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Interview: Rupert Guinness

Rupert Guinness
Rupert Guinness
Steve Christo

In Overlander – One Man’s Epic Race to Cross Australia Rupert Guinness tells the story of his participation in the ill-fated IndiPack 2017 transcon ride, and of his subsequent successful attempt to cross the continent on two wheels. He recently popped into the Café to chat about riding across Australia, talking about mental health, and his plans to compete in the Race Across America in 2020.

Podium Café: Five thousand kilometres transcontinental from Freemantle to Sydney. On a bicycle. Unsupported, so carrying your own luggage. Rules so draconian Henri Desgrange might have paused before applauding them. Desgrange, he only set his riders against bears in the Pyrénées, you had dingoes, snakes, poisonous spiders. And road trains. Why take all that on?

Rupert Guinness: Funny you mention that. The first IndiPac in 2017 – and the two editions since – had a lot of similarity to the first Tour de France in 1903 and other early editions, in that the first Tour riders were pretty much self-supported and had to deal with the element of weather and other factors outside of their control, the same as IndiPac riders do, or those in any of the many solo unsupported ultra-endurance races that exist today.

Dingoes, snakes, spiders and unpredictable kangaroos and emus and road trains and all the other ‘scary’ things about the Australian outback were a factor I was very wary of leading up to my first of two IndiPacs. But eventually, they were all factors I learned to adapt to, either through respect or caution for them, or in the case of snakes … too tired when I stopped to rest to even think about them!

End of the day, one of the many things that the IndiPac provided was an opportunity to experience all those elements, notwithstanding to see a country like never before and for the most part do it alone, where only you – the rider – are responsible for the decisions you make on any day.

I had a number of other reasons too, for riding IndiPac. Other factors include some personal issues with self-esteem and bulimia that stemmed from my respective childhood and younger rowing days that have followed me throughout my life. I felt I needed to be stripped bare emotionally as possible in order to understand what my issues have been. The two IndiPacs I rode did that to great effect; albeit, while at the same time, they have also lit a fire in me to pursue more events of the like…

Rupert Guinness at the 2001 Toru de France
Tour de France 2001 - journalists are left chewing their keyboards in the race to meet deadlines.
Tim De Waele/Getty Images

PdC: You’ve been writing about racing in Europe for more than three decades, along the way you’ll have picked up early European cycling history, like the Bordeaux-Paris and Paris-Brest-Paris races, and how mega distances were the order of the day back in the day. More recently you’ve written about Australian cycling history, including the early pioneers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Were you surprised by how far back cycling went in Australia, by just how many people were doing mega distances even back then?

RG: Definitely, I was surprised; but also embarrassed in a way. Since 1983 I have written about cycling and in particular Australian cycling, but for so long it has been through the perspective of how Australian cyclists performed vis-à-vis competition in Europe on the road and track. But even though I had written about the exploits of Sir Hubert Opperman in such races as Paris-Brest-Paris and even some his many record distance rides in Australia, I hadn’t really delved into the heritage of Australian ultra-endurance riding until recently.

I knew it existed, but I had not really gone deep into it … even now, after having tried to experience some of it, I still feel there is so much more to discover. For so long I used to think, as many did, that Australia was a non-cycling country by culture and heritage; but that was from the perspective of how it compared to Europe. When you realise the culture of ultra-endurance riding in Australia – and the vast, remote and dangerous unknown terrain they rode in – this genre of racing/riding by the retrospectively dubbed ‘Overlanders’, you understand Australia very much as a cycling nation, and one with a unique DNA … The surface has only been scratched in the depiction of their stories and their rightful place in Australian cycling history … if not Australian history. I firmly believe this.

Valda Unthank and Hubert Opperman
Valda Unthank and Hubert Opperman pausing for ice cream in 1939. Both of these long-distance record-breakers were sponsored by Peters Ice Cream (‘The health food of a nation!’), as well as by Bruce Smalls’s Malvern Star bicycle company.

PdC: The overlanding craze of the nineteenth century, it surged back into life in the 1920s and 1930s, with women joining in the challenge and adding their names to the record books at the same time Oppy was in his pomp and glory. Do you think there’s a reasonably simple explanation for what brought it back into fashion at that point, or for why it’s come back into fashion today?

RG: This is a really good point that ties in with the last question. The ultra-endurance stars in Australia were not only men, but women too. Names like Billie Samuel, Joyce Barry and later Margaret McLachlan, and these days Kate Leeming and Sarah Hammond, continually set new benchmarks. Likewise, cycling from its very early days in Australia was not just for men but also for women. It is a narrative that dates back to the early days of cycling in Australia – women had a major role in the bicycle’s extended use in Australia, but apart from its use as a form of transport or recreation, there were also a number who set benchmark records that drew as much interest as a man’s record; again, Billie Samuel being an example.

Billie Samuel, 1923, Melbourne- Sydney
Billie Samuel was another rider sponsored by Bruce Smalls and his Malvern Star bicycle company, This is Samuel in 1934, during her Melbourne-Sydney ride.

Meanwhile, the social environment of the times may have had a role in boosting the use of bicycles by men and women … during World War II, when so many men signed up and were gone, women filled many a role that was previously deemed socially as for ‘men only.’ Bicycles became an important form of transport for everyone with the cost of cars rising due to them being less available as they were used by the military. Hence, the sight of women travelling on bicycles became regular.

Also significant was the building momentum for equal rights for women, so that momentum was undoubtedly going to parlay into cycling where women already had an impact. Saying that, as the 1940s rolled into the 1950s and beyond, it could be asked if the impact of women in cycling in Australia diminished as their role in day to day social environment unjustly lost its weight. No doubt in Australia, women’s cycling experienced heady times up until recent years, when even now most would agree that there is much to still do to attain respectful parity with men’s cycling.

PdC: Early into your IndiPac rides you had to cross the Nullarbor Plain. I’ve done some desert riding, going from Mount Sinai up to Eilat, so I’d like to think I have some idea of what the Nullarbor must have been like. But my experience, that was less than two hundred kilometres, just six or seven hours riding. The Nullarbor, that’s twelve hundred kilometres, four or five days riding. That’s hors catégorie desert riding, my experience isn’t even a cobbled climb in Belgium compared to that. How did you cope with so little changing around you?

RG: When I reflect, I ask myself the same question! But when you are out there knowing there are 200 km or more to ride and that there is nothing in between, you find more to spark your interest than what you give credit when you are back in your normal living habitat. It is also amazing how the mind will instinctively turn the pages of your memory over and over and into layers of thought you didn’t realise were there. Being in the remote and isolation of such vast stretches of land like the Nullarbor Plain does heighten most of the senses we are born with. Sight, smell, touch and hearing are all triggered into a heightened state.

Overlander, by Rupert Guinness
Crossing the Nullarbor
Troy Bailey

I learned to love the long hours of absolute darkness at night, when there was no ambient city light, as dawn started to emerge – finally, the skyline before me went from being all black to a mixture of dark purple above to black below, and then with the glow of the rising sun changing from a slither of brightness into a ball of flame. Likewise, at first dawn there was always the sound of that first ‘tweet,’ the first bird that heralded a new dawn to a land so remote and barren; and then as ‘nature’s movie’ (as I called the rising of dawn) that evolved over and over. I always longed to see the ‘minutiae’ detail of change as the smallest of rodents that had been hunting all night, while they darted from shrub to shrub to hide for the day (to avoid sun and predators). It was that, plus more. Amazingly, those senses all kicked in automatically.

Were there not roadhouses in between, I would add taste to that argument as well. But if one sense of mine did become numb, it was taste due to the diet one is generally forced to accept, that being of burgers, chips, chocolate, soft drinks and many a hot English breakfast etc that come at the end of the day and left me not really being able to taste the difference between any of them. Food became fuel, nothing more than that. Eexcept for the beer or two I would drink before a sleep … beer is always beer!

PdC: I mentioned road trains earlier when considering some of the more unusual challenges put in your path. For those not familiar with them, can you explain what they are, and what it’s like to meet one on the road?

RG: Road trains are large trucks (or lorries) with two to three and sometimes four equally as large trays or wagons hitched to them. The life of a road train driver has its own mystique and they are renowned in Australia for the ultra-distance journeys they make, driving in all directions across Australia’s remote interior. I was extremely apprehensive before my first IndiPac about the road trains, and the inherent danger of being hit by one; or sucked under the wheels by the vacuum their passage creates.

A road train on Brunette Downs, Northern Territory.
A road train on Brunette Downs, Northern Territory.
Brendan Esposito / Fairfax Media / Getty

I won’t lie, I was pretty scared when a road train passed me for the first time.

Saying that, caravans are also dangerous – potentially more so, as many drivers are holiday makers who are not fully versed in driving a caravan and underestimate the ‘swing’ and load of one as they pass by; likewise, that load is wider than what they may realise, and that they may have allowed less room than needed to pass a cyclist.

However, I soon came to learn how to manage road trains; especially when they passed me from behind and ahead, on narrow, long and mostly flat roads where, once they gain momentum and speed, they cannot slow or navigate around a small object at late notice; much like a ship at sea. I learned it was important to relax and not be tense on the bike when they passed. I also realised it was most definitely up to me to see them. I don’t ride with a mirror on my handlebars normally, but on these desert roads, it is vital. Over distance and time, continually turning around to look for a road train will inevitably cause neck pain; but from a safety viewpoint, with a mirror one can be alert for what is coming from behind and in front at the same time. I found that it was also important to signal to the driver as they neared by raising my right arm (in Australia we drive on the left-hand side of the road), and again after they passed by. Likewise, I would always signal to an oncoming driver.

If a road train came from ahead and from behind at the same time I would simply get off the road. Two road trains passing each other takes up all the space on a road.

I also used the time of any stoppage at a roadhouse (highway motel/petrol station) to engage in chat with the drivers who understandably were anxious about cyclists on the road. I felt it could only help my case and safety if a driver who I spoke to and asked for advice at a roadhouse would know that I understood their concern and anxiety, and wanted to do what is best. Knowing they are connected by CB radio, I always hoped that a driver I spoke to might alert fellow drivers that I am there. The slightest help can make a difference, as can the slightest mistake.

PdC: One of the things with endurance riding that’s hard to explain to others is the mental element, how you can slip in an out of a slough of despair, and the coping strategies you develop to deal with that. You’ve got your own mental health issues and, as you’ve said, one of the reasons you wanted to do your transcon ride was as a way of confronting them. Did the ride itself teach you much about dealing with mental health?

RG: It did. I really found it a spiritual experience; but apart from that sense of escape and reflection of all things good and not so great in my life, I find endurance riding has taught me about mind management, or self-regulation of potentially stressful moments. Albeit, I learned through experiences when I did not handle a situation so well – such as when I lost my cool one day in the 2017 IndiPac after a string of flat tyres in the heat of the Nullarbor Plain desert while ‘March’ flies were biting me – that dwelling in the frustration of a problem gets you nowhere. It’s a cliché, but working on the solution is the only way forward, and for that one needs to be calm.

This has helped me to handle life problems … there can be understandable emotional or mental strain from a setback (whether personal or related to work or your sport) but I now have a better coping mechanism that encourages me to take a mental step back and try to think with a calmer mind about what is the way forward. This by no means is foolproof … we are still human beings after all. But it’s a process that I try to follow, especially as I know I am one who can let emotions get the better of me.

PdC: You talk about these issues in Overlander. For some people, sharing these things is quite easy, it may even be too easy for some and they overshare. Others, we like to keep it all in. It’s different strokes for different folk, depending on what they’re comfortable with. Did the ride move you a bit on that continuum, help you to share more with others, let people know it’s okay to talk?

RG: It certainly did. I went into the IndiPac wanting to be stripped bare mentally, and somehow have my response to that seen by those who were following me on the tracking system we had. We all had GPS monitors that recorded our progress. We were just dots on a map of Australia edging our ways across the country, and friends, family or anyone could follow us on-line. Hence, when I announced that I would post live Facebook Vlogs, I did so with the intent of them providing followers with recordings of key moments that reflected what was I was experiencing in my journey.

I wanted people to see me at my most vulnerable as much as my moments of strength or even humour. Of course, I had a deal signed to write Overlander too, and I felt that a series of vlogs would be a more real ‘notepad’ to draw on when writing the book afterwards, than a bunch of written notes … for any narrative of such an adventure to be legitimate also had to be real. The vlogs show what state of mind and body I was in … and as happens, that state varies by the hour in such long distance events.

End of the day, the ‘open’ nature of my journey has also helped me to be more open … although, I do understand that this is not for everyone, and likewise I respect that some people may not be comfortable with it … even to the point that it may lead some to think mine are the ramblings of a narcissist.

But I genuinely believe that being open with one’s vulnerabilities not only helps the person who is open, but will in time lead others to do the same and eventually create an environment of better understanding among people – and in turn assistance for those who need help.

PdC: Do you think cycling in general, at the top level of reporting the sport, does enough when it comes to mental health, that maybe we only address it when there’s a crisis?

RG: I think a lot more could be done. To be fair, there are individuals who initiate and follow up on those initiatives and do great work. There are also templates of thoughts or policies that are signed off with good intent by some organisations, federations, teams, and sponsors. But, as in all sport, I suspect that there is a lot of convenient ‘box ticking’ by groups.

Cycling’s problems are akin to those of a lot of sports; but that does not mean that cycling can just say that and leave the status quo as it is. Mental health must be addressed with conviction and commitment. A cyclist, like any athlete, is one component in a system that not only includes the parties I have mentioned above but also their agents, fans and the media of which I am a part of.

‘The system’ alone is so influential in its entirety on a rider’s mental health. But also there are so many within that system that rely on the rider for their own success, and the pressures from any one of these entities can impact the well-being of a rider. This issue deserves greater discussion within the sport. In turn, I believe it would lead to a greater implementation of support programs to help riders.

But is the ‘system’ in cycling equipped to allow that? History would suggest it is not … as so many of the problems in cycling stem from poor decision making.

I should declare that my belief has not just developed from my own experiences in ultra-distance cycling, but also from what I have learned on the subject at Crossing the Line Sport, an athlete well-being charity that is based in Sydney in Australia and for which I am their multi-media producer, among my work commitments elsewhere. It is certainly interesting work, leading me to even recently complete and pass a mental first aid course under the auspices of Mental Health First Aid Australia. I am now a certified ‘Standard Mental Health First Aider.’

Saying that, I should add that my beliefs expressed here to your question are mine and not officially representative of either of the organisations I have mentioned here.

PdC: In the book, as well as your own mental health issues you also talk about your wife Libby’s concerns, and how you had underestimated them a little. What advice would you offer to others on listening to their partner about these things?

RG: I would suggest taking on board their concerns and embrace those concerns objectively, rather than be defensive and construe them as a series of hurdles aimed at stopping you from doing something. The concerns are very real and come from someone – whether from one’s partner or a close friend – who is genuinely concerned for your well-being. These rides are ostensibly a selfish endeavour due to the nature of them being solo and exposing one to myriad risks.

By including those close to you in the planning and decision making and taking their suggestions seriously, their sense of the project excluding them is vastly minimised. So often, we say, ‘I could not have done this without the support of my …’ Well, that support should include their expressions of concern and suggestions.

Furthermore, if you succeed, the sense of accomplishment is shared and ultimately celebrated by all, and genuinely so. Likewise, if you fall short of your goal, the understanding for all that has been invested into the challenge is shared by all, and the support needed to catch you from the ramifications of any set back will be shared.

And don’t forget, while you may be taking risks, your partner or friends are too, because of what is at stake in a worst case scenario – how a possible misadventure for you at an event that you wanted to take part in could seriously impact their lives too.

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

PdC: You edited Winning magazine in the UK in the 1980s and I remember reading it back then, in the nouvelle Éire years, it was a fantastic magazine. One story I read in it stuck with me, a story about the Race Across America. It was described as riding through a tunnel of night, I think. I’d never done night riding at that stage – dusk to dawn – but fell in love with that image, and the idea of the RAAM. You’re going to be taking on the RAAM yourself, yes?

RG: Yes, I am. Next year, 2020 as a solo entrant. Winning magazine was where it all began for me. I remember reading in Winning about American Jock Boyer riding RAAM in 1985 and winning it – but that was two years before I joined the magazine. I didn’t know it then, but at a time when I was soon to embark on a career of covering professional road and track cycling, Boyer’s feat probably planted a seed in my mind.

Not that I imagined I would one day actually be entering it, especially now, after more than 30 years of covering the sport. The IndiPac rides had a role in this too, as I wanted to experience the difference between a solo unsupported event with no time deadline, and a solo supported event like RAAM that individual entrants must complete in 12 days.

The main differences are obvious, those being the elements of mandatory support in RAAM – where a support crew travels in a camper van and following car – and the time deadlines to reach along the way and at the finish. But I suspect there are many other differences between the two challenges, from physical to psychological. As with IndiPac, I would like to document my experiences and in doing so provide a collection of data for analysis into my experiences, and those of the support crew.

I think any study of the psychological and physiological stress of such an event on the rider and all support crew members would provide some interesting data that may help groups – whether at work or in sport or any circumstance – to work together in a bid to achieve the common goal … in RAAM, that being to get a bicycle across the United States in human powered form (the cyclist) with the input of a race crew that optimises the rider’s performance with the input of their collective support.

I will also use the 2020 RAAM as a platform to promote awareness of mental health issues, again hoping that will be heightened by my transparency in how I tackle it.

Rupert Guinness is the author of The Foreign Legion – Breaking the Barriers of European Cycling (1993), The Dean Woods Manual of Cycling (1995), Aussie Aussie Aussie Oui, Oui, Oui! – Australian Cyclists in 100 years of the Tour de France (2003), The Flying Grocer (2011), George Smith – The Biography (2011), What a Ride – From Phil Anderson to Cadel Evans, an Aussie Pursuit of the Tour de France (2011), The Tour – Behind the Scenes of Cadel Evans’ Tour de France (2012), We Won’t Back Down – On the Road with Orica-GreenEDGE (2013), Power of the Pedal – The Story of Australian Cycling (2018), and Overlander – One Man’s Epic Race to Cross Australia (2018).

Rupert Guinness’s books

You can find a rewiew of Overlander on the Café Bookshelf.

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

Rupert Guinness can be found on Twitter, @RupertGuinness

Our thanks to Rupert Guinness for taking the time to participate in this interview.