Race to the Rock: Unstoppable Sarah Hammond wins outback odyssey

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Sarah Hammond, the sole female rider in the first edition of the 2,310 kilometre Race to the Rock, has won with a buffer of hundreds of kilometres by pushing an unrelenting pace right to the finish of the brutally difficult dash into the Australian outback.

The attrition rate at the front of the field was huge, the conditions unforgiving and the terrain remote, but with a lot of determination and grit the 36 year old took just eight days and a little over six hours to make it from the South Australian capital of Adelaide to Uluru in the Northern Territory.

“It was just a brutal, brutal ride,” Hammond told Ella CyclingTips. “The country was mind blowing but you are just in such hell.”

The race threw everything at riders, from rain, cold nights, hot winds, rocky terrain, swarms of bugs, sludgy clay and flooded roads with water as far as the eye could see. Then in the final stretch there was plenty of tough to ride – and even tougher to stay upright on – sand.

“These weren’t roads that were meant to be ridden by bicycle,” said Hammond. “This stuff it just destroys you mentally. There were times I would stop and was literally yelling at the road.”

But still Hammond pushed on, in the final run only stopping to grab a short snatch of sleep when hallucinations and micro sleeps got the better of her. Not surprisingly she arrived at the finish exhausted and emotional.

It’s only Hammond’s second bikepacking endurance race, and she’d barely even ridden a mountain bike before deciding to enter about two weeks before it started. Still, there was little doubt she would be a tough competitor, given she became the first woman to ever lead the 7,080 kilometre Trans Am in her first race, just three months ago.

It was with that lead in the first week of the  Trans Am that Hammond helped start a shift in mindset about the level women can compete at in endurance cycling. Lael Wilcox then accelerated it by becoming the first female Trans Am winner. Now with Hammond’s Race to the Rock victory there should be no room for doubt that women in this style of racing can be contenders for the overall, rather than just form a race within a race as they battle it out for the women’s podium.

The turning points

There were two key moments in the race from the coastal city of Adelaide into the remote desert of central Australia that paved the way for her to not only win, but do it with such a big gap.

The first was when race mastermind Jesse Carlsson pulled out of the race injured on day four. The former Trans Am winner looked to have the race sewn up, having established a substantial early lead. When he retired Hammond jumped from second to first, however at that point she still had Belgian rider and experienced bikepacker Gunther Desmedt an easy to close down distance of around 50 kilometres behind.

The second crucial moment was Hammond’s decision to push on into the night from William Creek on day five, when she was around 1,300 kilometres in. She ventured out onto the remote track to Oodnadatta, more than 200 kilometres away, into uncertain conditions. Locals told stories of dangerous chest high river crossings and claggy mud ahead on the road, which had only just been theoretically reopened after flooding.

“I thought well how bad is the creek going to be,” Hammond told the CyclingTips race coverage video crew as she headed into the final stretch of the race. “I kind of figured I’m waterproof, the bike’s waterproof, waterproof bags.”

“The first half of it was fine, the second half of it was horrendous,” said Hammond. “It was just mud pits, mud pits, hiking through water … and it was pitch black.”

Somehow she made it through to Oodnadatta, while Desmedt stayed back in William Creek and the gap extended. When he took up the pursuit, in the middle of the next day conditions were such that neither he nor the race coverage car could follow.

After making it around half way, Desmedt backtracked more than 100 kilometres to William Creek and took an alternative path to try and get around the flooded roads.

WC 110. It means 110 kms to William Creek. You only see this board when riding south. The Rock it north… The pilot in William Creek warned me. The track is still closed and some rain is expected later this afternoon. You could get in trouble… This wasn’t just trouble. This was hell. Type 3 fun. The whole track transformed info a sticky mud pool after 120 kms. I’ve seen the thunderlight some time before. In 3 seconds the bike grabs all the mud it can. Wheels stick full of mud. Your worst nightmare. Just after sunset. I’ve tried but not possible at all. I went a few 100 meter further without bike to see if thing got better. No… Took the decision to return to William Creek. Another 120kms. Got into a huge storms. Giving all i’ve got and still only 7 kms per hour… Arrived back in William Creek at 4 AM… 16 hours in the saddle and haven’t moved a centimeter closer to the Rock :-( #williamcreek #oodnadatta #racetotherock #adelaide #ayersrock #uluru #australia #cycling #mtb #mountainbike #ot #bpbe

A photo posted by bikepacking.be-Gunther Desmedt (@bikepacking.be) on


How the race played out

In the first couple of days it didn’t look like the Race to the Rock would be an event that Hammond may win. As she mentioned in the video below, the technical nature of the course took some getting used to. The inexperienced mountain biker hadn’t really prepared for rolling over boulders and down rocky rutted-out terrain.

In the initial days she spent much of her time sitting around fourth position but by the third day her endurance, ability to keep on the move with little sleep and push through the pain that inevitably starts to mount by this point, took her to third. The top four riders, Carlsson, Justin Matthews, Hammond and Desmedt also started opening up a substantial gap on the rest of the field.

On day three the 40-year-old experienced dirt rider Matthews, who could speed down the technical downhills, was still ahead of Hammond while Carlsson had already opened up a gap of around 100 kilometres. It seemed like the only race left to play out was the one for the minor placings.

But no one is a sure thing in endurance racing, and a clay wash-out combined with a badly timed glint of sun caused Carlsson to crash. A suspected break in the wrist meant that day four and the small South Australian town of Leigh Creek were the end of his race.

At the same time, Matthews, who had been in second, was taking a long rest as he tried to nurse his body through the toll of three tough days on the bike. Hammond passed him while he was resting, and then Matthews also later pulled out, leaving only Desmedt anywhere near Hammond.

Then there was the William Creek to Oodnadatta section a little over half way through, where the territory started getting truly remote and food re-stock points were hundreds of kilometres apart. It was here that Hammond extended the gap to Desmedt with her arduous slog along the water-covered track.

Once beyond the flooded roads, she then pushed on through the corrugated and sandy roads to the big red rock of Uluru, making a quick pace to the end despite the tough riding, with sand that constantly threw her off the bike. She kept up the pace by only taking short breaks and getting a couple of hours of sleep a day.

Hammond kept moving quickly even though there were no competitors in sight, as while luck had it that her tenacious effort was not derailed by accidents or mechanicals, others who had been in pursuit had plenty.

The rider who had at one stage moved into third, New Zealander Keith Payne, had to turn back with a broken derailleur, while Desmedt’s failed attempt to get to Oodnadatta was only the start of his troubles. Tyre issues made things worse, then he lost his wallet and finally he posted on Instagram that health issues meant he would stop riding.

However, there are still plenty of the riders in the race and coming through. You can keep following the Race to the Rock on the event hub page at the CyclingTips VeloClub forums and follow the riders’ progress live via GPS tracking over at MAProgress.

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