I’m going to be sad to head home after this race, because I’m getting in the groove. A few mistakes cost me time on today’s stage, but some smooth, strong riding at times was a real confidence boost.
Today’s stage was a 47km, pretty typical cross country race, with some amazing desert single, interspersed with fast fire trails. Head winds were brutal at times, and the trails were often rocky and technical, but all round there was fun to be had in considerably lower temperatures than the opening stage.
With another mass start by the Todd River, I placed myself in the second row, cold, but ready to fang it off the start line. Riders were perhaps shaken up after the pile-ups on stage one, and again there was no need to fight for position. I settled in somewhere in the top twenty, and allowed the riders in front to set a good tempo, somewhere off the lead bunch. I was glad to see Aidan Geaney and James Downing not far ahead – both good wheels to follow with strengths to complement my own.
Up the first proper climb of the day, a long, twisting slog, I was two riders back from Aidan, and was tempted to go around at least one of them. The pace wasn’t too hot, and I was feeling very good. Down the first descent, I was still in contact, but then a small mishap. Burying my front wheel on an innocuous corner, I came down, hitting my right leg against the bike frame and dislodging a water bottle. Luckily no harm done apart from a bit of frustration.
Remounted and pacing myself back, Aidan and the other two were not far ahead, approaching a long climb on a fire trail I recognised from Easter, and one I knew Aidan hated. Urging myself on, I was very close to catching back on.
Back onto some tricky single track, I could see and hear riders both ahead and behind – it was obviously bunching up again. And then the surprise we were warned about – some “old school” single track thrown into the mix. I actually really like this section of over grown trail, but a lack of trail markings made navigation similar to the Tokyo Subway system – you can get anywhere, but the fastest way is not necessarily your first choice. At least six riders overtook me through here.
With the hope that the fast riders ahead had made the same mistakes, I pushed on to get past most of the riders that took the right lines. Gapping most of them on another climb, I caught sight of Aidan labouring around the other side of the hill. I was sure I could latch back on!
Some tricky descents and washed-out single track left me on my own for some time, and not far before the first drink stop, Matt King was pulled over on the side of the track, dealing with 100s of bindies lodged all over the front of his body from what might otherwise have been an easy fall. Ouch!
Reaching that first drink station, a marshall urged me on with, “the bunch in front have 30 seconds”. Not needing more water, I blasted through to some fast single track, trying to gain some time. But then I almost blew myself up. On a climb I should have hit like a whippet on a sugar high, I lost a lot of confidence seeing several riders biting at my ankles. Fuck.
I threw down whatever power I had left to try and stay out front for as long as possible. With a descent looming, I called to the rider behind that I would let him pass as soon as I could. With a nice pullover between switchbacks, I heard, “thanks Pete, go well”. I didn’t realise until he was already ahead that it was James Downing. Definitely a wheel I wanted to follow on the technical stuff!
Spurred on by following a much more proficient rider, I descended better than I have all race. And I kept him in sight for at least a couple of kilometres. I really felt like I was getting my marathon legs back, and was still confident of gaining some places.
More fire trail of doom had a rider catching me up, but likewise I could again see James ahead having stopped at the 2nd drink break. Close to town, I traded places with the rider behind a couple of times, catching a quick draft up an awful, head-winded section of tarmac. Allowing him to take the lead in the next section of single track, I was unable to maintain his pace, but always had him in my eyesight.
One last ascent of Sunset Hill, and I got a glimpse of Aidan and a trail of riders behind him. I was catching! And the trail was climbing! Stoked as a goat. I hadn’t realised that it was Sunset Hill, approached from a different side, but was hoping the track would keep going up to increase my chances. But before long, the the course sent us downwards, and the descent was immediately familiar.
Knowing the finish line could not be far away, I rode the descent as smoothly as I could, and hammered the bike as best I could through the “whoop-di-doos”, before a u-turn at the golf course sent me into a new section of sand traps. No longer confident of a catch, but thinking about the overall time, I pedalled away hoping no one would catch.
The finale was a long section of bike path with a mother flippin’ tail-wind. Ace! I could see two riders in front, one the rider that had only recently leap-frogged me, and another from New Caledonia that I’d been able to best on the night stage. Getting as aero as I could on a mountain bike, I cranked it well over 40km/h for a sustained effort reminiscent of Bagot Road in Darwin at the end of the Hour of Power bunch ride. Giving it all when you’re already feeling cooked is not easy, but when you have a carrot out front, your mind does take some burden off your legs.
Roaring past him at 45km/h, there was only a few hundred metres to go, and I rounded the last few corners of the car park and over the finish line in 14th place and a time of 2:23:11, not far off two riders in front, but a couple of minutes from making more of a dent. I’ve gotta say, I’m really enjoying this racing caper again – if more of my competitors here realised what I’d done a couple of weeks ago, I’m sure there’d be many, “wtfs” exchanged. 43km remaining.