WHY WOULD anybody decide to spend weeks riding a bike all the way from one side of Australia to the other, risking life, limb and sanity? Chief writer RON REED looks on in admiration as an old mate sets out to discover whether he is capable of conquering half a century of self-doubt:
RUPERT Guinness, an acclaimed sportswriter and cycling aficionado, has always struck me as a socially relaxed, adventurous and gregarious character who has been extremely successful in his chosen vocation. I still don’t think I’m wrong about these impressions, formed largely from having travelled not exactly with him, but in his slipstream, during several (for me) visits to the world’s greatest bike race, the Tour de France, an event he hasn’t missed for more than 20 years. He has an award from the organisers of Le Tour to not only prove that, but to thank him for it. Among Australia’s professional cyclists and coaches, he is regarded as a legend, the only journalist to specialise in cycling, over and above all other sports, for the mainstream print media in Australia. He has done that for more than 30 years.
So when I started reading the 16th book he has written about the sport he loves so much, Overlander, recently published by Simon and Schuster, I was surprised to come across a confession – perhaps revelation is a better word – that since childhood he has been plagued with insecurity and issues of body image and self-esteem, always feeling the need to prove himself and eventually succumbing to the psychological eating disorder bulimia. That doesn’t sound like the Rupert Guinness I know, the affable bloke usually wearing a loud Hawaiian shirt and often clutching a glass of rose wine, always up for a chat.
He tells us this by way of explaining why he was captivated the moment he read about plans for one of the most challenging endurance events ever attempted in Australia, a 5,470km bike race from Perth to Sydney to be known as the IndiPac, a contraction of the two mighty oceans on either side of the continent. To be staged in 2017, it represented a massive challenge for anyone, especially for someone on the wrong side of 50, as Guinness was by half a decade. But for some primeval reason it beckoned irresistibly. “Something inside me wants to be stripped bare – emotionally and physically – by such an epic challenge,” he writes, elaborating that he had never been much chop at ball games on confined fields – rugby an exception to a reasonable extent — and so endurance sports had always fascinated him, especially those conducted in the open spaces on land and on water. That’s why he had embraced rowing, cycling, triathlons, surfing and crewed on the Sydney-Hobart yacht race. He even competed in the gruelling Hawaiian Iron Man. He wanted to tackle the IndiPac not because he could, but because he didn’t know whether he could. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to find out what he was made of, even if his wife Libby was deeply apprehensive about what he was letting himself in for. He had read, and written himself, about the pioneers of long-distance cycling in Australia a century or more ago, including the legendary Sir Hubert Opperman, and was inspired by them – the original Overlanders.
The bulk of his book is a day-by-day diary from the moment the event’s 70 entrants set off in March last year from Fremantle bound for Adelaide, Melbourne, the Victorian Alps, Kosciuszko National Park, Canberra and on to Sydney, finishing, hopefully, at the Opera House two, three or maybe even four weeks later. Guinness, who is a talented wordsmith, expertly describes the long, lonely, exhausting and dangerous days as the vast and unforgiving Nullarbor Plain envelops him. No assistance is permitted, making it a complex logistical exercise as well as a leap into the unknown, in mind and body. There are many issues. Punctures. Nutrition. Navigation. Clothing. Communication. Weather. Wildlife. Other road users, including huge trucks. Even after-dark glimpses of what he thinks are piles of animal droppings only to be told later that they are curled-up death adders warming themselves on the road. Rookie errors multiply, including losing his phone with all the vital information it contains. Progress is both agonising and exhilarating, harrowing and uplifting. Sleep, usually for just a few short hours, is a more prized commodity than it has ever been before, never has an evening beer or a simple hamburger with the lot tasted so good. Stints in the saddle sometimes stretch to double-figure hour counts.
Eventually, having fallen many hours behind the race leaders but still ahead of some, Guinness reaches Adelaide, more or less halfway, and is jubilant to have made it that far. But not for long. His brave new world comes crashing down around him when he is told that many, many kilometres ahead, near Canberra, a much-admired fellow competitor, Englishman Mike Hall, has been hit by a car and killed. Even before the race is officially called off because of it, a tearful, shattered Guinness is heading for the airport and home. This, sadly, is the end of the road, mission unaccomplished. Or is it?
If at first you don’t succeed at such a daunting assignment, is there still the time, the opportunity and the willpower to turn this tragedy into triumph and discover, finally, what you’re really made of?
Twelve months later, that question acquires an answer – and it is inspirational.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.