The Great Dividing Trail is a mountain bike route encompassing the 3 legs of Goldfields Track, from Bendigo to Bunyinong. A 4th leg runs from Bacchus Marsh back up to Daylesford. For the purpose of this race a stretch of road and a stint through Mt Egerton State Forest ties it all together along with a return from Daylesford back to Castlemaine to finish off along the main GDT route for a total of 385km and ~6500m elevation. The course is predominantly technical singletrack, with some heavily rutted fireroad and some pleasant gravel farm roads thrown in for good measure. Sections of the course, especially around Castlemaine, through which we pass twice, are extremely rocky and taxing on an already tired body.
On Friday, the day before the race, parts of the course were hit with up to 30mm of rain. So, conditions were sloppy to say the least. I’ve ridden about 80% of the course previously, and this time round it was definitely made a little more frustrating due to the conditions. That said, you play the hand you’re dealt and we were lucky to not actually get rained on during the race. Some technical climbs were rendered unrideable due to the wet, and other usually fast sections like O’Briens Rd through Lerderderg and the aqueduct trail out of Bendigo were sodden and muddy and sucked a lot of extra energy and slowed things down a lot.
As is tradition, the GDT race starts after the first train from Melbourne arrives in Bendigo. So I caught the train out, meeting a few other racers on the journey out. After a quick debrief from Ross at the station we were off at 9.25am. The pace was quick from the start, I lead out early onto the singletrack within about a kilometre of town and was quickly joined by the familiar face of John Griffiths. Ryan and Gareth quickly joined the ranks, shortly followed by last years winner Marty Grannas.
Position jostled back and forth with lots of chatting as we motored along the aqueduct trail and by the time we neared Harcourt around 40km in Marty and I had shaken the others. A pinch climb around the back slopes of Mt Alexander and we were rolling into town. Neither of us stopped, pushing on together the next 20km into Castlemaine. We both stopped briefly to fill our bidons and then Marty took off on one of the climbs out of town and I wouldn’t see him again as he ended up pulling out somewhere after Bacchus Marsh.
I rode solo for through the rock-strewn singletrack south of Castlemaine before the blur of Kevin Skidmore – the eventual winner – came flying passed me up a climb. He only had time for a few words before he took off. I could only watch him go, lacking the legs to go with him. From here it was a lonely couple of hours through Hepburn Springs and Daylesford only stopping momentarily to again fill my bidons. South of town after a short climb back into the forest I sat down for the first and only time all race; taking 5 minutes to eat a burrito I’d brought with me. The course then took me along some really fun singletrack past Sailors Falls and down a historic tramway. The route is littered with many relics such as this from the region’s goldrush that sparked in the early 1850’s. Another stretch of singletrack followed that seems to always be covered in leaf litter and can be hard to discern at times. By this stage it was around 5 and I was glad to be through that section before it got dark.
After a 10km stretch across some gravel roads I entered Creswick State Forest. As I worked my way towards Creswick itself the sun set and it was time to turn the lights on. The days are short at the moment and I knew it would be at least 12 hours of riding in the dark before the sun would come up. At some point through the forest I saw some lights winding their way through the trails behind me. I was caught by Ryan Kimberley. He was crushing it on his single speed and we rode together for a bit and worked together to navigate our way through some tricky single track, that seemed to keep disappearing from under us.
We skirted around White Swan Reservoir and then blasted down some rutted out 4WD tracks to the Yarrowee River which would lead us into Ballarat. After shoving large amounts of fries into our faces we ran into the supermarket to briefly restock our food supplies before heading into the night. It was a 75km stretch from here to Bacchus Marsh and being 10pm at that point, not much would be open by the time we got there. I was ready to go first so bid Ryan farewell and rolled out into the dark again.
The course headed back into the bush, over to the township of Bunyingong before a long stretch of road. Along here I ticked over the half way point of the race, climbed up and over Mt Egerton, through Ballan Forest and along some heavily corrugated roads that rattled me into Bacchus Marsh. I made a quick stop at the service station where the attendant hooked me up with some potato cakes on the house!
From here things started to get interesting. After climbing out of town on the road our instructions were “follow the GPS line that follows a fence-line, jump the fence and push through waist high grass to the telephone tower”. So it was hike-a-bike up along the fence line, through the grass, hit the track that lead up to the tower, but the surface was so slick with mud the pushing continued.
Beyond, Blackwood Range Track required some hike-a-bike on some steep, loose pinches as I continued working my way up to Mt Blackwood and along the gravel of Mt Blackwood Rd, following the ridgeline. A short descent along a very muddy and slippery O’Brien’s Rd was made even more sketchy by a heavy fog that had set in. My helmet light was reflecting off the fog and made it near impossible to see.
Around 3am I reached the start of Byres Back Track. Its a beautiful trail that precariously winds its way above the Lederderg River. On your left is a sheer rock face, you have about 3 feet of trail and on your right nothing. I knew it fell down to the river. I could hear the river, rushing hard fuelled by the previous day’s rain. But all I could see was black. It was a carefully ridden 10km into Blackwood.
The 40km from there to Daylesford were some of the most excruciatingly slow and frustrating miles I’ve ever ridden. Blackwood had marked 100km to go, but my progressed had slowed so much I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer to the finish. The trail along this stretch was so muddy, overgrown and ill-maintained. There were trees down everywhere, the trail itself had been destroyed by motorbikes and those ruts had turned into knee deep puddles. It was barely rideable. I was required to dismount every 50 meters or so to climb over or under a fallen tree, skirt around a massive, deep puddle or clamber up a steep, muddy, rutted out and pinchy climb.
After hours and hours of fumbling around in the dark, light started to creep back into the sky. The sun began to rise, and with it my motivation. Now that I could finally see properly I started to open up a little more on the descents, but perhaps got a bit carried away; getting caught in a deep rut and dropping the bike. I managed to stay upright, but landed awkwardly and broke the buckle on the top of my left shoe, leaving my foot floating around the rest of the way.
The frustration only heightened as I crested the final hill above Daylesford. After everything I had overcome I was so close to town and some deep gravel cut a hole in the sidewall of my rear tire. I spent a few minutes trying to get the tubeless sealant to plug the hole but to no avail. Off came the wheel and in went the spare tube. I pumped enough air into the tyre to get me rolling again but it wouldn’t quite seat the tire properly meaning there was a bit of a wobble in it once I was rolling again. But it would get me through.
I refilled my bidons again in town, dropped some roadies on the climb out, smashed a burrito into my face while I could actually use my hands for anything other than trying to stop my bike from bucking me off and prepared for the final 50km.
The final stretch was some of the toughest. It was coming up on 24 hours of riding by this point and I was about to hit some of the rockiest sections of the entire trail. This meant the climbs put me on the rivet, fighting between keeping traction with the rear wheel and placing the front somewhere that wasn’t occupied by a massive hunk of rock. Conversely, I feared that on the descents I might get rattled apart. My whole body was exhausted. At some point I definitely saw something move, a dragon, something coming towards me in the corner of my eye. I blinked, looked again, it was just a log, it wasn’t moving. The lack of sleep was getting to me.
Around the old gold mine shafts and onto the water-race single track; I knew I was close now. One more bone-shaking descent would deliver me into Castlemaine. It was just passed midday so the town was somewhat busy as I navigated myself to the train station to finish. I rolled in at 12:31pm; 27 hours and 6 minutes after I’d started.
I couldn’t do much more then sit down on the bench in front of the station. The beauty of bikepacking races is theres no crowds at the finish, no inflatable archway, no prizes. I’d achieved something for myself and thats all I needed. I’d pushed my limits and learned more about myself and what I was capable of and in the process seen (and missed in the darkness) some amazing parts of the Victorian Goldfields region. I had finished second, about 40 minutes behind the winner Kevin who wandered over a few minutes later.
We recounted battle stories while I waited for the train. After boarding I found my seat, the inspector checked my ticket and the next thing I remember was being woken up by someone telling me we’d arrived back in Melbourne.
Apologies if this account is a bit scattered, the whole day is a bit of a blur.