A couple of weeks ago, I travelled down to Katherine with a bunch of mates (most of the Darwin Off Road Cycling Club) to race in a 4 hour enduro. With recent bad news coming out of Melbourne, Donna still away in Bali, and a couple of dogs to look after, it became a pretty last minute decision. I was feeling pretty stranded from family, and was really just keen to get to Melbourne. But with a huge amount of support from friends in the top end, I made the wise decision to give the race a go.
My pre conceived notions of a race in Katherine were thus; the trails are probably a cross between what we have in Darwin, and what the trails are like in Alice Springs, it’ll be hot and dry, and it’ll be a small, fun, club affair. The latter two were right on the money, but I found the trails in Katherine to have a more unique quality than my aforementioned hybrid. Yes, there are similarities, but the network in Katherine flows differently to either Darwin or Alice, and are perhaps more akin to what might be found in parts of Victoria. As fun as they were, the trails were also very over grown in sections – dry long-grass and a few washed out sections made it more challenging than it might have been otherwise, with many a small hidden rock threatening to cut a side wall – but most of this smoothed out as riders packed down the course.
So, to the action itself. Matt and I weighed ourselves in before the race – probably both starting out well hydrated. Aidan, Matt, Glen, Michael and myself set-up under the Blue Cycles Marquee, with bottles, lights and food laid out to grab in between laps. The format was simple – most laps in the 4 hour period, with placings being decided by time after laps covered. A fairly small field lined up for the start, but some strong riders amongst them. The atmosphere was friendly, but quite hot and exceptionally dry.
I was keen to hit it out hard early, but with no idea of what the 11km course would really be like, I erred caution, and allowed Aidan to take an early lead. It turned out that every one had the same reluctance, and the pace was very sedate for a couple of kilometres. Not really satisfied with the pace that was happening for a 4 hour race, I came around another rider and Aidan whilst the course opened out briefly. I could hear Matt and Aidan then jump for my wheel, and this is basically how the race progressed for 4 hours.
By the time we had reached the top of the main climb, I’d opened a bit of a gap on Matt and Aidan, but rolled along until they caught up. Looking behind them, it looked as though others were either unwilling to make the junction, or were saving energy. Either way, the 3 of us worked together all afternoon and evening. A couple of gates needed to be swung open to proceed, so between the 3 of us helping each other, we probably made even more time. And more importantly, with Aidan’s eagle eyes, we stayed on track in places we may otherwise have strayed.
About lap 2, I felt what I thought was sweat getting flicked in my face (a pretty gross reminder of what it’s like riding in the wet season, with sweat dripping off the rider in front, hitting their cassette, and getting flung up at you). But on closer inspection, it was clear that Aidan’s rear tyre was pissing out sealant – most probably from a piece of glass. Luckily for him, it sealed up and stayed the course of the race. Unluckily for Matt, his non-tubeless set-up did not withstand a hard rock strike a short time later, with a loud pop, followed by a loud expletive. Like the good mate’s we are, Aidan and I offered help, but quickly hightailed it when the offer was declined (we knew Matt was capable of catching us back up, but we knew he knew it would hurt to do it :p).
Nothing too eventful for the remainder of the race. When the 3 of us regrouped after Matt’s smoking lap time to catch up, we roll turns, open the gates for each other, and I’d slow up at the start/finish line whilst the others got fresh bottles or downed sandwiches (I’m yet to discover if my camel tactic is actually off putting, but it does seem to distress some that I can ride for quite a while with barely a hand on a bidon). Clearly we’d opened a big lead, and were happy holding a consistent pace. I felt like I had more gas in the legs, but was certainly content to keep it level and enjoy riding the trails. A major focus of mine has been to try and ride single track smoothly. It means I often don’t feel like I’ve smashed myself hard enough, but over a longer race, I do feel more efficient, recover better, and am better able to accelerate when needed.
Coming into the night laps mixed it up a little. I finally came in for a new bidon after I think 5 laps (55km), and changed my helmet over to one with a headlight pre mounted. A decent enough strategy for this kind of race, but the heavier weight of the different model helmet, and the addition of a light and battery pack, left me with a sore neck to adjust to over the next couple of laps. I did have better sight on the trails now, with no more afternoon sun glaring in, and had ridden sufficient laps to know the course very well. Lapping more riders, I think it is safe to say the 3 of us were having a blast!
Rolling through the start finish line a little after 7pm, we were just under the deadline to head out for another lap. Aidan put on a burst, and quickly pulled over – satisfied he’d ridden enough to take 3rd place (and with probably enough time up his sleeve he could down a beer and head out to chase anyone down that did happen to come through for another lap behind us). Matt and I probably eased the pace a bit, with fatigue setting in for me. I was feeling dehydrated and hungry, but was positive about getting through one more lap. Had it been a 6 hour, I would easily have had the legs at the same pace, but certainly could not have gotten away with eating and drinking so little. I now knew what lines to take, where to put on the anchors, when to stick close to the wheel in front so I didn’t cop a flung-back branch to the face, and was all round happy with my efficiency. Matt and I didn’t seem prepared to attack each other, and I think more than anything were happy to knock out a solid 95km on the mountain bike before heading to Alice Springs in August. With my chain feeling like it was going to break every time I got out of the saddle to put some power down, I was stoked enough that it lasted the race!
With our last lap taking about 35 minutes, Matt and I rolled over the line together, taking a 1,2,3 for Blue Cycles. And whilst I came over the line in 1st, it really felt like a team effort to drop everyone else, working together for a good lead. Matt took out our weight loss competition – about a 5kg loss to my 3kg… and considering he drank at least 3 times as much as I did, I reckon it was an impressive effort (I would have put it all back on at Macca’s that night :p).
Accepting a prize was a bit of a sombre moment for me – I quietly dedicated the win to Ally in my head, and was suddenly sad that the race was finished and to be going back to thinking about family. It was no consolation for loosing a niece, but it was the best thing I could do at the time – having some fun with mates that you know are there keeping an eye on you, even if they don’t say it out loud. Booty collected for 1st place? A bag of Blast Coffee Roasters beans (how fortunate, as I was due a trip to the shops to buy more anyway), and a pick out of the box… I grabbed the bike lube as soon as I saw it… my chain really was feeling fucked by the last few laps.
This race goes on the calendar for next year. It’s a fast, fun, flowing course and is bound to keep me entertained for another 4 hours. But next year, I’m going to try and fit another lap in!