Day 118: Near Cootamundra, NSW to Combaning State Conservation Area - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

December 22, 2014

Day 118: Near Cootamundra, NSW to Combaning State Conservation Area

The first thing I do when I wake up is call the number of the one bike shop in Cootamundra that comes up in the search results on the phone. The message that plays doesn't list their name or their hours, but instead tells me that the number has been disconnected. Not a great start. When I look for a shop in Temora, the next town up the road, the first result is "Bikers 4 boobs Charity Bike Ride." I don't think that's going to get it done either. Then I manage to find the number for the president of a bicycle club in Cootamundra, so I give him a call. He confirms that there's nothing in either town, and that the closest shop is in Wagga Wagga, which is wonderfully double-named but also sixty miles away. But then he adds that he might have something in his shop at home, and that he'll be around this afternoon if we can get ourselves back to Cootamundra by then. And so our day starts to take shape.

Sunrise at Scotty's.
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The bike hasn't magically repaired itself overnight, and if anything the hub is sticking worse than it did yesterday, so riding there isn't going to happen. We're eighteen miles of rolling hills away, and the heat will be out in force within an hour or two, so walking is out too. The only option is to get a ride. We walk the bikes out to the quiet back road that brought us this far, find a straight stretch with a patch of shade, and try to hitch a ride back into town.

Neither of us has ever hitchhiked before, so we're terrible at it. When we see a white utility van heading our way we don't start waving to the driver, but instead try to analyze how big the van is, how many people are sitting inside, how many people could sit inside, where they might be going, and how we might get the bikes inside. Of course the van is going a hundred kilometers per hour and has no reason to think we're in need of help, so as our heads fill with practical matters like the cubic capacity of the cargo area of the Toyota Hiace LWB, the van speeds past with a howl and a rush of wind and two seconds later disappears forever around the next corner. We go through the same ridiculous game for the two trucks that pass one right after the next before at last it dawns on us that all we have to do is identity whether the vehicle is a van or a ute, and if the answer is yes, start signaling right away.

We learn this lesson right before we hit a long stretch where all that passes are family sedans and semi-trucks. As we wait and watch for traffic approaching from the west, the wind grows in strength, thrashes through the dry yellow grass at the road's edge, and stretches out every leaf in the trees above us toward the southwest. When we look down at the ground next to our dusty old cycling shoes, we see a team of ants working together to try and carry away the exoskeleton of a cicada. The minutes stack up higher and higher, and soon boredom leads us to make up ridiculous dances with excessive butt shaking, to have sword fights with long stalks of wheat grass and then chuck the stalks at each other's heads, and to expose our asses to the first morning of winter for no reason other than the fact that there's nothing else to do.

Watching the ants at work.
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In the end, we wait almost two hours before an energy company truck with two power line workers inside rounds the bend heading our way. I step out toward the pavement and wave my hand and the truck comes to a stop a lot quicker than you'd expect a truck going a buck-ten down an empty country could stop. "Heya, how ya goin?"

"Well, we're stuck here and can't go any farther, but we're trying to get to Cootamundra. I know you're probably not supposed to give anyone a ride, but do you think we could get a lift into town?"

They talk among themselves for a moment.

"Nah, probably shouldn't, says the guy on the passenger side. But we could go back to town, I could get my ute, then come back and get ya. Take about fifteen, twenty minutes. Sound alright?"

In that moment, nothing sounds better. That's one problem solved, with another who knows how many left to go

Fifteen minutes become twenty and then thirty, and we start to pace with more anxiety. But then a small white ute rumbles over the hill from the direction of Cootamundra, rolls slowly past, pulls a u-turn down by the closest row of mailboxes, and crunches to a stop in the gravel in front of us. We know we're on our way.

Brad is a father of three who grew up in town, which everyone around here calls Coota. He left after getting out of school, but returned seven years ago because it's a friendly, safe, slow-paced town that's a good place to raise kids. Kristen and I sit almost on top of another in the narrow cab as the truck bobs and weaves through the corners and bottoms out its springs on the low spots where the creeks inch over the surface in the winter. With Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" blasting out of the fuzzy old speakers in the doors, we talk about where we've cycled and where we're headed, how this ninety-five degree weather is standard issue here in the summer, and how Brad's kids are beyond excited for Christmas, which is exactly as it should be.

As we roll up to the library and start to unload our gear, Kristen asks if we can give him some money to cover the gas he used to come get us, but he says no thanks, that it was no trouble at all, and that he's happy to have helped. Knowing this would be his answer, in the moment before I stepped out of the cab I slipped a ten dollar bill in the ashtray, where I knew it wouldn't be seen until we were long gone. It only seemed fair.

Brad: one seriously good dude.
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Several hours later, Alan and his son Brett pull up in front of the library. We load up the bike on a rack and head across town to their home, where the two-car garage has been turned into a smartly designed shop, and where road bikes, track bikes, mountain bikes, and fixies hang by their back wheels. Along with Alan's other son Liam, the three guys set about pulling off the wheel, the cassette, and then the freehub. I sit on a short swiveling chair with no back, stay quiet, and watch. The shop is silent but for the sound of wrench clicks, and each man who isn't working watches with both arms behind their backs with the left hand gripping the right wrist.

Straight off it's clear that the internals of the hub are a disaster. The bearings on the left side need a lot more grease than what they've got, but it's better than the drive side, where all that exists is water where there should be grease in between the bearings. The river fords and torrential rain of New Zealand have caused a lot of havoc, it turns out. And the result is that a single greaseless bearing has escaped from its home and wedged itself down in among the pawls, where it jams in between them depending on the angle of the hub. No amount of greasing and shaking and smacking the freehub against an open hand can knock it loose, either. Brett pulls a different freehub from a spare wheel that's sitting in a corner of their garage, but the flange isn't compatible with the hub on my bike. It means that my streak of rear wheels and hubs experiencing rare and catastrophic problems while on long distance tours remains unbroken.

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Alan calls the three bike shops in Wagga Wagga, but none of them have the kind of freehub I need, nor a replacement thirty-six-spoke wheel, and with the holidays it could take a week or more until they're able to get one. The only option that's left aside from hanging out in Cootamundra until almost the start of the new year is to swap out my otherwise good wheel with a thirty-two-spoke wheel of unknown origin and quality pulled from a stack of used wheels that rest along a far wall of the shop.

As Brett carefully tensions and trues the wheel on the stand in front of me, I start to freak out a little when I think about all the possible ways the thing could bend or break or otherwise fail on me out in the middle of a hot, dry, desolate stretch of Australia in the heart of the summer. But then I remember to ask myself that all-important question: what would Stubbs McGee do? What that dude wouldn't do is worry. He'd be happy for the good that's in front of him and then keep on trucking. If the wheel starts to pick up a wobble, get it trued. If it starts shedding spokes, replace the thing by the time you get to Adelaide. Whatever happens, you'll deal with it and figure it out.

On the one hand it seems unlucky to have a freehub with less than 5,000 miles of riding on it wear out in the middle of rural Australia. But in truth it's an island of bad surrounded by a sea of good. I'm incredibly lucky in fact, because this didn't happen out on the Nullarbor or some other remote stretch. It happened near a small town of the sort where you wouldn't expect to find an active cycling club, but where that's exactly what they have. It happened in that town, with that club, during a weekday that the person I called to help was off work, and had a small shop in his house, and had a workable donor wheel that will allow us to keep going.

Liam, Alan, and Brett: three seriously good dudes.
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The library is closed by the time I get back from Alan's house, which means there's no place for me to put my padded cycling shorts on beneath my outer layer of shorts. There are two problems with this. One, the cycling shorts make it feel like I'm riding on a cloud made of angels wings. And two, the outer shorts have developed a hole in an unfortunate area, to the point that before we start pedaling I lift up my left leg, turn to Kristen, and say, "Okay, ball check."

With everything in its proper place we leave Cootamundra on the same road we traveled during the debacle of last night and on the ride back into town this morning. But unlike yesterday, the cover of overcast turns the world dull and flat instead of bright and blinding. We startle flocks of green and red parrots, who leap into flight as we approach, squawking and fanning out in all directions until they figure out which way the leader's headed. We sing out the lyrics to "Old Time Rock and Roll," to each other and also to the cows. When I decide that I'm tired of riding without padded shorts, I get half-naked and put them on in the shoulder of the road at a point when I no longer hear the hum of approaching cars. Kristen rides far ahead by the time I'm done, and I can't see exactly where she is. But then I look into the distance and the answer becomes clear when I see a line of cows hauling ass away from the barbed wire fence line.

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Rain drops start to fall as we crawl into the tent that we've set up in a rare patch of state-owned woods. In the near-darkness inside I eat chunks of cheese mashed into chunks of bread and listen to the kookaburras in the old gum trees call out in a way that makes it seem as if we're sharing the forest with monkeys. By the time their hoots have given way to only the creaking of crickets, the kind of warm and soft sleepiness that comes on the heels of a satisfying day is upon me, and moments later I give myself up to it.

Today's ride: 20 miles (32 km)
Total: 3,536 miles (5,691 km)

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