E-biking In the Name of Cancer Research
Paul Begg and Matt Holmes are well known in the Australian cycling community through their riding exploits and long-standing contributions to the industry. Both are passionate riders, and both have overcome cancer in recent years. The popular duo’s fundraising initiative – called “Salt2Snow” – is their way of giving back to the many incredible people who dedicate their lives to cancer treatment.
Riding Specialized’s new Turbo Levo e-bike, their journey through cancer and its treatments would extend to taking on the long dirt roads from Lake Eyre in South Australia, across the deserts and plains into the Great Dividing Range with their destination, Mt Kosciuszko, at the top of Australia in what was a truly iconic adventure.
We’ve joined forces with Australia’s foremost authority when it comes to MTBs/e-bikes, [R]evolution + [E]volution Magazine, to look back at the Salt2Snow journey and give you an insight into what their adventure was all about …
Looking back at the 20 days spent riding from Australia’s lowest point in Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre to Mt Kosciuszko, it’s still a blurry memory as to how we came to tackle that ride. On not much more than a loose collection of ideas to do a ride to clear both Paul Beggs and my heads from the depths of cancer diagnosis and treatment, Salt2Snow was born and quickly gathered momentum. Suddenly our ride evolved into a fundraising project. A collective of industry backers came onboard. A route was pieced together. And a crew assembled to tackle what we thought would roughly be around two thousand kilometres on bikes across some of Australia’s most varied terrain.
Far from the original idea for Paul, his identical twin Nigel and myself riding unsupported, Specialized came to the party with their Turbo Levo e-bikes and Mitsubishi stepped in offering us a Pajero Sport to carry our camping gear and spares. Pauls older bro Micheal kindly donated his driving services and a box trailer was procured along with a bunch of swags and camping gear and we were set. Then out of the blue, Nathan Rennie contacted us wanting to join in. Kinda made sense, world cup domination riding downhill for a decade to riding across the flats of Aus and up the biggest hill there is…We all came to this ride with a reason, Paul’s ongoing treatment, Nathan’s mothers battle with cancer and my own dealings with the big C brought enough reasons to take on this journey. To raise some money to aid the two hospitals and research teams Paul and I owed our lives to, made it even more important.
Simply getting to Kati-Thanda was a mission. Long roads out of Sydney led to Oberon to pick up Paul, Nigel and Nathan (who’d already done big k’s from the Gold Coast) before we drove out to pick up our trailer from Bathurst along with the twins older bro Michael. And I guess that’s when the real trip started. Heading west across NSW on route for Broken Hill before heading north and really getting our outback on via Marree in South Australia. From Marree, it was all dirt, sand and corrugations which slowed our progress a little but we were still on track for kick off on the 20th of October.
At 11:34pm on Friday the 19th of October, we arrived to a rather harsh welcome. A brutal sand storm made vision on the dirt track almost impossible. Paul and Nige didn’t even get out of the Pajero, while the rest of us battled the winds to set up our swags and ended up in sand-filled wind tunnels. Can’t say I’ve ever slept in goggles before! That chaotic night and minimal sleep was forgotten soon enough, awakening to the sight of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre on sunrise was more than a little humbling. Also humbling was the sand and grit that now covered and filled everything we had with us. Sleeping bags, laptops, cameras, drone and our generator, all just full of it…
With the winds not as mental as the eve before, Kati-Thanda-Lake Eyre showcased its true size and scope. So flat and vast, so much so that you (and all the Trump-Morrison religious flat-earther zealot types) can see the earth’s curvature. An ancient seabed, the lake has been an important part of the local Arabana peoples culture for thousands and thousands of years and many Dreamtime stories are born from the lake, along with songlines and trade routes. Just as inspiring is the record-setting history of the place, and while we didn’t set any new records, a few speed runs and photos on the salt had to happen as we were only kilometres from where Donald Campbell set his 648.7kmh record in Bluebird back in 1964.
With the sun coming up fast and the lake and surrounding dunes changing colours from vibrant to bleached, the heat rapidly rose and we knew we had to get moving to save being baked by the sun… Plagued from day 1 by the sand-filled generator, the 1st leg was hard work and in hindsight, maybe the toughest of the trip. Adding to the slow-going into the headwind was the deep sand, and even tougher the deep corrugations of the like I’ve never experienced before. Plus there was that wind, a headwind no less.… Being that I’d not spent any time on an eBike before this ride, it was here I realised their potential, as being on a naturally aspirated bike I dare say all three of us would have given up within an hour into the gruelling terrain…
The daily routine of awaking, unzipping a swag and realising we were somewhere incredible was nothing short of inspiring. No matter how the body felt, rising with the sun truly cures all ails! Rolling up a swag, cooking breakfast and getting on the bikes was far removed from the all too common commuting routine of dickhead Tetris to get to a job. From the extremes of wind and sand on the lake, our first night post-ride was nothing short of an oasis in the desert, swag life by the Muloorina waterhole was something else. Oh yeah, we saved a cow from drowning in the mud here too! With only our collection of anecdotal camping spots, google maps research and our morning’s conversations about where we wanted to make it to later that day, I was constantly blown away by the amazing places we would end up at.
Outback Australia is a harsh place. And one place that offers solace from the harsh environment at nearly anytime is the town pub. With temperatures over 38 degrees daily in the first week, stopping in for some shade, air-con and a refreshing beverage was always in order. Ordering a soda water with lime wasn’t always the best thing to ask for at the bar, as this always lead to some odd looks from locals, but this became our ploy.
As pretty quickly their curiosity would pick up and the question ‘where the hell are you riding to/from?’ came up. It was here that the pub stop became an integral part of the trip as aside from letting people know about the cause and how they could donate online, we sold so many o four Deus collab shirts to locals who related to the reasons behind our trip. We also became the sounding board for many to tell their tales of the cancer experience, which while tough at first became a way of moving through my own issues with cancer. The outback pubs of South Australia are beautiful old buildings, somehow surviving the extremes, time and tacky upgrades or renovations. Truly amazing places with some equally amazing history and of course souls on both sides of the bar that eased the heat of the midday sun and our tired legs.
Life Is Brutal Out There
Rolling through the northern South Australian landscape and towns was at times surreal. It’s a harsh country, nothing more, nothing less. One full of broken dreams. From early settler days to the present, this reality showcased itself everywhere we looked. Ruins of houses, farming equipment, vehicles and animals that didn’t make it through drought or not dealing with highways, nothing was spared the brutality of the desert. Farina Station was an eye-opener on this front. Talking to the station owner, whose sheep grazed however million or so acres that included a ruined township dating back to 1878, his response to what they were eating on the barren plains was so deadpan it rocked us, ‘they’re living on memories mate’… Summed up the reality of the area beautifully.
The Flinders Ranges is something special on a bike. And somewhat of an untouched resource for epic MTB terrain. While the Mawson Trail is amazing in its own right, albeit averagely signposted, the areas off the trail are full of potential, especially if you’re of the freeride persuasion.
Getting lost out in the Flinders ain’t so fun. Heading for Hawker we ended up some 43 kilometres in the wrong direction, at sunset, with no lights or food. And worst of all no reception on our phones… Luckily the full moon that rose beautifully over the ranges illuminated my bonus trek to a homestead a few k’s off the highway that we’d made it to. A knock on the door and another ‘where the hell are you riding from/to’ conversation meant a phone call to Nig and Michael to come get us. It was a stark reminder of just how easy it is to get out of your depth there.
We pinpointed the error of our ways once back at camp. Bombing a good 10 minute descent towards the rapidly setting sun, the views were simply nuts! Kangaroos and emus flanked us at speed and a full moon was slowly rising behind us as we rocketed down. Safe to say that Nathan and Paul were on a tear down the 4wd track while I almost tank slapped trying to keep up, camera in hand clocking clips and photos. It was a few minutes of pure presence, at one with everything around us and one that is so vibrant in my memory. It was in that few minutes of zen that saw us hurtle past the minimal signage and the turn off. The trail eventually depositing us into the incredible Brachina Gorge and heading in the wrong direction…. Lucky for us it’s one of the Flinders most beautiful spots!
Highlights from the Flinders have to be Wilpena Pound and of course Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel, another oasis in the desert out there and one that we returned to after the aforementioned ‘lost in the desert’ moment for a second sitting. From the Flinders we headed south, crossing Goyders famous line and immediately the terrain changed, and even more so the colours, from desert hues to greens.
The Murray River
Mighty by name, muddy by nature and the lifeblood of all that lays beside it. The lushly irrigated and fertile wetlands only span a few km’s from the banks where the desert landscape returns. Its history and impact on the settlement of the country is huge. As its route now came from where we were headed. Its immense flow and power was so evident as we snaked alongside it. Ancient river gums and towering banks looked down on its passage as it snakes its way through the landscape. We turned east from our southerly descent down Australia at Morgan, a port town that brought relief from the dry desert landscape we’d been among for the first week. Suddenly fruit and wine became the prevalent crops, a far cry from the saltbush and dirt farmed so heavily north!
Following its banks, we quickly found dirt trails from motorbikes and 4wd’s which allowed us to stay clear of the Murray highways and gave us so much insight into the river and its wildlife. Some of these trails were simply epic single tracks that were a blast to ride and had us trying to channel Toby Price as we hauled arse through the red dirt and sand, really utilising the Levo’s assistance to its full potential. Renmark was our first short day on the bikes and real taste of civilisation, a day to chill and catch up with the world with wifi and coffee thanks to the crew at Arrosto Coffee. We had Will from Will Ride in Adelaide head up with Kane to give the Levo’s a much-needed service as we’d hammered them over the week just gone. To chill for a morning was nothing short of revitalising! Might have just been the primo back gold the Arrosto crew kept serving us though…
Those single tracks mentioned above continued on both sides of the Murray as we crossed via ferry’s and bridges many times trying to ride as much dirt as we could and end up in suitably epic camping spots. Echuca, Barham and Swan Hill all incredible places that showcased both the history of the river and how it still provides so much to the communities that make their living on the banks of this incredible river.
Eating Like Kings!
With the daily kilometres involved, we had to eat well to keep our energy levels up. Plus we simply couldn’t afford to eat out daily. Looking back, I’d say our trailer had more organic fruit and veg than the majority of towns we passed through. Evenings post ‘sort bikes and set up camp duty’ revolved around cooking up epic meals for the crew. I can’t remember any riding trip where we A/ cooked the majority of the time and B/ ate so well! Bonus was that both Paul and I didn’t lose weight (a massive concern for Paul who only came off chemo the week before the trip) and Nathan somewhat grudgingly delved into the world of vegetarian and vegan cooking and lost 14+ kilos! I even managed to put a few on which is a first! All the crazy healthy meals we created aside, I realised the power of the amazing creation that is the potato cake after rolling into a small town absolutely shattered from one morning’s headwind. Forget the fad diets, carbs and salt can be your friend!
Dirt versus Road
We aimed to ride as much dirt as possible on the trip. It was an MTB trip after all. Our rough plans mapped out on google maps alongside info on terrain from riders and moto crew we knew meant we had most of the route following dirt roads and single track. Of course, not all of our info was correct and at times, we just got lost. Add to this, weather and the need to cover ground played a role in daily choices to smash a road section here and there in order to get to some epic dirt or a campground before dark. The Levo’s, while limited to 27kmh could hold some serious pace on the road when needed, especially when motivated to cover some ground if we’d gone astray! All up I reckon we rode dirt for over 65% of the trip, some of it simply amazing terrain and some of it, roads that I’d rather not remember. Let’s just say the corrugations were so full-on at times, not even Norse King Ohlin could dampen them…
We knew it was coming from the start. Our two and a bit weeks of majority flat terrain on the bikes had to come to an end eventually. Heading out of Albury it began heading up in earnest. Once we crossed the Hume Weir, we loosely followed the rail trail into the high country, although our pace was slowly coming down as we had to keep diverting to roads and back trails with sections of the rail trail still to be finished. The other side of this sudden incline was the immediate drop in temperature. After weeks of heat, sometimes above 40 degrees, were suddenly down to the low 20’s and by the end of the day when we arrived in Khancoban, down to 12 degrees. Lucky we packed thermal gear.
Refuelling both bikes and riders, the push from Khancoban to Geehi was a big one. And once at the hallowed full pipe, it was a loose collection of Snowy Hydro trails to get us up to Schlinks Pass which sits at over 1800m and only a few kilometres from our ultimate destination. While the climb was relentless and brutal at times, it took us through some of the most amazing alpine terrain, you’ll ever see. From temperate to sub-alpine and alpine regions that skirted the Jagungal Wilderness and had us hitting patches of snow after falls the eve before. It’s a simply stunning place to arrive at, and while it wasn’t the summit of Kosi just yet, Schlinks Pass felt like a momentous point on the journey and one that didn’t go without a few deep-felt moments.
From the Pass, the journey to Guthega Powerstation, while as long as the ride up from Geehi, was predominately downhill. Like proper, epic descents! Meaning our almost flat batteries and equally fried legs were spared as we settled into steep, high-speed descents that had us over 80kmh on more than a few sections. With both Nathan and Paul ex-World Cup DH riders, the pace was nothing short of exhilarating and a far cry from the previous days slogging away on the flats. Following the pipes down to the Power Station, it just blew my mind that a project of this scale was devised in the ’60s for an almost limitless renewable resource was built. Sadly, it’s a far cry from the current day coal debacle! Just as disappointing was the fact we couldn’t plug in at Guthega! So it was here we had to make a call. Ride flat battery e-Bikes up to Charlottes Pass and then Kosi, or descend into Jindy, rest, refuel and return to tackle the summit the following day. One look at Nathan was all it needed, option two was the call!
The Final Push!
With 100 plus kilometres daily for the previous 19 days, the final climb from Guthega to Charlottes Pass and to the highest point you can ride to in Australia, some 1.4ks short of the summit, was amazing if not exhausting. All of our bodies were feeling it. With wind hammering us, dark clouds rapidly moving in and the temp hovering around zero, it was a tough final ascent to the summit.
To finally stand on the highest point of Australia with Paul and Nathan was something special. We’d said we’d do this. We’d pushed through the k’s, trials and tribulations of the Australian landscape and made it to the top. The doubts, the times that all of us had thought about packing it in, the pain in the legs/butt/head just seemed to melt away as we laughed and realised it was done. It wasn’t like winning a race. Or taking a prize. It was something deeper. We bombed back to Jindy running on a serious high and after a little gathering at Banjo Pattersons with Chuck Hann from Kosciusko Brewing ensuring we were hydrated, we went back out to our final nights accommodation to cook up one final feast with an amazing group of friends and supporters.
What a ride!
Salt2Snow was nothing short of an amazing ride, and one that clocked up close to 2500k’s with all our diversions and little lost moments! But far from just a ride, it was an idea born from a place none of us ever want to revisit, which became an epic adventure from Lake Eyre to Mt Kosciuszko. A ride that brought together so many people, much more than just Paul, Nathan, Nigel, Michael and myself. It was those that supported us, those that we talked to, those that waved us by on the road, those that shared the cancer story with us.
We raised just over $42,000, way above what I thought possible and all funds went straight to both Paul and my own chosen hospital and research teams. That of Lifehouse and Kinghorn alongside the Garvan Institute. To ride out of the lowest place to the highest to show what’s possible when you set your mind into action, regardless of circumstances is something I truly thought I’d forgotten how to do. We are so much more than what we think we are. Thank you to all that have become part of this journey. And know that it’s only just beginning.
The Machines of Choice
Salt2Snow wouldn’t have been possible without Specialized’s Turbo Levo’s. We had a mixed fleet of 2019 and 2018 models that got us and our crew halfway across the country… Without the e-assist, there were days of sand, mud and wind that would have broken us, yet we still averaged the 27kph they were limited to. Meaning we could still get our 100-120k’s a day done in some pretty arduous conditions. That said, we ran them out of batteries at the most inopportune times! With our sand infested generator giving up the ghost occasionally, there were some long stints on heavy fat bikes! And some days that we would have loved to be cruising at 35-40kph, we were held back a little. We quickly learned more than a few tricks to hyper-mile them and extend battery life. From drafting to towing/pushing each other and a few other tricks! While some of you will still wonder what an eBike is for, as an adventure machine, they open up a whole new world of touring.
Time on a bike out there…
If I was to get selfish, maybe more important than the money raised was the time to myself on the road. While we’d all ride together entertaining each other with tales from our varied lives (and let’s just say some of these tales will definitely stay on the road) it was the time to self that really became precious out there. Time and space broke down, distance became a unit not measured by metric devices. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke we passed through landscapes while our heads whirred. At times finally slowing down from the chaos that life sometimes brings, and the trip definitely brought its mental challenges! Those quiet times saw everything slow down, yet distance and time passed almost effortlessly. I’ve seen the hashtag #mentalheathmachine floating around and I’ve gotta say it’s the most spot-on description of a bike I’ve ever heard.
Riding bikes gives you access to nature, so much closer to it than in a car at 100kmh with the windows up. You’re in the landscape, you can feel it, hear it, taste it. At times some roads we’d roll smelt like an abandoned butchers shop in a heatwave… One stretch of said road just out of Orroorro in South Australia was littered with dead kangaroos. I’d spent what felt like as much time off the bike as on pulling roos off the road. Partly as I couldn’t bear the thought of them being smashed to pieces by cars, partly as I didn’t want cars dodging them and hitting us, and maybe mainly so eagles and hawks didn’t get hit when feeding on them. I only mention this as I began wondering why some of the roos had part of their heads missing. Was this some strange killer zombie kangaroo zone? Wild dogs and dingos eat the arse out of roadkill in search of the high protein in the stomach/intestines, so what was going on? We pedalled along and saw a rather large animal get up from fresh roadkill and saunter across our path maybe 15 meters in front of us, both Nathan and Paul quickly upped their speed and as they did the animal started a strange run across the road. Its gait far from a dog or cat, which was when Paul declared ‘it’s a Thylacine as we chased it off the road unsuccessfully. All of us had cameras, I had a GoPro on the bars. All of us fumbled and missed the evidence. I guess the Thylacine is the most evolved predator on the planet, evading social media to this day, unlike sharks, lions and tigers who seems to grace every Insta page and dating app profile… That eve Nathan’s social post about the sighting went viral and Australia’s Number One Thylacine expert gave us a call. His record of sighting was in the 1000’s across South Australia from down near Port Lincoln up though where we were and down to Naracoorte. His questions all pointed to the fact we’d definitely seen one and he let us know that they think the mainland ‘version’ of the Tasmanian Tiger is a little bigger than the extinct Tassie one… He also let us in on their feeding habits which I mentioned above and that sealed the deal, the parent eats the brains and eyes and sometimes lungs and take it to their young. Believe it or not, all three of us know what we saw. It’s a damn big county and I’ve no doubt that they’re out there…
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