Myrtleford revealed itself to be a good place to set up base for a couple nights. The Great Alpine Road serves as its main drag, with a number of secondary streets providing enough in the way of restaurants and other commercial enterprises to fill our needs. The flat we had rented was only a hundred meters off the rail trail, which was a good thing, considering our state on arrival. It was also near a supermarket, where we picked up what was needed for a home-cooked breakfast and a cycling survival kit.
Our objective was Bright at the very top of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail. Bright sits only a hundred meters higher in the mountains than Myrtleford. Ignoring minor undulations, the ride climbs the equivalent of one story every kilometer for thirty kilometers, a 0.3% grade. That’s about as flat as things get in an area called “The Australian Alps”.
The morning broke cool and clear, but the weather forecast was less than reassuring: “Chance of thunderstorms, possibly severe, increasing in the afternoon.” If we didn’t get to Bright, we would classify the trip as a failure. Once again racing the weather, we hurried out early, still feeling the previous evening’s exploits. The rail trail continued to be paved and well-maintained, making for a lovely ride, despite a roaring hangover.
Halfway, we stopped to refuel at the station platform for a place named Eurobin, presumably the locality at which one disposes of their Eurotrash. After eating a piece of fruit and refilling the water bottles (with actual water, this time), we headed off again. Not fifty meters later, it became painfully obvious that Frank had a flat tyre. Sigh.
Flat tyres are one of those things cyclists are supposed to expect and take in stride. I certainly expect them, but have never been able to take them in stride. Throughout my life I have watched with envy and fury as other cyclists fix flats, often with a patch, in four or five minutes. I have fixed a few hundred flats, and have yet to succeed in applying a patch. Indeed, I gave up years ago, opting instead to carry a spare tube. While I can reliably replace a tube, it takes no less than forty-five minutes with abundant cursing. I invariably end up covered from head to toe in bicycle grease, often with bleeding fingers. The only person on Earth more inept than me at fixing flat tyres is Frank.
Crestfallen, we walked our bikes back to the station platform, the roar of distant thunder unnerving us. Frank first tried re-inflating the tyre, both of us hoping beyond hope that it was merely a slow leak. No such luck.
Flat tyres, generally, are caused by something. I have learned that if one doesn’t find the cause – usually a shard of glass or metal that has poked through the tyre – they tend to recur, and quite quickly. Despite pinpointing the puncture in a bucket of water, I was unable to find the proximate cause. After forty-five minutes of abundant cursing, I was covered from head to toe in bicycle grease, and my fingers were bleeding, but the flat was fixed. At least for the time being.
The sun re-emerged, the birds sang. Now without a spare, we made the perhaps foolhardy decision to press on to Bright. We made it without further mishap. There, we purchased a new back-up tube from a shopkeeper who helpfully pointed out I had re-mounted Frank’s tyre backwards. Sigh.
Bright is a pretty town with a permanent population around 2,000, although that is augmented by European backpackers, Aussie holiday-makers and other sundry tourists, particularly in summer and ski season. We made our way to the Bright Brewery for lunch, splitting a truly excellent hamburger and some fantastic pork ribs with a beer, at the astounding cost of sixty-eight dollars. After a walk through the quaint but adequate business district, we mounted the bikes one again, heading back to Myrtleford, racing the looming thunderstorms.
Retracing the rail trail to the outskirts of Bright, we caught up with a family — Mom and Dad, led by two pre-teen boys. We rang our bells, Frank shouted “Passing!” as overly officious middle-aged cyclists are wont to do.
Just as we began overtaking the group, a Magpie swooped down and attacked Dad, pecking him with some forced on the back of the neck. “AAAAAAHHHH!!” he screeched. I’d never seen a grown man pirouette atop a bicycle before. He swerved into our path, we slammed on the brakes and stopped with Mom, narrowly avoiding calamity. For us, anyway.
The magpie circled to come in for another go. Dad wobbled along, waving one arm one way, then the other the other. Now the two boys in front stopped, dazzled by the display. Dad weaved right through them, accelerating in anticipation of another attack. Well that he did. The five of us stood there mesmerized, watching Dad peddle ahead under siege. The viscous magpie kept circling him, swooping in to attack, reducing Dad’s vocabulary to that employed by tweenage girls on roller-coasters: “Eeeek! EEEEEEEK! AAAAAHHHH!” I imagine he found it most emasculating as he disappeared around a long bend.
The magpie is one of the most common birds in Victoria. Growing up in North America, I had never seen one. Indeed, I was disappointed to discover that magpies were a white and black crow-like beast, not a tasty chocolate treat. (Was I thinking Moonpie?) Magpies infest every land mass from Jolly Old eastward to the antipodes. They are considered to be one of, if not the, most intelligent birds due to their ability to recognise themselves in a mirror, a feat that surpasses the cranial capacity of all other fowl, if I am to believe Wikipedia.
Magpies, at least male Victorian magpies, are notorious for attacking passing cyclists, sometimes with catastrophic consequences. This is attributed to nest protection, so this magpie’s mid-summer offensive was oddly unseasonal. Regardless of season, it is a hilarious thing to watch.
It would be a loveable quirk if it didn’t leave cyclists in the hospital on a regular basis. Having one’s eyes pecked out is a universally feared Hitchcockian horror, leaving cyclists prone to suffer the additional humiliation of crashing at speed. Fighting a magpie can leave one in a heap on the ground, with a broken clavicle and dislocated priorities. Severe emasculation is one of the better outcomes.
Rigorous research at one of Australia’s finest universities (Stop laughing! That’s NOT funny!) has determined that magpies not only can recognise themselves, but recognise particular cyclists, attacking the same cyclist again and again. A rational human might conclude that these cyclists had done something to earn the wrath of the magpie. Of course, there is no such thing as a rational human, so we needn’t explore that avenue further.
Those who find themselves repeatedly on the receiving end of magpie attacks are known to take preventive measures. Most common of these is to affix cable ties to the helmet such that they stick out like antenna, a’ la My Favorite Martian. A veteran of such attacks can be recognised, like a soldier with a chest full of medals, by the antennae they award themselves after each campaign, regardless of outcome. Unfortunately, magpies don’t seem to fear Martians. On the contrary, magpies find the antennae to be useful markers in identifying their enemies. Which leaves me doubtful that there is any such thing as a rational Martian.
Eventually our magpie returned, soaring back to its unseen nest, mercifully having declared victory. Two hundred meters down the trail Dad came in sight again, shaken and hollow-eyed, but otherwise unbloodied. Clearly not appreciating the humour of the situation, he barked “We’re riding the highway back!” at his clan as we caught up. The elder boy stifled a laugh, the younger bit his lip. I noticed Dad had three cable ties sticking out of his helmet — a sergeant, I thought, possibly officer material. The family walked their cycles off into the woods towards the Great Alpine Road, fading into the bush.
Would it surprise you to know that magpies have attacked Frank in the past? Me neither. He has yet to achieve rank, though. Fingers crossed.
The rest of the trip back to Myrtleford was uneventful. Minutes after we arrived under cover of our flat’s car port, the storms rolled in with some fury – close call. As I removed my day-pack from my bike rack, I said to Frank “Hey, give me the new tube. I want to put it with the other repair stuff.”
Frank responded “I don’t have it – where did you put it when we left the shop?”
“I didn’t have it when we left the shop – you did.”
“No I didn’t.”