Growing up in the inner Sydney suburb of Surrey Hills, Kathy never had a childhood where you could learn to ride a bicycle. In the narrow, car-jammed streets beneath the giant cupcake shadow of Centrepoint Tower, there was no safe place to learn. If you wanted to try cycling the nearest place was Centennial Park where you could wobble around on a steel-framed rental among joggers, pram-pushers, ball-throwers and loping dogs. Then in her twenties, Kathy had tried it only once and swore off it in the same hour, committing instead to a life of restaurants, gym and cinema.
So I was dumbfounded when, at the tender age of fifty, Kathy came home to our place in Lyneham, to tell me she was planning to cycle 612 kilometres from Mount Gambier to Geelong a mere four months hence, because until then, she had not once expressed a shred of interest in any vehicle without four wheels and air-con.
The ride was the Great Victorian Bike Ride. 2013 saw an iconic route along Victoria’s Great Ocean Road. A woman at work of similar age had assured Kath she could do it, so that was that. Kathy’s approach to preparing for this daunting challenge was to find the hardest leg, train for that, then call the rest easy. If she could manage the longest day of 107 km, she reasoned, the other days would take care of themselves.
With fourteen weeks in hand, that gave her a week to find a bike, another to learn to ride, and twelve more to go from wobbling around our cul-de-sac to learning to spin from Port Fairy to Port Campbell. With work quiet, she took four months off to train. I was recruited as coach, companion, mobile mechanic, domestique and occasionally, medic.
Over successive weeks, helped by Band-Aids and Betadine, 100 m became three km, then ten, 20, and 30. As Canberra’s cherry buds peeked through the frost-rimed branches, Kath and I would spend our mornings belting out 50 km on the bike-paths from Lyneham to Tuggeranong, coming home to gobble noodles, then push our shaking legs out for another 30 km around Belconnen and Gungahlin. Her goal was in sight!
At the event itself, Kathy’s first efforts at self-training almost worked. But on a long mountain leg, chafed and exhausted after three days’ riding, soaked in drizzle and in three-degree chill, a miserable Kath finally caught the ‘Sag bus’, and rode the last 7 km into camp – the only part of the entire event she didn’t finish under her own steam.
605 km instead of 612? She never forgave herself. And thus a middle-aged cycling career was born.
Over five successive years, Kathy rode almost 30,000 km, participating in Round the Bay, Tour de Rutherglen, more Great Victorian Bike Rides, the Audax Alpine Classic, and the Big Canberra Bike Ride. Whenever a ride defeated her, it became Unfinished Business to be tackled the following year; and whenever she completed a tough ride, she’d look around to find where the really hard challenge was. After completing a 210 km sportive last year, she committed us this year to 130 km of gravel riding around Wagga, and was looking hard at Fitz’s Challenge for next year.
Five years on, Kath rode easily at 30 kph, and could chat to you normally while she did it. She could cut a smooth line inches from the road-edge like a figure skater. She rode with a power-meter and could talk watts and kilojoules and nutrition, hydration and recovery to the point where workmates would ask her for training advice. The daughter of a restaurateur, she never hated a road that had a lamb cutlet at the end of it, and with her middle-aged, well-nourished body, it was her secret joy to overtake commuting boys thirty years her junior.
Kathy’s cycling career came to an end on June 3rd this year, when we were training outside Bungendore: on a cold, clear winter’s day, both dressed in bright orange, in full sunshine, on a straight and well-maintained road, on the quietest day of the week, we’d planned a gentle, nearly flat 80 km shake-out ride past Tarago between more intensive training.
I was a kilometre ahead of Kath when a passing driver alerted me to the accident behind. I returned to find my wife of thirty-five years on the road-side, a white Mercedes van stopped a long way past her with its hazard lights on, and two Registered Nurses in attendance: miraculously passing in the other direction, they’d stopped immediately to provide aid.
The help provided by passing drivers and first responders was extraordinary and exemplary. Police closed the road to allow a Snowy Hydro Southcare helicopter to land, with a view to airlifting Kathy to Sydney. However, Kathy succumbed to her injuries before she could be moved. To his credit, the driver remained at the scene. Police charged him with two criminal driving offences that afternoon, and the matter is now before the NSW court.
The role of community was central to Kath’s love of cycling, and key to kindling in her a joy in the sport, in the outdoors, in helping her to learn and to achieve all that she did. I wish to acknowledge the staff and volunteers of Pedal Power, the Bicycle Network, the Audax Australia Cycling Club, and Rotary Australia in particular for their many valuable contributions to Australian community cycling, and to the Amy Gillett Foundation for its critical contributions to shared road safety.
The lessons from this and so many other tragedies are well known by cyclists, but still being grasped by our broader community: cyclists are vulnerable, and every vehicle you share the road with is far more powerful and better armoured than you. Such sharing can only occur in mutual respect and trust, and that begins with better awareness.
No driver, I believe, wants to be party to such an appalling tragedy.
Mark Grundy was Kathy’s husband and thanks to Kath, is now also an endurance cycling enthusiast and Pedal Power member.
Donations in honour of Kath’s memory may be made to the Amy Gillett Foundation.
A memorial will be held at 9 am this Saturday 28 July 2018 at Nara Park in Canberra to commemorate Kathy Ho and Teresa Foce, who both lost their lives cycling on local roads this year.