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.
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.
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.
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).
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!