Only yesterday, I told my fellow Cycling Central podcasters that the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race had reignited my passion for road cycling.
The pro road scene, which I had religiously followed since the early 1990s and worked as a journalist in since 2001, was all about extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The ‘IndiPac’, however, which began a fortnight ago in Fremantle and was due to crown its race winner this afternoon on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, was all about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.
The carrot on the official website dangled like so...
“What if you temporarily took leave from the safety of everyday life to battle through a challenge that scares you? What if your only worries were riding, finding food and water and a place to sneak a few hours of sleep? What if you forgot your self-imposed limits just to see what you were truly capable of for once? What if you were a racer at heart? Why wouldn't you want to take on the toughest races on the planet? Do you have a deep respect for the pioneers of endurance cycling and the big names of bikepacking; the sort of respect that is hard to put into words? Do you wonder if maybe, just maybe, you could be one of them?
“The Overlanders were not professional athletes. Like the first grand tour riders, they sought an escape from the drudgery of everyday life. They were determined to satisfy their hunger for adventure and test their limits against other Overlanders in long distance showdowns over thousands of miles.”
It asked the question: “Are you an Overlander?”
I had not trained or raced competitively since the late 1990s, and only heard about the event through my cycling journalist colleague and IndiPac participant Rupert Guinness over a Christmas lunch last December, so at the time, the answer was most definitely no.
But I could be. With the right preparation, anyone could be.
5,500 kilometres. Solo. Unassisted. Ocean to ocean. Fremantle to Sydney via the Nullarbor, Adelaide wine country, Victorian High Country, and New South Wales' Snowy Mountains. No prize money. Just the glory of being able to call yourself an Overlander.
The beauty lay in its simplicity.
But, warned the organisers, “This race is not for everyone.”
“The race route plots out a serious adventure through remote sections of regional Australia, one which is dangerous and has serious risks for those unprepared. Those considering racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race should consider whether they are ready to take on such a serious challenge in an unforgiving environment.”
Today, Friday morning, at 6:20am AEDST, on the Monaro Highway at Royalla, New South Wales, the risks of such a mission were brought to bear.
We do not know the circumstances other than that a collision took place between a motor vehicle and an IndiPac competitor. At the time, according to the race tracker, there was only one such competitor on that fatal stretch of road. Images of him are now being displayed on the website that hosted the tracker.
Three hours later, organisers issued a further statement:
“The Indian Pacific Wheel Race has been cancelled with immediate effect in light of this morning’s tragic accident.
“Every effort is being made to personally get in contact with riders that remain on the road to inform them of the situation.
“The tracking devices will remain open in the interests of safety and the event is continuing to wok with the relevant authorities.
“This is a difficult time for everyone involved, along with their families, and their well-being is our primary concern.”
Only last night, I told my wife I was going to meet frontrunner Kristof Allegaert at the Sydney Harbour Bridge cycleway and ride the final kilometres behind him (ensconced in a posse of other ‘dot-watchers’, I’d imagined). The Belgian ultra-endurance athlete from Kortrijk, who had led the race for all bar one of the past thirteen days, said yesterday he wanted to get to the Opera House by 9am. When I woke at 6am this morning he was still a long way from Wollongong, 90km south of his final destination; with high winds and rain predicted, I estimated he’d arrive no earlier than 2pm.
I wanted to get up close and personal with this man. Before asking any questions, I wanted to gaze into his eyes. I then wanted to know how he smelled. I wanted to hear him talk. I wanted to hear his stories. I wanted to know if he thought he was ordinary, or extraordinary.
I reckon he’d say the former, for these are the races for the everyday people; people like you and me.
'Nitro', a reader on the CyclingTips website, summed it best:
“For the last 13 days, thousands of us all over the world have sat glued to maps of Australia watching dots speed across the country.
“Every life lost on our roads is a tragedy, but somehow this feels different.
“I've never met any of the riders, I likely never will, and this type of event is an challenge I could not even imagine taking on. But over the last 13 days it feels like we've got to know at least some of the riders.
“We've cheered while watching dots moving across the screen, we've been glued to Twitter, we've marvelled at the photos and videos coming in from the course, we've had countless social media conversations with complete strangers across the world addicted to following the event, and our admiration for everyone undertaking this adventure has grown in a way none of us expected.
“There are bike races going on every day of the year. Yet somehow - and I have yet to work out why - this one has captured the imagination of the public like none before.
“For someone to lose their life while undertaking what must be one of the greatest adventure challenges possible on a bike - tragic beyond words.
“Thoughts are with the family and friends of the rider, and all riders on this dark day.”
Just as eagerly, I was going to wait for the second and third placegetters. I also wanted to be there for my friend Rupert Guinness, who had only just arrived in Adelaide this morning, and whose daily Facebook updates have kept me enthralled.
I wanted to meet them all. I wanted to shake their hand. I wanted to say how much I admired them for not just contemplating such a heady challenge, but taking it on, and damn well finishing the wretched thing.
At approximately 5:15pm today, organisers let it be known that the man who lost his life on the Monaro Highway was indeed Mike Hall, at the time the current second place and due to arrive a few hours after Allegaert.
“Our deepest sympathies go to Mike’s family and all those who knew him. Mike will be sorely missed.
“Winner of the 2012 World Cycle Race, a two-time winner of the Tour Divide, and 2014 winner of the TransAm Bicycle Race, Mike revelled in the spirit and adventure of ultra-endurance cycling events. Mike’s efforts in both raising money and the spirits of others were tremendous and he leaves an incredible legacy.
“This tragedy is a great loss to the global cycling community.
“A tribute ride in Mike’s honour is being planned in Sydney for Sunday. More details will be released as soon as practicable.”
Instead of meeting and congratulating Kristof, Mike, Rupert and the rest of the IndiPac competitors, I am home, alone, struggling to put pen to paper.
Forget about trying to make sense of it all. It’s too raw. Too surreal. And, like the young man who lost his life today, too soon.