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by Juliana Buhring
September 13, 2017
Photography by James Robertson, Camille McMillan and Gene Kehoe
I was somewhere in the middle of the Australian desert on that fateful morning of March 30th, racing from coast to coast in the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race. The news came via a Facebook message that seemed too incredible to be true. My friend, fellow racer and record setter, Mike Hall, had been hit and killed just 500 kilometres from the finish line. It took a while to sink in.
I had known Mike ever since we both set off to cycle around the world back in 2012. The following year he had launched the Transcontinental Race or “TCR”, the first and perhaps best known unsupported bikepacking race, across Europe. I was the only woman at the starting line on London Bridge in the inaugural 2013 race. We were a motley handful of adventurers with barely a clue as to what we were doing or what to expect, only that we had to make our way via a few checkpoints to Istanbul where the finishers would meet for beers on the Bosphorus. None of us could have predicted how popular this form of racing, or indeed the race itself, would become.
Described as a “daring and thoroughly modern take on how bike racing used to be back in the ‘heroic’ era”, the Transcontinental Race legitimised unsupported ultra-endurance road-racing and birthed a community of bikepacking “crazies,” and their GPS-addicted “dot-watcher” fans. The next year, Mike and I both raced and won the inaugural Trans Am Bike Race, which covered 7,000 kilometres from Astoria to Yorktown. Over the next few years, the number of bikepacking races exploded, with events all over the world, from Ireland to South Africa and finally, in 2017, across Australia.
It is easy to say in hindsight, but even then, the race felt doomed from the get go. Two days in, I became seriously ill in the middle of the desert and suffered an allergic reaction to medication. I returned to Perth for treatment and restarted the race with the intention of finishing in an ITT.
In the meantime, I followed Mike’s progress closely as he battled Kristoff Allegaert at the front of the race. I knew Mike, I had followed him in many races, but this was the first time I sensed that for him too, all was not well. He had not settled into the race as he usually did, he was not enjoying himself, he was tense, he felt frequently unsafe and his occasional tweets throughout the race reflected this.
Until then, we had been lucky. There had been no deaths in over five years of bikepacking road races and millions of collective kilometres accumulated. The odds declared that the inevitable would eventually occur, but that it would be Mike himself who went first, nobody could have predicted. His death sent ripples throughout the international cycling community. The Indian Pacific Wheel Race was cancelled. When Mike was finally sent home, his family held the funeral at their hometown in Yorkshire, attended by hundreds of cyclists. I joined the bicycle escort of friends who accompanied his hearse to the church and cemetery where he was laid to rest.
The unspoken question hovering on everyone’s minds, grew louder in the silence of the months following Mike’s funeral: would the Transcontinental Race go on, or would it follow its founder to become a cherished memory? Out of nearly 1,000 applicants, 300 had gotten a place in this year’s 2017 race; cyclists who had trained and planned and saved for the adventure of a lifetime.
They waited, anxious, for news of the race’s fate, as Mike’s family and closest friends debated whether continuing it was viable or even possible without its founder and director at the helm. If the race did not go ahead this year, the difficulty of relaunching it at a later date and the possibility that Mike’s dream and legacy could fade and disappear seemed very real.
The racers themselves were not ready to let this happen. As time ticked closer to the starting date, posts began appearing on the TCR social network groups, with riders threatening to go rogue. Whether the race was officially organised or not, one thing was clear, they were going to ride: in defiance of death, in celebration of life, in honour of Mike. They were ready and raring to race, all that was needed was a race. When a few of Mike’s friends, TCR veterans and colleagues offered to help Mike’s family make it happen, his mother and brother agreed.
While it was obvious that no single one of us could fill Mike’s shoes, we hoped that by combining our individual strengths into a team, we could come close to realising the vision he would have wanted for the race. As the designated Race Coordinator, with under two months to pull off a race that that normally took the better part of a year to organise, the weeks leading up to the race start were hectic.
Most of the people who had volunteered to help – at the starting line registration, to man the checkpoints, or as dotwatchers monitoring individual racers – confirmed their willingness to participate. The race sponsors offered to step up their assistance during the event and organise the management of their checkpoints. PEdAL ED, the title sponsor, reaffirmed their support of the event.
Just as preparations for the race began to move forward, we got the terrible news of the death of a racer, Eric Fishbein, on the Trans Am Bike Race across the United States. This, coupled with a rash of unrelated cyclist deaths in the news, made us anxious and serious about doing everything possible to ensure the safety of our riders, in so far as we were able within an unsupported racing format.
Apart from mandatory doctor’s notes and individual insurance, we would check every rider’s bikes for potential problems at the start, making sure they had powerful lights, high vis gear and helmets. We also took the usual precautions in prohibiting roads throughout Europe that, though legal for cyclists to ride, could be considered extremely unsafe. The difficulty in finding a balance between an unsupported adventure race and a finely controlled event was difficult to strike. We could only hope we were getting it right.
On July 28, the largest turn out of riders to date showed up at the start of the Transcontinental Race No5 in Geraardsbergen, Belgium. Many rolled up to the registration with #BeMoreMike glued to their frames and bags, a reminder of why they were there—why we were all there. To remind them that when the going got tough out there, they had only to glance down and those three words would boil everything down to a single reminder, “what would Mike do?”
By 9:30 pm, the Manneken Pis or market square, was close to bursting with cyclists and their loaded bikes. Following a minute of silence for Mike, his mother, Patricia, took the stage to address the riders. “Mike would always say, ‘nothing that’s worth anything is ever easy’, so I know this is not gonna be easy for you, but I know that Mike will be with each of you, tonight, and the rest of the race.”
The iconic torches were lit, and carried by locals to the top of the Kapelmuur. The countdown began, the bell sounded and the riders raced up the cobbled Muur lined with cheering crowds, their blinking tail lights cresting the summit and disappearing into the night. I drove the second control car with the race photographer and filmographer, catching footage of riders along the road.
By morning, the field had spread out substantially and finding clumps of riders in the same vicinity grew more difficult. We were just stopping for lunch, when I received a call from Anna, our acting Race Director. Reports were still unclear, but it seemed a cyclist had been killed somewhere in Belgium early that morning of July 29th. They did not yet know if he was one of ours. A few hours later, police and family members confirmed it. Frank Simons, the TCR’s oldest racer at 72, had been fatally injured in a hit-and-run.
Another death, and so early into the race, felt unreal. While Anna and Tom, the communications manager, made contact with Frank’s wife and designated next-of-kin, we sat waiting, uncertain of how to proceed, or whether, indeed, the race would proceed at all. Anna called back an hour later. “We’ve spoken with Frank’s wife and neighbour and they wanted us to know that he would want the race to continue and the riders to be able to finish their adventure,” she said. “I feel we should respect his family’s wishes, but also the wishes of the racers themselves.”
It was decided that should the riders overwhelmingly decide they wanted to continue to race to Meteora, then we would continue in our commitment in providing the race infrastructure. With this in mind, I drove directly to Checkpoint 1 in Lichtenstein to meet and speak with each of the riders as they came in. In the meantime, a statement was released online and a notification sent to all the riders informing them of the tragedy.
The first two racers arrived that evening. Neither had heard the news yet, and both were shocked and disheartened by it. They stopped racing and decided to stay the night to think about what they wanted to do. The third to pass through was Bjorn, who ended up winning second place. He had heard of Frank’s death and had had time to digest the news and think about his decision as he rode the last kilometers to the checkpoint. He’d already decided, he would go on.
“Riding our bicycles will always be a risk whether we are cycling across Europe or cycling near home. If I stop now, I might as well put down my bike and never ride again,” he said. Many of the racers, though shaken, felt the same. Frank’s death had brought the reality of the risk closer to home, but when weighing the decision between riding their bikes or quitting out of fear of being hit, the reward outweighed the risk. The race would go on.
“In the end, we took the decision to continue because of the overwhelming majority of riders’ desire to race, to continue on their adventures in memory and honour of Frank and his next of kin who felt it was what he’d have wanted.” Anna wrote. “We are a community bound in grief and bonded in defiance.”
A saying from the Dalai Lama came frequently to mind as the race progressed and I watched the racers’ suffering and elation in turns.
Take into account that great love and great achievement involve great risk.
We all ride knowing the risk we take, but also knowing that the alternative would be a lifetime of cautious living, never rising to our greatest potential or achieving remarkable experiences and adventures. This year’s Transcontinental Race was always going to be marked by sadness, our grief at losing Mike was still very fresh, and the emotion around Frank extremely raw amongst the riders and race organisers.
Yet the loss of three of our own this year, Mike, Eric and Frank, has also been an ever present reminder to live our lives with passion, to strive for that which challenges us – whatever age we may be – and to embrace that which forces us to grow, cherishing those moments with family, with friends, and with the solitude and self-realisation that long-distance riding brings.