It hasn't quite got the scenery of the Yangtze River, but the 'three gorges' route in Sydney is popular among the city's cyclists. It combines the climbs of Galston Gorge, Berowra Waters and Bobbin Head into a scenic but challenging ride through the northernmost suburbs of Sydney.
My former club, Randwick-Botany, has organised a Boxing Day ride along this route for the last few years. I had the good fortune to be in town for it during my all-too brief holiday in Australia in December. We started and finished in Centennial Park, necessitating a trek through the city, across the Harbour Bridge and directly up the Pacific Highway. This is not something you really want to do in heavy traffic, but it was quite manageable in the wee hours of Boxing Day morning.
There were roughly 25 of us nursing various hangovers and digestive discomforts after the mass consumption of comestibles on Christmas Day. But we were ready to seize this day. Riding is the best way to reduce your turkey footprint, after all.
It was pleasant riding through the deserted city streets at 7am and it was easy to keep the bunch together. We cruised over the Bridge (you never get tired of looking at Sydney Harbour) and headed up the highway. I caught up with several clubmates, including Randwick-Botany club president John Buckton, who was looking rather slimmer than last time I saw him. But I learned that came about after a couple of health scares: a heart attack followed by a stroke in the first half of 2007.
This is not something you expect to happen to a laid back, not particularly overweight, fit 50 year-old with no family history of this sort of thing. But you can't argue with a very high blood pressure and John's had to lose 15kg and take the right drugs to put himself out of danger. He's been back on the bike six weeks and says he's got a 95kg engine powering an 80kg body. If anything, he's going faster on the hills than before.
After 30km of riding, we turned off the Pacific Highway at Hornsby Heights, descending via a series of hairpins into Galston Gorge. The bunch was already split at the bottom, and those splits got bigger as everyone tested themselves on the 3km climb out of the gorge. I quickly realised how little training I'd been doing as I watched half a dozen or so riders disappear up the road while I tried but failed to take it steady.
We regrouped at the top and headed down Arcadia Road, enjoying the serenity of the bush in this part of Sydney. Another descent took us down to Berowra Waters, where we just missed the ferry. But while we waited for the next one, we were joined by another bunch of a dozen or so, including Trent Wilson, several of his Jittery Joe's teammates and Commonwealth Games gold medalist Natalie Bates. Trent and Natalie set a sustainable pace on the climb out of Berowra Waters, chatting all the way while I sat on their wheels praying that they wouldn't up the speed. Most of the Randwick group was intact at the top, but we waited for our stragglers and let Willo and co continue their own ride.
It was now mid-morning and we'd completed 60km and two of the three climbs. A couple of riders opted out of doing Bobbin Head but we still had two dozen of our original group as we swooped down into Kuring-Gai Chase National Park for the final climb. It's 4km long and averages around 4% - more than enough to take its toll on some tired legs. There was one final regrouping before we rejoined the Pacific Highway for the ride back to the Harbour Bridge.
Not everyone was tired and for a while, the pace was on as we sped back down the highway. I was hurting on every little climb as I dangled at the back and I wasn't the only one. There was relief when one of the more experienced riders went to the front and told the youngsters to cool it.
We had 100km on the clock by the time we stopped off at a cafe in Kiribilli in the shade of the Harbour Bridge. It was an appropriate way to finish what was a very enjoyable ride.
Luckily, I had the rest of Boxing Day to sleep.