I had never heard of this challenge/Rrace until I read a reference to it by 1997 CSR cyclist Bob Simpson who took part in the 1995 (with his wife, Jayne) and 1997 editions of the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge.
I did some digging and came up with some information I have outline below.
This is from http://www.si.com/vault/2002/11/18/8117418/inside-outnews-and-notes-from-the-world-of-adventure-sports :
... Charles Giles, a 62-year-old civil lawyer from Tucson, hopes to find that he hasn't changed all that much since 1992, when he was one of about 50 racers in the one and only Great Australian Bike Challenge, a 3,000-mile coast-to-coast journey that took him 24 days to complete and included a racer mutiny in Alice Springs. ...
I've sat on this for six years, which is as long as anyone ought to sit on anything, unless it's a bicycle seat, which you should sit on forever. It scares me to put it on the Web, because I have the feeling that I need to finish it before making it public. So, if you somehow stumbled on this, Please Understand that I put it up for my family and friends to read and I'd rather it not be made into a Golden Web moment (not without prior negotiation, anyhow (-;). The first "chapter" for lack of a better word, is especially embarrassing in its prolixity and general weirdness, which I can only hope to excuse as the writing quote unquote muscle having gotten dreadfully flabby while the bod was out there ... crossing oz on auto-cyclist..
It started out like any dream, emerging with a sacred fascination which made the routine of day to day life seem a sleeplike state. It held the imagination captive in idle moments, threatened concentration during active ones and recurred even in the midst of other adventures one would have thought substantial enough to hold all attentions riveted. It was not to be denied.
For all its contingent dread its prospect beckoned irresistably, a shining out of this world idea taking hold, shaping a thousand small daily decisions toward its own fulfillment. It subsumed.
It invited comparison with past experiences and, though none of these seemed very well to uphold its feasibility it admitted always the thread of chance, to which was tied committment's hook, set with each day's riding and conjecturing and imagining a little bit more firmly into the jaw of destiny.
The thread unwound from the dream spool. It is one year long, tangling and looping across the training grounds. From Paris to Brest and back. Through five European countries. In Venezuela along the cordillera of the Andes, across the Gran Sabana, outlining the Carribean coast. Webbing from San Francisco four times out and across the Sierra Nevadas, and tracing the Pacific coast down to Los Angeles. Lacing Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy, the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam. Thickly lassoing the polo field in Golden Gate Park. Clotting the streets between here and the office.
When playing out the dream thread had become my whole existance, I flew with it to Australia, where it picks up in Useless Loop at the far western edge of the continent and straightens out in a long line to Meekathara, then Wiluna, tiny outposts in a vast expanse. It sights squintily in a grimmace of exertion along the Gunbarrel Highway to Giles, then on to the Olgas and Ayers Rock. Alice Springs, the Plenty Highway, Bulia, the Channel Country, Windoorah, Quilpie, Charleville, Dalby, Oakey, Toowoomba, Woodenbong and Byron Bay: but brief knots in the continuum,
If at some point the dream thread slipped into reality it never relinquished the element of the fantastic, that canny implausibility of dreaminess. If the thread lies played out, there remains yet to be done the weaving of it into whatever textile or text may be spun from a dream's lingering trace. This is the story of a bicycle race.
I have a really bad feeling about this, said Eric Nordenson of Concord, Mass. The heavily veined man with shrewd, closely-set eyes sat appraising me across the geological maps spread out on the table between us. Have you talked to any Australians about Hans Tholstrup? His reputation is not good.
Eric had cycled alone a year earlier across the Nullaboor plain to the south, carrying 30 liters of water with him as he frontaged the rail line through the region. Did this feat qualify him as an expert on cycling in Australia, I wondered, or merely impeach his sanity? I prompted him to explain.
The Army wouldn't give him a water truck. So we'll have to carry bottled water. One place it's five, six hundred miles between places to get water. With 100 cyclists and hangers on, we'll need more than four tons of water every day. Where is it going to come from?
The blood coursed through his hairy forearms as he kneaded his hands, and bulged in culverts shallowly buried in his furrowed brow.
But surely he wouldn't endanger our lives. He makes a living promoting events. There is always some risk behind this sort of thing, but I can't believe he's as irresponsible as that.
I've been here two weeks. And I've talked to people. There's a lot of skepticism being voiced about his ability to pull this whole thing off. Hey, I don't want to die somewhere out there because someone didn't mark a turn in the road, or because no one bothered to count heads one night. I'm 50 years old. I've taken a lot of risks in my life but I do my homework, and I've always been in charge. I don't feel good about putting my fate in the hands of someone with a reputation for reckless glory-mongering, poor organization and the habit of pissing off nearly everyone he comes in contact with. He doesn't even know anything about bicycling. How can he put on a bike race? There's no bike mechanic coming, no doctor, no water trucks. There hasn't been any publicity or pre-race hype here. No one here knows about the race, but everyone has heard of Hans, and what they've heard is bad. The whole thing has a fly-by-night feel. Something is terribly, terribly wrong.
Front seat of the race bus, a huge greyhound-style bus of the normal, road-going variety, rather beat-looking, emblazoned with the name of a rental agency and stuffed to the gills with fit-looking men and women, most clowning around to relieve pre-race nerves. Hans Tholstrup is driving, going very fast on rutted and sand-pocketed road, turning around to talk to myself and Pat Ward, a very experienced American ultra-marathoner who has competed in the Race Across AMerica (RAAM) five times.
You drive this bus with great skill, I suggest.
Not bad for someone who has never driven a bus before, Hans agrees.
But what about the time you jumped the double-decker London bus over 25 Harley Davidsons?
Oh, yes, well, aside from that.
Hans had done this stunt to upstage Evel Kneival, who was coming to Australia to jump a Harley Davidson over 24 London Buses.
Tell us about that.
The ramp was maybe six or seven feet high, with a curve like a water-ski jump. At first they built it four feet high and I just shook my head and told them to try again. Dick Smith, editor of Australian National Geographic came along as a passenger. He wasn't strapped in at all, but just hung on to a pole on the upper platform deck.
What kind of protection did you have?
I had a couple of straps holding me to the seat, which was just the regular bus driver's seat, and a round lifesaver from a boat between me and the steering wheel. A Landrover pushed us up to 65 miles per hour and peeled off. There was no engine in the bus. We came down too much on the nose, and almost went end over end. The bus folded a bit in the middle, and all the tires blew, but we settled down and rolled away.
The bus lurched as Hans gunned the motor to drift at frightening speed through a sandy corner.
Keep the power on in the sand, that's what you got to do, piped up Pat Ward. That's what I do on my new KX500 motor cross bike. Gives you more traction. Hans is a great bus driver. We've ridden all the way out from Sydney. You missed out, man. 3,500 miles. Bus broke down a few times, but hey. What the hell. It's the Australian Bus Challenge, right?. If we break down in the Outback we'll hunt 'roos. Roast 'em on a bonfire. You bring a gun? I brought a gun. Gotta have one out here. Ain't that right, Hans? Aww, I'm just foolin' with ya. It's the Australian way. Contagious. Gotta exagerate everything. Throw in a few lies. All in the spirit of fun.
How did you go in RAAM this year, Pat? Pat had just finished RAAM a month earlier.
Oh, not too good. Vehicle broke down. I had problems. I overtrained. Too many thousand mile weeks. I didn't come here to win, I just want to be the first person to do two continents in three months. I haven't even ridden my bike yet. Except around the parking lot in the airport to see if it worked. Beer and television, that's my training program. Yup. I'm a bad motha. Lookout.
The lighthouse, Steep Point, westernmost point in Australia. Most of the field has been shuttled out in four wheel drives over 40 miles of horrendous, sandy roads from the nearby salt-mining town of Useless Loop. Today's ride is a prologue, and will not be timed, and after everyone has taken enough photos we start out.
Anyone who comes with me can take a shortcut, says Rod Evans. Rod is a favorite, having amassed a large collection of Australian ultramarathon cycling records over the years, including a 24 track record of over 500 miles (check fact) and the perimeter of Australia record of 49 days.
The sand is thick and stiff. We run up the hills and surf down them. Rod has taken the toe clips off his pedals. I have brand new clipless pedals, and I'm not used to them. The tension adjustment is set too tightly. I can't get my feet out of the pedals very quickly, and I keep crashing.
Once, I hit my shin very hard on the pedal as I crash.
I go hard, but hold back a little. I want to keep an eye on Rod and his short cut, but Rod is going very hard. Finally, I let him go. I can't see him, but his tracks are obvious. I find the shortcut, across a massive sand dune, and even pause to take a picture. After the dune a very corrugated road shakes the blood in the welt which has come up on my shin. I come third for the day.
I try to find a bandage for my leg, but Hans' wife Hannah has only one bandage in the first aid kit, and she wants to save it in case anyone gets bitten by a snake. There are lots of really poisonous snakes near Australia's coasts. We had seen three or four that day. Finally Hannah agrees to let me use the bandage, on the condition I give it back the next day.
Eric Nordenson is pissed. He missed Rod Evans' shortcut. He had to ride 20 km extra. He tells Hans he's pissed. His veins really bulge now, as he yells at Hans. Hans offers him his money back if he would leave. He says yes. He cools down. He changes his mind.
A group of people are talking to Hans about the danger involved in this race. Hans says that the first expedition ever to cross Australia, that of Burke and Wills in 1861, didn't know what they were doing and died on the way back. We are to be the first bicyclists ever to cross the continent through the center, Hans says. If we make too many mistakes we'll die, too.
I walk around and meet some of the racers, a few of whom I know already. It's good to see Elaine Mariolle, an old friend. Elaine is business-like and focused, perhaps sensing how difficult it will be for her to compete in a race which offers no separate category for women. Perhaps this is why only three women have entered, and one of these on a tandem with her husband.
But Elaine used to finish among the top male competitors in the Race Across AMerica, which she won in record time in 1986. She might have a chance.
Hans came up to me that night with his wife Hannah in tow. He was making the rounds and chatting with the riders. This was to become his trademark method of communication: He never stood before the group as a whole and made announcements, but would bend the ears of a few riders at a time, relying on the rumor mill to pass around the next day's start time, or some information about the course ahead he learned from talking with a local.
This Elaine Mariolle, Hans says to me, she's not the kind of woman you'd just go up to and ask for a fuck, is she?
I suppose he meant to say she had a very serious race face on, but I was flabbergasted. Hannah turned bright red as I agreed that she was not this sort of woman, and neither, I hoped, were there any women at all for whom this would serve as an appropriate greeting. Hans moved on and I can't bring myself to mention to Elaine what he has said. I feel a twinge of guilt for having told Elaine about this race a year ago, and for encouraging her to participate.
John Stamstad shows up at dusk. His flight was late. He had missed the first day.
He asks how to find the lighthouse so he can go out and ride the course in the full moon's light. You don't need to ride it in order to be eligible to win the race, Hans says, but in order to be eligible to become the first person to ride across Australia you'd have to ride it. John said he wanted to ride it, so Hans got one of the four wheel drives to go with him.
By morning, Eric Nordenson has done yet another Ross Perot. He gives me a few tires (folding Ritchey MegaByte 2.1's -- the best for loose sand!) and best wishes as we get ready to start the race without him. He looks relieved for himself. He looks worried for the rest of us.
High over the starting line the flags of the eleven countries represented flutter in the morning breeze. The mayor of Useless Loop, a tiny salt-mining town in the middle of nowhere, warns us we'll remember what is about to happen the rest of our lives and sends us shooting off the line with a bang of his gun.
The children of the town are supposed to escort us out of town. They all have little Australian flags adorning their handlebars. Before they could show us which way to go, Derek _______ one of the Americans, led off down the wrong track, riding his absurd little folding bike with 20-inch wheels. Derek had come more to take photographs than to race, but was full of enthusiasm to start with.
We realized the mistake after a minute. We ran with our bikes through the sand up to the other road, where the children now had a big lead on us. They had taken the right road all along. They laughed at us when we caught up. How were we going to ride all the way across Australia if we didn't even know how to get out of Useless Loop?
Finally we were racing. The pace was hard. About twenty guys held it, not talking much.
Rod Evans was continually being interviewed by a film crew from the back of a pickup truck. His legs looked like they belonged on a Greek statue, or a track racer. He had an Allsop bike, too, with the carbon fiber cantilever seat. His position was beautiful, his back completely flat.
At one point Rod looked at my own rather upright position atop my Allsop bike, and told me I looked like a turn of the century track racer, with my high-set, old-fashioned looking, flared-drop WTB handlebars.
Comfort over beauty, to each his own, I replied, but the next day I lowered my bars a bit. At 35 years old, Rod had a lot of experience and an aura of authority and know-how you just had to respect. If he said your bars were too high, well, you'd lower them.
At lunch we stopped just long enough to fill our pockets with sandwiches, and when I reached for a water bottle to fill it, I luckily noticed a loose water bottle cage and was able to quickly torque it down before rolling back out onto the course. Total stopped time: 45 seconds.
On every climb, John Stamstad would gain ten yards. I was glad to think most of the course would be flat.
Max, one of the Germans, ate a sandwich and threw the wrapper over his shoulder onto the side of the road. John and I saw this, and we both started yelling at him at the same time. Here we were, in one of the least polluted places in the world, and this guy was littering. Go back to Germany if you're going to litter, we said. Germany may be garbage can already. Australia is not. We chewed him out and made a few attacks to help him digest his sandwich.
The wildflowers in Western Australia. The fields of yellow, blue, purple and red stretch across the rolling hills as far as you can see in solid blankets of bee-buzzed color, dotted here, clumped there by scrub eucalypts, other small bushes and trees. I rode ahead of the group and took some pictures, including this one of Max.
By the time we got to a short stretch of bitumen toward the end of the day's course, I had developed the need to urinate, and I asked the group - dwindled to seven or eight by then - if we could make a neutral stop. Perhaps over coffee, responded Max the litterbug, at the Overlander Roadhouse? I stopped anyway, as did John, and we had to chase fairly hard to get back on.
By the time we got to the last water stop, there were only four of us. John and I, Max the German, and Jorg the Austrian. The Europeans stopped, and I jumped hard, then pulled up to wait for John. Can you go 30 km more without water? I asked. I think so, let's go. We both had Camelbaks, those neoprene backpack canteens.
We rode fast. Up over a little rise, and there was camp. Nine minutes later, the others arrived. We had averaged 20 miles per hour through loose dirt for exactly six hours. I got my camping gear off the bus, walked over to where John was setting up his tent and asked him if he minded if I set up my tent next to his. Pleased to have you for a neighbor, he said.
We got our buckets of water from one of the farmers. They were little plastic bowls with about a liter of cold water. It smelled like solvent. This was our daily ration of wash water, for ourselves and our clothes. It's going to be a long race, I thought, wondering where my next shower would come from.
We got our mess kits and stood in line for our tucker, as the Aussies call food. Steaks, potatoes, green beans. I had two steaks. I ate until I couldn't eat any more, then waited ten minutes and ate the same amount again. John was more modest, relying more on liquid food supplements from Gatorade Sports Labs. I was a little worried about him. He looked so thin already, almost frail. You didn't notice it when he was riding, but when you watched him walk from behind the bones of his pelvis stuck out through his skin.
Elaine teased me about how strange it was to see me holding a steak in my hands, tearing into it with a greedy relish. I had been a vegetarian for five years. I've been practicing eating meat, I said, for about six months now. I knew it'd be like this. I find I like it fine. Pass the salt, please?
We turned in, then, comforted as we dozed off by the familiarity of the Milky Way and Orion amidst the foreign sky of the Southern Hemisphere.
We begin shortly after sunrise, the whole group starting out together again. Something like half the riders had to be picked up by the broom wagon on the first day, and were thus eliminated from the race. All riders were allowed to start each day, however, regardless of their standing in the race. As the big group sets out, we feel the first of the headwinds begin.
Also, there is much sand. When you hit the sand you have to give it your all just to keep going. You shift down and start churning at high rpm's for all you're worth, trying to stay balanced and pointing in the right direction, trying not to get taken down by out-of-control riders.
The flat terrain and headwinds keep the group together. No one wants to fight the wind alone and there are no climbs to separate riders according to fitness.
The wind makes everyone ride closely together. Riding all day, the arms get tired. Tired riders rest often on their aero bars, which gives them less control. On their aero bars, they can't get to their brakes. They can't steer very quickly, either.
Riding close together riders don't see the ruts and sand pockets in the road. There are many crashes. John opened up his right knee in one of them.
Everyone tries to ride near the front to avoid the pileups. Ironically, the jockeying for position causes a few crashes. Luckily the sand is soft. But the group doesn't wait around after crashes. You have to pick yourself up right away and jump back up to the group if you can.
People are more civil today. We take neutral breaks at water stops and even make a few group nature stops.
There are many thorn punctures, and every time the group stops I pull a half-dozen thorns from my tires. I carefully avoid the road's edge, where controlled burning of weeds case-hardens thorns into "bayonettles" capable of piercing the best of tires. To avoid thorns I carry my bike, rather than ride it, around campsites and lunch stops. Thanks to Continental tires and good habits, I avoid getting so much as a single puncture. John, too, will go the whole race without flats. He, too, thanks his Continentals.
No one really attacked today. It began to seem that the course alone might be difficult enough to determine the winners, without anyone really needing to actively try to break away. It seemed to be more a question of being consistent, and finishing each day near the front.
We finished the day with six other riders, ending our day with the activities of the previous day. We were starting to establish our routine.
The first thing to do, after finishing, was eat. John did a thousand calories of liquid food; I'd scrounge ten pieces of bread from Barbara the cook, coat them with honey, and eat them one by one, washing them down with lots and lots of water. A big mistake a lot of riders made was waiting two or three hours after finishing, when dinner would finally be ready, before starting to eat. All that time they could have been digesting, instead of wasting time "resting."
Next we washed up and did laundry. It was important to do this right away, while there was a little sun left, because when the sun went down it became instantly cold and often misty. Also, sunlight kills the bacteria which cause saddle sores and skin infections, so after rinsing out our clothes we'd hang them inside out on bushes to dry out and disinfect.
I felt sorry for the riders who got in later, after the sun had set. They never had any chance to dry out their clothes. The mornings were damn cold, and to start out with wet, rather than merely damp, clothes must have been a disheartening proposition.
After washing up it was time to pitch camp. A spot near the bus was best - less time spent carrying your gear back and forth - but too near the hordes and you'd be kept up late. Sometimes I just slept out with no tent to save time, but plenty of times it was too risky. We had rain five or six nights.
By the time you did all this you might have a few minutes of daylight to look after your bike. I tried not to tinker too much with mine. No point in fixing what wasn't broken. I started the race with brand new Suntour XC-Pro components, which proved reliable and dependable with a minimum of adjustment. Still, you wanted to oil your chain regularly, grease the cables, spray lots of lube into the SPD pedals, and do an ocasional search for loose bolts. Oftentimes you'd want to switch tires around for varying road conditions.
By this time it'd be dark, and, with any luck, dinner'd be ready. Mmm. Love that meat.
One of the race bulletins had suggested that the members of the race caravan would do "everything" for the riders, and many riders were vocal in their disappointment that a laundry crew, and perhaps a tent-pitching crew, had not been part of the race organization's plan.
Dinner itself took a few hours, and was, on the whole, a daily highpoint. There was always plenty of food, and never enough desert. We'd all sit around the campfire and discuss the day's goings on. People were relegated to their particular speed group during the day, but dinner was a chance to meet and talk with members of the race other than your everyday riding mates.
A lot of people were surprised that I was doing so well. Mine is not a well-known name in ultra-marathon. They would ask me if I had expected to do this well, or if, like Claudio Chiapucci in the 1991 Tour de France, I had simply found myself with the leaders by surprise and was just trying to live up to the role.
I had hopes, I said, but no expectations. And how much easier it is to race with no pressure.
By the time dinner ended it would be late, and time to go to bed. If only there had been a masseuse along. But we were men, after all, and the idea that grown men (oh, yeah, and a few women) would want their legs rubbed must have seemed a ludicrous and effeminate notion to Hans Tholstrup, race organizer. So we went to our tents to rub our own legs and fall asleep. After, that is, we laid out our clothes for the next morning, cleaned and filled our water bottles and camelbaks, measured out our liquid food rations for the next day, and primed our jersey pockets with powerbars. All ready for the next day, we rested easy for seven or even eight blissful hours of slumber.
Morning would arrive with an urgency in the bowels not to be put off a second longer than necessary. The urge to purge. If someone else had the shovel, you'd just dig a hole with your shoe.
I had a college English professor (Hi, Dan!) who once said there is nothing more overrated than bad sex, or more underrated than a good shit. These were the best of my life, seeming to empty from me in a single steaming heap the totality of the previous day's essence. To let go, completely, of the past. Ahhh.
True glory, you know you're alive when you shit like that, with the pink edges of dawn holding before you the promise of a new day, and a new essence that will fill you up again. The aching hams doubled upon themselves, the position giving a gentle stretch to tortured thigh muscles, I'd linger over the experience for a moment - letting the heat rise up and warm me, the smell waft up into my nostrils with an earthy life-affirming piquancy, the sound of the burbling urine fizzing and filtering down through the thirsty desert soil - before wiping up and moving on to breakfast.
The question is, when taking a shit is one of your chief pleasures in life, does it testify to the sensual potential of shitting, or to the dearth of pleasure in your daily life?
Porridge for breakfast. Heaps of it. Day after day, with honey or maple syrup. And toast. With butter and honey and plum preserves and Vegemite. Eating breakfast as fast as you can for twenty minutes. The first time I tried the Vegemite I took it for an Australian version of Nutella, and smeared it thick and heaping on my toast, which I bit into voraciously. Oops. This salty, yeasty mouthful was enough to put me off Vegemite for weeks, before I discovered it's actually pretty good, in small quantities anyway.
I guess we're up to Day 3 by now.
One of the English guys - Jim Moverly - rode off the front today. He jumped away pretty hard, while all the Aussies and the other English guy were riding on the front. They just laughed. Don't worry about him, they said, he's just playing around. So we didn't worry. We rode along steadily in the afternoon sunshine, digesting our huge lunchtime pancake feast.
We rode like this for a few hours, with everyone rotating and sharing pulls into the usual headwind, and Jim was still away. I started to ask questions about him. Oh, he's hours behind already, people said. Had a flat yesterday, or something. Not a threat.
But every time an Aussie or James, the other Englishman, got to the front, they'd softpedal and the pace would slow. I was getting suspicious. I tried to get everyone else suspicious by suggesting maybe we should make an effort to bring him back, but no one was much interested. People looked downright cranky, in fact, at the prospect of chasing.
So I went to the front and jumped hard. I weaved from side to side to make the following tougher. I had seen videos of Eddy Merckx doing this when he would break away. It gets everyone into single file, so when a gap forms everyone has to work extra hard to get around the slowing rider and back into the draft stream.
I gradually built the pace for ten or fifteen minutes until I was going near my limit. John came around me then to take a pull. Awesome work, Henry, he said. Look behind you.
There were five riders with us, and I couldn't see any others, even though we were at the top of a hill and I could see for several miles.
Rod Evans came up to me then and explained that Jim had come to him the night before. He wanted to win a stage. That was his only ambition in the race, along with finishing, as he had already gotten down on time. Rod said he had agreed to work, along with his Aussie buddy Scotty, to help him realize this goal. Wouldn't that be something to write home about? Wouldn't that be something to tell your girlfriend, he said, that you had won a stage?
I see, I said. I wish you'd told me this back there. As long as he's not an overall threat, I don't mind if he takes the stage. But let's get him in sight before we back off and let him win.
Pretty soon we saw him, cresting a hill about two miles ahead. We'd better slow down, now, I said. There's only a half hour to go, and I don't want to catch him. It won't mean anything to him if we catch him and then let him win. We'll just cruise in behind him, and get a few minutes on the rest of the bunch.
And that's what we did.
That night in camp there was a lot of discussion about my fairing. I kept it in a huge cardboard box, but rumors were circulating about it. People said that when we got to the pavement I'd have an unfair advantage.
Chester Kyle, the race official, reminded them that the race regulations not only allowed, but encouraged any sort of human powered vehicle to participate. The only restriction was that the vehicle had to be powered solely by human power output.
Still, it isn't fair, since no one else has one, they said. I was flattered that they were worrying about it. I guess my attack scared them. Of course, I said, as an honorable sportsman I would not use the fairing to unfair personal advantage. If I am still in the race by the time we get to the pavement, I won't use the fairing to attack. It wouldn't be right. But considering all the work put into it by Steve Bruhn, Darryl Skrabak, and others who designed and built the fairing and its mounts, it also wouldn't be fair not to use it at all. So when we get to the pavement you can all draft behind: I won't try to jump away. It gives about the same advantage as drafting anyway, so if you draft behind me we'll all be putting out about the same effort.
That seemed to put them to rights.
A bad day. There was a rumor going around that the Austrians were going to make us hurt. That is what was being said, that the Austrians were out to make us hurt today.
Rudi and the other Austrian, Jorg, were emerging as the most fear-inspiring threat to John's and my race leadership. They were a real team, with matching jerseys and bikes and even a coach, Wolfgang, who looked after them and gave them leg rubs.
Jorg was the stronger rider, but he was young and didn't have much racing experience. Rudi was older and had a good tactical sense. It was obvious that he was working for Jorg, and that Jorg looked to him for instructions and leadership.
Jorg had come up to me and struck up a conversation the night before as I unloaded my equipment from the bus. We talked about Austria, which I had ridden through a year earlier. His English was not very good. He agreed enthusiastically that Austria was very beautiful. He liked it better, he said, than Australia. The mechanical way he talked, along with his imposing physique - at least, his lower body was impressive - inspired the nickname "Terminator." His skinny upper body seemed incongruous with the massive muscle development of his lower frame, prompting others in the peloton to dub him the "Genetic Experiment."
Rudi, with his permanent three-day growth and long hair, had a tough-guy menace to him. He just looked like he meant business. Here was a guy not to cross. Neither of them ever smiled or laughed. They just rode - fast. It was clear they had come to win. They had prepared for a year. They rode across the Sahara desert to get ready.
The road worsened today. Heavy rains had carved out big ditches and ruts, and headwinds once more kept the group riding too closely for safety. The competitive spirit was running high, and it was a nervous, twitchy pack that took to the course that morning.
About ten o'clock, John Stamstad had a call from nature, and announced his intention, in English, to ride up the road a little ways, pull over, and take a piss. This is a common thing to do when you think people might attack when you stop, and several people had done the same thing already that morning. By way of announcing his intentions to the non-English speakers, John pointed, with a grandiose gesture to his crotch and said "pissing" several times. He then proceeded to bound away.
Rudi, riding at the back of the pack, apparently missed this gesture. He made an illconsidered decision, based on pure panic, to shoot through the whole pack to get up to John and cover the attack. He came past me going very fast, and I found myself elbowed aside into a gaping ditch, into which I fell hard. Rudi fell too, but was up and gone in a flash.
You fucker, I kept screaming, as the peloton rode off and I realized that I had resprained my right shoulder. Stupid fucker.
A month before the race started I had had a job interview at Bicycling Magazine. Their offices are in Santa Cruz, and I live in San Francisco. The interview was at 9 am, so I left at 5 am for the 75 mile ride down. I was hunched behind my fairing, which helps keep the cold morning air off you, but the fairing windshield tends to fog up when passing through misty places like Pacifica.
I failed to see a concrete curb dividing two lanes, and I tried to merge right across it. Boom! The bike flipped at 25 miles per hour - I was going down a hill - and I landed on my right shoulder, spraining it painfully. The injury had barely healed by the time the race started, and now I had reinjured it. I lay there writhing until Chester Kyle drove up in the lead pack support vehicle, a small 4WD Diahatsu.
I had gotten to know Chester and his wife Joyce about two months earlier when I raced my faired bicycle in the International Human Powered Vehicle Speed Championships which the Kyle's hosted in Mt. Shasta. Chester is widely known as an aerodynamics expert, and it was he who designed the bicycles the 1984 US Olympic team rode with such success. He had gotten to know Hans Tholstrup through his involvement in the Energy Challenge, a solar powered car race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia, which Tholstrup puts on every year. So when Hans decided to put on a bike race, he asked Dr. Kyle to be the race official.
His job as official was to follow and observe the lead pack, and to offer mechanical and medical assistance as needed. He and Joyce quickly covered me with a blanket, and although they wanted to look at my shoulder, I instructed them to clean out my wounds as quickly as possible. When that was done I had Chester look at my bicycle, which he said seemed fine. So, I got up, got on, and started turning the pedals around.
I'll pace you back up to the group if you can ride, said Chester. I can ride, lets go, I said, even though I wasn't at all sure I could make it. My whole body seemed to ring with pain. I tried to exorcise the pain by making all manner of pitiful groans and wails, which, luckily, no one could hear. After a few minutes we caught the group and I waved thanks to the Kyles and wound up a big effort to blow past the group. The road had gotten wider and smoother.
As I sailed past, John Stamstad let out a happy cry of surprise to see me: Henry!
My legs were working pretty well despite the scraped knees, but my right arm was a limp noodle, and I couldn't rest on the aero bars because both forearms were badly scraped and the bruises there were started to swell. My left arm was tired already from holding up my body up over the bike. The physical pain, coupled with the thought of all my preparations going to waste, moved me to tears, and in order not to let anyone see my state I stayed at the front and set a good clip. I knew, too, that if anyone suspected I was weak they were sure to attack, so I wanted to let them know there'd be no use attacking. This is what's known as a bluff.
Rod Evans, being a seasoned and cagey racer, knew what was going on, and he rode up alongside me. Are you alright? he asked.
I trusted Rod. He is too classy a rider to attack an injured man, even though he was in third place less than one hour behind me at the time. I leveled with him. I told him I was hurting badly. He said he would put the word out to Scotty and the English guys to try to keep the pace moderate for the rest of the day. He appreciated my cooperation the day before. So, I drifted back into the pack and we settled in to a nice manageable pace.
Even the Austrians knew they couldn't attack. They had already managed, true to their word, to make us hurt, although not, I am sure, in the way they had intended.
Nearly all the people in this race seemed sensitive to that special code of ethics which spontaneously arises when groups of human beings work and suffer together under difficult conditions. In times and places where life is hard there is no room for dog-eat-dog self-interest. Anyone who has every travelled can tell you this. Go to the mountains, or the deserts, or any place where the struggle for daily existence carries a price, and you'll find helpful, caring, generous people. It is only in cities where life is easy that people lose their ability to empathize with the travails of others.
Even in competition, where the goal is to defeat and rise above the others, this ethical code can take root. In a competition as grueling as ours, is it surprising that alliances were formed, respect established, understanding arrived at which bound together the very people ostensibly set against each other for purposes of racing?
It is impossible not to respect and admire those who, like you, have dedicated a large part of their lives to getting to the starting line of the race, and who hold an equal share in what will be the outcome. As much as you want to come out ahead of them, you know that the victory would a pyrrhic one if it came at the cost of lost respect from your peers. More than you need to win, you need their respect, to be one who struggled, if not the most successfully, than at least the most valiantly. What good is it to be strong if your strength is not universally admired, even by the competition?
How reassuring it was that so many people came up to me as I rode, dripping blood, to ask how I was. To encourage me to continue. To make jokes to take my mind off my pain. No one was about to attack. Everyone by now had crashed at least once. I had had the luck to crash where the ground was hard and rocky. Not one of the racers there would have wanted a crash to play a major role in determining the outcome. To attack after a crash would have been to press an unfair advantage. In a race so hard as ours, the thought of pressing an unfair advantage becomes unthinkable. To most, anyway.
So the field all stayed together until we came to a sign announcing that in 5 km we'd come to Wiluna, the town where we would camp. When we passed the sign, Drew Walker jumped away. And sputtered. We picked up speed, absorbed him back into the group, and gradually built to a roaring frenzy by the time we came around a bend to see our finish line at the top of a small hill in the center of town. Dark, intriguing Aboriginal visages lined the shute. I jumped first, so happy I was for the day to be over, and I had five yards when my legs thought better of the decision to sprint. Rod Evans came off my wheel then, and shot past me. Scott Sharples came from the other side, and the two collided just in front of me. Scott's foot came out of his pedal, and he swerved lurchingly across the road, nearly wiping out a rickety picket fence. Rod raised his arms in victory.
We made camp at a caravan park, what we call a trailer park in America. The showers were cold by then, because the bus had been there an hour already. I went to the bar to get some ice for my shoulder. I went into the Aboriginal side by mistake, where all transactions take place through iron bars and there is no place to sit. Then I found the door for whites, which had the dress code written on it. I ordered a few beers and asked for a little ice, which I offered to pay for. Two of the beers were for Hans. He had asked me to fetch him some. The other was for me. I took it back to camp, where the sentry opened the chainlink and barbed wire fence and let me back in. I drank the beer and iced my shoulder. The beer tasted wonderful.
That night it rained a little. A little rain sounds like a lot of rain inside a tent. There was lots of thunder, far away. The next morning, we would begin riding the infamous Gunbarrel Highway.
Two days earlier as I was taking my gear off the bus - just after I talked with Jorg, actually - another rider struck up a conversation. He talked about his tires, or something, I don't remember. I had talked to him before a few times, and had noticed that he was riding a cyclocross bike with 700 C wheels instead of a 26-inch wheeled mountain bike like everyone else. But I had to ask him his name, which I couldn't remember. You should know me by now, he said, my name is Bruno Heer.
Bruno was a Swiss scientist who worked for a big super-collider project in Texas that would later lose funding. Flat tires, getting sick, a few bad days, some such bad luck as this, he said, had kept him out of the lead pack. Although he looked fit, I hadn't really identified him as one of the contenders, because when we hit sand he couldn't keep that big-wheeled bike going very well. He must have been at least an hour down after only three days, I don't know exactly.
He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about, it, too. You could tell. He thought he was a better rider than that, and, truth be known, he probably was. But he was starting off the race behind the eightball, and maybe that was why he became desperate to make up lost time.
So on the morning of day five, when he took more than his share of turns at the front, it seemed a natural effort on his part to get the attention of the leaders. Or maybe he was just starting to come around, having ridden himself into shape over the first four days. Whatever the case, no one paid him much attention. We were too busy talking about Elaine.
She had been having trouble finishing each day before the broom wagon swept through to drive the stragglers into camp. The night before she had finished in the dark after flat out refusing to get on the broom wagon.
Afterward, she had asked Hans, who put the matter up to popular vote, if she could be allowed to start each day a few hours earlier than the bunch. No one had any objections, so she had headed off into the gathering dawn that morning just as we were starting to eat our porridge.
We knew she was ahead of us, and we were looking forward to catching up with her and having a chance to ride with her a little bit. We hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to ride with Elaine, because usually in the morning someone would be feeling their oats and jump away, forcing the pace. Elaine has incredible endurance, as evidenced by her long and highly successful ultramarathon cycling career, but she didn't seem to have the punch to keep up with the boys when crunch time rolled around.
Even though there were tremendous headwinds, we didn't catch her until just before lunch. Rod Evans immediately started joking around with her, and the bunch crowded around to get in on the banter. Rod discovered Elaine's experience as a film and radio commentator, and he immediately switched the conversation to an interview format. Rod was doing daily live radio reports, so perhaps he just wanted to practice his broadcasting persona.
Rod and Elaine's mock radio talk show - along with other riders who would "call in" with questions - soon had the peloton rolling along happily in stitches, glad for some comic relief to break up the racing tension a little bit. The pack was having such a good time, in fact, that we decided to take a full half hour for lunch. There was never really a formal vote, but when it was suggested, many voices spoke out in favor of the plan, and no one spoke up to oppose it. Some even went so far as to suggest that we might avoid too many jumps in the afternoon, so we could keep Elaine with us.
After we had been stopped three or four minutes, Bruno was seen riding off. We weren't really sure if he was still in the race - more than half the field had already had to ride on the bus, and thus had been eliminated - and someone said they thought they had seen him riding the bus a few days earlier. He must have, someone else said, because when he left he said how it wouldn't matter if he didn't wait for the group, since he was, quote, already out of the race.
Of course, he could have meant that he was so far down in time as to be out of contention, rather than out of the race altogether. So, just to be sure, we asked one of the Spanish guys to check the records and determine just what Bruno's status was.
As we stood around eating our sandwiches we teased Elaine and Joanne, her support person, about the amount of duct tape on Elaine's bike. It was wrapped around the handlebars, the pedals, the pump - duct tape, everywhere you looked!
Pretty soon the Spanish guy emerged from the bus with the official word: Bruno is still in the race, he said, and he isn't that far behind. Shit. We let out a collective sigh of disgust, and apologized to Elaine. We've got to chase, see you in camp, we'll ride with you some other time.
It took us about two hours. A group of ten shared the pulls, and we averaged 38 kph until we caught.
Everyone knew who Bruno was now. He had ridden well and gained a lot of respect for that, but we couldn't help resenting a little his spoiling our lunch plans. His attack seemed a little too sneaky. A bit cheap.
There was something sort of ridiculous about Bruno. He would talk very slowly and tell very long stories which took a great deal of attention to decipher. When he took off his helmet, his short hair would stick up in a strange three-ridge pattern where it had been moulded by the air vents on his helmet. And he had the hairiest legs in the peloton.
But it was his refusal to just be one of the guys that earned him his place, from that day on, as the group's pariah. The outcast. The leper.
There is a strong current of support for the underdog in Australian culture, and no sooner did Hans Tholstrup see us ridiculing and teasing Bruno than he became Bruno's champion. And this was an alliance which would shape, more than any other, the outcome of the race.
The Gunbarrel by now had narrowed to a primitive semblance of a road, ungraded for decades, with two rideable tracks crisscrossed by erosion, rocks, and giant kangaroo footprints. Okay, maybe they were dinosaurs.
The wind was still in our faces, and people still tried to ride close together. I crashed three times.
The fourth time I crashed, I was so disgusted with myself that I just stayed on the ground. I stared at the crinkled patch of orange hardpan I'd landed on knowing somehow I would probably remember what it looked for the rest of my life. It's funny what you remember, and why - and really funny when you know that you're going to remember.
I stared at that patch of ground at close range, wishing it would open up and swallow me whole. Word went up through the group that I'd crashed and the leaders slowed. Just go on, I yelled, I can't keep crashing like this. I'm out of the race.
There was hardly any skin left on my right knee. It was just one giant scab, from top to bottom, and it felt numb. I'd already cut the toe out of a sock to use as a bandage, but now the bandage was ripped and useless.
Much to my surprise, instead of just accepting what I'd said, most of the leaders just stopped completely and waited for me. Some started to ride back toward me. With mixed emotion, I remounted and started down the road.
I then rode unknowingly past a group of riders who, thinking that a rest break was in progress, had gone off to explore or use the bushes. Since I didn't see them, I assumed they were up the road. So, partly to find them and partly to because I wanted to be alone I jumped ahead. It was a big behavioral mistake.
By the time Scott Sharples and the rest of the group had caught up to me, many of them probably wished they'd just left me there squirming in the ditch. Stamstad, especially, was irked, and while I tried to explain my reasons for the move, he was not entirely understanding. I can't say that I blamed him. I tried to be glad that at least I knew for sure that no one was up the road, but I knew I'd lost status with the group.