The final hundred metres were the worst. In obscene crosswinds, descending a sweeping bend, the front wheel jolted horribly with each roaring gust. I tried to lean into the corner, but the wind kept forcing me back, straightening my line when I needed to turn.
“Look where you want to go,” I reminded myself. “Not where you don’t.”
But the painted white line along the road’s edge grew larger as my bike steered haplessly towards the verge, pushed sideways by the wind. I was out of control.
My car – my sanctuary in this apocalyptic weather – was parked just ahead, on the side of the road. If I could only stop now, I’d be safe. I’d have a refuge. I’d be out of danger.
The road had straightened, but I hadn’t quite finished turning. I couldn’t steer any more. I’d only go where the wind took me. Still veering off-road, I squeezed the brakes as hard as I dared, fearing a lock-up. The wind howled. The bike wobbled underneath. This descent was too steep. I wasn’t going to stop in time. The verge came closer and closer. This was it. I was going to crash.
A series of unfortunate crashes
It wasn’t long before cabin fever coaxed me back onto the saddle, if only to practise trackstands in a local cricket field. On the way home, my wheel caught an edge between grass and a cement basketball court, and down I went again.
This second crash was more frustrating than painful. I’d only grazed my palms, but deep in my head, doubts were stirring. What was going on? After seven years of nearly crash-free riding, why, suddenly, couldn’t I stay upright?
After another week away from the bike, I shook off my concerns and headed to Akuna Bay. I’d just completed my last guide to climbing Sydney’s Three Gorges and was now looking for hills further afield.
On a brilliant blue-sky Saturday morning, I left my car in Terrey Hills and descended through Ku-ring-gai National Park. My knee was now pain-free, my palms were healing and finally, after weeks of being cooped up, I felt the freedom of flying along the road.
Then, down I went – yet again.
On a tight right-hand turn – tighter than I’d remembered – I misjudged my line. Whereas I’d finished turning my bike, the road continue to curve sharply. I was heading too far towards the left, towards a rock wall. I squeezed the brakes and tried to correct my angles, but the adverse camber resisted my efforts.
Between the rock wall and the edge of the road was a ditch of loose stones. I saw that rocky ditch, instinctively fixated on it, and, still braking, couldn’t avoid it. Thrown from the bike, I landed hard on the tarmac. I got up right away, but heavily wincing.
Another crash – the third in a month.
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If my second crash was frustrating, the third was demoralising.
I’d crashed only twice in seven years of cycling, and now three times in just one month. What on earth was going on? Couldn’t I ride properly anymore?
In this case, I had nobody to blame but myself. No-one crashed in front of me, nobody took me out. I’d simply made a mistake and failed to look to where I wanted to go. In other words, I was just a crap descender.
My left knee had just finished healing. Now, after this third crash, my right knee sustained a serious knock. I’d also lost patches of skin along my side. Another setback, another few weeks off the bike awaited. I limped back to the car feeling sorry for myself.
A week later and still nursing my wounds, I made the trip down to Jindabyne to work at L’Etape. I hadn’t visited the Snowy Mountains since taking up cycling, and I’d heard about its challenging alpine climbs. Despite all my sores, I was unable to resist bringing my bike along. I aimed to climb Kosciuszko Road up to Perisher Ski Resort – the same climb the L’Etape competitors had faced that weekend.
Whereas L’Etape enjoyed impeccable sunshine, the mountains saved their foul weather for me. I woke to the ghostly wail of wind through the eucalypts. However, rain wasn’t forecast for another three hours, so I dressed myself and drove to the foot of the mountain.
The wind was strong enough to jostle my car, but I wasn’t concerned. Sure, BoM said I’d be facing a headwind up most of the 22-kilometre ascent, but speed was not a priority today. I’d just ride slowly and steadily.
I parked my car beside the road. A solitary rider passed me by, descending back towards Jindabyne. Aside from him, the road was empty.
The first sign of trouble came early. Before climbing Kosciuszko, one must first negotiate a straight, exposed descent down to Thredbo River. The wind was already blowing me sideways on that open road, and I nervously stayed on the brakes. I was suffering from post-crash PTSD. Shaken about by the wind, I imagined crashing again on even the gentlest of curves.
On the early slopes of Kosciuszko, I could relax a little. The road was sheltered here, and the air still and warm enough for me to remove my arm warmers. Still, the whistling of wind through the branches above hinted at the adversity to come.
Big wind, big fear
Indeed, after just a couple of kilometres, the wind arrived – all 60 km/h of it, what the Beaufort Scale calls a “moderate gale”. At times, a block headwind forced me to crawl uphill in the drops at snail’s pace. At other times, sideways gusts threw me towards verge. More than once, I stopped to wait for the wind to die down, afraid of being blown over. Yet even while standing upright, I had trouble staying on two feet.
At one point, the road crossed the top of an exposed cliff-face. Alone and trembling in the gale with a chasm just metres away, my imagination ran wild. Would I be blown off the cliff, my corpse lost forever? Would I fall into the path of a car, left to die on the side of the road?
The fear grew and grew. I crept through the exposed section and passed through the National Park toll gates, but still the wind howled. A rainbow appeared in the sky above, but it was no symbol of hope, merely a premonition of worsening weather. Fat droplets of rain began to splatter on the tarmac. A brief shower, no doubt, but enough to plunge me deeper into fear. I pictured myself, sodden and freezing, sliding out on a wet corner and into the abyss.
Still, I pressed on with less and less enthusiasm. After traversing Sawpit Creek, the road curved slightly to the right.
There, the wind became insurmountable.
You shall not pass
With trees to the left and exposed grass to the right, the mountain funnelled the wind directly down the road. It was like a jet engine pointing at my face. Again I dismounted for safety, again I was nearly blown off my feet.
There was only 100 metres of exposed road until the shelter of the eucalypts, but to me it looked like an impassable gauntlet from Indiana Jones. I had to give up. There was no way forward.
Vanquished, I turned around and began the lonely descent.
Prudent or paranoid?
A question lingers: if not for the previous crashes, could I have climbed Perisher that day? Was it just a lack of confidence? Or were the conditions physically insurmountable?
Even now, in hindsight, I’m not sure of the answer.
That morning, I felt afraid for my safety in a way I’d never felt on a bike before. I sensed a real chance of serious injury with nobody nearby to help. If I hadn’t crashed at Akuna, would I still have felt that way? Was it irrational, just in my mind? If a friend was with me, would we have encouraged each other all the way to the top? Or were the winds really that strong?
That fear followed me all the way down the mountain. My fingers never strayed from the brakes. My descending technique involved scrubbing off as much speed as possible in a feeble defiance of both gravity and tailwind. I couldn’t go slowly enough.
I went back to basics: “Look where you want to go” was the mantra as I endeavoured to avoid repeating the error of Akuna Bay. The road rushed past and I didn’t feel free; I felt a prisoner in an awful nightmare where any slight error would send me careering over the precipice.
Thankfully, I survived that torturous descent. I coasted over the Thredbo River and headed back for the car. But the struggle was not over. The terrifying slope that I had descended towards Thredbo River now became an uphill crawl, with the crosswinds still insisting me off the road.
The final kilometre to my car was downhill, and as the wind whipped up yet again, this was the most terrifying moment of the day.
The final stretch
My car was just there, on the right-hand side of the road.
Yet the wind and slope ushered me away, further and further towards the left-hand verge.
I squeezed the brakes, willing the bike to stop before I plunged into the grass. But the slope was too steep. It wasn’t slowing enough. I was going to crash. I shut my eyes and braced for impact…
But none came.
My bike had halted with inches of tarmac to spare. My unclipped foot found the security of the ground, and even as I fought to stand upright in the forceful gale, I knew my ordeal was over.
The wind kept blowing as I packed my bike away, at one point sending my wheels flying onto the road. The elements had been my enemy that day, and my crash-weakened resolve had shattered on the slopes of Kosciuszko.
Now, I must regain my confidence. First, I’ll wait for my wounds to heal. I’ll revisit more familiar roads. Slowly, I’ll rediscover that sensation of freedom, of feeling at peace on the bike. I haven’t felt that in a long time. Instead, my rides have been plagued by the fear of disaster and the stiffness of sore joints.
The joy of cycling eludes me. It is a gift not to be taken for granted, and I hope to return one day to the mountains, ready to fly freely up those formidable slopes of Kosciuszko.
Have you ever had to recover after a setback or an accident? Let us know how you did it in the comments below.