Two hundred meters up the road, my chain broke.
Was it a sign?
I believe it’s an omen when coincidence strikes, and your heart speaks up.
But there was no foreboding in my heart that morning, despite the grave warnings I’d received.
I pulled over, removed the bad link, reconnected the chain, and pedalled on. Simple as that, ready for the Australian Alps.
In fact the challenge was so large in my mind after Maurie’s creative imagery, that I forgot all about the cracks I discovered in my rim that morning. One spoke had pulled through it’s hole in the rim. Nothing I could do to repair fractured aluminium – at least not on a rim – so I just detensioned that spoke, until it might as well have been broken. And one single broken spoke can’t slow me down that much, can it?
The sundrenched farmland of the Murray Valley led me to the village of Kahncoban at the foot of the mountains. Out of respect for Maurie, and for the mountain, I checked in at the National Parks office, even though it would probably mean buying an expensive parks pass.
But the warden there said I didn’t need a pass!
“You cyclists suffer enough.”
Thanks! I think….
And the road conditions?
“Hm, there was a tree down across the road, but I think it’s open again now.”
What about the snow and ice and the lethal Siberian isolation?!
“People do it,” she said. “Some of them even survive.” A classic Australian joke, but little did she know how much tension it dispelled for me!
The challenge began, and it required no small amount of torque. But soon I warmed up and it was mountain life again, second gear (never first!) hour after plodding hour. And I did see snow – something I hadn’t expected when I began this tour!
But for nightfall it happened that I descended and camped, perfectly comfortable and all alone at the Tom Groggin camp area.
The stars were incredible that night.
I gazed upwards, wondering about the decisions that had led me here.
Why did I choose, when looking at the map a couple days earlier, to go through the region peppered with “Mount So-n-So” and “Such-n-Such Range,” and all those madly curving roads? Because it was colored green on the map, a national park? Maybe because I dislike going “off-sides,” and the other route would have brought me North beyond my destination before curving back South?
Or was it because there was a part of me that knew – even before I heard tell of all the snow and ice, before I learned that Mount Kosciusko is Australia’s highest point – that it would be the most challenging option?
It’s true I have been accused of being a glutton for punishment. Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. And when I look back on my favorite travel memories, most of them do involve overcoming challenges.
The Alpine Way was indeed fairly challenging. What fun!
The climb up to Thredbo was nothing to scoff at. It began without preamble or warm-up, a good fifteen kilometres of unrelenting steepness. And it grew colder with every klick.
There were some icy bits, too, up past the signs that say, “Tire Chains Required.” Bits where I was forced to slip-n-slide over to the bank on the shoulder so I could plant my feet in the snow for traction and push my rig up to the next melted patch. And near the summit there were short-and-fast downhill bits that brought to mind Wisconsin black ice – ice that’s indistinguishable from dry road – and where the spectre of my slip-n-fall in Egypt crowded my concentration.
But then I was surprised – and a bit disappointed – to find myself at the top! I had planned on the full twenty kilometres being up hill, like the park warden said. Just minutes earlier I had stopped for a freezing lunch break to amp up for the final third, but no need – suddenly a long snowy valley opened up below me.
My expectations had robbed me of my exaltation. Well… some of it. Nothing dampened the joy of a long, straight descent!
The skiers were out in force. Australia doesn’t have many places that get snow, so high-altitude regions are very popular for “snow holidays.” One pair even said they had skied next to a herd of wild brumbies! It really is the Snowy River!
I descended to the skiing mecca of Thredbo, with its SUVs and flashy resorts, but instead of venturing through town I crunched through the snow to fill my water jug from a crystal clear stream, and kept on sailing.
Campgrounds in the park are free because they charge so much for park passes. Lucky me, all I had paid was a bit of “suffering.”
But they were crowded.
I pitched my tent under a copse of trees and hijacked a neighbor’s fire pit. When they returned from skiing they were pleased to find a fire already built, and as I cooked my dinner, chatty and cheery after my day of overcoming challenges, they shared their company, cider, pizza and mead.
Though I laid insulating bark and grass on the snow before pitching my tent, and went to bed with a bottle of hot water, that night was the coldest sleep I’ve had this trip. At dawn I gratefully shook the thick layer of white frost off my gear and hurried to get back in the saddle.
Then it was a fast descent to Jindabyne, and a high kilometre afternoon, but by the end I started to feel a disconcerting sloppiness from my rear wheel.
The spokes were all loose and out of whack, their tension verging on collapse. And where before there had been only one cracked spoke bed in the rim, now there were three.
It was a wheel that, had someone brought it up to my repair counter, I’d have deemed it unridable.
Or at least, unsafe.
Unfixable? Subtly, my imagination began wondering if maybe, just maybe, there was a way….
If I could only make it to Canberra, I trusted that my biker host on Warm Showers would somehow help me find a good replacement.
The city awaited. Salvation.
Only 120 kilometers away.