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Rupert Guinness

‘Something inside me wants to be stripped bare – emotionally and physically – by such an epic challenge.'

Veteran sports journalist Rupert Guinness made a name for himself reporting on the Tour de France, a race which he has covered for three decades. But last year, Guinness undertook an athletic challenge of a very different ilk on home soil: the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. It’s a cross-country slog where competitors must ride completely unassisted from Fremantle in WA to the steps of the Sydney Opera House; a race not so much about victory as survival. We asked Rupert about the historic group of cyclists that inspired this epic undertaking, his grueling and at times tragic trip across Australia, and the fascinating book he has released this month about the race, Overlander.

(Image by Troy Bailey)

What possesses a man to race 5000 kilometres across the arid, vast landscape of Australia? 

Too many things to list right now, but ostensibly it was an adventure that came to me by chance – through me having written a chapter about the Overlander riders of the late 1890s in another book I have written on the history of Australian cycling (Power of the Pedal: The Story of Australian Cycling) that is out in October and being inspired by the chance to experience a little of what they endured; and then my own sense of adventure, to challenge myself like I had never done before and see if I had what it takes to finish.

What was it about the group of pioneering cyclists, the ‘Overlanders’ that intrigued you so much?

The Overlanders were a unique breed, and all of them were driven by varying motivations, unlike today’s world of sports where all that matters is victory. What they had in common though was this sense of daring, a willingness to not just take on massive challenges that ranged from riding across and around Australia but to many other destinations in point to point riders, but also to risk everything by pedalling off into the unknown of an Australia that had yet to be full discovered. Their intrepid spirit and the anecdotes from their journeys reminded me that while man say Australia is not a cycling country, we are indeed one – it is just that our cycling culture is a unique one. 

Why is the Indian Pacific Wheel Race known as ‘The Hunger Games on Wheels’, and how does the race compare or differ to the Tour de France?

It was a term actually given by writer Gary Maddox of The Sydney Morning Herald when he wrote a preview of the inaugural 2017 race. It was fitting, in light of the event’s key elements, that it is a race where the entrant cannot have outside support or work with other riders in a slipstream as happens in professional races like the Tour de France. They look after their own food, accommodation and problems which so many appear unexpectedly and without warning over the 5,470km route. The event is about the individual entrant surviving, and the only way for that entrant to have outside support is if they access a resource which every other athletes has access to.

You’ve been a sports journalist for 30 years; where did your initial interest in the world of cycling begin, and how did it come to develop into a lifelong fascination and subject for your reportage?

As a child I loved cycling. I remember riding my first bike, a tricycle in London where I was born. But it was really when I was living in Australia (where I moved to at age 4) and began riding my first bike there – a red Bennett bicycle, and also a purple ‘Dragstar’. Riding those bikes around where I lived – in Woollahra - gave me my first sense of independence as I pedalled to various points in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs thinking I was on an adventure. I realise now I did not cycle that far, but then it felt like I had ridden huge distances. I even felt like a pioneer discovering new frontiers. Exciting times!

Was it a strange shift for you to be writing about your own athletic exploits, rather than the feats of other cyclists?

Very much so. I often told my editor Roberta Ivers, and agent Jeanne Ryckmans, that I found it challenging writing such a personal story. I had written for so many years about other cyclists, but now it was about me and that was massive shift in book writing. The experience also led me to asking myself why I love these type of events, and then be honest with myself about those reasons in the book. I felt it was important to allow the reader to understand why, perhaps, I reacted rightly or wrongly during my rides. In the end, while I knew I was writing about myself, I had to think of me as a character in a narrative and treat what insights I had of myself as insights that I had researched.

‘Something inside me wants to be stripped bare – emotionally and physically – by such an epic challenge’. What was the toughest thing, personally, about preparing for and embarking on your epic journey?

The toughest element was not knowing how I would react when I am inevitably confronted with a setback while cycling in a really remote or isolated part of the route. I would only find the answer when it happens. And when I did meet that moment, I knew that I would be more vulnerable due to the accumulated fatigue. I was not looking for trouble, just a challenge. And I knew that no amount of preparation would properly prepare me for that. The best advice I was given was to not have one plan, but be ready to plan as I go because of the varying permutations that any one day can throw at you.

Do you think the race changed you? If so, in what ways?

I don’t believe it changed me, other than that it helped be understand who I am better. It may have also made me more assured about myself, or willing to back myself. However, most important is that I now know that as important as my strengths, are my weaknesses; that such marathon events don’t just eradicate any of my issues – that range/d from self-esteem and body weight/image which also led to my bulimia – but that they are a part of me. That is something I can now accept as the balance of who I am. I don’t need to hide or be ashamed of my perceived weaknesses anymore. 

When you think back on your journey from Fremantle to the Opera House in Sydney, what’s the first or most noteworthy detail or moment that springs to mind?

Entering the Nullarbor Plain, an iconic stretch of desert that I had heard, read and supposedly learned so much about. Not until I rode into this area after arriving at Norseman, the last main town before the Nullarbor, did I really gain any inkling of what really lay ahead. I soon realised I was to learn a lot more about the Nullarbor than I knew. When riding across this stretch of Australia I had periods of elation, if not exultation; when I was swept up in my isolation in such a large expanse of land by its raw beauty at day and dusk. But in that same isolation and amidst the went and then the heat, there were times when accumulated problems almost proved too much to bare … almost. The ‘Open When Things Get Tough’ letter that Aussie endurance legend Rod Evans gave me for the 2017 IndiPac? It remains closed to this day – even after finishing ‘My Big Ride’ across the same IndiPac route on my second attempt of this year.

Overlander  by Rupert Guinness is published by Simon & Schuster, rrp $35.00.