The IPWR has been an amazing experience but everything has been overshadowed by Mike Hall’s death on the road near Canberra. Not since Tom Simpson, in a very different era and context, has British cycling lost one its heros, so suddenly and so sadly, in action.
More than anyone, Mike created the sport of unsupported ultra-endurance bike racing. In doing so, he made long-distance cycling exciting and got a younger, faster crowd hooked on it. Building on the achievements and ideas of others, such as Mark Beaumont and Nathan Jones, Mike, with his Transcontinental Race, created something full of fantasy and adventure which could fit into two weeks’ holiday. He made the wild, exotic and exciting accessible, not exactly to the masses, but to those of us, less extraordinary than him, who were magnetically drawn to it.
He focused on keeping it open and non-elitist. He could easily have charged a high fee to enter the race, and made it another rip-off sportive with a high qualification bar, but he was too fair-minded for that. And also too clever; Mike had plans, occasionally hinted at, for developing the TCR into something even bigger and better than it already is. His core idea was a sophisticated one: the riders create the content and excitement and sponsors pay to be associated with it, but never to dominate or overshadow it. As the content got ever bigger and more compelling in successive races, then its strength and its commercial value were bound to increase, but his model could safeguard independence and integrity of his event.
In this way, Mike was building not just a great event but an important brand, a business and a movement for the long-term and it is cruel that has been denied the opportunity to execute his vision.
A few months ago, Mike announced that he had been able to give up his day job as an engineer, to focus full time on the TCR and his own cycling. The best careers advice is to take your hobby and work out how to make a living out of it. Many dream of it, some attempt it, only a few achieve it, but Mike had.
As well as an organiser, Mike led from the front as a top endurance cyclist in his own right. The record-holder for both Trans-Am and Tour Divide, Mike was also the fastest man round the world. Recalling him with his lightweight set-up, and live-fast mindset, lining up at the start of his round the world race against the old-school pannier set-ups was like seeing tanks against cavalry. Re-reading some of Mark Beaumont’s book the other day in preparing for the IPRW brought home to me – with no disrespect to Mark (who is now planning to build on his own achievements with a supported 80-day round-the-world attempt) – just how much Mike had raised the ultracycling bar in a few short years. We all knew that he was the person with the cycling firepower that made him the most likely to be able to mount a serious challenge to the dominance of Kristof Allagaert.
Cycling is much poorer without Mike. It’s too early to tell what an impact his loss will have, whether unsupported ultra-endurance racing and the TCR are able to survive it. I hope that they are, and that Mike’s memory lives on in this field that he did more than anyone to create and nurture.
It’s far too early to attempt an account of the IPWR and, given Mike’s tragic death, there may never be an appropriate time to do it. However these are the most powerful recollections I have from the event.
- Australian roads and driving. I expand on this below but the summary is that, despite good roads, light traffic and consistent driving standards, I found Australia just about the most hostile place I have cycled because the status of cyclists on the road, the respect accorded to them and the understanding of their needs, is lower than elsewhere.
- The Australian people. I’d always considered them to be warm, friendly and positive, but I didn’t know half of it. We got so much encouragement from so many people during the race, who were genuinely interested in what we were doing and respected our challenge. The attitude contrasted with that typical in Britain, where doing something more energetic than riding to the pub is widely considered a form of madness. Things really moved up a notch after the event was cancelled following Mike’s death. We all received offers of help and hospitality, via messages and from people watching our trackers and waiting out on the roads for us to pass. I have to mention Pete Gordon, who, when I wanted advice on how to get to Sydney, responded with not only that but also by offering me a place to stay overnight, help with packing my bike, and a lift to the airport. If that was not enough, he then called his parents to get them to pick me up from the airport in Sydney and drive me to my hotel! Others had similar stories.
- The enthusiasm was built and fed by Jesse’s efforts in marketing and covering the event. With three cars out on the road filming, interviewing and taking pictures, there was plenty of content to go round. Jesse reported that the IPWR Facebook page was getting 1.5 million views, which in internet marketing terms made it a big deal, and that does not happen without a lot of hard work. Apparently a local TV station considered covering it but decided there was no point when they realised it was getting a lot more hits than they could achieve.
- Australia is a big and empty land. I knew beforehand that the Nullarbor wilderness was remote, but the knowledge is not adequate preparation for the reality. With no signs of human habitation for hundreds of miles, no lights in the distance, there was nothing but nature. At night, my brain worked hard trying to make out shapes of farm buildings and other man-made objects from tree branches and bushes but, whatever I thought I was seeing, there were none. Also at night the long, straight roads and clear air made it hard to judge distances. The lights of approaching trucks could be seen for several minutes before they approached. I timed a truck overtaking me and found I could still see its red lights 13 minutes later. I often freewheeled as I approached a road sign I wished to read, only to have to start pedalling again when it was further away than I had thought.
- The memory of a night camping under the millions of stars in the complete silence of the desert will always stay with me. Given the warmth of the Australian people it was a shame to spend so long in an area with none of them, but it was a fabulous experience
- The deserts have lots of animals – especially kangaroos and camels. Most of them hide or sleep during the daytime so, other than the odd kangaroo crossing the road without looking, just in front of me, what we mainly saw – and smelled – were hundreds of road-killed ones in various states of decomposition.
- We were lucky with the temperatures – just one 40+ degree day in South Australia – but not with the wind – 6 days of headwinds across the desert. This made it hard going, knocking me and many others off intended schedules. I rode right through one night when I saw it was going to be calm, and enjoyed the bliss of riding down the 90-mile straight at 25-28 km/h rather than 15-18 during the day.
- The roadhouses – service stations with motels – are modern-day oases in the desert. Massive portions of food – although a bit too fried for my liking. I got a lacerated mouth from some very crispy, well-fried chips at Mundrabilla. The large bowl of soft, mushy spaghetti bolognaise – enough for three – at Eucla was my highlight.
Cycling in Australia.
This was my first trip to Australia. The people have been wonderful and given the IPWR and its riders great support and encouragement. They have shown themselves to be even more positive, generous and warm-hearted than I’d previously known them to be.
However, a few days into the event, I decided that I did not feel safe on the roads and was not sure where to ride to minimise the risks. As a result, I felt I would not choose to cycle in Australia again, and could not recommend it to others. In my short time there I had more really scary moments than I can recall from the previous 10 years in Britain, Europe and Asia.
I feel the actual standard of driving is good and behaviour is consistent. I got given lots of room by most passing cars – normally a clear lane. However, the problem is a systematic and fundamental one. Australian cyclists have a very low status on the road: they are expected to ride in the gutter at all times, motorists will not accept being delayed for even a second by a bike and, being overwhelmingly non-cyclists, have no appreciation of the demands and requirements of riding a bike in different road and weather conditions. Even Australian motorcyclists, who I would expect to be more aware of how a two-wheeled vehicle handles on the road, appear not to apply any such understanding to bikes.
I felt the scary incidents I had were not the result of bad driving, more a mismatch between how I expect the rules of the road to apply and how things work in Australia. This makes it far more scary: in most countries it is the bad drivers that cause the majority of the danger but in Australia, the way the roads work mean that it is the good drivers driving normally who are the main source of danger. And there are far, far more of them
Firstly, by way of context, some words on Australian roads.
- They are probably the best maintained of any I have encountered. In Western and South Australia, the number of potholes encountered could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
- The surfaces are, in most cases, good, although a proportion have a chip-seal dressing with large, sharp, grey stones which is uneven and very slow.
- Most (but not all) Australian roads have a hard shoulder which is from 1-3 feet wide. The shoulder surface quality varies from being equivalent to that of the main carriageway to being much worse, with ruts, potholes, gaps and sometimes street furniture.
- In the course of riding it became clear to me that cyclists are expected not to trespass onto the main carriageway but to stay on this hard shoulder, regardless of its quality and, even where it is not present.
- It would not be possible to organise UK-style time trials on Australian roads: bikes trying to ride on the main carriageway and take fast lines would not be tolerated, even in the lightest of traffic.
- Australian trucks, or road trains, are normally double size with two 40-foot trailers. Notably they do not have the side bars, standard in Europe, which would keep someone knocked off a bike from falling under their wheels.
To illustrate, these are few incidents that I had where I felt at risk, riding in a range of different road positions. These are ones that stand out, but there were plenty more.
- On the road from Southern Cross to Coolgardie, a truck was coming towards me. I was close to the white line on the left, further left than a secondary position. I was taken by surprise by a second truck overtaking me, passing just a few inches to my right, and causing me to run off the road onto a gravel verge. I was able to make a semi-controlled stop but felt there was some risk I could have lost control and fallen under the wheels of the overtaking truck.
- Just after Border Village, in South Australia, where there is no hard shoulder, a truck was coming towards me. Just after it went by, another truck passed me at slow speed, blowing its horn as it did so. I smelled burning rubber as it passed and looked back to see black marks on the road. I hadn’t heard a thing and had been unaware it was behind me. I only assume that it had carried out an emergency braking manoeuvre when I failed to move over to a hard shoulder that didn’t exist to accommodate a vehicle I had neither seen nor heard.
- Approaching Ceduna, in light traffic, I had three close passes within an hour. The third, and closest, was a white car which can only have been a couple of inches from my right shoulder. When I got to Ceduna, I met Gareth, who I had ridden with on the second evening but who had abandoned in the Nullarbor. He told me that he was in the white car which had skimmed passed me. He had been rescued after he abandoned by the family. He was worried by the close pass and felt the daughter, who was driving, had gone closer than necessary, given that an oncoming truck had pulled over to give her more space.
- On an undulating road with light traffic on the way to Kimba I was riding in a secondary position. At one point a car overtook me, on a double white line on a blind bend approaching the crest of a hill. The driver slowed and turned to me (ominously as it turned out), saying ‘if you carry on riding in that way, someone is going to get killed’. I could only infer that what me meant by ‘in that way’ was a secondary position and that the risk was that it forced traffic overtaking to move towards oncoming traffic. The idea that such an overtake was illegal and that waiting a couple of seconds was an option had not occurred to the driver.
- On the road to Port Augusta, it was nighttime, there was a cross-wind and virtually no traffic. I was being blown sideways when trucks passed so decided I did not want a double-overtake. When a truck came towards me, I took a primary position to make this clear to the car I knew was approaching from behind. He blew his horn and, at the last minute, braked, when he realised I was holding my position. As he overtook me, delayed by a couple of seconds by not being able to pass at the same time as the oncoming truck, he looked across, clearly shocked by my having acted in a way he did not expect, and said ‘I could have killed you’. The clear implication was that, if he had done, it would have been my fault, not his.
After this, I gave up trying to take a primary position, took to the hard shoulder and just hoped I could keep control of the bike during double overtakes.
- In the town of Kapunda, I was riding downhill quickly in the hard shoulder in moderate traffic. As a truck was about to pass me, I saw that there was a major pothole ahead where tar had melted, affecting the whole width of the hard shoulder. I didn’t have time to stop. The truck, who, with a higher position, would have seen this earlier than me, did not allow me to move out. My only option was to bunny hop. Not ideal on a loaded bike with aero wheels, but I managed it for the loss of a couple of cereal bars.
- On a twisting descent on the Great Ocean Road, I used the full width of the lane to negotiate the bends. As I was pulling to the left at the bottom of the hill, a car behind me blew its horn to encourage me to move over more quickly. He was followed by a motorcyclist who, in the manner of his lackey, did not look at me but stuck his left arm out to indicate to me where my rightful place was.