The Indian Pacific Wheel Race: Once-in-a-lifetime adventure or folly for the foolhardy?

by Craig Fry


When the clock strikes 6:00am in Fremantle, Western Australia this Saturday morning, around 70 cyclists will start a race across Australia that will take the best of them nearly two weeks to finish. The Indian Pacific Wheel Race (or ‘Indy Pac’ for short) has no prize money, no trophies, and no massive crowds – just the road, and the unpredictable Australian elements.

At the start line, the rear tyres of the Indy Pac entrants will be dripping wet from anointing the start of their journey in the Indian Ocean – a tradition started by Australia’s first ‘Overlanders’ more than 100 years ago. Those who finish this nearly 5,500 kilometre race will mark the journey’s end the same way, by dipping their front tyre in the Pacific Ocean in Sydney.

By that point the rubber will be well and truly worn down, just like the riders. The ones that make it, that is …

It is hard to say how many Indy Pac starters will arrive at the Sydney finish line. But one thing is certain: they will have been riding in the tyre tracks of giants.

Australia’s ‘overlander’ history

Buried in the archives are truly amazing stories of Australian long distance cycling, dating back to the late 1860s. The name Sir Hubert ‘Oppy’ Opperman is familiar to many — he was Australia’s and arguably the world’s greatest ever long-distance cyclist.

But there’s also a long list of other names you’ve probably not heard of; riders who achieved remarkable feats on two wheels. Unfortunately, this rich history is not common knowledge, even among serious cycling buffs.

Few realise there was a time when Australia was regarded as the ‘long-distance cycling centre of the world’. (See the bottom of this article for a list of just some of the distance cycling achievements from Australia’s past.) The early Australian riders (the ‘Overlanders’ and ‘Indefatigables’ as they were called) played a key role in promoting cycling as a past-time and sport, and the development of roads and other cycling infrastructure. The widespread interest their efforts attracted also helped spark the public imagination about new possibilities for moving around Australia.

The notes they made, the stories they told of their experiences, and the touring maps that resulted, paved the way for many others that followed them.

Honouring the pioneers

Thankfully, through races like the Indy Pac and the efforts of the emerging new guard of overlanders like Jesse Carlsson, Sarah Hammond and others, more people are starting to rediscover Australia’s endurance cycling past. Our overlander history has also captured the attention of perhaps our best known cycling journalist, Rupert Guinness.

Guinness, who has been covering professional cycling since 1984 (including 28 Tours de France, 13 Giri d’Italia, several Vueltas a España, all the major one-day classics and other races) told CyclingTips how he came to enter the Indy Pac:

“I actually just finished a manuscript for a book on the history of Australian cycling. There was a chapter on the Overlanders, and I remember thinking ‘Gee that’s a fantastic story in it’s own right’,” Guinness said. “And then I saw the ad for the Indian Pacific Wheel Race and it said ‘Is there the overlander in you?’ And I thought, well, there is the overlander in my head with all that knowledge, so what a great way to try and tap into what they experienced.

“Now I’m going to be writing a book about it as well, rediscovering the overlanders by providing a contemporary narrative to their story.”

You could say the Indian Pacific Wheel Race has a good dose of Oppy’s DNA in it. The Indy Pac start date of March 18 also happens to be the same date as the Audax Australia Fleche Opperman All Day Trial, a 24-hour team time trial that has been held since 1985 in honour of Oppy. Fittingly, this year is also 80 years since the last time Hubert Opperman rode from Fremantle to Sydney and broke that record.

It is clear from speaking with Indy Pac organiser, Jesse Carlsson, that he has deep respect for Australia’s first endurance cyclists. That is also evident from the Indy Pac website itself which includes many snippets of Australian overlander history.

The Indy Pac website pays tribute to the pioneers of Australian distance cycling.

In spite of the huge amount of planning and logistics that must have gone into creating the Indy Pac, Carlsson speaks of the event in disarmingly simple terms.

“These races are very simple to organise. You just need a start date and a route,” Carlsson said. “One stage. Ride as much as you want. Sleep as much as you want. That’s it.”

In person, Carlsson is all business and straight to the point. You sense he’d rather just be riding the Indy Pac rather than talking endlessly about it.

“I’m looking forward to it all being done, and people getting in safely without quitting,” he said.

It is also obvious that Carlsson has thought very deeply about this landmark Australian cycling race, and put a tremendous amount of work into making it happen. The planning and the reconnaissance is done, and the race route is final. The rider roster is set. The race rules are out, and there has been a wealth of other information about race preparation that has Carlsson’s fingerprints all over it.

As testament to that the start roster includes some of the world’s biggest names in ultra endurance riding – Mike Hall, who has ridden the Nullabor before in 2012, and Kristof Allegaert, winner of the Transcontinental and the Red Bull Trans Siberia race, to name just two. Also lining up in Fremantle will be some local identities (including YouTubers Harley “DurianRider” Johnstone and Mark “CyclingMaven” Ferguson), some very capable ‘dark horses’ and a long list of ultra-endurance newcomers up for the adventure.

Some big names in professional cycling are noticing the Indy Pac too. Well-known cycling commentator Phil Liggett has referred to it as “a life shaper, for sure.” SBS cycling expert Mike Tomalaris described the Indy Pac as “the toughest cycle race ever staged in Australia.” And the Australian ex-professional rider David McKenzie (a Giro d’Italia stage winner) observed: “I’ve done a Grand Tour. That’s a huge sense of achievement. But this stuff is next level.”

Watching the race

One of the things Jesse Carlsson wants to achieve with this event is to make it easy for spectators to stay in touch with rider progress as their Indy Pac stories unfold.

“I think with these unsupported races, the internet is our stadium really,” observed Jesse. “That’s what we’re trying to do with this event. To cover it in a way that makes spectating easier. Where these races are fascinating is the race goes on for days and days, and it’s an evolving story over a two-week period.

“So it’s like reading a book, you turn the page and you want to see what happens next.”

Ever the storyteller, Rupert Guinness sees the potential here too.

“It will be interesting for people who follow the race. And I think it will gain momentum as the race unfolds,” he said. “You know, people may start saying ‘Hey look at this guy or girl, and look at their vlog and look at the experiences they’ve had’ … you could have tears on one end and cheers on the other, and vice versa the next day. People will be seeing something like a reality TV show unfold where there is no script.”

Lifetime adventure or folly for the foolhardy?

The adventurers and risk-takers in our midst should be supported and applauded for daring to do the things and go to the places that most of us will never contemplate. There’s great personal reward to be had in challenges like the Indy Pac, and these can reach beyond the individuals. Jesse Carlsson agrees.

“It’s inspiring; ordinary people doing remarkable things like this,” he said. “It motivates people to do all sorts of cool stuff.”

Cool stuff indeed. Some of the entrants have quit their jobs. Documentaries and cinema launches are being planned, books will be written, blogs and vlogs will grow; and there will be countless photographs, video updates, and all manner of social media snippets emerging from the Indy Pac story.

Of course, there are also considerable risks and a lot at stake for each and every rider in this event – even the elite racers. In some ways, that is precisely the point of the challenge. But, the open roads over some of Australia’s most testing landscapes (the Nullabor, the Australian Alps) are surely one of the most unforgiving settings in which to ask yourself: ‘How far can I really go here?’

For many lining up at the Fremantle start this weekend, it will be their first attempt at an ultra-endurance cycling event of this type. Jesse Carlsson sees this as a positive.

“You have to start somewhere when you’re doing this stuff, so it’s great that there are so many people prepared to take on the challenge,” he said. “It will give a lot of people a chance to find out if they can do it. And that’s the beauty of these races. It doesn’t matter if you finish dead last or if you win. You still get an amazing adventure across the country.

“Everyone has battles and challenges they have to get through.”

Even allowing for the ‘controllable’ factors like physical fitness and bike set-up, there’s a long list of ‘uncontrollables’ like weather, injury, mechanicals, illness, mental exhaustion, and so on. At almost 5,500km (and with 33,543m of vertical for good measure), the Indy Pac course will take competitors anywhere between 12 (around 450km per day) and 20 (around 250km per day) days to complete – a long time out there whichever way you look at it.

Make no mistake. The distance, terrain, weather, and cumulative impact of riding so far with sub-optimal nutrition, hydration, and recovery conditions (sleep, physical, mental) will push every single Indy Pac rider to their limits, and then some.

Most of the riders will have to contend with loneliness, uncertainty and self-doubt, deep physical exhaustion and mental depletion, fear, broken skin, sunburn, windburn, chafing and saddle sores, numb hands and fingers, hot-shoe, sore necks and lower backs, and leg pain right down into the bones.

This race is about seeking out adventure at it's toughest. It's unsupported and solo the whole way, you are responsible for you. Riders need to research, prepare and execute good planning in order to progress. Make good decisions. Like all great adventures we will constantly be faced with challenges every single day, and need to take risks in order to succeed. Extreme weather conditions, wildlife on the road, traffic and sourcing food and water in remote areas will all be part of the battle. This race isn't for everyone, and many riders may not finish the course. That is the nature of this racing, it's you against the road. Be prepared to hurt. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. #cyclingwithasenseofurgency #adventureiscalling #adventurebybike #indianpacificwheelrace #bikepacking

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Of course, no such factors are insurmountable for the well-prepared and experienced. But the strict emphasis on self-sufficiency in the event rules really will amplify the difficulty. Using social media to ask for help is forbidden, and taking assistance along the way that is not available to all riders is also prohibited.

The event disclaimer is sobering too. So much so, that it’s remarkable anyone will be at the start line on Saturday.

“No one will help a rider if things go wrong for them in any way – riders will be alone. Understand that this is a personal challenge against the clock,” the disclaimer reads. “By signing up riders get nothing but an excuse to plan and execute their own adventure, one which is dangerous and has serious risks for those unprepared. This race is definitely not for everyone and it is probably not for you.”

Carlsson makes no apologies.

“You’re gonna be out there alone. If something goes wrong, no-one’s gonna necessarily hear you scream,” he said. “You’re gonna need to know how to solve all the problems out there.”

But he admits to worrying.

“In any of these races you’re always worried about someone having a run in with traffic, getting hit by a car or something like that, so it goes with the territory unfortunately. Hopefully everyone stays safe.”

So here it goes: I'm Juan Diaz or JP to my mates! I like bikes, and I like to challenge myself, hopefully in ways that I never try before, so what a better way than doing this crazy thing called the IPWR. No experience in this kind of events. My longest ride has been 300km on a day, and it was pure misery. Not aiming for podium of course, but to get to the point in which I'm gonna learn new things about myself (not good or bad, just unknown) pushing the limits and trying to have fun (and not die) at the same time. After 55 hrs trip (Chile/Atlanta/LA/Brisbane), one missing luggage (just the bike and all the equipment, already w/ me at the moment) I still have 5 hours left to reach Perth. So, see u soon mates, already enjoying Straya. #ipwr #meettheindypacracers #bikepacking #cyclingwithasenseofurgency

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Celebrating the new Australian Overlanders

The Indian Pacific Wheel Race is an exciting new event that could well play a role in seeding a new age of Australian dominance in the sport of ultra-endurance cycling. But the full reality of such a momentous undertaking needs to be acknowledged too. There are always risks that come with great rewards.

Jesse Carlsson (and the cast of others who have helped him) should be congratulated for bringing this Indy Pac adventure to fruition, for wanting to see a resurgence in Australian ultra-endurance cycling, and for his efforts in building an engaged community around that big idea. However, events of this scale are very unsettling. And maybe that is exactly the point.

Come this Saturday morning, March 18, I will certainly be one of what I suspect will be a very large virtual crowd of onlookers staring into their computer screens, eager to see how this bold new thing called the ‘Indy Pac’ unfolds.

I’ll be reading the dispatches from the road, scanning the social media updates on race progress, and following a handful of Indy Pac racers that have captured my interest for whatever reason. I will also be holding my breath, and praying to the Gods of cycling that everyone gets through this massive thing safely.

A selection of Australian distance cycling achievements

1884 – Alf Edward became the first to cycle from Melbourne to Sydney on a high-wheeler (in 8.5 days, 931km along the Hume Highway)
 
1888 – George Burston and Harry Stokes were the first Australians to complete a round the world cycling trip on ordinary bicycles.
 
1893 – Percy Armstrong and R Craig cycled on safety bikes from the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland to Melbourne.
 
1893 – Frank Toms sets the first Adelaide to Melbourne record (3 days, 23 hours, 45 seconds).
 
1894 – Burston was the first to cycle across Mt Hotham travelling from Omeo to Bright.
 
1896 – The first Australian women’s cycling record was set when Mrs Benzley of Sunbury rode 130 miles (209km), Melbourne to Castlemaine return.
 
1896 – Arthur Richardson was the first to ride across the Nullarbor, and the first to ride around the continent 1899-1900.
 
1897 – First man to cross the continent was Jerome Murif riding from Adelaide to Darwin.
 
1897 – Mrs Ellen Schwaebsch was the first woman cyclist to ride over the Australian Alps.
 
1906-12 – Francis Birtles cycles across Australia numerous times.
 
1931 – 19-year-old Doreen Middleton rode 607 miles (977km) from Adelaide to Melbourne in 4 days 20 hours 30 minutes.
 
1933 – Ossie Nicholson’s world year distance record of 43,996.75 miles (70,800km) cycling from Melbourne to Portsea and back every day. In 1937 he did that same ride twice each day reaching 62,656.6 miles (100,800km) for the year.
 
1937 – Opperman breaks the Fremantle to Sydney record of 2,751 miles (4,427km) in just over 13 days, 10 hours.
 
1940s – Ernie Old completes an amazing series of overland interstate rides aged in his 70s including Melbourne to Brisbane and return to Sydney in 18 days.
 
1966 – Barry Waddell sets a solo record from Adelaide to Melbourne doing 465 miles (748.34km) in 22 hours 55 minutes.
 
1967 – Vic Browne breaks Oppy’s Sydney to Melbourne record, in 32 hours 57 minutes 9 seconds.
 
1969 – Browne breajs Oppy’s 24-hour unpaced record by riding 524 miles and 629 yards (more than 840km).
 
1982 – Graham Woodrup breaks John Young’s 16-year unpaced record from Melbourne to Adelaide and return by 7 hours 47 minutes (83 hours 27 minutes).

Indy Pac on CyclingTips

Stay posted to CyclingTips in the coming weeks for coverage from the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, including a preview of the race route, how to watch and the riders you should keep an eye on.

About the author

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer whose work has appeared in CyclingTips, Cyclist Aus/NZ, Cycling Weekly, SBS Cycling Central, The Conversation, and The Age. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 ‘Oppy’ National Shield by riding 730km in 24 hours.

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