Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Redback Stage Race - Alice Springs - August 2015

Alice Springs absolutely rocks as a mountain bike destination. With over 300km of the most awesome singletrack in the country I always make it a priority to head up there when there is a race on. This was the 3rd time that I have done the Redback (previously known as the ICME stage race) and like most I was curious to see how the modified format would go. Instead of 7 stages in 5 days, it was now 6 stages in 4 days. The major difference in the new format was being that the long stage of 80-90 km was removed. 

In addition to racing this event 3 times, I also raced here in Easter for the Easter in the Alice stage race. Needless to say I like it up here! I am also starting to begin to learn where the trails go! From a logistics point of view, this race is the easiest stage race you will ever do. You fly in to Alice and catch a shuttle bus to your accommodation. All racing starts and finishes within the town, so the furthest you might have to ride pre or post stage is about 5km. The race communications by Rapid Ascent is the best that I have ever seen. Daily SMS messages as well as emails letting you know start times, results and any other pertinent details were sent through to all competitors quite regularly. This simply allows you to not have to worry about small details, as they get sent to you! This year the other change was a temporal one, from May to August and as luck would have it, we got some really hot weather. However, coming from a very ordinary southern winter I was not complaining one little bit!

I landed in Alice after an eventful flight. An hour out of Sydney one of the hostesses got pretty sick and they had to turn around. I knew things weren't good when the pilot asked if there was a Doctor on board. So we got to sit on the plane in Sydney for another hour before heading up and landing. Nothing like being in a germ tin!

I checked into the Chifley Resort and got the bike built up so that I could stretch my legs out a bit on the course used for Stage 3 and 4. It is always good to go for a spin after travelling because you usually have stiffened up and all the muscles have switched off. The next day I took Grant Johnston and Michael Milton out for a bit of a recce of the Stage 1 course. I was leading and went through a nice creek bed which had a sweet little kicker out of it which enticed you to get the bike off the ground. Which I did. I then stopped and waited for Grant. He saw me, saw the kicker and lashed out with a kickass whip!! But....he didn't bring the back of the bike back in time, and landed crooked and burped the rear tyre. He couldn't gas it as the removable valve core came out when he removed the CO2 fitting! As luck would have it, his spare tube had a hole in it. After carefully negotiating a price of $15 for my own spare tube, I offered that up to G-train, and he was devastated to find that it was a 26er tube which made fitting to his 29er rim a bit of a challenge! I told him that it was just a tube I carried and never actually used....I mean, I sold my last 26er well over a year ago! Unfortunately for Grant it too had a hole in it, or he pinched it when he put it on, so his tyre was still flat. Fortunately, in Alice Springs you are only ever really 10-15km maximum in a straight line from town just about anywhere out on the trails. So I decided to head back and get him a good spare tube. After chilling out in the pool for a while, I headed back out with a couple of spare tubes, extra CO2 canisters and found Grant pushing his bike back into town. Ironically we were only 700m from a bike shop according to Grant's Android phone so we walked there and got his tyre refitted with sealant and set up tubeless. What a start to the day!

Later that afternoon I took a crew of about 50 out on a social ride so that they could see the trails. I chose Stage 3 and 4 as the route to take - this was the Individual Time Trial\Night Stage loop which would be good for people to have a bit of knowledge of. Within 1km of getting going, we lost 1 person with a flat tyre, Paddy Quiggan snapped his seatpost and Luke Pankhurst had rolled a front tyre off and ate a mouthful of sand. Good stuff! Got to love the 1st day activities!

That night I hooked up with Grant, Michael, Paddy and Katie Taylor and we hung out at Nong's Thai restaurant in town talking crap and feeding our faces full of rice, curries and pad thai! As Paddy and Katie had only made it a kilometre into the social ride before the seatpost incident, it was amusing trying to describe Stage 1. The executive summary was 'watch out for the sandpit 500m into the start'!

That next morning I woke up feeling feverish and had a big spew. That is always what you want the morning of a race. With a few friends and loved ones having also been sick in the last week, my immune system probably had decided that it had had enough and just thought that it would let me know. With my eyes watering from the extraction of all my carefully ingested nutrients, I went in search of coffee with a total loss of appetite. I managed to down some pancakes with Nutella to try and get some energy back into the system prior to the start.

Stage 1 had us rolling behind a cop car for 5km or so through town in a neutral affair. When we hit the dirt, it was on and I slotted into 4th wheel wanting to be as close to the front when we hit the sandpit of doom. Last year only the front 5 riders got through. I think this year it wasn't too much different. Ben Hogarth and Craig Cooke took off and I rode with young gun Luke Pankhurst trying to hunt them down. We got to within about 10 seconds of Ben just prior to the feedzone but I had to stop and gas up my back tyre which was not holding air. That is a nice way of saying that I had screwed up and got it punctured somehow! With only about 7km to go, I gambled on the tyre holding on just enough to get me home. I passed Luke along one of the fireroads and then managed to ride over the train line without dismounting with about 10psi in my tyre. I then got onto Ben's wheel just as we were about to go up Blairs Stairs. But with only about 9psi remaining I couldn't get the tyre to hold up under my immense power output and had to let the wheel go. I rolled into the velodrome in 3rd place to open my account for the race.

Stage 2 was in the afternoon and was a 300m hillclimb. After spending half an hour in the pool at the Chifley talking crap with Luke I was a little frozen so needed a 30 minute super hot shower to thaw out! I wasn't feeling great for the hillclimb, and rolled up to get through it. When you get sick, your top end pretty much just disappears. I was still trying to deny it at this stage though! I chugged up in 56 seconds whilst Luke Pankhurst smashed it 100% out of the saddle for 44 seconds - keep an eye on this kid because at 15 he is the real deal and will only get better with time! Some of it is due to the bike he is riding, the rest of it is down to hard work and talent!

Stage 3 was the individual time trial. This race is 23km long and it hurts. There is no sugar coating it. You are running at threshold and the lactic acid is making your ears and your teeth burn. I am sure that the course is really good here as I have ridden it at a much cruisier pace, but when you are doing a time trial, the sky turns black and you don't really notice details. I drilled it as hard as I could though and rolled through for 3rd place once again. At the finish line it was 32 degrees in the shade and my helmet straps were coated in salt crystals. Back to the pool for dissection of the race, a bit of a sneaky Maccas run with Grant and then a lie down prior to the night stage! The salt crystals came in handy to put on the fries!

Stage 4 was a mass start affair with 200 riders getting their lights pumping into the dark desert wilderness. I popped my sweet new Lezyne lights on the bars and helmet to illuminate the trail with about 3000 lumens. I don't think that you can have too much light out on the trail when it is dark. As I only tend to ride off road at night at this particular race each year, I need all the illumination that I can get! One of the most fantastic sights on this stage was after we had run north on the double track, then turned west onto the superhighway singletrack, you could see a couple of hundred lights sneaking their way through the technical rocky singletrack that was at the start. Absolutely brilliant!
After sighting the lights of the houses of Alice it was a pretty cool descent back to the golf course to finish off the stage. I rolled in for 3rd place and pretty much consolidated 3rd place on General Classification for the race with 2 stages to go behind Craig Cooke (1st) and Ben Hogarth (2nd). Luke Pankhurst had a shocker on a borrowed bike (after busting a couple of spokes in the afternoon on his normal ride) and lost 20 minutes on GC with 2 flat tyres. Ben Gooley managed to move up to 4th overall.

Stage 5 was the 'long one' of the Redback - 50km on paper over some of the toughest, but most rewarding terrain. In a wise move, Rapid Ascent moved the start time forward 1 hour as it was forecast to be another hot one - this was very much welcomed by all competitors so we all made our way to the Telegraph Station for the start. There was a lot of brand new singletrack here and it was absolutely superb as it twisted its way to the Todd River. Being super dry and incredibly sandy, none of us were able to make it all the way across. Well done to anyone that could make it! Craig took off shortly after this and went solo. Ben was on his tail, and up one of the steeper, rockier, looser climbs Luke and I drag raced it until we could no longer hold traction. We both looked at each other at the same moment and jumped off and started pushing! 

I let Luke go here and got into a bit of a groove mindful that it was hot, slow going due to the tight singletrack and I still had 30 odd kilometres to go. 10km later I caught up to Luke and we worked together through compartments of singletrack and 4wd track trying to keep things moving fast. As it got warmer I binned it one of the switchback corners - I am going to blame my tyres here - with the warmer air, the pressure just increased and I lost grip - #truestory. In all reality I just stuffed up and Luke was able to get through and set the pace on the tight, rocky singletrack. At about the 40km mark, I could see Ben ahead, his Orange jersey standing out, not very well against the red backdrop of the desert. I was trying to figure out how far he was in front. You know how it are counting corners, trees, rocks, kangaroos, seconds.... whatever really, in order to get the gap split. I reckon it was about a minute. Sometimes that can feel like it is 10 minutes though as it can take forever. One thing I was sure though was that Ben hadn't seen us. Nothing like being dressed up in black Louis Garneau kit to bring the stealth game to the race! I pointed Ben out to Luke and told him that I was going to try and catch him. What I would do with him once I got him, I as not sure, as the run into the finish at Lasseters Casino was slightly downhill, on a bike path and Ben isn't one who lacked power... but I would figure that out closer to the time. After exiting the singletrack I was within about 20 seconds of him. A freshly graded bit of dirt road was nailed with some Hammertime at 45km/hr using the tailwind to my advantage to make up time in the air. 

As I rounded the bitumen road up the power plant I had closed the gap to 10 seconds. But I think heading up to the pipe that we had to cross under, Ben may have snuck a look back as the gap started to open up again. Damn it! The last bit was drilled into a nice cooling headwind and the tank emptied even more to the finishline, To our surprise we had finished 1st and 2nd with Craig having taken a wrong turn out on course and losing 20 minutes which saw him go from 1st to 3rd, and Ben take the lead with me in 2nd overall on GC with one more stage to go.

After inhaling a kilo of watermelon and icy poles, it was then time to head back to the Chifley in slow motion and hit up the pool. Luke and I talked crap for about an hour with a few other guys whilst the legs were cooling down from the day. Sometimes the stories after the race are the best part of the day as everyone has a unique perspective on how the day's racing went down. The afternoon was then spent lying in bed for 3 hours recovering and watching tv in air conditioned comfort after yet another warm morning.

Later that night, I pulled out the big guns and hit up Nong's once more for a massive double serving of rice with my green curry chicken - I even piled in some spring rolls on the side! With one more stage to go it was going to be good to start it with some energy in the belly!

Stage 6 arguably had the best trails in the whole race. Leaving them until last was a stroke of genius especially after the tough Stage 5 there were a few weary bodies on the start line. Another police escort through town and it was good to see the World Championship jersey of Grant Johnston at the head of the field. We respected the rainbow stripes that are presented to the World Champion and let him chase down the police car until we crossed the Todd River. At that point though I decided to ramp it up and hit the dirt in first place. This turned out to be a good idea and was not by accident. On the social ride on the Wednesday I noticed that this section had some huge sections of bull dust. With my lungs pretty hammered already the less dust in them the better, plus it also made it easier to see.

Ben and Craig came around shortly thereafter and I sat on their wheels with Luke right behind me. Ben Gooley used some local knowledge near some cement drains to advance up in the field with a nice outside line and slotted right in front of me! I got the wheel back in front of him as we headed up a loose bit of doubletrack before going into some singletrack. About 5 minutes later I was following Craig's wheel when I felt the back end get a little bouncy. I looked down and saw that unmistakable bulge of the tyre tread on the ground....flat. Damn it. After Craig's misfortune the day before I had an 11 minute buffer over him. So I had done the math on how it was going to go. I expected him to put a few minutes into me on today's stage. Maybe up to 5 because I was coughing and blowing some pretty interesting colours up. With the flat that changed everything. Usually if it is a straight forward flat I can turn it around in 3 minutes. This one took a bit longer because I had to let the rest of the air out, I booted the sidewall with a $5 note (bulletproof material) and gassed it twice so that it had plenty of air in it. It took a bit longer than I would have liked, but it was done and wasn't going to be an issue once I got going again.

After getting back going again, it was then time to get my groove back, not go too deep, go deep enough, and minimise time losses. I also had to get through some traffic - but everyone was very awesome and let me through knowing that I was on a mission. The only point that I didn't call 'track' was on the new Stimpsons Track. Oh. My. God.....what a trail!!!! We were flowing down this trail for what seemed like 10 minutes - it went on forever and had some of the best flow I have ever experienced - and I didn't want to ruin it for the 3 riders in front of me that's for sure!

After making my way emptying the tank, which was pretty much just running on fumes anyway, I saw some familiar trail markings and knew I was close to the finish line and I was hoping that I had done enough to hold onto 2nd place on GC. I was well and truly stuffed after crossing the line in about 2 hours. I inhaled more watermelon and slammed some fluids down and swapped war stories with those that had crossed the finish line already.

I checked the results - 7th on the stage and had consolidated 2nd place on General Classification by 41 seconds. Definitely had done it pretty tight that's for sure!

After the racing had finished, the body and mind know - and the day after, the snot and phlegm ran very freely! A nasty chest\throat\nose\ear infection was not what I had banked on but at least I minimised what it did to me during the race. My top end was absent, but the diesel got me through. Flying home was not overly enjoyable with the changes in altitude playing havoc with my ears!

So the stats for the week are like this
  • Race time: a shade under 8 hours
  • Distance: racing plus course recce plus to and fro - 260km
  • Total Stress Score: 710
  • Thai meals: 3
  • McDonalds runs: 3
  • Calories; 7,500
  • Pool time: every. single. day....
Stage 1: 3rd
Stage 2: somewhere - I sucked to be honest and was happy to just get up the hill
Stage 3: 3rd
Stage 4: 3rd
Stage 5: 2nd
Stage 6: 7th (flat tyre)

Overall result: 2nd
Ben Hogarth took out the GC honours with a classy ride and Craig Cooke was definitely the strongest rider out there, but misfortune on Stage 5 leading to a 20 minute time loss thwarted his chances at overall victory and he had to settle for 3rd place.

So overall, it was a good campaign and it was made even better by having top mates also make the trip up. The racing is one thing, but the option to be able to talk about it after each day made it really awesome. This particular race is perfect for that. You meet new people, ride the best trails going, talk crap with your mates, swim in the pool and eat good food - what more could you want in a lifestyle mountain bike destination?

I'll be back next year for sure!

I love this bit of trail - it is like a superhighway and with a tailwind I could hit it at 40km/hr. Of course when we did the Time Trial there was a headwind and I could only hold 32km/hr! The Strava segment name is 'The Plains of Mordor'

Stage 1 Neutral Rollout - setting the GPS so that I can get it all up onto Strava!

 Michael Milton and I won the most important race that night - 1st in line for the dessert bar!
Grant and I went to Coles so that I could pick up some water. Grant trolleyed my bike so that it wouldn't get stolen!

Grant riding through the singletrack whilst I pretend to be arty with the camera phone

Grant and I devised this tactical plan - he would ride off the front in the neutral stage then I would attack to be first into the dirt - due to being a current World Champion,, no one was going to disrespect him and chase him down. #truestory

A little video of the course recce that was done by Grant and I on the Wednesday morning

 I may ave had more than just a few of these during the week
Again, I may have had more that a few of these during the week :) 

 Nothing beats a well stocked mini bar for a stage race
 So, in this rusted out bus was a whole bunch of stuff, including this blower vac - so I used it to make the trails less dusty

So many awesome things to see out in Alice Springs along the trails - lots of rocks for instance ;)

Salt crystals on the helmet strap were scraped off and added to the fries that I got from McDonalds - some days were pretty hot 

When I *play* cycling I always report to the #pro shop

NT event photography got this B&W shot of me during the Time Trial - here I look composed and appear to be putting out massive amounts of power - I always try to look good in front of a camera - lucky no one saw me 50 metres further down the trail!

I probably take about 3 selfies a year - this is one of them - under the start banner straight after the time trial

Late Night McDonalds run after the night stage

The last supper - Thai Green Curry Chicken - inhaled the night before the last stage

The night stage is always very awesome!

Nice looking tanlines - except that it is dirt!  Sitting at the poolside bar every day after racing was the best way to recovery pretty much

Last stage, one of the last corners - drifting around carrying as much speed as possible

Some kickass scenery out there - sometimes it is good to stop and take it all in

Telegraph Station trails absolutely rock!

About this much fun was had each day on the trails around Alice Springs!

Top 5 on the podium

A video just rolling to the start of the race for Stage 5

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