By Gaye Couchman
4.30am. Alarms start to go off around camp. Muttered curses can be heard and yowls of pain as crew members blunder around in the dark and fall over those items that they couldn’t be bothered to pack away the night before.
5am. Riders are gently awakened by their crew thoughtfully bringing them a hearty breakfast and fresh cycling attire. Heart rending groans can be heard as riders attempt to haul their crippled bodies out of their sleeping bags and into an upright position.
5.25am. Chairs are snatched out from under unsuspecting riders and hurled into the back of 4WDs as the drivers start their engines. Those 4WDs going ahead to the lunch stop disappear into the glow of the fast approaching dawn.
5.45am. Riders are weighed prior to assembling on the start line. The top ten placed riders start in a grid formation with the remaining rabble in an ungainly pack behind.
6.00am. The Sweep gives the signal to start. The leading riders surge forward while others sigh and sluggishly give a few half hearted turns of the pedals to get underway.
6.30am. Off the bike and pushing through the sand for the umpteenth time. At least your bum hasn’t spent enough time in the saddle to get sore yet. The horizon is pink and gold and the glare from the sun makes it hard to pick a line through the ruts and fissures in the track.
7.30am. You spy the first waterstop up ahead. Your arrival is greeted with great excitement. Officials swarm around you, collecting empty waterbottles, refilling your hydration pack, spraying water over your sweaty body and offering jelly beans for sustenance. The Doc eyes you with suspicion so you have a quick pee by his 4WD, just to keep him happy.
7.30am-Midday. The searing heat has sapped your energy. You reluctantly keep slurping away at your supply of luke warm sports drink – because you’ve been told repeatedly of the horrible consequences of not doing so. Then you hear the cruel sound of escaping air and suddenly realise your pump is missing from it’s usual place strapped to your bike frame. Happily one of your companions has one of those compressed air cylinder things and you are quickly underway again.
12.20pm. Time is running out and you have to fight the urge to keep glancing behind for signs of the pursuing sweep vehicle and convoy. Then you see a flag planted on a dune in the distance. Urging each other on you catapult downhill and pedal dementedly up the next dune, until finally you reach a crest and the magnificent sight of dozens of 4WDs opens out in front of you. There is actually nothing here apart from the convoy but it’s the most beautiful sight you’ve ever seen. Your legs burst into life and you hurtle down into camp as cheers and applause cascade over you.
Your crew are waiting, beaming with pride. Dozens of willing hands reach out – taking your helmet, showering you with cooling water, lovingly carrying your bike to it’s resting place. You are assisted to the scales to be re-weighed. Unfortunately the rock you put in your pocket is discovered and you are 3 kilos down on your starting weight. You think this is the best thing since Jenny Craig but the Doc looms over you like a demigod and raves about dehydration. Your crew rescue you and assist you to your lunchtime camp. The vehicle is parked to provide shelter from the wind which is whipping up mini sandstorms. A bed is laid out in the shade and you flop down on it, clutching a cold sports drink from the fridge. A variety of tasty and nutritious snacks are offered but your stomach is still doing the hula and you ungratefully decline everything.
Having drunk several liters of fluid and left a trail of pee puddles in a radius around the camp you are sure the doc will be happy. The time passes all too quickly and suddenly you find yourself abandoned in the scorching sun as your crew hurriedly dumps your bike by the start line and rushes to join the departing convoy.
You home in on any available shade and share feelings of impending doom with your fellow riders. Your companions from this morning are now your blood brother and sister. A camaraderie forged in such circumstances is not easily forgotten. Weighed again and you are back to your starting weight. This news fills you with an inexplicable joy.
1.55pm. There is a general reluctance to move out of the shade to assemble on the start line for the afternoon stage. The field seems somewhat depleted, with some competitors electing for the aircond 4WD option.
2pm. Off and racing, it’s only 50km. You realise that assuming you can maintain a blistering 12kph pace it will take you 4.5 hours to complete the stage.
3pm. Your super comfy padded, sprung bike seat now feels like a jackhammer topped with steel wool. Some riders claim to be wearing 2 pairs of knicks for extra padding, despite the 40 Degree temperatures.Ahead the faint track disappears into a shimmering heat haze. Bogged down in sand you pause for a moment, slumped over your bike. You’ve heard stories of riders found huddled under stunted saltbush in search of shade, of some having hallucinations involving naked women with trays of beer, or being convinced that there was an enthusiastic audience lining the track in the middle of nowhere. Maybe they weren’t exaggerating?
5pm. The dunes seem to be getting steeper. It hardly seems worth struggling to pedal when you can push your bike at a perfectly reasonable 5kph. Now each km is a triumph.
Launching off the big dunes gets you buzzing. Fear of crashing into a giant fissure and splattering yourself across the baked clay surface has been replaced by a desperate and reckless need for speed.
6pm. Crunch time. Every fibre of your being is strongly insisting that this is a very bad idea. A little voice inside your head is telling you to stop, quit, it’s okay, heaps of riders get swept or pull out.
6.40pm. Your bike computer threw in the towel long ago so you can’t believe it when you crawl over a big dune to find an army of vehicles, tarps and tents spread out in front of you. Elated, you roll in to a hero’s welcome – the last rider to complete the stage. Momentarily you forget that you still have three more days to go.
The evening’s activities involve food, fluid. rest, food, fluid, rest and attending the nightly briefing session. Your crew seem intent on getting you to bed ASAP and you wonder why they are so concerned. Then you realise they are more interested in swilling wine in front of the fire with other crews than your welfare. Peace comes over the desert, a million stars light up the night sky, but you’re asleep, oblivious to the spectacle.