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There are two or three reasons people take up recumbent cycling. The first two are flip sides of the same reason– 1.) to eliminate the aches and pains that accumulate from riding diamond-frame bikes, and 2.) to cycle comfortably in something like a chair, looking straight ahead rather than at the ground; and 3.) to go very fast.

Most cyclists regard recumbent riders with disdain, figuring, sometimes correctly, that we have come to the world of reclining bicycles because of a bad back or because we are handicapped in some way. When people think of speed, they probably picture the kinds of bicycles they see in time trials or during the big races like the Tour de France. But those are not the self-propelled machines that go really fast. The only way to go fast is to cut wind resistance and that means getting prone or behind another vehicle. When legs and lungs are equal or close to it, wind resistance makes all the difference.

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Last December I invited myself along to the annual meeting of the OZ Human Powered Vehicles group here in Eastern Australia. It was held in Myrtleford, one of my favourite little towns in Victoria, up in Alpine Country. It is fine cycling country because the train that used to run from Wangaratta to Bright has been replaced with a bike path. There is a short, but challenging spur trail up to the old, gold town of Beechworth. Most of the rail-trail is pleasant and parts of it are lovely.

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Myrtleford is in the middle, an ideal place for a meet-up of people coming from all over, but mostly from Melbourne and Canberra. The OZHPV group attracts all sorts, from ingenious tinkerers who build their own bikes, to laid-back, comfort-loving riders who ride recumbents for the sheer fun of it.

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Then there are those who are serious about speed and stamina, cyclists who have circumnavigated Australia without getting much sleep. It seems like the serious ones came from the capitol, Canberra. Too much testosterone, I imagine. I have seen the same thing in Washington DC and even in Ottawa, Canada. Type A people either love politics or the perks of the civil service.

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The annual meeting was long and noisy and consensus was hard to come by following an unsatisfactory dinner. I decided to skip it and settle down with a good mystery in my bunk bed. I had come for the rides and the opportunity to catch up with some of my recumbent buddies, not wrangling over how to collect more dues or spend the modest sums the group managed to collect.

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It is a long way from Australia to Nevada, but that is where the real action is in terms of setting speed records. Every year, phenomenal riders from all over the world head for Battle Mountain, where they compete with one another over a four mile stretch of perfectly flat road. The current male record holder is a Canadian by the name of Sam Wittingham. He has ridden 82 miles an hour (133kph) in a fully-enclosed recumbent velomobile. Barbara Buatois, a French woman, is not far behind at 75.7 mph (121) kph. These speeds were attained without drafting a car or any other vehicle.

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(photo credit Jun Nogami)

You can see the records and find many more photos at: http://www.recumbents.com/wisil/whpsc2012/speedchallenge.htm. They will be at it again soon, from September 10 to 15th, 20112. Australia will have its own contingent this year, two racers led by Ben Goodall, a Victorian based recumbent builder/racer, the man behind the plastic, kayak-inspired velomobile, the Rotovelo featured in my first photo, the blue one with father and child.

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(photo credit Dave Larrington)

The vehicles built to break these records bear little resemblance to what you see in the Tour de France, but they share most of the same parts. They need a push start because the gearing is so high, but they are, essentially, bicycles. The French banned recumbents from the racing world back in 1932, so they are now called “human powered vehicles” instead.

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(photo credit Dave Larrington)

As we were leaving Myrtleford, my car-pool companion asked me if I wanted to make a slight detour to see a dredge on the way home. Alan has been good to me over the years, so how could I resist? He had been hired some time ago to calculate the value of the huge contraption for a Parks Victoria bid. As soon as the Parks people expressed an interest, the owners said it was still valuable and that they might restore and ship it to Queensland for a tin mining operation. The consultants that Alan worked for were bought in to assess the practicality of this idea, and the value of the dredge. They determined that dismantling the beast and shipping it would cost more than the $10 million of a new, more efficient dredge. Then the dickering began.

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The dredge is a combination building, boat and factory. From 1936 to 1954, it slowly moved its own pond up the creek valleys, digging 70,664 ounces (2000 kilos) of gold and 1,383 tons of tin from the alluvial plain of Reedy Creek. With its endless belt of 110 giant buckets on a moveable arm, it was a slow-going chainsaw, slicing open the earth under its gigantic jaws.

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The buckets were made of cast chrome steel with manganese digging tips. Each one weighed over one and a half tons. It was driven by a 6,600 volt cable that ran across the pond on floats. It was a monster, the very antithesis of a recumbent bike.

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During the eighteen years of its working life, the dredge operated all day and all night, send shockwaves of sound and light out over the placid outback. It is peaceful now, abandoned to the elements, way off the beaten track. It was a worthy detour to wrap up a weekend full of odd machines. The ingenuity of man applied to tearing up the earth, or setting world speed records in lightweight, self-propelled rockets.

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Despite the taboo against bringing foreign pests into Australia, I managed to get a nasty one past the sniffer dog.  It was a cold virus, and it seemed determined to hang on as long as possible.  I was into my second round of antibiotics when it struck me that this was never going away.  I simply had to get out of the house and stop letting it have the upper hand.

For a couple of weeks, I had been considering an invitation to join a group of cyclists intent on doing the High Country and Myrtleford Trails. Tempted but not committed, I booked a couple of cottages.  I would wait until the last minute to see if I would be well enough to do it.  My wife was not encouraging.   VICHPV rides are not  fast, but they can be long and taxing.  I finally decided that if my body wasn’t ready,  I could always hang out in the caravan park and read a book, swim or something.   At least it would be a change of scene.

The idea was to ride most of the length of two rail trails, both located in Victoria pretty much due north of Melbourne.  The High Country Trail begins 300 kms from here in the town of Wondonga (on the border with New South Wales along  the Murray River).  Its sister town across the river in NSW is called Albury.  The trail traverses farmland and forest and skirts a man-made lake called Lake Hume.  It is supposed to end at the town of Old Tallangatta, about 55 kms away.  There is the minor issue of a missing bridge.

Robert W. has been organizing rides for VICHPV (Victoria human powered vehicles– recumbent two wheelers and trikes) for awhile now.  He has recently taken on organizing some over 50’s rides for Bicycle Victoria.  For the week away, he extended an open invitation to both groups.  The Labour Day holiday provided for a long weekend, at least.

A group of seven assembled in Wodonga in the caravan park at the civilized hour of 10 AM, then rode several kilometers across town.  It would prove to be a long day.  A short section through the woods was lovely, but later, the trail deteriorated into something approaching a landslide.  We saw no one else on the trail and it was not hard to figure out why.  It was barely suitable for mountain bikes.  On a 60 km ride in the hot sun, riding on scree is not fun.  We came back along the highway.

Fortunately for the group, there was a good place to dine within walking distance of the Caravan Park.  With a little imagination, you can fool yourself into believing that you have worked off enough calories to eat just about anything.  The wine and beer nudged our tongues loose, and our evenings at the restaurant got longer and longer.

The next day another couple of riders joined the group.  This time we drove to our starting point, just the other side of Sandy Creek.  Our destination was Old Talangatta, a town that had been partially dismantled and moved in order to flood the valley. We biked across a bridge that is was still in place and there was water below in the Mitta River, but with the drought, Lake Hume itself is receding, almost disappearing.

A highlight stop on the return to Wodonga was a visit to Bonegilla Migrant Camp, Block 19, a heritage site.  Over 300,000 European migrants passed through this place between 1947 and 1971.  Conditions were pretty primitive, according to John, a Dutch-born volunteer guide who told us about his family’s stay in the camp.  Fortunately, his father knew how to milk cows, so the family was able to move after only six weeks in the camp.  They had mutton for breakfast, lunch and dinner.  No heat in winter and no fans in summer.  In the sixties, some Italian migrants got so frustrated they tried to burn down the place.

On Labour Day, the over 50’s couples returned to Melbourne to work.  The rest of us drove to Myrtleford, our home base for the Murray to the Mountains trail.  It is the best known (and maintained) rail trail in Victoria.  Most of its surface is covered with bitumen (pavement) and it rolls through some lovely country.  Michael had already suffered so many flats on the other trail that he had replaced both tires with Armadillos, tires that looked virtually impervious to punctures.

In the morning, Roger and I discovered flats before we started riding.  After fixing mine, I discovered that I had bunged up my derailleur.  This required a trip to the bike shop.  Fortunately, it was across the street from a very good, Italian coffee shop.  Almost as soon as got underway again, I picked up a thorn in the same tire.  I didn’t want to change it, so I nursed the slow leak by pumping up my rear tire every twenty minutes or so.  Right before our destination, Michael got two more punctures in his Armadillos.  It was another long day.  The evening made up for it with socializing, beer, wine and food.

During the Warm many Italian prisoners of war were off-loaded in Mytleford as there was a P.O.W. camp nearby.  They were used as forced farm labour.  After the war, some came back into the area as immigrants and brought their families.   They started farms, wineries and other businesses in the area.

Our last day was dedicated to a short,gradual uphill ride from Everton to Beechworth.  I had done this before with my wife on the tandem.  Despite the fact that it is all uphill (in one direction, anyway) it is one of my favourite rides.  Much of it through woods. It was spitting rain when we got to the top.  Curiously, we were met by one of our regular trike riders, who had come from Melbourne the previous night and ridden the trail before we were done eating breakfast.

While we lunched at Beechworth’s famous bakery, the rain began in earnest.  Our lightweight rain gear was not going to do it in this downpour.  Roger and I headed for an “op shop” (a second-hand charity clothing place) in search of rain gear.  The owner took one look at me and said:  “Dearie, I haven’t seen this kinda rain in five months.”  Luckily, I found a plastic poncho at a chemist (drug store.)

It was a short, wet ride downhill to Everton and a long drive home.  And a good week.  Thanks to Robert and Jana, Roger and Michael, the rest of my fellow cyclists,  two bike shops and my trusty recumbent.  The cold is gone.  Miracolo. My recipe for getting rid of a bad bug and bronchitis– take a week off, go cycling under a blistering sun between the hours of 10 and 4 PM.  Use plenty of sunscreen.  Eat large amounts of fried food for dinner and wash it down with lots of beer, wine, or both.  Let me know how it goes.

Check back in a week or so for a post about the trains that led to these trails.

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