Day 117: Binalong, NSW to near Cootamundra, NSW - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 21, 2014

Day 117: Binalong, NSW to near Cootamundra, NSW

The crunch of gravel on the shoes of a single early morning power walker and the barking of a lone dog on a front porch are the only unnatural sounds that greet us on what turns out to be another perfect morning. We crank slowly up long climbs away from creeks so small they almost don't exist while talking about Tim Burton movies, the kind of nicknames people apply to female body parts, and examining Kristen's new sunburn. Then after half a mile of plateau we shoot down the back side of the hill toward the next creek and get ready to start the process all over again.

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We see red foxes charge along the floor of the valley on the ribbon of green grass that parallels a stream, then run across the highway and into a paddock full of sheep, which leads to a stampede of mutton charging with great concern up and over the hills. We also get of waves and thumbs up and horn honks of support from every other car that passes in the other direction, and somehow that makes the climbs seem easier and the miles shorter. Both of those things are a welcome boost, because we can feel the heat of the day building as the sun rises higher in the sky behind us and little rivers of sweat start to flow down the hollows of our backs.

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Harden lies in the middle of wheat-growing country, which means it's a town of farm supply stores and tractor repair garages. It's also a place where the metal door in front of the grocery store rolls up just as we lean the bikes against the wall out front, where old men on scooters with striped rectangular sun umbrellas mounted to the top wave to each other as they pass on the sidewalk, and where more cars park in front of the small churches on this Sunday morning than anywhere else in town.

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But we don't linger too long in Harden, because even by 9:30 it's clear that today is going to be the hottest we've pedaled through since we cut across California's Central Valley more than three months ago. Near the end of town we hang a left, leave the highway behind, and return to the empty back roads that make cycling cross-country so enjoyable. Again we're all alone and able to ride side by side whenever we want. We spend a lot of time talking about Kristen's mom, stepdad, sister, and brother-in-law who just arrived in the Midwest for the holidays, where it's all Christmas lights, panicked last minute shopping, those awful inflatable Santa lawn decorations, and the possibility of snow is high.

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It's hard to conceive of that sort of thing out here. Whenever we come across a wide patch of shade I stop and let the breeze suck away the heat and evaporate the moisture that streams off my head and down through the little hairs on the back of my neck. It's impossible to convey with words the profound level of pleasure and satisfaction that comes as I let the waves of cool sweep over me with my head back and eyes closed, breathing in and out, in and out, in and out.

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I stop and fall into this zen-like state a lot, because the hills are steep, the hills are constant, and the farther we get from Harden the more the hills start to become long. But our toes aren't numb, our clothes aren't soaked, and there aren't any rented camper vans threatening to knock us headlong into a wheat field, so we relax and crank out slow miles and continue to try and make sense of the fact that we're crossing Australia on bicycles. We look out on abandoned water tanks of rusted sheet metal and lines of wheat that stretch up and over and down the curves of the hills in rows so precise that their creation must have been guided either by GPS or extraterrestrials. The sheep huddle beneath the trees along the fence line to escape the crush of the sun and the drone of cicadas roars so loud that it cancels out all other sounds. We don't have an elevation profile, so we don't know when the hills will end, but that turns out best in the end. Not knowing what's coming helps us stay more positive about the road ahead, because the top of every climb could be the end of climbing, and what an incredible gift that would be.

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The hills mean it takes longer to reach Cootamundra than we expected, and by the time we get there in the early afternoon it's 92 degrees and the hottest part of the day is yet to come. With the library closed and the owner of the only open cafe having decided to enter into an ascetic lifestyle that shuns air conditioning, we find the closest patch of shade. Then we lay next to each other on the grass on our stomachs, angle ourselves into what's left of the breeze, and try to keep from moving. Soon I see Kristen's hands and arms start to give off tiny little shakes as the burden of a poor night's rest catches up to her and she starts to fall asleep. No one else walks the streets because they're all tucked away in a walk-in freezer somewhere.

Taking notes and draining ankle blisters.
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We head out of town in the early evening with the temperature slowly making its way down from a high of almost a hundred. In the back of passing trucks we see dogs with the undersides of their snouts resting on the lip of the side of the truck bed. At the edge of the shoulder, the broken leg bone from some unknown animal reflects bright white in the setting sun. And whenever a cloud parks itself in front of the sun I shout out loud for joy.

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Then I shout out loud from frustration. Near the top of a short climb that leaves sweat dumping off my head in narrow little rivers, I feel the drivetrain jump forward slightly, as if it skipped a tooth on a chainring or the cassette, or somehow stretched itself on the last swing of the pedals. When I stop and turn the pedals in reverse, I notice that every so often the chain sticks, the rear derailleur binds, and the tension goes away. The same happens going forward, but with the added bonus of the tension locking the crank arms in place and sending me to a skidding stop. When I kneel down to look at the rear derailleur, I see the chain coming off in the gap between the upper jockey wheel and the cassette, as if the derailleur is out of alignment. But I just had the drivetrain tuned back in Sydney, the jockey wheels are all spinning free and straight, and the springs and pivots of the derailleur aren't binding anywhere either. And so I do what someone who knows very little about bicycles would do: lube the hell out of every moving part, including all of the chain links, spin the drivetrain around in forward and reverse a few dozen times, and hope for the best.

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To my surprise, it works. One of the eight different things I tried fixed the binding problem, and all of a sudden I can ride again, swinging the pedals forward and back free and easy, with no sound beyond a small clicking in the freehub that's been there since back in New Zealand. Amazing! After almost an hour of grumbling and sweating, and with grease stains all over my palms and my fingers, we're able to get back to cranking. We ride under the archways formed by tall trees on perfect pavement, past an old turtle and a young fox, and through growing clouds of bugs, all set to the sounds of cows pissing with the volume of a fire hose. I obsessively run through the gear range for several miles, trying to make sure that the problem has been fixed, that it hasn't just gone into hiding. But there's no sign of it.

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And then, bam, a dozen miles down the road the chain binds up while I'm pedaling at ten miles per hour and the bike comes sliding to a halt with the back tire locked up. I look at the derailleur and chain again and still can't find any obvious problem, but this time no amount of fiddling brings a solution. And after so much screwing around earlier, it's now getting dark. I decide that if I can't ride the thing I'll just have to walk it up the hills and then coast down the back side of each one. Except I can't. Every dozen feet or so the chain binds on its own, even though the drivetrain hasn't been touched and stands unmoving, as if it's being pedaled by a ghost. And that's when I realize what's wrong: the freehub is either slowly dying or already dead.

It's still two and a half miles to the state forest we hoped to reach. I try to walk the bike, stopping every time the hub sticks, but within moments it's clear we won't make it there until long after the sky has turned black.

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Just then I hear the clanking of wrenches in the garage of a nearby house, and all of a sudden I feel relief, because there's a good chance that we won't have to walk any farther. With the most beautiful sunset in recent memory glowing in the sky behind us, we wheel the bikes down the driveway toward the house. As we crunch loudly on the gravel and try to find the location of the front door, we notice a group of three or four people on a screened-in porch who laugh and drink and smoke and watch the TV show Top Gear.

"Oh, somebody's here!" one of them says, the words sliding out of her mouth with less structure than they would have a few hours earlier.

"Hiya," I say back to the disembodied voice. "We've run into a little trouble on the road."

Some scuffling starts, and ten seconds later a short older man with a thick mustache and brown hair with loose curls comes out a side door with a can of beer in one hand and an unsure look on his face. After I tell him what happened, we introduce ourselves and ask if it's okay for us to put up our tent in the yard for the night, until we can figure out how to get back into Cootamundra in the morning.

"Oh sure," he says without hesitation. "Set up wherever you want."

"Awesome, thanks," I say. "My name's Jeff, by the way."

"Scotty."

The next hour turns into a blur of unpacking the bikes, setting up the tent while a cat tries to claw her way to the top of it, and excited dogs almost knocking Kristen over. Scotty hands each of us a can of Carlton Dry, and tells us with no coherent narrative about how he came to live out here, how he met his second wife, that he installs and maintains irrigation lines for a living, that he doesn't like the road cyclists from town who ride three-wide on the narrow country roads, and what to do if a five-foot-long goanna lizard starts charging your way (don't stand there, lay flat and let it run over top of you). When I ask about the old sedan he's restoring, he fires it up and the garage fills with the loping rumble and chug of a blown Chevy V8 and the smell of racing gas.

He is, as Kristen so eloquently explains it, a man who probably isn't given the chance to do a kindness for a stranger very often, but when he is, kindness is his instinct nonetheless. And tonight that means the world to us. Even though I'm exhausted, hungry, dirty, smelly, in serious need of a shave, and now own a busted bicycle with no obvious way to fix it, the goodwill shown to us by a stranger helps me head to sleep not feeling all that bad about any of it.

Today's ride: 64 miles (103 km)
Total: 3,516 miles (5,658 km)

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