Story from Enduro Mag…
Kowen Forest just East of Canberra is now a vast area of twisting, flowing network of single tracks, thanks to a dedicated team of trail workers. Along with the elusive ‘Kowalski Brothers’, Paul Cole and Alan Anderson are two of the people who deserve the credit for these great trails. Some of these trails have been used for the Mont 24 Hour, but there’s so much more to ride out there. So why not link it all up and run a 50 and 90km race on it?
That’s what Self Propelled Enterprises decided to do. The Kowalski Classic was run on September 30th after a stormy couple of days. Everyone feared a slop fest, but the track conditions ended up being perfect – tacky, compacted, dust-free, and fast. With an early race start it was frosty and chilly, making it difficult to get warmed up for carving trails. I found the best device was sitting in the Rockstar RAV4 with the heater and heated seats cranked up. But the sun came out and shone over a scenic lush and grassy race site and the day got better and better from there.
Because so many of the tracks were new, with older ones run backwards or linked up differently, we didn’t know what was in store aside from a tonne of single track. The full race did two different loops with a slight overlap, which the half Kowalski did just the first loop (which was the most fun part). Both races did the ‘race-within-a-race’ timed (KOM) sections combining a very tough, steep and long climb (which most of us never knew existed in Kowen), then a fast single track descent, added an element to the race.
In the women’s race Peta Mullens took the lead from Jenni King, who got a bit lost early on, only to find herself back at the start. She spent the race working back up to second and finished there behind Mullens (in 4:34:43 and winning the timed section), with Anne Symes in third place.
In the men’s Brendan Johnston, who’s been doing more road racing of late, set the pace on the fire trail start loop. I popped in front of him just before the super fun Kowalski’s Beer Garden descent, looking back after two corners to see we already had a huge gap. So we kept the tempo and rode like that for over 30km through some great new tracks and into Sparrow Hill with plenty of fun stuff to keep us busy – berms, gullies, jumps, and rock gardens. It was the sort of terrain you could gently pedal along, but still maintain good speed, especially with the sticky conditions, rather than slogging your guts out just to keep the pace up. So during the race I found myself consciously aware of how much fun I was having just pinning corners, keeping smooth and not having to drill myself. It seemed it would be a race of attrition and therefore efficiency. Until we came to the KOM… that was one climb everyone underestimated! Plenty of people walked it, but it was around five minutes of bar chewing action and a shock to the system for me. Johnston set the pace and I had to work hard to catch him on the descent, stealing the KOM.
After the redline climbing, we were taken further north out to the back of Kowen, where it flattened out a bit. The trails were rougher though, wearing out the legs. This area, like many marathons, made you feel like you were in the middle of nowhere, away from civilisation and more on a back-country adventure than a race. We kept a good rhythm, then suddenly we popped back onto the same big hill as the KOM, running parallel to before. So another big climb to handle, with Johnston pushing the pace and me trying to keep up. Again I worked hard to get back on near the top, calculating how much further we’d have to the finish. We knew we had a 1-2 wrapped up, but with a fair while to go neither was interested in dropping the other one and riding alone. We then hit some of the East-side tracks, which I had only seen once and were much better than I’d remembered. With about 20km to go and pushing me on some fire trail climbs, Johnston started to look fatigued and I felt good. So I bided my time and waited for a good spot to go. We were tricked with about 10km to go when we rode in towards the finish, thinking we had 500m to go, only to veer away and head up the hill again. I was glad to have Johnston to keep me company rather than ride the whole way alone. But with a couple of single track climbs and some twisty descents remaining I decided to push the pace a bit and got a good gap, riding away to win by two minutes. 4:00:07 the exact time, 7 seconds off the time I predicted when Stu Plant asked me on the start. Not having our toilet stop would’ve got it, but it was a fast race nonetheless. Justin Morris and Jarrod Moroni were tussling for third place behind early in the race, but Moroni rode away to get third in 4:11:33.
That’s what it felt like – a fast, smooth, flowing, fun race. The whole time you felt fluid, gliding through a lush forest in perfect racing conditions. I don’t know if it’s because I missed racing itself, but I don’t remember smiling that many times during a race. And judging by everyone’s expressions as they crossed the finish line, most would agree it was a demanding but gratifying race on tracks that reminded you why you rode MTB. And this was in line with the event as a whole – laid back, a great atmosphere, friendly people to hang with, well run, and leaving you wanting to go back again for more.
With so much single track there was a lot to keep focussed on, so the race passed quickly in the mental sense. Most riders I spoke to found the same thing. The only negative to this was that it was hard to signpost every track and turn, then marshal the whole two loops. So, as well as Jenni King, a few riders went the wrong way. Hopefully this didn’t turn too many people off the event, as it happens in a lot of races of this format. Even the Marathon Worlds experienced the same issue this year. I think this was the only negative I saw or heard about, which is great for an inaugural event. The image of the event was what struck me. It had what I thought was a unique and appealing balance between ‘underground’ yet professional, which translated to the vibe or feel of the event on the day – balancing entry-level and elite racing perfectly. From the slick event branding (even rad black number plates!) to the primed race course and event area set up, as well as the general organisation, and even the vibe of the crowd in general. I’ll definitely get back to it next year and I’m sure numbers will be up at all levels.