The difference a team makes: Solo but not alone

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We all know what a difference a team can make in cycling. You can benefit from it when you are out racing on the road, see it when you watch a dialled-in sprint train deliver a rider just to the right spot, or feel it as you nestle in the bunch on a training or recreational ride.

But it’s not so obvious with a team in a self-supported ride with one member of the squad out there at a time. Can a team really make a difference when you are riding unsupported and solo?

We spoke to the Melburn Durt across Australia relay team to find out.

When the details of the 2018 Indian Pacific Wheel Race were announced in October last year, there was one piece of news that changed the 5,500km event from a far-off “impossible” dream for one contingent of riders. It was now a dream that, with a small leap of faith, could be within their grasp.

The 2018 Indy Pace was going to have a relay team category. One where each rider was assigned a portion of the journey, breaking it down into easier-to-contemplate, bite-sized chunks. That said, the longest stretch – 2,800km which includes the Nullarbor Plain – was one chunk that would require an awful lot of chewing.

Still, it was enough to make it digestible for a group from supportive womens’ cycling community, Melburn Durt; a group that had been “dot-watchers” with a dream to maybe do something like this – one day. Now, with a team, that “one day” would become a reality in five short months.

First in was Elizabeth Long, a 40-year-old bike courier from Melbourne who put her hand up for the long, tough and remote Nullarbor leg and asked who else was up for the challenge. She’d done her fair share of bike touring, spent her work days on a laden bike, and wasn’t afraid to ride alone. But nonetheless, the scale of what she was taking on was daunting.

“When I watched it last year I thought there was no way I could do it. It was just amazing and incredible that these people could ride this distance, but I knew I couldn’t do it,” Long told Ella CyclingTips.

“And then when the relay option was announced I thought, ‘Oh, well maybe that’s something that I could do.’ I could get my head around the idea of training for such distances.”

Then it was 31-year-old Elise Gould, a PhD student who jumped in for the coastal Adelaide to Melbourne section. Twenty-eight-year-old bike shop manager Kate Fowler was roped in for the mountainous third leg from Melbourne to Canberra, and 29 year-old PhD student and research assistant Stefania Capogreco took on the final 500 kilometre sprint to the end at the Sydney Opera House.

Beyond turning the pedals

The initial reason to contemplate the ride as a team may have had a lot to do with the shorter distances, but as far as the benefits of a team go, the impact on the kilometres was just part of the story.

“Having a team can have a notable effect on mental preparation by creating norms that support mental toughness, giving it your all, holding each other accountable for training, and supporting one another through challenging times,” said Erin Ayala, health and sports psychologist, professor and researcher.

That mental toughness aspect is one that can’t be underestimated in ultra-endurance events; it is what experienced riders often point to as the key. Hundreds of kilometres, day after day on the bike. Inevitably it’s going to be necessary for your head to run intervention when every fibre of your body is telling you to stop.

“Athletes can visit some pretty dark places psychologically during these long endurance events,” Ayala added. “Athletes can be stripped down to raw emotion and vulnerability when pushing their bodies to the limit. The team approach can help … knowing they will all reach some dark places at some point and will help each other through them.”

And while most of the team members described some intense experiences that they had to grapple with during the ride, it was before they even got out on the road that the benefits of taking on the challenge together were really apparent.

Preparing for a solo adventure, together

They wrote their application together as a team which, Capogreco said, changed the dynamic from the very beginning. Seeing and talking about the other women’s biographies prompted her to reach deeper, intensify her consideration of the mental challenges they would face and the different issues they may need to grapple with as an all-female team.

“After we got accepted, we had team meetings, which was really just sitting around having your yarns at our house,” said Capogreco. “A lot of it was like ‘Ok, let’s write a list of what we don’t know.'”

Together they delegated tasks and sought out other women with the skills and experience they needed to fill in the gaps. They went about finding coaching assistance, appropriate equipment, and arranged to speak to top ultra-endurance racer Sarah Hammond, who has been an active player in encouraging more women to shift into the sport.

Having received advice about what they needed to do, they ramped up their training. There were intense efforts they could squeeze in during the week, spin classes and then those long rides on the weekend. Rides where they got used to the distances and backing up after a long day by doing another.

The riders did some training together but much of it individually. However they looked to the experiences of the others for inspiration, for motivation to keep up their own riding, and for advice and encouragement along the way.

“Social accountability goes a long way, both for training and racing. It’s harder to call it quits when you know you’re working for others in addition to yourself,” said Dr Ayala.

In fact more than one of the riders expressed that there was some doubt that they would have even made it to the start line without the commitment to the squad around them.

“In that four or five months or so from the first application to actually doing it I nearly pulled out for different reasons more than once,” said Fowler, who is no stranger to bike touring, having completed a tough trip to Iceland last year. “There was a bit of an emotional tug-of-war going on. But being part of the team definitely was one of the reasons that stopped me, because I didn’t want to let the team down.”

For another rider, the team was necessary to get them contemplating the challenge, but once they’d made that initial step they realised they could do even more.

“When the relay option was announced I could get my head around the idea of training for such distances,” said Long. “But then once I’d started the actual training for it I realised that if I can ride 2,800 kilometres, then I can ride 5,500 kilometres.

“It just seems so insurmountable when you look at the whole mountain. But if you break it down to small steps it becomes doable and the relay option was basically just breaking it down into those smaller steps.”

Long now knew she wanted to do the lot, but as she had entered as part of the team, that wasn’t an option in 2018. At least not until the announcement in early February that the official Indian Pacific Wheel Race had been cancelled. It meant that the rules were gone and all possibilities were on the table. There was now nothing stopping her fulfilling her commitment to the team by doing the first leg, and then continuing on to do the rest as well.

The Journey

2017 Indian Pacific Wheel Race route map.

Fremantle to Adelaide: Long and remote with soul destroying headwinds
Long may have been quick to put her hand up for the remote stretch across the Nullarbor Plain which comprised over half the route, but she knew it wasn’t going to be easy. There were hundreds of kilometres between resupply stops, the extreme isolation and unrelenting monotony of the long straight road, and also some wicked headwinds.

“That first week riding across the Nullarbor I was thinking ‘I can’t do this. It’s horrible. I hate it.’ It was just such a battle,” said Long. “Five days of headwinds and I was really struggling to adjust to the fatigue … I was physically just so tired and wanted to sleep all the time.”
“I thought ‘Why did I say I could do the whole thing? I don’t want to go past Adelaide. I don’t even think I can make it to Adelaide.’ But then by the time I got to Adelaide I had found my legs and I was having a wild time,” said Long, who just days after finishing was already missing the single-minded life on the road.

Adelaide to Melbourne: Coastal catharsis
Gould took over the baton from Long for the 1,000 kilometre coastal leg from Adelaide to Melbourne, but with Long having decided to continue on, they experienced a shift in dynamics. They were still teammates but now they were also competitors.

“At Victoria Square in Adelaide she (Long) was like ‘Right. Game on. Race you there,’” said Gould. “But that was really nice as well … I think when you are competitive that can bring out the best in yourself and in others and we really egged each other on.”

Not that it was always easy to keep going. The combined impact of headwinds, a loaded bike and inflamed joints took their toll. There was a time when Gould’s problems with a hip meant she was grinding along one-legged, in the middle of nowhere, screaming with pain.

“All the training that I’d done … had really taught me how to kind of push through that pain and to be familiar with it,” said Gould matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t necessary to fight it but just to sit with it and be aware that I’ve felt this pain before I can keep going, that I’ve got this.”

But the rewards were there too, like riding the Great Ocean Road with the full moon bringing the ocean to life with shimmering light. “That was just a beautiful moment of self-reflection and contemplation. In that moment I just felt very very glad to be alive and to, you know, be so lucky to do something like this and to ride my bike.”

Melbourne to Canberra: Climbs forever
The 1,200 kilometre section through the climbs of Victoria and New South Wales undoubtedly presented more than the odd challenge, with climbs most cyclists consider brutal … even when they aren’t loaded up and already carrying the impact of hundreds of kilometres in their legs.

But for Fowler, getting to the start line was the biggest battle. Once she was there the doubts disappeared and all the preparation paid off.

“The ride itself was the easy part. I actually really enjoyed my ride. Physically it was hard but I found a lot of my training rides a lot tougher,” said Fowler. “Once I was out there I didn’t feel scared or worried about anything. It was just thinking about how I needed to manage myself over the hours ahead.

“Being in the middle of it and getting all these messages from dot-watchers and seeing people on the road, just really lifted my spirits,” Fowler added.

Canberra to Sydney: The final sprint
It may have been the shortest leg, one that in relative terms seemed like a sprint, but there was still about 500 kilometres in that final stretch from Canberra to Sydney.

“Kate turned up at 8:30ish at Canberra and she was bloody exhausted … I rode her through the city along the route and then when it was my turn to go I just went for it,” said Capogreco. “I was looking at the speed the other girls were pushing and … I was trying to go along with the Melburn Durt speed.

“It felt really freeing to just be out there and actually finally doing it.”

Freeing, but not without difficulty. First there was the rain, roadworks and a slipped seat post that was faulty; one which, ultimately, a trail angel helped remedy. Then the final relay team rider, who had decided to ditch the sleeping gear in favour of staying in a motel, turned up to where she had called ahead to get accomodation late that night to find there was no key left out as promised. This ended with a bit of backtracking and a short and chilly night dossing down under an emergency blanket in a helpful family’s canopy.

Regardless, Capogreco kept the pace up, doing the final leg in 28 hours, and the Melburn Durt relay team rolled into the Sydney Opera House on April 7, three weeks after they started. Long, who had arrived earlier in the day before was there to greet and shepherd an exhausted Capogreco to the finish line.

“It was just really surreal … we all went to this having never done anything like it before and we made it,” said Capogreco.

Making the impossible, possible

All of the team members talked with passion about what they took away from the experience – an experience they were unlikely to have taken on without the support of a team around them.

Long seems to have found her niche and is looking ahead to her next ultra-endurance adventure. The bicycle courier is now a firm believer that the biggest barrier to people taking on ultra-endurance rides is not the ability to do it, but the propensity to believe they can’t.

“If anyone had any little idea that they might want to do it, then they should just bloody do it,” said Long. “Anyone can do it … I’m not superhuman. There is really nothing that makes me any anything special. I just decided I wanted to do it and that was that was all it took.”

Capogreco gained a renewed appreciation for the power of committing to something and then just dealing with those niggling doubts later, but not letting them stop you.

For Fowler it’s been a bit of a revelation to see how much an outlook can change in a few short months. “Going from thinking ‘No I can’t do this, I just can’t’ … to getting through and looking back with the feeling that the ride itself was actually the easy part. I wish I could go back and say to myself of four months ago ‘You’ve got this. It’s going to be fine.'”

And for Gould, who powered through her leg more quickly than she had thought was possible, the ride and her cycling journey has been nothing short of transformative.

“I’ve been having a bit of a rough time … and it’s difficult to articulate but I just knew that if I did this I could overcome any challenge in life really,” said Gould, with the emotion clearly welling. “I now know I can push through those difficult and dark times. I’m going to carry this with me always. It has changed my self perception.

“This was just unimaginable to me a couple of years ago. I was 20 kilograms heavier and I didn’t conceive of myself as a cyclist even; it was just something that I did occasionally for fun and to commute. Now it is just such an integral part of who I am and it’s my community as well.

“It’s been a really wonderful thing.”

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