Two days earlier as I was taking my gear off the bus - just after I talked with Jorg, actually - another rider struck up a conversation. He talked about his tires, or something, I don't remember. I had talked to him before a few times, and had noticed that he was riding a cyclocross bike with 700 C wheels instead of a 26-inch wheeled mountain bike like everyone else. But I had to ask him his name, which I couldn't remember. You should know me by now, he said, my name is Bruno Heer
Bruno was a Swiss scientist who worked for a big super-collider project in Texas that would later lose funding. Flat tires, getting sick, a few bad days, some such bad luck as this, he said, had kept him out of the lead pack. Although he looked fit, I hadn't really identified him as one of the contenders, because when we hit sand he couldn't keep that big-wheeled bike going very well. He must have been at least an hour down after only three days, I don't know exactly.
He had a bit of a chip on his shoulder about, it, too. You could tell. He thought he was a better rider than that, and, truth be known, he probably was. But he was starting off the race behind the eightball, and maybe that was why he became desperate to make up lost time.
So on the morning of day five, when he took more than his share of turns at the front, it seemed a natural effort on his part to get the attention of the leaders. Or maybe he was just starting to come around, having ridden himself into shape over the first four days. Whatever the case, no one paid him much attention. We were too busy talking about Elaine.
She had been having trouble finishing each day before the broom wagon swept through to drive the stragglers into camp. The night before she had finished in the dark after flat out refusing to get on the broom wagon.
Afterward, she had asked Hans, who put the matter up to popular vote, if she could be allowed to start each day a few hours earlier than the bunch. No one had any objections, so she had headed off into the gathering dawn that morning just as we were starting to eat our porridge.
We knew she was ahead of us, and we were looking forward to catching up with her and having a chance to ride with her a little bit. We hadn't yet gotten the opportunity to ride with Elaine, because usually in the morning someone would be feeling their oats and jump away, forcing the pace. Elaine has incredible endurance, as evidenced by her long and highly successful ultramarathon cycling career, but she didn't seem to have the punch to keep up with the boys when crunch time rolled around.
Even though there were tremendous headwinds, we didn't catch her until just before lunch. Rod Evans immediately started joking around with her, and the bunch crowded around to get in on the banter. Rod discovered Elaine's experience as a film and radio commentator, and he immediately switched the conversation to an interview format. Rod was doing daily live radio reports, so perhaps he just wanted to practice his broadcasting persona.
Rod and Elaine's mock radio talk show - along with other riders who would "call in" with questions - soon had the peloton rolling along happily in stitches, glad for some comic relief to break up the racing tension a little bit. The pack was having such a good time, in fact, that we decided to take a full half hour for lunch. There was never really a formal vote, but when it was suggested, many voices spoke out in favor of the plan, and no one spoke up to oppose it. Some even went so far as to suggest that we might avoid too many jumps in the afternoon, so we could keep Elaine with us.
After we had been stopped three or four minutes, Bruno was seen riding off. We weren't really sure if he was still in the race - more than half the field had already had to ride on the bus, and thus had been eliminated - and someone said they thought they had seen him riding the bus a few days earlier. He must have, someone else said, because when he left he said how it wouldn't matter if he didn't wait for the group, since he was, quote, already out of the race.
Of course, he could have meant that he was so far down in time as to be out of contention, rather than out of the race altogether. So, just to be sure, we asked one of the Spanish guys to check the records and determine just what Bruno's status was.
As we stood around eating our sandwiches we teased Elaine and Joanne, her support person, about the amount of duct tape on Elaine's bike. It was wrapped around the handlebars, the pedals, the pump - duct tape, everywhere you looked!
Pretty soon the Spanish guy emerged from the bus with the official word: Bruno is still in the race, he said, and he isn't that far behind. Shit. We let out a collective sigh of disgust, and apologized to Elaine. We've got to chase, see you in camp, we'll ride with you some other time.
It took us about two hours. A group of ten shared the pulls, and we averaged 38 kph until we caught.
Everyone knew who Bruno was now. He had ridden well and gained a lot of respect for that, but we couldn't help resenting a little his spoiling our lunch plans. His attack seemed a little too sneaky. A bit cheap.
There was something sort of ridiculous about Bruno. He would talk very slowly and tell very long stories which took a great deal of attention to decipher. When he took off his helmet, his short hair would stick up in a strange three-ridge pattern where it had been moulded by the air vents on his helmet. And he had the hairiest legs in the peloton.
But it was his refusal to just be one of the guys that earned him his place, from that day on, as the group's pariah. The outcast. The leper.
There is a strong current of support for the underdog in Australian culture, and no sooner did Hans Tholstrup see us ridiculing and teasing Bruno than he became Bruno's champion. And this was an alliance which would shape, more than any other, the outcome of the race.