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They were called the Overlanders. More than a century ago, an intrepid band of explorers took to the bicycle to explore the far-flung corners of Australia. It was still a continent with large swaths of land off the map and with few traces of development. Riding simple but sturdy steel-frame bikes, they packed their own food and water, and hit an informal series of back roads, trails, and sometimes even camel paths, following the wind.
Next month, a pack of modern-day racers mounting titanium steeds will trace their path, and pick up the Overlander mantle with a long-distance, point-to-point race across of Australia. In honor of these long-gone explorers, around 100 racers from across the globe will partake in the Indian-Pacific Wheel Race, starting March 18 near Perth on Australia’s Indian Coast. The winner will be the first one to reach the Sydney Opera House on the Pacific Ocean about 5,470 kilometers away. There is no prize money, just the honor of being first.
Joining them will be veteran cycling journalist and longtime VeloNews contributor Rupert Guinness. We caught up with Guinness to talk about the race:
VeloNews: Rupert, this race sounds like a big undertaking, how it is going?
Rupert Guinness: Part of it is crazy. I do have moments of worry, but it’s a good nervousness. I am looking forward to those tough moments, and how I deal with them. There is a lot more survival instinct in us than we get tested with in our modern life.
VN: So this is a non-supported race, to each his own, and first one across Australia wins?
RG: Racers have to be self-sufficient. You can stop in towns and buy things, but you cannot have anyone helping you, no sag-wagon, no mechanical assistance, and no drafting. It’s self-policing. The only rule is that if you can look at yourself in the mirror [afterward]. For example, if you go off-course because you need to fix something, you can do that, you have to return to the point where you left the route, rather than going back the most direct way. There are no race marshals. No mechanic cars. We will have phones and a GPS marker.
VN: So who is racing?
RG: It’s being organized by Jesse Carlsson, an Australian who’s raced in many long-distance, solo, and unsupported races across the globe. Some of the biggest riders in this genre are doing this race, and many of them have never been in the same event at the same time. He was inspired by the story of the Overlanders, and wanted to put this event on.
VN: What’s the backstory of the Overlanders?
RG: It harkens back to the genre of cyclists who were called the Overlanders. Starting back to 1890s, these pioneers set off on these point-to-point races across Australia. They would follow these camel tracks, figuring that these camels were going somewhere, to mines or outposts. And those camel tracks often set the foundation for the road networks that we have today. They would go off with the bikes, with their own food and sleeping rugs, water, and a few guns as well. They didn’t know what was out there. They became folklore, because they would get to these outposts, and would send dispatches, and their stories got picked up in the newspapers. It was the big era of the Overlanders. Sir Hubert Opperman, who rode two Tours de France in the 1920s and 1930s, was the last of the Overlanders. This year’s Indy-Pac race celebrates 80 years of that story, from Fremantle to Sydney. They rode their bikes and helped discover Australia.
VN: What brought the end to the Overlanders?
RG: First, cars and roads became more prevalent, but during World War II, bikes re-emerged again because all of the vehicles went to war. After that, modern cars and highways brought the end to the Overlanders.
VN: You said one of the interesting aspects of this event was to rediscover the story of the Overlanders.
RG: Some people say there is no cycling culture in Australia, but on the contrary, Australia has a unique cycling background. No country in the world has a story like the Overlanders. It’s uniquely Australian. It’s great that an event like Indy-Pac is helping to rediscover that story. These pioneers will get the recognition they deserve.
VN: So this modern version picks up on that, and races from coast to coast?
RG: More than a century ago, they didn’t even know what was out there. It was like being in Africa. One of the traditions was riding point-to-point across the continent. You dip your rear wheel in one side [in the Indian Ocean] and the front wheel on the other side [in the Pacific Ocean]. That’s what we have to do in this race. This race also picks up on some of the long-distance bike tours, like the Tour Divide, the Trans Am Bike Race and the Transcontinental.
VN: What is the expected winning time?
RG: The fastest will finish it just under two weeks. The strongest riders will ride 400km a day on average.
VN: Australia is big, what is the longest stretch between towns?
RG: There are some long stretches where there is no water at all. It goes across southern Australia, through the Adelaide Hills and vineyards, along the Great Ocean Road, and across the Australian Alps, with some big climbs. The biggest stretch is the Nullarbor Plain, which is 150km on a completely straight road. You really have to ration out your water, and bring extra bladders and bidons. It’s quite strategic.
VN: What kind of training have you done to prepare?
RG: Last weekend, I rode 220km on Saturday and 200km on Sunday. It went OK. I did most of it by myself. Going into that [second day] 200km is another step up. That next Monday I was pretty dehydrated and fatigued. It’s going to be great for weight loss!
VN: So you’re ready to be out there alone for several weeks?
RG: I am going into the event with a race mentality. I don’t want to just go out there and just pedal around. I want to get across as quickly as I can, and that requires time management. Doing things as efficiently as you can, from eating, to preparing your bike, to resting. I am hoping to do around 300km a day, about 12 to 15 hours per day on the bike. There are two genres, a comfort rider or a minimalist. I am going the minimalist route. I am taking the bare minimum.
VN: You’ve competed in Ironman events before, how does that compare?
RG: I raced in 10, finished nine, but my last Ironman was in 2014. This is going to be harder mentally. This is going to strip me bare mentally and emotionally. From what I’ve been told, you go through so many lows, so it’s going to be interesting to see how I get through those lows. They say if you can get through the first four or five days, you can keep pushing on. The hardest stretch is across the Nullarbor Plain, it’s pretty barren down there. You get saddle sores, your hands, back and posture are important. You have to watch out for kangaroos, emus, insects, and snakes. The heat and dehydration is key.
VN: Will you take music? A phone?
RG: I will take some music, but you need to be careful out there on the road. I will take a phone, and will be doing daily video logs and some Facebooking. We also take a GPS tracking device, and if you need to be evacuated for an emergency, it is linked up via satellite. There are only two official checkpoints, at the start and the finish. From the Sydney Opera House, you ride another 5km to get to Biondi Beach, and I will ride right past my house!
VN: Sounds like you’re excited about the challenge?
RG: It’s an opportunity of a lifetime. And it’s led to a book project as well. A few years ago, I was working on a historical book about Australian cycling and wrote one chapter about the Overlanders. I thought what a great story that is. I saw an online ad about the race, with the headline, ‘Is there an Overlander in you?’ I said, wait a minute, I just wrote about these guys, and I checked it out. So I am working on a book about this race and the history of the Overlanders, juxtaposing their story with my own experiences.
Guinness will ride a titanium-frame Curve bike and use Apidura travel bags. He’s also riding in support of a charity called, Helping Rhinos.