The Redback – Stage 5 – 47km XC

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.

Bash brothers before stage 5
Bash brothers before stage 5

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.

Stage Five

The Redback – Stage Three – Individual TT

I feel like I’m starting to pick up my pace now in Alice Springs, and I’m happy with the speed I maintained for this morning’s 22km individual time trial.

Starting at the golf course, riders were again sent off in 30 second intervals in reverse place order. I was determined to ride fast and smooth, and above all else, I didn’t want to be caught by any higher placed riders! A heinous southerly was blowing for what would otherwise be a fast, flat start, but I did all I could to hold my power high and catch the riders in front before the single track really got going. Having previewed most of the course on Tuesday, I was well aware of places I could claw back time, and areas to avoid costly mistakes.

I overtook the first rider in front of me within a kilometre, and could soon see a group of 3 trading places on fire track up the road. I was strong enough to catch two of them before the single track, and was relieved I had Bill Murphy out front to reel back – he rides smoothly, picks good lines and is exceptionally efficient. Putting in a couple of bike lengths on several short pinches, he let me through kindly on an apex, leaving me to ride hard and not let him catch back on.

A large gap between me and the next riders ahead saw me setting my own pace, but with Bill breathing down my neck on a tricky, switched-back descent, I made sure I really opened up the throttle on anything smooth, and gassed it out of the saddle on anything going skywards.

With the Plains of Mordor stretching out over the horizon, I got a glimpse of two riders in the distance. This encouraged me to hunt them down whilst the course was fast, and a handy tail wind had me sailing along at over 35km/h at times. But I knew that wasn’t fast enough, so whenever the track was really free-running, I pushed the bike up to 40km/h.

Those two riders I overtook quickly, and from there it was a matter of staying level, as more and more riders were in my sights, and it was important to overtake carefully and save energy. Mostly I had it pretty good – but a train of riders up a steep set of switch backs slowed me up a little, and I lost a good bit of momentum trying to get past. But I wasn’t too concerned – they were all riding really well, moving aside with ease and staying upright. I love it when mountain bike events are friendly like this, with everyone helping each other out and pushing each other faster.

I did take a big time hit on Sunset Hill, the largest climb of the day, with a rider in front unclipping on a rock step-up at the start of the climb and staying dead-centre of the track. Forced to dismount myself, I sprinted around him and jumped back on the saddle CX style as soon as the track was smooth. I was kinda annoyed, but decided that the same road blocks would be occurring for faster riders behind me.

At the top of that gradual climb, a wicked, loose descent shot me down towards town. I took it pretty carefully – although it wasn’t especially technical, it was full of small, loose rock that would punish a mistake. Back onto fire trail after that brief, fun interlude, and it became a threshold effort for me until the finish line. Rounding the golf course, I kept my head low and forced myself to try and get the bike over 40 again.

Rounding the last few bends put me in sight of the finish line, and I emptied that tank, my legs turning furiously as I went past a few more riders. I knew I’d put in a solid effort as I couldn’t sprint the finish, but just stayed seated and strong.

Bill Murphy and Aidan Geaney after the stage. 19th and 10th places respectively
Bill Murphy and Aidan Geaney after the stage. 19th and 10th places respectively

I finished the TT in 58:16, in 12th place overall! Stoked as a goat! That means I’ve clawed back good time, and have crept up from 22nd overall, to 15th on GC! Massive confidence boost coming into the remaining stages – I think I might be better recovered from the everesting, and feel that I’m starting to hit my stride again.

22km ITT

Blue Cycles Sunday Session

Yesterday was somehow the first actual XCO race I’ve ever competed in. Crits, enduros, marathons and stage races have come and gone, but I’ve never raced the traditional cross country format. Weird when I think about it, but not surprising when the level I’ve ridden at has always tended towards different events (more mass participation events).

Anyway, on Sunday afternoon, the Darwin Offroad Cycling club (DORC), ran an XCO at Charles Darwin National Park. Supported by Blue Cycles, it involved 4 laps of a rather demanding, 8km course (4 for elite, 3 for sport). With recent bush fires clearing much of the dense vegetation and scorching the earth to dust, it would be fairly easy to keep sight on anyone in a close position.

The race started Le Mans style. With a Go Pro mounted on my handlebar, you can see me picking up my bike first, and get  an early lead into the single track. Not knowing the course and terrain all that well, I opted to let someone pass after about 1km or so. This gave me a wheel to follow and hopefully learn the trail.

Dodging runners - Le Mans style start
Dodging runners – Le Mans style start

I found the pace not quite where I wanted it on one of the long, flat, open straights, so I decided to up the tempo and gas it back into first place. A good move really – I was able to hold the lead for a while longer with a bit of climbing coming up and more long drags to push power levels. But just before the track turned to more single track, Chris Hanson romped on past me. He wasn’t going all that much quicker at this point, but with my heart rate up high, and legs feeling a bit leaden, I could see the calibre of rider that Chris is. And this was the wheel to follow.

Back into 1st place. Gotta love it when someone gives you this look
Back into 1st place. Gotta love it when someone gives you this look

For maybe a couple of kilometres of single track, I stuck pretty well to his wheel. He was clearly more powerful on the more open single track, pulling away slightly, but with ease, and was exceptionally better on the more technical sections and the downs. However, I’m confident I had him well and truly covered anytime the track pinched upwards, and I’d gain back time. This pattern wasn’t to last too long, however, and he eventually pulled away out of sight after a longer section of down.

This left me all alone for basically the remainder of the race. 3rd place was not to be seen with a look back, and I was assuming Chris was now putting minutes into me. But the track was so much fun, I didn’t mind too much. I don’t spend enough time on the mountain bike, and found the race a great skills tester. Rather than kill myself trying to get back onto Chris’ wheel, I opted to do my best to ride smoothly and efficiently, and focused on keeping a constant effort (yup, this shit again… but it works!).

Heading into lap 2, I still had no sign of anyone. But I was still up for riding quickly and I’d settled into a rhythm. A thought struck me – I could easily become complacent now. I could back off the pace and probably still hold 2nd. If anything, I’d be well rested to fight for it if necessary. Perhaps Chris is thinking the same? Maybe he’s sitting up right now and cruising around the course? So i started riding faster, and put in my quickest lap time. Still focused on riding smoothly, but hammering the downs, putting more power out on the less technical single track, leaning around the uphill switch backs to keep the momentum up, and above all else, climbing flat stick.

It worked! I’d taken the nifty, but slightly sketchy A-line towards the end of the Wirraway trail, making up some more time, and was confident of going fast for the entire race. Really smacking the pedals about on the straights on lap 3, I could see Chris up ahead. And the best part was that he couldn’t see me! Over about 3 minutes of racing, I’d gone from about 100m behind him on first sight, to within striking distance after putting in a near max effort on the longest climb of the course. Another long straight after that climb, and he was only 20m or so ahead. But then I witnessed the quality of rider that I was chasing. After that straight, there was a technical 150 degree turn. It wasn’t actually all that technical, but it was very awkward and you had to slow right down for it. Just when I thought I was being all ninja like (not really, I’m sure me heart beat was audible), Chris shot me what I felt was a devastating look-back, and took the fuck off outta there, leaving me to negotiate that corner whilst he was accelerating. All-over red-rover.

The A-Line - cutting out all the fun berms, but cutting out time, too
The A-Line – cutting out all the fun berms, but cutting out time, too

By the time I made it around the corner and onto another short straight, there was no sign of Chris bar a plume of dust – a sure sign that he was proceeding rapidly. The next bit of single track gave him a sure lead, and I was no longer able to see him. If he was being complacent on lap 2 and the start of lap 3, it didn’t matter. He still had the energy to kick my arse all over Sunday afternoon. No matter, I’ll have to work out another way to beat him (if that is at all possible).

The remainder of the race was an exercise in the same. Put in some energy on the climbs. Take the quicker A-lines when I was comfortable. Gas the straights and turn bike on the  corners. And at race pace, riding at Charles Darwin is so much fun. I held onto 2nd place, with Chris having put in 3:35s by race end. Kevin Wells placed 3rd, 2:20s behind me. Thank you to DORC and Blue Cycles for putting on a brilliant club event.

The Pain Statistics