The Simpson Desert is the world’s largest sand dune desert, covering an area the size of England and Wales combined, and spanning three Australian states and territories: Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory. It’s a hot, dry and inhospitable place, with no maintained roads. And yet The Simpson is home to an adventure mountain bike race that’s now been running for 30 years.
From Purni Bore, on the desert’s western edge, competitors in the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge make their way more than 500km east to the iconic Queensland town of Birdsville, battling the heat, sand dunes, and isolation along the way. As former pro road cyclist Justin Morris writes, the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge is quite unlike other MTB races, and a world away from the professional road peloton.
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge has been running every year since 1987. It attracts hardy souls who are willing to attempt a crossing one of Australia’s largest deserts. A number of factors make this MTB stage race different to many others, not least the remoteness and isolation that riders feel throughout.
The last bastion of civilisation before reaching the start line is the outback opal mining outpost of Coober Pedy. From there it’s a 7-9 hour drive to the start line. Passing many road signs warning of the dangers of venturing into this desolate landscape serves as a reminder to the 20-odd competitors about the extreme and unique challenges that lay ahead.
The race has evolved with the evolution of the ‘fat bike’ which now allows riders to ride on sand trails for the entire five-day event. Previously many riders would either withdraw or have to walk large sections of trail due to the near impossibility of pushing a skinny-tyre mountain bike through deep sand.
This year the race took us on what is known as The French Line, famous in 4WD circles for its continues stretches of undulating sand dunes over 500km. Conquering this on a bicycle is no small feat. Plenty have tried in vain in years past, The Simpson beating many in the race’s 30-year history.
On top of the sand, this race throws other challenges at its competitors. The sheer isolation is perhaps the most mentally draining facet of this race. Help is at least two days’ drive away for many parts of this race. This brings even the most egotistically charged athlete back down to earth.
The race subsequently engenders a community-like feel among competitors and staff alike. By the end of the expedition many have gelled like family. The race also carries with it a very well equipped medical team to ensure if an emergency is to arise, it is dealt with on the spot.
As a cyclist who lives with Type1 diabetes I had a few extra challenges to overcome to ensure I could manage to race in such remote conditions. I was lucky to have an amazing support crew around me to ensure I was a-ok. To even be able to attempt such an event as a T1 diabetic is something that would have been considered impossible 10 years ago. I hope by giving this race a good go I will help open the eyes of my diabetes brothers and sisters.
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge is more than just a race; it’s a race with a purpose. The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) provides life-saving medical attention to Australians living, working and travelling in remote areas. This organisation has saved countless lives over the years and is a lifeline to many outback cattle stations and townships which are otherwise many days’ drive from any medical centre or hospital bed.
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge does a phenomenal job supporting the RFDS, having fundraised more than $255,000 over the past decade.
As a former professional road cyclist, this race was quite apart from the stage race conditions I’m used to. No race buffets, no race hotels, no evening massage, no bed, no WiFi to contact home with results … The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge throws a spanner in the works of the usual race routine of an athlete who has spent time in the pro peloton.
I was lucky to have an amazing support crew in the way of Euan Pennington from Melbourne and Richard Dodd from Brisbane. However, it is quite a change crossing the finish line after a hard stage to a crowd of just four or five people, a few dingoes and maybe a deadly taipan on the road. Once finished, there is no race shower — maybe a bird bath in a bucket if you carried enough water with you. Then it is time to find a place to pitch your tent for some sleep.
After an early attack on stage 1 I was able to move into the lead, winning every stage and finishing the event with a winning margin of more than two hours. It also marked the fastest-ever running of the race, thanks largely in part to firm sand conditions and a predominant tailwind.
Justin Morris crosses the finish line to win the 2016 Simpson Desert Bike Challenge.
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge is a real adventure of a race and one I believe teaches you a lot about yourself, your country and what is important. You have plenty of time to think in the desert. Pushing through seemingly endless sand dunes and staring into the distance to see the same terrain as far as the eye can see forced me into a meditation-like state.
It is possible to achieve complete focus in this kind of state, once you have perfected your pedal stroke in the sand, learnt to completely relax your upper body and let the bike carry itself through the sand.
Living completely in the moment was one of the precious things I will take from racing in the desert. You are liberated from all the distractions of everyday life — no iPhone, no traffic, no road rules. Freedom!
This race should be added to the bucket list of every cyclist who enjoys an adventure. You will be amazed at what you will come across when you venture into the great desolate wilderness that is The Simpson. It was a rare experience and one I will treasure forever.