Tag Archives: marathon

Race Report: Highland Fling 2015

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Make sure you get to “The Fling” next year!

Women’s Podium
1 – Lucy Bechtel (5:31:54)
2 – Eliza Kwan (5:35:43)
3 – Briony Mattocks (5:38:35)

P.S – The score is now Highland Fling 1 – Briony 1. This year I managed to knock over 40 minutes off my time and erase some very dark memories. Until next year at least!

Race Report: Bayview Blast 100km

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.

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A bit of hotel mechanics

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

Photo by Russ Baker
Broken and disappointed. Photo by Russ Baker

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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). 

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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: The Willo 75km

The James Williamson Enduro Classic (The Willo) is the opening race for the MTBA XCM series in 2015 – but at the same time, a fitting celebration of the life of Australian and World Champion, James Williamson.

Hailing from the Southern Highlands, James Williamson was a successful and passionate mountain biker, who by 24 years old, had won a 24hr Solo World Championship. Sadly, while competing in the Cape Epic in 2010, James died in his sleep from an undiagnosed heart condition just prior to stage three. The Willo is an annual reminder to all riders of the joys of mountain biking and the impact James had on the sport.

Traditionally held in Wingello State Forest, this year’s pinnacle event was three laps of a 25km circuit, which consisted of some gruelling climbs, speedy firetrail and a large collection of fast and twisty single-track. While some of the big hitters in the elite field were still recovering from the Giant Odyssey held in Victoria the day before, the men’s and women’s fields still had a lot of talent and depth.

We started at the base of a rather tough climb into the event centre (I think my heart rate went from about 60 to 180 in roughly four seconds), followed by a few kilometres of fire road, which was sure to sort out the field prior to entering the single-track. Showing no signs of fatigue after racing the day prior, Jenny Fay was off like a bullet out of a gun, with Rachel Blakers not far behind, leaving a clique of about five girls to fight it out between themselves in the cool and misty conditions.

Nearing the end of the first section of single-track, Gemma Ansell clipped a rock and was sent flying into a tree ahead of me. Although straight back up again (completely to her credit – it looked like it would have seriously hurt), the slight delay was enough to loose sight of the boys in front and allow the girls behind to latch on.

While single-track pileups have been known to split fields, nothing works quite as well as a prolonged, steep, agonizing hill climb. Up next was the KOM, which saw Ansell and I over in prime position. Both starting our careers on the road, we put our heads down, looked for any fast wheels we could grab and tried to put a bit of a break on the rest of the women’s field.

The remainder of lap one and lap two saw Ansell and I constantly come together, work as a small team and then drift apart.  At times I thought I might have put on some time between us through the single-track, only to find her right back next to me a few kilometres later.  A strong climber, I suspect the never-ending hill climb roughly in the middle of the course (it makes you think it is over, then it turns a corner and goes up again – a good three or four times) was where she was making up any time I had gained.

Flying through transition for the commencement of the third lap, I was feeling pretty good. I had made a bit of a break after a conceited effort through the back end of the course (particularly through a section aptly called Tangles), and was eating and drinking well. I received word from a kind stranger that Blakers was only about two minutes ahead.

Head down, I worked hard to the first section of single-track. Repeatedly muttering under my breath “smooth is fast” (thanks Ant and Jon), I focused on getting my lines right, leaning the bike and not using my brakes through corners. Hitting the fire roads it was all about making myself small and driving it. Hitting the climbs was about pace and cadence. I was still somewhat concerned Ansell would appear out of nowhere again, but I was also half expecting to see Blakers appear up ahead any time now.

With about ~10km to go, a blue kit on a female body appeared up ahead. On closer inspection, I was able to confirm that this was my target. Hooray! (I almost think catching someone you have been chasing has the same effect on performance as having a caffeinated gel, at least momentarily). In to the single-track we went, where I passed on a wider section not long after.

Blakers however wasn’t going to give up that easily. Every time I attempted to make a subtle move, she was right on my wheel. As much as I tried (while pretending I wasn’t trying), I couldn’t shake her. The closest I got was on the newest bit of twisty single-track down to a creek crossing, possibly the most technical of the course (I felt like I was driving a bus around some of the corners). Having put on a few seconds, I screwed it up by clipping a rock and having to put a foot down before continuing.

I am starting to worry this might come down to a sprint finish. While I knew she was hurting as much as I was, I had been on the front and working hard to get away. I really didn’t have much left either.

Out of the forest and on to a small rise before the finish, the grating of a sub-optimal gear change behind me was music to my ears. Incredibly unluckily for Blakers, she had dropped or caught her chain, which meant I was away. Over the peak and on to the flat finish, I checked behind me before a little celebratory fist pump. I had grabbed second place by 8 seconds.

My Lap Times
1:20:50
1:20:47
1:19:19

Very pleased with the consistency and the sneaky little negative splits.  Fay took the race in a total time of 3:46:00, myself in second with 4:02:47, Blakers 4:02:55, Ansell 4:11:42 and Smith rounding out the top five with 4:12:11.

Fantastic, exciting and competitive racing by all. A great way to remember James Williamson.

1st Fay, 2nd Mattocks, 3rd Blakers
1st Fay, 2nd Mattocks, 3rd Blakers

Thanks as always to Cyclery Northside for the bikes, servicing and support. Was the S-Works Era worth 8 seconds out there? I have no doubt it was.

Race Report: Snowies MTB Stage Race

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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

The Elite Podium - with Jenny Fay and Andy Blair taking out first place.
The Elite Podium – with Jenny Fay and Andy Blair taking out first place.

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?

Race Report: Highland Fling 112km

I have never raced the Highland Fling, but have heard so many good things about it from so many people. A key fixture on most of the calendars of elite racers and punters alike, it’s known to be a tough race, but a highly enjoyable one. Along with most of the mountain bikers I know, I headed down to the Southern Highlands pumped for a great weekend of racing.

Perched on my Camber in the starting chute, listening to the pre-race briefing, I was already starting to feel the day heating up. Almost in a bit of a daze, I was quickly brought back to the task at hand by the sound of the local Counsellor counting down to the start. We were off!

Just as quickly as we started, I was stopped suddenly as two riders in front of me collected each other just past the timing mat (about 5 meters into a 112km race). One managed to get himself out the way quite quickly – the other stood there like a deer in the headlights looking back at the hundred-odd riders bearing down on him (I can’t help but think this could so easily have been me, so I made sure to give him a empathetic smile as I passed).

Once on the road, I put my head down, dropped some gears and jumped in to Time Trial mode to try and catch the front runners (who had been oblivious to the start-line crash).  Grabbing a wheel for 20 seconds every few hundred meters provided enough recovery to burst out again. Feeling like a good start was important, it didn’t occur to me that I was perhaps I might have been going a bit too hard.

Into the paddocks, into the first creek and up some of the first climbs we went. After about 10km, I spotted some of my direct competition spinning up a hill just ahead of me.  Thankfully my TT efforts my had meant I was able to get myself back into the fold relatively quickly. Relaxing a bit (in knowing my strength was climbing, and that there was plenty more to come), I settled more into a rhythm. Come at me hills!

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Feeling strong, the first section through to the Transition at Bundanoon saw me pass a few other female competitors and get myself into a small group or two with some of the quicker lads (which was very handy across the scattering of road and flat firetrail sections).

One of the awesome features of the Highland Fling is that the Elite field starts behind you – which makes for some excitement when they fly past you. I didn’t quite make it to the first transition before the boys passed (like a little swarm of bees, heads down and firmly attached to each other’s wheels), but I did make it before the Elite Women, which I was quite content with.

Section 2 of the Highland Fling is nestled in the beautiful Wingello State Forest. Featuring some fast fire road and awesome flowy single-track, it also was home to some of the toughest climbs the 112km riders would encounter (including the adequately named “Wall” and Halfway Hill, which just seems to go on forever). Unfortunately Wingello was also home to a few crashes for me on the day.

The first wasn’t too bad. I attempted to go around a very sandy corner at way too much speed (like a few other riders, according to the post-race ride reports) and lost control. Snapping my Garmin mount was preferable to snapping myself – although I was left with sand in my mouth, nose, ears and somehow my knicks. Overall, the soft landing of the sand was much appreciated.

I had made a good recovery after the first incident however, using the numerous hills to my advantage to catch the guys I was chasing. I think I ride a lot better (and probably a lot faster) through single-track when I have a line to follow and a wheel to keep pace with. Having made a break up Halfway Hill, I crossed the summit on my own, quickly necked a gel and commenced the next descent.

At close to 30km/h around a corner, I awkwardly hit a rut caused by the wheels of a logging truck, which sent me flying in one direction and my bike in the other. As I sat up, pain was shooting through my left shoulder (which was subject to a reconstruction in February), blood oozing out of my elbows and knees and again, my face full of sand. After a few moments assessing my shoulder (it felt like everything was roughly in place), I grabbed an Allan key from my bag, turned my seat back around so it was facing forward and straightened my handlebars, which had also been repositioned.

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Back and pedalling, a group of two guys turned up just in time for the flat road section leading into transition. We formed a little train and taking turns on the front, we picked up two or three more as we sailed into the Wingello Transition. Stupidly I probably did a bit too much work here, I was in a fair bit of discomfort from the second crash and my first 30km’s was starting to catch up with me. The final section from Wingello back to the finish was going to be hard work.

Hard work was a bit of an understatement – I was sore, I felt sick, my legs were screaming, it was hot and after not having my Garmin in front of me, my nutrition schedule was all mucked up. Dragging myself up Brokeback Mountain in direct sunlight, I was convinced (probably purely out of hope and desperation) there was only about 3km’s to go. Seeing a sign with “10km’s to go” was like a poke in the eye with a blunt stick.

Alas the sign was also the wakeup call I needed to stop for a moment in the shade, shove a energy bar down my throat (in the heat it had melted, so I felt like a dog trying to lick peanut butter off the roof of its mouth) and try to compose myself ahead of the final section of technical single-track. Normally an extremely fun section, this was going to be seriously tough in my state.

Section by section (and hilarious bread pun by bread pun in “Baker’s Delight”) I kept the legs turning. The end was near, I just had to hold on a bit longer. I was reflecting on how I seem to always find myself limping to the line in the last ~10km of marathon races. Note to self, perhaps address this issue sooner rather than later!

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Crossing the line, I see the familiar faces of the magnificent MC Chops, old team mates Linda and Steph (who both smashed the 50km), Tegan and Pete (Cyclery Northside) and commuting mate Gareth, who hands me a cold can of Coke. Covered in dirt, sand, blood and sweat, there is no arguing the fact that I left everything I had out there.

I was stoked to have held on and finished 1st in the Open Women’s category, around 8 minutes ahead of another old team mate and awesome endurance rider, Mel Nuttall. With the 1st placing in the Kowalski, this also handed me my first Maverick Marathon series win.

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Assuming I can keep building on my form and technique (which might also lead to less crashing), it looks like I might be promoted to the “Elite Women’s” category next year. Very exciting, if not incredibly scary at the same time.

Big thanks to the organisers of the Highland Fling, Wild Horizons, for putting on such a great event. Incredibly well organised, it brings the whole community together, not just for the race but the entire weekend. Also, as always, thanks to the wonderful team at Cyclery Northside who not only keep my bike and equipment in top working order, but have been one of my biggest supporters across the year.

Race Report: The Kowalski 100km

Excitement about this race had been building for weeks, as a number of Sydney ER mountain bikers were on the starting list. This obviously meant regular emails discussing form, full of banter, with the odd video to wet the taste-buds and a foolproof* logistics plan for travel.  *never turns out to be foolproof

Two cars headed down to the ACT on Saturday – one with three bikes secured neatly to the roof (although we initially put the additional racks on backwards, the Thule system is really quite brilliant) and the other with three bikes, in multiple pieces, stacked in the boot like a big game of Tetris. Remarkably, even with all three bikes having exactly the same wheel set and tyre combination, the boys managed to figure out which was which and get them all back together and in working order at the other end, without even one bent derailleur.

After surviving a night at a Queanbeyan Motel (apparently quite a feat) the ER convoy headed over to race headquarters, deploying a method of acclimatisation (turning the air-conditioning down so it was really cold) and pumping up some epic tunes over radio Briony. I am having the internal debate with myself in terms of what to wear – it was warmer than expected, but still cold (8 degrees) and likely to clear up over the day. To arm-warmer or not to arm-warmer, that is the question Hamlet would be asking himself.

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Fast forward and I’m sitting nervously on my new Camber in the starting chute (in arm-warmers). My warm up seems to have worn off as the Elites are sent flying off up the hill like a swarm of angry bees, leaving nothing but a fine cloud of dust. A few minutes pass and the cow bell sounds again – off we go! I’m deliberately at the back of my group (which was 96% men), but true to form, sail past a number of them up the first climb, careful to keep the heart rate under control.

My first 25km of single-track was nothing short of atrocious – the main issue being my cornering resembled a pack of humpback whales in dodgem cars. I was all over the place, which was going to be a problem given the ~90km of twisty single-track in the race. I also took a wrong turn (following a group of four other riders) which, once we were back on course, left me in the midst of the wave behind me.

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Another challenge I had to contend with in the early stages of the race was the rider who flew over his handlebars right in front of me (literally about 10 meters after passing me). Not having anywhere to go, my front tyre ploughed straight into his ribcage. I probably didn’t show as much empathy as I could have – he responded as being OK, so I climbed over him and immediately took off again (next time he tried to pass I made him promise not to crash).

Passing the first feed station, I caught up with my buddy Jason (another EasyRider), who must have passed me when I was busy exploring uncharted parts of the course. I sat behind him for a section or two, following his line, maintaining a good pace and starting to find my rhythm. We swapped over and finished the Sparrow Hill section together, passing a load of people as we started climbing back up towards the descent into transition, indicating the first 50km was done.

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While the first 50km was tough, it had NOTHING on the second 50km. Up a steep climb again, I found myself trading positions with two other riders – I would pass them going up and they would pass me going down. This continued for a while until the first of the steep firetrail climbs, where I lost my buddies for good.

Navigating through a lengthy set of switchbacks going up the side of one of many endless hills, I spotted a female! Working hard to catch up to her, I sat on her wheel for a while and had a good old chat. She was riding really well through the technical sections, so again I followed her line for a while. The plan was for an attack on the next ascent (shock).

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The next climb was rough. Turn a corner, pop out on to a firetrail and I see nothing but up. I am expecting to see man in sandals at the top holding a stone with 10 commandments – that is how steep it looked. Switching in to my granny gear (the dinner plate sized cog on the back of my 1-11), I commenced passing a load of riders struggling to walk up. I slowly push over what I think is the peak, only to be confronted with the rest of the hill. My heart rate is red-lining, but I don’t like being defeated, so after a few swear words are muttered, I continue on.

Just to rub salt into my wounds (not that I had any feeling in my legs at this point), the guys at the feed station at the top happily pointed out that was not the last of it. Having left a whole lot of people walking up the last hill, I continued back into the single-track on my own.

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Through the elevator section (terrain as rocky as Sylvester Stallone in a boxing movie), I was hoping and praying I didn’t get a flat tyre. Next I found myself in an extended wooded section, with a definite lack of signs. In fact, the lack of signs had me seriously thinking that I had taken another wrong turn. Funnily enough, it was a orange Allen’s snake I noted on the track that was the only reason I didn’t turn around – as surely that had to have been dropped by another rider. Good thing I didn’t turn around – I eventually popped out and spotted a sign indicating I was in the right place after all (I could have kissed it).

I pass the last feed station for the first time (signifying 15km to go), at which point I am absolutely shattered.  I throw down my final gel and chew, drink the last few sips from my Camelbak and put my head down.  On my own again, I work hard to circle back and pass the feed station for the final time. One of the attendants throws a snake into my mouth as I convince myself the final 8km is all downhill.

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Lucky for me, it mostly was! It was also scattered with livestock – I swear I heard a cow “moo” a few times, although I didn’t actually see one. I pop out in to an open area – in the distance I can see the hundreds of cars parked at the event centre – at which time all the pain and suffering of the last 5 and a half hours disappears as you realise it is almost all over!

The last kilometre was probably the quickest of my 100 on the day. Head down, I shift my gears down and I hammer it through to the final timing mat and the finish line. It was pretty awesome to be greeted by all my riding buddies and a whole heap of people I knew competing in the 50km event.

It was also pretty awesome to find out I was in first position in my category and had a strong lead (you don’t really have much of an idea while you are out there). Stoked to have no nutritional issues, no mechanical issues, to have given everything to a tough course and to come home with a win.

My new Camber was faultless on the day – I have no doubt it shaved many minutes off my final time of 5 hours and 50 minutes. It was a great weekend away with the commuting crew and a race I won’t forget in a hurry!

Images courtesy of Aurora Images.