Cold, wet, tacky and fun sums up the last stage of the Redback mountain bike stage race for me. On the fourth day of racing, my strength and fitness finally made a good appearance, and I had by far my best race this time around in Alice Springs.
I’m not sure why, but the course was shortened to about 38km for the stage, but it was still an excellent mix of some incredible single track and fast fire roads. With cool temperatures and storms bringing the most rain I’ve seen in months, conditions were somewhat challenging for those of us acclimatised to warmer weather, but extra grip basically everywhere made a lot of the track super fast.
Another neutral start behind a police car from the Chiefly had the bunch doing a small, slow loop on wet roads, before dropping in fast to a sketchy stretch of dual trail. Many riders were tentative again, meaning I was easily able to place myself close to the front of the bunch.
Within a few hundred metres, however, a split emerged in the field. Not because of a high pace, but because of navigation uncertainties – a few of the lead guys went left, a few right. I chose right, but was quickly corrected and bashed cross country to get to the right fork. Fortunately the front runners sat-up, and I got myself into an even better position than before.
Soon after that, I had a small fall as Courtney Atkinson had a rider stop right in front of him – putting the two of us on our arses. It didn’t really cost either of us anything, and with Matt and Aidan riding through, I was able to get a place back in the line.
More frustrating for me, at perhaps the 4km mark, my seat-clamp loosened off again, tilted the nose of my saddle a few degrees upwards. This has happened in a race before, so I was kicking myself for not checking the tension before the stage, and I was well aware of the time I’d loose sorting it out. I decided to put up with it and deal with it only if the angle became unbearable.
Within 5km of the race start, Matt blasted past Aidan and I, and I soon took off in pursuit of the lead bunch, still within a hundred metres of so. Aidan was looking cold on the bike, and I was hopeful that he’d make a recovery (which he did). Plenty of climbing at the start of the stage sorted me well, and I figured that would be my best chance of a higher placing.
It must have been the 8km mark when I caught back to Matt with James Downing on his wheel. I followed the pair for quite a while, but was feeling really strong on the climbs and wanted to blast ahead. Taking the sensible option, I followed their lines on the flats and downhills, with Matt eventually pulling over to wait for Aidan. James’ wheel was a good one to follow again – not so much because of his pace, but because he was easily finding the course in places I may have lost the way. On the climbs, I’d be right on his wheel, but then drop slightly back on the descents and flats.
Perhaps half way into the race, the two of us caught up to Courtney, sitting on a bit of a rock ledge having lost the track. James found the right line through some quite technical, rocky single track, and we now had a group of 3 for a few kilometres.
Into the drink station, James and Courtney had put a bit of a gap into me. Trying to power through the flat sections of course with the saddle in a sub-optimal position was not ideal. I found myself clawing James back on the climbs, but never close enough to hold his wheel again.
With under 10km to go, Stephen Allegria caught my wheel, and the pair of us rode almost the remainder of the race together. He was trying to make up time to get into 3rd place in the over 40s, and I was trying to catch up in the GC on the same rider, so it made sense to me to try and stay together. Unfortunately, he had a fall on a tricky piece of single track, but was unharmed and managed to overtake me on the long descent towards the finish line.
Cresting any climb now brought a serious chill to the chest, as a now wet jersey clung to your skin. I was tempted to stop to take off my streaky glasses, and my hands were beginning to chill enough to make braking difficult. But with only a few kilometres left, I was prepared to put up with minor discomforts.
The single track in those closing kilometres was incredible. And the rain proved only to make it better, with superior grip on every corner and less lose, sketchy gravel. A tail wind brought me home on the final stretch of fire road into Telegraph Station, and with the thought of gaining some more time, I sprinted to the line solo and into 11th place on the stage, securing 13th overall for the race.