One week on from finishing the epic Simpson Desert Bike Challenge has offered me time to reflect upon what I learnt during the 9 day adventure and 5 day race. The race is something so unique to every other mountain bike or road stage race, it offers not only a hard yakka 5 days of racing but also a bit of introspection and perspective check about what we ride for and what really matters in day to day life.
No other race I have been in has made me more aware of the reality of the dangers in our sport. In The SDBC if anything dramatic were to happen to anyone in the race, you are often at least a 2 day drive to the nearest sealed road or anywhere a plane could land for medical assistance. Being somewhere so remote is quite grounding, especially as someone who lives with Type 1 Diabetes.
What matters most whilst being in such a place is the present moment, the health of yourself and that of those around you. This leads in to what is the most amazing part of this event and what makes people come back year after year after year. The people that race and volunteer at this event are nothing short of amazing. An iron clad strong sense of community has established amongst ‘The Simpson’ community and everyone seems over the moon to welcome in new members that community such as myself. From ‘Snowy’ the ever encouraging sweep vehicle driver, ‘Unicorn Dave’ the chief vehicle mechanic, ‘Gray’ the 4WD expert skills adviser, ‘Pirate’ the ace rider supporter to Dr. Su the head of medical operations.
EVERYBODY involved in this event is looking out for one another from Coober Pedy all the way to Birdsville – the whole race becomes a community operation. The people, the characters and the stories is what makes this event the spectacle and icon it deserves to be. Does the remote, desolate environment bring out the best in people or does such an environment only attract those with such a strong, down to earth spirit? A question not easily answered but a reality that becomes obvious to anyone who works up the courage to sign up for a week of desert adventure.
Experiencing this event with a history of road racing at a professional level and having competed at many other marathon stage races offroad is an eye opener in itself. No other race I know of involves a shovel as your bathroom and post stage activities include tent erecting and clearing a campsite to ensure safety from deadly serpents. Alas, the uniqueness of this event rewards a certain attitude and perseverance.
To get through this event requires a lot of power and strength to push the often heavy bikes through miles and miles of deep sand. I was training for this event by using the heaviest tyres I possibly could on my other bikes to try and encourage constant high power output. Endurance is also a key factor to performance in this race. Riders coming from either traditional XC races or CX races may find the stages that often require the greatest amount of energy expenditure after 3 or 4 hours rather challenging.
But as with all cycle races the greatest strength is without a doubt mental fortitude. The terrain can be mind numbing, riders are encouraged not to use headphones smartly for safety reasons. The terrain can be mentally exhausting as you crest dune after dune only to see an entire horizon revealing the exact same undulating terrain for hundreds of kilometre’s into the distance. It can be mind numbing and frustrating.
I found it helpful to focus on the little things, keeping my pedal stroke smooth, experimenting with different climbing techniques to master the often steep and deep sand dunes. Often the gnarly sandy climbs were rewarded with a few seconds of thrill down the other side on a bermed, sandy descent.
Milestones for the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge
This year represented the 30th annual running of the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge. Making it unofficially the world’s oldest mountain bike stage race. A field of 21 riders had assembled at the Purni Bore campground to contest the honours of getting their name on the perpetual trophy that lives in Birdsville Pub. Many challenges arise before even arriving at the start line. It is a rather technical 8-10 hour 4WD trip from the frontier Outback Opal mining town of Coober Pedy to get to the start line. This year 1 competitor failed to make this the unofficial ‘stage 1’ of the race as the gearbox dropped out of his 4WD vehicle on the drive in. This is apparently the case every year, which further emphasises how remote this race is. Getting to the start line is an achievement in itself!
Upon reaching the start we were all greeted with rather good conditions for desert racing. Recent rainfalls had made the usually deep, soft sand firmer than usual making for a faster racing surface. On the eve of stage1 a further 5mm of heavy rain fell making the seemingly lush countryside of the Simpson desert even more soggy. There were some concerns about the passability of some of the desert creeks and salt pans ahead. Judgements and calculations were made by the very well versed officials who made the decision to proceed as planned.
Stage 1 was an aptly named ‘dune resurrection’ 68km straight into the gnarly terrain that awaited us for the next 5 days. I made my move here with good legs and a desire to make the most of every single kilometre of racing. I set off with an early attack and never looked back taking the win. Each day then continued with an afternoon stage. Day 1 was a gruelling 45km on a north-south utterly corrugated road, with a strong block headwind after the turnaround. This commanded a lot of energy for riders to complete within time cut. After a full gas morning stage I was determined to continue my rhythm winning stage 2 also. I continued to win every single stage of the race, after years of struggling to merely make time cut and fighting tooth and nail, suffering to just hang in there at many, many professional road races around the world. I relished in the opportunity to be the dominator for once.
My comrades out there Jason from Adelaide, George from Broken Hill, Peter from Sydney and Simon from Adelaide were having a duel for the minor places. The race directors have done an amazing job of providing a varied terrain of stages, with some stages rewarding different styles. The most iconic stage being the final competitive stage- The Big Red criterium. The world’s only sand criterium race. 15km on top of Australia’s largest sand dune in some technical sandy terrain. Myself and Jason Morrison duked it out here before I was stoked to take the win on the top of the dune to cap off an amazing week of racing! The ladies race featured 2 racers this year both from Sydney with road racer Lynne Moore taking the honours over Amanda Cleife who rode superbly with consistent stage times every day.
Results from the 2016 Simpson Desert Bike Challenge
Placing No. Name Distance Time %
1 20 Justin Morris 481 km 20:44 100
2 11 Jason Morrison 481 km 22:48 100
3 2 Peter Moore 481 km 22:59 100
4 4 Simon Taylor 481 km 23:09 100
5 22 George Adams 481 km 23:34 100
5 14 Tim James 481 km 24:04 100
7 16 Martin Solms 481 km 26:32 100
8 18 Ken Glasco 481 km 27:21 100
9 3 Lynne Clarke 481 km 27:30 100
10 7 Frank Falappi 481 km 28:04 100
11 19 Amanda Cleife 481 km 28:37 100
12 12 Alan Keenleside 481 km 28:54 100
13 10 Garry Davis 481 km 29:09 100
18 6 Stewart Lake 481 km 29:11 100
14 9 Tony Culshaw 481 km 29:23 100
16 5 Andrew Phillips 481 km 29:41 100
17 17 John Richards 481 km 30:30 100
15 21 Bill Young 481 km 30:35 100
19 23 Stuart Banks 481 km 31:52 100
20 15 Mike Kosieradzki 481 km 34:37 100
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge was an amazing adventure and one of the most finely organised races I have ever experienced. Especially considering the conditions left to deal with.
For information on the 2017 event (26-30 September) stay tuned to: desertchallenge.org
To donate to the Royal Flying Doctor Service – follow this link.