Pedaling the Outback

Pedaling the Outback

Steve Hankel of Savoy is a seasoned long-distance cyclist who enjoys the challenges of cycle touring.

He and his son Joe have ridden many Rails to Trails routes, including the Katy Trail in Missouri and the Greenbriar River Trail in West Virginia. They’ve ridden 400 miles from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C. And in 2012, the two rode across the U.S., from Seaside, Ore., to Bar Harbor, Maine.

But this summer’s cycling trip was the toughest ride Hankel has done. He and Joe -- a senior at Iowa State University -- bicycled more than 2,000 miles across the Australian Outback, from Melbourne to Darwin.

Blog Photo“I like that cycle touring is a noncompetitive challenge,” Hankel said. “There are no winners or losers, but it’s still a quite demanding challenge and tests you both physically and psychologically. Cycling all day, day after day, for weeks at a time puts you in touch with your body and your capabilities.”

The trip -- like their 2012 cross-country ride -- was a fundraiser for a project of his church, Copper Creek Church in Champaign, to provide clean drinking water to villages in Malawi. Hankel called both his bicycling trips “Ride for Water,” and he created a website and journaled daily about both trips.

“Doing something like this is kind of a selfish act,” Hankel said of his cycling trips. “It takes a lot of time. It takes money. I thought, I need to have a purpose for it.”

This summer’s ride started June 24 in Melbourne. The Hankels rode along the coast to Adelaide, then turned north to travel across the Outback to Darwin, on the north coast of Australia. They finished their ride Aug. 4.

The first section of their trip was along the Great Ocean Road, a hilly ride from Melbourne to Adelaide.

Blog Photo“The scenery at the start was absolutely beautiful,” Hankel said. “It was very rugged coastline, akin to the California coastline or the Oregon coastline.”

The Hankels rode in freezing rain and sleet on the first day of their trip, and most mornings were cool enough to require a long-sleeved jacket or fleece. By the end of the trip, they were riding in 90-degree temperatures.

Hankel regularly reads a website filled with reports from long-distance cyclists, and those who have ridden the Australian Outback advised riding from south to north, as the winds are usually coming up from the Antarctic during the Australian winter. Hankel believed they were more likely to have tailwinds by riding south to north. He was wrong.

“You can do your research, but you’re pretty much at (the mercy of) Mother Nature,” he said.

The cyclists battled headwinds for 1,400 miles, all the way to Alice Springs -- a little past the halfway point of the trip.

Because they were behind schedule due to the headwinds, Hankel and his son chose to skip about 300 miles of cycling and take a bus from Alice Springs to Tennant Creek. That reduced their trip from the planned 2,500 miles, but it gave them some time at the end of the trip to visit a national park.

They rode the Stuart Highway -- a mostly two-lane road with no shoulder -- through the Outback. They could ride long periods of time without seeing any traffic, but then they would encounter road trains -- semis pulling up to four trailers. Fortunately, on the long, straight highway, the cyclists could see the road trains coming from a long distance -- and hear them as well -- and prepare to move off the road to get out of the way.

They rode through desert-like landscapes of scrub, and also stretches of red soil and rocks with no vegetation. And no houses anywhere.

“It was almost kind of mesmerizing, the monotony. There would be a long, straight road to the horizon, and you’re riding through this short scrub that’s unchanging,” Hankel said.

Blog PhotoThe two were joined for part of the trip, until Alice Springs, by a New Zealander that Hankel and his son met on their ride across the U.S. and a friend of his. The group usually rode about 60 miles per day. They camped a few times, but most of the time they stayed in roadhouses -- general stores with gas, food, camping and motel rooms for truckers and others traveling through remote rural areas.

“Because of constantly slogging into the wind, we were so wasted at the end of the day, we felt like we needed a shower and air conditioning and decent rest to recover,” Hankel said.

He carried about 66 pounds of gear on the recumbent bicycle he rode. Each cyclist in their group carried three 3-liter water bladders. Hankel carried a tent, clothing and some food -- a few dehydrated meals and what he would buy at stores along the way -- and a camp stove to heat up water.

Hankel likes the challenge of self-supported touring.

“The idea of fitting everything we will need for traveling a few thousand miles on a bike and carrying it ourselves under our own power is particularly compelling,” he said. “It requires a good deal of research and planning.”

He is also intrigued with being in the elements: “Facing the challenges of cold weather and rain, feeling the wind in our faces (admittedly a bit too much on this trip), and experiencing the smells, while being able to observe nature close up and at a slower pace from one side of a continent to the other is quite compelling,” Hankel said. “Sometimes the changes are so gradual that you barely notice, other times the change is quite dramatic, yet the horizon changes with every stroke of the pedal.”

His favorite part of cycling long distances, though, is being out in nature, meeting interesting people along the way and spending time with his son.

“The sense of accomplishment is one thing, but it’s more than that,” he said. “It’s being outdoors and spending time out there. We like to spend time together.”

 Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at jheckel@news­, or follow her at Her blog is at­­line/.  

On the web:

Read Steve Hankel’s journal about his trip and find out more about the water security project on his website,

The following are among the cycle touring resources Hankel likes:   Photos: Top, Steve Hankel, left and son Joe pose with their gear in Darwin, Australia, at the end of their 2,000-mile-ride across the country. Middle, On their first day of riding the Stuart Highway in the Australian Outback, Steve and Joe Hankel rode through a short, intense shower, then saw a double rainbow. Bottom, From left, David O’Neill, Joe Hankel and David Isitt navigate the highway south of Alice Springs, Australia. O’Neill, a New Zealander whom the Hankels met while cycling across the U.S. in 2012, and Isitt, a friend of O’Neill, joined them for part of this trip. Photos provided by Steve Hankel. 

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WillBonny wrote on September 06, 2016 at 9:09 pm

Thi is an inspiring post. I always to engage in this kind of activities on my spare time (which is increasing by the day).