When the Rapha Women’s Prestige event was announced, it prompted a flurry of social media messages -
“Who’s up for a girl’s weekend in the Hunter Valley?!”
"How far is it?"
"130-odd kilometres…including dirt and gravel?"
"Guess I’d better do some training then!"
Our team of four formed, the next step was a WhatsApp group chat to discuss the essentials, like matching team socks and how much chocolate we would need.
The date in the calendar was the perfect nudge to get me out of bed on those cold, dark autumn mornings - I didn’t want to let my teammates down.
Then, disaster. Less than a week before our all day cycling adventure, my final training ride ended in a short flight over the handlebars, terminated by some very sharp rocks.
With my knee bandaged and braced like crystal glasses packaged for long distance postage, it looked as if my team would be taking on Saturday’s event without me.
One (wo)man down, they scrambled to find a fourth team member, eventually talking Amy into it with less than 24 hours to go.
As the weekend inched closer, an escape from the tedium of my tiny Sydney rental started to seem more and more attractive. Waking at 2am desperately needing to pee, with my leg in a brace and the bathroom a steep flight of stairs away, is the stuff nightmares are made of. The Hunter Valley, with its quality girl time, cheese, wine (well, maybe not wine given my prescribed antibiotics) and stair-free bathroom access beckoned. It might not be the trip I had planned, but surely it had to be better than being stuck at home?
Arriving late on Friday night, I was confronted by what would soon prove my nemesis for the weekend: The Stairs. While riders would be taking on 127km and 1300m of climbing in tomorrow’s Prestige, my personal challenge was a hellishly steep, narrow set of spiral stairs leading up to the front door of our Airbnb rental.
Light and laughter spilled from above, urging me upward. I took a deep breath, and hopped up the first step, and then the second. Panting at the top, I was greeted with hugs and the dreamt-of cheese platter - like manna from heaven. Alex, Becky and Iry had lost no time changing into trackpants and pyjamas and getting cozy on the enormous sofa. The eclectic backdrop of frocked pink velvet curtains, fake palm tree and ‘Welcome to Vanuatu’ memorabilia added a quirky note to our low key Friday night festivities. It was good to be here, together.
As daylight dawned the next day, women arrived by bike and car to the start point in Pokolbin. Early arrivals were excited to see a red fox trot across the car park, pausing just long to have his photo taken. The Rapha van with its promise of hot coffee became the meeting point, riders gathering around to warm up their cold hands with a pre ride brew, or two.
Colourful matching team kits and the sound of sixty women chatting brightened the early morning chill. One of the few not in lycra, I felt a little out of place, but not for too long. I recognized several faces amongst the cacophony, and got introduced to many more. Commiserations and healing tips abounded, people sharing stories of their own past injuries.
The Rider Briefing stressed 'this is not a race, it's an adventure'. Teams would be responsible for their own navigation and any mechanicals as they made their way between checkpoints. Riders took off final layers, checked the route one last time and grabbed another bakery snack for the road. Meanwhile I got set up in the photographer’s van, leg propped up in the back seat. It was time for the adventure to begin.
Teams rolled out one by one through Hunter Valley vineyards in the winter sunlight, layered up against the cutting wind. As we turned off the main highway the road narrowed, curving now through rolling countryside and stretches of forest.
While the cyclists settled into a steady rhythm, we scanned constantly for photographic spots, trying to capture the perfect combination of surroundings, light and riders, timed exactly for an instagram-worthy shot. Photographing an event is a challenge in itself, it seems!
As the sun rose higher and the air warmed, it was time for a welcome snack break at Myrtle house, generously furnished with scones, jam, lashings of whipped cream, and of course, more coffee. This time, teams rolled out together in clumps of two or three, sharing the work at the front.
Paved roads gave way to dirt and gravel, climbing upward in earnest now. One group stopped on the roadside to fix a flat tyre, telling jokes to pass the time. As individual riders started to struggle and drop back, their teammates slowed, offering encouragement. ‘Just a little bit further!’
A final pinch, and then the view. A vast Hunter Valley vista lay before us, in waves of green and blue. Even the most focused looking cyclists stopped for a moment to drink it in. Further down the road, the photographer set up his next shot while I made a nest of blankets in the vineyard grass. Half dozing, I could feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin. This might not have been the way I’d planned my weekend, but it wasn’t exactly a bad place to be.
Before I knew it, the event was over, the last riders rolling in to the pub to load up a plate and lift a glass in camaraderie. I was ready to lift my (non-alcoholic) glass with them. I may not have done the ride today, but this was my community all the same. A sisterhood of shared passion. At the end of the weekend as I drove home to exchange one set of stairs for another, I smiled as my WhatsApp chat dinged, and dinged again.
Words By: Alice King
Photography By: Ben Cirulis