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Overlander, by Rupert Guinness

Overlander, by Rupert Guinness
Overlander, by Rupert Guinness
Troy Bailey

Title: Overlander – One Man’s Epic Race to Cross Australia
Author: Rupert Guinness
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Year: 2018
Pages: 315
Order: Simon & Schuster – UK | Aus | US
What it is: An account of the 2017 attempt by veteran cycling journalist Rupert Guinness to ride the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, 5,470 kilometres transcontinental from Freemantle to Sydney
Strengths: The past and the present collide in today’s passion for transcon rides, taking us back to the roots of the sport, and Guinness joins the dots to create a picture that goes beyond the present and reaches back into that past
Weaknesses: As with so many cycling diaries, you can at times feel you are riding with the author as one town blurs into the next

It was likened by its organiser, Jesse Carlson, to “the Hunger Games on wheels”. Transcontinental across Australia, Freemantle in the south-west to Sydney in the south-east, 5,470 kilometres, the participants riding on their own, without support crews, left to sort out their own sleeping arrangements, fix their own punctures, not even allowed to ride in the draft of any other road user. They were rules Henri Desgrange would have been proud of, maybe so to would President Snow’s gamemakers. By the time it was all over, and its aftermath had played itself out, many would come to regret Carlson’s little bit of pop cult positioning.

Rupert Guinness
On the road
Troy Bailey

It was a little after nine in the morning, the last day of March, when news reached Rupert Guinness that one of his fellow IndiPac competitors had been killed:

“At about 9.20 am I have just returned to the shop when Kay walks back in looking concerned. A few hours earlier, she says – at 6.22 am today, to be precise – an IndiPac rider was killed in a collision with a car on the Monaro Highway near Canberra. The identity of the rider is yet to be confirmed, but the ABC report that Kay has printed out bears the key indicator.

“It must be Mike Hall.

“In second place and 360 kilometres from Sydney, he’s the only IndiPac rider who would have been at that location at the time. And his dot has stopped there at that precise time too.

“The heaviest of silences sweeps though the shop. I feel completely numb. We all just look at each other.”

In 1897, Jerome Murif, a 30-something Irishman who had emigrated to Australia a decade earlier, completed what is believed to have been the first bike ride across Australia, taking 74 days to ride from Adelaide in the south to Port Darwin in the north. As is the norm with these things, he wrote a book about his epic adventure, From Ocean to Ocean: Across a Continent on a Bicycle, an Account of a Solitary Ride from Adelaide to Port Darwin. In it, he explains why he took on the transcon challenge:

“Now, looking back upon the task accomplished, I confess, with becoming humility, that it was not from a splendid devotion to Science: it was neither to observe an eclipse of the sun or the moon nor to scout unknown country for the elusive diprotodon; not even in the interests of British Commerce (as represented by Jones’s factory or Brown’s warehouse), but simply to gratify this craving to do something before considerate people dropped me out of sight and out of mind – it was simply for this that I resolved there and then to pedal from Ocean to Ocean on a bicycle.”

Jerome Murif
Jerome Murif during his 1897 transcon ride, pictured in Palmerstown, the Northern Territory

What drives us to take on challenges like these? All of us who have tried our hand at ultra-endurance events, we have so many different reasons for rising to the challenge. Some, like Murif in 1897, want to prove something to others (“I’m still here!”). Some want to prove something to themselves while others turn to such events as an act of exploration, a testing of their own limits. There’s even some who do them because of the enjoyment they bring.

What interests me the most about ultra-endurance athletes is the struggle with their inner demons some are willing to admit to. Juliana Buhring did it in This Road I Ride. And Rupert Guinness does it in Overlander. A cycling reporter since the glory days of the 1980s – he invented the Foreign Legion – Guinness knew his history and knew of the fashion for endurance records that marked the early decades of the sport, and blossomed again in Australia and the UK in the 1920s and 1930s. He knew who Jerome Murif was, he’d already written about him – and the many who followed – in a book on the history of Australian cycling. Doing his own transcon would deepen his understanding of these riders.

Rupert Guinness and Phil Anderson
Pioneers of Australian cycling: Rupert Guinness and Phil Anderson in the days of the Foreign Legion

That, though, is just the surface. Strip it away a bit and there’s another reason: “Something inside me wants to be stripped bare – emotionally and physically – by such an epic challenge.”

Strip away more, and we find the deeper drive: “Since childhood I’ve been plagued by insecurity, and always felt the need to prove myself. I suspect the roots date back to my youth, when my lack of ball skills led me to believe I lad little sporting ability. I also struggled with my weight, which led to issues about body image and self-esteem.” In time, those issues about body image and self-esteem led to bulimia, and a spiral of mental health issues: “The guilt about having allowed [bulimia] to take so much control heightens the need for secrecy. And in turn that erodes self-confidence, self-esteem and a sense of purpose.”

One in four people will be affected by mental health issues at some point in their life. And yet rarely do I see mental health talked about in books that make their way to the Café Bookshelf. Only a handful of autobiographies have addressed the issue, most notably Graeme Obree and Victoria Pendleton. Few biographies - with notable exceptions - ever go there, except with euphemisms (Fausto Coppi, so many tell us, he was fragile). For the most part, it’s not a topic people want to tackle. It may be a subject that a quarter of the population will have some experience of, but it’s not a subject we seem to want to talk about. Not unless it’s packaged as an inspirational self-help book.

We could do better, if we tried. We don’t need to turn every cycling book into a new offering from Anthony Clare – Lord, please don’t turn every cycling book into a new offering from Anthony Clare! – but we could make more of an effort to reflect reality, we could make more of an effort to acknowledge and normalise mental health problems and so help reduce the stigma attaching to them. Guinness, in Overlander, he doesn’t turn himself into Anthony Clare, stripping away the layers and psychoanalysing himself. He simply puts it out there: yes, he wanted to ride across Australia in order to understand better the early cyclists he’d written about. But he also had deeper, more personal, reasons.

The selfishness of these events is another of their aspects that intrigues me. Most all sport is selfish. We glorify it by banging on about all the things athletes sacrifice in training, the lives lived as monks, yet rarely do we consider the sacrifices demanded of others. How many cycling biographies have you read that even acknowledge the existence of a spouse, let alone consider the role played in their partner’s career? Most want so much for you to believe in the myth of the monk that the partner is air-brushed from existence. Thankfully, Guinness doesn’t get out the airbrush and instead treats the reader to the reality of a 50-something married man taking on a transcon ride. Here he is talking about his wife of twenty years, Libby:

“To put it bluntly, Libby’s fear about the IndiPac was that I would either be killed or suffer from any one or more of the possible accidents or misfortunes that can occur in such solitary long-distance events. What I understood least was the anxiety she would feel not knowing how I was faring or where exactly I would be at any point – despite my progress being recorded on my Spot Gen3, an online tracking device that transmits messages, from life-or-death rescue calls to reassuring alerts about overnight stops.”

None of these things – the death of Mike Hall, Guinness’s mental health issues, his wife’s concerns – loom so large in the story told in Overlander that they overshadow everything else. For the most part, this is the story of a quintessential amateur abroad learning as he goes along, the outsider taking us inside. Guinness had done triathlons and marathons, he’d done 24-hour Trail Walker events. He’d even crewed in the 2000 and 2001 Sydney to Hobart races, an Australian take on George Plimpton, you might say, a journalist going to the ultimate lengths to get the story of the race. But while he was used to pushing himself beyond his comfort zones he’d never done three hundred kilometre days in the saddle, the sort of back-to-back days he was aiming for in the IndiPac. Fortunately, he fell in with a group of riders hitting roughly the same target, passing and re-passing one and other as the days go by, meeting up in service stations and cafés to trade road stories and fill up on calories. The calories, that was a real learning experience:

“For all I read and researched about the nutritional challenges of the IndiPac, I’m still stunned by both the amount and type of food other racers and myself are eating. It’s unbelievable how much you need to consume in a race like this. Preparing for the race, I stripped down from 97 kilograms to 79 kilograms by training on the bike, in the gym and by diet, and this morning, while cleaning my teeth, is the first time I’ve noticed any real weight loss. In the mirror I saw the person I used to be as a twenty-four-year-old lightweight rower trying to weigh in somewhere between 72.5 and 69.8 kilograms.

“For all the food I’m eating – from double orders of hamburgers with the lot and large servings of French fries – I have never felt full or bloated. How the original Overlanders, riding on packed bikes that could have weighed up to 35 kilograms against the 25 or so of my bike, survived on the dried meat, flour and tea they took with them is astonishing. My metabolism has kicked in like a mule and is accommodating a high fat and calorie intake with ease. I reckon I’m consuming up to 12,000 calories a day, but I hear others are using between 15,000 and 20,000. It’s such a contrast with my thinking and behaviour when I was wrestling with bulimia. Huge food and calorie consumption is the common denominator, but the bulimia was a condition of a disordered psychology, whereas right now my vast calorific intake is being driven by a body pleading for more. No matter how much I eat, it can’t seem to get enough.”

All the parts of the story, bit by bit, they knit together, and you get a story that’s bigger than one man’s attempt to ride the IndiPac. And that greater story is remarkably upbeat, considering the backdrop. But this is the important point about the way that Guinness deals with his own mental health issues and the concerns expressed by his wife: they’re just a part of the story. Which is all they need to be: acknowledged, put out there. The greater story is the camaraderie Guinness finds along the way, fleeting friendships forged on the road, both with the trail angels and dot watchers doing their bit to help, and with those of his fellow competitors he passes and is passed by as he works his way across a continent. The greater story is of a bike ride across Australia, such as here on the morning of day three, the sun not yet risen:

“I feel isolated and exposed, but not afraid. All I can see are the metres before me illuminated by my front light and head lamp. There is no sign of habitation. The solitude and silence, exacerbated by the lack of any wind, are calming. Within minutes I’m settled and really enjoying the experience. As dark as Centennial Park in Sydney was at 3 am while training for the IndiPac, it had never been like this. All I can hear is the whir of my wheels as I ride at a comfortable rhythm, the beat of my heart and the sound of my breathing. The more I think about it, the more exhilarated I become.”

These on-the-road reports, the history woven in, we’re familiar with the genre at this stage, from Tim Moore to Tom Isitt. What distinguishes Moore is the humour, what distinguished Isitt was the history. What distinguishes Guinness is his openness, his willingness to bare his soul and consider an aspect of his participation in IndiPac that so many others would have quietly swept under the carpet. On the road and on the page, he does what he set out to do: strips himself bare, emotionally and physically.

Overlander, by Rupert Guinness, is published by Simon & Schuster
Overlander, by Rupert Guinness, is published by Simon & Schuster

You can find an interview with Rupert Guinness on the Café Bookshelf.