Race to the Rock returns in 2017, with a twist

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Race to the Rock, the ultra-endurance cycling race into the centre of Australia, is back in 2017 with a fresh twist. The event, which is so tough only one person managed to finish last year’s inaugural edition, will continue to embrace the spirit of exploration by tackling a new route into the heart of the Australian outback.

After the high attrition rate last year, most event organisers would probably be considering a change to make it easier for more riders to actually reach the end. However, with Race to the Rock, that’s far from the plan.

The 2017 race starts on September 2 in Albany, Western Australia (last year’s edition started in Adelaide) and finishes at Uluru. At 3,000km, this year’s route is a few hundred kilometres longer than last year and the terrain is just as difficult. Indeed as entries to the event opened yesterday the organisers’ key message to potential riders was, the race is just too hard so please don’t enter.

“It’s safer, less painful and less soul destroying to remain a dot watcher,” a post on the event’s Facebook page said. “I don’t expect many will finish. This is a genuinely tough event in the age of countless events pretending to be tough.”

Interest in ultra-endurance racing has been building in recent times and, despite a horribly tragic end, the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in particular caught the imagination of many. There was an enormous growth in followers of the sport, who are usually known as dot watchers because they view the race by watching tracking dots move across the map. It inspired some to ride, some to push their boundaries on the bike, and others to want to take it all the way and get involved in ultra-endurance racing themselves.

In fact, the race across Australia brought so much attention to ultra-endurance racing that even before there was thought of opening entries to the Race to the Rock, interest was high. Too high, in fact.

Ultra-endurance racing is not a cycling discipline for everybody, even when it’s being run on a well-serviced, reasonably populated touring route like the 7,000 kilometre Trans Am, which starts this weekend. Throw riders into the middle of the remote and difficult-to-navigate Australian outback though, and there are a whole raft of new challenges and dangers to contend with.

The Race to the Rock will, like last year, run over rough trails suited to a mountain or cyclocross bike. The path includes the Munda Biddi Trail and the Great Central Road and traverses extremely remote areas, a factor which makes it one of the most challenging ultra-endurance races. Stretches between shops can run into the hundreds of kilometres, the opening hours of those shops are limited, and water can be hard to come by. Plus you can never be quite sure if you’ll be riding in the scorching heat or pouring rain.

“There’s a lot of people who get kind of carried away with the romance of a big adventure,” chief instigator Jesse Carlsson told CyclingTips. “But you know, the heavily saturated snowcapped peaks of Instagram are a long way away from pushing your bike through mud for 12 hours and then trying to find somewhere to sleep in a flood plain.”

“You probably don’t want to do it, you just don’t know that yet,” said Carlsson, in an uncharacteristic departure from his usual encouraging style. “And you are probably not capable of doing it, you just don’t know that yet.”

“Hopefully people prove us wrong … but the statistics are there.”

So what are the statistics? In last year’s first edition of the Race to the Rock, 20 riders took to the startline. Sarah Hammond was the only competitor to make it through the entire 2,300km course from Adelaide to Uluru. Adding to the already tough terrain, unseasonably wet conditions flooded roads in some parts and turned other tracks into brutal-to-move-through quagmires.

Documentary: Race to the Rock 2016

A race so tough no man has ever finished

You might be wondering at this point why organisers didn’t take the opportunity to follow an easier route, so there was a good chance of a decent number of people actually finishing. However, when it comes down to it, there is a certain appeal in making something so hard it seems near impossible. Success becomes that much more special when failure is such a real possibility.

Just ask the organisers of the Barkley Marathon, an ultra-marathon running race which takes place in Tennessee over a rough course of approximately 100 miles (161km). Some years not even a single competitor can make it to the end, which is why the race has only been completed 18 times since it was first run in 1986.

Something else the Race to the Rock will have in common with the Barkley Marathon this year is a rather unorthodox entry procedure. After all it hardly seems fitting to make it easy to enter a challenge which is filled with uncertainty, unpredictability and a high degree of difficulty. If you are the type to give up at the first hurdle you probably shouldn’t be out there in the first place.

There’ll be no straight-forward, published entry procedures, and there might also be some curve balls to deal with. But if we told you exactly what they were that would defeat the purpose.

“People can do these rides whenever they want,” said Carlsson. “But, yeah if you want to do it in a race where I’m going to have to lose sleep thinking about you, well you are going to have to jump through a few hoops to get there.

“Hopefully if they really really want to do it they’ll figure it out.”

One area where there won’t be any parallels to be drawn with the Barkley Marathon though are organiser comments about the inability of women to complete the race, hopefully made with the aim of drawing more females to compete in order to prove them wrong. In an Outside Magazine article Gary Cantrell, Barkley Marathons co-founder said: “We publicly state that this race is too hard for women and no woman can do it.”

That’s just too easy not to flip on its head for Race to the Rock, given Hammond’s dominance last year.

“It’s clearly a very tough race because a man has never won the Race to the Rock before — it’s only ever been won by a woman. Perhaps the men aren’t actually tough enough to win this race,” said Carlsson. Carlsson himself was one of the male competitors who didn’t make it to the end after a crash left him with a race-stopping wrist injury while in the lead.

Ride to recovery

There’s no doubt it’s been an incredibly difficult time of late for all in the endurance cycling community, not least Jesse Carlsson, organiser (and racer) of Race to the Rock and the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. The loss of Mike Hall on the road in the final stages of the Indy Pac on March 31 has left a deep wound.

Hall was undisputedly one of the leading figures in the ultra-endurance racing community and a character that drew widespread admiration both through his demeanour and actions. Hall always delivered powerful race performances – his habit was to win and set a record in the process – and he was also committed to giving others the chance to race, as organiser of the Transcontinental Race.

Fans of endurance racing felt like they knew him. His regular tweets and appearances during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race footage added depth to the experience of watching his tracking dot move across the country at an unfathomable pace. So many of the tens of thousands watching had difficulty grappling with the loss and it is hard to imagine how much more difficult it would have been for his fellow racers and all those involved in the organisation of the race.

Mike Hall. Picture by Indian Pacific Wheel Race.

The Indy Pac was quickly cancelled following Hall’s death, but the community’s commitment to endurance riding has remained. For many, the best way to deal with the grief, and to honour this giant of the cycling community, was by embracing, rather than eschewing, time on the bike. This is evident in the thousands of Instagram posts that feature the hashtag #rideformike.

Carlsson is no different. In dealing with Hall’s death he said it was almost a natural part of the recovery process to organise another ride.

“[The Indy Pac] had a tragic end which has been incredibly tough to deal with, but amongst our little riding crew we always talk about the bike as being the mental health machine,” Carlsson said. “So for me anyway it’s good therapy to plan new rides, dream of new adventures and it’s even better therapy to go out and do them.”

Race to the Rock 2017: Key facts

Start date: Saturday September 2, 2017
Route: Albany, Western Australia to Uluru, Northern Territory
Distance: 3,000 kilometres
Terrain: Remote tracks along with gravel, dirt and bitumen roads

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