High over the starting line the flags of the eleven countries represented flutter in the morning breeze The mayor of Useless Loop, a tiny salt-mining town in the middle of nowhere, warns us we'll remember what is about to happen the rest of our lives and sends us shooting off the line with a bang of his gun.
The children of the town are supposed to escort us out of town. They all have little Australian flags adorning their handlebars. Before they could show us which way to go, Derek _______ one of the Americans, led off down the wrong track, riding his absurd little folding bike with 20-inch wheels. Derek had come more to take photographs than to race, but was full of enthusiasm to start with.
We realized the mistake after a minute. We ran with our bikes through the sand up to the other road, where the children now had a big lead on us. They had taken the right road all along. They laughed at us when we caught up. How were we going to ride all the way across Australia if we didn't even know how to get out of Useless Loop?
Finally we were racing. The pace was hard. About twenty guys held it, not talking much.
Rod Evans was continually being interviewed by a film crew from the back of a pickup truck. His legs looked like they belonged on a Greek statue, or a track racer. He had an Allsop bike, too, with the carbon fiber cantilever seat. His position was beautiful, his back completely flat.
At one point Rod looked at my own rather upright position atop my Allsop bike, and told me I looked like a turn of the century track racer, with my high-set, old-fashioned looking, flared-drop WTB handlebars.
Comfort over beauty, to each his own, I replied, but the next day I lowered my bars a bit. At 35 years old, Rod had a lot of experience and an aura of authority and know-how you just had to respect. If he said your bars were too high, well, you'd lower them.
At lunch we stopped just long enough to fill our pockets with sandwiches, and when I reached for a water bottle to fill it, I luckily noticed a loose water bottle cage and was able to quickly torque it down before rolling back out onto the course. Total stopped time: 45 seconds.
On every climb, John Stamstad would gain ten yards. I was glad to think most of the course would be flat.
Max, one of the Germans, ate a sandwich and threw the wrapper over his shoulder onto the side of the road. John and I saw this, and we both started yelling at him at the same time. Here we were, in one of the least polluted places in the world, and this guy was littering. Go back to Germany if you're going to litter, we said. Germany may be garbage can already. Australia is not. We chewed him out and made a few attacks to help him digest his sandwich.
The wildflowers in Western Australia. The fields of yellow, blue, purple and red stretch across the rolling hills as far as you can see in solid blankets of bee-buzzed color, dotted here, clumped there by scrub eucalypts, other small bushes and trees. I rode ahead of the group and took some pictures, including this one of Max
By the time we got to a short stretch of bitumen toward the end of the day's course, I had developed the need to urinate, and I asked the group - dwindled to seven or eight by then - if we could make a neutral stop. Perhaps over coffee, responded Max the litterbug, at the Overlander Roadhouse? I stopped anyway, as did John, and we had to chase fairly hard to get back on.
By the time we got to the last water stop, there were only four of us. John and I, Max the German, and Jorg the Austrian. The Europeans stopped, and I jumped hard, then pulled up to wait for John. Can you go 30 km more without water? I asked. I think so, let's go. We both had Camelbaks, those neoprene backpack canteens.
We rode fast. Up over a little rise, and there was camp. Nine minutes later, the others arrived. We had averaged 20 miles per hour through loose dirt for exactly six hours. I got my camping gear off the bus, walked over to where John was setting up his tent and asked him if he minded if I set up my tent next to his. Pleased to have you for a neighbor, he said.
We got our buckets of water from one of the farmers. They were little plastic bowls with about a liter of cold water. It smelled like solvent. This was our daily ration of wash water, for ourselves and our clothes. It's going to be a long race, I thought, wondering where my next shower would come from.
We got our mess kits and stood in line for our tucker, as the Aussies call food. Steaks, potatoes, green beans. I had two steaks. I ate until I couldn't eat any more, then waited ten minutes and ate the same amount again. John was more modest, relying more on liquid food supplements from Gatorade Sports Labs. I was a little worried about him. He looked so thin already, almost frail. You didn't notice it when he was riding, but when you watched him walk from behind the bones of his pelvis stuck out through his skin.
Elaine teased me about how strange it was to see me holding a steak in my hands, tearing into it with a greedy relish. I had been a vegetarian for five years. I've been practicing eating meat, I said, for about six months now. I knew it'd be like this. I find I like it fine. Pass the salt, please?
We turned in, then, comforted as we dozed off by the familiarity of the Milky Way and Orion amidst the foreign sky of the Southern Hemisphere.