Tag Archives: s-works

Race Report: The Willo 2016

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.

BIKESHIMANO
With my S-Works Era, now fitted with Shimano’s XTR Di2 groupset

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!

XTRDER
Covered in mud and grit – the rear mech still worked perfectly

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!

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Thanks to Meg Patey and all the volunteers, officials and the community for hosting another well run, successful event. Till next year!

The Hellfire Cup 2015

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).

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Nathan throwing his bike around one of the many dusty berms

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.

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A picture of suffering, complete with blood.

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)

Linda
Even Linda could only manage a half smile, too busy trying to get air into her lungs

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.

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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). 

Has anyone seen these cowboys? Known to ride recklessly.
Has anyone seen these cowboys? Known to ride recklessly.

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.

Nathan driving it along a section of road, with me absolutely in the box.
Nathan driving it along a section of road, with me absolutely in the box.

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.

Finishing in style, I think.
Finishing in style, I think.

Day 3, Stage 5 – 2x9km Relay
Stage 5 was another relay stage, which although longer (9km) than the first, thankfully had only one leg per rider. By this time of the race (especially considering the events of the morning),  things were really starting to feel tired and sore. Even after a relaxing massage (Beau almost cried), 9km at full gas was going to really, really hurt.

This 9km was a combination of some of the best trails the Hellfire Cup had to offer, including a rather narrow and very long (100m perhaps?) plank bridge. While I had visions of coming down on the adjacent rails holding it up, I was across in one piece. Another close stage, with not much time gained or lost across all teams.   

The African appears to be lost?

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?!

How did I get here again?
How did I get here again?

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.

Better hope you did a warm up, the hill starts almost instantly
Better hope you did a good warm up, the climb starts almost instantly

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.

I'm just going to leave this here.
I’m just going to leave this here.

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!

Dirt crits are AWESOME
Dirt crits are AWESOME

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!

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!

Long Term Test: S-Works Era

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).

SPECIALIZED-S_WORKS-ERA-29

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.

undertree

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).

specialied-era-components

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).

feralgroove

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.

Upgrades
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.

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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.

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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.  

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Race Report: Dwellingup100

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.

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Berm Baby Berm! No worries with pea gravel on these corners.

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.

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Kalamunda – “A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t yet learned how to ask” – Fox Mulder

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.

WWII POW Camp? Here? Now that's the definition of lost.
WWII POW Camp? Here? Now that’s the definition of lost.

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

Entering the Singletrack at Marrinyup, mud in mouth, eyes, ears, you name it. Photo by Russ Baker
Entering the Singletrack at Marrinyup, mud in mouth, eyes, ears, you name it. Photo by Russ Baker

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.

Elite Women's Podium - Dwellingup 100
Elite Women’s Podium – Dwellingup 100

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.

Series Leader - for now.
Series Leader – for now.

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.

Read the Race Report on MarathonMTB

Race Report: 3 Ring Circus

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.

Double Trouble: A Weekend of Cyclocross

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 tyres off-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.

Photo by Mike Isreal
Photo by Mike Isreal

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.

Photo by Ben Porter
Photo by Ben Porter

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.

Photo by Michael Crummy
Photo by Michael Crummy

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.