• Sarah Hammond's bike on the 2016 Race to the Rock. This year's race has just started and Sarah shares her thoughts with Cycling Central (Sarah Hammond)Source: Sarah Hammond
The second Race to the Rock took off this morning from Albany, Western Australia but for the inaugural winner Sarah Hammond, the 3000 kilometre unsupported ultra-endurance event is not about a title defence.
Jane Aubrey

Cycling Central
2 Sep 2017 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 2 Sep 2017 - 10:49 AM

The Melbourne woman has found quiet amusement in the belief in her ability sprouted across social media in recent weeks.

“I’m looking forward to just going for a ride at this point,” Hammond said on Thursday before the race start.

Hammond, who along with 2015 Trans Am winner, Jesse Carlsson is a ‘chief instigator’ of the Race to the Rock, won the first edition of the event last September with a few hundred kilometres back to her nearest rivals. The sole female entrant in just her second bike packing event, three months on from her tilt at the 7080km Trans Am. There’s no tongue planted in anyone’s cheek with the statement that the Race to the Rock is so tough, that no man has ever won it.

Asked for her recollections of the sight of Uluru in the distance for the first time, Hammond avoids detail like a bad memory repressed.

“I didn’t even realise it was there at first,” the 37-year-old explains. “The guys were kind of waving me down going: ‘Hey, look in the distance.’ And I was like: ‘Oh, yeah…’ I think it took a little while to register because I was so taxed. Mulga Park Road completely tipped me over the edge.”

Unseasonal record rains in Coober Pedy resulted in closed roads and chest-deep river crossings on the route, which began in Adelaide. The moisture on the fine dirt of the outback creating the type of mud that sticks to anything in its path.

Carlsson, whose 2016 race ended with a busted wrist while in the lead on day four, admits Hammond is “underplaying” what she went through.

“The conditions out there were serious,” he says.

“The ordeal determines partly how you’re going to feel at the end. If you’re finishing with some glorious days and tail winds, you’re going to finish with a certain look on your face.”

Hammond again takes up her tale of suffering.

“I remember I’d run out of food too but I was too embarrassed to stop for resupply because I just wanted to get it done. I did the last 70km on half a bag of peanuts,” she admits. “It was a case of eating one every 10km. I was falling apart.”

The 2017 route is new, 690kms longer and approaches Uluru from the west having first taken in the length of the Munda Biddi Trail. At 1000km, it’s the longest of its kind in the world and will drop the riders to the east of Perth at Mundaring. From that point, the racers will head in a north-easterly direction and skirt the edge of the Gibson Desert via the Great Central Road, a 1,100 km dirt shortcut to Kata Tjuṯa (the Olgas), before finishing at Uluru.

While Hammond has no doubt her experience in this year’s Race to the Rock will be tougher again, little has changed in her bike set-up and preparation.

“I found myself packing my bike two nights ago like I was just popping out for the weekend,” she explains. “Having some experience on how remote it can get I’m a little less nervous than what I was last year.”

Once again Hammond will ride a Curve Uprock 29er, which once equipped with her equipment and withstanding food supplies, should top out at around 14kgs.

“There’s the debate about what bike is better for the course, whether you go with the cyclo-cross set-up or a mountain bike, there’s going to be pros and cons all the way through. I’m just riding what’s comfortable, so I’m sure I can do better in some areas on a CX frame, but this bike feels good for me.”

Feeling ‘good’ in a race of this type is most probably a vivid stretch of the imagination, and that’s why endurance sport is as much about mental strength as physical fitness. Hammond, Carlsson and the rest of the tight-knit ultra-endurance cycling community has taken a battering this year with three deaths, including that of Mike Hall during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in March, across the major events on the calendar to date. It’s one of the reasons Hammond is not putting too much pressure on herself to go back-to-back.

“It’s been such a bumpy year for the sport and racing that part of me just wants to enjoy the time away,” she explains. “I’m still going to ride as fast as I can and do what I can but, unlike the Indy Pac, I don’t know if I’m capable of going that far under. But who knows. I wasn’t exactly in recovery mode last year when I went in, so anything is possible.”

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Follow the 2017 Race to the Rock here.