A hardy group of cyclists put their stamina to the test on a new 124km track between Nannup, Donnybrook and Bridgetown.
A sense of trepidation consumed me as I stood with 100 or so other cyclists around a small bonfire in the crisp night air outside a Nannup pub on a Friday night in May.
“You are either brave, bold or bonkers,” Rebecca Cotton, event producer for Seven, told us at the race briefing.
Months earlier we had signed up to participate in Seven — a 124km ride through mainly gravel terrain designed to test our limits and change our perceptions of Western Australia.
As diehard cyclists my group of friends and I were entranced by the promise of rolling hills, vast landscapes and the opportunity to push ourselves on different terrain than we are used to.
Event director Brendon Morrison explained the idea behind Seven, named for the seven sectors or major climbs it featured, came from a desire to find links between the area’s main roads that road riders could use.
The same organisers behind road race the Tour of Margaret River, the initial aim was to discover a few gravel roads to include in a stage of the popular annual event.
“We were out exploring for Tour of Margaret River and, because the roads are quite limited when you are putting a race together, we thought we could find some gravel stretches to link the tarmac to make the stages more interesting,” he said.
“But what we found was there were so-much better roads and such scope, we thought we would do a whole new event on gravel.”
Nine months of planning, including countless hours from several local volunteers, co-operation from landowners and the Forest Products Commission, resulted in Seven — a unique and challenging event that hit the sweet spot between road and off-road cycling.
Reminiscent of the early days of the Tour de France, Seven featured an epic 3000 vertical metres and took in the “golden triangle” between Nannup, Donnybrook and Bridgetown.
It attracted riders of all types. I, like most others, chose my mountain bike for its sturdy handlebars and forgiving suspension but my four friends did the event on cyclocross bikes, simply explained as road bikes with slightly thicker tyres.
We stood shivering on the start line as the sun rose over Nannup and we waited for the 7am roll out, the mercury barely approaching one degree.
I was no stranger to cycling events but this one felt different. Rather than a familiar mix of nerves and self-doubt as I sized up the other competitors and willed myself into “the zone”, I felt pure excitement for what lay ahead.
I had decided to take Ms Cotton’s advice to take in the scenery and use the 10 hours we had to finish the ride, instead of my usual approach of racing against the clock.
After all, this was not an event to be messed with. A conversation around the fire the night before with course manager and local legend Rod Lakelin confirmed my belief that going too hard too early would render us broken for the second half of the event. For me at least, this was a ride and not a race.
We set off on a few kilometres of road before turning into the first stretch in the Jarrahwood State Forest. It did not take long for me to get separated from my friends as two of them bolted ahead and the other two took a more cautious approach on the loose gravel.
Myself and the 200 or more other riders in the event wore massive grins as we descended into our first valley — the beauty of the natural landscape was striking as a thick mist rose over nearby paddocks.
We were surrounded by tall pine trees, which gave way to vast open spaces later in the ride where extensive logging had occurred, as well as fertile farmland with the occasional cattle herd.
My eyes were peeled for wildlife each time I heard a rustle in the bushes, with a warning from the previous night cemented in my mind.
“If you get chased by an emu, just keep riding,” Ms Cotton had told us. We laughed at her words but knew she was far from joking as she told us about the kangaroos, emus and pigs that frequented the stretch of bushland the ride encompassed.
There must have been enough noise to deter these animals from coming too close because I didn’t hear about any incidents unfolding during the ride.
One advantage of choosing my mountain bike for the course was its generous gear ratio. On the rear cluster I have a fairly sizeable 46-tooth cog I had previously only used for very steep terrain. I needed to use this “bail out” gear numerous times during Seven, as the gradient frequently exceeded 20 per cent.
The organisers had accurately described Seven as a test of your limits. I am a regular bike rider, and do it enough for people to call me a hardcore cyclist, but Seven had me questioning my own motives and searching for that little bit of extra mental fortitude.
Any endurance sport is largely a mental game and my mind was playing tricks on me as I entered the final 40km and final 1000m of climbing, begging for a reprieve for my aching legs and back.
It took a lot of positive self-talk to will myself up the seemingly endless climbs but there was never a moment where the difficulty of the ride was not far outweighed by the beauty of my surroundings.
I rode for more than seven hours to the finish line but was on the course for closer to nine hours, stopping for lunch and to check on my fellow riders.
It was an immense relief to roll into Nannup about 4pm that day and a great pleasure to share a post-ride beverage with some of my closest friends.
Going into Seven, we were told it would change our perception of Western Australia.
Coming away from the ride I believe this is true — the landscape was rather reminiscent of the USA or Canada, with spectacular views of pine forests atop epic climbs.
As much as it did test my physical and mental strength, I am already eagerly waiting to do it all over again.
Top picture: Cyclists on the track in the new Seven ride. Picture: Daniela Tommasi
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