I have been eagerly waiting all year to pack my bags, jump on a plane and race the Hellfire Cup – a four day stage race based in Kellevie, Tasmania. There have been many stories centred on the awesome trails, the party atmosphere and the variety presented across eight unique stages – but what really drew me to this race was simply the fact that everyone who had previously raced Hellfire absolutely LOVED it.
Eight Sydney-siders, all representing Cyclery Northside and Cuore, flew down the day prior to get acquainted with our beautiful accommodation in the wee town of Dunalley, nestled on the east coast of Tasmania. Tragically, this small fishing village of ~300 people lost over 60 buildings in ravaging bushfire in 2013 – our B&B was one of few buildings that magically survived. Very humbling. (As a side note, it’s great that the sport can bring tourism money into small regional towns and communities like this one).
I was partnered up in the Elite Mixed Pairs with possibly the fastest chicken in the world – Nathan “Chooko” Russell. Already naturally gifted on the mountain bike, he had been training the house down. Also with us were Peter and a slightly unhinged South African (known as Beau), Vicky and Tegan (another erratic personality) and Linda and Drew (more commonly known as Frickie). Needless to say the house was rarely quiet and the banter flowed more freely than the beer, wine and oysters (quite the feat).
Day 1, Stage 1 – 25km Cross Country
The opening act for the 2015 Hellfire Cup was a 25km cross country stage with a good mix of everything – from dry and twisty single-track to damp forest, some rocky sections and some fast dirt roads.
As with most short stages, the sprint was on from the moment the race started. Nathan – not having raced for eight years and currently as fit as a Mallee bull – took off like a bullet out of a gun, leaving me fighting for position in the early single-track sections. After working incredibly hard to catch him, realising I had caught Beau instead (he was looking particularly slim that day), blowing up and then crashing (and thus passed by Beau), we didn’t reunite until about the 20km mark. Probably not the best start to a teams event, but there was a great deal of racing still to go. We were just finding our feet.
Day 1, Stage 2 – 4 x 6.5km Relay
Physically patched up and mentally bolstered, we prepared for the afternoon relay stage. As with most of the elite mixed teams, the male rider went first to battle it out in the heavy traffic, which Nathan did superbly, coming in and tagging me a few minutes behind the leading riders. I would spend the next 20 minutes at threshold, trying to hold off Peter, before doing it all again. The shorter the stage, the more it hurts (my heart rate was so high the vibration scared away the wildlife) – however I did take a moment to admire the rainforest section and the aptly named tunnel of love (followed closely by a tight right to double check you were paying attention)
Day 2, Stage 3 – 50km Cross Country
A longer stage with a great deal of elevation was always going to better suit Nathan and I, given my discipline of choice is the 100km marathons and we both weigh about as much as a carton of eggs. After Pete and Beau made a strong start, we caught them on the first long hill and formed a little “banana train” for much of the race.
Unfortunate circumstances (some local decided it would be funny to change bunting and signage) meant that as the banana train was navigating through a particularly tight section of single-track, it was suddenly descended upon by almost the entire elite men’s field. Before we had realised they had neutralised the stage, we did contemplate a few abrupt stops and potentially lying across the track, just to witness the culminating domino effect.
Day two was especially (uncommonly?) hot and much of the climbing in the back half of the course was done up open and exposed dirt roads, testing your fitness, hydration and ability to put on sunscreen prior to starting. Working together, Nathan and I put in a much improved result, even after stopping to check on the welfare of a rider who had foolishly tried to follow some cowboys down a descent and thrown himself into a tree (he was OK and finished the race).
Day 3, Stage 4 – 15km Team Time Trial
The team time trail was structured just like it would be on the road, with teams leaving 30 seconds apart and completing a hilly 15km. Having just taken out Stage 2 ahead of Nathan and I, this meant that Beau and Pete were poised to start 30 seconds behind us in the time trial. Having discovered this information artefact over red wine and dinner the night before, confidence and a certain air of presumption set in with the boys, who were most convinced they would catch us.
Determined not to be caught, the team time trial was a phenomenal display of courage and tenacity, as the rabbit and the chicken fought to stay away from the chasing hounds. By this time in the race, our partnership had really started to solidify, with the pace adjusting automatically without a word said either way.
I don’t recall much of it, but the course went past an especially stunning piece of coastline. Coming down the final stretch to the roar of the crowd was a great moment, especially when Tegan, Vicky and Linda had figured out we had managed to stay away. For the moment, bragging rights were back with us.
Day 3, Stage 5 – 2x9km Relay
Stage 5 was another relay stage, which although longer (9km) than the first, thankfully had only one leg per rider. By this time of the race (especially considering the events of the morning), things were really starting to feel tired and sore. Even after a relaxing massage (Beau almost cried), 9km at full gas was going to really, really hurt.
This 9km was a combination of some of the best trails the Hellfire Cup had to offer, including a rather narrow and very long (100m perhaps?) plank bridge. While I had visions of coming down on the adjacent rails holding it up, I was across in one piece. Another close stage, with not much time gained or lost across all teams.
Day 3, Stage 6 – 10km Hill Climb Night Stage
I never planned on doing the Hill Climb stage. It was completely optional after all – and I had left my lights back in Sydney. Optional stages didn’t really appeal to me at this stage of my season (i.e. the end, where I am in exhaustion phase), let alone ones up really steep hills, let alone it being the third stage on the third day. About 15 minutes before it was meant to start, this all changed.
My ever supportive team had heard the women’s field for the stage was quite small. Thus the ever supportive team, lead by chief instigator and general nuisance, Tegan, decided I was going to contest the stage. Suddenly I was back in Lycra, there were lights on my helmet and bike (Tegan managed to acquire them from a random rider with promises in kind), I had consumed a can of Coke and I was on the start line next to Peta Mullens. What just happened?!
After pulling a rather reckless overtaking manoeuvre and probably surprising Peta early in to the stage, I had the lead through much of the early single-track. Knowing I had one of the best riders in the country on my wheel, I did all I could to try and make this 6km hard for her, including breaking hard in corners to kill momentum, whipping up lots of dust to make visibility difficult and generally riding all over the place whenever it opened up.
I had Peta Mullens on the hill climb stage, well, until it got to the hill. We both hit it hard and were neck and neck for the first 20 meters. I looked up to see a big bonfire in the distance (it seemed REALLY distant), just as Peta hit the jets and took off up the steep, endless climb. In the end I was just under a minute behind her, finishing second. I did take the points for the best cheer squad though.
Day 4, Stage 7 – 3km Hill Climb
We woke up on Day 4 to another hill climb. This hill was just as steep as the one I did last night, but starts about 10 meters into the stage (and everyone has to do it, not just me). Once you crest the monster, which few will do without getting off at some point, you fly back down again, navigate through a bumpy rock garden and cross the finish line.
The rock garden was the most technical feature of the stage. While the line through it was simply straight, it had an awkward lead in and had you bucking like a bronco on the exit. While there was a B-line, which was utilised by some, most of the team rode it well, with the exception of one rider, who did his best impression of a giraffe practising ballet.
Day 4, Stage 8 – Dirt Crit
To finish Hellfire for 2015, the field was split in two and a fast and furious crit circuit was constructed which included part of a motocross track. Pete and Beau actually lead the whole field off the start, proceeded to spectacularly blow up and finished with their trademark reckless abandonment.
Nathan and I crossed the line together signalling the end of our Hellfire experience. We didn’t have the best start, but we corrected that quickly and finished on a high. I’m pretty proud to be part of the reason he pinned on a race plate again. I couldn’t have asked for a better race and training partner!
Overall, a fantastic event and one you need to add to your bucket list if you ride mountain bikes. Duncan, Sarah and the entire Hellfire Team put in so much effort and under very challenging circumstances (with Sarah involved in a serious accident a few months prior) and delivered a really enjoyable 4 days. Every participant you spoke to, from elite riders to punters, had an unbelievably good time. We have already booked accommodation for the next Hellfire Cup, scheduled to run in 2017!