Race to the Rock is a solo, unsupported ultra-endurance bike race usually finishing at Uluru. The start location for the mostly off-road course changes each year. This means each year is a fresh new adventure. The courses typically start with a more rugged section with sections of single track before heading into the vast desert plains of outback Australia. Each year since 2016, with the exception of 2021 due to COVID, Race to the Rock has started on the first Saturday in September. This year’s edition was a little different.
Different to other years, this edition started in Sydney (the Rocks) and finished 2,000 km later in Adelaide, not at Uluru (the Rock). A dot-watcher came up with the good idea of naming the event, Race from the Rocks and it stuck. 46 intrepid riders started at the Sydney Opera house in horrendously wet and muddy conditions and things went downhill from there. The route included a very physical single track and national park tour through Sydney's suburbs and rocky northern beaches trails before tackling Old Great North Road and the Blue Mountains. The shorter 700 km entree course finished in Orange while the full course pushed on into mostly flooded farmlands.
At Palm Beach, just 75 km into the race, riders were thrown a challenge when the ferry they expected to catch to Wagstaffe rerouted to Patonga due to bad weather. This meant unexpected extra kilometres and some on-the-fly navigation as the riders had to work out how to get back to Wagstaffe to start the next section of course. The extra kilometres and horrendous conditions meant that daily mileage targets needed revision before lunchtime on day one. The muddy trails resulted in early diversions for riders looking for more brake pads, having already worn through fresh new sets with a few hours.
Curve rider, Stephen Lane was fastest on course as the sun set on day one. This was Stephen’s first attempt at a race longer than a couple of days, having had success in shorter form bikepacking races, most notably the 550 km Vic Divide race.
One by one, the riders stopped for the evening on the first night but dot-watchers were amazed to see one solitary dot keep moving. On the first night, Sacha Dowell stamped her mark on the race, riding straight through the night and past all her competition despite the nasty weather. Like Stephen, this was Sacha’s first attempt at a race longer than a couple of days. In shorter events Sacha slept very little, easily going a night without sleep, and it was clear she was taking that strategy into this event. The internet was abuzz with speculation – could Sacha hold it together after such an aggressive start. It turned out she could.
Stephen Lane dominated the front of the race early on, in a tortoise and hare scenario with Sacha Dowell. While Stephen was faster on the sodden trails, Sacha needed less rest and often passed Stephen while he slept. After days of treacherous conditions, the leading four riders were forced to spend two nights at the Royal Hotel in Euabalong working out what to do next, a very unusual race scenario. In this four were Stephen and Sacha but they were joined by David Langley and Erinn Klein. It was a complete race reset – all the hard work of the previous days was scrapped. Together the first four they agreed on a 700 km reroute on paved roads to Mildura, the next place on the course that wasn't closed due to flooding, and restarted their race.
Despite controlling the front of the race from the start, Stephen quit the race at Tooleybuc within 600 km of Adelaide, and about 200km of finishing the planned reroute to Mildura. Stephen reported that the mental load of a week in the mud was just too much to bear. He also spotted that a short ride to Swan Hill would allow him a quick exit to Melbourne on the train parachuting him out of the race.
A new race for the win unfolded, this time between Sacha and Erinn Klein. This was Erinn’s fourth Race to the Rock – he won the 2020 edition. Erinn rode himself into form over the first six days and a tight race with Sacha took shape as they rolled through Mildura, within a few minutes of each other, with 360km to the finish in Adelaide. Debate on the internet fired up again – Erinn needed more sleep than Sacha throughout the race, so would Sacha try to push straight through to reach Adelaide first. Fatigue had obviously set in for Sacha as she battled along the Old Mail Road toward Renmark. Erinn managed to establish a small gap that varied between 20 and 30 km.
Meanwhile, David Langley was quietly getting the job done in third place. This was David’s first attempt at this event but he is a seriously experienced ultra-endurance racer and Tour Divide finisher. David managed to close the gap on Sacha significantly on the final approach to Adelaide, at one point getting within 8 km of second place. It was an exciting and rare finale to the race. It is very unusual to have the lead riders in a bikepacking race so close together right to the end.
After a final full night of tough climbing from the Barossa Valley through the Adelaide hills, Erinn rolled into Adelaide victorious. His finish time was 9 days 4 hours and 34 minutes. He was challenged right to the end by Sacha who eventually finished four hours later in a stunning first attempt at this race. Fast finishing David Langley finished third, just under an hour behind Sacha. It was an exciting finale to the toughest edition yet.
Check out the entree course here
Part 1: Sydney Opera House to Palm Beach
Check out the main course here
Part 2: Orange to Adelaide
Photo credits: Wes Hart - @AllDayRollClub and the riders.