CLIFF BELL is so besotted by his sport that when the time comes, he says he hopes to die on his bike.
"I love pushing a bike. I just love to ride, it does me a lot of good physically," Bell says, while out on his bike on the Gwydir Highway about 15km from Inverell on the way to Warialda in northern NSW.
Bell is well known around the "Fossicker's Way" in the Inverell district, riding between 250-350km a week on his road bike, pedals churning, the shiny spokes flashing in the mid-morning sun.
Not too shabby for a bloke who celebrated his 92nd birthday three weeks ago, making him one of the oldest cyclists in Australia, if not the world.
Today, after a breakfast of two hard boiled eggs, a little bit of cereal and a good dollop of honey, this sprightly character will line up with his good pal, Don Strahley, 30 years his junior and winner of the 1970 edition of the race, to ride the last leg of the gruelling Grafton to Inverell classic, a gut-busting 228km over the infamous Gibraltar Range.
The last section features seven climbs.
"The climb over Waterloo is arguably the toughest," Bell says.
His only indulgence at the other end will be sipping two glasses of white wine served up to him by wife of 65 years, Betty, who will wait for him at the finish line in Otho Street, Inverell's main drag.
"I do enjoy the wine, but my limit is just the two glasses," he says.
"I don't drink much in between. I never go into a pub. If I want a drink, I usually have it at home, I don't drink much at all."
Bell says he has no doubt he will make to the finish line today.
"I've even mapped out in my mind where I'll start my final sprint, that's providing the legs stand up to getting over the final seven climbs," he says. "When I turned 90, I did it in three-and-a-half hours, but it may take me a bit longer this time."
A bike rider from the age of five, Bell, a former dairy farmer and orchardist, still manages to pedal anywhere up to 40km a day, six days a week.
A member of the Inverell Cycling Club for many years, it wasn't until he was in his 70s that he first tackled the Grafton to Inverell and entered Masters Games races.
The medals and trophies that take pride of place in the lounge room in the Bells' cottage at Little Plain, just to the west of the township, are testament to his success.
As to the main field for this year's Classic, 2004 winner Peter McDonald, who rides for the FRF-NSWIS team, is a warm pre-race favourite among the 186 riders who will leave Grafton this morning.
McDonald recently won the Tour of the Murray River in Victoria, and would become only the second rider in the history of the race to win it twice. Victorian Jamie Drew won in 1997 and 1999.
Nic Sanderson, from SouthAustralian.com combine, who had a year as a domestique for Robbie McEwen and Cadel Evans with the Belgium-based Predictor-Lotto team, comes to the NSW Northern Rivers region having won a stage of the Tour of Gippsland.
Historically, this one-day enduro has also had a strong international flavour, Norway's Atle Peterson, Italy's Gian-Luca Pierobon and Nate Reiss of the US, are on the honour roll.
The race also holds fond memories for Geelong's John Trevorrow, who set the fastest time when it was raced under handicap conditions in 1970 and again in 1971.
In 1972, Trevorrow, the promoter of Melbourne's Jayco Bay Classic series, earned Olympic selection for the Munich Games, before going on to enjoy a successful professional career in Europe.