Published in - 2018

A familiar darkness surrounded him. Apart from a single beam of light wavering back and forth, lighting the way ahead, there was no sky or land or living things to be seen; no sounds other than his own.

Hours earlier he had stopped for food, finding nothing but closed shops and silent, dimly lit streets. He had, give the current situation, little choice but to push on. Waiting meant staying overnight, a length of time he couldn’t afford. The nearest point of resupply was another 120 kilometers away, and he was starting to feel the effects of nearly a week on the bike. Before setting off he said to himself, like so many times before, “if you don’t ride, someone else will.”

The rider, whose name was Mike Hall, rolled into the night more than halfway into his journey, his face weathered and thinner than days before. The event he entered—a race in which he had no expectation of winning—was the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race, a 5500 kilometer jaunt across the Australian continent. He was riding unsupported, averaging hundreds of kilometers a day and sleeping, if at all, a few hours a night. His toes were white and soft, his jersey now a loosely fitted top hanging from his compact shoulders. Days before, upon leaving Fremantle at the start, Hall looked stout, a powerful figure sat atop his bicycle. He looked eager to push the pace, to challenge those who came to win; to make a hard go for riders he felt hadn’t had a hard enough time in the past.

Mike Hall was born in Britain and lived in a quiet region of South Wales. He was a solitary explorer, often out on rides through the countryside in preparation for larger, multi-day events. He wasn’t much for documenting his experiences yet had a growing following of fans. On the bike he resembled a machine, pedaling and moving, pedaling and moving, as if he were keeping time to some celestial rhythm. His form—often tucked into the aerodynamic handlebars on his bicycle—was never completely still but lacked nothing in efficiency. His torso rocked slightly as he moved though he rarely showed signs of fatigue.

During the ninety-one days of his World Cycling attempt in 2012 (which Guinness did not recognize because of a change in the rules), he grew accustomed to the unrelenting solitude of riding, overcoming agonies that would have shattered nearly anyone else. Although he was not physically overpowering he raced as if he were being chased. He often shared stories of fighting his demons on the road but said he never stopped or got off the bike to do so. Moving with his machine, drifting over the pavement for days at a time, Hall embodied his truest self. Outside of racing he felt uncomfortable in ordinary life. Over time he would build up tension before an event or ride; a stress and anxiety of things and reasons and feelings. This strained sense of living was what made Hall so great at extraordinary things. He transformed disquiet into momentum and had little interest in slowing down.

He found solace in cycling, having begun in 24-hour mountain bike racing before taking his hand at endurance road cycling. He enjoyed the thrill of racing on his own, as if it were some kind of double life he was living, a fugitive on the run or a story that wasn't his own. Time was ephemeral, and he was unattached, never staying in one place for too long, leaving nothing to show he was ever there.

Like many explorers, Hall seemed to be on an inward journey as much as an outward one—the riding a way of subjecting himself to some ultimate test of character, or a quest for deeper human understanding. He was an outspoken advocate, raising awareness for Newborns-Vietnam, a charity dedicated to providing care in the poorest areas of the country, and even organized a 1,500 kilometer race there as a way of vocalizing his message. During an interview about the race, Hall reinstated the purpose of the ride saying, “the direct work that Newborns Vietnam is doing is going to give more babies a chance to survive...the combination of the sport I love, a great cause, and at the end of the ride seeing first hand what my sponsorship will support ticks all the boxes for me."

Hall’s adventures as a cyclist inspired people around the world. His mother recalled letters Mike received from people who’d never ridden a bike: "Having met Mike in person, these strangers began cycling or purchased their first bike, something they’d never done before." His ability to transform the worlds of those around him, through one of the simplest forms of human motion, was a gift he carried with him as he raced. He was a steadfast defender of others’ rights to take risks and plan adventures, providing a chance for ordinary people to fit in.

I knew Mike Hall. Not personally, but I admired and loved his attitude towards cycling, and kept up with his reticent persona for years. He belonged rather firmly to a group of endurance cyclists, a sub-genre of athletes referred to as overlanders or bikepackers. These are immensely devoted and dynamic individuals. Some people don’t understand this “enduro-cycling” niche. Often I don’t understand it, but I find myself drawn in by its potency. These explorers have created another way of experiencing the basic elements of riding, which is to experience it raw, without questioning its essence, allowing it to morph into its own shape and form as they go.

There is also a realness to it all, one keenly attuned to what the sport feels rather than whether it’s interested in its status as a sport. That kind of self-awareness is hard to come by for anyone let alone an entire group. Overland cycling has it, and has provided fertile ground for the growth of two–wheeled rambles. Riders like Mike Hall, to be sure, never received the memo saying what you can and can’t do on a bicycle, which is good, because that kind of thinking tends to restrict rather than progress. Hall not only advanced the sport of cycling, he advocated strongly on its behalf. Through this, that strange power he possessed of resoluteness and progress, the reality of his death seems all the more impossible.

It’s enough to say that there’s a deep-culture shift in the sport of cycling consisting of people who are too driven or too energized or too audacious or whatever else to go and ride a bike merely for the fun of it, and a kind of post-professional-skinny-tire-roadie enlightenment has ripened to support them. A good bunch of this is happening within the United States, but the majority of professional overland cycling is in Europe or Australia.

This style of riding speaks to people, not just a new up-and-coming generation of adventurers looking at the bicycle as another way to blow off steam. It's reaching the furthest corners of individuals, diversifying, expanding like a supernova ripping apart the status quo. Pushing boundaries resonates with these folks, is part of a greater desire to be detached from the demands of normal life without abandoning them completely. So many people (and brands included) over the last decade insisted they had found the formula for growing the sport of cycling but fell short because they set rules that the majority of curiously adventurous people balked at.

Hall, who was only thirty-five when he died last year, had been growing the sport from sub–culture to global fascination since he was in his early twenties. Yet he was relatively unknown outside the budding community he inhabited. Unlike the often gregarious (but recently more boring) personalities of professional road cyclists, Hall was a magnanimous and altruistic figure—soft spoken and polite, never giving too much in the way of how he was feeling. He also had seemingly endless stamina to do the rides he loved, and to educate riders of all types on the benefits of riding a bike. He was smart, and he was good at what he did; always moving forward, strangely present.

When the Transcontinental made its inaugural debut in 2013, thirty people started in London. During the fourth edition in 2016, over 1000 people applied for entry, and 350 successful participants lined up in Geraardsbergen, Belgium, to take a crack at the route. Roughly 3,200 to 4,200 kilometers long, the race isn’t a stage race like the Tour de France. It’s a single ride, timed from start to finish, consisting of four checkpoints that riders must visit in order to complete the route. It is self-supported, meaning good luck getting help from anyone. But that’s the point. It’s a contre-la-montre, a race against the clock, and it attracts a very specific kind of rider. Elon Musk said humans would have to be prepared to die to go to Mars, which I think we can all agree makes sense. But what about to compete in the Transcontinental or the Baja Divide? It’s a morose thought but one that doubtless crosses the minds of riders when planning these kinds of trips.

After his death, Hall’s long-time partner said in an interview that Mike was very aware that being killed while racing was a possibility. "As a racer he knew it" she said, "and he took it very seriously as a director of the TCR." Being aware of one’s own mortality is an incarnate quality, one that is strangely required when participating in self-supported cycling. To take part in these kinds of rides means ignoring what kind of guts it takes to do something so far removed from your comfort zones. It takes something else, something larger than yourself.

Before Hall’s death was officially made public I received a message on Twitter that he had been in a crash. I was making dinner with my partner and went to the living room to check my phone while the pasta water boiled. I frantically searched social media for facts, finding many unsubstantiated reports, and finally logged into the dot-tracking website linked to Riders’ GPS devices, which reported Hall’s responder hadn’t registered movement for over an hour. It was highly unlikely that he was sleeping or taking a break or doing anything other than riding to the finish. Only 300 kilometers separated Hall from the Opera House in Sydney—a distance that would put him at the finish line in a little over three hours time.

As word spread, so too did the cumulative effects of grief and loss catch wind across the world. He was the type of figure attached to the culture whose personality exceeded their sentient presence on Earth. Hall’s death made headlines, not only among cycling-specific outlets but in mainstream media internationally, including The Independent and The Guardian in his home country of England. Outpourings of thanks and condolences flooded the internet immediately creating a nationally trending hashtag in Australia and the UK, and a Go Fund Me page was established to support Hall’s family back home.

Hall’s memorial service was held in England among family and friends in a white church on a day that looked typically overcast and wet. I watched the service in a documentary about the IPWR, well after the funeral took place, and felt a wave of grief and happiness as friends offered eulogies of Mike’s accomplishments, his lack of a pain threshold, and an unwavering commitment to his craft. A group of friends after the ceremony undressed from their suits—adorning only their briefs, white button down shirts, and bike helmets—and lined up for a photograph on the grass in front of the church. A row of men stood at back, while another row laid out on the grass in front. A single seat in the center of the group, which sat empty, was flanked by a third row of men in the middle. It was the kind of moment that needed to happen; a tradition the men took part in since university as a way of distinguishing themselves from other sports teams that had the money to afford well-made uniforms and kit. As the men began redressing, the camera still fixed on their movements and laughter and smiles, the clouds cleared from overhead and the sun came down gently on the faces of those gathered around the church.

In England, Australia, and several other locations around the world, memorial rides were organized to celebrate the sport of cycling, and to honor Hall’s life. Hundreds of riders gathered on the Opera House steps in Sydney, and in Mid-Wales a fluorescent glow of riders set out en-masse, excitedly sharing stories of the rider they admired. Many talked of their desire to participate in the TCR, or of trying their legs at the next IPWR. Kristof Allegaert, Hall’s only and true rival in the sport, spoke in an interview about his adventures with Mike as riders and as compatriots: “It was fun racing against Mike, and we talked a lot about how we raced together at such a level. But I don’t think we really knew what we meant to each other. The world made it bigger than it was, but we just wanted to ride our bikes and make a good time.”

In the year since Hall’s death, the Transcontinental continues to attract large numbers of cyclists, and Hall’s legacy—his omnipresent spirit in the sport—has catapulted this subgroup into the mainstream. Attached to a table, on a small weighted placard at Hall’s funeral, a handwritten card read “be more like Mike,” a quote that has transcended its use as a hashtag into an ideology of how one ought to live. On the year anniversary of his death, social media flooded with eulogies and memories of the rider, and many admitted that if it wasn't for Mike's innate kindness and enthusiasm they wouldn't be riding today.

In an age preoccupied with technology over human experience, Hall will be remembered for the way he brought people together, and for the lasting contribution he made to a sport fundamentally tethered to human interaction. He proved racing was as much about independence as it was about friendship, and that often the best experiences in life are shared together, doing what we love.