Kowen Forest - 6:58am Saturday morning. Check through the depth of talent in the first three rows. The Real Insurance XCM series has raised the bar for Australian MTB racing.
Everyone in the mountain biking world of the east coast of Australia was hanging out for the rescheduled Capital Punishment marathon race. After the 2010 event which probably scarred a lot of people for life with the bike destroying mud, AROC made the big call to postpone the race after a really, really wet Canberra Summer and early Autumn. This, however, was a winning solution, with the morning of the 28th of April being absolutely perfect. It was cool, but not too cold, the trails were abundant with 'hero grip' and when you looked through the entrant list, there was the veritable 'who's who' of the Australian Marathon scene. I counted between 20 and 30 riders in the Elite class who I personally knew as being more than capable of drilling it for 100km.
If I take the opportunity to backtrack a week, I was sitting in the Qantas club lounge waiting for my flight to Melbourne for the first round of the Real Insurance XCM series. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in the back of an ambulance on the way to The Canberra Hospital. It seems that I had suffered as epileptic seizure in the Qantas club lounge and was looking at spending the rest of my Saturday in the E.R. I had these seizures when I was in my teens, which was quite a long time ago, so to say that this came out of the blue and got me by surprise was an understatement. What was more frustrating to me, as a bike racer, was that it had seriously derailled my plans to hit the first XCM round and get some points on the board.
Anyway, back to Saturday morning. I checked out the first opening fireroad section in my warm up and got back in time to snag a front row starting position. This is always good for the fresh airflow early on! When the gun went at 7am on the dot, it was on for all. The main objective was to keep an eye out for the gate with the sign "Millpost Rd" on it. This indicated that the singletrack was 300m away. The next objective was to be in the top 10 into the singeltrack. The entry into the singletrack was reasonably civilised in the first 10 with Cooper, Blair, Lewis, Fleming, Hatton, Jackson, Tupalski, English and Shippard in front of me. This was good. These guys, I knew were not going to hold things up. After the 7km descent through the twisty singletrack of Kowen, we exited the forest to cross the highway into Sparrow Hill. The pace would rise and fall dependent on whethere we were in singletrack or on fireroad. Essentially, singletrack was smashed as hard as possible, Fireroad was ridden tempo.
One of the unique things about the course, is that as we were exiting Sparrow, under the highway, we saw other 100km racers entering through the same tunnel. We got a few yells of encouragement from these guys who were about to hit up the 6km of singletrack through Sparrow that we had just completed. Then it was onto Kowen Part 2 for us. The group was not splintering at all, and we actually managed to pick up a few extra riders who had clawed their way back onto the front group of 10. It came as no surprise when Jeremy Ross caught back up, he rode straight through and off the front solo on the open fireroads. He is a bit of a driver on the road bike so this came as no surprise to anyone else either, and everyone was content to let him go. By the time we had got to Sutton Forest, we had caught back up to him and gone through him in the singletrack. Through Sutton we also managed to drop Will Bowron, who had made the junction across the fireroads of Kowen.
As we exited Sutton Forest, crossed Sutton Road and entered the defence land, we had whittled the selection down to Cooper, Lewis, Fleming, Jackson, Hatton, Blair, English, Shippard, Tupalski, Shippard and myself. The best thing about having a marathon in the city that you live, is that you know the trails. All through Kowen, Sparrow, Sutton Forest, Majura, and Stromlo, the trails are just the standard trails that are raced on at the grass roots club races, as well as the training rides. The new trails through the defence land, however, are not open to anyone as it is through live firing areas. We even passed some of the targets. I did check out the area using Google Maps and had an inkling where the trails would ultimately go to meet up with Majura. These were amazingly better than the grassy paddocks which made the cobblestones of Paris Roubaix look appealing of years gone by.
Through the defence land there were 2 different attacks that went off the front. Firstly Jason English had a dig, but in the end it just appeared that he was going off the front for a nature break. Then Peter Hatton attempted to get off the front also. This didn't last too long either as he was too much of a threat for anyone to let him go. Heading up a slightly steep fireroad, Matt Fleming sounded like he was wheezing a bit and went backwards a little bit. The pace was picking up again as we could see the familiar pinus radiata of Majura Pines. The elastic began to stretch a little bit as Tupalski began to feel the effects of his solo 24hr race 2 weeks ago. This isolated Shippard and myself from the front 6 of Cooper, Blair, Lewis, Hatton, Jackson and English. After we crossed Majura Rd, I motored as hard as I could up the fenceline fireroad to try and grab back some time. Unfortunately, as fast as I was going, it was being easily matched, if not bettered by that minute amount that you just cannot get back solo. I still had the top 6 in sight as we rounded the feedzone, and about 5 minutes later I passed Jason English who had punctured on a set of rocks on a slight descent. This was slightly ironic for Jason, as he had successfully navigated his bike for 24 hours solo two weeks around these same trails with no misfortune. Cycling can be really cruel sometimes.
I drilled the rest of the singletrack until the fireroad exit. This I attacked as hard as I could trying to get as much time onto the front group and also those behind me as the untimed section started. This hill is one I know pretty well. We always ride out of it after Dirt crits at Majura during summer. As I went through the timer I could finally sit up and start spinning the legs over. The unique thing about the untimed section is that it goes right by my house. On that note, it also goes past the houses of Dylan Cooper, Andy Blair, and Shaun Lewis. This is the 2602 postcode zone. I stopped in for fresh gloves, food, drink and a sneaky 200mL coke. When I got back going, I had wished that I had grabbed a jacket! It was a little cold to say the least after switching off the afterburners. I spun the 10km untimed section pretty relaxed and made sure I ate and drank enough for the last smash fest over to Stromlo.
When I got to Black Mountain, the top 10 guys were starting to mingle at the base just before the timed section restarted. We had up to 45 minutes of 'free' time before we had to get going again, and this was being judged very carefully by all. In the end, it was Matt Fleming and Jason Chalker who broke the ice and rolled through first. I was happy with this as I knew the pedigree of these two guys. I waited about a minute after these guys had gone through before rolling through with Anthony Shippard. I looked back and could see the top 5 heading off about a minute behind us. I wasn't too concerned about not being with the top 5 as the parts through Black Mountain got a little steep and the way that the legs were going, I wasn't 100% sure that I could keep their pace in all locations and was wary of getting dropped. On the flipside, I was also confident of getting over to the base of Stromlo pretty well with the crew I was with due to the tailwind along these trails that I ride pretty much every week. Anthony was on the edge of cramping but was hanging in behind me as I talked him through the sections. I could see we were catching Fleming and Chalker up ahead and while Matt was sitting up to wait for his Rockstar team mates of Lewis and Cooper, I yelled for Chalker to get on our train. I had actually ridden these trails with Jason the Sunday before so we knew what was coming up. We kept it drilled at a really high pace and were finally caught by the top 5 at the exit of the bike path onto Cotter Road. This was what I was hoping for, as tactically we had lost very little time and would get a nice little pull along up the Stromlo trunk trail. We all then jumped on and took the freight train as much as we could. At this stage we were catching the 50km racers and the traffic management was getting to be a bit of a handful.
I managed to stay with the front group until the Cockatoo Switchbacks before the top 3 of Blair, Lewis and Cooper lit up the mountain. I worked at again limiting losses and putting as much effort as I could up the mountain. When I hit the top I knew that it was only a 10 minute descent to finish the race off. After racing for 85km and 3hours 20minutes, the body was screaming. Arms aching, hands screaming, legs protesting, but, local knowledge is a great thing and I resisted the urge to tap the brakes as much as possible. When I hit the bitumen of the crit track I emptied what was already empty and drilled it to the finish line. 90km of racing, 3 hours 33 minutes ( I think!) of actual racing - 6th place overall. Yep, I was really happy!! Especially with the bad luck of the previous weekend, and the nerve damage from the Australian XCO championships in February.
Dylan Cooper, Andy Blair and Shaun Lewis had actually contested a sprint for the win with Shaun taking it from Dylan and Andy. So, these 3 riders from the 2602 rounded out the top steps of the box in one of the closest days of racing I have ever seen over this format of racing.
My Cannondale Flash Carbon 29er Ultimate was 8.3kgs of flawless speed machine for the marathon format. I have only had this bike since Xmas, but I am a true believer in the 29er wheel size especially for the XCM style of racing. Even with the associated other stuff put on the bike such as bottles, spare tube, CO2 etc it still comes in light as a feather. This does make it a lot easier to punch out of corners, and climb up the steep gradients. And, understatement of the week, there were a lot of corners of punching out of to be done through the iconic trails of the ACT region.
A big thanks needs to go out to AROC for putting on this iconic event, Cyclenation and Real Insurance for promoting the series and taking mountain bike racing in Australia to a fully #PRO level. If the depth of talent in the Elite field is anything to go by, the scene has changed and is gaining momentum.
Obviously, my awesome support network of the Cannondale Australia crew and also Lonsdale Street Cyclery, Canberra make my days on the bike extremely enjoyable. Even through the pain and suffering!
So, next on the calendar is the Convict 100km up in Sydney next Saturday. The rest of the week, is just about getting fully recovered from my efforts on Saturday. The bike has been dialled, new tyres, cables and a nice new chain to freshen it up for the mainly fireroad race. Once again, I will roll the dice, and see how things go.
Stromlo forest about 10:30am a few minutes after finishing. Blue Steel pose!