridden south before, but he enjoyed it.
- About 100 people in Australia are injured by lightning each year, which is 4 in a million, or a 1 in 250,000 chance. Only a few of that number (10%) actually die from lightning.