Sunday, May 25, 2014

Ingerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro - May 2014 - Alice Springs

I love this race. That is the executive summary....Why? Well, the first time I visited Alice Springs was back in the late 90s doing hydrogeological testing on the age of the town's water supply. I was also really fortunate to be able to present the findings of that work in Vienna at the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency - pretty rivetting stuff. So as a 25 year old I got to see a lot of things in the Alice Springs region as well as travel across to the other side of the world to talk about it.

One thing that stuck in my mind was how sensational the land in Alice Springs was. This was confirmed last year when I went there for the same event. Unfortunately last year, the plane from Canberra to Sydney could not land due to fog in Sydney and I missed the first day's racing, which sort of sucked to be totally honest!
It is good to travel light. But I just don't

7 stages over 5 days - make sure you bring enough kit!

This year, the logistics were dialed well in advance and I landed on the Saturday to a pretty sweet 25 degrees. In fact, it was this temperature all week long. Absolutely brilliant.

The Ingerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro is made up of 7 stages over 5 days. This makes it pretty interesting from a racing as well as a recollection perspectvitve - just so much happening and going on!

I did make some notes throughout the week just so I could look back and see what had happened over the course of the week --- so here goes!!

Staurday and Sunday
I'm finally chilling out watching Top Fuel Drag Racing and listening to Paradise City sung by Fergie and Cypress Hill in front of Slash. I think that Alice Springs has the absolute best mountain biking in Australia.....Huge call, as I have raced in every state of Australia, on some amazing tracks....but for my liking Alice Springs is really hard to beat.

After arriving yesterday the bike was quickly assembled and I went out for a recce on the ITT and night stage course to be used on Wednesday's stage. It's always tricky hopping on a bike after a long transit, but I was keen to feel the trails. The pre-ride for me was to get *that* feel that you want as a mountain biker. The connection between the bike, yourself and the trail. 

I rode for about 2 hours and reacquainted myself with the drift, the rocks, and the terrain. I definitely finished feeling In a pretty happy place!  

ITT course recce - superb ribbon of singletrack

Sunday morning I had organised to ride Monday's 1st stage with Pete Selkrig, Gary Harwood and Paul Darvoldelsky. Having a couple of locals show us around was fantastic and just little things like line choices, pacing techniques and certain racing tactics from years gone by were divulged freely. 

I don't always drive on the front as I prefer to suck wheels, but when I am the driver I do it with class

The trails on the first stage just leave you grinning. The variety is amazing, with the only constant being that you wish that the trails were closer to your own home. 

I was keen to check tyre choice as well as the critical tyre pressure to run out here. Due to the rocky terrain, it is pretty important to run tyres that will make the day's distance and then some. I also wanted to scope out lines. When racing begins it is just a matter of following wheels sometimes, so you have got to have a small idea of what is coming up. I did my best to get a feel for the terrain, any tricky sections and mainly just avoid having too much of a blast! Why? I could ride these trails all day and we barely touched the surface. And I am here to race in all had to hold back and just ride them at solo chugger pace. Got to leave something left in the tank for the week!

Racing during the week - it's like this, Yo!

Rego and Rider briefing is on tonight. It will be good to see who has turned up, what revered number plate I have been assigned as well as talk some crap with some great like-minded people in a sensational location.

Oh....and there are two Thai restaurants within 250 metres of my, I am fully sorted for the night's dinner!

Monday - Stage 1
Stage 1 was greatly anticipated by all competitors and got off to a rolling start at 8:50am from the Chifley Resort under a neutralised police escort. Due to a fear of dehydration, I made the start with 10 seconds to go amidst the general amusement of others around me.

The rolling escort was a pretty relaxed affair, as the car barely nudged 25km/hr. As we approached the last formal corner of the neutral rollout, something totally unexpected occurred....the police driver slammed the brakes on. Ben Mather was the worst affected by this and slammed straight into the back of the vehicle. A quick call was made by the front runners to just stop the race right then and there and allow Ben to sort himself out. As he rejoined the bunch he remarked "now I'm really angry"....fantastic! Nothing like a shot of adrenaline to get fired up! Let's see what the Tasmanian Devil has then!

Super trails, and close racing

The pace started in earnest as people were position fighting to hold wheels, claim position, or just simply see in front. My plan was to be near the front because the Sunday recce showed me that there was a super long stretch of deep sand coming up early on. So, I went to the front and ramped it as we hit the dirt. Just as we hit the sand, Ryan Standish and Ben Mather went to the front on either side of the track and drag raced each other at 600 watts closely followed by Chris Hanson.

Behind me Magellan rider, Paris Basson was holding my wheel and came up beside me and said that everyone behind him had stopped because someone had binned it. That was my main fear of the sand. If you stalled, you just wouldn't be able to get going through it again. By the KOM, Standish and Mather had a good 15 seconds lead and Standish flew up the hill to take out $200 and continued to pass go with Mather in hot pursuit.

Stage 1 has some of the most beautiful singletrack in the whole country and the riders were treated to a technical delight that required nothing less than 100% concentration. The trails were dry, sketchy and rewarded those who could ride with technical efficiency or handle the prized two wheel drift.

Mather and Standish extended their lead to 30 seconds on me, with Basson and Hanson right behind me. Basson had some loose handlebar issues soon thereafter and had to take the bitter pill and stop and sort the issue. This was a shame as he was on fire effortlessly railing the singletrack with ease. At about the 1 hour mark, I was able to get a good ramp going and managed to ride across to Mather and Standish and get on the wheels. We went through the feedzone and Standish stopped. Mather and I sat up and waited....and waited (gentleman's agreement)....where the hell was he?  A couple of minutes later he reappeared and it was back on. Apparently he had stopped to sort a soft tyre.

He soon came through on the next open section and ramped the pace putting Mather and I under pressure. As we crossed the railway line, he gapped us and used his dual suspension Lapierre to his advantage up Blair's stairs, keeping the power to the rear wheel to gain a small, yet decisive gap that he was able to hold until the finish. Alice Springs velodrome was the end point and we did a lap of the banked track to close out stage 1. 

Racing was super tight in both the men's and women's categories with mere seconds separating the major placings. This will obviously result in some great tactical battles over the next few days as the race pans out. As the event offers time bonuses some of the gaps will change and this will change the dynamics of the racing even further.

Monday Part 2 - Stage 2
With the first stage out of the way it was all about the recovery time to the afternoon's stage. Recovery, preparation, TV gazing, pool time, eating, whichever way you want to look at it there was a decent block of time to do a fair bit of it. 

Split stages are quite tricky to be honest. You don't actually get to 'switch off'. Deep in the back of the mind is the requirement to be 'on' again at a later stage. For this stage you only need to be 'on' for a minute, but that minute is one that you never forget.

There are numerous strategies for this stage. Roadie slick tyres, skinsuits, aero helmets and care factor zero are all valid tactics to try and grab precious seconds. In the end, you are chasing single seconds...can this make a difference? Of course! Especially when there are massive time bonuses on offer for first and second place overall. 

Every advantage to be gained. Imogen Smith said that my bike was lighter than her road bike

The riders head off in reverse ranking from the stage 1 results in 30 second intervals. The hill is sealed bitumen and is 300 metres long. It is essentially a lab test for power, VO2 max and the good old pain and suffering standby.

As a comparison --- the slowest rider did a 2:19 and the fastest was just 43 seconds! 142 other riders then slotted in between those times. That demonstrates the disparate nature of the abilities within the entire field, which in turn, makes this event so appealing. The one constant was the massive crowd that lined the top of the hill to see all the riders suffering through the insanely steep gradient that was presented. the end Ryan Standish on his dual suspension 29er with knobby tyres won. Jo Bennett won the women's event on exactly the same configuration! As a bonus for both of these riders winning both stages today, they also hold the coveted leader's jersey for the overall event. 

Ben Mather and Imogen Smith kept these two riders honest and definitely made them earn their time bonuses on Anzac Hill right on dusk.

But, the top 3 men are separated by less than a minute as are the top two women. It is early days yet, as anything can happen in a stage race with 7 stages. Watch this space!

Tuesday - Stage 3
Stage 3 started at the old telegraph station on the north side of town and was a brilliant 49km point to point race finishing in the lush surrounds of Lasseter's Hotel and Casino. After the first day's racing out of the way, everyone was in a little bit more subdued mood and looking forward to this classic stage. The riders were promised fresh new trails as part of this stage and were not disappointed being treated to some absolutely superb workmanship with beautiful flow.

Race start got under way at 9am and was quite mellow at first heading along the bitumen road before swinging into a sandy low lying road that started to string the group out. After a few kilometres of open 4WD track we hooked into some really smooth singletrack just before crossing the first bit of sand for the day. A few little nudges that would be best described as digs, rather than full blown attacks went off the front to shake things up, but were not sustainable or the group brought them back.

Early on the bunch consisted of Mather, myself, Standish, Basson, Hanson and Barnard. Mather was predominantly doing most of the pacemaking as Standish was under no obligation to do anything except follow wheels being the race leader. In the first 10km, I hit a rock a little hard and copped a slow leak to the back tyre. Mather was keeping it ramped up the hills and nice and smooth in the singletrack with Standish and I on his wheel. After being dropped a little on one short,sharp pincher, Basson and Hanson both made contact with the 3 in front. 

Breakfast every day

Followed by more breakfast

The singletrack out here in the north east is arguably some of the best Alice Springs has on offer. It flows, is through natural terrain and is an absolute pleasure to ride. There is so much variation, that all of your skills are required to ride it. There are switchbacks, rocks, rock-walls, banked turns, loose surfaces and sand to contend with constantly. 

After a couple of CO2 gassings, I took the medicine and stopped at the 30km feed zone to slam a tube in to sort my flat. Mather, Standish, Basson and Hanson continued on with Mather taking every opportunity when the trails went upwards to test the mettle of his competitors. Mather and Standish finally broke loose on the final climb within the last 5km and went toe to toe to the finish line with Mather taking the sprint and the prized time bonus of 20 seconds. Standish still keeps the leader's jersey with an opportune 10 seconds time bonus to add to his lead from the previous two stages.

Chris Hanson and Paris Basson both minimized their losses after exceptional rides to finish 3rd and 4th respectively.

Even closer is the men's race with 18 seconds (discounting time bonuses) separating Ryan Standish and Ben Mather. This one has the potential to go all the way to the wire on Friday.

There will be the potential for a shake up on Wednesday with an Individual Time Trial in the morning followed by a mass start night race under lights. Ben Mather will be eager to make up time on Ryan Standish  and will use his vast experience to eek out the crucial seconds that he requires to potentially take the leader's jersey. However, Ryan is motivated to keep the overall lead being a local and having fantastic support behind him. There is also the possibility for shake ups occurring for the 3rd place position - with 3 riders separated by 75 seconds.

Wednesday - Stages 4 and 5
There was an Individual Time Trial in the morning - it hurt...only 50 minutes, but you are just redlining the whole way - we'll leave it at that!

Your tastes and results may vary, but this is how I roll

Then you lie around all day waiting for the mass start night stage - it was fantastic!

3300 lumens. The last time I rode off road at night was this stage last year!

There were some shake ups in the overall GC, with Standish losing valuable time and Ben Mather moving into the lead. I was also fortunate to move up into 3rd.

Thursday - Stage 6
Stage 6 of the Ingerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro was billed as the Queen stage. If you're trying to figure out what that actually means, just think in terms of length and difficulty being quite high. 82km is a pretty decent distance on a mountain bike. If you are racing, then it is fairly long. If you have already raced 5 times in the last 3 days, then it is really quite hard. There is no way of sugercoating it.

To add an interesting element, it actually poured overnight. Now here is an interesting story...every single time I have been to Alice Springs it rains. 

During each stage, this is pretty much what you are looking forward to

Riding over to the start with Imogen Smith, it poured on us again. Imogen was also quite fortunate to cop the splash from a car hitting a puddle. It soaked her to the core. However, being the optimist that she is, she stated quite boldly that we were actually riding towards blue sky and would indeed need our sunglasses. Mmmmkay....

The gun went off at 9am and we headed north up the Stuart Highway for 5km before turning left onto the dirt. Then the racing really started. The terrain out here is quite raw and old school. The singletrack meandered its way around for ages and finally hooked up with trails that we had ridden during stage 1. The first selection was made relatively early on as the rocky terrain was made interesting from the rain. Ben Mather, Ryan Standish, Chris Hanson, Phill Orr and myself were snaking around the trails in a formal manner.

By the time we had exited onto the start of the bike path and the first feed zone, we had lost Phill and proceeded to make light work of the bike path. 17km awaited us, and with a subtle downhill gradient, we were able to keep the pace up above 35km/hr and were just pulling 30 second turns due to the tight twisty nature. Half an hour later and we were onto a sealed bitumen road which went somewhere from some other place. Ryan was probably the only one who knew where we were, being a local and all. 

Ahhh.... the #pro shop

After about 10km of the rolling turns, which are not technically as efficient as a good solid 30 second turn, Ryan was starting to yoyo and soon dropped off. Being bike racing (ie, cruel at times), the pace was lifted just slightly and Ben, Chris and myself motored onwards. The dynamics here were quite interesting. Ben had the leader's jersey over Ryan. I was 1 or 2 seconds in front of Chris in 3rd place. We all had motivation for moving forward.

We were warned by John Jacoby that the last ridgeline climbs had a bit of a bite. He wasn't telling porkies either. The trails were rocky and loose and freaking steep. He also said that they were towards the end of the race. It was here that I then took a bit of a gamble and attacked. And by attack, I mean, I did not ride off like a man possessed. Rather it was just probably quite disturbing. I would have been frothing at the mouth with my head on a tilt. Ben covered my moves and we were able to get a small gap on Chris.

Heading down one descent I saw a 4WD out cruising the ridgeline. A momentary thought of whether we were going to collide was all it took for my concentration to wander and I bottomed out on a rock with my back wheel. You know when you have hit the rim too hard. Sure enough climbing the next rise, I could hear it leaking. Damn*
*may have been slightly more profane than that.

I nursed the tyre down the next rocky section, but I needed to gas it so let Ben go, stopped and got some air in it. It probably took 2 or 3 kilometres to catch Ben, who did not really need to hustle much on this stage. He had done the work to dislodge Ryan earlier, and pretty much shut it down. I latched back on at the 2km to go mark and just drilled it with Ben on my wheel. The race leader does not have to do any work. It is always up to the others to take it to the leader. To Ben's credit, he also said that he was not interested in the stage win, his work having been done securing valuable minutes on the General Classification. Pure Class Act. 

Rounding the final corner, we had a lap of the BMX track to do and with the shaky hands and 3 hours plus in the legs, it was done rather carefully! 

*The* best feeling in the entire world

So with one stage left, Moving day in the stage race has totally shaken up the men's general classification. Ben retains the lead, I've moved to 2nd, Chris Hanson has popped to 3rd and Ryan Standish has slid to 4th.

is it over yet? Most certainly not. Ben will no doubt win, unless he gets washed away in a flash flood, but 2nd, 3rd and 4th are still so close that anything can happen. Watch this space!

Friday - Stage 7 - last chance saloon
Stage racing is unique in that the final result is an accumulation of all stages. So, what has happened during the 5 days and 7 stages shapes the overall leaderboard on a day to day basis. Below are a few of the things that have happened that have shaped the week's racing.

Day 1. Paris Basson has his bars work loose in the middle of the stage.Chris Hanson gets isolated form the front runners due to soft sand. 

Day 2. I had a flat tyre and lost 3 minutes. 

Day 3. Ben Mather was caught by Ryan Standish in the ITT. Ryan Standish has mechanical issues in the night stage and loses the leader's jersey

Day 4. Ryan Standish hunger flats with 20km left to go in the stage, and loses a truckload of time. I experienced yet another flat tyre

Day 5. No one has a bad day or anything go wrong

At the start of the 7th stage there were a few ways that things could play out.

I had moved up into 2nd place, but had Chris Hanson (1:05 down) and Ryan Standish (2:11) down on me at the start of the day. 

It was pretty apparent, therefore how the day was going to pan out. With Ryan Standish posting on Facebook in the morning that it was "Game on Boys". I was going to be attacked by Standish wanting to make amends for the Stage 6 disappointment, and I also knew I was going to be under pressure by Chris Hanson wanting to also move up the leader board. Ben Mather with a huge time buffer, was going to "sit back and watch how things unfolded". 

As soon as the race commenced in the neutral zone it was quite apparent to some what was happening. One, the police car was not going to cause any problems today and was a good 50 metres up the road. Two, Hanson and Standish and I were all on the front driving it through the neutral zone at 35km/hr! As soon as the dirt came up, Standsih went to the front and drilled it with myself, Mather and Hanson all locked in behind. 5 minutes later it was a drag race between Standish and I to the singletrack with Standish demonstrating how much he was going to take hold of the race today.  

In about the course of 30 minutes through the singletrack, Standish managed to put me under pressure and the elastic snapped. Mather popped through to enjoy the day out on the trails and I just went into damage control trying to contain Standish to 2 minutes as well as cope with the onslaught behind me with Chris Hanson wanting to pounce and gain the 1 minute and 5 seconds back. 
You breath a short sigh of relief after seeing this sign every stage

 The trails on this stage are beautiful yet absolutely savage, and require nothing less than 100% focus. The stage was also a fair bit longer than last years, with new singletrack pushing the distance out to 44km. This did not stop  Ryan Standish from putting in a superlative performance and managing to get back the 2:11, and then some, on me and go from 4th to 2nd in the General Classification. I moved from 2nd to 3rd, and Hanson moved from 3rd to 4th.

Ultimately, Ben Mather had pretty much an insurmountable lead going into the start of the last stage and needless to say, he managed energy expenditure, protected his equipment and minimised losses throughout the week. The experience of this being his 4th time doing this event, shone through, as well as his wealth of experience, skill and pure ability on the bike. A very well deserving winner.

It was not just the top 4 in the race who were battling for precious seconds. All week there was a lot of talk of personal races within the race, even to nab a top 30, not get chicked, or even just beat the terrain. The Ingerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro is such an awesome event that offers a fantastic mountain bike stage racing experience for anyone. 

So the results executive summary for me is as follows:

  • 3rd Stage 1
  • 4th Stage 2
  • 6th Stage 3 - flat tyre
  • 3rd Stage 4
  • 2nd Stage 5
  • 1st Stage 6
  • 3rd Stage 7

3rd place overall on General Classification behind Ben Mather and Ryan Standish

Remember this kids....there are no do-overs in Vegas, and you simply cannot do the Millburn Maths (tm) to figure out the 'what-if' scenarios.  They just don't exist because there is no parallel universe!

I'll be back next year for sure. Some of the best times I had were having breakfast with Damon, Steve and Peter every morning, talking random crap with Imogen Smith, the positivity of the Rapid Ascent team, and just seeing a truckload of people enjoying their mountain bike riding on some of the best trails in the country! The racing was only about 10 hours worth, but the memories of 7 days in an amazing oasis of mountain biking is the life experience that I will take away from this event!

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