Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back on the horse at Hiddenvale

Ollie ponders the early break on the start line
After an extended break from mountainbike racing post Tour Divide, my thoughts about returning to the XC racing fold were mixed. On one hand, there is no denying the rush of a rowdy elbow to elbow mass start, and sheer elation of finishing up a ‘short’ race after an hour or two on the limit. But on the other, I rate the sheer adventure of bikepacking pretty highly in terms of riding joy. Cresting ridges and dropping into exciting unexplored terrain, all the while with the profoundly motivating requirement for food, shelter and survival at the forefront of your mind.

But when the opportunity to race at one of ‘stralia’s biggest marathon MTB events came up, I couldn’t say no to a day in the sun. The Flight Centre Epic is held at Hiddenvale, about an hour inland from Brisbane. Turned out that my good mates at Ground Effect were an event sponsor, and kindly hooked me up with an entry.

Ground Effect -supporters of grassroots MTB and all round nice people
At a relatively short 87km, and with the unrelenting Queensland sunshine in fine form, I was assured of a fun day on the bike. After a month or so of devoted attention riding my Gates carbon drive equipped Ventana El Commandante, I feel like I’ve got the hang of riding it in the dusty and loose surface that seems to prevail here in Queensland. Races like this are a great way to explore tracks in new places. Taupo’s Huka XL, the Whaka 100 and even the Nelson Mammoth all thread together a seamless loop of the best trails, and what better way to ride them than in on go as fast as you can!

Andrew and Ollie talk race plans
Mr Andrew T. again offered up a ride to the venue, and Heidi came along to act as official photographer and chief supporter, proving exceptional in both roles, even holding back from eating post race sandwiches despite a ravenous hunger.

I’d thrown my helmet in the singlespeed ring, which was curiously lumped amongst the ‘special’ categories starting dead last, along with super oldies and clydesdales (>100kg). Some 18 ‘special needs racers’ had entered which is pretty good SS field, and I knew nothing of the strengths of those making up the class. Being a bit rusty on XC racing tactics I opted for the approach that you can only pull off if you’ve got the legs to back it up. While it is rare that a marathon is won on a start, it can be a bit of a psychological blow for competitors when they are gapped off the line, and this is what I proceeded to do, boosting ahead to the categories that had started earlier and using their proliferation as camouflage. Fortunately my legs were up for it, not even wavering when the climb moved from gravel road to singletrack and I was forced to ride proper offroad over logs, rocks and critters to pass the slower riding masses.

Seems like the endurance XC scene is massive here in ‘stralia, and with more than 2000 riders over the weekend’s events the scene is vibrant with the kind of buzz that seems to be escaping the NZ scene, especially with the popular shift to enduro and Super D racing of late.

The course itself was very well suited to singlespeeding, with the exception of a depressingly long 8km sealed road section which spun my legs into a dizzy mush, and a few knee poppingly steep pinches, the course was teeming with fun and flow.

A first loop of close to 50km was dispatched in a couple of hours, and while I’d been sitting comfortably enjoying the company of other riders and the sketchy loose surface, my efforts had caught up with me and a twinge of cramp struck as I rounded the turnaround point and headed out for the final 37km loop.

Fortunately the second loop offered up an even better array of singletrack that helped distract me from the growing disquiet in my legs. Whereas for the first couple of hours I was bounding up climbs with ease, the cumulative fatigue had reduced my cadence to a slow grind, as if pedalling through treacle.

A stop to refill my bottle and wolf down some lollies offered a brief buzz, but as the grind returned all I could do was dig deep and hope that my previous efforts were enough to hold off the posse of singlespeeders biting at my heels. As it happened, it was more than enough and I crossed the finish line about 5 minutes ahead of second to take a solid result and earn a well deserved sit down.

Crossing the finish line
The course conjured memories of Gunnison’s Growler, both in terms of singletrack delectability, length and the stinking heat. Fortunately the lung punishing altitude of the Growler was not at the Epic, and with no post-race sneezing fit I could enjoy a tall milkshake in the shade.

Ollie’s dust induced african american legs
While my body had performed admirably, only faltering towards the end, I felt my bike had served me graciously most of the way. Some adjustments to the carbon drive ratio on my El Commandante have meant I have been able to squash the back wheel into the seat tube, thus unleashing a bodacious level of flickability hitherto unheard of on a wagon wheeler.

Smiling post race. Note dust eyeliner. Very chic.
My Ground Effect threads were great too, plenty of wicking from my Road rage top helped with the heat. My Juggernaut shorts complete with leg vents (definitely activated for the race) are just the perfect fit, their tailored crotch quashing my fear of ‘baggie-snag’ and making them a realistic choice for racing.

Saddling up and riding at the Epic proved to be fitting re-entry into the XC scene. Far from being a bucking bronco it was a fun day out and I can’t wait to explore further afield and see what other ‘stralian races can offer!

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