6,000km+ Solar Bicycle Expedition
SAM MITCHELL, 23, could be described as a new age adventurer. In 2016 he combined the benefits of cutting edge technology with the traditional hard work and grit of exploration. Travelling over 6,000kms on a solar assisted bicycle Sam conquered the Canning stock route and much more on a trip that earnt him recognition as National Geographic's Young Adventurer of the Year 2017.
TOM DUNN: In your own words, who is Sam Mitchell?
SAM MITCHELL: I’m me, probably don’t quite fit the mould of anything. I wear shoes with big power tools, my spelling sucks at best, but not really sure who I am yet.
TD: The Canning Stock Route is a notoriously tough journey to do in a 4WD. What inspired the idea to up the ante and attempt it on a bike?
SM: The idea formed while I was on an earlier trip around Australia on a solar powered trike. I was pretty much stuck to the black top (bitumen) at the time, and wished I could get off the main roads a bit. People kept talking about the 'Canning', it was marked on my map, and the well’s (series of water sources) made it look do able. The idea developed slowly from there; I kept thinking "It might be possible”
TD: You rode a "solar powered, electric fat bike". Explain to us what exactly that is, and why you chose it
SM: I had what was once an off the shelf electric assist bike, an E-rex from Ezee. A fat bike means it has super wide tires that “ float” on sand. Normal mountain bike tires are around 2 inch, stock tiers for the e-rex are 3.5 inch, and on the stock route I ran 4 inch tires.
The solar powered bit was that I towed a trailer of solar panels to charge the bike battery and run its motors. On average, on roads, about 30% of the total energy came from me, the rest coming from the solar and battery’s. So solar/ human fat bike would be more technically accurate.
The Canning is mostly sand which is extremely difficult to ride on carrying enough supplies, impossible with a normal bike tires. I wanted to see if it was possible to cross the track with a solar powered vehicle, and bikes are light and cheap ( compared to car’s) to build.
TD: Your gear weighed over 125kg and at stages you were forced to drag it over sand dunes on the route. Was there a point where you thought your body wouldn't cope and you wouldn't be able to finish the trip?
SM: Not exactly a single time when I thought that I wouldn’t cope- but there were A LOT of times when I thought about the possibility, and I was very aware that it might not work. It wasn’t just my body I was worrying about, I was always worrying that gear, bike, trailer, food, brain, body wouldn’t cope. I wasn’t sure I would make it until I got back to the graded road 40 km out of Wiluna (the final stage of Sam's trip).
TD: You covered over 4,500km just to make it to the start of the Canning Stock Route, after then travelling a further 1,850km on one of Australia's roughest roads with a trailer made from an old trampoline, is it fair to say that your gear was heavily tested in preperation?
SM: It was fairly well tested, but I had hoped to test it better. The first time that my whole loaded setup took on a dune was on the start of the Canning. I hadn’t done more than a few hundred km of dirt until I left Alice Springs. Before the Canning the longest I’d ridden the setup on proper sand was 15 km on a beach only partly loaded with road tires on the trailer. Having a decent amount of testing was definitely built into the broad plan though- I found a few weak point’s of the set up on the Tanimi (a section of road that Sam covered en route to the Canning) that would have destroyed me on the Canning if I hadn't reinforced them beforehand. It was also a great physical and mental warm up for me.
TD: Did your gear survive the journey in one piece, or were you limping through those final kms to the finish line?
SM: The gear did survive, but I did have a lot of breakages in the last few hundred km of the canning, broken axle, coupe of cracks in the frame to weld up, and a wire ( not the connection- the wire) fatigued through. The bike however has kept going strong for another 12 thousand kilometers and counting since finishing the trip though.
TD: Was the trip a bigger challenge physically or mentally?
SM: That is a hard question. Both were hard, and sometimes hard physically made it hard mentally. If I had to guess I would say that getting to the start line was harder mentally but doing the trip was maybe a bit harder physically, but it’s a fine line
TD: The journey proved that solar power (and some sweat) can transport humans through some of the toughest conditions on this continent. Do you see a big future for solar power?
SM: Yep. Solar power is just good. At lot’s of things and in lot’s of way’s. Scalablility, green (mostly), almost no maintenance…
TD: The journey saw you spend a lot of time in the Australian desert. Did you find that the nothingness of that environment beautiful or lonely?
SM: Beautiful. Not sure why but it’s amazing, especially seeing it after or during rain.
TD: The trip has also earnt you the award of the 2017 Australian Geographic Young Adventurer of the Year. What does that accolade mean to you?
SM: It’s cool I guess- and a bit of a honour after seeing some of the people who have received the award in the past. But it’s never the reason you do a trip like that.
TD: You've now completed a few trips, (Sam has previously cycled around Australia on a solar powered scrap metal tricycle in 2013, and completed the World Solar Challenge through the Australian outback in 2015) and it seems adventure has become a passion of yours. Where does that passion for challenging yourself come from and what's the reward?
SM: It’s always really satisfying to do something that you thought would be difficult and you weren't sure you could do it.
TD: What would now be your ultimate trip? Where would you travel to, how would you get there, and who would you bring along?
SM: I don’t know- haven't seen enough of the world to know yet. And it would probably depend what I felt like in life at the time. Somewhere remote and amazing, on some form of transport I was actively involved in, and with someone fun, interesting and easy to be around.
TD: What does the next few years hold for Sam Mitchell?
SM: I'm currently finishing a Renewable Energy Engineering degree at UNSW, and working for a startup called 5B on a cool way of making medium to large scale solar cheaper. Some more adventures or cool tech stuff could be fun. But I don’t really know what I’m doing.
TD: Is there a message you've learnt from your trips that you'd like to leave us with?
SM: Lot’s of thing’s I would love to rant about. On a human level- go out and do things that seem a bit nuts, they might just work.
On a tech level E-bikes are good- if you haven't ridden an E-bike, you should. They are just good on so many levels, health, energy, social, it ticks basically every transport box apart from when it rains. As far as I am aware 'solar assisted E-bike' is the only method of crossing the Canning Stock Route that so far has a 100% success rate
Get in touch with Sam Mitchell:
Facebook - @solarshift
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