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!
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.
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.
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 tyresoff-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.
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.
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.
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.
The Snowy Mountains is a beautiful part of the world. From Jindabyne up to Thredbo and everything in between, there are popular ski runs in the winter and stunning walks, fishing spots, road rides and camping in the summer.
Thredbo itself has always been pretty famous for it’s downhill mountain biking, but only recently has some investment and local support seen the development of new cross country trails at Thredbo and Lake Crackenback (as well as a few other nearby locations). Intelligently so, the planners in the region are working to link all this together, making it a fantastic destination for your next riding holiday.
Linking the 25km of trails around Lake Crackenback with the Gravity and XC trails up at Thredbo is the 20km Thredbo Valley Trail. Winding through the valley, on the banks of the Thredbo River (and in a few places, over the river via some amazing suspension bridges), the TVT has been designed with riders in mind.
The Snowies MTB Festival is a four stage mountain bike race which has made 2015 it’s inaugural year. Based out of Lake Crackenback, it runs over two days, with competitors fighting it out across some of the best single-track in the region.
Stage 1: The Time Trial The event kicked off with a predominantly single-track time trial, circumnavigating the Lake Crackenback Resort itself. Starting with elite men and women, riders were sent off individually, 30 seconds apart, up a bitumen hill and out on to the 5.5km course.
The TT course itself included a fast, fun, berm-filled descent almost straight off the bat, which challenged both cornering skills and your ability to keep off the brakes as much as possible. After a little bit of pedalling and an awkward rock, you were on to descent number two, which dropped you down alongside a picturesque river (not that anyone had much of a chance to enjoy the view).
Head down and driving along in the biggest gear, you had to be careful to not collect the course marshal indicating a sharp right hand turn (guess who almost did). The course continued along some double-track and behind a number of lodges, before returning to hard packed single-track littered with some rather slippery wooden bridges (which are easier to navigate when your heart rate is not at Threshold!)
Surviving that, the end was in sight. Up and through some switch-back climbs (just to shake up the lactic acid that had built up in the legs) and then down some rather tight berms, riders were spat out ~200m from the finish line. One final big sprint effort and Stage 1 was done.
The Time Trial was fast, furious and full of corners, meaning not only was it an out-and-out sprint, but one that required a good level of technical skill. Both the men’s and women’s fields were split by a matter of seconds, showing the importance of good skills and good lines. My Time: 12min 18sec
Stage 2: The Summit Smash The thought of a 21km climb usually doesn’t get too many people excited, but Stage 2 of the race was going to be a little different. Not only did the first riders up to Thredbo Village (from Lake Crackenback, some 500+ vertical meters below) get bragging rights and the opportunity to put some time on their competitors, but they were able to enjoy the Thredbo Valley Trail with no other mountain bike traffic. Wicked.
The stage started with a sprint for positions before hitting the single-track and commencing the climb. After a bad start (not being clipped in makes sprinting up a hill somewhat more difficult), the first third of the stage was spent shuffling for positions before it petered out a bit (and the bigger guys started to struggle).
Climbing up a series of switchbacks and short pinches in the heat of the day was tougher than most expected. That said, the slower pace (compared to the time trial anyway) meant the views could really be enjoyed – from some amazing bridges taking riders across the Thredbo River to native hopping fauna procrastinating on the river banks.
Stage 2 ended with riders crossing the finish line and proceeding to jump, knicks and all, into the Thredbo river (which was about the same temperature as an Eskimo’s backyard pool, but at the same time, lovely). My Time: 1hr 8mins 42sec
Stage 3: The Descender
What goes up must come down. The only thing better than riding up the Thredbo Valley Trail with no traffic was going to be bombing down it without fear of people getting in your way. Something mountain bike riders cannot do on any other day of the year. This stage was sure to bring out some serious yeeeooowww!
The elite field was sent off first, sprinting through about a kilometre of flat trails around Thredbo Village before commencing the descent itself. Like the TT, the course was technically challenging when you hit it at speed, requiring good cornering skills, the ability to shift your weight and in order to stay smooth, limited application of brakes.
Flying down the hill at speed was amazingly enjoyable – even if there were some heart in mouth moments at times. Although predominantly downhill (which is tiring enough when you are hammering it), there were a few little pinches that really sapped legs that were already quite fatigued.
Now if you read the race booklet, listened to the race briefing or studied the course map, you would be aware that there was another ~4km of trails at the bottom of the descent, before the end of the stage. Failing to notice this, I spent 4km squarely parked on Struggle St, having expelled every last bit of energy I had coming down the hill. Lucky enough, so had one of my close competitors, who having dropped me on the descent, was caught again with about 500m to go. My Time 1hr 7mins 50sec.
Stage 4: The Marathon There were a lot of tired legs and bodies at the end of the first day, the result of three tough stages. It wasn’t so much that the stages were long – rather that everyone took them at such great intensity. It was now day two and ahead of us sat a 75km marathon, consisting of 5 x 15km laps around Lake Crackenback.
After day one, some real battles for positions had developed in the Elite fields – in many cases riders were separated by mere seconds after three stages. With a Marathon ahead, anything could happen, which would ensure an exciting day of racing was to follow!
There was a lot of strategy at plan during the forth stage – do you make a break early and try to hold it? Do you go for consistency across all five laps? Do you take the first few laps at gently and try to smash out the last two? Or do you simply try to stay with your competition and follow their lead?
Personally my strategy flew out the window on lap two, when I came crashing down on very loose gravel descent out the back of the resort. While I was up and going again rather quickly, I had fallen off the back of the group I was riding with. The new plan became one of trying to stay consistent (and upright) until the last lap.
Taking in many of the trails from stages one and three, the undulating course for the marathon was smooth, scenic and to be savoured by both racers and casual riders alike. It is absolutely a place I would love to ride again (as well as enjoy many of the other activities the region has to offer). Just keep an eye out for the odd wombat hole!
Staying on plan, I kept it consistent until the final lap, where I was able to put the foot down. By this stage the track was becoming very familiar and it was clear where you needed to take it a little easy and where you could pick up some real speed, often by just taking good lines. Knowing my main competition was just ahead of me, I made sure I finished with nothing left in the tank. My Time: 3hr 37min 58sec.
Crossing the line in 5th, but only around one minute behind the rider ahead, meant I held on to 4th position in the General Classification by around 30 seconds, over two days of racing. Not only am I absolutely stoked with the result, but overjoyed with how much fun I had over the weekend! Great trails complemented by a really well run event, in a beautiful location and with some good mates. What more can you ask for?