For the past 12 days, Mike Hall has been chasing Kristof Allegaert across Australia. Since day one of the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race — a 5,500km solo, unsupported race from Fremantle to Sydney — the pair have occupied the first two spots. Less than 100km has separated the pair for much of that time.
But late on Wednesday morning, as the pair tackle the infamous Back of Falls climb in the Victorian Alps, Allegaert is just 15km ahead of Hall, setting up an intriguing battle for the 1,100km that remain.
Allegaert, a three-time Transcontinental winner, appears to have had an uncharacteristically long sleep partway up the 23km climb, his GPS tracker showing a lack of movement for more than eight hours. Trans Am and Tour Divide record holder Hall, meanwhile, was able to close the distance to his fellow pre-race-favourite. For a brief moment it appeared Hall had passed the seemingly stationary Allegaert, but a location update showed the Belgian was in fact 15km further up the road.
Behind Allegaert and Hall, the top three is rounded out by relative newcomer to the ultra-endurance scene and leading Australian rider Sarah Hammond. Hammond has worked her way up through the field and has pared down the gap down to Hall to within 80 kilometres on several occasions.
During a stop in her home town of Melbourne on Monday night, Hammond was asked whether she could catch the riders ahead.
“No I can’t. Seriously, you know this. I can’t,” Hammond told race organiser Jesse Carlsson in a Facebook live interview. “My theory is that they are going to kill each other and on the second last day they’ll just blow up and I’ll just ride by and say ‘See ya!’. That won’t happen!
“I’m just going to try and hang onto the position that I’ve got, so I’ll keep doing what I’ve been doing since the first day because that seems to be working.”
For Hammond, making up ground from here would mean having less sleep; a dangerous prospect given she’s already feeling the effects of sleep deprivation (see video below).
At the time of writing Hammond is roughly 100km ahead of fourth-placed Kai Edel who rode past Hammond in last year’s Trans Am on his way to fourth place. The field behind Edel is similarly fragmented, with gaps of roughly 50km between each of the next four riders. The remainder of the field is scattered along the 5,500km route, with riders spread from the Western Australian border, through South Australia and right into Victoria.
It will be many weeks yet until the last riders reach their final destination of Sydney.
For the leaders, though, the straight and flat roads of the race’s first half are long behind, and the remaining kilometres are anything but easy. At the time of writing, Allegaert and Hall are on what is probably the hardest ascent of the entire race — the 23km climb to Falls Creek, which contains a 9km section at roughly 9% gradient. No mean feat on bikepacking rigs. Both riders will be unfamiliar with the climb — Allegaert being from Belgium, and Hall from the UK — but for Melbourne local Sarah Hammond, the Back of Falls climb is very much in her backyard.
“There’s a nice comfort about doing it on home soil but I don’t know if it’s going to be an advantage having ridden maybe 40% of the course already. It could be a disadvantage because you know what’s coming up which may not be a good thing at places like the Back of Falls,” Hammond said pre-race. “The back of Falls is just affiliated with pain; people hate it full stop. There are people out there doing Three Peaks or whingeing about doing it after 200km and we are going to do it with 4,000km in the legs …”
Plenty of climbing awaits the riders beyond Falls Creek too. There’s Tawonga Gap (used as a summit finish in the Tour of Bright) and the Myrtleford-Stanley Rd climb (used in the recent Jayco Herald Sun Tour), and that’s just in the next 150km. Then there’s the nearly 40km ascent into the Snowy Mountains once the riders cross the border into New South Wales.
So as the final 1,000 kilometres loom in the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a most intriguing battle lies ahead. Will Hall be able to catch Allegaert? Will Allegaert’s long rest give him an advantage in the final days of the race? And will Sarah Hammond maintain her third place, or will she exceed her own expectations and manage to close the distance to the leaders?
All that remains to be seen in what is sure to be a thrilling conclusion to a most entertaining bike race.