Why the IndiPac spirit is stronger than ever despite the race’s cancellation

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Everyone knows the Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IPWR) story by now. The brainchild of Jesse Carlsson, the ‘IndiPac’ was designed to reanimate the Australian Overlander spirit and celebrate cycling in one of its purest forms – just the person, the bicycle, and the road. Self-sufficiency, simplicity, and freedom.

Last year’s inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race captured the attention and imagination of a great many and a huge amount of positive interest emerged around the event. This was tainted after the tragedy of Mike Hall’s death in an accident involving a motor vehicle on the outskirts of Canberra.

Now, nearly a year since Hall’s untimely demise in the 2017 IPWR, it is still having an impact.

The as-yet-undetermined circumstances around Mike Hall’s death, the approaching ACT Coroner’s investigation, and related questions about road cycling safety have forced the cancellation of the 2018 IndiPac. This certainly forms an important part of the IPWR story. But that is not the only story around this event. Not by a country mile.

Something much more positive, and possibly more significant, is emerging.

Barely hours after the official announcement of the 2018 IndiPac’s cancellation, people whose registrations had been accepted for the planned event took to social media to confirm they would ride the course anyway – not to necessarily race it to win, or for glory, but simply to ride.

A new GPS tracker map page was also made for the course which, to date, has 32 riders registered (from the 66 individual riders and 28 people across seven teams that were part of the official race roster).

There are also others from the 2018 IPWR roster who intend to start riding from Fremantle in March as planned, but will use their own GPS tracking arrangements. It is also likely some of the applicants who weren’t selected for the approved official roster, and possibly others, will turn up in March and ride too.

So, the IndiPac spirit lives on. But now, perhaps more so than ever, it really is a do-it-yourself adventure ride across Australia.

Of course, the individual reasons driving those who will ride out of Fremantle bound for Sydney on March 17 will vary. But, judging by the reactions of some of those riders, it appears the IndiPac story is shifting away from the previous focus on the Mike Hall tragedy and the perceived risks of ultra-endurance cycling across Australia’s open roads.

The cloud that has hung over this type of riding in Australia could be lifting.

Take Rupert Guinness, for example. The well-known cycling journalist and author, who rode the IndiPac in 2017, sees a wider relevance to this type of cycling.

“There is something about it which is taking us back to pure cycling,” he said. “I just really love this genre of cycling, because it helps me to re-attach to what I love about cycling … just the simplicity of riding out in the environment on your own, looking after yourself.”

And there’s a growing community element too. One member of the Melburn Durt all-women’s team that was entered for the relay ride option had this to say in their interview with Melbourne radio station 3CR on Monday:

“It really doesn’t change anything, the fact that Jesse has stepped down,” she said. “I’m still just going to continue the race, and I imagine a lot of people will. The whole community that he’s created, this beast he’s created, is just going to carry itself.

“It doesn’t need him pushing anybody to watch the ride; it doesn’t need him constantly trying to promote the ride anymore. It’s sort of got a life of its own now.”

The potential community impact of this year’s ride is not lost on the people closest to the IndiPac 2017 event organisers either. Ryan Flinn, a co-director with Carlsson at Curve Cycling, believes a big opportunity exists for the riders starting in Fremantle this year “to generate a lot of good will and faith in this type of cycling.”

Flinn, who is starting his own ‘long ride’ towards Sydney in mid-March, hopes the rides that happen this year might help shift the ‘us and them’ perception he believes exists now amongst different road user groups.

“Once you remove the helmet and the lycra, we’re all just people … ordinary people that have day jobs,” Flinn said. “Like last year, there’ll be a lot of spectators and dot-watchers that are inspired by this type of event … it was something that was taken up by non-cyclists and cyclists, and was really nice to see.”

Rupert Guinness agrees.

“It is quite phenomenal, this coincidentally collective voice, saying this is something that all these individuals want to do,” he said about the large group going ahead with their 2018 rides. “This year could possibly create more discussion about it, beyond just the cycling media, and in general media too.”

Indeed, it is possible that the riders who roll out of Fremantle at 6:22am on March 17 (the time of day Mike Hall’s GPS tracker stopped) could unwittingly be starting something that surpasses anything a formal ultra-endurance cycling race could ever achieve.

Think about it for a moment. The IndiPac has been officially cancelled this year. The riders are no longer racing across the country to the Sydney finish line. Now, instead of a roster of teams and individual ultra-endurance cycling athletes pushing themselves to and beyond their physical and mental limits, you’ve simply got a group of passionate people determined to complete a very long ride across Australia.

The idea of ordinary everyday people attempting such a ride, and not the best ultra-cycling athletes racing each other to the limit, could potentially be a more compelling story – a narrative that a lot more people may be able identify with, cyclists or not.

This time around there is the still the spectacle of the obvious physical and mental challenge of riding 5,500km across some of Australia’s toughest country. And no doubt scores of spectators (‘dot watchers’ as they have been dubbed) will be eagerly following the rider’s progress across the country from their computer screens and the roadside.

And now, without the focus on the ride as a race, we may also be able to identify with the bigger things that motivate the riders continuing this year despite the official cancellation.

Riders like Ryan Vecht, the 41-year-old A-grade racer and father of two from Melbourne’s west, who has set up a GoFundMe page for his ride to raise funds for the McGrath Foundation.

“I’ve got two very close friends who have breast cancer, and when you look at them and what they’re going through and their dedication to just getting on with it, and the hurdles they’re facing, I just thought if they can do it then why not ride … sort of do it for them,” he said.

For others, the March 17 Fremantle sunrise will signal the beginning of a personal challenge, a step outside of the comfort zone, a break from the monotony of work, an amazing adventure, unfinished business … and a whole lot more besides.

But there is disappointment and frustration too, felt by some of the riders who were planning to race the IPWR in 2018.

Heath Ryan is one such rider. The 54-year-old veteran of last year’s IndiPac has mixed feelings.

“I think it will be a more relaxed atmosphere this year … but it won’t be the same event as last year,” he said. “It doesn’t count for much anymore. The results aren’t going to go on the website.

“A lot of us who did it last year and had it cancelled have said there’s unfinished business. We’d like to complete the race as a race, and do our best … deal with the unforeseen, deal with the weather, deal with mechanicals and have a chance to complete what we didn’t complete last year.”

At this stage, he will be heading to Perth in March to do some sort of ride anyway.

“I’m reviewing options for where I ride,” Ryan said. “I know the organisers wanted this to be a route that people use … but I’m probably going to get my own tracker and ride my own route – the route that Hubert Opperman rode in 1937.”

Many words have already been written about the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, and many more will follow as the story continues to unfold.

But perhaps the most important thing written so far came (ironically) in Jesse Carlsson’s cancellation statement last week, in the four little words he ended with.

“Live because you can.”

A simple yet powerful message, and one that is hard to argue with.

About the author

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

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