Repeating last years feats wasn’t enough – that boundary was broken. Going from 1 stage to 3 stages (4 available) was also not enough. This year, the focus was more about bringing another rider with a disability into the mountain biking scene.
Last year in October, history was made when I became the first Australian with a disability to take part in a Mountain Biking event. With all the exposure and praise I was showered with during and after the Cape to Cape MTB 2013, it wasn’t long until the focus shifted to this years event.
One of the objectives of Break the Boundary is to raise enough awareness about off-road handcyclists in Australia so that it is eventually respected and officially recognised as a para-sport. To do this, you need participants and a lot of noise! So I set out to bring Daniel Sonnabend back into his beloved sport of mountain biking after his accident in 2011 which left him paralysed from the chest down and with a permanent head injury.
Where it all began
Early on this year, I assisted Wheelchair Sports Association WA in obtaining enough charity funding to purchase two new handcycles. With a bit of research and discussion, we concluded that we needed variety. As with the varying degree of Wheelchair Sports members’ abilities, so to was the choice of equipment. A recumbent handcycle with a power assist unit was the priority and the second being the a kneeling down off-road handcycle. Both of these would help Daniel and myself train hard and break new boundaries at this years Cape to Cape.
For Daniel it was a fast change of pace from the smooth-gliding on-road handcycling. For me, it meant greater distances over shorter time. Emotionally however, I wanted more than anything for Daniel to re-experience some level of adrenaline as he once did during his previous years as a mountain biker. I relived this feeling last year while training for the Cape. It wasn’t the exact same feeling as riding with the use of legs – it was different – but just as powerful and exciting. The exact feelings may never be recreated, but there are so may new sensations and thrills encountered with handcycling which you don’t get when riding a bike. It’s up to the individual to decide whether they try to simulate the same experiences as riding a bike, or if they try to use and elaborate on new experiences with handcycling.
Once we had the equipment and everything was organised for this years Cape it was simply a matter of getting the km’s in.
22nd October – Day before travelling to Margaret River
I spent the day making final preparations on the handcycle and packing bags while trying to handover a couple projects at work. It was an early start because I had to pick up my photographer Emily Dimozantos from Perth airport at night, who came along from Tasmania on her own accord. The flight was delayed an hour, so we ended up returning home by 12am. Not the ideal way to start a 6am day following.
23rd October – Arriving at Margaret River
Out the door around 8am – we hit the road for a 4 hour drive to Margs. Having stopped at the bike shop, warehouse and then fuelling up, we ended up arriving a little later than planned, so we decided to head straight to the finish line of the first stage at Hamelin Bay.
I pulled over to the side of the road with the rest of the parked cars and managed to get out just as soon as the rain had settled. As usual, people were checking out the trike on the trailer. A few questions here and there by spectators, which I don’t mind – just as long as no one touches!! 🙂
While heading towards the finish line a guy pulled me over, Paul. He remembered me from last years ride, and eventually it clicked with me also. I remember Paul buying me a beer at the finish line last year. This was the start of many conversations I would have with awesome people competing, spectating, volunteering and supporting the Cape.
Arriving at the finish line we were looking for my support rider, Jon, to collect a new custom build attachment that would sit behind the trike’s bucket seat. This was designed and welded to help Jon assist me during steep climbs without requiring him to lean over and strain his back. We dubbed it the ‘sissy bar’ – a small reminder why not to use it!
The atmosphere was buzzing and you could feel the sweat and excitement in the air. The MC over the PA system, the people cheering on, riders grunting through the final 100ms, junk food stalls cooking a storm, repair and sponsor tents, smelly bathrooms, and the sea of bikes, lycra and more bikes!
We went back to check into Margaret River Beach Resort where we stayed in a 4 bed accessible bathroom. The friendliness of the staff and the laid back atmosphere is always pleasant. A quiet carb-loading dinner followed by food prep for the week, and then an early night sleep for an early rise for the first stage of my journey.
24th October – First Day of Racing (Stage 2)
5:30am start. My physio, Ryan, from Wanneroo Physiotherapy arrived a bit before midnight was snoozing away on a mattress in the living room. Scuffling around in the kitchen, my noise eventually woke Ryan up. A light breakfast – toilet – get dressed – load vehicle. We were off to Hamlin Bay for the start line. The nerves were in full throttle.
We were slowly ushered through the road block to go into the carpark for unloading. Winding through the narrow beach roads which was packed full of cyclists warming up the legs on a cold morning, we found a place to park and it was all go from there. Suncream, helmets, sunnies, food and making sure everything was ready for the first checkpoint.
Again, a few strangers were curious about the trike and came over for a little morning chin-wag and photos. I never say ‘no’ to this kind of opportunity because the other initiative of Break the Boundary is educating people on the abilities and equipment that is available. Some people might see it as a form of narcissistic bragging, but call it what you may, more people are realising that there’s actually people with disabilities who want and can take part in MTB events in Australia!
We went off to the end of the pack at the start line where we bumped into Jon. We made final minute tyre and bolt checks (trikes have lots of strange sized and shapped bolts that tend to come loose after a while of bush bashing).
This year we started off at the back of the pack so that we didn’t have to contend with bike riders overtaking us on single trails. It’s not the over taking part which bothered us, it was the constant stopping, pulling over, giving way to inexperienced people afraid to overtake, and having to start again – it takes it’s toll, especially on Jon who has to keep giving me a push start to get some speed. Starting at the back worked well for us this time around and I learnt that the 40 odd people at the back came from a range of backgrounds, ranging from the inexperienced, to the social riders, to the weekend warriors, to those with health and fitness goals, and to those who just want to have a wacko time on dirt.
We (Jon and I) started at a stead pace to get the joints warmed up and the rhythm steady. It was a steady climb for about 1.5km on bitchemen until we reached the first dirt trails. By then everyone was ahead of us an the silent whistling of our tyres was all that could be heard (and Jon’s voice pushing me on).
During the first 10kms or so, we were greeted with some breath-taking pine trees through the forest and then some crazy single trail downhill, namely ‘Downhill Sam’ and ‘Lord of The Rings’ – sheer awesome! I hesitated at first because I hadn’t pushed the new hand cycle to it’s limit, but it didn’t take long before I let it rip and just let the hand cycle take the brunt of the obstacles that were thrown my way.
I remember Jon’s constant support. He was my guide throughout and I was the grinding power. Jonn would constantly encourage me when I transitioned on the climbs and when I was nailing a steady pace. This started to lessen around the 15km mark when things started to get a little hairy on the trails. It was serious business throughout the majority of the stage, but occasionally I would try to break it up with some blood pumping yells of excitement as we tore down the steep gravelly hills. It was counteracted by the colourful cursing when we were faced with sandy single trail, lots of sand!
Around the 25km mark we were stopped by race marshals and requested to jump into the 4WD since we were past the cuttoff time by over a hour (they let us continue through a previous one). I was met with a bit of shock and disappointment, but knew that these rules were in place for a reasons – rules are rules. The only thing that really bothered me was that the marshals also had to manage other riders and support staff, so things were very slow at times. I was in the zone and to have a break for more than 10 minutes would mean our bodies cooled down and we’d have to spend more time getting back into the zone.
The 4WD was loaded with the trike and Jon’s bike. 50 meters from driving off we were greeted by a short yet seriously steep and slippery limestone hill. The 4WD struggled getting over the corrugated and washed out, bumpy surface. It gave the trike and bike a good shake. Next thing I saw in the side mirror was the trike on a bizarre angle. I told the driver and the response was “That’s ok, I put them like that.” The next attempt up this hill resulted in the trike and bike flying off the 4WD tray, smashing into the ground and tumbling down the few meters we drove up! Hand brake went on, and the boys jumped out to inspect the damage – everything was ok minus a nasty scratch on the trike’s ‘sissy bar’ (life saver and a testemant to the solid welding job and engineering design behind it). We were off again.
After about 20 minutes of driving around to the next check point (skipping about 8kms, some of which was beautiful scenes over looking the ocean), we were dropped off on to the course. SAND! Great way to start! Slowly we picked up the pace and were back in action. We crossed some muddy sections and some awesome vinyards. A small section cut through Leuwinn Winery which was gave us something pleasant to look at while grinding away. At this point my left elbow started to hassle me with sharp pains everytime I cranked, so I concentrated on using my right arm more. I didn’t want to blow anything out so I let Jon assist a bit more than usual.
Through an airfield we went and in to the last 5km! About 2km from the finish line the marshals were waiting for us with a trailer (ramp down) expecting me to roll straight into it. I stopped just before and protested that we continue. As one of the marshals’ attention was elsewhere, I took the opportunity to pat his head in a child-like manner and gently request “Come on, you know you want to let us go through”. After a slight pause he looked at me and replied “Ok, I know what you’re like”. I backed up and made my way around the trailer while the other marsharls were busy organising something else. “Wait, what’s going on?” Jon questioned. I started cranking and abruptly replied “We’re going to keep going”, as to not give anyone a second chance to change their minds. Off we went – to the finish line at Xanadu Winery!
Things started heating up as I smashed out the last 1km without assistance. With a strong finish at the end line, I didn’t really care that only a few lone riders remained at the finish to cheer me through (most had packed up and gone to the Red Bull Shootout in the Margaret River Pines).
Some photos, words with a couple of the organisers, a bucket of ice for the elbow, some repairs to the gear shifting cable (kept skipping gears throughout the ride), and of course, sitting on my wheelchair had never felt so good!
A special shout out to Jason and Jay from Malaga Cycles with the Giant team who were straight onto the trike with tools and gear – no questions asked! These guys continually provide A-class service at very little to no fee – I can’t say thanks enough! It’s the passion that drives these type of people to help others and provide services when no one else will. Jason always tells me it’s a privilege for him to work on the trike, but I would argue that the privilege is mine to have skilled hands repairing the trike.
We packed up, got some race directions for the next day from the same marshal that supported us at the checkpoints, and went back to the accommodation.
Daniel had just arrived with his support rider, Fred. Everyone was acquainted and I was jumping straight into the swimming pool which was about 18 degrees. As cold as it was, it was a relief to stretch out the joints and let the swelling come down a bit. Out of the pool, into the shower and into some clean clothes, ready to go back to Xanadu Winery for dinner.
Xanadu Winery was a very social evening. Within minutes I was chatting with new strangers who I briefly spoke with at the start line. One of the ladies in particular, Kris, was a good laugh. Read her Awesome Adventurers Profile. After dinner with the team, it was straight back to the apartment and I was out like a sack of potatoes as soon as my head hit the pillow!
25th October – Second Day (Stage 3)
Another early start. Same process as yesterday. Wake up, breakfast, shower, get dressed and load up the vehicle.
Stage 3 was the same stage we did last year so I was less nervous because I knew what to expect and where the obstacles were. We skipped the rolling start which ran through the main strip of Margaret River and joined the group at the start line. This year there wasn’t any media attention, so it was somewhat more enjoyable watching the riders pass and taking it easy before we took off.
The start drew near and before we knew it, Dan and I were off, side-by-side along the first stretch of road. This was Dan’s very first MTB event since his accident – this is what I wanted to experience!
We turned into the first set of dirt trails, which I previously skipped last year, so I was looking forward to the extra 19kms. Along the first 5kms I came across Paul, the guy I spoke with on Day 1 and met last year at the finish line of Stage 3. Unfortunately for him, he had two chain breaks and no more links to repair, so he was out for this stage. If it wasn’t for the 10speed chain he was running, I would have patched him up with my spare quick links, but instead it was replaced with “I’ll see you at Colonial Brewery”.After some serious climbs there was fast decline which helped me max speed at 53km/hr! It might not seem like much in a car but when your inches from the ground and the slightest shift in body weight throws the trike out, it’s a thrill! The feeling of air rushing through my helmet, the whistling sounds and the gradual increase in the thunder-like roar of air bursting past my ears to the point where I couldn’t hear myself yell with joy, brought back feelings of riding a roller coaster. It makes the climbs worthwhile!
After the initial loop we hit the Margareret River Pines. Renowned as one of the most enjoyable single trail of the entire 4 days of the Cape, there was no short fall in letting us down this year. We took a slightly different route than last year to help cut down the congestion with other riders. After about 3kms of fire trail and having Dan just in sight in front of me up until the first major climb, we came to our first intersection to check the map.
When your in the pines and if you’re not familiar with the trails, it’s easy to lose orientation and get lost. We only spent about 8 minutes getting directions this year, a big improvement on the 30 odd minutes we wasted last year. Thankfully we bumped into Daz (one of last years camera men). Funnily enough, I was trying to meet up with Daz as soon as I arrived in Margaret River, but with our busy schedules it didn’t happen until this point. Call it fate, call it a coincidence, call it what you like, for me it was such an awesome thrill to see Daz again in the middle of nowhere – another positive people I’d reconnect with throughout this journey.
We marched on to the Northern end of the Pines to hit some downhill single trail, ‘Lilly Trail’ and ‘Woop Woop’. Smooth, fast flowing, berm and table top filled – it was another reminder of why MTB is so much damn fun! Only one semi-stack here which I managed to save with the help of Jon (who this year didn’t loose his bike amongst the chaos). As we approached the end of ‘Woop Woop’ (which is also the finish line for the Red Bull Shootout) I decided to take the easier berm, instead of the jump, and heard another random rider behind me yell out “Not going to take the jump this year!?”. I was quite humbled that someone remembered what I did the previous year in a particular spot – another reminder of how close-knit the MTB community is.
Jon and I continued on, out of the Margaret River Pines and into the second set of Pines. Everything was much more pleasant this time around as we knew what was coming up ahead of us – Tight and overgrown single trail, knee deep crossing that smelt like shit, large logs that I needed to be lifted over, and that unforgettable ‘Last Hill’. The Last Hill has a gradient of 19.2%; it’s steep, it’s slippery with gravel, corrugated tread and washed out gutters, and it climbs for about 100m. It was a struggle, but nothing compared to last year!
We eventually came to the last few hundred meters. Jon repeating the comment that this year I was finishing it on my own and that I should smash it out… so I did. As I came towards the finish line, the crowd wasn’t as big as last year, but one thing made me smile on the inside. The young boy that asked me for an autograph at the end of stage 2 was sitting quietly on the grassy hill at Colonial Brewery which corners to the finish line. He’s waited another 5 plus hours to see me at the end – it’s the final bit of motivation I needed to power through the finish line!
26th October – Third Day (Stage 4)
The final stage. Back to Colonial Brewery for the start line.
I was a bit concerned as there was a section known as ‘Middle Earth’ which was apparently difficult to get through on handcycles. So we were running around before the start to track down the C2C event organisers to get some directions. After about 30 minutes of asking different people, we managed to track down JD, who had a map of the re-route scribbled down. All good!
We hung around the start line to watch the first 4 waves of top riders start – it’s a different atmosphere at the front. You can feel the tension between the competitive riders but also a strong sense of community, belonging and friendship. Dan was sitting next to me having quick conversations with some of his old riding friends while cheering on his closer friends (while bagging others with tongue-in-cheek). With Dan being charismatic and cheerful on the outside, I sensed that he wanted to be there amongst this group. It most likely won’t happen at a MTB race event, and sitting on the side line while the riders rolled out might be the closes Dan gets to being with his elite riders, but I was glad that he was there to witness the start and hopefully experience some of the energy amongst the group.
It was our turn to roll out. This time, not right at the back, but a few groups in front since the first few K’s were wide fire trails and back roads which other riders could overtake us on easily.
After some long windy fire trails, unsealed roads and bloody annoying soft sand sections and climbs, we came to our first stop point for a quick refuel. We were taking the detour which we planned on earlier and Emily had some crazy photo idea involving her jumping in the trailer with all her expensive camera gear while Ryan drove along side us. We spent about 15 minutes between Dan, myself, and our support riders (Fred and Jon) in different arrangements to get some photo opportunities. While looking awesome for the camera, I got to share a golden moment with Dan where we would pull up in front of each; back and forth, trying to out do each other and kick dirt up into each others faces. This is what riding with mates is about! Forgetting about the race, forgetting about the finish line, forgetting about the weather and the fact we were two guys with disabilities using handcycles – this was about taking a few moments to act like idots, goof around, get caught up in the moment and have fun!
It didn’t take Dan much longer to get a lead in front of me. Again, I had to remind myself that there was 60kms of pushing on this stage and as much as I wanted to give Dan a run for his money and make things competitive, I knew that I had to ease off and pace myself – lucky I played it smart because what was ahead of us was gut wrenching.
Stage 4 is long. 60km of hills. Long hills that never seemed to end and kept going up, and up. Distance and gradients mixed in with the sun hitting our backs and also reflecting off the hot bitumen really took a toll on Jon. These hills had plenty of traction (minus some the odd sand trails) but when it gets to a certain gradient and when you’re continually pushing non-stop, it gets to a point where I can only exhert a certain percentage of energy through the hand cranks. This made a tough job for Jon an even more treacherous chore. It was a matter of survival now.
We refused to give up; we refused to take short cuts; we simply kept plugging away – one turn after the other. At one point where we had to change direction, Jon took a quick break behind me. I was too excited at the thought of finishing this event that I didn’t realise when Jon said “Rest” that he meant ‘REST!’. I kept going, slowly but steadily without Jon for 100m or so, stopped and waited for Jon to catch up at the top of a climb – that’s when I realised he was on the brink of collapsing. I gave him some time and took off again.
It was nearing the finish line. Only 1 kms out and there were plenty of support stuff around. We redirected around a small section along a road where people driving in the opposite directions with their cars/trucks loaded with bikes where literally hanging out the windows cheering us on, yelling and sounding their horns to encourage us – what a kick! It’s like we’re all somehow connected and that we’ve all been through the same ordeal and want everyone else to accomplish the same goal.
The finish line was in sight and sits on the base of a grassy hill. A perfect opportunity to burn up everything else left in the tank and gun it through the finish line. The crowd was roaring. Support staff on either side of the fenceline, people yelling out my name, whistling, cheering, applauding – this was it, this was the end of 3 solid days of riding. To celebrate I pretended to run over Emily who was strategically positioned a few meters behind the finish line – I think I ruined her shot by making her jump back a few meters to avoid collision (the things I do for shits-n-giggles).
I got to hi-five one of the riders (JD) who was at the back of the pack. Someone I met only a day before made the finish line even more enjoyable.
Soon as I pulled up, there was a couple of cameras in my face and the interview questions started rolling. After about 5 minutes chatting with the film crew, Dan and his friends, jumping on my chair and having a quick bite, I turned around to see Jon at the first aid tent collapsed in a heap on a chair. I went to speak with him and congratulate him – he was utterly spent. The worrying look on his wife’s face had me concerned that it was worse than I originally though. The sight of Jon’s 1yr old kid crawling around his legs without a care in the world made me realise that behind the efforts of the last few days and months leading up to the event, there was a support team behind my support team.
The stats speak for themselves (below blog) but what doesn’t get the attention it deserves is the support behind the accomplishments.
A massive heart-felt thank you to my close and selfless team; Emily (photo), Ryan (physio), Adam (conditioning coach), and Jon (support rider).
To the team behind my team, thanks for looking after them and sacrificing time with them so that they could be with me: Nat (Jon’s partner), Bec (Ryan’s partner).
Congratulations to Dan for starting an emotionally difficult journey, one that will continue to more rides, thrills and moments of connecting with other riders. Thanks to Fred for helping Dan get there!
Thanks to the awesome C2C staff and volunteers, in particular: JD, Chis, Lee, Mel, Sian, and Maddy.
Jason and Jay (Malaga Cycles); each stage was made easier with the swift repairs after each stage and the mechanical support leading up to the event. Also a massive thanks for kitting Jon up a week after the race with some flashy new wheels and accessories – your generosity goes without saying!
Tim for designing and helping organise the welding for the ‘Sissy Bar’ – flawless engineering and craftsmanship!
Valetudo Health in Floreat for letting me train at their gym.
To the guys that rode with me during the training rides leading up to the event; Matty L from work, Wozza from QLD and Rhys – without the training, it wouldn’t have happened.
To my freelance journo, Cam, who unfortunately couldn’t make it from Melbourne this year; thanks for your continuing support of Break the Boundary and my personal endeavours – your energy knows no distance.
Cheers-n-beers to Daz and Matt C for finding the time to come chat with me during the race and after. Keep in touch!
Finally, to Wheelchair Sports WA, in particular Gary for continually motivating me and believing in pushing Off Road handcyling towards the forefront of Australian’s with a disability.
Photos – Courtesy of (C)Emily Dimozantos Life In Motion Photography.