It's 5.30am in Yarram and most of the township is fast asleep, as are the 1500 unexpected visitors who arrived by bike the day before.
Bicycle Network's General Manager of Events, Caitlin Borchers, is awake though.
She's off to inspect a bridge over the Albert River just outside of town, which will determine the riders' next steps and, ultimately, whether the 2023 Great Vic Bike Ride makes it to the finish line.
Intense rainfall inundated parts of Gippsland and triggered flood warnings across the region five days into the nine-day Great Vic Bike Ride. Of particular relevance to the event, however, was the deluge in the hills around Yarram.
Along with other waterways in the area, this caused the Albert River to rise rapidly.
In the space of an afternoon, the bridge crossing had gone from clear and navigable to flooded and impassable. Word filtered through from the locals that the road would be temporarily closed. This was soon confirmed by the authorities.
When riders were updated on the situation that evening, it was explained that the next day could go one of two ways. Plan A was based on the floodwaters receding, the route re-opening and the event proceeding as normal. Plan B involved staying in Yarram, doing a loop ride through the area, and ending the event.
In the face of this uncertainty, the Bicycle Network Events team gathered in a cramped campervan to work through the contingencies and confront the possibility that they'd met the end of the road.
"I thought there was little chance of the floodwaters receding, because there was going to be more rain overnight," says Borchers.
Such was the lack of optimism that during that early morning bridge inspection, other Bicycle Network staff were already out on the road, scoping the backup route to ensure it was all clear for the riders. Not long later, 1500 riders received a text message.
The flood waters have subsided overnight and the road to Fish Creek has re-opened. The event will proceed as initially planned, however there is still some water over the road so please ride with care.
"We needed a miracle, and we got one," says Borchers. "We were very excited to arrive and see the waters had cleared."
How to move a village in 24 hours
The flooded bridge was just the latest in a sequence of curve balls that punctuated the preceding days of the 2023 Great Vic Bike Ride. A day before in Sale, the same events team had crammed into the same campervan to re-invent the plan for day seven.
The route that day was originally meant to take riders from Sale to Port Albert, but a washed-out campground at their destination called for a change of plans.
The Great Vic is a rolling bike festival and the site in Port Albert had been cleared, mowed and readied for its arrival.
"I was given a full walkthrough of the site over Facetime and could see it was not in a condition for vehicles, marquees or tents to go on," explains Louis Coad, Campsite Operations Manager for the Great Vic Bike Ride.
"So the call was made to rule it out and find an alternative location, which turned out to be Yarram."
The first thing was to make a difficult call and let the landowner in Port Albert know the Great Vic Bike Ride wouldn't be coming to town.
Then came calls with the local Wellington Shire Council, who went to great lengths to help relocate the operation to Yarram. Then came discussions with the Yarram & District Cricket Club, who were happy to play host but also had a match scheduled.
With incredible support and understanding from the community, some way, some how, everything fell into place.
The first spanner in the works
The day before that impromptu campsite relocation, torrential rains in Paynesville also threatened to stop the event in its tracks.
As riders gathered at the start line, the winds picked up and the rain hammered down around them, conditions were nearly deemed unsuitable for the day’s riding.
School groups were asked to forego the riding so event staff could focus their resources and ensure the safety of a smaller contingent. Many of those took up the offer of bus transport to Sale instead.
This required a significant logistical operation that involved loading hundreds of bikes onto trucks, moving mountains of luggage, and endeavouring to allow wet riders ready access to warm and dry clothes at the other end.
Ending on a high
Those few days of unfavourable conditions made the 2023 edition of the Great Vic Bike Ride one of the most challenging in its 39-year history. But they were bookended by sunny days, brilliant riding and those special moments the event is renowned for.
The 2023 Great Vic Bike Ride started with 2100 riders in picturesque Orbost on the Snowy River. They rode through bucolic hills and into the beautiful surroundings of Buchan with its otherworldly caves, then to stunning Lakes Entrance with its serene surrounding waters, and onto Paynesville where the weather set up the series of challenges.
The reward for riding out those stormy few days was the warmest of hospitality in the charming town of Fish Creek. Here riders celebrating a spectacular day of riding through forested hills with a drink at the recently renovated pub in town, or a boogie at the Saturday night local disco.
They then woke to clearing skies, friendly winds and perfect temperatures for a pedal to Inverloch for lunch, and onto the finish line in Wonthaggi via the stunning Bunurong Coastal Drive.
"It was such a wonderful way to end it, you wouldn't even have known that spirits had been dampened by testing weather," says Borchers.
"We were always really comfortable with our backup plans and knew we could get everyone home safely if need be, but it's so pleasing to reward the riders with the special atmosphere of a Great Vic finish line.
We can't thank them enough for their patience and flexibility, sticking with us as we adapted to the conditions. The riders along with our wonderful volunteers were key to keeping the show on the road, and we're incredibly grateful for the part they played in delivering yet another memorable Great Vic Bike Ride."
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