The James Williamson Enduro, or “The Willo” is more than just the first race of the 2016 National XCM Series – it’s a celebration of the life of James Williamson, which was so tragically cut short due to an undiagnosed heart condition in 2010 while racing the Cape Epic.
This year the Willo had special meaning for me too – only the day before I lost a good friend in Chris Perry. Affectionately known as B1, Chris was a life member of the Sydney Easy Riders and staple on the daily ride to and from work.
Deep in the damp and misty woods, a sizeable women’s field assembled on the start line. A podium spot was going to be hard to come by with the likes of locals Kwan, Bechtel and Henderson, international sensation Sheppard and interstate travellers Smith, Anset, Bartlett and Hughes all forming a tight little bunch heading into the single-track early.
The men’s race was going to be just as hard to pick, with Johnston, Blair, Cooper, Shippard, Lewis, Odams and Wards Tristan and Kyle all fighting it out amongst the natural eucalyptus and plantation pine.
Dry and dusty the day before, the overnight rain and morning mist had left the Wingello trails in excellent condition. While mud and grit coated both riders and bikes, the air was cool and the corners grippy, leading to some very quick laps of the 25km course (about an hour for the boys and 75-80mins for the ladies). Predominantly single-track with a few connecting fireroads, the laps were both enjoyable and difficult at the same time.
The Willo also saw the debut of my new Shimano XTR Di2 groupset – meticulously installed on the S-Works Era frame not even a week before at Cyclery Northside. XTR Di2 brings electronic shifting to the mountain bike arena, after much success on the road. Unlike the road version however, XTR Di2 has been beefed up to perform in the conditions faced by mountain bike riders – the sandy, muddy, wet, rocky, dusty and messy environment we love so much!
Shifting was crisp, fast and accurate from start to finish, even in the dirty, gritty conditions. I’m not always the most conscientious shifter either – changing gears under pressure is something I tend to do on occasion – which didn’t seem to be an issue for the rear derailleur at any stage. I was also a fan of the definite “click” each up or down shift made – which is a bit more overstated compared to my road set-up. All in all, I was really impressed and can’t wait to put some more miles on it!
Back to the women’s race – Samara Sheppard backed up a very quick lap one to finish clear ahead of the rest. Continuing her excellent form from the Snowies MTB Festival and Duo Classic, Cristy Henderson finished second with myself not far behind in third (after an extensive back and forth battle with Kelly Bartlett, which saw us trade places a number of times).
The 25km loop we rode three times had an especially unpleasant climb at the end, officially designated as the King of the Mountain (KOM). It was literally the final effort before the finish straight and had photographers at the top (hence the image at the top of the page). I was going so slowly up it the final time, with my head practically between my legs, that I could see the leeches on the ground waving away looking to latch on to anything living! I was completely boxed – everything had been left out there.
Brendan Johnston won the men’s race, with Andy Blair in second and in an awesome result, Jon Odams took third. Great to see him back from injury and riding to his potential!
Overall it was a great way to kick off the National Marathon racing season. It was especially pleasing to see so many women out on the trails – not just in the elite category, but across the age groups and the shorter distances. Special shout out to Charlotte Culver who kept the rubber side down and took the win in the 25km Open category!
Thanks to Meg Patey and all the volunteers, officials and the community for hosting another well run, successful event. Till next year!
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.
This9km 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!
Being relatively new to Mountain Bike racing means that the Highland Fling was one of the few races I have had the opportunity to do twice. Still racing in the age-group categories, my 2014 Fling didn’t exactly embody the best memories – I crashed twice, “bonked” badly, vomited under a tree at the top of Brokeback Mountain and limped across the line 6 hours and 20 minutes after I had started.
Coming in to 2015, the score was definitely Highland Fling 1, Briony 0. Even with my recent good form and some big names pulling out in the weeks leading up to the race, my only objective for this year was to make amends for my past attempt and to simply finish this tough, gruelling and demanding race in one piece – ideally in considerably less time.
The elites lined up on the start line and were let go, like a pack of hungry hounds, 15 minutes after the rest of the 100km and 100mile fields. The chase was on! I was expecting a fast start and while it wasn’t on from the whistle (or in this case, the bagpipes), there were certainly some surges early from the likes of Andy Blair, Kyle Ward and Anthony Shippard (or at least I think they were the culprits – I was busy chewing stem trying to hang on). Myself, Eliza Kwan and Lucy Bechtel remained with the elite men into the first lot of paddocks, but found ourselves on our own after the first major hill attack.
Regardless of the fact we were now separated from the men, there was no easing up on the pace as we hammered through the first of three sections (a nice way of getting to know each other).
I did express a little bit of concern when Eliza queried whether the first river crossing was “rideable” – thankfully she dismounted and waded through the waist deep water, bike above head, before that story ended like the Titanic did. The three of us also earned a fair few cheers from other riders as we slipped and skidded through the first long muddy section (many had given up and were walking through the ankle deep slush). I think this was also the point Lucy officially gave up on trying to keep her new bike clean.
Disaster was on the cards for me from the first transition stage where I simply couldn’t find my second bottle. I spent all my time looking for it and upon noticing Eliza and Lucy leave, hit the road again without even filling my half empty first bottle. The resulting time trial down the road into Wingello to catch them wasn’t ideal either, even if I did get to witness a good friend of mine fall off right in front of me (he was OK, so it was OK to laugh!) Commentators didn’t have to wait long until the next fail, where I missed a turn into single-track, regardless of the fact Lucy yelled “Right” about 17 times. Once again, cue a 3-4 minute time trial to get back to the girls.
Eliza’s strength riding single-track was immediately evident as she gracefully slipped through the trees, like Michelle Kwan on a frozen lake. Given they have the same last name, I was immediately amused with my comparison and promptly hit a root the wrong way. Pay attention Briony! Come the first real climb (the King of the Mountain section from 3 Ring Circus), it also became quickly apparent that we had a climber with us, as Lucy shot up it, leaving Eliza and myself clinging to her wheel in utter desperation. Over the top the three of us went.
The group of three girls was eventually broken as we hit the notorious “Wall” – a relatively short but steep and loose climb with a good scattering of riders pushing their bikes up. To her credit, Eliza cleared it, leaving Lucy and I chasing after coming unstuck in the traffic. We pressed on through a stack of twisty trails to the awesome new(ish) section “Love Love Love”, where I was promptly dropped on the resulting climb (after deciding trying to hold Lucy’s wheel was probably going to end badly for me later on in the race).
Halfway Hill was no different to how I remember it (hell). Just when you think that’s done, you run in to more and more climbing out the back of Wingello (just for something different). While I was worried about the potential time I was losing (I felt like I was going backwards at some points), I banded together with a familiar face from Sydney and started picking off riders. Thankfully it was an overcast and cool day, which meant that although I was aching for a drink, I didn’t feel too dehydrated after doing 3 hours on one bottle. With my bus driver hat on, we towed a group into the transition to commence stage 3.
I think I probably consumed over 2 litres of fluid at the second transition and felt better almost immediately. As most of the 100km riders would probably acknowledge, once you have completed the Wingello stage, it feels like the Fling is almost over. It is easy to forget how tough the final ~30km is (I certainly made that mistake last year). As deceptively hard as it is, it is also quite enjoyable, as you cross a Golf Course, Winery, some amazing private land and through some great single-track.
On my own for much of the final section, I focused on catching riders ahead of me to try and make up some time. In the end it wasn’t quite enough, as I came in roughly 3 minutes behind Eliza in second, who was around 4 minutes behind the rightful winner on the day, Lucy Bechtel. Big congratulations to both those girls!
The Highland Fling is such a great race to be a part of – it has a bit of everything in terms of terrain, is extremely well organised and is heavily supported by the local communities of Bundanoon, Wingello and Penrose (to name a few). It’s quite humbling that local property owners are willing to have hundreds of mountain bikers fly across their land each year and even more fantastic that most of them come out and support you as you ride past. As for the single-track at Wingello State Forest – it’s always a pleasure.
As cyclists, we have a tendency to spend a ridiculous amount of time (and money) on making our bikes faster. Lighter frames, stiffer wheels, improved aerodynamics, taking out weight and maintaining a highly efficient drive-train are all arguably easier than giving up wine, chocolate and pastries right?
As an competitive racer, I do try to stay on top of my weight and body composition (no point being skinny if you are not strong) and in parallel to that, I train hard to improve my strength and fitness – but gains are gains – so I am always looking for ways to make the machine between my legs as quick as it can be.
I was very excited when the brown package covered in all sorts of stamps and marks turned up from Belgium – containing a brand new C-BEAR bottom bracket for my mountain bike.
My S-Works Era is running a 1×11 setup consisting of a SRAM XX1 rear cassette, XX1 rear derailleur, carbon cranks and now a PraxxisWorks 32T chain ring. I usually put a new chain on at the first signs of wear and I am absolutely meticulous about making sure the whole setup is clean and lubricated before every big ride or race. A clean bike is a fast bike!
In all honesty, the one aspect I have previously overlooked has been the bottom bracket and bearings. Maybe this is because unless it’s making horrible noises you don’t really acknowledge the existence of your bottom bracket. It also seems to be a bit mysterious, especially for a beginner or someone with only a basic level of mechanical knowledge.
However when you consider the role this important part plays in the transfer of power and overall drivetrain efficiency, it quickly becomes clear that a good bottom bracket is critical. That and bottom bracket creaking can seriously drive you insane!
Installing the new C-BEAR bottom bracket was straight forward – the boys at Cyclery Northside literally just pressed it in and put the drivechain back together (leaving me bemused with how rotten by old bearings were). Given C-BEAR makes a wide range of specific bottom bearings (over 70 different combinations), the need to fiddle with adapters to make it fit is greatly reduced.
Once on, the cranks were spinning with practically no resistance. It didn’t occur to me that my old bottom bracket was bad until I had the new one on – which instantly felt amazing. It is also as quiet as a little church mouse (C-BEAR pride themselves on making a super quiet product), which is more than can be said about my pedals at the moment.
The first big test for the new BB was the Kowalski – a dry and dusty race though 100km of single-track. C-BEAR not only make products with incredibly low friction, but they have a range of specific mountain bike bottom brackets which give extra protection against water and dirt – which as every mountain bike rider knows, has a way of getting in every small nook and cranny.
Since a flawless performance at the Kowalski, I’ve done a few hundred kilometres in a variety of conditions (including mud, water, sand and dust). I have two mountain bike marathons and a stage race this month, so there are many more opportunities to put it through it’s paces. A long term review is definitely on the cards, although given C-BEAR offer a two year warranty, I have confidence I’ll still be happy in six months time.
So far, I have been incredibly happy with C-BEAR’s product. Apparently so has the Andre Gripel and the Lotto Soudal professional team, who have been using them for years.
If you are looking for high performance bearings for your high performance bike (road, mountain or cyclocross), visit the C-BEAR website. They don’t have an Australian distributor just yet, but it is easy enough to buy online and either install it yourself or like me, get your local shop to do it.
Finding the right bottom bracket for your bike can be bewildering – for Specialized bikes, C-BEAR have created a Quick Reference Guide that makes it simple to identify which one you need. This Chart can also be of help for other brands and models.
The final act of the MTBA National Series took riders north to Brisbane for the Bayview Blast. Hosted by South Brisbane MTB Club and in only its second year, I must admit that I didn’t know much about the types of trails I would encounter when I finalised my entry.
Flying up to Brisbane a few days early gave me some time to familiarise myself with the race course, which was 4 laps of a 25km single-track loop (with about 3km of fire road). My plan was also to try and acclimatise, but my first few days in Brisbane were overcast and fairly mild – well and truly putting a spanner in that plan.
Being up in Brisbane early also gave me a bit of time to play hotel mechanic (after customs and baggage handlers seemingly went to town on my bike bag) and be a tourist, visiting the amazing North Stradbroke Island, the Brisbane CBD and a few lovely spots around the river, including Kangaroo Point.
Going into the Bayview Blast, I was sitting in a position whereby a win on the day would see me take the overall MTBA National Series. Regardless of having far exceeded my own lofty expectations in my first season of elite racing, the excitement (and nerves!) of everything being on the line were well and truly in play as I devoured my pasta dinner on Saturday night.
Fast forward and I’m relatively relaxed on the start line. Poking fun at Jason English’s helmet camera (tree hook) with some of the elite men meant the hooter went off in no time and we were set off down 1km of bitumen at a very moderate pace. A small climb worked to filter the field into single file and we were off into the single-track.
Imogen Smith made a bit of a move on the first climb, one which I was hesitant to follow so early into the race. With 95km to go, I thought better of it and was comfortable to sit a minute or so behind and do the first lap swapping wheels with local gun, Anna Beck. It was beautiful to watch her gracefully glide over logs, flick her back wheel and generally navigate the loose, tight and twisty course like an absolute pro. Unlike me, who at one stage “swapped off” by completely missing a turn and ending up careering into dense foliage instead.
Anna and I came into transition together, but I think a misunderstanding with her crew meant that I had a small gap upon exiting the pits and by the top of the first switchback climb, had opened it up a bit more. I figured she was probably smooth enough to catch me through the tighter single-track sections, so continued on my own. That was the last I saw of her.
Lap two is where I started to catch some of the teams, which made it a bit awkward at times, since passing on some of the sections was near impossible without one rider pulling over. To their credit though (and thanks to the organisers being very clear with race instructions), most people got out of your way relatively quickly.
It’s probably no later than 9:30 in the morning, but a major issue had started to creep in to my race in the heat, humidity and my lack of bottles. I can only carry one and had planned for 700ml every lap, which was nowhere near enough on a day where my Garmin was reporting 31 degrees. After 10km of lap two I was running empty and thirsty. It would be another hour or so before I get another 700ml, which although I rationed, meant that I was pretty dehydrated for 75% of the race.
I did actually contemplate drinking from a muddy puddle (or licking the mud off my arm as it splashed up). I think this just goes to show:
a) You think about some very strange things racing
b) I was really, really thirsty
c) Dehydration really impacts your ability to think laterally
It was a fatal flaw not to throw in a Camelbak for one of the laps – those riders who did said it made a world of difference. For me, it meant I really struggled and it probably cost me a shot at the win.
I had a few little clashes with trees – the nature of the course meant that one small moment of distraction (at race speed) usually meant you were going to hit something. I have bark etchings on the front of both my shoulders from hitting trees in a really tight, tricky, woody section leading in to Shark Fin.
Trees were the least of my worries though, when on lap three (after having a gel and a small swig of my rationed water) a snake reared up right underneath me as I was flying down a fire-trail descent. Catching me completely off guard (seriously dude, there is a race on), I instinctively swerved, lost my front wheel in the gravel and shot myself out of the saddle and down the hill, sans bike, which had somehow ended up in the other direction.
Broken, dehydrated and bleeding, I wasn’t going to give in. It was only really on the last descent where I didn’t see Imogen that I knew she had secured the win and I had to settle with second in this race and therefore second in the National Series (5 points behind Jenny Blair).
Seriously well done to Imogen, who dealt with the conditions well and after a few big races recently, turned up with her A-Game to win her local Queensland event. A big thanks also to the South Queensland MTB Club and other event organisers, volunteers and sponsors.
Bayview is a wicked trail – it is so varied in terrain, with switch-back climbs, twisty grassland trails (coined “Grugland” by Imogen), challenging wooded areas, the amazing “corridor” lined with dense scrub, rocky sections, open sections and saving the best till last, the final 2km descent consisting of berm after berm, doubles, kickers and high adrenaline fun! It’s not even that far from Brisbane – make sure you poke your head in if you are up that way.
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).
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.