Desert Storm

Inside Sport Magazine – December 1999

Story: Robert Drane

Images: Ian Kenins

check_in

Riders Checking In on the eve of the race

Purni Bore, South Australia, not far from the NT border. Nothing to do but look for shade from the stinging sun amidst vegetation too low to sit under. Forty-three degrees and rising. Last night, camels and donkeys frolicked and toileted in the paludal waters. The screeching corellas left at sundown. Once a year, at the start of the Simpson Desert Cycle Classic, this becomes a destination for human beings.

Tomorrow the race begins. For five arduous days we retrace our steps back to Birdsville, as the cyclists ride along a degrading track hewn in the fifties by a French oil company.

Forty three riders converging, plus support crews and officials. The race raises money for the Paraplegic Benefit Fund, so no one expects a cent. Anyway, you don’t just come out here to win a mere race. You come for your own reasons, knowing full well that the pilfering desert can begin to loot the life from the weak, under-prepared or unwary within the hour.

Small consolatory clusters are already forming, seeking refuge from misgiving in cliches: “Ah well…you can only take it one day at a time, can’t you…?”

Looking for shade. Listening for reasons. Gaye’s been walking around camp wetting people with a gentle, cooling mist from her spray bottle. She has “20 kilometres of unfinished business” out there. Stage 2 of day 2 robbed her of a 100% finish last year. Her partner, Ed, 47, is a large-framed man. The desert might demand a heavy tax from a man his size.

Paul’s doing his PhD. Spinal regeneration. Lovely bloke. Kerry “Chook” O’Rourke entered last year and didn’t finish a stage. He’s teamed with Eve Ferrett, a first timer. Chook’s fifty two. His “you bloody bewdy” cheeriness may be masking serious intent. Just one completed stage would make his family proud, if he could get them to understand what it takes; make them see him differently. Give him something to tell them apart from what sort of day he had at the office.

Don’t like his chances.

There’s Andrew, representing the R&D Unit at Princess Alexandria Hospital, Brisbane, with his entourage of doctors, and journalists from the Courier Mail. Erect of bearing, long on self-esteem and, no doubt, ability, Andrew declared at the Birdsville Pub that, when he wins, he will ride over the line naked.

Jolyon and his mother are racing. He’s fifteen. Caroline’s forty seven. He’s downy, as though he’s recently pecked his way out of the egg. Yet I suspect he’s inherited mum’s steel. Caroline’s an oral surgeon, bohemian, English. Relishes being different. After this, she intends to join the Army Reserve.

Spud’s arm’s in a cast. The doctor told him to take a couple of weeks off. He did. To come out here and brave the bone-hammering track. Don’t think he’ll last.

Andy’s the sweep. The Grim Sweeper. His job is to drive behind and pick up stragglers, often for their own sake. Grey ponytail, razor face, English accent, Lennonesque glasses, slightly hooked nose and Riff Raff manner. He savours the theatrical possibilities of his persona. When he approaches the lingerers mock-imperiously with his whistle and his plastic scythe, they know their time has come. Mostly, they welcome it. Some find it too easy to yield to the Sweeper’s promise of comfort in demise, and they resist him to the end. Andy insists on being called Grim.

Rod and Lorraine Townsend organise this logistical nightmare. We’re encamped with them and Rod’s impish daughter Georgie, who’s busy thinking up humorous messages to attach to the distance markers along the way. You know: “EXTRA-SALTED CHIPS, 1 KM” or “SAND FOR SALE”, kind of thing. Good for morale.

Jack Oldfield’s out here somewhere. Name sounds old. He’s twenty six. He won the thing last year. What sort of human being does it take?

 

Day One

Lunch time. I feel as though I’m reporting from the front of a shockingly brutal battle.

stuffed

stuffed

At 5 am I woke to busy sounds. Tents unzipping, cereal boxes opening. An hour later, when they all rode off whooping and whistling like patriots marching away to the trenches to thwart the Hun, there was little inkling of this.

It’s been the worst first morning ever. We left Ed limping alongside his bike at 50 kms: “I’ve had it.” Andrew’s just ridden in, already an altered man, and 4.6 kilos lighter. “I passed some guy out there…he was just sitting next to his bike with a blank look on his face”.

Craig’s being propped up on the scales. “I spoke to God out there” is all he can get out. Now he’s staggering off in no direction, his support crew’s intercepting him and leading him to his tent.

Someone: “this isn’t a race any more. This is survival.”

Jolyon’s tent. Here he is, utterly shocked, exhausted, despondent. He stares out of half-closed lids, slack jawed. “I feel like shit.” His mother lies prone, a faint pulse the only indication she’s alive. Both get injections to prevent vomiting. Doctors rush from one encampment to another.

Casualties. Victims. The desert had served them its cruellest gruel. Forty-seven degree heat. A searing head wind. Mouthfuls of sand. Eighty kilometres of dunes, rocks and rough ruts. Will anyone begin the afternoon stage?
*
Less than half do. About twenty of them having carbed up, drunk and regained lost weight, line up with collective foreboding, squinting into the blinding blankness. The conspirators, Desert and Sky, glare back pitilessly, watching the tiny figures flicker in their heat haze, as though sharing a contemptuous joke over their image. The conspirators breathe a baleful warning of hot breath into their faces. Hell’s Velodrome will be no place for the weak of mind.

*
This Jack’s extraordinary. He won the morning stage and just won stage 2, which was just as gruelling, but shorter, as are all afternoon stages. Astounding progress in terrifying conditions.

The exuberant Alun’s just come in second. It’s no secret he’s here to win. He’s good, he’s fit and he’s determined. Gaye’s out there vomiting, but told the water stop officials, “I’m alright. Better out than in.” The tenth rider in gives a report of her suffering: “She’s not far away, but she’s still throwing up”. As the sun prepares to drop, her silhouette appears on a distant hill. Everyone hollers encouragement and finally she hits the line sobbing, crouched and cramped. As we help her off her bike, she says, thick of voice, “I’m alright. My character’s developing.”

Rod: “They don’t get sick. It’s nerves. They set high expectations.”

 

Day Two

Jack Oldfield

The invincible Jack Oldfield

Day of the Dunes. 247 undulations, half a kilometre apart, topped with deep, powdery sand. You get to the bottom and look up at a 60 metre breaker that breaks for no one. The sand whips across their tops, giving them a fluffy look.

Alun rode chirpily by: “G’day fellas”. Then Jack, ten minutes back, just staring at some fixed point. Alun is switched on when he rides. Jack has an impressive ability to switch off, to reduce himself to an enormously efficient system of bellows, pumps and levers pushing a mountain bike.

When he needs extra strength, he thinks of his brother. “It’s a Forrest Gump type thing.” he smiled when he told me, a little uncomfortable. His older brother Mick died in a car crash when Jack was fifteen. “The family took it really hard.” Jack took up running “to get away” from all the grief, and ran and ran. It evolved into cycling, and now exactly the same thing, powerful and ineffable, still drives him. Jack just finished the Crocodile road race, from Alice Springs to Cairns, and placed 5th, against the best doped-up Europeans. Then came here, for this.

Now Alun and Jack crest a dune together, shouldering their bikes over the top. They trip in the sand, they go over and, once on hard road, they pedal as though they’d been pedalling all along. Times like this, Jack talks to Mick. Alun’s fuelled by pure desire. They’re vanishing specks now on the desolate ribbon of road that splits the Martian landscape and disappears into dune after dune, reappearing on the other side. To crest a dune is to gain a view of an infinity of dunes ahead. Endless beach to an ocean of sky that stretches back forever.

I find myself glad that I’m not one of them.
*
Alun’s gone, a bit startled to be swept. Now there’s only Jack and the unstoppable Ed. The sweep did loom perilously close to Jack, making even this invincible athlete look momentarily lame. But now he’s found another set of bellows, pumps and levers and ridden into first place.
*
Everyone’s tetchy tonight at Rod’s briefing. Mostly, the briefings are
good-natured affairs. Sometimes, as though he were the desert incarnate, he absorbs a lot of their impotent rage, insecurity and self-hatred.

 

Day Three

It’s not sexy, it’s not glamorous, it’s not picturesque. It’s bloody hard labour. I wonder how the riders feel!

Their travails are having a cumulative effect. They faced this morning with sullen, determined resignation. Gaye, a dangerous 3 kg under weight, limped over to our camp, sipping from her camelback.

They cursed the very first dune. Delighted sardonically in tiny triumphs. Staying on his bike through a small patch of sand elicited a “yeeees” from Ed. Debra jogged to the top of a dune at slower-than-walking pace to a mantra: “I love pain. I love pain.”

ed dismounts over the handlebars

Ed dismounts over the handlebars

It suddenly became relatively easy as the terrain turned to heavy ruts, numbing corrugations and salt flats. Relatively. If you were doomed to an eternity of riding a unicycle, a pair of handlebars would be a luxury. Easy in that sense. At least it was flat.

Lunchtime laments of busted backsides and handlebars. Ben said “it doesn’t get any more basic than this” as he disappeared behind his support vehicle to stick chamois cream in his bum.

Chook and Eve were swept, of course. Was Chook going out in the afternoon? Thumbs up. “You bloody betcha!”

*
Riding with Grim now, we come across lone strugglers faltering on the rocks or stumbling in the sand, like strays from the flock. Here’s one hunched over her bike. As Grim approaches she starts pushing, weakly trying to get away. She gives up and waits. Andy gives us a triumphant pump of the fist, blows his whistle, approaches her with his scythe. Her wheel is buckled, gears slipping, chest heaving, spirit broken.

*
The afternoon was a road race on compacted soil, as the dunes fell away. Suddenly, 360 degrees of sky swept around us, splashes of cloud curving around an immense mural. At 20 km, Ben, Alun and Jack sped past, no sound except the buzzing flies and the coarse whispering staccato of their tyres. They finished in that order. Jack’s 3 1/2 hours ahead of steady Ed, who now has second sewn up, remarkably, because he keeps finishing every stage.

News is that Chook and Ferrett are minutes ahead of the sweep, 2 kms away. 20 minutes later, they’re here! Together, jubilant, feeling like athletes. “You bloody bewdy!” says Chook. “We didn’t finish last!”. They’ll sleep like contented rocks tonight.

On the scales, Ben – he of the Herculean calves that we watched with fascination as they powered him through the slipping sands – just threw out a cheerful challenge to the competitive Alun: “third place is worth racing for.” Alun, sensitive to a challenge, received it as intended.

 

Day Four

Rain on this morning’s horizon meant the riders had to take the outer track home to Birdsville, through Sturt’s Stony Desert, where the earth clinks under your feet and the stones routinely toss riders from their bikes.

Gaye did it tough yesterday and again had trouble with her intake. She and Ed embraced a long time after breakfast.

Kevin Tinker in the sticky mud

Kevin Tinkler challenged by the mud

Here at the 20 km mark, we wait by a broken gate for the leading pack, watched by a wedgetail eagle, so grotesquely imperious, sinister and austere, it’s as though the conspirators have transformed themselves and come in for a closer look. They were speeding toward us a minute ago, but they’ve come to a dead stop in the rain. The black soil has already turned to paste.

Jack, second behind Ben, is providing the image of the day. While the others trudge dejectedly through the slop carrying their bikes, he’s working on his wheels, banging and scraping off clods of cake, looking over his shoulder for Grim, untypically rattled: “this is just fucked!”

He takes a mouthful of precious water and spits it onto his chain, working, working, being overtaken by trudgers who might be hard to pass on the flat. But, by the time they all get through this patch, Jack will be the most ready. That’s the difference.

When they hit the stones, only four are undefeated. Ian, whose choice of narrow tyres proved inspired, given the mud; Jack and Ben. And, somewhere back there, you can bet Ed’s coming.

Gaye..stuffed after battling the Gibber Plains

Gaye..stuffed after battling the Gibber Plains

Jack to Ian, as they ride: “What’s your name, mate?” Ben to Jack: “keep going, keep going.” Their enemy’s thrown everything at them. As Ian falters now, Jack backtracks four times to provide him a windbreak, finally riding over the line behind him.

If anything was going to defeat Jack, it would have been that mud. “It would have been the first time I ever heard the whistle. I wasn’t going to let that black soil shit beat me,” he said, breathing easily.

Andrew finishes and totters off to his tent, his crooked body propped up by his entourage.

Jolyon and Dennis – a Kiwi and the oldest in the race at 63 -ride over together symbolically. Gaye’s 11th: “We must have really pissed the desert off this year.”
*
All starters got through this afternoon’s stage. While the conspirators mixed another malicious mire, an indomitable spirit suffused the group. They rode together and mostly stayed together, about 30 of them, a caterpillar bristling against the sky, shouting, drafting, swapping the lead. They lined up and finished as one.

Tomorrow, the final day, there’s still the fight for third between Alun and Ben, and Gaye’s brave attempt to hold on to 8th, only 10 minutes ahead of Canadian Carl.

 

Day Five

It’s finished. The festivities are on. I’m watching them as I write, across the road from Birdsville Pub, under a lone light.

Jack’s headed back to Alice Springs. He works on Monday. Andrew’s on his way to Brisbane. Ed’s quietly satisfied with his amazing second place. Only he and Jack finished 100% of the course. Gaye was a gutsy eighth, first-placed woman. Alun and Ben played cat and mouse for the last stage. Ben was a couple of minutes ahead overall for third, and they raced over the line. Alun won the stage, but Ben held onto third. As Alun collapsed, breathlessly talkative as always, Ben said “you really wanted that stage.” Alun concurred: yeah…I…reallywannedit.”

The other starters grouped and finished together. Well, not all of them. The stragglers were, of course, “rescued” by Grim. Well, not all of them. Somewhere out on the Birdsville Track, the longest stretch of ornery desert road he’d ever ridden, Chook decided he didn’t want to be a straggler any more. Today of all days, when, after the rain cleared, another long patch of red clag awaited, and headwinds and heat, and the sun got serious.

We’d all presumed he’d been contentedly swept. He nearly was. But when he saw Grim coming, something made him get on his bike, despite the exhaustion and cramps, and start pedalling wildly.

Chook finishes at Birdsville

Chook crosses the finish line at Birdsville

Ferrett jumped out of Grim’s ute and ran alongside him: “lift your bloody arse.” Chook wasn’t quite there. He was pushing desperately, a not-too-efficient set of bellows, pumps and levers on a mountain bike. Between the desert’s taunts, he just managed to say, “I need some help”.

Eve jumped back into Grim’s ute and tearfully radioed the finish line. “Send help for Chook. He’s not going to stop!” Wave after wave of heat, each more intense than the last. Like a malevolent ogre slowly waking up. Three rode the 8 nasty kilometres back, and fifty minutes later, in rode the phalanx of Bean, Dave and Spud racing well ahead now to allow the baked Chook his moment. He rode in with a smile. A slightly crazed, delirious, perplexed smile. His red-rimmed eyes weren’t seeing. His mind had one foot out the door. After coming back, big Dave rode off to the side and waited for Chook, and when he came home, Grim’s white ute shimmering behind him, Dave cried, hoping we wouldn’t see. But he wasn’t the only one.

A minute ago, Chook told me where his head went. “I was hearing the devils. ‘You’re fifty two. You’re too old, ya bastard. Give up. You’ll kill yourself. Stop. It’s easy. There’s a comfy seat waiting for you in Grim’s ute.’ Shit I was gone. Then I come over a rise and see Spud, Dave and Bean waiting for me, doing little 360s. I really, truly thought I was looking at the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Shit I was gone.”

It’s the most perfect night we’ve had, a cooling breeze and the winking stars tipping a nod in their direction: “Well done. Till next year.” Joyous noises of people who had conquered in their own ways.

I find myself wishing that I was one of them.

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