Photo gallery: A turbulent journey of self-discovery at the Race to the Rock

by Matt de Neef


On September 1, I set out to ride my bicycle from the south of Tasmania to Uluru — a 3,500km, off-road, unsupported adventure, as part of Race to the Rock. Why? Well, I’m not totally sure. I guess it was to set a huge challenge for myself, face fears of isolation, and to try what seemed almost impossible.

Just getting to the start line was hard enough. Cockles Creek in Tasmania is home to Australia’s southernmost road. There’s not much there — the closest accommodation or basic service is 20 kilometres away. If you’ve forgotten something, there’s no popping down to the local Coles. Being unsupported, you’ve got to pack your bike and ready yourself to be self-sufficient for the whole journey. No support cars, no food drops, and in the spirit of the race, no external help from friends, families or followers of the race.

While the race officially started at 6.23am on September 1 2018, prep for the task was long and mind-boggling. It’s the first time I’ve done anything like this – I’m no bikepacker or hard-out adventurer. Most people who tackle these events are either very bearded or very experienced, or both, so who was I to do this? I was stupid enough to announce my intentions publicly, so that was it — I had seven months to work it out.

The final four months leading into the race were super intense; working two jobs — Curve Cycling, which is already super demanding, and teaching at RMIT University a couple nights a week — plus I’ve got a young family of four, a social life, blah blah blah. I needed to train, to prepare physically and mentally, and to gather up all the equipment I needed to make it happen.

Well, I managed, and in some respects, the intensity and running myself down became part of the training. I wanted to get to Uluru in two weeks, which equated to 250 kilometres a day. That’s off-road which, at an average of 15kph, equates to 16-17 hours of actual riding a day. And then you’ve got to sleep and eat – and boy do you need to eat!

So I figured that I needed to stress myself and just fit it all in, get less sleep and ride more. I managed to increase my weekly “kay-count” through the year and work on my core strength, which would help my body cope with being on the bike for 16 hours a day. Then, finally, it was about getting in the bigger, longer rides.

Equipment got sorted too. The self-supported pack list is long and expensive lightweight gear is needed. A picklist from endurance cycling legend and my business partner, Jesse Carlsson, helped a bunch. Being part of Curve I’m lucky to be surrounded by some pretty experienced peeps. But even if I wasn’t, the cycling adventure community is a very sharing mob and everyone seems so happy to share their experiences.

Twenty other “racers” opted to take part in Race to the Rock, half of them doing the 500km Tassie entree leg — just 10 racers attempting the whole 3,500km course. One of them was Sarah Hammond, one the best ultra-endurance cyclists in the world, and the undefeated queen of Race to the Rock, winner in both 2016 and 2017. At least three other starters had completed the 5,500km Indian Pacific Wheel Race and another had finished last year’s Race to the Rock. I definitely felt like the newbie.

All was ready. Or was it? I was still utterly shitting myself. I’ve looked back on videos from just before the race, and boy can you see the fear in my eyes. The fear of what was to come – the unknown. I’d never ridden 12-hour days more than two days in a row. How would my body cope? How would I cope with the isolation? Could I camp on a 5mm, 10-gram foam mat in a space-age sack in the middle of nowhere, or in a disabled toilet? How much would I miss my family? Would I actually race it? Would my gooch be OK?

Those more experienced than I spoke about how it all tends to sort itself out when you start — you’re riding, you’re happy, and you just get on with the job. I didn’t exactly feel this when I was leaving.

Grand departure was at 6.23am after a minute’s silence for Mike Hall. Day one was spent battling cold Tassie showers, and our 20-kilometre, 5am commute to the start line was done in pouring rain. My gloves were already wet and had “failed” before we even left. Argh!

Tassie was always going to be a tough leg with 500 kilometers, 10,000+ vertical metres of climbing, snow, gaps in services, and restricted shop opening hours. Most racers were aiming to get the ferry to Melbourne at 7:30pm on Sunday night – just 37 hours after we started. It was a bloody tall ask and I liked the idea of it. But planes left pretty regularly out of Devonport too. The rule was that we had to use a commercially available service. It would be a case of one hour in the air versus 11 hours overnight on the ferry.

Some 170km in and I had my first real decision to make. It was dark and wet, and I was nearing the first real town on course, Maydena. It was just there, calling me in for some comfort and rest. Should I stop, or push on another 70km in the dark to Ouse? I called ahead to the Ouse pub. “Howdy, I’ll be late, but I need a room and some food please. Can you please make me some food and leave it for me?”. While the publican agreed, she put the fear in me, and gave me a stern warning about weather and snow and a front coming through. Yikes.

But I decided to push on. It was a good decision that set the tone for my race. I’d ride 240km+ for the day. Forget about the ferry — I knew I could make that 6.30am plane on Monday morning.

It was bloody hard riding through Melbourne on day 3. I was only on about 1.5 hours of sleep, the route was so close to home, and all the fears of what was to come started to resurface. It was like starting again, but I knew I could get to Daylesford. I knew I could then get to Bendigo, and then I had a target in the Mallee, where some of my wife’s family lived. And that’s what it became all about – breaking down this massive ride into smaller chunks.

I got a little excited riding out of Melbourne, pushing through the night to get stuck in no man’s land. I was tired and got some rest, but it wasn’t really enough — my rookie error put me into a sleep deficit that I had to catch up on.

It wasn’t until about four or five days in that things had finally settled down and I became accustomed to it all. I worked out better rest patterns, and I learned that the race wasn’t only about riding, but also preservation. My focus narrowed down to the next town, and having enough food and water to get there.

My body was coping OK. I had a tight achilles and my knees got a little achy when I rested, but I still had feeling in my hands and my gooch was going OK. Bonza! I put it down to loads of “bike yoga” — stretches and exercises while riding to encourage blood flow to the hands, and stretching out calves, hammies and whatever else I could to help my body ease into long days in the saddle.

What a course Jesse Carlsson came up with. It was a finely tuned balance between beauty and brutality — only a mind as brilliant as Jesse’s could conjure up something so … perfect. Amazingly, it doesn’t matter if you ride the whole lot, or chunk off certain sections at your own leisure, but what is for certain is the route should be enjoyed by all. I’d highly recommend going out and doing 50, 100 or 200km of it.

The whole course was designed in stages to test us. Tassie set the tone: “This is gonna be bloody tough. Expect anything, like bush-bashing through thick shrub.” The further we got into the race, the more remote it was. The route was screaming “You’re attempting to ride into the remote centre of Australia, dickhead — you’d better be prepared”.

But with every test of endurance, there came a massive reward. Like riding through the night to “meet” Oppy (the statue in Sir Hubert Opperman’s home town of Rochester) or the bog and mozzies of Cohuna met with the beauty of the Murray River. Or the deep sands in the Mallee which led to the the characters of Hattah roadhouse and then the serenity of Murray Sunset National Park.

The 312 kilometre gap from Renmark to Yunta delivered a day of frustration and big headwinds, that then led to the beauty of the Flinders Ranges. The flat starkness and unforgiving winds beyond Flinders presented iconic little towns like Marree and Oodnadatta, and a surprisingly changing and beautiful landscape.

When I set out to the Rock, I wanted to rid myself of fears of doing it alone and sleeping “rough”, and challenge myself to see if I could “adventure” with the best of them. So being competitive with Sarah Hammond was a bloody nice surprise. With under a 1,000 kilometres to go, I was so happy. I could taste the end. Two more hard days and I’d be at the Rock.

I was in the process of working out my last big push. Could I beat Sarah to the Rock? The chance was small, but it was there. But then, in what felt like 20 minutes — at kilometre 2,755 — it all came to grinding halt.

With 11 kilometres to Oodnadatta, at about 9.30pm, I lost all drive to my rear cassette. I opened up my freehub to find the bearing and end caps chewed down to nothing. I pulled out my bivy and retired for the night.

Next morning I was hit by the realisation of defeat but I held onto some small hope that my bike could be fixed in Oodnadatta. I hit the “I am ok, but come help me” button on my SPOT tracker to alert my wife. Man it was hard pressing that button. I didn’t realise at the time that it also alerted all dot-watchers and caused a ruckus. My wife spoke to the awesome Aaron from Oodnadatta police, and 30 minutes later he came for me and took me into town in the chariot of shame.

Unfortunately the bush mechanic couldn’t help. I managed a dodgy fixed-gear bike remedy, by zip-tying the cassette to the spokes, and fuck — I almost went out there. I just didn’t want it to end. But after a very teary phone call to Jesse I accepted my fate. My race was over and maybe it was not the best idea to head out into the most remote part of the race with zip ties holding my bike together.

It all came down to one little spring in my freehub. I must have inserted it the wrong way around over 3,000km earlier while setting up my bike, and this little oversight ended my race prematurely.

My race may have ended, but my drive to get to the Rock, to see my family and Sarah, was strong. I was lucky enough to be in the right place and time to hitch a ride in a road-train across the desert, back to Coober Pedy and experience the desert from a completely different perspective.

Coober Pedy is a funny old place — a bustling town of action. I got a beer, a steak and chips, and a dodgy red wine. I got to shower, clean my clothes and to see my body in a mirror. Yep, I had definitely lost some weight.

I headed to the Greyhound stop and took a 300km coach ride north towards Alice Springs where the course crossed the highway at Kulgera, Northern Territory. David and Jason from NorthSouth were around there somewhere, filming and documenting the Race to the Rock, following Sarah, but also probably looking for me. I was hoping to intercept them and intercept Sarah. There’s little to no reception out of town, so who knew where they were? It was pot luck.

It’s amazing who you find in these adventures. My coach driver was a cyclist, a Tassie road rider who shared his stories of winning club races in his younger days, lamenting on what could have been if he went to Europe. As we rolled into our breakfast stop at the Marla roadhouse, all of us passengers were subjected to a police lineup where a sniffer dog went around us all in search of marijuana and alcohol. Sadly it would seem that alcohol is a problem in some of the remote communities up north.

But there they were, David and Jason from NorthSouth. Over runs David, camera in hand, screaming “What are you doing here?! What the fuck happened to you?!” I had found them. It was time to cram the three of us into “old yella”, the borrowed and beat-up Toyota Landcruiser that miraculously followed the whole race. We turned up the tunes and started hunting Sarah down.

I really needed to congratulate and connect with her. While I never really saw her, she was always out there with me — she shared what I was going through. She might even have been wondering why I wasn’t chasing her anymore. We caught Sarah out on course with about 300km to go. The hug we shared was something else — it’ll stay with me forever.

Boy, I felt so guilty jumping back into “old yella” while watching Sarah pedal. We kicked on, aiming for the Rock. I also aimed for the fastest flight home, but first I had to make sure Sarah was looked after. I made her a winner’s care package for her to enjoy as she came across the line: some mineral water, beer, and some dodgy tourist attire as a memento.

It really is something else when you first see the Rock — “photos just don’t do it justice’ is a cliche but it certainly rings true. Uluru is the heart of this great land, and while I hadn’t exactly intended to arrive by car, it was an amazing journey nonetheless.

Image: Stuart Edwards/Wikimedia Commons

And it’s a journey that continues on. While Uluru was the destination, during the race I realised that my goal lies well beyond the Rock. One race and one adventure does not define a person. In many ways, a race like this mimics life: ups, downs, hardships, challenges and an acceptance of what’s happening to you at any given moment. You are either enjoying it or figuring out a way to make it better for yourself.

But the main difference is that life never really ends (beyond the obvious), and our lifelong journey continues on. For me, my rock and my heart lies with my family, my lust for life, for challenging myself, and making sure that life is always an adventure. I am lucky enough to be surrounded by amazing people, but hopefully we all are. I would encourage everyone to get out there and seek their “Rock” and also to remember: when you get there — or even if you don’t — life doesn’t really end there.

So yes, Race to the Rock changed me. Yes, I am recovering well. Yes, I am a little sad for not making it. But, yes I am proud of what I achieved. What’s next? Have fun until the next adventure.

Thanks and acknowledgements

Firstly a huge thanks to Jesse Carlsson for being the inspiration and the mastermind behind Race to the Rock. Thanks to my crew and my riding inspirations, like Sarah, Kate and Rhino and of course my Curvies, Stevo, Liam and Jimmy. Thanks to all the racers — now we all share a little special something together. Thanks for egging each other on. Thanks to the “dot-watchers” who came on my ride with me. People seemed to want to share my story because “I was doing something”. I hope that soon I can share your story too.
 
Thanks to the landowners, traditional and new. We are all tied to a land of such vast beauty and history and we should all understand and acknowledge all of its history — invasions, massacres, triumphs, and all. Thanks to all those that allowed me access to this land.
 
And of course, thanks to my family, in particular to my superhuman wife Claire. You got me so far on this journey and then, even better, you got me home.

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