With almost 600 sand dunes behind us and plenty still ahead I glanced at my watch. As we pushed and shoved the tandem through the deep sand, sweat pouring off us in the 40° plus heat, we calculated that the sweep vehicles should be just four seconds behind us. Looking back, the long snaking line of jeeps were cresting the previous dune. We still had eight kilometres to the lunch time finish and somehow we now had to push our speed up to average more than 12 kph…
We first heard about the Simpson Desert Cycle Classic, heralded as ‘Australian Cycling’s Greatest Adventure’, when we saw a video of the ‘92 race. Our interest was rekindled when a fellow survivor of the Australian Bike Challenge – Craig Loosemore – sent us the 1994 video. Despite the scenes of torturous exertion in the intense heat, the flies, the headwinds and the statistics – 580 km over 4.5 days crossing nearly 800 sand dunes – we decided that the challenge of beinng the first MTB tandem to tackle this crazy race, plus the chance for Jayne to be the first woman to complete the entire distance, was too exciting to ignore. The fact that the desert appeared to have been named for us in advance seemed a good omen!
We first had to equip ourselves with a support vehicle plus all the gear needed for this expedition into the heart of one of Australia’s most arid deserts. Fortunately we already had our Dawes Double Edge Tandem, used in the ill-fated 1992 Great Australian Bike Challenge (the first ever stage race from Steep Point — the most westerly point of the Australian mainland in WA – through the centre to Byron Bay – Steep Point’s easterly equivalent).
We bought a 1994 Toyota Landcruiser, capable of coping with the extremely tough 4WD-only terrain, and of carrying the provisions and equipment.
We needed to be able to lug 200 litres of water and 100 litres of extra fuel over and above the vehicle’s capacity of 140 litres.
We cross-trained to give us power in the sand dunes. Speed off the bike is as important as that on it, so we got into running, weight training, solo mountain biking and long distance road riding. Ultra-marathon World Record holder Rod Evans, currently recovering from chronic fatigue, offered to be our support crew.
TO THE START
We drove over 2,500km in two days to reach the famous Pink Oodnadatta Roadhouse, our last chance to refuel and take water on board.
Between Oodnadatta and the pre-race campsite, a further day’s driving, visiting the enchanting Dalhousie Springs en route, we encountered deep sand and treacherous washouts, but the Landcruiser coped despite the immense weight on board. 20km from Purni Bore, we took the tandem off the roof and rode to stretch our legs. Coming over the Last sand dune, a sea of canvas, bikes, 4WDs and brightly coloured bike jerseys appeared, with the incongruous backdrop of steam rising from the hot water bore pools, and the noise of thousands of white cockatoos lining the trees. It was hard to believe that we were on the edge of a desert. Later, as a ‘willy willy’ swept through the camp picking up loose objects – including a tent – and depositing them further down the track, we were all reminded of the unique and unpredictable nature of this environment.
That night at the briefing the doctor warned us in serious terms of the danger of dehydration and threatened instant disqualification for anyone needing to be drip-rehydrated. Answering a wise crack about fluid consumption, he stated that if anyone must drink beer, a litre of water should be drunk for each can of beer. “Hell,” came a voice from the crowd, “we haven’t got enough water!”
Rising at 5am for a 6.30am start the bustle of camping activity was all around us. By the time of the mass start, the chill night air was already warming and we were warned that if we discarded clothing we must tie it to the 5km distance markers, otherwise the dingoes would take it. If you see any Lycra-clad dingoes in the desert you’ll know why.
We crossed 417 sand dunes over the 120km covered that day, but gained some valuable time over the faster clay pan sections in the morning which allowed us a longer rest and respite at the lunch time stop. By now we had teamed up with the only other rider from Western Australia, Richard Millard. His support crew always left in front of the race to set up a lunch time and evening camp, and Rod in our vehicle left after the race convoy. This way all three of us had food and vital shade the moment we finished a stage and throughout the rest times.
By the time we all reached camp that evening there were already dramatic stories being told, mainly about support vehicles getting bogged, blowing radiators, near rollovers and stuff like that. Pat Meldrum had completed a marathon 40km with broken handlebars, his right hand on the broken part and his left on the stem.
SAND, SWEAT, SAND, TEARS, SAND
Anxiety rippled through the start line on the second morning. We had already experienced the steeper sand dunes the previous afternoon and the second day morning was infamous as the make or break stage of the race.
From the outset we slogged. The army vehicle lying bogged on top of the first sand dune was a sign of things to come. We had to leap off the tandem and push over almost every one of the morning stage’s 194 sand dunes. Even more soul-destroying was having to jump off when we hit deep sand on the descents. Despite the extra weight and reduced manoeuvrability of a tandem we were managing to ride as much sand as those on single bikes, the footprints of riders ahead of us acting as forewarnings of where we would need to stop and push. After years of riding together on all sorts of terrain we normally needed to communicate little regarding riding technique, but today I was becoming hoarse with shouting above the headwind, “Stopping!” On the tops of the sandiest dunes the wind was whipping the fine red sand into our faces, ears and mouths.
At the 60km water stop we had to pause to eat. The Maxim in our water bottles was not strong enough for this level of exertion in this heat. We left knowing we were only five minutes in front of the morning sweep. Not enough. I had almost resigned myself to the fact that we would be swept up. My parting comment to the long-suffering water stop crew was that we would just ride a little further to see how far we could go. We were so exhausted I almost didn’t care any more. Riding a tandem is different, and neither of us wanted to let the other down.
To speed up we were already jumping on the bike and clipping into our SPDs as we rode, something we don’t normally do on the tandem. We started running as fast as we could over the tops, pushing and pulling the tandem through the deep sand. We crossed steeper and still steeper dunes and as we passed the 70km post, I looked at my watch. A quick calculation showed that we had just four seconds to spare. By now we were on the limit. I didn’t need my pulse meter to tell me that my heart rate was at 100 percent. We no longer had the energy to speak to each other, and all I could hear from behind was the sound of Jayne retching with effort. Our legs were on automatic pilot. The long snake of sweep vehicles, crammed with battered riders and bikes, was permanently in view, often on the dune we had just left. But it didn’t seem to be getting closer.
And then we saw them. Two figures stood at the crest of the next sand dune, and when we eventually crawled over the top of it, the oasis of canvas at the lunch time finish opened out before us. We flew down the dune with the vehicle horns blaring behind us and the whole camp shouting and cheering. We had made it!
We were helped to our camp and because of the difficulty of the morning stage, the afternoon start was put back 30 minutes to 2.30. We had 90 minutes to pick ourselves up and race again. As we lay in the welcome shade discussing the morning’s dramas, we discovered that one of the main reasons for our will to keep riding was that neither of us had the energy to lift the tandem on to the roof of the Landcruiser.
By the end of the day only 15 of the original 51 riders had avoided being swept and were still in contention to complete the race. Rod went into overdrive in terms of support, his own cycling career enabling him to recognise the level of exhaustion we were experiencing . At lunch time every day his provision of good shade, cold towels from the fridge to wrap around our heads and legs to lower our body temperature, and his constant nagging to drink, drink, drink, ensured a rapid enough recovery to cope with the afternoon stages. As well as setting up the evening camp, he now started daily massages, which began at 10 minute sessions on our legs and by the end of the event had extended to almost an hour as he sorted out the knots and pains in thighs, back and shoulders. Rod was playing no small part in getting us through this race.
HEADWINDS, MUD & MORE SAND
Day three took us through some spectacularly desolate salt lake scenery. Mammal and bird tracks criss-crossed the empty lake beds and a rotting camel carcass was a stem reminder of the harshness of this extreme environment. Dark shadows of enormous wedge-tail eagles passed over us as they circled above. As we weaved through the dunes, turning south for a while to run parallel with them, we were given some respite from the headwind.
Meanwhile a battle was ensuing between the lead riders. WA super-vet, Richard Millard had developed an incredible one hour lead, most of it on the first day, but younger riders were in hot pursuit. Darren Benson, a distance runner, was his greatest threat. Michael Worden, who finished fifth overall the year before, was also looking strong. He was, however, very unlucky to break his seat pin as well as having four punctures on stage one.
Morning four saw us all battling headwinds that took our speed down to 12kph on the gentle descents and just 10 kph on the ascents. There was little shelter to be found on the open gibber plains of the edge of Sturt’s Stony Desert and a check on our computer at lunch time revealed a top morning speed of just 26kph. We learned that the lead group had decided that survival was more important than competition in these conditions and had agreed a truce at water stops. Richard’s position, for today at least, seemed safe.
We were now passing through the ephemeral ‘lagoon’ area south of Birdsville. Those who had travelled to the race start from Birdsville had described deep mud and boggings, their plastered vehicles testament to the appalling conditions. We had to side-track to avoid some flooding, but now by far the greatest hazard was the deep ruts and trenches resulting from the days of drying out in high temperatures. The first 20km of the fourth afternoon was probably the most difficult technical riding over an extended period that we have done — the bone jarring corrugations so well known to all Australian off-road riders and drivers were nothing compared to this! Conditions gradually improved and so did our speed and our spirits.
BIRDSVILLE, CHEERS & COLD BEERS
By day five, we were desperate to finish, but also sorry to be moving out of the wilderness and splendid isolation of the desert. Riding conditions were good, and, despite frequent attacks going on for the lead position, we managed to hang on to the lead bunch for the first 55km. Then 1 lost one of my contact lenses, rendering it dangerous to site too closely on anyone’s wheel. By the end of the stage we had averaged 24kph including stops for water and food.
The riders regrouped at 73km and we all rode the final four kilometres into Birdsville as one bunch. We were greeted by streamers, cheers, champagne and the famous Birdsville outback hotel with its renowned seven course meal — a pie and a six pack! We had done it. The first tandem to complete the Simpson Desert Classic and the first woman to complete the entire distance. With Richard Millard holding a 39 minute lead, Western Australia had been well represented, although in the process he had lost an incredible five kilos and seven centimetres of his waist during the course of the five day race.
Our riding companions had ranged form year 12 pupils from SCECGS School, Cremorne to Ironman triathletes. Distances completed varied from 100 per cent to 55 per cent. One rider – Rodney Bryson from near Dubbo, NSW – had completed 98 per cent of the course always dressed in unpadded khaki drill shorts, a cotton shirt and sandals, his riding experience gained while rounding up sheep on his farm. A real sense of camaraderie had developed. Riders had been tested to their limits. Perhaps most important of all, thousands of dollars had been raised for the Paraplegic Benefit Fund of Australia. By the time we had returned to the unwelcome suburbia of Perth, the pain was forgotten and the beauty of the desert, the nights out under the stars, the companionship and the excitement made the Simpson Desert Classic a cycling adventure to recommend to anyone brave or crazy enough to enter.