Riding the Great Ocean Road with the Great Sydney Cold

Sometimes, things just don't go according to plan.

It was all lined up – accommodation, leave and flights. The mission: the Wiggle Amy's Gran Fondo, a 120km timed event that loops around the Otway Range hinterland southwest of Melbourne, culminating with a finish along the famous Great Ocean Road.

But I didn't reckon with the Great Sydney Cold of 2016, which grabbed me a month before the event. I had 10 miserable days of inactivity, but was back on the bike and rebuilding nicely – only to be felled by a second round of the snuffles and splutters, with a bonus chest infection.

Dreams of a good showing gave way to uncertainty about whether I'd even line up on the day. On the flip side, I was worried about getting caught up in the excitement, going out too hard, and wrecking the rest of my week's leave in Melbourne. A middle ground had to be found.

So here it is – how I had a good time in a cycling event when getting a great time was out of the question.

Early warning

Knowing I was going to underperform, I started building the excuses in ahead of time. "I'm going down to do that ride, but I've been so sick, I haven't been on the bike in weeks," I told anyone interested (especially those who might see the outcome on Strava).

Underselling is a famous pre-event tactic among friends and rivals, however, and if you're known for hedging your bets, you might struggle to be believed – at least until you live down to your expectations.

Of course, I didn't want to keel over on the event, but a visit to my GP earned me permission to line up for the start – and a bonus inhaler to put in my back pocket, in case my lungs played up. "Just take it easy and you'll be fine," I was told. It was time to ponder my non-race strategy.

Moving down the order

In events where bunches are formed based on expected average speed over the event, I usually apply this tried and tested formula: Put yourself into a group on the upper edge of your ability, and spend the ride desperately trying to keep up with those around you.

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This time, I reversed that approach, and started pretty much in last place. "This way, no one will overtake me!" I told myself with pride as I followed some 5500 riders over damp mountains in the coastal hinterlands.

That only held for a while, as faster riders would stop for food and drink, a "nature break" or a puncture, and then come fanging past. But it was easy to let them go. After all, I'd probably already overtaken them once – we could call it a tie.

Roadside attractions

Like most distance cycling events, the Gran Fondo route was dotted with rest stations offering food and drink.

In past situations, I have blown past these whenever possible, living grimly on snack bars fished from back pockets and carefully rationing the contents of my water bottles.

But with time no object, rest stops were savoured and food and drink options were dutifully sampled at every opportunity.

The rolling gourmand's award went to the delicious carrot cake just before the last big climb of the day, which I tackled with a second helping in my right hand. Tricky for shifting gears, but oh so worth it.

Beware of the broom

I was climbing with food in hand because a glance of the event schedule on the sticker attached to my top tube had reminded me that a "sag wagon" was ready to sweep up anyone who fell behind the mandated cut-off times.

A glorious 10-kilometre descent to the coast was a good chance to regain time without disobeying doctor's orders – well, not the overt ones, anyway. Jelly legs and creaky lungs could take a rest as gravity tugged on my cake-bolstered body. My GPS tracker later showed a top speed above 80km/h – which may have been a glitch, but I'm claiming it.

Taking in the sights

Back on the level, the moderated pace brought its greatest rewards during the last 37 kilometres from Skenes Creek back to Lorne.

What better way to enjoy something touted as one of the world's greatest scenic drives than by rolling along it on a bicycle, with the road closed to cars? 

I stopped to take pictures of the sunny sky and sea that I could later show to a friend whose abiding memory of the last stretch was charging along head-down at 33km/h. (Admittedly, she did win a UCI age group medal for her efforts.)

Finally, I rolled into Lorne, well clear of the sag wagon but somewhat behind Osher Gunsberg. Parts of me I thought would feel awful felt fine, and vice versa – but nothing that a shower and (another) feed wouldn't fix.

A double bonus

The thing I love about mass participation cycling events is the myriad mini-sagas going on inside the cohort of riders.

Time is relative – the same click of the stopwatch might be a chest-swelling achievement for one rider but a bitter disappointment for another.

Some ride for solo glory, some for camaraderie, some to beat that one person, and others just for no-stress recreation. And ultimately, we all ride for – and perhaps against – ourselves.

My Fondo frolic didn't turn out the way I'd hoped it would – but it didn't wind up the way I feared it might, either.

And the real upside? I always come away from an event thinking about how I could do better in future. This time, more than ever, I can savour the possibilities of a glorious return.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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