For us, the SDBC began back in the very early 90s during a holiday trip to the Simpson Desert. We were having a grand time in a brand new Toyota, powering through everything and feeling fantastic. As we approached Dalhousie from the Western side, the track back in those days went through the notorious Glue Pot a stretch of aptly named mud that demanded a handful of brave pills and a spirited entry if one was to have a chance of making it to the other side. On this day however, the brand new Toyota met its match in the form of a pair of 1m deep wheel ruts hidden in the muck. The ruts, created by an Army Unimog, swallowed the car and promptly put it on its belly. It was then that we first learnt of a bunch of mountain biking nut cases riding across the desert and that pesky Unimog used for support.
It was tough enough driving across the Simpson Desert in and to ride a bicycle seemed such an impossible task but in the back of my mind I thought Wow…that’s interesting… Seed planted.
Fast forward to last year and through our involvement assisting SDBC participants with 4x4 bicycle carriers, we met an eclectic bunch of riders and each was bursting with enthusiasm about the race. It was then that the seed sprouted.
We love the desert, 4WDing and mountain biking, so this event ticks all three. I think I like a challenge so that's got to be a tick. Sometimes, I can get my head in a good place and get through a tough situation so that has to be a plus. Riding a bike is essentially travelling at a human pace - and that’s what a true desert experience demands. What an excuse for a ride!
So early this year, over the dangerous combination of a red wine, late night internet connection and a credit card, the deed was done. Before I could begin training, my agreement with Melanie involved a battery of health checks that included being poked, prodded, stuck with needles, strapped with wires and lying for what felt like an eternity in scanning machines that most disconcertingly made alarming humming and whirring noises. Thankfully (I think) all of the test results were great and in the words of our doctor, "Go on George, smash it out mate....." It seems that I was good to go.
I started training. Riding every day at first. 2hrs a day...... 3hrs a day...... Before long 4hrs a day...... Then 8 hrs...... TITS as they say.... It's all about Time In The Saddle..... The bum toughens, the body grows stronger and the fat just melts away. Best of all, it was all mountain biking FUN! What an excuse for a ride! But soon the novelty began to wane. Training through a Melbourne winter is brutal. Mud, mud and more mud. Freezing cold, pedalling in rain and hail and because training time was scarce, I found myself hitting the tracks alone at all sorts of odd hours of the day and night.
Having sampled the torture of riding desert sand on previous trips, a fat bike was top of the shopping list along with a bunch of stuff to lighten the load and soften the ride. Moreover, the strategy was to treat the event as one long interval training session. Go hard to climb up and over the dune, coast down and then spin the legs on the flat until the next dune and then repeat over and over again. With the bike built by July, the training stepped up a notch and the mission was to get the cockpit sorted out to suit this fluffy 53 year old body. What made it more challenging was that compromises were called for. One had to trade the optimum body position on the bike to suit the prevailing riding conditions. Weight back for the sand of Day 2, even pressure and head down for Day 1, something in between for Day 3 and so it went.
Heading down to the beach with a swag of different bars, stems and saddles. Then off to faster rail trails with different equipment again etc etc. As an engineer, optimizing a mechanical device (bike) for a somewhat less compliant squishy carbon based mechanical device (body) was indeed challenging, but the best fun. My reasoning was to trade physical strength and endurance for the highest efficiency and least effort possible.
The mission was to survive the event and at best, achieve a 100% finish. Of course it was impossible to mimic desert track and weather conditions during a Melbourne winter but again, it just added to the challenge of preparation. I knew that hydration and nutrition was to play a vital role in achieving a good result. To that end, a great deal of effort went into experimenting with different types of food, drink and additives especially over extended periods of physical activity. This meant even more long hours in the saddle but I was confident that I had it nailed because I could alter the amounts, timing, carb, protein and electrolyte types and document the affect on performance. Yes, with a detailed and comprehensive nutrition schedule, I had that nailed.
Logistically, this event also demands a good deal of planning. Just carrying enough water is hard enough let alone the food, bike, spares, clothing, bedding etc. This was also going to be hard on the support crew but Melanie had all of that under control. Melanie’s plan was to have everything as efficient as possible so that she could perform her duties quickly and without having to call on my assistance. Moreover, she had given herself a good deal of flexibility in terms of preparing food and clothing. She understood the importance of giving me what I felt like eating and the fact that that could change at a moment’s notice.
We were going to head up early and give ourselves some time to acclimatise and recover from the journey before the race start. In that light, we had set up our trusty Land Cruiser with two packing configurations one for the journey and another for the race. At the last minute I looked at the spare spot on the bike carrier and loaded up a 6” travel bike just in case I felt like riding that during the journey up or back. We were going to travel through some sensational riding areas in the Flinders and along the Murray River as well and it’s hard to pass up those sorts of riding opportunities.
So with bike and body ready(ish), departure day dawned.
Melanie and I had it all planned and for once everything was ready and packed the night before. We were up early and it was cold. The prospect of heading into warmer weather was uplifting and with no firm plan we agreed to head straight up to Renmark where the weather forecast was looking good. I took the opportunity to explore the tracks and trails along the Murray River whilst Melanie’s mission was to buy all of the fresh food we would need for the next few weeks. We couldn’t carry fresh produce from Melbourne because we would be entering the fruit fly exclusion zone.
The weather was warming nicely but Melanie still insisted that I rug up to get used to heat. Up the Oodnadatta Track, warmer still but the polar fleece jacket never left my back. Poor Melanie was in shorts and singlet and I suspect she was taking delight in seeing me sweat.
I had a good chance to spin the legs on Lake Eyre. The wind was blowing across the lake and whilst it was hard going out into the wind, heading back was an absolute blast. With 42/11 tooth gearing and tall fat tyres, the legs couldn’t pedal fast enough. And what a glorious sound fat tyres make on salt! Yes, I was looking forward to a good ride.
Up to Oodnadatta where we stopped for an ice cream and met Ian. The word was that there were fires in the Simpson desert but that’s not unusual in spring. The regular electrical storms at that time of the year often get some smoke going. It was here that we saw the first of the other competitors. Out along the track from the 4WD track was the vision of a lone bike rider silhouetted against the horizon, absolutely powering along at incredible speed admittedly with the wind, but oh so fast. Yes, a strong man monstering his dual suspension Yeti. It was at that exact moment that I realized that I hadn’t trained enough….
Never mind, we had Dalhousie Springs waiting for us where we would relax for a few days to soak the travel out of the legs. There is sensational riding around Dalhousie with management tracks to the various springs in the area and now with the palm trees removed, some have good access for the adventurous. Huge clay pans as well to get the legs spinning fast.
In the mean time, we started hearing stories of the desert being closed. The rangers updated the information from time to time and it was looking like the desert would be open for the Tuesday start. That was the last we heard until a fellow traveller approached us to relay a message from Andy (Grim of sweep fame) that the desert race was off and a new course planned with start at Oodnadatta……. NOOOOOoooooo….
Knowing full well what the tracks in the area were like (from previous trips into the area), all of that preparation for sand was out the window. . The long interval training plan that looked so good for the desert dunes was also looking all wrong for the new tracks that demanded a steady and consistent workload much like that of a road rider.
Sand was to be replaced by open track, corrugations and rocks…. Oh no…corrugations…. Oh no… rocks. All of a sudden that lovely fat bike that was going to be just perfect in sand began to look so wrong. So very wrong.
Ah I thought. I have the perfect bike for the job. That 6 inch travel dual suspension Reign just glides over corrugations and rocks. It pedals better than the fat bike, is a heck of a lot lighter as well and most importantly, it looks after the rider. But, and this is a big consideration for such an event, a bike like this begs to be ridden on challenging trails. It is dead boring to ride on these outback tracks. Having sampled it in years gone by, I had no doubt that I would go mad, hour after hour pedalling out there. So after long and careful consideration, the fat bike got the nod even though it would be harder on the body. You see in an event like this, it’s the mind that gets the body through and without the mind in a good place, the body can’t perform. This was a surprisingly stressful time and clearly a lesson that whilst choice can often be a great thing in this case, it was a source of anxiety that sapped energy.
Back in Oodnadatta now and with the news that the desert was definitely closed came another nasty bit of information. The forecast for the first day of the race was heat and head winds. There was talk of temperatures in the 40s and 40km Northerly head winds. Bonus!
Now, here’s another choices story. With the weather news, I had to seriously reconsider the cockpit configuration. If I was to survive the first day of heat and high headwinds I had to get the body down and out of the wind. That meant running a long stem, narrow open bar, saddle back and tall seatpost. In preparation several months ago I purchased a swag of equipment to experiment with. There was a long stem that would be perfect for the job but I had never run one that long. That and the handlebar I needed to use was a 25.4mm low rise open carbon fiber bar that offered a degree of flex for handling the vibrations and allowed me to get the head right down. Another unknown was that by laying the body out, more load would be taken by the arms and shoulders.
Furthermore, after studying the proposed race route and seeing that it included the track into and out of Pedirka as well as Mt Dare to Dalhousie, I knew that we had to deal with rocks and rough track. Certainly harder than the sands of the desert. I was running a Thudbuster seat post with one hard black and one medium blue elastomer and whilst this was the perfect tune for desert riding I felt that the skin on my bum would fall apart if I didn't soften up the tune. Perhaps replace the hard black with a soft grey elastomer? Never run it before and had no idea if it would even stand up to the task.
A lot of unknowns to be playing with the night before a race.
Now, wise riders say that you should never ever make changes before a race. Never run what you have not trained with. Every bone in my body screamed to leave it be but the head said otherwise. My training meant that I didn’t have the physical stamina to deal with the constant high wind loads, especially in the heat because my plan had always been to make the bike fit the conditions and minimise energy expenditure. So, with that plan in mind and trust in engineering know-how, I bolted on the new bits and took a 15 minute test ride the afternoon before the race. It felt okay but from experience I knew that that was little consolation because what feels good initially can easily turn to tears after hours in the saddle. And grown up tears are not pretty…..
With registration over, race briefing done, and camp ready for quick departure in the morning, we teamed up with Ken and George who were in the next camp. First timers are normally teamed up with experienced participants but in this case, both of us were new to the event - but experienced travellers which proved to be a fantastic pairing.
There was a good range of bicycles and riders. Plenty of fat bikes, dual suspension and hardtail 26” and 29” hardtails. Rider physiques were an eclectic mix too. From long and lean to muscle upon muscle. Plenty of more mature riders too which made it all the more interesting because each brought their own special mix of life experiences to share.