My first national XCO race in a year. Not something I’ve been taking lightly, with it being held at 1700 vertical metres at the top of Mt Buller in Victoria. One of my favourite places in Australia to hang out and race. While going into this very ‘under done’, especially in the climbing and intensity sense, I felt (generally) fitter than I had been in years. So at least I wasn’t totally dreading the pain and lung burning to come.
And there was going to be a stellar field to race against. National Series XCO races of late have lacked the majority of the pointy end, with most of the best riders skipping rounds, either for better races locally or with overseas commitments. National Champs has been the only race with all the best riders present. But with Comm Games selections at stake, along with UCI points, all the hitters decided to race this second round at Buller. Personally, I just wanted to get some points on the board so I’m not at the back of the start grid at National Champs in Bright. And I also wanted to shock the body here rather than in Bright, to get it ready for XCO racing demands. And shock the body I did…
With great conditions and a fun track, I was enjoying the practise laps during the week. I was still baffled as to why the organisers decided it was a good thing to have a whole 7km lap with no passing opportunities on the climbs or descents until the last kilometre. It was clear it would be hard to fuel up on the fly. And the start would be critical to avoid getting caught in traffic.
Having mostly done flat or rolling rides, I was always going to find the climbing hard. So I had to make sure I got clear of any ‘road blocks’ on lap one. Luckily I had enough points from last year’s National Champs to get a front row start on race day. I’d warmed up well, maybe too well, so I was ready to go. The first race nerves where there, but I tried to channel them in a positive way, I felt fresh, and I was keen to make it hurt. The gun went off and the first minute of tar road didn’t seem too physically hard. But it was hard not getting swamped by the field, as it was fast and wide. Riders crowded around and some got in front, with the first corner into the main single track descent coming up fast. I had to pick my way through and find the head of the field again, without risking anything. I timed it ok and moved into fourth spot as we entered the ‘no passing’ zone. “A solid start” I thought, as it was Graves, Blair and SA’s Shaun Lewis. I thought I was safe, as they were all good descenders who wouldn’t stuff up. Obviously Graves was going to be hard to keep up with, but I figured even giving him 10-15 seconds would be fine in the scheme of things.
Unfortunately Blair acted as that road block and gave Graves 45 seconds. 45 seconds we would have to work to get back. While I welcomed the relaxed first lap, in XCO you don’t want to start on the back foot. I’d rather start harder and ease up in the middle. Once we finally got to the end of the first lap where it opened up we formed a small group and upped the pace gradually. I was with Ivory, Crosby, and McConnell (the clear favourite). We all rode together for a couple of laps, reeling Graves in to a 10 second gap by mid-race. It would time well for the end of the race, to get the lead when it counted… if we could sustain the pace. It was about then I missed a feed (food and fluids) which would cost me later. In the heat of the moment I decided I didn’t need it, underestimating the demands of each and every lap of XCO races. You can’t play catch up on fuel, when you’re on the limit of intake versus output already.
It wasn’t long after that I started to fade. And I probably would have faded anyway, with my lack of race fitness and ‘high end’ fitness. I eased up for a lap to see if I could recoup, letting a flying McConnell go, then the young guns Ivory and Crosby. Easing up wasn’t enough though. I was fading fast and once Ward caught me I know I was going into survival mode for the last couple of laps. Then the cramps started hitting in my inner quads and adductors. By then I appreciated just being able to keep rolling. In that time I was caught by Tupalski, then in the last 2km Jackson cruised past. I had no response. Despite pushing my hardest there was simply nothing happening in my legs except cramps and deadness- useless lumps of meat in lycra! So yeah, the race was a shock and a reminder that you can train pretty hard and fast, but it doesn’t compare to a fast XC race.
But I was happy enough to finish 8th, get some points on the board and pinpoint what I need to work on for National Champs in Bright. Not much time to get the climbing legs going, but it’s going to be a long season and flying right now might not be the best thing anyway. Hopefully I can improve enough to keep up with the flying Trek man McConnell, the seasoned and committed DH gun Graves, and the new wave of young and fast whippets.
The mountain bike scene in Australia is definitely on the up, which was great to see.
For a more rounded and visual report on the race check out The Roost Mag, who also took the photo above.