An exciting new venue welcomed many returning riders to the first round of the highly regarded Chocolate Foot Singletrack Mind Series. On arrival at the event centre, I was told of the strong Masters field that was assembling for the forthcoming race including returning Champion Garry James, Jason McAvoy and the enigmatic but incredibly quick Stu Adams. I was going into the event on the back of some solid racing form and the news just helped whet my appetite. I hurriedly erected my tent and with unbridled enthusiasm set off for a quick practice lap. Despite the encroaching darkness and my failure to take any form of illumination, I sped off undeterred, even ignoring a bemused Anthony Maloney spluttering the words 'he'll never make it'.
This was to provide me with my first lesson of a testing weekend. After going a kilometre and a half in the wrong direction, I back-tracked and started the 10 kilometre loop, immediately enjoying the smooth flow of these lovingly groomed trails. My joy didn't last, as it wasn't too long before the sun dipped below the horizon, by which time I had only just passed the 4 kilometre marker. I pushed on, but now I had to adjust my pace in order to safely negotiate the many variations in the terrain. Much worse were the deeply lush rainforest sections, which would cast me in complete darkness. I was now struggling, straining my eyes and guided merely by the pale glow that emanated from the track and a scattering of white painted arrows. Suddenly, I was hit by a wing of a bat and now I certainly knew I had made a huge mistake leaving so late. I cursed my stupidity and only minutes later I was hit with a sickening thud in the chest. What hit me, I still don't know, but if I had been American it sure was a 'drop bear'. After a distressing and uncomfortable 45 minutes, I eventually saw light ahead and my nights salvation.
My next mistake was to place myself mid-pack for the start of the race. The uphill firetrail would usually provide riders with the opportunity to sort out a reasonable pecking order for negotiating the singletrack. But when I tried to overtake the slower riders by passing down the middle I was met with an array of large rocks that barred any thought of forward progress. So it was, I entered the forest already out of touch with my main rivals. Shortly after, Elvio Fernandes, incidentally one of the friendliest guys on the circuit, lost his front wheel and hit the ground with an almighty crack and I tumbled over his stricken machine. After asking twice whether he was alright he told me he was fine but I later found out he had been concussed, somehow putting in another 4 laps before retiring himself and his severely fractured helmet.
I tried to focus on closing the gap on my major rivals but the track required flow and I was punching into corners too fast and exiting with a handful of brake. In my desperation not to lose more time, I failed to drink and eat enough and, although my lap times remained consistent, they were doing nothing for my quest to catch Stu, Jason and Garry. On the 5th lap my legs had turned to chocolate and I then catapulted myself over my handlebars on an embarrassingly innocuous section of track. Shortly after, I was told my saddle bag was dangling limply from my seat post and the contents were about to be vomited into the scrub. I had to stop to salvage my bike spares and this allowed Dave Langley to pass and take 4th place. For 6 laps I chased, but Dave was able to maintain a 30-60 second gap helped by the fact he could monitor my progress each circuit when the course cut back on itself.
I finished the race dehydrated and sore. Perhaps my final mistake was over-training with nearly 100 hours and 2200 kilometres of riding, just in the month of April. Curse those Strava Challenges! Congratulations to Stu Adams who managed to hold off a fast-finishing Jason McAvoy and to Garry James, who, like Jason, had raced the seriously tough Australian Marathon Championship in Atherton, Queensland the previous Sunday. I was left to rue my mistakes but I was still pleased to have finished 5th in a strong Masters field and beating the likes of Guy Cowan and Ash Turner. The Chocolate Foot Series never fails to impress and Joe and Fi have served up another great venue with races at Nowra, Awaba, Welby and Orange still to come. With double National and World Champion Jason English committed to racing the Series, the reputation of this event will continue to flourish.
Fun track the toast of the Hunter
With Sydney swamped in rain, it was heartening to emerge from my overnight tent with the surrounding hills blinking profusely in the early morning sunshine. The Rocky Trail Series is popular and highly regarded and yet this was my first taste of the event. I wasn't sure who my main competition would be, but it made for a pleasant change not to be racing against my illustrious rivals from the Chocolate Foot 7 hour series. With some solid training behind me, I was feeling quietly confident as I warmed up for what transpired to be a most enjoyable day.
Barely minutes before the pre-race briefing I was prudent enough to check my bike tyres. To my horror, I discovered an infestation of Bindi weed with its tiny sharp-needled seeds penetrating my tubeless Racing Ralphs. On removal of at least 9 of these vile South American thorns I was greeted with a hissing and a spurt of Stan's sealant before the hole was sealed. I dashed the kilometre back to transition to replace the lost air before returning to catch the end of the race organizers speech ushering the 300+ riders to the start corral.
I was able to begin the race pretty quickly, although the speed through the single track had to be tempered due to the loose and slippery corners. On the first lap alone two riders lost traction and unintentionally kissed the dirt. A number of the riders immediately ahead of me were racing in teams and only on course for one hot lap; during these races it makes sense to suck their wheel thereby saving energy for the long haul ahead.
With my wife and trusty assistant on an extended vacation in the UK, I was truly competing solo. For the whole race I was unaware of my overall position in the race. I would just keep charging and hope that this would be enough to win. After negotiating the five kilometres of singletrack complete with log roll-overs and rock gardens, each rider was greeted with incredibly quick fire trail which intersected the vineyards offering stunning views of the surrounding Upper Hunter Valley and up-close-and-personal views of the vines themselves. But most unique of all was on the final approach to transition having to ride through a tunnel of over-sized wine vats emanating with the aroma of fermenting wine.
At the four hour stage I was jostling with the leaders of the Masters Pairs which indicated my race pace must be reasonably quick. After about three laps of trading positions with this team I opened up a gap and I didn't see them again. At this point I lost focus and inexplicably rode straight into a tree standing innocently at the side of the track. I was grazed and my brake and gear levers twisted. I forcefully straightened my levers and started out again only to have to pull to one side to let a quicker rider past. With the light rain making the course damp I managed to locate a slippery wet rock and I smashed into the ground again. This time my right leg had taken the full force and I re-mounted my Giant Anthem 29er cursing my stupidity and lack of concentration.
My focus had returned and I was now enjoying the course despite the increasing fatigue. The singletrail had been attended to during the race and with this rebuilding, the rain soaking up the dust and fewer riders on track conditions were the best they had been all day.I passed transition with a minute of the race left. Usually this is reason to curse your luck as you start that last lap but I joyfully welcomed another thirty minutes of riding.
I crossed the line and was told I was third. To my delight, this was third overall in the solos and I had won the Masters category by over a lap. It had been a great weekend of riding, we had been blessed with a reasonably warm and relatively dry day and had competed on an extremely enjoyable track. Graeme Scott, Shimano MTB racer and the General Manager of James Estate has built some wonderful trails and this tireless work should be rewarded when more races are brought to this location in the future.
Child-birth, life and Bellchambers
With darkness came separation. Mike and I traded positions several times in the gloom as lap times slowed and legs became weary. At 2.15am I was climbing to the top of the long, steep fireroad when the mighty Brett Bellchambers came past - out of the saddle - and monstering his stead up the hill that all the other single-speeders I had seen were walking. I offered comments of disbelief and then he was gone. Indeed it was Easter Sunday, the day Christ had come back from the dead. Perhaps the bearded fellow who had glided effortlessly past was not a mortal man but something from a distant world. I rubbed the sweat and dirt from my eyes but they provided no clarity for what I had just witnessed.
I was informed by my wonderfully, hard-working Project 63 pit crew that I had 2nd by forty minutes and just to keep rolling out the laps. It was now 6 am, and dawn was still over an hour away. I had once again climbed to the top of the mountain and was about to negotiate Skyline, the luge and the intimidating giant berms of Stromlo's downhill course. My helmet light had already flicked to medium setting to save battery life. Then my handlebar warning light flickered red and the beam of light ahead of me vanished. Transition and a replacement battery were 4 km of descending at speeds of over 40 km/h away. At any time my fast fading helmet light could disappear and plunge me into complete darkness. I hovered tentatively over the brakes as I made my descent. This time I managed to survive the scare and I entered transition in a mixed state of adrenalin and relief.
This was my ninth 24 hour race and the 8th I have done in the solo format. I often look back at my previous races with pride and fond memories. Like child - birth, we forget the pain and the slow, slow, ever so slow hours that drag past during the course of the race. The initial daylight hours are easy as we race for position and enjoy the nuances of the track. Nightfall supplies a new challenge but after a couple of hours the novelty wears off and it's hard not to think of the dawn and the beauty of a rising sun and warmer temperatures. But when the joy of sunrise has supplied its uplifting moment there is still at least 5 hours of gruesome punishment ahead. Days and months later we remember the glory, the medals, the prizes, the result but focus little, if at all, on the pain used to deliver those memories.
Calculating I had 3 laps to do before I could step off the bike for the first time in 24 hours I was suddenly awoken from my slumber. Not believing my 2nd position was a done-deal I had turned a switchback and looked directly at a fast-closing and grimacing rider with number 45, my age category. It seemed inconceivable to lose second place in the last two hours and I started to hammer out a far quicker rhythm. Consequently, my last three laps were 5-7 minutes faster than the previous two dawn laps. Indeed, this final change of pace proved to be necessary as Damian Gillard had hunted me down during the first hours of daylight and, at one point, he had basically reeled me in. I crossed the line, and on having 2nd confirmed, I pumped my fist in jubilation. My final surge had been inspired by rider 45 but he was not, as I had initially feared, the major threat - but, without a doubt, this case of mistaken identity had helped secure my final position...and the silver medal.
Photos courtesy of Mike Israel, Bernhard Chan (Project 63) and Jason McAvoy.
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