Race to the Rock 2017: Following the dots from Albany to Uluru

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On Saturday morning, at 6:22am Perth time, Race to the Rock riders will set out from Western Australia’s oldest settlement, Albany, and attempt to work their way over remote tracks and outback roads to Uluru in central Australia.

To reach the iconic outback landmark they will have to ride 3,000 kilometres, completely unsupported, in whatever weather conditions happen to be thrown their way in the second running of the ultra-endurance adventure race.

Riders will all be following the same route but as much camaraderie as there may be between the riders, there is no question this is an individual journey. It is a journey where the strongest riders will be pushing themselves to their mental and physical limits to make it to the end before the others.

There is no hand-holding in this race — rather, it’s been described as a do-it-yourself adventure that all the racers just happen to be doing at the same time. The aim is to harness the spirit of self-sufficiency and adventure that drove the Overlanders to explore the nation on two wheels. There will be stretches of up to 400 kilometres without supplies, patchy phone reception, and the ever-present possibility that anything from floods to fire could cut off the route.

The extreme conditions are why, after hundreds of messages from potential competitors, chief instigator Jesse Carlsson introduced a round of hurdles to the sign-up process this year, strongly discouraging riders from entering. In fact he flat-out told them not to. In the end he ignored his own advice, as did seven other riders.

The challenges in the entry process along the way included intentionally vague contact information and a comical entry fee, equivalent to the price of a kilo of broccoli in the rider’s home town. However, there were also more practical measures, such as an envelope of a small amount of cash to be given back to riders at the start point to ensure they weren’t heading into remote territory just relying on a card.

It seems fitting to add some unknowns to the entry process for one of the toughest challenges in an unrelentingly difficult sport. You only have to look to the difficulties faced last year to realise that those without deep determination, commitment, and an ability to cope when things don’t run to plan, aren’t going to have a hope.

Sarah Hammond ended up winning last year’s race, which was an unrelentingly tough slog after heavy rain made for long sections of unrideable clay-like mud. It also delivered flood waters that stopped all competitors behind her.

Catch up on the events of 2016 with last year’s race documentary.

The Route

The route for 2017 approaches Uluru from the west, rather than the south like last year. It starts in Western Australia’s Albany and can be broken down into three main sections. The first is the 1,000km-long Munda Biddi Trail which travels through the bushland and small country towns of southern Western Australia, ending at Mundaring, north east of Perth.

From there the riders will switch to remote roads as they head to the goldfields region of Western Australia. From about a third of the way through this section, when competitors are no longer skirting the Great Eastern Highway, they will really need to be on the ball in terms of supplies and timing their journey.

This is when it starts to get really remote and locations for restocking are few and far between. Limited store opening hours also add an extra degree of difficulty.

Once riders reach Laverton and the Great Central Road they are two-thirds of the way through the race. The town, named after Dr Charles Laver who travelled the outback by bike to treat people in remote communities, is where the rider are really launching into the heart of the dry interior. They will be travelling on mostly unsealed roads, replete with sandy sections, through Aboriginal land which they need permits to cross.

The way the race instigators summarise this section is: “Good weather conditions could bring some very fast racing, however heavy rain can cause road closures and some difficult days hiking through mud.”

It is estimated that the lead rider could make it to the line in as little as nine days if conditions are good, but that is always a very big “if”.

The riders

A race where only eight riders are entered may seem like a bit of a bust as far as most organisers are concerned. But reducing the hundreds who got in touch to just a handful was always the plan for Carlsson. In fact the numbers may have been a little bit more plentiful than he was hoping.

The eight riders that did manage to get through all the hurdles are Adam Rosza, Fernando de Andrade, Jules Noton, Nicholas Skewes, James Deck, Kevin Benkenstein, last year’s winner Hammond and chief instigator Carlsson. The inherent unpredictability of this type of race makes it hard to pick a winner but there are definitely three names to highlight:

Sarah Hammond

An obvious contender is, of course, last year’s winner. Hammond certainly hasn’t had as much time to put into preparation as she would have liked, so is inclined to downplay her chances. “My goals are the same as everyone else’s — to reach the finish line, bike and parts of my sanity still intact,” said Hammond in a post on the Race to the Rock Facebook page.

But as much as she hasn’t had an ideal run-in, anyone who has watched her rapid ascension in the world of self-supported ultra-endurance racing world knows it would be foolish to underestimate what the race’s sole female is capable of. Her preparation wasn’t ideal last year either, with her body still recovering from her first ultra-endurance race — the 7,000-kilometre Trans Am.

But ahead of Race to the Rock she realised there wasn’t a single female entrant and decided she’d better make it so there was at least one. So with a last-minute decision and minimal mountain bike experience she set out to take on the race and, well, you know what happened next.

Kevin Benkenstein

There is no doubt that this 31-year-old South African rider knows how to push his body on the bike. He’s an experienced rider who last year strung together three Everestings – riding towards a cumulative elevation gain of 8,848 metres in one session on one single climb – to raise money for Qhubeka, an organisation that uses bicycles to move communities forward. He is also raising money for the charity this time.

“Race to the Rock frightens me in the purest of ways,” Benkenstein said in an interesting pre-race post, revealingly sub-titled “Preparing for the challenge of a lifetime“. “It is a challenge of body, bike and most of all mind that will push each and every one of us on the start line to the limit.”

Benkenstein also has a habit of posting stunning images from his rides so it is well worth casting an eye over his Instagram page. You can also find out more about his reasons for doing the ride in the video below:

Jesse Carlsson

The expectation heading into the first Race to the Rock was that everyone would be chasing Carlsson. It certainly started out that way, but then the winner of the 2015 Trans Am had a fall that left him with a broken wrist and he had to abandon the race that he created. Expect the skilled rider with a BMX past to head right out the front again this year, particularly given the race starts on the mountain-bike-friendly Munda Biddi trail.

A relaxed Carlsson talks about the opportunity to go off and just ride his bike for a couple of weeks in this Race to the Rock Raw video:

How to Follow

The riders will be tracked in real time so click here to see them moving their way across the map. If you would like to find more on social media check out #racetotherock, the Race to the Rock Facebook page, and Instagram. There’s a great variety of Race to the Rock Raw videos on the Curve YouTube page and you will also be able to find updates in the CyclingTips Daily News Digest.

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