The Oppy: slaying sleep monsters to chase an Australian women’s 24 hour record

by Simone Giuliani


Last week we learned that the two teams who last month finished the Audax Australia Flèche Opperman 24 hour team time trial with record breaking distances may be disqualified. If they are it would be sad news for all involved, but even so, it doesn’t change the fact that the men’s Team Brevet and the women’s team Four Abreast completed awe-inspiring distances in 24 hours. The men rode no less than 800 kilometres, the women 619 kilometres. So, even if a technicality keeps the 619 kilometre ride from going down in the Audax history books as an Australian record, it will still, in my book, be one of the most inspiring and motivational achievements by Australian female cyclists that I have had the pleasure to report on. I am undoubtedly biased because I have repeatedly crossed paths with two members of the women’s team, Sarah Hammond and Jessica Douglas, and have found it simply impossible not to be won over by the pair. It’s hard not to be when you see the determined yet good natured way they repeatedly cook up and chase goals that plenty of others may consider at least a little mad. Then there is the way they use what they have learnt in pursuit of these goals, to promote women’s cycling and help other riders along the way.

So whether this 24-hours in the saddle goes down in the Australian history books or not, the story is one worth sharing.


The Oppy

The Flèche Opperman, known as the Oppy, is a 24 hour team time trial with teams of three to five riders. It has been running since 1989 and is named in honour of renowned Australian endurance cyclist Sir Hubert Opperman. Teams must ride at least 360 kilometres in the allotted 24 hours. The women’s record has stood at 550 kilometres for 20 years after it was set by the five person team, Attitude is Everything, in 1996.

The team

Assembling a team of women that were able and prepared to ride for 24 hours at a pace that would comfortably yield over 550 kilometres wasn’t an easy task. All female teams are not a common sight at the Oppy and it would be a matter of scouring other endurance disciplines to put together one that had the potential to go further than any women’s team had gone before. But team leader Sarah Hammond knows how to pick them:

Front to back: Sarah Hammond, Jessica Douglas, Rachel Edwards and Jackie Bernardi
Front to back: Sarah Hammond, Jessica Douglas, Rachel Edwards and Jackie Bernardi

Sarah Hammond (the mastermind)
A specialist in endurance road cycling events, who has completed four Everestings, which is riding up and down a climb until you hit 8,848 metres of ascent. Half of these were while acting as the experienced hand and mentor in group all female Everesting attempts. She has also previously completed an Oppy and ridden 800 kilometres from Melbourne to Adelaide in one hit. It was her interest in the event and enthusiasm to take on the challenge of chasing a distance of over 600 kilometres that sparked an interest in the other riders.

In June, Hammond will take on the 2016 Trans Am, a 4,400 mile (7,080 kilometre) self-supported bike race across America. After that … well she is bound to cook up another ground-breaking scheme.

Jessica Douglas (the hardened warrior)
The three-time 24 hour world solo mountain bike champion is more often found  racing on single-track than on the road, tucked in an aero position. Douglas is also a mountain bike skills instructor, coach and has set up the women’s cycling site Ride Like a Girl. The mother of one is the type of rider who will give anything a go, as long as it’s a challenge that excites her. Most inconveniently 24 hour racing has taught her that ‘I really do like my sleep’.

Jackie Bernardi (the best wheel to be on)
Bernardi can usually be found on a mountain bike and while she has done some 12 and 24 hour races, her main interest at the moment is in bike packing on long solo self-supported mountain bike adventures. The Oppy was a nice step in her training toward the Tour Divide, a 4418 kilometre self-supported mountain bike race along the Great Divide mountain bike route in the US, which will be held in June. She was the tallest member of the team, which meant her wheel was the one everyone wanted to sit on.

Rachel Edwards (the final piece in the puzzle)
Edwards gained her previous 24 hour experience in solo mountain bike races, rode the 228 kilometre Grafton to Invernell last year and has also raced on the road right up to National Road Series level. She fits in training around a full-time job and being mother to a 12-year-old. She was the final rider the team was searching for to complete the squad and was the only Queenslander among a group of Victorians. Not surprisingly, after coming down south from the warmer weather, she was also the one most inclined to feel the cold as night crept in.

The support crew
Norm Douglas, who helped lift the team mood with his endless enthusiasm and Jessica Varey, who managed to take the beautiful pictures you can see in the article around her support duties.

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The Goal

To ride at least 600 kilometres to Wagga Wagga in New South Wales and beat the women’s record of 550 km set 20 years ago. The plan also included an option to extend the distance once they reached Wagga Wagga with an additional loop that would take the journey up to 700 kilometres. The course would start in the regional city of Horsham in Victoria, taking the team through the flat plains of the Wimmera, before ducking briefly over the border with New South Wales and then back through the farmland of northern Victoria. After that it was again across the border between states created by the Murray river and on to finish at the largest inland city in New South Wales.

Why?

“My motivation to do these sorts of things is that I’m a sucker for the ordinary people doing extraordinary things story,” said Edwards. ” I love reading those stories. It just gets me right in the guts. There is something about that type of endeavour, the heart the tenacity and the discipline of just being able to mentally lock onto something and no matter what do it.”

“Instead of asking myself why I should do it, I asked myself ‘why not?’ If you want your life to be a series of adventures you have to take those opportunities,” Edwards continued. “You can’t wait till you are a 110 percent certain … you just have to jump right in and figure it out along the way.”

Checking out the route before they leave
Checking out the route before they leave

The ride: building a team, battling monsters and bad singing

The team came together the night before they were due to set off and got to know each other over a dinner, which of course was pasta. They hadn’t all met before this, and the majority of the group were also more accustomed to testing their limits solo. This meant there was plenty to be learned on the way, not only about each other and this particular challenge, but how to function effectively as a group on the road in an endurance environment.

“We all had the shared discipline of riding 24 hours but it was such a big gamble bringing four women together. We hadn’t even practiced riding around the block together. We just assumed we would figure it out, and fortunately we did,” said Hammond.

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They set off from Horsham to take on the Oppy at 9am on Saturday, March 19. Spirits and motivation were high in the first hours and before long the team was chewing through the kilometres at a pace which put them ahead of schedule, even while dealing with some cross-winds. However, part of the process of riding together as a team meant finding a speed that they could all sustain. In a 24 hour period which saw all the women have their ups and downs, Bernardi hit her tough patch early on in the effort.

“I actually felt some pain around lunch time on the first day. It was very early and I was really worried that I was hurting so soon. The issue was that we were sitting on a slightly faster average speed than I was happy with and that we had all agreed to sit at … and I was just like ‘I can’t do this,’” said Bernardi.

The team stopped to reset and tried to find a rhythm that would set them up to get through 18 more hours on the bike.

“I came good,”  said Bernardi. “Once we got the pace right and had a bit of food I was up the front.”

The afternoon went by and with Bernardi’s quick recovery the kilometres accumulated relatively smoothly while a long and lingering sunset providing a beautiful backdrop to the end of the day. However, it also signalled the start of tougher times.

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As the sun disappeared so did the heat, the distraction of varied scenery and the easy alertness that comes with the daylight hours. It was time to get out the lights and layers to settle in for a long night on the bike.

Edwards said for the first 10 hours of the ride she was having a good day and felt fine, but as the light disappeared things changed.

“Coming into dark, starting to turn the lights on, that is when I started to feel those first flat periods,” said Edwards. “One of the things with this type of racing it is just a rollercoaster, so you go through physical highs and physical lows as well as mental highs and mental lows.”

None of the riders were strangers to the impact of fatigue and sleep deprivation, but the mountain bikers among the crew were used to riding through the night with the diversity provided by winding single track and obstacles along the way. They were also used to having the quiet space to grapple with the battle in their own way, so it was an unfamiliar challenge fighting off the tiredness in a team environment and on monotonous, long and flat roads. There was rarely even a corner to take the edge off the tedium of straight roads and black all around.

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As the night wore on the pace slowed and the hits of caffeinated drinks had little impact except to increase the number of toilet stops. By the time 3am and 18 hours in the saddle arrived, even the most experienced among them became keenly aware of how much the urge to sleep was kicking in.

“It wasn’t actually hard physically, it was just mentally hard. It was quite hypnotic at night,” said Douglas.

To try and stay alert Douglas adopted a regular pattern of shifting through the different positions on her handlebars, changing gears and getting out of the saddle, anything to provide distraction  … even belting out a tune.

“The terrible thing is they were all singing and they were so bad! They would sing songs from the 80’s that I’ve never heard of,” said Bernardi. “I may not have been sure what they were singing but it really was entertaining and it was a good chance to switch off. A couple of times I even managed to get them singing Dolly Parton and that was helpful.”

But there were times when even Dolly Parton couldn’t help.

Edwards, who was also struggling with the impact of the cold, described the pain and intensity of the sleep deprivation as horrific. At times the fatigue got so bad that they opted to ride in the less aerodynamically efficient position of two abreast so they could keep a check on each other as they fought their own individual battles with the sleep monster.

“Those few hours before dawn we were grovelling, but we were moving and that’s what counts, we were moving,” said Edwards.

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It was at that time, when each minute seemed to tick by more slowly than the last, that all of them had to remind themselves of their motivations for being out there to avoid just stepping off the bike and huddling up in a ball to sleep.

“The decision to finish is made before you get on the bike. That’s how you get to the finish line,” said Hammond. “The only thing that could physically stop this from happening would be a mechanical, Armageddon or the earth opening up and swallowing you. There can’t be a no involved.”

“It’s all in your head. All our bodies were fine. There were no issues with our legs, our arms or anything like that. It was purely a case of mind over matter,” said Hammond. She was intent on keeping the communication with her teammates going to keep them engaged, alert and looking beyond the tough patch. “It will end, we will get through this, it will be over and it always feels like an eternity during that period but I guarantee we will all get to that finish line.”

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Sunrise brought renewed energy, warmth, a relief from the monotony and the knowledge that the finish line wasn’t far away.

The four women got to Wagga Wagga before the 9am deadline on Sunday morning but didn’t have time to complete a loop that would have given them an additional 100 kilometres. They did, however, manage a part of it and stopped the clock with 619 kilometres.

“I thought it was pretty damn amazing that four chicks, that didn’t really know each other, can rock up and just have a common goal of let’s get to the end,” said Douglas. “We all went through our highs and lows and together we got there.”

The achievement

Only three finisher were required but all four of them pushed through to the end as not a single one of them wanted to bow out of this team effort before the group had achieved what it set out to do. They had set out with the goal of beating a record, but were rewarded with camaraderie.  No matter what is decided about whether or not the ride will count as a record, the experience, friendships and personal achievements are all things that can’t be taken away.

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