Long Term Test: S-Works Era

What is it?
The Era is the twin sister of the Epic – Specialized’s flagship XC racing bike. Designed for women, the key differences on the Era include lower stand over height, shorter wheelbase, shorter top-tube and a suspension set-up better suited to females (or smaller, lighter people).

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Why do I ride one?
In the time Before Era (BE), I was more than happy riding my “dirty white” Camber Elite around the place. The perfect all-rounder, this bike had me on XC podiums one weekend and nailing challenging rock gardens the next.

After watching Annika Langvad ride an unknown Specialized bike in the world marathon championships however, my eyes started to wander. It’s not that what I had was bad in any way (quite the opposite in actual fact), but a little obsession had started. I was stalking the new bike on Google Images, refreshing bike review websites for any newly released information and possibly most perverse of all, I was thinking about this new bike while riding my Camber.

My first ride on the Era was at a Specialized “Test the Best” event at Wylde Mountain Bike Park in Sydney’s west. I was sweltering in the 40 degree heat and feeling pretty fragile after a hard fought criterium race earlier that morning. At this point my new rig was already on order through Specialized but that didn’t stop me immediately jumping on the phone to the team at Cyclery Northside and demanding they do all in their power to expedite it’s arrival. After all, I had jumped on the demo and just taken every “Queen of the Mountain” on practically every segment out there.

Some people will tell you that you can’t buy speed. Obviously, these people didn’t go out and buy an S-Works Era. If I had to describe it in one word, that word would have to be FAST.

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Specifications
The S-Works version of the Era spares no small detail. The FACT 11m carbon frame (in a really bad-ass matte black colour-way) brings together Roval SL 29 carbon wheels, a SRAM XX1 drive train, the inverted RockShox RS-1 front fork (100mm travel),  a Fox rear shock, carbon bars, cranks and a seat post holding the women’s specific Myth saddle. The little details are there too, with a SWAT chain tool top cap and a multi-tool tucked away in the frame (which to be honest I didn’t discover until well after, but now use all the time).

specialied-era-components

Like the Epic, the Era includes the automatically locking Brain suspension technology. The shocks remain locked out until a bump from below, which opens the valves to soak up the impact. Most people are used to having an open and a closed setting on their shock – it’s kind of like that, except the shock opens/closes like magic based on the terrain you are riding.

Climbing
You cannot get any faster up a hill. The Era absolutely flies up anything gentle, steep, rocky or loose thanks to it’s racing geometry, weight (mine is a shade over 11kg), stiffness and suspension set-up (thanks Mr Brain).

feralgroove

Descending
Coming from a Camber to the more aggressive Era, I did find descending was a little bit more challenging. That said, Specialized have done a wonderful job in mixing a steep head-tube angle with control, as it was a lot less terrifying on rocky downhill sections than I expected.  The stiffness of the frame and wheels means that the Era handles like it’s on rails – it feels right at home on sweeping berms and long switchback descents including Stromlo (ACT) and Blue Derby (TAS). At the end of the day, the Era is still a XC race bike and may not be as forgiving as some other models for less experienced riders.

Upgrades
Out of the box, you hardly have to do anything. Over time I’ve swapped out the S-Works stock seat-post for a mini Command Post (dropper post) that gives me about 2 inches of extra clearance (helpful for unfamiliar descents at high speed). Foam grips have replaced the standard grips for my precious little hands. I am also running the tougher Maxxis Ikon tyres with greater side-wall protection on sharp rocky trails.

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Recently I upgraded to a C-BEAR bottom bracket to really supercharge the drivechain – it’s completely silent, deals incredibly well with poor conditions and feels as smooth as melted butter.

2,500 km’s on the Clock
Like most of Specialized’s bikes – the Era hasn’t really missed a beat. They are well built and will last forever if you keep them well maintained.  Over time I have had the suspension serviced twice (preventative rather than responsive), replaced a few bearings and bushes, put on a new chain or two and swapped the front chain-ring a few times (to better deal with hilly verses flat courses).

The only issue of significance I have seen is with the Magura M8 brakes – which after working perfectly for the first 2000km, suddenly needed all sorts of work and lots of bleeds. While Magura’s warranty and service department have been great, I swapped them out for Shimano XT’s given some of the issues I occurred were right in the middle of a heavy racing period.

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Why Buy One?
The S-Works Era is an absolute monster. I haven’t been able to think of a name for mine so I just refer to it as “the Crotch Rocket”. It is seriously fast – but also seriously expensive – still around $11k AUD RRP. That said, there are also Expert and Comp models in the line-up, which come in a lot cheaper.

This is one to test ride if you want to get into XC racing. It’s probably not your first bike (it also might not be your only bike), but it will make you faster. It’s lightweight, nimble and rides like an absolute dream.

I still have my Camber. It does get a little bit jealous, but it knows it’s still my number one if I am challenging myself on seriously technical terrain.  

racer

Race Report: Dwellingup100

I touched down in Perth a few days before the race, deliberately giving myself some time to adjust to the conditions and generally chill out, relax and spend some quality time with my bike. Perth holds the illustrious tag of being the most isolated capital city in the world – so I couldn’t think of a better place to be after a rather frenetic few weeks at work.

Weather wise, Perth was not too dissimilar to Sydney (both a modest ~20 degrees at this time of year), yet trail wise there were some key differences.  While I felt right at home navigating all the rocks and tree roots, I would have looked like Bambi on Ice trying to adjust to the light layer of “pea gravel” covering the ground beneath my tyres.

berm
Berm Baby Berm! No worries with pea gravel on these corners.

After a scattering of close calls early on, I had come to realise that hitting the brakes during a corner was only going to end one way (hint: badly), so I learnt very quickly to time my run in, keep a smooth line and to adjust my body position appropriately.  Pushing my bike through the corner, I was soon channelling my inner Odams, Shippard and Kwan (Smooth is Fast).

If you ever find yourself in Perth with a bike, make sure you head up into the Perth Hills and to Kalamunda – a series of trails that start at a Camel Farm (seriously, you had me at Camel Farm). Kalamunda is nothing short of fantastic – well marked, simple to navigate, highly varied and AMAZING fun.  You couldn’t wipe the grin off my face as I was flying down “Scorpion”, “Three Bears” or “Feral Groove” – featuring wooden berms, table tops and rollers for days. The local Kalamunda Mountain Bike Collective have done an incredible job.

xfiles
Kalamunda – “A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t yet learned how to ask” – Fox Mulder

Residing at Mandurah, I was only a 40 minute drive from the trails at Dwellingup (about 90 minutes south-east of Perth). As the weekend approached, I joined another Sydney boy (and super strong masters rider), Ian Bridgland for two days of light riding and race track reconnaissance with some of the locals. We were fortunate enough to run into Tony and his crew marking the track – which meant we could play cat and mouse with the moto’s for a while. This not only saved us from ending up hopelessly lost, but it meant we could grab some tips on the best way down the infamous “Hells Gate” descent.

WWII POW Camp? Here? Now that's the definition of lost.
WWII POW Camp? Here? Now that’s the definition of lost.

Fast forward and I’m cowering on the start line, in the misting rain, trying hopelessly to settle my nerves (which I get before every race – and used to get before kick-off of every soccer game).  With Jenny Blair, Peta Mullens and Karen Hill also in the chute, there was going to be some stiff competition for a podium spot today. The men’s race looked equally competitive – Mark Tupalski, Andy Blair, Michael England and Craig Cooke were all out and looking for a result.

We set off through the middle of the township of Dwellingup and out on to the highway via a rather pleasant motorbike escort. The first few kilometres of tarmac were delightful – I was perched a few wheels back from the front and smack bang in the middle of the peleton, literally being pulled along with minimal effort, playing “Spot the Roadie” (to the guy with the tall white socks, Tinkoff-Saxo knicks and Baked Beans jersey > I am on to you).  As soon as we hit the dirt it was another story – at the first sight of a climb the elite boys hit the gas and the field started to disperse. I was sitting in fifth.

By the time we reached the Singletrack at Turner’s Hill, I had moved into forth. A few strong efforts up some of the longer climbs meant I could work with other riders across the flat road sections.  That said, I probably had started slower than I would have liked – although I do like “the chase”. A brief but heavy shower at Turner’s Hill meant all riders looked liked drowned rats and my new Shimano XT brakes started to sound like a cat was being strangled under my wheel every time I dared touch them

Entering the Singletrack at Marrinyup, mud in mouth, eyes, ears, you name it. Photo by Russ Baker
Entering the Singletrack at Marrinyup, mud in mouth, eyes, ears, you name it. Photo by Russ Baker

Tactically speaking, the course was close to 50% single-track and 50% fire road, so it made sense in my mind to try and stay with other riders and work together to combat the wind on the open sections. Maybe it was all my cornering practice, but I seemed to get faster in the single-track and found myself using it to move up the overall ranks.

I thought all my Christmases had come at once when I spotted the familiar kit of Peta Mullens in the Marrinup forest, probably at about the 50km mark. I increased my speed and passed, grabbing the opportunity with both hands. Still coming to terms with suddenly being in third place, I then passed Jenny Blair, not 2km later, attending to a flat tyre.  Convinced they were both right behind me, I hit the gas for the next 5km and sped into the transition area in second place.

Completely unaware at the time, I was 4 mins or so behind the current leader, Karen Hill, with 40km to go. In my mind though, the most pressing concern was Jenny and Peta behind me. If there was a time to hurt (suffer, grovel) now was it. They are both strong climbers, so I raced up the Powerline Climb and the aptly named Lieutenant Dan climb (you have no legs Lieutenant Dan!), overtaking numerous male competitors as I went about my little mission.

Approaching Marrinup Single-Track for the second time, it occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly be far off Karen. Should I go up another gear and challenge for first, at risk of blowing up and ruining everything? Or do I play the safety card and ride home in second? I had an air of confidence as I hit the accelerator…

Just as I was launching into a section of track, I spotted Karen coming out the other end with another young rider. With my tail in the air, I worked hard for the next 10 mins and eventually latched on to the back of his wheel for a bit of recovery. I probably got away with sitting there unnoticed for about 500m before Karen turned around. It suddenly became somewhat awkward.

We slowed down, sped up a bit and generally went back and forth like slot cars, trying to feel each other out. I had the momentum of making the catch, but we both had 95km in our legs. I’m hurting, but I know in my mind Karen is hurting just as badly. What to do?

Another male rider caught us and was obviously a little perplexed as to why we were going the pace we were. He shot off and I followed, hitting the pedals hard for 20 seconds or so. Turning, I saw Karen right on my wheel. Dammit.

After a couple more minutes, I gave it another shot. I went hard about 1km from the finish. I took a slight break from chewing my stem to turn my head – I was filled with a mix of adrenaline, elation and sheer relief as I realised the attack had worked and I had dropped her. Out of the saddle I set about emptying the tank completely as I crossed the finish line with about 30 seconds to spare for my first National Series win and the Series Leader’s Jersey.

Elite Women's Podium - Dwellingup 100
Elite Women’s Podium – Dwellingup 100

Special thanks to the race director Tony and the organizers TriEvents for putting on a great race and for using it as a way to raise funds and awareness for Muscular Dystrophy WA.  Having lost my little brother to cancer not too long ago, the story of the recent passing of Kyle and Conor deeply resonated with me. It’s wonderful to honour their memory with such an awesome event.

Series Leader - for now.
Series Leader – for now.

Also a big high-five to my support crew at Cyclery Northside – the best bike shop in Sydney. Shout out also to Cuore Australia, who make the super comfortable and amazingly good looking kit I wear and to my new go-to recovery protein from Pure Edge, a little Aussie company from Avalon doing great things.

Read the Race Report on MarathonMTB

Race Report: Convict 100

After a modest break over winter, round four of the MTBA National XCM series had finally dropped anchor (after a postponement brought on by weather), with hundreds flocking to the small and historic town of St Albans, located somewhere north of Sydney and west of the Central Coast.

Flanked by the Macdonald River, you need to cross the mighty Hawkesbury River by car ferry to get yourself to Race HQ. Timing it perfectly, I drove on to the deck just before the boom gate was lowered – and with a number of other cars transporting mountain bikes, descended into the thick fog encasing the river.

The fog had barely lifted by the time the elite call-up had begun. A small group of about 20 elite riders sat shivering on the start line, waiting until the last possible moment to shed various warmers. Even then, Andy Blair looked like he was being electrocuted the way he was shaking next to me. After a count down, we were set off – the pace a little less than I was expecting – which meant I found myself on the front for the first ~2km (not my race plan).  Warming up the legs again (and wondering if my actual warm-up was even worth it given I had fully cooled down on the start line) there were a few little surges in pace from the likes of Blair, England and Downing before an attack for position prior to the river crossing.

Convict 100 2015

A number of guys opted to preserve their drive chain efficiency and ran through the shin-deep water with bikes in the air. I chose to preserve feeling in my feet and rode through instead, coming a bit unstuck in the soft sand on the other side – but at least I was dry. By this stage the front of the bunch was off down the road and I was left with the tail end for the Jack’s Track climb.

The steepest climb of the day, Jack’s Track has a number of pinches between 20-30% on a climb of about 300 vertical meters. Loosing rear wheel traction on one of the steeper sections, I had to dismount and run, before jumping back on and riding up the rest. Unfortunately I had gone a little too deep on the climb and suffered for the next 20km, failing to latch on to the small bunches that came roaring through the endlessly undulating fire road section.

Luckily for me, just as I had started to recover, I did manage to adhere to a small group for the road section leading in to the first feed zone. With my mate Gareth doing the lion’s share of the work, we were at the Canoe Bridge (widened this year to be more of a canoe super highway) in no time. Somewhere between here and the Shepherds Gully climb I noticed an issue with my rear brake (my attempts to feather it were not really working), but with the second climb of the day just ahead and a few riders to pursue, I set that issue aside.

The “Convict Stairway”, which links Shepherds Gully to 10 Mile Hollow, is a technical rocky section which can be a lot of fun – especially if you have ridden it before. I passed a few riders who were obviously less familiar with it than I was – taking misguided lines and ending up clambering up the sandstone rocks, bike on shoulder. Even with some of the “asteroid belt” sections being worse than I remember, only two “dab”moments for me along the ~8km section is a personal record.

Convict 100 2015

By now the issue of not having any rear brake is starting to be of more concern, as I passed the second feed zone and flew down towards Clare’s Bridge. Jumping off in attempt to remedy the situation, I stood confused as the two pistons from the hydraulic unit stared blankly back at me. The pin that holds the brake pads was gone. As was the brake pads themselves. I don’t think I can fix this.

Attention quickly turned from my brakes to dodging the low hanging branches, spiky bushes, fallen trees and sizeable mud puddles – all of which lined the next ~10km section. I came out of it with scratches on my arms, hands and face and after a few poor choices, a fair bit of mud and water over my feet and legs. That said, strength wise, I am feeling good.

Convict 100 2015

It was slightly frustrating being able to stick with riders (even make ground on some of the climbs) only to be dropped on the more gnarly descents, which I now had to take rather cautiously. After the final “sawtooth” section across the ridge-line (endless up’s and down’s), came the worst descent to not have rear braking power – Wright’s Creek.

Wright’s Creek averages -11% for 1.3km, with some steep sections and dangerous water bars, which could make for some nasty crashes. Trying unsuccessfully to ease my way down on my front brake only (even with my butt close to touching my rear tyre), I found myself picking up way too much speed. I made the call to ride off the side into the bushes, in preference to what could have ended up being a free helicopter ride.  Dusting myself off, I hopped down the remaining steep sections and hit the road for the final 10km.

Tucked up into a little aerodynamic ball, I passed a whole lot of 44km and 68km riders, a few of which tried unsuccessfully to jump on to my wheel. With about 3km remaining (at which time I was really starting to flag), I found myself consumed by a group of four other 100km riders. With everyone doing a small turn on the front, we all finished together in 4 hours and 50 minutes.

I was the 2nd woman across the line, with Sarah Riley (just back from the World XCM Championships) about 7 minutes ahead of me. Andy Blair and Shaun Lewis rode to the top of the podium in the men’s elite category, followed by Craig Cooke in 3rd and James Downing in 4th (as opposed to his usual 6th in this event). 

Convict 100 2015

Max Adventure do a great job of hosting this iconic race, with the whole town brought alive on race day. Although this was my first outing, I really enjoyed the “reverse” course. It’s unique in it’s own way (with no single-track) but the un-groomed and un-kept nature of the trails, which are pretty much in the middle of nowhere, make it challenging, entertaining and enjoyable. If you have time to admire the view, that’s pretty unbelievable too.

Next on the cards – a trip to the bike shop for some new brake pads!

Race Report: 3 Ring Circus

Last weekend in the Southern Highlands it was snowing. That cold, damp, white stuff that as a Sydneysider, I am rather unfamiliar with. Anyone that rides with me knows that I don’t mind the cold (I refuse to wear leg warmers) and am a regular participant on bleak morning rides around Sydney in the middle of winter. That said, it doesn’t snow in Sydney.

As luck would have it, one week changed everything. Sydney had it’s warmest winter weekend in years and the Southern Highlands followed suit, with clear skies and a sunny disposition. There were some relatively strong winds hanging around, but riding in the forest tends to shelter you from such things.

A self seeding start line meant the front line was dominated by the enthusiastic men aiming to complete the 50km race in close to 2 hours. Behind them sat another group of riders who thought they would give it a pretty good crack. I was perched behind these gentlemen, fully intending to use them as a giant wind block for the first 6km of the Blue loop. Just in front of me was Rachel Blakers – one of the big hitters in the women’s field. Also in the vicinity were some of the SXC and Northside riders (who, unbeknownst to them, I would use as yardsticks to test my current form).

The “Circus Ringmaster” set us off. After a slower start, I iteratively moved up the field, latching on to small groups where I could. I remember passing Rachel, but didn’t spend much time checking my shoulder this early into the race. As much as I tried to hang on, I had lost sight of Gary and Dave from SXC early. Jaycon (also sporting the marvellous Cyclery Northside kit) passed me on a downhill and broke away. It’s not uncommon for me to be passed or dropped on descents – but my 56kg frame does make up for it when it’s time to climb.

Flying through the first transition, I hear over the loudspeaker that I am leading the women’s field, although I assume it isn’t by much. I am further distracted by the excited shrieking of Tegan Clayton, as it seems I have also come through before her husband Peter. He might have been on a bike less suited to fast fire-trail sections than I was, but I’ll take that little win any day of the week!

On to the Red Loop and the single-track Wingello State Forest is famous for. I just adore riding the likes of “Where’s Wally”, “Banksia Drive”, “Leech Street”, “Everglades” and the “Princesses Revenge” (which actually has an awesome painting of a princess, that I think looks like me, posted on a tree near the end). I also just LOVE the new section, very adequately named “Love Love Love”. Some great berms and some fast and flowy downhill sections make for a great deal of fun and excited squeals.

Single-track can be dangerous in a race situation – it’s easy to get separated from other riders and therefore can be hard to measure and monitor your pace. I made a conscious effort to try and follow other riders where the opportunity presented itself, which also assists me greatly, giving me a marker to follow through corners. I ended up riding a lot of the red section with one of the Master’s men – I was stronger going uphill, but he set a great pace through the tight sections. Good teamwork really!

At this stage, I had no idea where either Rachel or Liz Smith (another very strong marathon racer) were in relation to me. After getting stuck in a rut and catapulting myself into a tree right before the final Red Loop climb (it’s been a while since I crashed, so I assume I was due), I began to tell myself they must be right behind me. Psyc!

My feeder for the day, Robyn, did a fantastic job of grabbing my attention in the feed zone (there was no way I could miss her), swapping out bottles and making sure I got in a few mouthfuls of Coke as I flew out on to the final Yellow Loop.  She was racing in a team, so I am very appreciative of her taking a bit of time out to help me on the day. You rock Robs!

The Yellow Loop was my loop. Full of steep, lengthy, challenging climbs. Still in the lead, I was quietly confident I could hold on to it for the final 19kms. By this stage the field was pretty scattered and in many cases, tiring fast. When I did encounter other riders, I often made the call to keep pushing forward on my own.

Finally cresting Half Way Hill and out into the relatively open areas of the course, I was suddenly hit by the wind. Looking forward (through the clouds of dust whipped up by the gale) I could see riders strung out along the road. Nobody seemed to be riding together. Looking back, not much help either. I had no choice but to make myself incredibly small, drop down into my smallest gear and pedal for my life. If either Rachel or Liz were in groups, I could get caught out very easily right about now.

To illustrate how strong the wind was – at one stage I was blown from the left hand side of the road over into the gutter on the right. Picked up and dropped like King Kong playing with marbles. You practically had to ride at a 45 degree angle to go straight.

All things considered however, now was a good opportunity to start picking off riders on the run home. I spotted the familiar Cyclery Northside jersey about 100 meters up ahead and went in for the kill. Unluckily for it’s owner Jaycon, I caught up on a gentle climb and was able to keep rolling on. I probably jumped another 3 or 4 places overall over the next 3km as the strong winds took their toll.

The last person I caught was Gary from SXC. Not only did I then proceed to steer him right into an enormous muddy puddle (that’s what you get for following me I guess!), but covered him in mud and dirty water as I completely underestimated how deep it was. Unfortunately this “friendly” gesture inspired him to find another gear and he eventually caught me about 1km out, crossing the line just ahead of me in the end. Next time, Gadget!

I finished 1st in the overall Women’s Field and 34th overall in a time of 2 hours and 35 minutes. My form yardstick seems to think I am going OK.

I’ve heard it’s the last 3 Ring Circus for a while, which is a real shame. Wild Horizons are proven to run a great event and Wingello is just so much fun to race. If this is the case, make sure you get down for the Highland Fling later in the year to experience what Wingello has to offer.

Quick thanks to Cyclery Northside – not only did my bike perform flawlessly, but it attracted more attention than Ryan Gosling with a Labrador puppy. Ladies – if you are single and want to meet a Mountain Biker – get yourself an S-Works Era. Instant conversation starter.

Cycling Fashion Fails – Part 1

Looking good on the bike comes naturally to some and not so to others. As cyclists, we are already misunderstood creatures – the general population don’t get why we wear Lycra and our partners probably don’t get why we wear bib-knicks (or like mine, likens you to a little Mexican wrestler). Let’s not make the issue worse by looking like complete clowns. Instead, follow a few simple rules around what you should and should not wear while riding your bike.

Team Kitteamkit

In contrast to some other sports, like football or basketball, team kit is for team riders only. If your name is Simon Gerrans, you can wear an Orica GreenEdge kit. If your name is Richie Porte, you can wear a Sky kit. If you ride for a team, go for it,  otherwise steer clear. This rule also extends to National jerseys – you can only wear the stripes if you earn them.  Sorry to break it to you every Englishman that rides a bike, but you are not actually Bradley Wiggins.

Matching Kit
matchy

At a very minimum, your jersey should be matching your shorts – keeping in mind that most things match plain black. Worst case scenario is mixing team kits (breaking two rules at once) – I have actually witnessed someone mix an light blue Astana jersey with green Cannondale shorts. I was too busy throwing myself under the nearest car to take a photo.

Sockssocks

I have previously written a very in-depth guide to socks, which you can read by clicking here. In summary, a tall sock is ideal and a mid-height sock is a pass mark.  Ankle socks, knee high socks, compression socks and fluffy woollen socks are all frowned upon. Not wearing socks, a common practice by triathletes (strange human beings) is inexcusable.

Jerseys
sleaveless

One for the banned list.  Your jerseys must ALWAYS have sleeves. They can be short or long (winter only), but your upper arm is always to remain covered. Riding in hot temperatures is not an excuse either – there are plenty of lightweight options available.  I don’t see this very commonly on men, but I do see a lot of female upper arms. Trying to use your tan lines to give the impression of sleeves (as pictured) is only going to end in tears.

Leg Warmers
warmers

I could almost write as much about leg warmers as I did about socks, so I will attempt to summarise. Firstly, knee warmers are preferable to leg warmers, which should only be worn in extreme climates (i.e. riding in a blizzard up the French Alps, or in Canberra in winter). As with all kit, make sure the leg warmers match your shorts (black and black is the safest bet). Unless you are a team rider and are contracted to do so, do not EVER wear bright red, yellow or blue leg warmers. Always ensure the warmer sits under the short and that there is no gap between the two (the skin must never show – keep that gap closed).

Overshoes
overshoes

This is really quite simple – don’t wear plastic bags as overshoes.  I have heard of some cultures (the English in particular) placing plastic or tin foil on the inside of shoes, which is acceptable if evidence is never sighted. When looking to prevent wind or rain from infiltrating your shoes, your best bet is to buy some proper overshoes that are going to match your kit. Oversocks are cool too – just keep them clean!

Double Trouble: A Weekend of Cyclocross

The XCM National Championships were now over for 2015, which means I get to enjoy a break in the normal training schedule and savour a few weeks of rest, recovery and riding for fun. After not partaking in a great deal of activity for a good week, it was time to have some fun and jump back on the cyclocross bike. Coincidentally, round one of the Manly Warringah Cycling Club CX Series and round one of the inaugural Western Sydney MTB Club CX series were running back to back over the weekend.

Prior to race day, I was trying to describe Cyclocross to a friend:

You essentially ride what is a road bike with knobbly tyres off-road, across dirt and grass, through mud and sand and often in adverse weather conditions. Courses have obstacles like barriers and stairs, where you have to jump off, run/jump/climb through with your bike on your shoulder and then jump back on again. It’s high intensity for 45 to 60 mins – your heart is trying to escape your chest the whole time.  Oh and people throw water and beer on you while ringing cowbells.

Cyclocross is a real sport – even if it sounds completely fabricated! The video below helps describe the sport and gives some background on how it originated:

The Manly Warringah (MWCC) race on Saturday was held at Terrey Hills, in Sydney’s north.  The shorter ~1.8km circuit winds around a park, BMX track and horse riding club, which makes for some great obstacles. Riders have to dismount for  a set of stairs and some barriers designed for equestrian, as well as having the option to either run or ride a few smaller obstacles, such as a telegraph pole and two sets of lower barriers and tyres. While the course didn’t have any serious boggy patches, there was plenty of mud which became more and more chopped up as the race ran it’s course.

MWCC has plenty of tight corners and few long straights, which meant those more technically proficient would come out on top. This was the case in the Women’s race, with Oenone Wood taking the win ahead of myself and Sally Potter. In the Mens Elite, Garry Millburn and Chris Aitken were neck and neck until Chris went down entering the last lap and was unable to make the catch.

Photo by Mike Isreal
Photo by Mike Isreal

Western Sydney MTB successfully launched their inaugural Cyclocross Series with race one at the Sydney International Regatta Centre at Penrith on the Sunday. A lap of the Western Sydney course (~3.4km) was almost twice as long as Terrey Hills and contained a number of fast straight grassy sections, which gave those with good fitness a bit of an edge.

Splitting the long fast sections however were some very twisty and tight cornering which worked to sort out those who could corner smoothly, without loosing too much speed – and those who could not. Two sets of barriers (low enough for some of the elite men to jump) made life difficult for many. One being near a large group of spectators, which meant timing your dismount well was imperative (or else a crash would probably be caught on camera and remembered forever). The other significant challenge was the two large pits of mud down the far end of the course – a foot deep in places meant picking a good line and hitting it with speed was a requisite.

Photo by Ben Porter
Photo by Ben Porter

Garry Millburn backed up well to take the Men’s Elite category over Ben Henderson. I was lucky enough to win the Women’s Elite ahead of Fiona Millburn.  While neither field was as big as MWCC the day before, I think it’s fair to say the Western Sydney event was a success and it will only grow in the future.

All in all, great to see so many new riders giving both races a shot – especially those on CX bikes, racing for the first time. Everyone hurts during the race, but it’s rare to find someone at the end who didn’t have a fantastic time. I am sure both clubs will see continued growth in numbers for race two and beyond.

Photo by Michael Crummy
Photo by Michael Crummy

Australian Cyclocross Magazine has a calendar of events on their website. Check it out and get involved. Most races allow you to ride any kind of bike if you are unable to get your hands on a CX specific.

Race Report: National Elite XCM Championships

As of last week, Tasmania was the only state in Australia I had not yet visited. Flying in to Launceston on a calm Wednesday afternoon, just as the sun was contemplating setting, meant that shades of yellow and orange were thrown over the numerous mountain ranges and lush forests that reached out right to the edge of the coastline. My first impression of this little state was certainly a good one, even if the temperature on the tarmac was a little brisk.

Derby is a small town about 90 minutes from Launceston. The most direct route is via an incredibly windy mountain pass with sharp blind corners and not much in the way of guard rails, which gets icy and is frequented by the odd logging truck.

While I wasn’t quick enough to get accommodation in Derby itself, I luckily grabbed a bed in the Tin Dragon Trail Cottages in nearby Branxholm, sharing a cabin with the super talented Eliza Kwan. It’s a great place to stay – only 10 minutes drive from the trails at Derby and on a stunning country property nestled in the bends of the Ringarooma River with vast green paddocks, alpacas, chickens, wallabies (small round ones that look like jumping possums) and the odd wild platypus.

waterfall2
A waterfall on the trail. Pretty stunning, even if I did get my feet wet.

The whole area has plenty of tin mining history – I won’t spoil all the discovery for you, but there were some pretty significant events, such as the bursting of a dam, half of Derby being washed away and plenty of confrontations between Chinese and local miners.

A few days of enjoying the local surrounds and riding the track with mates made it feel like the ideal relaxing holiday. That said, it was clear that the nervous tension was building in the elite riders the closer it got to race day – this was not like other races – this was the National Championship race.

After a somewhat troubled night’s sleep, the morning of the race had arrived. Conversations between riders were short and focus on the task at hand was high. After a bit of a ride on the track to get my eye in, I spent the rest of the time setting myself up in the feed zone, spinning the legs out on the road, putting in a few short sprints and generally trying to stay warm.

waterfall
Not much more to say – just stunning.

The Elite women’s race started in the town of Derby, running down the main street, following a windy sealed road up the side of a hill and connecting to steep fire trail. Once the gun went off, the women spent the first few hundred meters sussing each other out, before some started to launch attacks as the gradient increased. The most notable of these was Jenny Blair – who was off like a rocket – with no rider keen or capable of following. She immediately grabbed a significant lead entering the single track.

After starting a bit slowly, I found myself entering the single track with the likes of Jenni King, Mel Ansett and two other girls. Not only was I in the main group, but I was feeling good, even after having to gap half way up. Any concerns about being dropped on the first climb were put aside and although I struggled to keep sight of the other girls on the first big descent, I had my tail in the air and a sense of confidence.

sb_track
Photo by Stormy Boy

The women’s race was 70km – one initial 10km lap followed by two of the larger 30km laps. While I had budgeted in my mind about 30mins for the first 10km (given the extended climb and amount of single track), I was elated when I flew through the feed zone in much less than that. Picking up a hydration pack, the plan was to drink as much as I could on the first 30km lap, meaning I didn’t have to worry too much about drinking on the second lap. With that plan, I could also leverage the few opportunities I would get to consume gels, not fumble with a small drink bottle (the course was 95% twisty single track and only really had one location to feed).

I started the first 30km lap in a group of three with Tassie locals, Edwina Hughes and Jody Bush. We wound our way up the numerous switch back climbs to the fire trail – while the pace was constant, it was hard to get away given the terrain.  Still feeling good, I was comfortable on the back, following the lines of two girls who seemed to have a great knowledge of the course.  Turning on to the fire trail, all three of us reached for gels and started spinning up the steep sections.

Some of the switch-backs.
Some of the switch-backs.

Wanting to test them a little, I accelerated up the hill. Initially creating a gap, Jody Bush did well to catch and stay with me, while Hughes fell off the back. The downhill fire trail was another story however, as my more cautious approach to cornering meant I lost track of Bush. I did get close again on some of the flatter sections, but her single track skills and track knowledge meant I had a hard time staying with her. I would occasionally get close again on climbs, but loose her on the long fast descents.

While trying to catch Bush, I was also aware Hughes was behind me. Although I had the edge climbing, she would later catch me on the long Dambusters descent and after putting in a solid effort, drop me on the twisty run in to the feed zone. Feeling strong, I put in my own big effort up the long fire trail climb on lap two, but was unable to get close enough to hold on.

The rest of lap two was spent trying to hold off anyone else behind me and working hard in the hope someone up ahead was struggling. Even though I was just managing to suck down gels every 45 mins, the course started to take it’s toll midway through my final lap. Sections of mud had become quite cut up by now and my legs were on Struggle Street trying to push through it. It felt like I was riding with my brakes on.

sb_berm
Photo by Stormy Boy

Hitting the descent down from the top of Kruska’s, it was pretty much all downhill from here. Although probably still 10km to the finish line, I had finished the majority of the climbing and had passed the worst of the mud. Ahead of me were twisty, flat and fast sections, as well as a cold creek crossing. It was important to stay upright and not loose focus, regardless of how hungry, tired, thirsty and muddy I was at this point.

Photo by Russ Baker
Photo by Russ Baker

I’m glad to say I crossed the finish line without a crash and in 10th position. Top 10 was a bit of an aspirational goal for me, so to hear I scraped in was pretty unbelievable.  Jenny Blair was the eventual winner on the day, 10 minutes ahead of second place Eliza Kwan (woohoo!) and third place Rebecca Locke. Unfortunately the other favourite, Jenni King, suffered a bad puncture ~15km in which ended her race.

Mud much? This was a jersey race plate.
Mud much? This was a jersey race plate.

The trail at Derby is just awesome – built by the World Trail crew, there is a network of fun across the dense bushy hillside which stretches for close to 50km (with more to come).  It’s damp, soft, loamy and grippy. There are ferns, berms, waterfalls, rivers, bridges, a massive dam, granite boulders and some of the biggest trees I have ever seen. Derby is well on the way to achieving the objective of being a destination for mountain biking. If you like Skyline and Luge at Mt Stromlo, some of the descents at Derby will blow your mind.