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Riding for the Flying Doctors - Fat Bike Style

March 05, 2015
Riding for the Flying Doctors - Fat Bike Style

Aussie Matt Tough had too much annual leave owing, and his work wanted him to take it.

So rather than booking a flight around the world, he came up with the idea to ride from one side of Australia to the other - all the while raising funds for their Royal Flying Doctors Service, which provides medical assistance to Aussies living in super remote parts of the country.

That's 5,800km, from Perth in Western Australia right over to Narooma in New South Wales.

And he did it all on a Fat Bike....

All up Matt spent 4 months and 22 days covering around 70km a day when he did ride (with all that leave he wasn't adverse to taking the odd day off, but Mother Nature and bike repairs would sometimes force time out of the saddle).

He decided to turn the ride into a chance to raise funds for charity, and the Royal Flying Doctor Service seemed like a great fit given he was:
a. going to ride through some fairly remote parts of the country, and
b. had experienced post bike accident medical attention in Canberra and couldn’t imagine what it would be like to have an accident in the middle of nowhere, thousands of kms from health services.

Fat ride house

The Royal Flying Doctor Service

Fat bike RDFS emergency landing
As it turned out, people would come to him during his journey, sharing their stories about the RFDS and how they or someone close to them had been saved. Matt remembers especially well the story told by an outback sheerer whose wife ran into complications leading up to the birth of their child. The RFDS was sent in to collect her, and she and the unborn baby were rushed to Adelaide. It was later Doctors in South Australia told the husband that, had she arrived even 30 minutes later, both mother and child would not have survived. It had sent a chill down Matt - no other service but a plane would have been able to get her there in that time…

The Fat Bike

Fat bike in bush

To his knowledge, Matt is the first person to come up with the idea of riding a Fat Bike from one side of the country to the other. He was a keen mountain biker back at home in Canberra, but he knew fat bikes were made to get through snow and sand so he figured if they could do that, they could carry him across Australia.

The Mechanicals

Fat bike weir

You can’t ride 5,800km and not expect the odd mechanical, and Matt certainly got his fair share. Perhaps the worst was the time the bottom bracket just completely shattered as he was riding across the Nullarbor. Thankfully a roadhouse put him up and he was able to organise a delivery from Adelaide, but it set him back several days. The worst day for flats was when he clocked 12, although they occurred in groups; by the time he’d make each repair and wait for it to dry an hour was almost up, so that was an especially long day in (and out) of the saddle.

The fat tyres had plenty of opportunity to grind over sand, but they didn’t see snow (he was travelling across the Snowy Mountains during summer). That said Mother Nature enforced a kind of mechanical when a week-long heat wave hit Port Augusta - Matt was off the bike for about a week as temperatures soared past 46 degrees, but usually averaged around 44.

Eating along the adventure

Fat bike river sunset

What do you eat when you’re riding pretty solidly for just under five months, much of it in very remote locations?

Matt had plenty of dehydrated meals - add hot water, wait and hey presto, there’s your meat and three veg. He’d stocked an enormous supply of these back in Canberra and before shortages got too low out on the road, he’d contact a friend and give her a forwarding address for the next relief package to be mailed. These would all go to whatever local Post Office Matt had planned to travel through, and there it would be held for him to come and collect.

Normally he’d carry 10L of water a day but this would double when travelling through places like the Nullarbor. Roadhouse were always terrific; generously providing water along the way from their tanks or bores. Whenever he got close to a town he’d make a bee-line to a cafe or bakery so he could tuck into a non-dehydrated pie here, a burger there. Occasionally he’d have a pub meal for dinner to spice things up a bit.

So how do you carry 10L of water, multiple dehydrated meals and everything else on a Fat Bike?

Fat bike railway

Before he took off Matt got himself a trailer. Between it and bags attached to the bike he packed:

  • The 10 - 20L of water and water filter
  • Food - dehydrated meals, muesli bars, oats, gels, nuts and dried fruit
  • An MSR Whisper Lite camp stove (which could work on most fuel supplies versus gas only)
  • Spare tubes (only three, which surprised us a little, but although he came very close he never ran out completely!)
  • Chamois cream (he went through 4.5 tubs)
  • Insect repellent
  • Three pairs of knicks
  • Two pairs of bike shorts
  • Two jerseys
  • One set of off-the-bike gear
  • One sleeping bag
  • Folding chair (the one luxury item)
  • Sleeping mat
  • Tent

All up and depending on the quantity of water, the combined weight and trailer bike was anywhere from 40kg - 60kg. No wonder Matt thinks he’s lost at least 10kg…

Staying connected

Fat bike adventure

Before he left Matt purchased a sim card, which he would use whenever he found himself bunking down in a roadhouse. For those remote stretches the Spot Tracker would come in handy. A tracking device that uploads live GPS position every ten minutes, the Spot Tracker doubles as an emergency beacon (Matt would have just had to press the SOS button and an emergency message would be sent to the Spot Tracker as well as all persons nominated by Matt prior to departure).

On a few occasions Matt would forget to enter into the device his decision to stay put somewhere. When that happened, it wouldn’t be long before he received emails or messages from concerned family/friends wanting to know why he wasn’t moving.

The landscape

Fat bike Great Aus bite

Matt got to see, smell, and hear Australia as he travelled; he didn’t just journey through landscapes in a car, but was right there soaking it all up, and that was definitely one of the highlights of his adventure.

  • Esperance and along the Cape Le Grand was beautiful white sand and stunning beaches
  • From Esperance to Albany it was hot, really hot, trees hugged the roads but would bend outwards, looking like they too were hit by the heat
  • From Perth to Albany along the Munda Biddi there were plenty of hills, huge diversity of forest and spectacular bushland. The trail is a must for any mountain bike tourer
  • The Nullarbor wasn’t nearly as dull as he’d imagined - there was only one stretch of about 17km that was devoid of any trees, otherwise shade was always available along the way
  • The Ceduna to Port Augusta section was a little like the Nullarbor - dusty red soil and the wind not always on his side
  • Riding along the Great Australian Bite’s Bunda Cliffs was incredible; looking down at those sheer drops that would just plummet into the water below
  • From Port August to Port Pirie and into the Clare Valley delivered the sweeping vineyards, orchards and bushland; a memorable meshing of cultivated and native Australia
  • After Adelaide it was down to the mouth of the Murray (at Goolwa where the river meets the sea) then following the river towards the Snowy Mountains. Looking back Matt thinks this was one of the most serene sections of the journey - great old red gums sitting idle along the Murray as it flowed along, the riding just a nice relaxing, shaded and flat experience
  • Then onto the Snowy Mountains, where despite all those kms in the bank, Matt had the stuffing knocked out of him, although he didn’t have to get off and push!
  • The steep descent down Conway's Gap is something every mountain biker should do once, through temperate rainforest and bushland

The stand outs?

Fat bike tour wild life

Matt was not anticipating such a level of warmth, welcome and hospitality from locals along the way. I asked Matt if he thinks that’s because he was doing something exceptional, or the people along the way are exceptional, or a bit of both. He reckons he saw many a cyclist on the Nullarbor, for example, so the novelty factor for locals probably wasn’t that high - they were just genuinely very, very good people.

The other stand-out was the day his new bottom bracket arrived and he could get back out on the bike again. He remembers riding to the beach and going over a sand dune and finding himself smack bang in front of a mob of emus. He stood still and looked at them. They stood still and looked at him. They all stood like that for some time. And then, eventually, the mob decided they’d been staring for long enough, and off they slowly went. An amazing experience Matt thinks will always stay with him. Seeing the depth and diversity of wildlife along the way was truly incredible.

Matt’s top tips for endurance tourers

Fat bike long road

  1. Take spare brake pads
  2. Get as much riding into your legs before you leave as you can - too much won’t be enough!
  3. Practice packing your full load (how will you make it all fit? Find out before you head off) and have a go at riding with it before you roll out for good. This wasn’t something Matt did
  4. If you’re planning a trip like Matt’s over summer, then don’t pack a serious sleeping bag for cold climates. There was only one night Matt slept with his bag fully zipped up
  5. No amount of riding on flats will condition your legs and lungs for the hills, so if you can train for both (provided both feature on your tour) then all the better. Matt had been riding for months on flats before he got to the Snowies and got a real shock!

And donations are still welcome!

Matt’s raised $4,500 for the Royal Flying Doctors Service, but donations are still open and welcome. You can donate by visiting this link

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