The Ride for the Chopper has become an annual fundraiser for the Westpac Rescue Helicopter and this year about 70 riders trekked from Mudgee to Tamworth on mountain bikes. Leader journalist Breanna Chillingworth went along for the ride.
When you tell people you’re doing a bike ride from Mudgee to Tamworth, most people think you’re mad.
And, I’m the first to admit it was crazy, but it was an adventure never to forget.
I didn’t know many people on the ride, and had hardly ridden a bike, but I could sum up six days on two wheels as thrills, hills and spills.
This ride was special. In the 40th year of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service, and also the 15th year the Tamworth-based chopper has been in the air, there were true displays of mateship, plenty of laughs, oh, and some bike riding.
From Werris Creek to Wollongong, Brisbane to Tamworth, Newcastle to Nundle, Walcha and in between, a bunch of riders set off from Mudgee on day one. After a ride around the local wineries, we cycled 70-odd kilometres to Gulgong.
The sign heading out of Mudgee says it’s only 26km, but we weren’t taking the easy route, rather, we were on mountain bikes and headed for the dirt.
Over six days, we became accustomed to the catch cry “FILL YOUR WATER BOTTLES” as our trusty navigator and lead vehicle driver Goog would bellow at the top of his lungs as we prepared to head off after a drink or food stop.
Almost every rider took a shining to the Black and Gold fruit cake or the spread that was laid out as we would roll in for morning tea or lunch each day. In fact, many of us believe this was the only ride where we would put on weight.
Goog, aka Greg Davis, has been a 15-year veteran of the ride, while fellow volunteer Keith Lockhart has 17 years under his belt, and this ride is to be their last. They’re part of the support crew who made sure we got to our daily destination safely, our bags were there, the food was cooked and that we were “fined” – or forced to cough up gold coins for the chopper when we “misbehaved”.
Riding some 520km you got to know complete strangers, and why it is they decided to take on a gruelling bike ride.
For most, they’d had a taste in years gone by and were itching to get back, but many “ride virgins” were battling the saddle soreness and hoping not to fall off.
Everyone knew when you bit the dust, there was a Crunchie bar waiting for you, as well as a barrel of laughs at your stack.
Sponsored by Alive and Well – a WorkCover NSW initiative to
promote farm safety – we were told about the chopper missions that had been completed the first weekend we were away. A quad bike rollover near Glen Innes and a double fatal accident, we knew that our fundraising and the ride was helping to make a difference.
See, the chopper is partly funded by the NSW government, but community donations ensure no patient will ever have to pay a cent to get
airlifted to hospital, no matter where they live in the New England North West.
Ride captain Steve Livingstone, aka Deadrock, was keen to drill in two lessons. Don’t ever ride in front of Goog’s lead vehicle, and bike riding comes second because it’s all about fun.
On Monday it was “Undi Mundy” where lacy knickers, Superman undies and outrageous bottoms were on the outside of the riding pants from Gulgong to Merriwa.
On Tuesday, we looked a treat. Sixty-eight riders peddling out of Merriwa in a rainbow of tutus. It was Tutu Tuesday, of course.
But we had no time to be embarrassed about our dress sense because we rode head on into one of the strongest head winds many have encountered.
Tutus were blown off and Calala Inn publican Danny Camilleri and I were left to wonder how we were going backwards and needed to peddle just to get downhill.
It was tough going and it made
S-night in Scone so much sweeter when we could quench the thirst, in costume of course.
From Scream, to scientists, Sponge Bob, skeletons, superheroes, a couple of lads dressed as “sisters” or sheilas, and a blow-up sumo wrestler for good measure from yours truly. It was part of the ride shenanigans as were the daily awards like the dummy spit for an outburst or the award that no one wanted – the busted arse trophy – taken out by the likes of
Nundle’s Nathan Schofield or Tamworth’s Craig Thomas, in honour of the saddle soreness they encountered day after day on the bike.
Our longest ride was about 109km from Gulgong to Merriwa, through a forest and a creek. Flat tyres were the norm but some of these bikies had it down pat and the tubes were off and replaced and the rider back on two wheels within three minutes, after six days of training.
Ellerston was a highlight for many. The “wombat song” – where the local kids at Ellerston Public performed for us and we talked about the chopper and the importance of wearing a helmet, rolling green fields, a club that opened to provide one of the best dinners and memorabilia adorning every wall.
We heard from some of the Ellerston workers about what’s involved in the local operation, before one of them kindly let us know that the mountain we were due to ride the next day was not the ‘ideal’ way to get to Nundle but his V8 landcruiser ute would make it up there, in first gear.
And who could forget that extreme day – more than 2000m of climbing, three massive hills, 22 creek crossings and two very steep downhill sections. A few of the riders notched up to 80km/h on the way down.
You were going to get wet whether you liked it or not, and the creek crossings became a game for many – how far you got across before falling in, while others took “a swim”, providing plenty of laughs.
But the camaraderie was like nothing I’ve seen before.
Every time you stopped, there was at least a dozen riders who would slow and ask, “you alright?” in case you succumbed to a flat. Or when you had that never-ending hill climb and the legs were starting to tire, there was an army of riders, like the Wollongong gang or Andy Bayliss at the back, who would slow and ride with you, or give you a much-needed push.
The difference between this ride and many others was that it wasn’t a race, and when you saw one man pushing another
70-odd-year-old up the steepest of climbs, you knew the ride was worth it for the mateship.
There are dozens of other stories to tell, both on and off the bike, but they’ll be the memories that stick for another day.
And, the best thing about it? Well, we made it back home to Tamworth alive and well.
I say bring on next year!