ĄDay 4

A bad day. There was a rumor going around that the Austrians were going to make us hurt. That is what was being said, that the Austrians were out to make us hurt today.

Rudi and the other Austrian, Jorg, were emerging as the most fear-inspiring threat to John's and my race leadership. They were a real team, with matching jerseys and bikes and even a coach, Wolfgang, who looked after them and gave them leg rubs.

Jorg was the stronger rider, but he was young and didn't have much racing experience. Rudi was older and had a good tactical sense. It was obvious that he was working for Jorg, and that Jorg looked to him for instructions and leadership.

Jorg had come up to me and struck up a conversation the night before as I unloaded my equipment from the bus We talked about Austria, which I had ridden through a year earlier. His English was not very good. He agreed enthusiastically that Austria was very beautiful. He liked it better, he said, than Australia. The mechanical way he talked, along with his imposing physique - at least, his lower body was impressive - inspired the nickname "Terminator." His skinny upper body seemed incongruous with the massive muscle development of his lower frame, prompting others in the peloton to dub him the "Genetic Experiment."

Rudi, with his permanent three-day growth and long hair, had a tough-guy menace to him. He just looked like he meant business. Here was a guy not to cross. Neither of them ever smiled or laughed. They just rode - fast. It was clear they had come to win. They had prepared for a year. They rode across the Sahara desert to get ready.

The road worsened today. Heavy rains had carved out big ditches and ruts, and headwinds once more kept the group riding too closely for safety. The competitive spirit was running high, and it was a nervous, twitchy pack that took to the course that morning.

About ten o'clock, John Stamstad had a call from nature, and announced his intention, in English, to ride up the road a little ways, pull over, and take a piss. This is a common thing to do when you think people might attack when you stop, and several people had done the same thing already that morning. By way of announcing his intentions to the non-English speakers, John pointed, with a grandiose gesture to his crotch and said "pissing" several times. He then proceeded to bound away.

Rudi, riding at the back of the pack, apparently missed this gesture. He made an illconsidered decision, based on pure panic, to shoot through the whole pack to get up to John and cover the attack. He came past me going very fast, and I found myself elbowed aside into a gaping ditch, into which I fell hard. Rudi fell too, but was up and gone in a flash.

You fucker, I kept screaming, as the peloton rode off and I realized that I had resprained my right shoulder. Stupid fucker.

A month before the race started I had had a job interview at Bicycling Magazine. Their offices are in Santa Cruz, and I live in San Francisco. The interview was at 9 am, so I left at 5 am for the 75 mile ride down. I was hunched behind my fairing, which helps keep the cold morning air off you, but the fairing windshield tends to fog up when passing through misty places like Pacifica.

I failed to see a concrete curb dividing two lanes, and I tried to merge right across it. Boom! The bike flipped at 25 miles per hour - I was going down a hill - and I landed on my right shoulder, spraining it painfully. The injury had barely healed by the time the race started, and now I had reinjured it. I lay there writhing until Chester Kyle drove up in the lead pack support vehicle, a small 4WD Diahatsu.

I had gotten to know Chester and his wife Joyce about two months earlier when I raced my faired bicycle in the International Human Powered Vehicle Speed Championships which the Kyle's hosted in Mt. Shasta. Chester is widely known as an aerodynamics expert, and it was he who designed the bicycles the 1984 US Olympic team rode with such success. He had gotten to know Hans Tholstrup through his involvement in the Energy Challenge, a solar powered car race from Darwin to Adelaide, Australia, which Tholstrup puts on every year. So when Hans decided to put on a bike race, he asked Dr. Kyle to be the race official.

His job as official was to follow and observe the lead pack, and to offer mechanical and medical assistance as needed. He and Joyce quickly covered me with a blanket, and although they wanted to look at my shoulder, I instructed them to clean out my wounds as quickly as possible. When that was done I had Chester look at my bicycle, which he said seemed fine. So, I got up, got on, and started turning the pedals around.

I'll pace you back up to the group if you can ride, said Chester. I can ride, lets go, I said, even though I wasn't at all sure I could make it. My whole body seemed to ring with pain. I tried to exorcise the pain by making all manner of pitiful groans and wails, which, luckily, no one could hear. After a few minutes we caught the group and I waved thanks to the Kyles and wound up a big effort to blow past the group. The road had gotten wider and smoother.

As I sailed past, John Stamstad let out a happy cry of surprise to see me: Henry!

My legs were working pretty well despite the scraped knees, but my right arm was a limp noodle, and I couldn't rest on the aero bars because both forearms were badly scraped and the bruises there were started to swell. My left arm was tired already from holding up my body up over the bike. The physical pain, coupled with the thought of all my preparations going to waste, moved me to tears, and in order not to let anyone see my state I stayed at the front and set a good clip. I knew, too, that if anyone suspected I was weak they were sure to attack, so I wanted to let them know there'd be no use attacking. This is what's known as a bluff.

Rod Evans, being a seasoned and cagey racer, knew what was going on, and he rode up alongside me. Are you alright? he asked.

I trusted Rod. He is too classy a rider to attack an injured man, even though he was in third place less than one hour behind me at the time. I leveled with him. I told him I was hurting badly. He said he would put the word out to Scotty and the English guys to try to keep the pace moderate for the rest of the day. He appreciated my cooperation the day before. So, I drifted back into the pack and we settled in to a nice manageable pace.

Even the Austrians knew they couldn't attack. They had already managed, true to their word, to make us hurt, although not, I am sure, in the way they had intended.

Nearly all the people in this race seemed sensitive to that special code of ethics which spontaneously arises when groups of human beings work and suffer together under difficult conditions. In times and places where life is hard there is no room for dog-eat-dog self-interest. Anyone who has every travelled can tell you this. Go to the mountains, or the deserts, or any place where the struggle for daily existence carries a price, and you'll find helpful, caring, generous people. It is only in cities where life is easy that people lose their ability to empathize with the travails of others.

Even in competition, where the goal is to defeat and rise above the others, this ethical code can take root. In a competition as grueling as ours, is it surprising that alliances were formed, respect established, understanding arrived at which bound together the very people ostensibly set against each other for purposes of racing?

It is impossible not to respect and admire those who, like you, have dedicated a large part of their lives to getting to the starting line of the race, and who hold an equal share in what will be the outcome. As much as you want to come out ahead of them, you know that the victory would a pyrrhic one if it came at the cost of lost respect from your peers. More than you need to win, you need their respect, to be one who struggled, if not the most successfully, than at least the most valiantly. What good is it to be strong if your strength is not universally admired, even by the competition?

How reassuring it was that so many people came up to me as I rode, dripping blood, to ask how I was. To encourage me to continue. To make jokes to take my mind off my pain. No one was about to attack. Everyone by now had crashed at least once. I had had the luck to crash where the ground was hard and rocky. Not one of the racers there would have wanted a crash to play a major role in determining the outcome. To attack after a crash would have been to press an unfair advantage. In a race so hard as ours, the thought of pressing an unfair advantage becomes unthinkable. To most, anyway.

So the field all stayed together until we came to a sign announcing that in 5 km we'd come to Wiluna, the town where we would camp. When we passed the sign, Drew Walker jumped away. And sputtered. We picked up speed, absorbed him back into the group, and gradually built to a roaring frenzy by the time we came around a bend to see our finish line at the top of a small hill in the center of town. Dark, intriguing Aboriginal visages lined the shute. I jumped first, so happy I was for the day to be over, and I had five yards when my legs thought better of the decision to sprint. Rod Evans came off my wheel then, and shot past me. Scott Sharples came from the other side, and the two collided just in front of me. Scott's foot came out of his pedal, and he swerved lurchingly across the road, nearly wiping out a rickety picket fence. Rod raised his arms in victory.

We made camp at a caravan park, what we call a trailer park in America. The showers were cold by then, because the bus had been there an hour already. I went to the bar to get some ice for my shoulder. I went into the Aboriginal side by mistake, where all transactions take place through iron bars and there is no place to sit. Then I found the door for whites, which had the dress code written on it. I ordered a few beers and asked for a little ice, which I offered to pay for. Two of the beers were for Hans. He had asked me to fetch him some. The other was for me. I took it back to camp, where the sentry opened the chainlink and barbed wire fence and let me back in. I drank the beer and iced my shoulder. The beer tasted wonderful.

That night it rained a little. A little rain sounds like a lot of rain inside a tent. There was lots of thunder, far away. The next morning, we would begin riding the infamous Gunbarrel Highway.

Overlander Road House
Front Seat of the Race Bus
The Prologue
Rolling Train Terrain
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
Day 5
Day 6
Day 7