Guest Post: Greenhills Loop by Alex Gow

In some recent posts I shared a few photos of a randonneur bike I was building for Alex.  I don’t think I mentioned this before, but Alex is from Australia, and this is the first bike I have shipped over there. I have always wanted to go to Australia, and I think it’s pretty darn cool and also an honor to have a bike I made get there before I do. Building a fully equipped randonneuse is no easy task. Throw in a large rider that lives on the other side of the world, and things are that much harder, but we both stayed focused on the end goal and this turned into a really nice bike and a fun project. Alex had a lot of the components for the build on hand so I did not get to see the bike built up. When I asked him to send over a few photos of the complete bike he suggested “How about a ride report too?”. The ‘ride report’ is very much part of the history and culture of randonneuring, so detailed below is a ride report about Alex riding one of his favorite routes aboard his new bike. 

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Greenhills Loop

By Alex Gow

About a month ago I was lucky enough to take ownership of my first dedicated Randonneuring bike, after a very drawn out process involving multiple framebuilders, failed ideas and changes to the concept of what I wanted. Although much of what I thought I wanted (650b, shim-ergo shifting, low trail) were fairly alien to me, and considerably risky, I’m glad I took a chance. Previous bikes I’ve owned (worth mentioning) have included a gigantic rigid 29er, a classic British touring frame and a vintage racing frame, however none were very capable at spirited rides without compromises. Being a true ‘Clydesdale’ meant the tubing of the off-the-peg 29er was very stiff, the tourer only had room for 30mm tyres and the racing frame never had ideal geometry, especially for longer rides. Options for custom steel frames in Australia are limited to a few, albeit very talented, builders, none of whom seemed to be quite right for me. I was initially going to get a  custom-geo Boulder All-Road, with a  custom vegan SF Ruthworks bag made by Ely Rodriguez. Ely suggested that I talked to Jeremy about building a rack for the bike. Some issues regarding the design of the Boulder bike arose, and as I was now familiar with Jeremy’s work I decided to commission him to build the frame instead.  What I  initially thought would take a short amount of time, as my primary focus was simply having a bike that  I could use centerpull brakes and a front rack (you’d be surprised at how difficult this is) turned into a project spanning almost a year, numerous upgrades/changes/suggestions/emails because we did not want to leave any detail overlooked. The end result is a true expression of constructeur frame building.

Ironically, the small city in which I live in rural Australia is home to some of the most European/North American scenery in the country. Armidale’s streets are lined with Oak, Ash and Elm trees, the countryside is undulating and winters are long, harsh and choked with woodsmoke. Any ride worth doing (in my humble opinion) around Armidale involves dirt roads, with loose gravel patches, jutting washboard sections and peppered with crap; or even the cows responsible for it. Some mornings, within 30 minutes of leaving town, you’ve scared away multiple rabbits, foxes, been scared away by magpies, charged alongside kangaroos or been laughed at by native birds and their distinctive cries.

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The best ride depends on the day, the season and the company, but the best ride for a mild October day is up Greenhills road and looping the forgotten roads to discoveries either named after Colonial explorers or the Indigenous Australians who had known about them for millennia before. Although I intend to use this bicycle for Rando – locally Audax – I’m equally comfortable conquering long rides for no formal reason. I started at 6am in the fog, just cold enough to numb the fingertips down the hills and interest the magpies, not yet dulled by the heat of the day. The Edelux II headlight was bright enough to pierce the fog and although I can’t see it directly whilst riding, the Compass taillight seems to make me more visible from the rear. After only 10km the roads turn to dirt, with just enough of a warm up to be ready for the concentration required for picking a line on the rough road for the next few hours. The approach to the Greenhills climb is deceptively tame, with no indication of what’s ahead. While I’m certain there are many alpine climbs that dwarf Greenhills, it’s one of the most challenging climbs anywhere near Armidale. The grade is steep enough to require some technical ability to hold the bike on the road safely, the dirt is loose enough to spin a Compass Babyshoe Pass tyre more than one would like, and the brief plateaus are long enough to give a false sense of recovery but not long enough to ride without wobbling the bike trying to recover unseasoned legs. The 7km ascent usually takes at least 25 minutes, just long enough to justify the sort of hobbit-come-vegan cakery snack required for pushing on at the top.

After a brief respite the road opens up to somehow even more bucolic scenery,  as the 400 metres climb allows for a few degrees cooler weather for most of the year and more introduced foliage. Although this is close to the highest point of the ride, the road is sheltered and the winding single-car-wide dirt gives way to more pavement. Some of the farmhouses along this stretch of road must belong to very eccentric folk, as the architecture is disjointed and dated to the point of being admirable for altogether wrong reasons. Once you’ve just begun to fool the Garmin into thinking you’re setting a personal best with smooth, pleasant roads, an intersection reminds you that all the livestock you’ve ridden past are transported on bicycle-unfriendly trucks.

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The next 5 or so kilometres were horrific. The road is completely open to gusts of wind which seem to come from every direction except behind, it’s busy and by this point it was getting hot. After creeping down a road I’ve descended at close to 80km/h before, I would find myself in the sun trudging uphill on the scrappy edges of the road, alongside broken tyre belts and smashed bottles. Luckily, I was soon off this mess and back on quiet roads en route to ‘Backwater’. This section of the ride is usually where boredom can set in as there’s not much to see, and where I began to worry that I should have probably packed more sunscreen lotion. Nearing the century my legs began to fatigue but soon I was in the town of Ben Lomond to refill bottles and enjoy a road almost always deserted and shrouded by foliage close to the road. Train tracks lead most of the way from this point back to the town of Guyra where it was almost lunch time and I decided to lie down. After finishing the remainder of my food I quickly realised that time off the bike had allowed my body to re-evaluate how I was feeling.

With 30km to go I felt completely drained, I had sunburn and some very loose gravel to descend. The last portion of the ride loops around to a tiny community called Black Mountain, and down what should have been the best riding of the day. Somehow within the last hour, I developed some knee pain probably from not having my position totally dialed in yet and only apparent after 7 hours, I seemed to have found heat-resistant magpies to swoop me, and the only scent in the air was melting bitumen mixed with an alarming amount of roadkill and some strange hedge plants which at this particular time of year put off an aroma which can most closely be identified as the smell of urine. Rolling into Armidale felt good, but I had clearly overdone it for my abilities, and it has taken almost a week to have the will to write about what was really a good day in the saddle. For my next longer ride I hope to make it down the Great Dividing Range to the coast, in the hopes that one day I’ll be able to do such a ride – and back – in a weekend. 230km, but a drop of 1000 meters elevation.

When I proposed writing a ride report for the Gallus Blog, Jeremy suggested I focused more on the ride and to spare too much analysis of the bike, but I feel I would be cheating him if I didn’t at least praise it somewhat. Anyone interested in 650b rando-style bicycles knows there’s a plethora of literature on the topic, so I’ll try to stick to what differentiates Jeremy’s work.

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Due to my size, Jeremy originally wanted to put me on double oversize tubing. I stressed that I did not want the bike to be too stiff. We then compared the tubing on my previous bikes more closely, and Jeremy suggested Columbus Cromor tubing in oversize diameters. Initially I thought this would still be too heavy and stiff, but the bike rides exactly how I wanted it to.  I’m no expert on ‘planing’ but the frame seems elastic and I feel capable of pushing a heavier gear in familiar circumstances. The aesthetic details like Jen Green’s badge which the three of us collaborated on is amazing, Jeremy’s lugwork is refined yet not flashy and Rudi Jung’s paintwork is elegant with box striping that isn’t too shouty. The frame features a seat stay pump mount, internal wiring for front and rear lights (including SL dropouts), carefully designed fender mounting-points, and a stem with integrated spacers and a bell mount. However the real focus of the bike likes at the front. A beautiful rack with detachable low riders, French-curve fork blades, twin-plate fork crown and Jeremy and Sam Day’s ‘Day Decaleur’ which allows the bag to be attached quickly and securely with a QR lever. Although some embellishments might seem unimportant, all the integrations of bike and components allow the bike to be fast yet reliable.

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