Day 178: Ravensthorpe, WA to Ravensthorpe, WA - Four Legs on the Slow Road - CycleBlaze

February 20, 2015

Day 178: Ravensthorpe, WA to Ravensthorpe, WA

We don't walk out of our room until one minute before we're required to. We feel rested and strong, we're healthy, and more than anything we're looking forward to turning away from Highway A1 and returning to easier days on quieter minor highways. With all of the hard pedaling it took to get here, we've bought ourselves time to slow down, to take long breaks in the small towns along the way, and to enjoy our last 300 miles of riding in Australia. An air of excitement hangs over the collected mass of Team Hawthorne as we crank slowly away from the motel and up the end of the long set of hills that most of Ravensthorpe has been built into.

Two miles west of town, with middle fingers raised, we hang a hard right and leave A1 behind forever. It's a feeling that borders on ecstasy. The road trains and blind corners and missing shoulders that filled the last three days are now just memories, a small blip in the rear view mirror, and for that we're so very very relieved.

We make it exactly forty-three seconds before we're passed by the rolling thunder of a road train, and then another almost immediately after that. Of course. Soon the procession of cars and utes and caravans that kept us company since Esperance returns, among the blind corners and missing shoulders of this new country highway. And that's about the time it dawns on us: anyone who's in a rush to get to Perth is going this way because it's a little more direct than the A1. There won't be any relief until we make a sharp left turn forty-something miles up the road. That means another day filled with the kind of dive-off-into-the-shoulder-to-avoid-a-gruesome-death riding that only minutes before we were sure we'd left behind.

And this, it turns out, is just the start.

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A few miles farther on I hear a clicking sound coming from somewhere below. It sounds as if the front fender is rubbing on the tire, but I can't figure out where. As I look and wiggle and poke at things while coasting down a shallow hill, I realize that the problem must be in the back instead, because the clicking disappears whenever I squeeze the brake lever and then shows up again as soon as I release it. This narrows the scope of where the noise might be coming from, but it still doesn't reveal the exact spot. And when I get off the bike and wheel it back and forth by hand the clicking no longer exists. I don't get it; the wheel isn't out of true and hitting the brakes, the sidewall of the tire is fine, no part of the tread is rubbing against the plastic curve or metal bolts and mounts of the fender, and the hub is flush with the dropout with no sign of internal looseness or binding.

With no idea of what to fix, I fix nothing and keep going. This is a flawless strategy for another couple of miles, until a sharp bang! that Kristen can hear from hundreds of feet away comes from the area of the back tire and all of the air rushes out in less than a second.

Here we go.

I pull the tent and all of the bags off the bike and flip it over. What I find when I look at the rear tire leaves me shocked and angry in equal amounts. The tire that I mounted on the back wheel while we were on the Eyre Peninsula — the emergency tire I had to use to replace the tire that failed after just 1,200 miles — has itself failed after only 1,100 miles. There's a wide gash where the tread used to be that allowed the tube to start poking out and rub against some low-lying point of the rear fender. (The clicking sound didn't show up when I wasn't sitting on the bike because there wasn't enough weight on the tire to force the tube out through the hole to hit that point. And the sound disappeared when I squeezed the brakes, because the pressure caused the slight wobble of the off-true wheel to go away, and this shifted the exposed patch of tube away from the low point.) But it's not just one spot, like some kind of fatal puncture; there's a line of threads showing along almost the full circumference of the tire where it meets the road.

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I can't believe it. I weigh like 170 pounds now, I've been carrying all of my extra water in the front panniers since the day we started carrying extra water, we only traveled for a few days after Ceduna with a large amount of extra food, and we've gone no more than three miles on anything but pavement. There's been weight on the back tire, but it's not like I've had some massive stack of bricks or lead perched on top of the rear rack while banging over potholes week after week after week. And even if I had been, it's a fucking cyclocross tire; they're supposed to stand up to some abuse. I never could have imagined that the tire would die this soon.

As I stand there looking over the mess in front of me, the same thought runs through my head in a loop: I'm ready for this trip to be over. For the last three or four weeks so much of the excitement and wonder and joy have been colored by the haze that goes along with fussing over mechanical problems, worrying about what other mechanical problems might follow, pounding out big miles, riding on dangerous roads that were never meant for bicycles, and thinking about problems back home in America instead of looking forward to what's waiting for us on the road ahead. I've been working as hard as I can just about every day for the last six months, and the more things like this that keep happening, the more I lose my will to keep pushing. I know that bike touring can be difficult and still enjoyable, but I also know there's a limit to how far you can push the first and still keep the second. I've just about reached that limit.

After about twenty minutes of pissing, moaning, heavy sighing, and trying to keep myself from slipping into the grip of a mental breakdown, Kristen finds the phone number for a bike shop in Albany, located a few hundred miles to the west. They have a replacement tire in stock and they can ship it today. But here's the rub: it might reach Ravensthorpe by tomorrow, but probably it won't. It could be there Monday. Or Tuesday. Definitely by Tuesday. Until then we'll be stuck in an overpriced campground or motel room in Ravensthorpe, which feels like an unequaled waste of both time and money and makes giving up bicycle touring in favor of a low-risk hobby like golf start to seem like a good idea.

But I can't do it. I can't quit, not yet.

"Fuck it," I say to Kristen. "Let's see if we can somehow fix it ourselves and keep going without a new tire."

We put into action the only possible solution we can engineer. I pull out from deep in the panniers the spare rim strip we've been carrying since leaving Portland in August. With some help from our roll of electrical tape, we manage to align the fabric strip along the crown of the tire where the rubber wear is worst and hold it in place. Because the circumference of the inside of the rim is smaller than the outer edge of the tire, four or five inches of the worn surface still have no extra protection. Not that we think it'll matter much anyway; there's almost no way this stupid idea will take us any farther than two or three turns of the tire. But we're determined not to give up all of the easy riding that our arduous trek across the Nullarbor earned us, so we press on anyway.

It takes fifteen minutes to get the combination of tire, tube, strip, and tape properly aligned and held together tight, but we manage to make it work. When we reinflate the tire and roll the bike back and forth a few times, our patches of both the tube and the horribly worn tire hold fast. It looks like our fix might work after all. We load all of the bags back onto the bike and return to our push to the north.

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But now there's a second problem: the rim is out of true, and not in some subtle way. The sudden explosion of the tube led to an equally sudden drop of the rear wheel straight onto the pavement, with the full weight of me and all of the gear on the back bearing straight down on it, causing the spoke tension to shift away from center so dramatically at the point of impact that not only is the rim smacking the brake pads at one point, but at that same point the newly mounted tire rubs against the side of the left seat stay with every revolution.

It's at about this time that I lose it completely. Even if we manage to buy a new tire, the rim looks like it's either so badly out of true that we won't be able to get it back in line ourselves, or it's bent in a way that makes it somehow unfixable. If either of those things are true, then we're really and seriously done. The nearest bike shop is hundreds of miles away, but no buses run between there and Ravensthorpe on the weekend. And because the weekend is all but upon us, the soonest we could get some kind of replacement wheel shipped would be Monday, which wouldn't reach us until Wednesday or Thursday, at which point we'd no longer have enough time to reach Perth under our own power.

I think about these facts over and over and over again while leaning on a tree, and soon this kind of warm flood starts to wash over my insides. For almost as long as I thought about crossing America by bicycle I had in my head this idea that one day I'd make it across Australia too. And after an intense ride from Portland to Los Angeles, and then an arduous journey around New Zealand that brought both Kristen and me to the edge of breaking down from the constant rain and wind and cold and occasional snow, we made it to Sydney and all of a sudden Australia was laid out before us. We put in all of the hard work that was required of us to keep going from there: cranking over the Escarpment, fighting heat and headwinds in the interior of New South Wales and Victoria, covering the huge distances between towns in South Australia, almost running out of food so many times, trying to push away thoughts of friends and family back home, bringing myself to the brink of quitting behind the raft of wheel problems, and then charging across the Eyre Highway and the Nullarbor Plain in the middle of the summer and traveling from one end to the next in only a week and a half.

But standing just off the edge of Highway 40, I see all of that crumbling to the ground around me. We made it all this way, all this fucking way, through and around all of the obstacles that continued to land in front of us, to within 300 easy miles of the Indian Ocean, and yet none of that can overcome the fact that this piece of shit tire and piece of shit wheel have both managed to implode at the same time. All of the hard work that felt like it was leading to the achievement of some grand goal, to the culmination of an incredible adventure that has taken us halfway around the world and spanned more than 6,000 miles, somehow feels, not wasted, but in some serious and irreparable way damaged by the fact that we'll reach the bright light at the end of the tunnel from the seat of a bus instead of our weathered, sagging, creaking Brooks saddles.

My head hurts. My arms tingle. My heart pounds. My vision blurs.

The dream is dead.

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Kristen offers to catch a bus to Perth and to take my bike with her. She'd leave behind her bike for me to ride to the coast, so that I'd at least have the chance to get there. But I can't do it; I can't even consider it. It isn't just me that has come so far, that has achieved so much in the last six months. We've both lived and breathed and sweated and bled to get this far, and if one of us is going to finish, both of us are going to finish. If one of us fails, we both fail.

Having said as much, we just stand around listening to the wind, staring off into the distance, trying to make sense of what all of it means.

Then I decide to give the wheel one last shot. Instead of tweaking the tension in quarter and half turns, I make big adjustments to the spokes on both sides of the hub to try and pull as much tension from the left side of the wheel over to the right as I can. At first even these major changes don't seem to have an effect, but I keep at it, picking up slack where it's needed and letting out tension where it isn't, and within ten minutes the wheel looks rideable again. It's far from perfect, but we stopped worrying about perfect a few thousand miles ago.

And so we continue on. In more than three hours we've managed to cover all of two miles, but now at least it looks like we'll have the chance to cover a few more. Our optimism is cautious and guarded, but it's optimism all the same.

Two and a half miles farther on, the back tire blows out again, in the same spot. The rim tape solution only managed to delay the inevitable. We're once again dead where we stand, with no hope of a quick fix on the horizon.

But with the wheel not yet to the point that I'm going to fling it discus-style into the nearest gum tree, we double down on our only hope: a replacement tire. I call the bike shop in Albany and order a new tire, which will be dropped in the mail within the hour. The shipping option has the word overnight in the name, but this is only a suggestion, not a guarantee. There's still a chance that it'll show up on Monday or Tuesday and we'll be left to scramble to the finish line, but a chance is better than nothing, and at the moment that's enough. We then call and reserve a room for another night at the pub back in Ravensthorpe, before turning our sights to the road that runs next to us and the hitchhiking it will take to get back into town and reach that room.

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Hitchhiking turns out to be a challenge, because the heavy volume of cars and trucks and road trains that kept us company earlier in the day has been reduced to a trickle. A vehicle bound toward Ravensthorpe passes no more than once every five minutes, and very few of them have the kind of space needed to fit a couple of fully loaded touring bikes and their frustrated riders. Adding to the problem, when we finally see the right-sized truck charging down the highway toward us, no amount of excited waving has the power to make them stop. They just wave back with the same level of excitement, thinking that we've stopped in the middle of nowhere only to take a break and share our joy with passing drivers.

"Where's a volunteer firefighter when you need one?" Kristen asks.

Of course it's when we aren't actively signaling for help that the help arrives. When we see a white Toyota hatchback speeding our way we look, consider the small size of the car, and then turn our backs to the road and walk away from it. We don't signal, we don't wave, we hardly even look back. But something about our situation doesn't seem right to the driver or the passenger in the car, and one of them makes the decision to stop. We only notice when we hear the crunching of gravel as the car pulls off the road a couple hundred feet beyond where we stand.

A few moments later we introduce ourselves to Lena and Alex. She's from France and he's from Argentina, and they met each other while working in Melbourne. But both of them came to Australia on short-term working visas, and Alex's is about to run out. He only has a week or two left in the country before returning home to Argentina, after which time there's a chance he may never see Lena again. To make the most of the time they have left together, they decided to fly to Perth, rent a car, and spend four days heading down to Esperance and then back to Perth by way of Norseman. They've never before driven this road and they never will again. It's only by the sheer chance of fate that we met them at all.

The car doesn't have room for two bikes and two people, but with careful loading and stacking and straining, we manage to wedge mine into the back. Because the rear seats are folded down, I shove myself into the three-foot-high gap that exists between the top of the folded seats and the headliner and brace my side against the door frame. And there I sit for the ride back into Ravensthorpe that for me will last all of ten minutes, but with the headwind and hills will take Kristen more than an hour.

Our heroes.
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In town I check into the near-empty motel, drag my sad bike and all of my bags into the same room we left behind about seven hours earlier, and get the chocolate and cold beers ready for the moment Kristen rolls down the driveway and then walks through the front door.

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On the plus side, we made it back in time for the Friday night meat tray raffles.
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Although I only rode ten miles today, I feel more tired than if I'd pedaled a hundred. Watching a dream die right in front of you has a way of doing that. But then I remind myself of two things. One, that the dream didn't actually die. It's not the healthiest it's ever been, but it's still alive. And two, that it could all be so much worse. I could be just a regular everyday normal guy back home in Seattle, having never taken the chance that brought me all the way to Western Australia in the first place. And where would I be then?

Today's ride: 10 miles (16 km)
Total: 6,304 miles (10,145 km)

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