This year was always going to be a short one from a cycling point of view for me as we are expecting a baby at the end of May. The big rides in the Summer wouldn’t work with that timing, so there was no point in even trying for a place in the TCR, which I’d love to do again equipped with a bit more of a clue on how to approach it, after last year’s learning curve.
With a few days off at Christmas, I started surfing around for something to aim for. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was something like the TCR that was in the Southern Hemisphere, in their late summer, around March. And then I found the IPWR site. But it was sold out. How utterly disappointing! Not being able to do it only made it grow massively in appeal.
It was already pretty appealing. A new event, with all the uncertainty that implied, in Australia, where I’d never been before, and the dates were perfect. I particularly appreciated the fact that, while doing another TCR would be much more of a known quantity given my experience last year, this would be genuinely new in lots of ways, while allowing me to apply some of the lessons I learned from the TCR.
The route is 5,500km, from Fremantle to Sydney, via the finest of what Australia has to offer by way of desert, mountains, dramatic coastlines, vineyards, etc, plus some more prosaic bits.
So I carried on looking: I found the UMCA calendar: Race Across Italy, starting at the end of April, looked promising. Then I read stories about it from last year – 800km of freezing cold wind and rain in the mountains, riders advised to stop. Hmmm. I thought about Bryan Chapman. But I’ve done that before so it wouldn’t be such a big thing to aim for. I hesitated, and then it sold out. Thoughts then turned to a solo Calais-Brindisi in April, which might be fun, but I wasn’t getting really inspired.
Moving forward to late-January, suddenly the IPWR wasn’t sold out any more. So I thought I had to enter, and then the reality set in as I thought through what was involved. Even getting to Australia is pretty hard work given the amount of time the flights take. And it was a bit longer than I would like; I realised I wasn’t going to get much change out of a month, which was longer than I’d really like to be away from home and work for. But I thought, if I can’t do these kind of things, with neither dependents nor employer to answer to, who can? So I discussed it with Uta and got organising.
One problem was that I wasn’t in great shape physically. I didn’t do much cycling at the end of last year. By the time it got to January, I hadn’t actually done a ride longer than an extended commute for four months. I’d had an ankle niggle which was refusing to go away completely, despite all the rest I’d given it.
In January, I entered a few reliability rides, and felt my legs coming back after a couple of outings. And some club turbo sessions helped, but then I hurt my knee and had to have three weeks off in February just when I wanted to be doing a few miles.
The niggles now seem to have settled down just in time so I can start, but I am relying on long-term fitness rather than what I’ve done in the last six months.
The advantage about having time off cycling was that I had more time to get ready in other areas. So I bought more saddle bags, frame bags, dry bags, bivvy bags, phone mounts and other things, and experimented with loads of different luggage configurations. I also checked out the route extensively and built a spreadsheet of all the towns that it passes through (it’s a mandatory route so no scope or requirement to plan my own variations), what amenities they have (hotels, grocery shops, etc) and what their opening hours are.
I did lots of searches and read accounts of people crossing the Nullarbor – how much water to take, what the insects were like, the road trains, what the road houses had and didn’t have, where best to camp, etc. And I got in touch with Australian cyclists to pick their brains on how best to approach things – special thanks to Stuart Birnie, Dave Minter, Jack Thompson, George Row and Nick Dale for their thoughts.
Here is my bike set-up, for normal conditions:
And with extra water and food carrying capacity for the desert:
The bag at the front is mostly for food and also electricals. It’s a bit big and it does catch the wind slightly, but it holds lots and is really accessible when I’m riding.
Top tube bag is for stuff I need all the time, like lip salve, route notes, tissue to clean my glasses, some food, etc.
Bottom bag is for heavy stuff – tools, spares, etc.
A triangle bag will fill the space between the bottles. It’s being custom-made so that it will use the space as well as possible.
Behind my seat is my waterproof jacket, then my main bag, which features two zip-down side panniers for extra water storage. Most of the time I won’t need those. Otherwise it has sleeping equipment and a few items of clothing, plus spare heavy stuff like batteries.
I’m flying out on Wednesday, get there on Thursday lunch time, riders’ signing on on Thursday evening, build up bike on Friday and we set off on Saturday.
The sharp end of the race will be the ultra-racing equivalent of Ali vs Frazier, with Mike Hall racing Kristof Allegaert for the first time. Jesse Carlsson and Sarah Hammond are also extremely strong riders. Plus there are some other Australians who are more of an unknown quantity in terms of international competition, but who should be better prepared for the conditions.
Overall, there should be about 70 starters. Given it’s a mandatory route, I expect I’d bump into other riders most days.