How do you train for the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge?

The first thing you’ll note is that each year the route is over 500kms. Secondly, there are lots of sand dunes to climb before you reach the finish line in Birdsville. Thirdly, it’s a race. As Alan Keenleside (previous winner and race director) says “you’re going to need endurance, power and speed, in that order”.

Race Route Options
Race Route Options

I believe in the mantra that you need to be putting kilometres into those legs. Of the four times I’ve competed, my second ride was definitely the best in terms of coping with the conditions and the distance. It was also my best finishing position.

The first year I did what I thought was good training but once out in the Desert I realised the inadequacies of my training regime – and I failed to achieve 100%.

The next year I turned up the training quite a few notches and I steadily increased my weekly kms up to about 400km by three months before the race. AND I bought a heart rate monitor. Back in 1996 the technology was basic but on my training rides I found the pace that I was happy with and during the race I kept to that pace. I’m no sports scientist but there are plenty of websites that will tell you how to achieve maximum potential and endurance.

It also takes longer to get that peak fitness and strength as you get older, and certainly for my last ride in 2014 when I turned 60, I had to train hard all year.

I was lucky, in that at the time of my first two races, I was able to bike commute three days a week to work. I did a 45km ride in the morning and at night I came home the 55km ‘long way’, with some good climbing in the Adelaide Hills for both directions. I did that three days a week and on Sunday I did a 30km loop which I rode three times without a stop – that gave me a mix of on-road and off-road with plenty of hills thrown in. On the road section I rode on the gravel shoulder to give myself a bit more of a feel for travelling on loose surfaces and also to give me ‘more bang for my training buck’. So you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to work out that’s already 400kms a week! I was a very regular customer at Bakers Delight on my way to work!

I realised how much I’d improved when I went out with some mates one Sunday morning and after just one lap of my training ride they were feeling pretty flogged.

Although riding the dunes, rather than walking them, is the best way to go, it’s better to be prepared for whatever the Desert throws at you. One of the most important factors that can decide success or failure is the condition of the dunes. The first two days the dunes are not so big but they’re at regular intervals. How the prevailing wind have been blowing the previous few days will be one of the factors determining how tough it will be for riders that year. Westerlies tend to prevail so the loose sand is blown more on the down (east) side of the dune than on the side where you’re cycling up. But if there have been Easterlies, then the up (west) side of the dune will have a lot of sand on it, so you are cycling up hill in soft sand.

Most riders can pedal over the small to medium sized dunes. But come Day 3, the dunes, though less frequent, become bigger, up to 50m by some accounts. This is when you will need the ability to exert your full power for a number of minutes and this where your interval training and your ability to ride soft sand will come to the fore.

However, there are times when you will come to a grinding halt. I was prepared for this too. For training, I found a steep quiet hill of about 20% and about 150m in length. I pushed/ran with my bike up and cycled down for 10 laps. I didn’t know to do this the first year and felt my legs shouting to me on Day 2, mostly because I’d walked too many dunes. On my second ride it was all a lot easier, but that was probably because I was walking less too.

But it’s not all about the dunes – you know to expect the dunes, but what can be equally challenging, and can result in big time penalties, are those long swales where the tracks fill with sand in the cross winds. So unless you’re strong and know how to ride sand, you’ll have to walk. Walking is slower than cycling and as others have said, walking sucks. Back in my days of being the (‘Grim’) Sweep I’ve swept many a rider on those sections. Twelve years ago I moved out of the Hills and closer to the beach. So for my latest ride in 2014 my riding buddy and myself spent most Sunday mornings on the beach, both getting our strength up and teaching ourselves the skills of sand riding. On the beach you can do it as tough or as easy as you like. Closer to the water’s edge = harder sand and above the high water mark it’s soft. And that’s hard work.

Remember, this is an endurance race. You’re not going to win it by busting your boiler on Day 1. I’ve seen many a good rider over-exert on Day 1 morning only to blow up in the afternoon and be swept. That’s not the outcome you (or your crew and supporters) want.

I got up early on many a winter’s morning to head out for a training ride. When you’re doing it tough in the Desert and you’re thinking of throwing in the towel and waiting for the Sweep, you’ll recall all those cold and wet and dark mornings and if you’ve trained well, you’ll ‘HDFU’ and be able to finish the stage.

Remember, unless you’re riding to win, all you have to do to earn one of those rare* 100% medallions is cross the finish line nine times, even if you’re only one metre ahead of the Sweep.

Sounds like a plan!

Andy Griffiths

2017 Race Director (rider 1995, 100% in 1996, 2004 and 2014)

* more people have summited Mt Everest than ridden across the Simpson Desert!

SDBC2024: 1 October to 5 October 2024