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.