It's not even my alarm that rudely awakens me at 5am. It's one of the six snoring men in my shared room. 5am! I've had nights out that finished later.
A month ago, I'd never worn Lycra. I'd never “hit a wall”, and didn't really understand what that meant. I'd never locked myself into cleats (special bike shoes that attach you to your pedals). I'd never pushed a struggling cyclist up a hill. I'd never applied "butt cream” to my nether regions. And I'd never, ever willingly got up at 5am.
In September, that all changed. These hitherto unimagined rituals were performed daily in the Glencore 1000Ks 4 Kids bike challenge, raising funds for children's cancer charity Camp Quality. And the experience changed me in unexpected ways.
Epic is such an overused word. But there's no substitute when describing this challenge. It. Was. Bloody. Epic.
We started in Ipswich in Queensland and took in Toowoomba, Warwick, Tenterfield, Glen Innes, Uralla, Tamworth, Gunnedah, Murrurundi and Singleton. Exhausted and euphoric, we wheeled into Newcastle, NSW 10 days and 1080km later. That, we consoled ourselves, is longer than cycling from Paris to Madrid (1053km).
The journey had its pitfalls. En route to my first qualifier, my bike was stolen from the train. Crestfallen and deflated I reasoned that, as I was en route to a charity ride, surely this fast-tracked me to the front of the queue in the karma stakes.
When the big day arrived, I felt underprepared with my new bike. Cleats are notoriously tricky. If you stop suddenly, you have no limbs near to the ground to save you. So you fall over like they do in cartoons: dramatically, neatly and hilariously. I came off several times – once whilst waving to schoolkids.
I'd underestimated just what this event would do to my body. By day seven, the right side of my body had consistently tried to pack up on me. My shoulder gave me constant, searing pain. But each morning I'd tell it to pipe down and suck it up.
The weight I put on surprised me. It stayed on. By day 10, I looked like a puffy carb-loaded sweet potato, squashed into my Lycra like toothpaste squeezed back into the tube. It wasn't until two weeks later that it (thankfully) fell away to reveal some of the new muscles I'd developed.
Long-distance cycling is more intense than you imagine. To cover the distance required before losing daylight, you must pedal at a minimum 25km/h for eight hours a day in a strict, tight formation (called “drafting”, it provides a wind break, safety and predictability). This is no wind in your hair, freewheeling giddy dream. It's relentless.
Concentration cannot slip, even when you're hallucinating from fatigue. Blink and you'll miss road hazards. Glass. Rocks. Road kill. One of us did blink, and Antony - our most experienced rider - needed stitches seconds later. He got straight back in the saddle. Michael wasn't so lucky. A pothole spat him off his bike. He suffered concussion, fractures to his collarbone, elbow and ribs, and a punctured lung. Seeing that shook a lot of us up, but Michael is recovering well.
Another golden rule is to eat before you're hungry and drink before you're thirsty. You eat more bananas than an ape with worms (consuming five before 2.30pm wasn't unusual). You drink so much that you constantly need to wee. Bladder discomfort becomes your constant companion.
So with all this risk, privation, extreme fatigue and Lycra to cope with, why was this an experience I'll treasure? For one, I'll never forget climbing to the top of “Hell Mountain” – 3.8km of relentless gradient in 30-degree heat. At the top, there were tears, hugs and whoops. MJ, the cyclist whose encouraging words kept me trundling, threw her arms around me and almost fainted. I had goosebumps.
We undertook this journey in the same month that a certain tabloid newspaper ran a vicious campaign depicting cyclists as obnoxious. The sportsmanship of my fellow cyclists was the most eloquent riposte I could imagine to this unfair portrayal. If a cyclist struggled with a hill, stronger cyclists physically pushed them to the top – even when that meant exhausting themselves.
All 35 cyclists on the ride spent the year fundraising for Camp Quality. We were visited by Caitlyn, 11. For three years, Caitlyn has been living with a brain tumour and confronting the side effects to intense chemotherapy. Caitlyn's dad explained how Camp Quality's support was essential for the family to face her cancer journey with optimism and resilience. We forgot the pain of our short 10-day journey. The next morning, we locked ourselves into those cleats with renewed resolve.
Between us, we raised $307,000 for Camp Quality – enough to support 76 families who have a child living with cancer for the next year. Hardly “terrorists in Lycra”. And, unlike a certain Prime Minister, we didn't bill taxpayers in expenses for the privilege of participating.
Mostly, it was the people that made this odyssey unforgettable. Twenty volunteers – including two massage therapists, two motivational “fun therapists,” (dressed in onesies), drivers, nurses and a bike mechanic who repaired 50 flats – catered for our every need. Country singer Catherine Britt cycled and kept us entertained with songs. The personal challenges cyclists overcame were inspiring – like Richard, who lost 28kg in training, and often led the pack.
This was the biggest challenge I've ever faced. It had a profound impact. I used to be a weekend lay-in guy. Since returning, I set my alarm early at least one day every weekend (admittedly, not 5am). I'm also a cleat convert, after previously dismissing them as too dangerous. The 25 per cent extra "pull" they give you on the hills is worth a few bruises.
The experience taught me that the journey is more significant than the destination; I obsessed over that finish line in Newcastle. But it was an anti-climax compared to the myriad of other moments along the journey. Those moments proved that I'm capable of infinitely more than I thought – even after “hitting a wall” two days before the end. I simply had a word with myself, and pushed through it.
I want my next sporting challenge to be bigger and harder. Bring it on.
Feeling inspired to cycle for charity? Here are 5 of the best coming up:
1. The Glencore 1000Ks 4 Kids 2014 takes on a new route – from Mittagong in a scenic loop to Newcastle. September 4-14, 2014. Email Camp Quality with your expression of interest.
2. Fancy something further afield? Explore Vietnam and Cambodia in the cycle adventure of a lifetime with the Live. Laugh. Ride. Challenge, September 12-25, 2014. Discover temples, rice fields and jungles by bike, assist Vietnamese locals in building amenities, and raise funds to support kids with cancer in Australia.
3. Prefer to get everything done and dusted in a day? The Sydney to the 'Gong bike ride on Sunday, November 3 is perfect – take on 58km or 90km and raise funds to support Australians living with MS. Victoria's Around The Bay In A Day is on this Sunday (October 20) with distances ranging from 20km to 210km to raise money for The Smith Family.
5. Lap Tasmania in Amy's Share The Road Tour (December 1-8), raising funds for the Amy Gillett Foundation, which has a vision of zero bike-related fatalities in Australia.