The Enchantment of Australia's Toughest Stage Race
The Il Pastaio / Rocky Trail Racing team arrived several days early, in order to acclimitise to the hotter conditions. Team Captain, Martin Wisata (M1: 30-39), was preparing for his fourth Crocodile Trophy adventure and would have the advantage of knowing the parcours. Peter Selkrig, an ex-pro road rider with a wealth of riding experience in a multitude of disciplines and silver medalist for his age group at the WEMBO Solo 24 hour, would not only be one of the main contenders for the M3 age category (50+) but would undoubtedly mix it up with the elite riders. I was merely hoping to ride competitively in the M2 (40-49) category. Having won entry into the Crocodile Trophy by beating the Masters field at the Rocky Trail 12 hour in August, I was fortunate to be riding in a stage race which is part of many riders' bucket list. This would be my first stage race, and with just four years of racing behind me I was about to find out I still had so much to learn.
Stage 1: My first impressions of the other riders had been one of awe. There were many Europeans, several with strong road backgrounds, and I feared the worst, believing I was out of my depth. However, the first stage would suit my mountain bike skills, involving five laps of a six kilometre circuit of Smithfield's iconic trails, located just a short ride from the centre of Cairns. Smithfield will be the venue for the UCI World Cup and World Championships in 2014, 2016 and 2017 and so it came as no surprise to find the trails are a pleasure to ride, with only a few short pinch climbs, and fast flowing descents. During the final two laps and with temperatures nudging 33 degrees, a number of European riders appeared to wilt in the heat. Furthermore, the stage took a toll on riders who may have lacked the skills necessary for singletrack riding and amongst those who crashed was one of the favourites for the M2 category, Austrian Wolfgang Mader, who broke his finger and was unable to complete the first lap. Reflecting the spirit embodied within the Crocodile Trophy, he would continue to endure pain and discomfort but would eventually make it to the finish line at Cooktown.
Stage 2: Travelling from Cairns to Lake Tinaroo, this breathtaking stage took riders through stunning rainforest into the Atherton Tablelands. One hundred kilometres of racing and 2500 metres of climbing, steep uphills and exhilarating descents would provide an altogether different test to the first day and those riders with a road background would be far more at home on these trails. After a neutralised start, involving a police escort from the centre to the outskirts of Cairns, we arrived at the lower realms of the first big climb. As is normal in these races, the start was explosive and my heart rate was soon near its maximum. The asphalt turned to gravel and the steepness of the climbs brought many of the riders around me to their knees, forced to push their bikes up the forbidding hills. After what seemed like an eternity, the mountain withdrew its fury and levelled out. My right thigh had already started to cramp and the rest of the ride needed to be approached in a manner that would allow me to nurse my already aching body to the finish over sixty kilometres away.
I was alone as I turned onto the road which cicumnavigates beautiful Lake Tinaroo. I passed a junction but was not really paying attention. Surely this was not an official turn-off. I rode five kilometres but there were no race signs. I did see a small pink ribbon on the other side of the road but perhaps it was from a previous race. Twelve kilometres past and I now thought I would surely have to turn around and climb back to the original turn-off. I decided to continue on and, when I eventually spotted a Crocodile Trophy sign, I felt strangely invigorated and powered through the final ten kilometres to the finish.
Stage 3: With nearly 3000 metres of climbing, this was expected to be another difficult stage. By the time we had crested the first long fireroad climb, used extensively during the National Marathon Championship in April, the main group had splintered, but we were about to be rewarded as we entered the new Atherton Forest Mountain bike trails and the purpose-built downhill. I would have thoroughly enjoyed this, but with temperatures certain to rise, I felt compelled to stop three times to recover my second water bottle which kept ejecting itself from its cage.
A number of riders came to grief in the fast, winding singletrack section that followed and then we made our second visit to the fireroad climb. At the top, I found myself with Belgium riders, Kristof Roelandts, and Liesbeth Hessens. During the final 35 kilometres, my Belgium counterparts and I shared the pace-making. I was amazed at the strength of Liesbeth, the eventual winner of the female category, and she was able to drive the group for extended periods of time. I knew M2 rival, Kristof was breathing down my neck and so I tried to break away several times but was eventually reeled back in. Not being able to break this partnership, I decided to wait to the finish, where I was narrowly beaten in a closely contested sprint.
This was certainly a stage that suited a mountain biker and so it was no surprise that Cory Wallace was able to utilise his superior mountainbike skills and take first place in the elite category. Conversely, Sander Cordeel, a Belgium pro rider from Lotto Belisol crashed and was airlifted from the course by helicopter. In M2, I moved into third place overall, although a mere 13 minutes separated third through to sixth.
Stage 4: I went into today’s stage feeling confident. My body was holding up pretty well to the gruelling ordeal of my first ever stage race. However, the nature of the racing was about to change dramatically into the unfamiliar territory of road riding. My lack of experience riding in pelotons was to cost me dearly. I failed to spot race leaders, Cory Wallace and Mark Frendo, move to the front and, as the pace lifted, I started to drop back. Suddenly, we hit a rough, steep hill and all my main rivals came flying through, leaving me desperately clawing at shadows. I was off the back and in no man’s land. I attempted to re-join the small group ahead but I realised that even this would not be possible and relented in my chase. Due to the rough rocky trails, several riders were even less fortunate. Most noticeably, elite Welsh rider, Matt Page, punctured three times, was obliged to wait for a slower rider to supply him with a third tube and ultimately lost thirty minutes on the race leaders.
On leaving Depot 3, I was able to jump onto the back of trusty team mate Martin Wisata and when he put the hammer down it was as much as I could do to just follow his tracks. The final thirty kilometres passed rapidly as I was towed to the finishing line at Mt. Mulligan. This was a great show of team work and I was the beneficiary of an abundance of selfless work by Martin.
Stage 5: The Queen Stage of the race involved riding the 163 kilometres from Mt. Mulligan to Granite Creek Dam, incorporating 3000 metres of climbing and described in the road book as ‘rough and unbelievably hilly’. The initial 45 kilometres of this stage were, once again, played out in a fast-moving peloton. I was starting to learn the intricacies of this type of racing, reaping the benefits of Pete Selkrig’s extensive knowledge from his previous experience as a professional road rider. I was feeling reasonably comfortable until we approached the first of the five feeding stations. Pete warned me of what was about to happen but I was still caught out.
With the group being fairly large, riders were keen to get to the water and energy taps, fill their bottles, and leave quickly in order to remain in the main group. On sighting the Depot, I was suddenly swamped by nervous riders and then unable to get to the hydration taps. I left with two other riders, as well as race leaders, Cory Wallace and Mark Frendo. While we were able to bridge the gap I was soon to pay dearly for the energy expended. Only a couple more surges and I was expelled from the back of the group, and left to ride alone for the next 22 kilometres.
As we approached Depot 3, a gate lay ahead, slightly ajar. At the last moment, I thought I saw a gap to one side and sped towards it. The Marshall screamed out that it was a barbed wire fence which I just couldn’t see because of the glare of the sun. I braked hard and, although my bike stopped, I was catapulted onto the top of the fence. Blood oozed out of my left arm and leg but, in the heat, the blood combined with sweat and dust to congeal quickly, allowing me to finish the stage strongly, moving me up to 18th overall, my highest position in the race.
Stage 6: After approximately fifteen kilometres, the rolling hills were briefly replaced by a longer steeper climb and the group fractured completely. Once again, the peloton was gone and I was isolated for a long period of time. Between Depot 2 and 3, several riders began to struggle due to a lack of water. This whole section was the most challenging of the stage and included several steep climbs along the technical, but stunning, old gold mining trail. The sun was now high in the sky and with temperatures touching forty degrees I was starting to suffer in the heat. Even whilst travelling downhill, the deep sand made progress slow and cumbersome. On finally reaching Depot 3, quite a few riders had gathered there, some fully submerged in a nearby creek!
The last 35 kilometres were mainly on wide, sandy roads where I was able to hook onto two Belgium M1 riders and we began to swap turns as the road opened up. One of the riders was struggling with severe saddle sores and so two of us took the major pace-making duties. As we approached the finish, a bee flew into my open shirt and I was stung several times, causing me severe pain until the intruder was released.
Stage 7: Fortunately, the Course Organisers had amended their original plan to make this stage the world's longest ever individual time trial reducing the distance from a massive 96 to just 38 kilometres. Once again, I received excellent information from Pete Selkrig on how to most successfully ride a time trial but when I tried to apply the advice I had pre-race, I hit the road corrugations and began to struggle to keep my rhythm, to finish a disappointing 36th overall.
Stage 8: This 113 kilometre stage involved travelling almost the first seventy on flat, wide corrugated dirt roads and so it would be important to stay in the peloton for as long as possible. After Pete, Martin and I had spent a few minutes off the front of the main group we were reeled back in. The usual chaos ensued at the first feed station and, shortly after, I was dropped once again and chasing shadows. To make matters worse, I now had a head wind to contend with for the next thirty kilometres. I ground away, alone, until I reached Depot 2 where I was able to work with other riders, providing a degree of respite from the wind until the end of the stage.
Final Stage: The last leg of the Crocodile Trophy was only 50 kilometres, flat and sandy until the finish, culminating with an iconic kilometre climb of up to 30% gradient to the top of Grassy Hill. An early crash in the peloton was an omen for a day of carnage. Twelve kilometres into the race, I punctured and the whole peloton, once again, waved me goodbye.
After twenty kilometres, running with his bike, Polish cyclist Zbigniew Mossoczy, came into view. His free hub had seized up. I thought he would have an extremely long day ahead but, bearing testimony to the camaraderie between the riders, he was advised to secure the cassette to the spokes of the rear wheel with cable ties, allowing him to ride the final part of the stage. Ingenious! Whilst crossing several creeks with warning signs about crocodiles, this was one place I knew I didn't want to stop with a mechanical.
As I reeled in other riders, I became more aware of events that had preceded. M2 rival, Kristof, was holding his left arm awkwardly and had blood-soaked bandages on his elbow. He had crashed in the peloton earlier, hitting a hole which he couldn’t see for the clouds of red dust being thrown up from the riders ahead, and I later found out that he had needed stitches within his torn arm muscles. As I started the steep hundred metre climb to the top of Grassy hill, I passed another rider from the Amy Gillett team, who had crashed and broken his wrist. The climb proved tough and it was a relief to get to the steps that led to the finish. The Crocodile Trophy was over and I was extremely satisfied to finish fifth in M2 and 22nd overall. Peter won seven of the nine stages to win the M3 category and Martin finished higher than ever before, allowing the Il Pastaio / Rocky Trail Team to finish second in the Team Classification.
On final reflection, this has been a great experience and, being my first ever stage race, I have learnt some valuable lessons particularly about riding in pelotons. The event is superbly run, the course being carefully planned out, admirably supported by a large support crew, including medical personnel, chefs and cooks, media, quad drivers, marshalls and massage therapists. The camaraderie between the riders, from over fifteen different countries, with a diverse range of experience and ability makes this event a truly remarkable one which will remain long in the memory. Next year, the rumour is the race will be sanctioned by the UCI, with most of the stages being more technical and better suited to mountain bikers. This certainly sounds like a winning formula and can only enhance the status of this already iconic race.