It is a 550 km drive from Albury to Sydney along the Hume Freeway. Travelling at 110 kph, you can reach downtown Sydney in six hours. But cycling via Wagga, Talbingo, Cooma, Canberra, Goulburn, Mittagong and Camden is a 1,000 km, eight day journey, taking almost 40 hours in the saddle, including 8,000 metres of climbing. Welcome to Pollie Pedal 2017. Pollie Pedal was the creation of Tony Abbott and some parliamentary colleagues in 1998. In recent years, the annual ride has raised more than $5 million for various charities. After supporting Carers Australia for five years, we are now raising funds for Soldier On.
In the early years, we camped at night and enjoyed camaraderie around an open fire. The schedule is now more intense with community events interspersing an average of 130 km cycling each day. We talk to hundreds of Australians over the course of the week, hearing of their hopes and dreams, their fears and concerns. The mood is palpable: they believe the country is drifting without a clear sense of direction. The Rapid Relief Team — a Christian community outreach organisation, which provides breakfast for the riders and volunteers — is a welcome sight each morning. After a briefing from ride director, Graeme Northey, we cycle off at 8 am for the first leg, usually about 50 – 60 km to a morning tea stop in one of the many country towns through which we pass. Often the local service club provides the refreshments for the riders and the community members with whom we mingle. After a further 50 – 60 km, we visit another community centre, school or defence base, before cycling the final leg to our destination for the day for a civic welcome. An enjoyable, informal dinner rounds out the day.
About 50 riders participate in the event. In addition to Tony Abbott, Angus Taylor and myself, who ride for eight days, a few parliamentary colleagues join for various lengths of time. This year David Gillespie, Sussan Ley, Andrew Hastie, Luke Gosling, Andrew Wallace and Zed Zeselja don the lycra for a day or more. Many other riders return each year to enjoy the challenge, the camaraderie and the opportunity to talk to many Australians. The Olympian and Tour de France competitor, Stephen Hodge, and the former European professional, Yvette Fuser, are annual ride leaders. This year, Commonwealth Games marathon silver medallist, Tani Ruckle, adds to the strength of the peloton. Tani is an ambassador for Streetwork, the Sydney northern beaches youth service. Kelvin Alley makes a welcome return after a few years absence. Now leading the Salvation Army in PNG, Kelvin is an inspiring influence. With participants ranging from their 40s to 70s, the ride is a great advertisement for healthy exercise in an ageing society.
Soldier On was founded by John Bale, Calvin Wilson and Danielle Clout in 2012 following the death of John’s school friend and Duntroon colleague, Lt. Michael Fussell, by an IED in Afghanistan. It provides veterans —especially from more recent military engagements, such as Afghanistan and Iraq—with employment, mental health and re-engagement support.Seven Soldier On veterans and serving defence personnel participate in the ride: Todd Berry, Mark Blake, Adam Campbell, Michael Hannaford, Paul Smith, Robbie Thompson and David Welch. Each evening, one of them recounts his experience of service and its consequences. In thanking the veterans one evening, Tony Abbott reminds us that sending our defence forces into conflict is the most grave decision a government can make. His remarks have a moral clarity. All leaders make a wrong judgment call from time to time, but what marks the true leader is a clear, well-communicated sense of purpose and direction. The wisdom of millennia remains true: ‘where there is no vision, a people perish.’ The defence of Australia rests on a critical compact between the government representing the citizens; and the Australian Defence Force. This compact ensures a proper alignment of our national interests and aspirations, the resources necessary to meet those objectives, and the essential funding. There is also the ongoing obligation to our veterans to care for their needs, especially those who suffer physical and mental trauma. This is why Soldier On is worthy of our support.
An eight-day ride for some 50 cyclists requires significant planning and considerable support. A group of volunteers, many of whom return year after year, make the event possible. The volunteers, from Goulburn, Sydney and South Australia in particular, do everything from placing caution signs on the roadside to escorting the groups of riders and laundering cycling gear in the evening. Our mechanic, Braden Mackay, keeps wheels turning; and our osteopath, Sarah Heathcote, keeps tired legs moving. Assisted by Carly and her team from Soldier On, they make the ride an enjoyable experience. Although I fractured my clavicle after hitting a patch of loose gravel on the last day, the 20th Pollie Pedal was a great success. We raised more than $400,000 — thanks to our generous sponsors — which will help establish a Soldier On facility at Sydney’s North Head; and we had the opportunity to mix with a wonderful group of veterans and many Australians along the way. My lasting impression of the ride was the sight of two cyclists, hands on the back of a third rider between them, pushing him up a steep hill. It reminds me of the Soldier On logo — a depiction of two soldiers with their arms around an injured mate. Pollie Pedal is more than a ride: it is a reminder of our common humanity and shared destiny.
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