By : Euan Pennington
“It’s the French Line.”
Four words, but as Hipsters might say, it could get Cray Cray. Last year I ran support for a rider on the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge, I was undecided if I would indulge again this year, then the email arrived. The French Line. Mad not to.
The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge does what it says on the tin. A race across the Simpson Desert in Central Australia, apparently the biggest sand desert in the world. It’s a stage race, so every rider has vehicle support, and there is a minimum speed required or the rider is “swept” for that stage. The winner is the rider who rides the most kilometres of the course. Should two riders ride the same distance, (100%, for example), the winner is the quicker of the two.
There is a fun range of tracks across the Simpson, and the race tends to select different routes each year to keep things fresh and interesting. Except. Except that the French Line was tried 29 years ago and was abandoned after day one – too soft, too rough, too many tears, never to be tried again. Until now. Now, it was thought, with the advent of fat bikes it could be a goer. Initial reconnaissance in March showed a soft sandy track of despair that by late September was sure to be cut up by beginner 4wdrivers and inappropriately towed camper trailers, the temperature was likely steamy at over 40, (Celcius, that is. 40 Fahrenheit is in no way steamy. So, for those readers that still speak Roman Catholic, we are talking three figure temperatures. Warmish), and the track would be rough as bags. No one really knew if this one might fly. Was I in? As I said, mad not to.
This year, despite owning two fat bikes, overseas trips and work meant I was not ready to ride, partly through not being fit or prepared, and partly through not being barking mad. Consequently, I joined the medical team, but although I arrived with Band-Aids and a hammer, (knowing that what I couldn’t fix with one I would fix with the other), it turned out I was only really needed as a driver, and occasionally to dispense a lanolin based unguent commonly referred to in the parlance of the race as “sheep dip”, or bum cream. Essentially I was chauffeuring a paramedic who did the technical stuff. Like dispense bum cream.
Medics were given the power to pull people out of the race, should they be too hot or damaged to continue, but thankfully this year there was little to do. Most riders were aware of their limitations when the temperature hit the ton, and long before they were collapsed and hallucinating from heat they had already looked sideways at the air conditioned fourby, looked up the track at the unrelenting sand dunes, looked again at the fourby, scratched their sand filled padded underpants and made what could be seen as a wise and unsurprising decision, at times garnished with language of little ambiguity letting the assembled masses know of their thoughts on heat, dust, bike seats, pain or just life in general. Consequently, the crews all finished roughly in the shape they started in, although it should be said only ten racers resorted Mr Toyota’s padded chairs, the other ten rode the full race, which is just an astonishing performance in the conditions we encountered.
The race begins at Purni Bore, a casual three days drive from my home in Melbourne, and even the drive in can be punishing, with vehicles arriving after days of desert travel with all manner of issues, minor and major. One of the great things about the race, though, is the camaraderie amongst the teams, and the various skills in the group. Within a few hours of arriving at the start point there were people under vehicles brandishing multi meters and American Screwdrivers, (or hammer, as it’s sometimes known), I had borrowed a headlight globe, was scrounging fuses and had lent out my spare tent. It was as if everyone brought what they had, put it in the middle and took out what they needed. It’s this sense of community that keeps people returning to the event.
This sense of community can extend to the rear of the race as well, as racers help each other through the gruelling stages, whilst up at the front it was not so much community as hard fought racing. Paul Schroeder, this year’s eventual winner, showed his hand on day one in the first ten minutes when it became apparent that his race plan was to get to the front, ride fast and win. As the days wore on the plan changed little, as he rode fast, led and won, and no quiet commentary about “dialling tyre pressures” or “getting comfortable” could disguise his fitness and skill. The icing on the cake for me was that in amongst some tasty carbon treats with all the fruit he was riding an original purple Pugsley from back when they still came with V-Brake bosses, outfitted with Large Marge rims, (too heavy, no longer made), and Endomorph Tyres, (too heavy, no longer in production). Cutting edge ten years ago, now wildly outdated in our modern fast moving market place, but in his hands it sat up and boogied, and no one could touch this quietly spoken chap.
The reason the French Line had not been tried for decades became apparent after 20 kilometres, with a casual 490 to go. 1200 sand dunes crammed into 500 kays, pot holes, corrugations, soft sand, heat and headwinds had both riders and support drivers sitting up to take notice, the support drivers slightly clenched and shamefaced as the riders outpaced them in some sections. For five days the dance continued until finally the Birdsville Pub appeared on the horizon. As a finish line, a purveyor of cold beverages in certainly a winning idea, and I think everyone was happy to wash the dust of travel out of their throat with a quiet ale, followed by a slightly more rowdy one, plus another couple for moral support. Or perhaps that was just me.
Either way, the event was held for three reasons – to foster a love of the Outback, to provide a sporting challenge, and to raise money for charity. General consensus was that the first two aims were achieved, and the sixty large that found it’s way to the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service says the third aim was without question achieved, so a successful event all round.
If this sounds like a fine way to spend a couple of weeks, and (although it’s not officially a fat bike event) you have a fat bike, get onto desertchallenge.org to find out more, and perhaps next year you could experience the magic of the Simpson Desert on the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge.
(click any photo to enlarge)
You can learn more about the Simpson Desert Bike Challenge at – http://desertchallenge.org/