My favourite event: The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge

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With the enforced hiatus from racing upon us, many including myself are reminiscing of race days gone by. I am extremely grateful to have had the opportunities and support to make racing across most corners of the world happen. It’s given me a pretty broad appreciation for how the world works and more specifically how mountain bike (and road) races differ in different parts of the world and even within my home country of Australia.

The task of pinpointing one race to write about in this series is a near impossible one and I can’t go on without mentioning some of the truly remarkable experiences I have had at The Crocodile Trophy, The Mongolia Bike Challenge, The Pioneer, Tour de Timor, Arabian Epic among many others but these have really stood out.

Justin Maddog Morris. Riding the pain train at the 2011 Croc Trophy. Photo: Regina Stanger
Honourable mention to The Crocodile Trophy.

I wanted to write my piece however on a unique event which I competed in 2016. It is called The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge, it crosses one of the largest sand deserts in the world on a fat bike and unbeknown to most is the oldest MTB stage race in the world with the first edition held in 1987, when I was 1 year old!

The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge in 1987. Photo: SDBC

The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge was an adventure!

In 2016 I was only 18 months out of professional cycling and was just recovering from a broken hip sustained at a MarathonMTB Team training camp, so I was in need of something that ignited inspiration and motivation to help my recovery. I had seen images of the SDBC on television reports back in the day and with the advent of the internet I had come across their website and stories from others whom had embarked on the journey that finished at the iconic Birdsville pub. I reached out to them and scheduled a meeting with one of the race organisers Alan Keenleside who had me sold on the idea!

From an urban cafe in Sydney I heard tales of the vastness of the desert, camping under millions of stars and sharing tales around a campfire each night after racing across sand all day. What a stellar experience! After years of race hotels, buffets and team politics in pro road racing this experience offered a return to the basics, the fundamentals of what sport and life is all about at the end of the day- stories and mates, or family.

Justin Morris Simpson Desert Bike Challenge MarathonMTB Subaru
Camp at The Simpson Desert Bike Challenge

Given the remoteness of the race and the vast distances that are needed to cover, the race is as difficult logistically as it is physically. Unlike most stage races this one requires satellite phones, EPIRBs, remote area first aid, a vehicle & support crew per rider that is experienced in 4WDing across deep sand for days! Much of the race occurs around 2 days travel away from the closest sealed road and anywhere which would enable a plane to land if there were an emergency.

Being left to your own devices like this I found really grounding. It is you, your new mates, your bike and the environment. Nothing else! It is a surreal feeling and one that is hard to articulate into text, but one which will stick with you for life.

Photo: Euan Pennington

I remember racing along the sandy trail and seeing dingos running adjacent to me, cresting sand dunes and seeing salt pans that extended as far as the eye could see.

The places you will go!

In 2016 the race route followed ‘The French Line’ which is now a route used by adventurous 4WD enthusiasts to cross the desert. Originally it was a route created by seismic surveyors in the 1960s who were searching for natural gas reserves in the area. This route travels from West to East from the hottest town in Australia, Oodnadatta in South Australia to the most remote town in Australia, Birdsville in Queensland.

Justin MOrris Subaru MarathonMTB Simpson Desert
The French Line!

Each day surprisingly brought different sights and subsequent challenges for us cyclists. I was envisaging a rather boring route scenically with nothing to see but sand. However, the dunes take on their own form and shapes according to the strength of the prevailing winds and rainfall of the preceding winter. This was actually stunning to see as the race got further east, the dunes would get bigger, steeper and consequently far more difficult to ride. The flora and fauna was also something I’m not usually all that interested in but out there with no 4G, no phone, no laptop, just you and the desert it forces you to become more aware of your surrounds and surprised me how cool it was that these desert plants and animals could adapt to whatever the natural environmental conditions threw at them. Something perhaps we could learn from at the moment.

The finishing town of Birdsville had its own charm and was really cool to see how a community can survive out there 1600km from Brisbane in the desert. Crossing the final climb up the iconic sand dune ‘Big Red’ was another one for the bucket list. This is a big challenge for 4WD enthusiasts, to scale it on a bicycle was an achievement in itself. Then conducting the penultimate stage – a MTB criterium ON TOP of the dune was super special. Some amazing scenes from this stage!

The Birdsville Pub. Pic: Euan Pennington

The gear you’ll use!

Justin MOrris Norco Sasquatch bike check simpson desert MarathonMTB
Fat bikes make it easier than it used to be.

Fat Bikes have struggled of late to find their home in the mountain bike community. This race gives any fat bike enthusiast bucketloads of reasons to get excited!! I prepared an aluminium Norco Sasquatch fat bike for this race and speccing it out with consideration of potential 50 degree temperatures, deep sand, ability to carry a lot of hydration and gearing to get up 20% sand climbs was actually a cool endeavour in itself. The race organisation were really helpful for recommendations for both bike and clothing for the journey. Being prepared for close to 0 degrees overnight was another challenge that was unexpected.

Justin MOrris Norco Sasquatch bike check simpson desert MarathonMTB
Bar ends and thick silicon grips should provide some comfort and different positions.

Riding this bike I was apprehensive about at first but I actually miss having it now and would consider getting back on one to maybe compete at the MTBA Australian Fat Bike Championship in Broome! It’s an odd sensation riding a 4.8″ width tyre but when in its element humming along deep sand with 3 or 4 psi in the tyres it was really really cool. Some stages were more singletrack and being able to literally ‘float’ through corners was something I’ll never experience on my regular mountain bike.

The fat bike in it’s natural habitat (or snow).

I won!

Justin Morris Simpson Desert Bike Challenge MarathonMTB Subaru
Morris in action in the Simpson Desert.

Although not a key factor in why I appreciated this event so much, I must admit after chewing stem for 5 years in pro road racing being able to be at the top of the leaderboard was pretty cool! I do have a pretty strong competitive drive deep inside and the feeling of being the hammer rather than the nail is a good one for us who have competitive ‘race’ instincts. But saying that, one of the other appealing things about this race is plenty who were there were not fussed about a result at all but rather the experience of riding across The Simpson.

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If you are ever in Birdsville, I’m pretty chuffed to have my name on the perpetual trophy on a shelf above the bar in the iconic Birdsville Pub.

Justin MOrris Subaru MarathonMTB Simpson Desert
Victorious in Birdsville.

The People you’ll meet!

Faces of the SDBC. Timekeeper Jack.

Undoubtedly the highlight of the experience for anyone who goes… I left for this race knowing absolutely no one apart from my contact Alan. However when I rendezvoused with my allocated support crew in Adelaide- the ‘Pirate’ Euan Pennington I knew I was going to be in good company for the following 9 day adventure.

Justin Morris Simpson Desert Bike Challenge MarathonMTB Subaru
The faces of the SDBC.

When people are taken away from the business of their day to day commitments and placed in an environment seemingly liberated of distractions you get a really good sense of communication. I suppose it could end up in a Lord of the Flies type scenario but was definitely not the case in my experience. We all got on, we all shared drinks and partied in Birdsville at the finish and we all got to share an experience that is with each one of the competitors for life. I’ll never forget those 9 days and with my mate ‘Pirate’ by my side made it all the more enjoyable!

EVERYBODY involved in this event is looking out for one another from Coober Pedy all the way to Birdsville the whole race becomes a community operation. The people, the characters and the stories is what makes this event the spectacle and icon it deserves to be.. Does the remote, desolate environment bring out the best in people or does such an environment only attract those with such a strong, down to earth spirit. A question not easily answered but a reality that becomes obvious to anyone who works up the courage to sign up for a week of desert adventure..
The Pirate – my ace support driver.

A mammoth TEAM of volunteers goes in to making this race possible, from ‘Snowy’ the broom wagon vehicle to Jack the time keeper, Sophie the medic and many, many others the people is what makes most sporting events and the SDBC is composed of the best of them!

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