No Way In Hell: The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge

The 2013 Simpson Desert Bike Challenge – a sadistic slog through the hellishly hot sand dunes of the mighty Simpson – is just around the corner. Last year, Nic Learmonth was there to support her partner Chris through the ordeal.

A lone rider presses on, with sweep and the convoy not far behind.

Into the wilderness

A car horn blared through the silence. Beside me, Chris inhaled sharply and sat up in his sleeping bag. It was 4:30am and we were both awake, waiting for this signal to begin our first day of ‘the Simpson,’ a five-day 10-stage race across the Simpson Desert.

Six months ago, when Chris told me he wanted to ride the Simpson, I had told him flat-out I thought it was a stupid idea. Out in the Simpson Desert, apocalyptic conditions were the norm, Last year the race had been held on the Oodnadatta Track, in South Australia, because the Simpson had transformed into a bushfire inferno. Even rainfall is bad new – in 2010 the race was run in the Great Victorian Desert in SA because rain in the Simpson had caused flooding.

Even when the Simpson Desert is not practising for the apocalypse, it’s hardly the place for a mountain bike race, I went on. This year’s course would cross some 600 kilometres of loose sand and corrugations and go over an estimated 700 sand dunes between Purni Bore, in SA, and Birdsville, in Queensland. Temperatures could range from 4°C to 45°C. Finishing every stage is the Holy Grail, though less than a third of riders in event’s 26-year-history have achieved it – and the race has medics on hand to ensure no one actually dies trying.

I looked at Chris. He was nodding. ‘I know,’ he had said, ‘Doesn’t it sound like fun!’

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Yeah, just keep going that way, you’ll find it.

In the beginning

We were both sick with nerves that first day. Chris had lined up a mate to be support, with me riding shotgun, but the plan had fallen through. Now I had the keys our friend’s Toyota Hilux and waves of nausea whenever I thought about the steep sand dunes ahead of me.

Chris, on the other hand, had done loads of prep for his journey; endless rides, research and an impressive number of reps through the online checkout.

Chris’s desert rig was a Surly Pugsley he called the Black Ox. Now equipped with a 4.7″ Big Fat Larry tyre on the front and an Endomorph on the back – on 80mm rims – and a frame bag with a hydration bladder, and drink bottles loaded on either side of the fork, the Black Ox looked like the offspring of a touring bike and an oil rig.

Our friend Ronn had matched Chris’s prep, detail for agonised detail. Ronn was riding a ‘skinny’ tyre regular mountain bike, a Trek Rumblefish. Whereas Chris’s nutrition plan was a tightly scripted parade of chemically balanced goos and drink powders, and a mountain of bananas, Ronn’s included things like bacon and eggs for brekkie, and lollies on the bike.

That morning I found Ronn trying to secure a packet of Twisties to his bike without crushing it. ‘They’re 67 percent carbs, you know,’ he assured me. Our mate Maurice watched on in despair. Maurice was taking his role as Ronn’s support person very seriously, and having Ronn do something himself was not part of Maurice’s game plan.

The support crews had paired up so every rider would have a support vehicle ahead and in the back convoy. Maurice was tag-teaming with our friend Cec and her husband-rider Dave. I had paired up with Paul, who was supporting his partner, a determined young Kiwi lass called Melanie. Paul was delighted to hear that I planned to do the front convoy every morning, meaning I’d be first out and last in every day.

All too soon it was 5:20am. I wished the crew good luck and joined the front convoy. Our 16 riders would not set off until 6am. We drove out of camp, leaving them standing by their bikes and shivering in the pre-dawn cold.

As possible as possible

The convoy was a mix of experienced four-wheel drivers and newbies. As we trundled along on the French Line, nerves weighing heavily on accelerator pedals, race director Mark Polley talked us through tricky sections of the road, which traversed sand and small dunes.

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Even getting to the start line is hard work.

When we got to the lunch spot, some 80 kay and five hours later, we were all quietly relieved not to have gotten bogged yet. Maurice and I set up a shade shelter between our two trucks and sorted out chairs and snacks and cold drinks for our riders. Gav, our neighbour, was supporting his wife Suzie and their friend Lynton, pulled out a stretcher so Suzie and Lynton could lie down. I hoped our riders did not notice this luxury – it was far too late to upgrade our setup.

Lynton was first in. He pedalled his Scott Spark over the finish line to ecstatic cheers from us support crews. We trailed around after Lynton, congratulating him and offering to carry things and generally getting in the way as he weighed in and staggered over to Gav’s pit of luxury. Lynton collapsed onto the stretcher, sucking down the water like someone was threatening to take it from him.

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Pre-stage weigh ins and post-stage weigh outs are all part of the fun.

Riding buddies Murray and Al were next through, then a couple of others, and then Maurice called out ‘Nic, there’s Chris!’ He was scooting down the back of the last dune, clearly stuffed, but looking very pleased with himself, with Ronn just behind. At weigh-in, Chris discovered that unlike everyone else, he’d actually gained weight since the pre-stage weigh-in. Dr Mal and co-pilot Peter instantly signed on as full-blown members of Chris’s fan club.

At lunch Ronn and Chris were full of chat: ‘It’s hot,’ they said, ‘My legs hurt,’ they told us, over and over, while Maurice and I scuttled about fetching this and cooking that, and filling up water bottles for the afternoon’s water stops. They were whinging, but at least they were whinging about the right things.

We’re not in Kansas anymore

That afternoon Chris and Ronn and the rest of the mid-fielders tried to keep up with the fast kids. They discovered the fast kids were good company: Alan and Murray were Simpson Desert repeat offenders. They’d trained together in Sydney, and their laps up and down the beach every weekend had really paid off – these two were strong in the sand. And Lynton, a previous race winner, though he’d yet to achieve a 100 percent in the Simpson, was a gentleman from start to finish. These three welcomed the middle pack into their ranks for their 10 minutes of glory.

Meanwhile, Sweep, who considered himself a bit of a hunter, hoped to bag some big game during the race. The riders had to travel at a speed of at least 12km/h to stay ahead of Sweep and the back convoy. In a desert environment, that’s a difficult pace to maintain. As we neared our first rider, the radio chatter increased:

‘Sweep, I think your speedometer is out.’

‘Oh no, we’ve blown a tyre. Sweep, can we borrow your spare?’

‘Sweep, stop! We need help with our radiator.’

Despite our best efforts, we soon collected Melanie, Adam, Suzie and Lou, who, at 74-years-old, was everyone’s hero.

Melanie climbed into the truck with me. She looked shattered.

‘I thought I’d be able to get a bit further before Sweep got me,’ she said.

‘What are you talking about?’ I asked her. ‘It looks like bloody hard work out there. Be proud of how well you’re doing, missy, ‘cause we sure are. Now get on that radio. We need some help distracting Sweep.’

Coming unstuck

At the briefing that night I could feel our confidence growing. Sure, the race was hard, but with a bit of butt cream for the riders and low-two for the four-wheel drivers, it wasn’t impossible. We just had to keep doing what we were doing. Easy.

Mark set us straight: ‘Stage three is tough,’ he said. ‘Most of you riders will not make it.’ All but three support crews would be travelling in the back convoy for this stage so we would be able to collect all the riders. Sweep tried to hide his glee.

Michael Dalton crests dune #436. Just three hundred to go.

But when we arrived at the lunch spot behind Sweep the following morning, many of us still had empty seats. Most of the riders had gotten through, and we found them clustered around the medic team’s ute, where they had been begging for scraps like stray cats. Chris and Ronn had managed to con Mal and Pete out of their lunch and a couple of cans of coke.

The desert amped it up for the afternoon, turning on the heat and dropping the wind to an insipid warm breeze. We waved the riders off, knowing we’d see many of them again very soon.

As the convoy progressed down the Rig Road and started scooping up half-cooked riders, we heard that Melanie ‘needed to be picked up’. Sweep drove on to find Melanie slumped under a tree. We put her in my truck and cranked on the air conditioning. Melanie’s cheeks were flushed in the heat, but under that she was pale and her eyes were sunken in. She told us she had been feeling dizzy and that she had fallen off her bike eight or nine times. Sweep was worried.

‘Follow me as fast as you can,’ he said. Breaking away from the convoy, we rushed Melanie to the medics at the next water stop. There, Dr Mal did a quick assessment through the car window and decided to rush her on to camp. He and Pete pulled away at a fair clip, and I followed with Melanie.

The dunes got bigger and steeper – far more intimidating than the terrain of the day before. But with an unwell rider in the passenger seat, there was no time to hesitate. Mal radioed info on the angle and surface of each dune crest, and I put the foot down.

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Basic things become luxuries in the desert.

Our patient was just starting to perk up when we arrived at camp. Reminding Melanie to stay in the truck, I jumped out and told Paul that Melanie was still pretty rotten but she was a lot better than when we first picked her up. Paul looked shocked. This was all news to him. But Mal was pleased with Melanie’s progress. She was just 300g down on her pre-stage weight – after drinking some three litres of water on her way to camp. The doctor’s orders were to keep drinking and resting.

Chris filled me in on his afternoon. The 41°C heat had crushed everyone, slowing them on the sand and leaving them too tired to ride smart through the corrugations. Chris had lost a drink bottle when the cages on the Black Ox’s fork snapped under the strain of the constant vibrations. Then Ronn had pulled over, telling Chris he would catch him up.

It turned out that on top of the three cokes and the bowl of spag bol he’d knocked back at lunch, Ronn was also combating a chest infection. Several vomits later, Ronn was well and truly on his own. At the next water stop, where Chris waited for him, Ronn had a good long think about whether he wanted to continue. But after he and Chris dropped their tyre pressure – to 10psi on the Ronnblefish, and 5psi on the Ox – Ronn decided to keep going. Now riding over steep, soft sand dunes, Ronn managed to keep Chris in sight for the remainder of the stage.

Back at camp, Maurice agonised over what to do – ‘Ronn’s sick, but he won’t stop. He’ll run himself into the ground.’ Cec and I offered to dob Ronn in to the medics, but Maurice decided to see how he went the next morning.

Falling apart

On day three we discovered the desert doesn’t always play nice. The front convoy stalled at the base of a 20-metre monster of a dune, just three kay out of camp. The riders could see our headlights on the skyline.

The pressure was on to stay ahead of our riders. If they caught us, we would have to stop, and there would be no support for the riders at the lunch stop. Mark and a few other officials cleared the dune and raced away to set up the water stops and lunchtime shade while the rest of us waited our turn to tackle the sand monster.

Meanwhile, the mid-fielders formed a peloton of sorts with the fast kids. They charged down the road that had stalled the convoy, passing a couple of vehicles that had fallen behind to re-attach a flyaway car part.

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Sheer bloody-mindedness is the real must-have for this event. Andrew Hellier has what it takes.

Peloton chit-chat revealed that Murray’s Salsa Mukluk was called ‘Heavy Judy,’ because that was what Sydney’s recreational cyclists said when they saw Judy’s Endomorph tyres. The skinny-tyre brigade continued to defend their bikes to anyone who would listen, but Ronn and Terry the Greek, both fit riders, both on skinny tyres, fell behind whenever the group hit sand dunes.

Terry scored a round of applause when he arrived at the lunch spot well ahead of his previous times. But when he climbed off the bike, his legs buckled under him. Throwing Terry’s arms over their shoulders, his support crew proudly walked him to their lunch setup, another five-star effort, where Terry received a cold foot bath, a shoulder rub, and Greek music and dancing.

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Terry and his proud-as-punch support crew gave it everything.

In our pit, Chris was eating anything that was left unattended, while Maurice was trying to find something Ronn could keep down. Eventually, we snuck Ronn some of Chris’s instant mashed potato. Ronn didn’t throw up, so Maurice and I made fresh batches of mash until both lads were full.

The mercury continued to climb, and the afternoon was hard on the riders, who pedalled 50 kays in a straight line on sand, in 46°C, with a headwind. Chris summed it up as ‘the epitome of Simpson misery’.

Hitting the wall

On the fourth day, the Simpson handed out 47°C and sand-heavy winds. The front convoy pulled up to watch a bloody-red sun rise over the salt lake before Poeppel’s Corner. Meanwhile, Chris and Ronn were in the front pack, where everyone took a turn out in front, fighting the wind. Though nothing was said, the stronger riders quietly aided their mates by doing longer stints.

The afternoon brought many riders to the limits of their endurance. Everyone struggled on the red sand. It was finer and softer than the yellow sand they had been riding through, so all the tricks the fat bikes had learned (like riding outside the vehicle tracks) did not work. They resorted to pushing their bikes up dunes.

Over the radio, the back convoy listened intently to reports on Terry the Greek’s valiant fight to stay ahead of Sweep. But eventually that fine red sand reduced the cast of 100-percenters to seven. Chris and Ronn finished just 20 minutes ahead of Sweep.

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Al Keenside and Murray Rook still smiling after 80 kays.

Out of the desert

The first dune of this last day put the hurt on the tired riders – even Lynton groaned as he pedalled up it. But things got easier. The rain from the night before had packed the sand down, and the distances between the dunes increased.

Little Red was the last dune of the race – and at 30 metres, it was also one of the tallest. Only Murray managed to ride all the way up Little Red’s steep face.

About two kays from the lunch stop, Al and Murray asked if anyone wanted a stage win. The trail had morphed into a proper road, optimal conditions for skinny tyres – Ronn and Terry went for it.

On the other side of the lake, us support crews saw Terry approaching the morning stage finish line, with another rider closing in fast. It wasn’t until the two riders crossed the line together that we recognised Ronn. Maurice was caught without his camera. He was in deep disgrace.

As other riders trickled in, we overheard Mark talking to Sweep on the radio. Melanie had double punctures and was now running with her bike to stay ahead of Sweep. ‘You can’t help her,’ Mark said. ‘The rules say only a rider can help another rider,’ he added, raising his voice. Al and Murray jumped back on their bikes and hoofed it back down the road, with Chris and Adam just behind.

Al soon returned, wheeling Melanie’s bike. He paused a few metres before the finish. Then the main posse arrived – Melanie was running, with Chris and Murray on with side of her, and Adam riding in slow zigzags behind to stall Sweep. Al held out Melanie’s bike, Le Mond start-style, and Melanie pushed it those last few metres.


All the way to Birdsville

The final stage was not a race – the riders travelled in a convoy of their own, with just Sweep behind them. Everyone else had driven ahead to Birdsville. (Where we were immediately distracted from our duties by delicacies like cold beer and the Birdsville Bakery’s curried camel and kangaroo and claret pies.) Our bellies full, we congregated at the official race finish line, outside the Birdsville Pub. Maurice and I weren’t going to miss Ronn crossing this finish line: Maurice nipped into the pub and bought a bottle of champagne.

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The milk and honey at Birdsville.

Mark, on the radio to Sweep, fielded an urgent message from rider number four. That was Ronn. Maurice stepped forward, holding the bottle of wine and flutes: ‘What’s wrong with Ronn?’

‘He wants you to buy him a bacon and egg pie from the bakery.’

Maurice laughed. We could hear the engine of Sweep’s truck in the distance – no one was going to leave now.

Then the bunch appeared on the horizon. As they got closer, we could make out one rider clearly in front. It was Lou, proudly leading the riders to the finish. Chris rolled to a stop in front of me. Around us, support crews and riders crowded together, hugging and shaking hands and congratulating one another. Covered in grime and sweat, Chris threw his arms around me.

‘That was the best trip ever,’ he said.

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Last stop: The Birdsville Hotel.

In the end, Al and Murray were placed first equal, with Lynton in third. Chris and Ronn did far better than they had dared hope, coming in fifth and sixth respectively, and joining the select few in the 100-percenters club. But the Simpson had been tough, and we celebrated every rider’s achievements at the post-race festivities later that night.

Afterwards, Chris told me he had had mixed feelings about arriving in Birdsville.

‘It was really neat to get to the finish and to see all you guys there,’ he said. ‘But it was sad to leave the desert. I wanted to keep going.’

The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. So support the RFDS and back a rider by clicking here.

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