The Hume Freeway, stretching from Melbourne to Sydney, is an ‘A to B' experience for most drivers. It's a utilitarian stretch of road, designed to get you where you want to go, without delay. Most Melburnians are pretty familiar with this journey, pushing ahead with the single focus of reaching the final destination and their country property, the bed and breakfast, the winery, the ski resort or the mythical mountain passes and endless singletrack of the High Country. It's all about the destination.
Rob Doyle has paid his dues on the Hume, splitting his time between Melbourne and Bright - his work in the city and his heart in the mountains. Between the fuel stops and scheduled work calls from behind the wheel, he's spent plenty of time staring out into the ever changing landscape wondering what adventures could be had on two wheels, beyond the highway corridor. 15 years of driving the Hume, thinking.
Why was 2021 any different to the others? And why in the middle of an Australian summer did he grab a group of mates to take on the almost 350 km journey from Melbourne to Bright, tracking the route of the Hume Freeway along gravel roads and singletrack – with 4,500m of climbing – all in a single day?
The first thing to know is that Doyle suffers from a blood disease called Von Willebrand’s, a rare disorder that prevents his blood from clotting. Diagnosed as a young child, it is ironically what pushed him towards cycling everywhere as a kid, being unable to participate in all the usual Australian sports, for fear of bleeding out.
“I was probably too young to have a fear of mortality,” Doyle says. “I had a very different upbringing to other kids in Australia in the ‘90s. They were playing AFL and cricket, but that was off the cards for me. For me that was the toughest bit – everyone else is playing footy and you’re not allowed.”
Bike riding (and racing) was something that already ran in his family, so it was no great leap for Doyle to take it up as his outlet for competition.
That passion powered him to try and go pro or “live the dream” as he puts it. He even got over to Europe to give racing there a go, something of a holy grail for Aussie cyclists.
His commitment to sport also kept him healthy, he explains.
“There’s this relatively new idea that leading an active life can curb a lot of the worst parts of bleeding disorders. It can give you better symptom control.”
There is a vicious cycle, whereby some people’s response to having a bleeding disorder leads them to shy away from exactly the kind of behaviours that might help them manage their condition.
Doyle is careful to point out that he has been relatively lucky, in the severity of his condition. So much so that by the time he entered his teens, he was hoping to have shrugged it off entirely.
“As I hit puberty, I was starting to believe I’d ‘grown out’ of Von Willebrand’s. I was still cautious but it went further and further into the back of my mind.”
Throughout his 20s, Doyle remained cautious, but also saw big improvements in the types and range of treatments available. It was during this time he was spending a lot of time up in Bright, taking advantage of its fantastic roads as a perfect place to train hard and pursue that dream.
If you’re not au fait with the Aussie cycling landscape, the town of Bright in north-east Victoria is broadly equivalent to Boulder in Colorado, or Girona in Spain; an outdoorsy, cycling paradise with plenty of thriving businesses that reflect the lifestyle of its inhabitants. Think craft beer, art galleries and indie restaurants.
He was brought back to earth with a bump, however, in July of 2021.
“It wasn’t until I rolled a tub in a ‘cross race and ended up in hospital for a bit over a week that I was like ‘Ah yeah, you still have a bleeding disorder. Welcome back!’.
Haemophiliacs do not the have the same luxury as other bike racers when they crash. They can’t simply brush themselves down, check both collarbones are intact and hop back in the saddle; there is always potential for what Doyle calls “an invisible issue.”
The crash, which happened at a cyclo-cross race in Shepparton (not too far from the Hume, itself) left Doyle with serious abdominal bleeding, a stint in hospital and three months off the bike doing rehab.
He explains that he learnt a lot about himself and the disease during that period while benefiting from the medical advancements and support of the Haemophilia Foundation. In doing so, he found a reason to turn all that thinking on the Hume Freeway into action.
It’s not uncommon for people to bikepack this route over a couple of days. For Doyle, it had to be a single shot. With a little persuasion, five mates joined the challenge of completing the ride.
It was something of a race to get fit for Doyle, who only strung together four weeks of training prior to the grand endeavour.
“I always knew I was gonna make it to Bright, but I had to be very conservative a lot earlier than I wanted to be. Let me tell you, I never want to do a ride like that, that unfit again!”
The morning of the longest day of the year arrived all-too-soon. Winding their way in the pitch dark through Melbourne’s suburbs before heading over the Yarra Ranges and beyond into the far north-east reaches of the state. Ahead of them lay forestry roads, farm tracks, National Park, singletrack ‘walking’ paths and a shit tonne of gravel – the route couldn’t have been more different to those trips on the Hume. In the beginning the crew were full of excitement and bombing along.
At under half the distance covered, things began to heat up. It was the middle of Aussie summer, after all.
“We were 120km in, chopping along at 50kph and then we sort of looked at each other like ‘oh no, this is about to get bad’. We started to hit this long drag uphill, the heat of the day really started to fire up. I knew I needed to go into my shell a bit.”
Having to stay within his limits was a new and not wholly welcome experience for Doyle.
“Ordinarily in that situation, I would’ve been one of the strongest, but I knew it was gonna be a long day. There’s some pretty nasty climbing late in the ride. I cruised up them with some nice easy gearing.”
Not everybody paced the ride quite so well.
“There were other guys – including MAAP CX’s own Garry Milburn – who pushed on and were looking pretty damaged by the end of it!”
With just one serious climb to go, the crew stopped for much-needed refreshments.
“We got to the top of this long drag, my Garmin was showing 40°C,” Doyle recalls. “I think at that point everyone was broken. We stopped in a town called Whitfield for a Frosty Fruit and can of Coke, which seemed to get everyone back up and about.”
And with 50km to go, Doyle and his crew were met by a welcome sight.
Shortly before nightfall, they entered the town of Bright together. Shattered, but delighted with what they had achieved.
“Those of us that rode the whole thing split off at that point, just to share the moment. We’re not particularly emotional guys, but we were pretty emotional, just enjoying it being over basically.
“We walked into Bright Brewery and were handed beers and we just lay on the ground for a while. It was an amazing turnout. People are still talking about it.”
With stories to recount, muscles to recover and a huge sum raised for a great cause; this trip to regional Victoria was all about the journey.
“Originally, I thought ‘if we raise 500 bucks that’d be amazing!’. We started to build momentum and we went straight through $500. Then $1,000. When I made it $2,000, someone put $1,000 in! I pushed the target up to $6,500, which is the number of people in Australia diagnosed with bleeding disorders.”
The fundraiser has so far made more than $11,000 for the Haemophilia Foundation of Victoria and you can still donate here.