In my conversations with Kristof Allegaert, the ultra-endurance cyclist, during our #bikeshopeat, we discovered parallels between living a good life and being a successful endurance racer. Energy being a finite thing in both contexts, it’s important to make the right choices and at the right times. How? Live your life well. Work and train to the best of your abilities. Learn from your mistakes. And keep trying to improve by pushing boundaries.
#Bikeshopeat is a hashtag that I started in 2015 to show people how it’s easy to shop and eat by bicycle instead of by car. We rarely grow our own food or make our own clothing. Instead of taking your car to buy milk or go for lunch, why not bicycle to choose a better way of life?
I proposed a #bikeshopeat with Kristof for several reasons. It would be an efficient way to show him the city. I had also discovered that he had never ridden an e-bike before. What better way to help him recover from his journey across Australia by bike equipped with small motor? I also suspected that there was another side to him that we hadn’t seen before. The photos during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race (IPWR) showed him in lycra, hot, cold, bleeding and sunburnt. What was he like as a person not just as the three times winner of the Transcontinental race?
His friend Jack Thompson, another ultra-endurance racer, had come to see Kristof from Perth. Being interested in mens fashion , I was curious to know if Kristof had style. I suspected that he did because of his daily clean-shaven appearance. Only a particular type of person would be so fastidious about his appearance on such a journey.
After a de-brief in our garage and a quick session with an Allen key to adjust seat height, the three of us were off to Pitt Street Mall via the cycleways. I consider Kristof a road cyclist (roadie) as opposed to a commuter. Roadies are generally fearless and quick. They take the main roads which are often the shortest (and most trafficked) way. Consequently, I made sure to charge the battery for my e-bike the night before. As Kristof and Jack didn’t know Sydney well, I would lead but I wanted to set a reasonable (non-embarrassing) pace. I am a little competitive too.
My preferred routes are very different to roadies’. As a woman and a mother, I have chosen specific paths around Sydney. I prefer to ride with less opportunity for conflict with drivers. It may take longer but I am more comfortable with this approach as a commuter, with kids and sometimes with both kids and groceries.
When we hit the open road at Pitt Street, Kristof took off between cars to avoid a snarl of traffic that had developed. The cause was a crane lifting a giant concrete slab to a building site. I have been known to ride between stopped cars but I wanted to give the slab a little time to find its home. Jack kindly waited with me. We knew that we would see Kristof shortly by the side of the road waiting because he didn’t know our destination.
Continuing on as tour guide, I led them to Harrolds and we entered another world. Kristof immediately recognised the shop for what it was. A place full of beautiful clothes and fantastic service. I first brought Mike Tomalaris here last year and we had a grand time together.
I introduced both to Luca and he took us around the shop. We discovered that Kristof is more comfortable in casual clothes. As a secondary school teacher, he rarely wears a suit. However, his preference is for the classics.
After walking through rows of contemporary clothing, with accompanying soundtrack, which included jeans, t-shirts and jumpers by a variety of designers, we ended up at Dunhill. Kristof’s smile was immense in this room. Lorena came to give us a hand. Long distance and endurance cyclists have amazing bodies. Continuous activity reveals the essential form upon which clothes hang so beautifully.
Who is this prince?
The same man?
By now, it was nearly noon. I offered to take both to Bondi for lunch the way that I knew best via Centennial and Queens Parks. Mine was a longer journey than by taking Oxford Street. But Kristof and Jack would have the opportunity to test the capabilities of the e-bikes while I would feel safer riding along quieter roads. We left the city via Castlereagh Street. In Sydney, the bus lanes are shared paths for cyclists. Watch out for taxi drivers who also use this lane and all will be well.
The ride to Bondi was beautiful. The approach was so lovely that I forgot to take photos.
We went to lunch at Pompei’s and ordered proscuitto with buffalo mozzarella, bread, two pizzas and a salad. Kristoff remarked that this was his favourite way to eat. Delicious food, friends and plenty of time. During a race, all were in short supply.
While we waited for our first course to arrive, I admitted that I had been curious about how he ate during the race. I wanted to understand how he managed. Earlier that morning, I had touched his arm and felt solid muscle. He told me about the burgers and energy bars that he ate at petrol stations along the IPWR trail. I asked, “Did you discover any foods that gave you more energy? Was there anything that became your favourite thing to eat?” He grimaced and said, “Not really. It all became fuel.” My lack of knowledge showing, he patiently explained how the body adapts to anything you give it during a race. The problem is time. Stopping to wait 20-30 minutes for a meal is difficult to rationalise when in a race. He went on to explain how he managed his hunger by continuing to ride. This was also the case for sleep.
Sleep is a precious commodity during an endurance race. Not getting enough can result in hallucinations or micro-sleeps which can be deadly. Sleeping too much instead of racing can result in a slower than desired time. I asked what he did when he was tired. He said that he rode for another hour. I laughed in surprise but I could see that he was serious. When he was really tired, he would try to extend himself for another half an hour.
At night, he would try remember things that he had seen moments ago to check that he was still awake. Kristof said that the most dangerous times were when he found that he had missed moments. In those times, he realised that he had pushed himself too hard. Each rider attempts to find the equilibrium between the need for sleep and food. Each pushes the body to its limit and then pushes again. Step over that limit and then see how the body reacts. It important to listen carefully to push just enough.
Standing to go faster on the e-bike and yes a lovely view of the city on View Street.
The waiter delivered the proscuitto and mozzarella with a flourish. Jack confessed to having been a vegetarian before the Transcontinental, where he and Kristof first met. But he soon gave that up. It became difficult to be choosy in an unsupported race. I had imagined the riders sleeping in the bush in a swag or sleeping bag. Later, Kristof told me how he found shelter in public toilets. His sleeping bag and mat were his good friends. He would set an alarm to wake after a few hours of sleep. Once he fell asleep before setting his alarm and overslept. The world noticed.
The pizzas arrived. The delicious scent of bread, cheese, meat rose from the table and filled the beach air. I first spoke with Kristof on Sunday at the Mike Hall memorial ride. He told me that after a race he had to unlearn the habit of inhaling his food. His wife had admonished him many times for good reason.
I had deliberated over that feeling of hunger. The only equivalent that I could reference when I was breastfeeding my two children. Feeding a newborn baby round-the-clock and into in the middle of the night is exhausting work. The hunger that arose was extraordinary, deep-seating and gnawing. I remember waking my husband up in the early morning and asking him to make me peanut butter and banana sandwiches with a glass of milk. Often, I would go back to sleep with the baby. Not so for the endurance rider.
The three of us chewed thoughtfully, drank water and wine together and enjoyed the moment. We were dining al fresco. Bondi Beach was just visible beyond Roscoe Street and Campbell Parade. The sun was shining. And both had spotted gelato on the menu.
Later, Kristof would explain what he thought were the keys to success for an endurance race. They were the following:
Gear (30%) – The best bike and components along with the means to carry the essentials.
Physical condition (30%) – Training prior to the race is very important.
Mental condition (40%) – Continuing on beyond the normal limits of hunger and tiredness is the key to finishing an endurance race. Consequently, more mature riders tend to make better progress. The experience that comes from being a little older, is often linked to better decision-making which is key to finishing the ultra-endurance race.
Kristof and Jack ordered gelato. I decided to have some later in Surry Hills for our second gelato stop. After all, I hadn’t ridden 5,500km last week. We discovered that Kristof likes the classics in gelato as well. Vanilla, hazelnut, pistachio are his favourites. He was of the opinion that they’re not always well made. But when they are done well, they are superb.
We finished lunch and ambled to our e-bikes. We returned to Surry Hills quickly. Sydney was putting on a show for my out-of-towners. At some point descending from the Corkscrew on Queens Park Road, Kristof passed me in the classic roadie-super-close-way. He saw my reaction but knew that I would manage. I commented on my muted freak-out and as Jack had witnessed it all, we all laughed.
Jack pointed out that there is a technique for riding a mid-drive e-bike which I am demonstrating here. Pedaling with a brief stop to double-click into a higher gear on the Merida with Shimano Steps.
Having another gelato together in Surry Hills, while Jack opted-out this round, I noticed both sets of hairless legs. I personally like men’s legs when they are unshaven. I find them to be very masculine. But these four legs were like mine. I knew that they both worked hard to maintain this state. It was a good time to confess to not ever shaving my own. One asked if this was characteristic of Asian women. I said, “No, it’s just me.”
In the midst of laughter this afternoon, I was struck by Kristof’s personable nature. He told me that during the race, he was often touched by the emotion that would arise by his passing. He saw a pre-schooler one day during the race. He had waved to her. Later, she would pass him in the back seat of a car. They waved again. Not long after this sighting, via Facebook, he received a hand drawn picture of himself on his bike. He felt rewarded by having a positive impact on people during these races. As a secondary school teacher, he was aware of the impact he could have on people of all ages.
I had been impressed with the way that he stopped and chatted with dot-watchers along during the race. He said that he gained quite a lot of energy from people with whom he spoke along the way. We agreed that energy is a funny thing. Where does it come from? How do you conserve it or regain it when you are running on empty or are beyond empty?
One of the things that I have learned, as I have gotten older, is how to manage my energy better. Work, husband, two kids, household to run. One way is to manage my reactions. I used to react to all sorts of non-important people, places, things. He agreed. Emotional energy is just as important as physical energy. On the bicycle during the race, he said that having a bad attitude can take a giant slice out of one’s energy reserve on an ultra-endurance race like the IPWR. Combine that with not enough sleep and food, take another two giant slices out of your energy reserve. Very soon you have very little left.
Consequently, he tried to keep an open attitude to people during the race. The questions were often all the same from his supporters. But he found that he often gained energy from people by spending the time no matter how repetitious the questions. And he knew that the time he spent with people had an impact. He found that he was different to Mike Hall in that way. “But we all have our own ways,” he added.
Ice cream finished, we sat and chatted in the warm afternoon light. He told me about the GPS tracker and how it was both a blessing and a curse. He rode a stretch of the race with a friend who had promised him dinner at a restaurant together. Ultimately, nothing was open. They ended up at a petrol station choosing from the limited selection of fuel on the shelves. And suddenly there were cars and people outside. The GPS tracker! He ate and chatted to soothe away the missed restaurant meal and then continued on into the night.
When the IPWR organisers found him and told him about Mike Hall’s death, he stayed in the same spot for two hours with the crew. He knew that Sydney was only 200km away. He decided to turn off the GPS. Sydney within his grasp, he wanted to ride to the Opera House alone without the press and media to greet him. It would be his tribute to Mike.
I too had puzzled over the immovable Kristof Allegaert dot that fateful Friday afternoon. While the rumours swirled about his position, his decision to finish or abandon the race, we had all wondered if and when he would arrive at the Opera House. He posted his finish on Twitter much later than his actual time. And many went to the Opera House looking for him. For him, being alone with the beautiful symbol of Sydney as the finishing point was perfect. He was done.
Kristof told me that the IPWR riders and organisers had planned to ride to Bondi on Sunday. Unfortunately, they ran out of time. I was pleased to have made that possible for him. The race finish was at the Opera House but the plan had been for riders dip the front wheel of the bike in the surf at Bondi.
I stood back when we were at Bondi Beach with Kristof. We didn’t stay for long. He took some photos and then remarked it was time to go. I will always remember seeing his profile against the blue of the surf, flowers on his helmet swaying gently in the breeze.
In memory of Mike Hall, 1981-2017