Before I delve into my experience at this year’s Convict 100, a note on geology.
Elsewhere in the world, Geologists divide rocks, the lifeblood of their profession, into three broad categories. Igneous rocks, formed in the fires of volcanic fury. Sedimentary, laid down over eons in ancient seas and finally metamorphic, beginning as one type but being transformed into another through the immense pressures of geological processes.
Here in Australia, there are also three types of rock.
Rocks made from sand
And sand with rocks in.
And so, on to my day out in St Albans. This was to be my third full-length XCM since getting back on the bike in early 2012. My initial foray into the XCM distance, Kanangra 2012, had been promising, with a fourth in category and 14th overall. I had less of a spectacular showing at Capital Punishment 2013, cramping badly in the first half due to extremely bad preparation. This time around, I was having none of that, and had prepped better.
Some changes to the bike, for one thing. My dual suspension Speedfox SF29 is now on tubeless for pinch resistance and lower rolling weight, and in the lead-up week I managed to get a second bottle cage onto a nominally one-cage rig, by mounting one behind the seatpin. This meant I could ride sans-camelbak, giving me more comfort on the bike and freeing me from the temptation to carry even more weight just because there’s space for it. So it was two bottles on the bike (one only half filled), gels, toolkit, CO2 and spare tube in the jersey, and fingers crossed for as few disasters as possible.
I was quite buoyant when I lined up in the first bunch of age groupers. I’d been suffering a bit with a respiratory infection in the leadup, but I felt like I was largely over it, and indeed the opening road section suggested I was pedalling OK. There were some nerves in the bunch over the gravel, and a few touches of handlebars, but no disasters to report. I succeeded in making up quite a few places and seemed to be in the front third of the large bunch as we hit the foot of the opening climb with an average of well over 30km/h on the Garmin.
I’m not a terrible climber, but the size of the pack meant it was nearly impossible to get a clear run, with carnage all round. One rider losing traction meant every rider behind suddenly being caught out, and I soon found myself walking the top part of the hill, with my heartrate in zone 4! A few lucky riders got a clean wheel, a few others bravely tried to remount and get started, but largely it was a shitfight, with sheer luck determining whether the wheel in front was going somewhere or nowhere. Key learning #1 for next year: start even nearer the front, or ride through more aggressively on the road section, in order to get a good run at the climb. And don’t sit on a wheel up the hill.
Getting over the top, it was time to get regrouped, establish a rhythm and start reeling in the leaders again. The next moment of note came not long afterwards, on a fast descent with waterbars. I decided to bust out of the group I was in and attack on the descent. This meant getting the best speed I could over the waterbars, theoretically achieved by trying hard to squash the bump and remain in contact with the ground. Stand high in the pedals, let the bike come up and use the suspension and body compression to get over quickly. This only works when the bump is under a critical size, though. Turns out I misjudged the first of them and, at some speed, went sharply nose-down as bike and body failed to cope with the compression. I saved it, but only just. There were a few nearby riders making noises along the lines of “lucky, very lucky” as I crept away from the group down the rest of the descent, taking as much care as I could to judge the jumps more safely. It could have been a neck-breaker, but I was OK and making good pace.
All my obsessive number crunching in the leadup suggested I should be averaging between 23 and 25 km/h here to meet my stated target of 4:35 (with a stretch goal of under 4:30), and indeed I was going quite well. The rhythm was good, My heart rate was generally at the top end of tempo and the bottom end of threshold and I had a little power in reserve. No sign of the cramps that destroyed me during Capital Punishment, so everything was positive. After feed zone 1, a quick refill and an electrolyte tab, then a gel as we rolled off, and after a quick glitch to recover a dropped bottle, I fell into a pairing with a mate (Jamie – tip of the hat to a good finish mate) for some fast, narrow trail riding through low vegetation.
This is where it all unravelled. About 35km in, with a solid average pace still in the bank, I misjudged a line and clipped a small but sturdy tree with my bar-end. The right side of the bike stopped dead and I crashed to the ground, hard.
Things are a bit blurry for the next couple of minutes. I dragged the bike to the side of the trail and let some of the pain subside as riders I’d passed earlier regained their places. I checked the bike over, found that the handlebars were out of line, the bar-ends skewed and the saddle twisted hard round – but nothing was actually broken. The top tube of my nice white bike, however, was liberally splashed with blood, my ears were ringing, and even through the adrenaline I could tell I was going to be very sore, very shortly.
I shakily realigned everything I could and got back on the bike, pedalled hesitantly for a while, and realised my helmet was loose on my head. Fearing I’d broken the shell (which would be a mandatory game over at the next marshalling point) I checked the situation – the cradle system had detached entirely from the shell, but luckily snapped back into place without too much trouble. A couple of km later, I also realised that my Garmin was no longer registering movement, due to my wheel sensor being knocked around, so I lost my primary data point for how much distance remained.
For the next phase of the race, I gave up on racing for a fast time and concentrated on getting to the halfway feed zone instead. The riding is a bit blurry, but I recall it getting more and more technical and rocky, with one abiding memory being a rider getting off and pushing a tricky section, but still somehow managing to go over his bars. I started to curse Australian geology during this section, and didn’t really stop until the end. Being uncomfortable on the bike meant I couldn’t get a good rhythm over the rocky bits and lost time, sometimes regaining it when the trail smoothed out, sometimes not. Mostly I was getting bogged down in sand, then heaving myself over rocks, only to get bogged in sand again. Rinse. Repeat.
At the 50km feed station, The adrenaline was worn off for sure, and I was fighting the occasional touch of nausea. Luckily, my injuries were really only superficial. Plenty of oozy blood from a gashed elbow, bruises causing discomfort, and a heaping helping of light-headedness. One of the riders who’d witnessed my nose-down waterbar moment scooted in and remarked it was nice to see me in one piece, before spotting the blood still trickling down my right arm. I momentarily considered dropping out, but after some water and food, I felt like I could maybe re-target to five hours and pressed on for the next feed station, at the infamous canoe bridge.
The Great North Road got me thinking. I figured out the mistake they made in building it. They employed convicts. What they should have employed was a team of civil engineers, some mechanical diggers and a few thousand tons of bitumen. To say I was unhappy through this section would be to severely understate how deep unhappiness can run. I ached, and I’d started to hate the trail. I’d even started to fear the trail a little. It wasn’t possible to maintain a rhythm, try as I might.
But the canoe bridge arrived and I somewhat dutifully took the walking option. I figured I had an excuse, wobbled across, slogged through the sand and dutifully remounted for the paddock run, to the road, to the inevitable climb, the last major work of the day. Yet another adjustment stop to add some pressure to misbehaving tyres, and I girded my loins for the climb.
Well, it went on and on. The climbing seemed interminable, and I wavered between solid rhythmic spinning, making up the occasional place here and there, to pedalling in squares and losing time hand over fist. Consistency had deserted me, and I could only hope to make up some time on the final descending sections. My only consolation was that I was making pace on the riders around me, but barely.
Making up any major time, however, wasn’t going to happen. My confidence on the bike was gone, and to make things worse, there were never-ending patches of soft sand, threatening to throw wheels out from under me and lending an air of futility to any attempted acceleration. As if that weren’t enough, the last amazingly rocky descent toward Upper McDonald Road managed to put a dent in a rim and drop most of the pressure from my rear tyre, and ran me entirely out of CO2. My only hope was that I could borrow a pump, and indeed I was saved, a passing rider handing me his double-shot and saying “get it back to me at the finish line!” before wishing me luck and pedalling off.
I was outside the revised five hour target by this time, a broken man, but nevertheless I spent a minute and a half at a standstill, slammed as much air into the tyres as I dared and set off to time-trial myself up to the finish. Head down, hands tucked onto the bar ends, back flat, churning the pedals, I averaged a bit over 30km/h for the last couple of km and got across the line with my Garmin showing 5:17:22. The official timing gave me 5:16:52, 142nd overall and 53rd in age group. Someone handed me a beer, which I sucked down gratefully but ruefully. My saviour rolled in a couple of minutes afterwards and I handed back his pump. I’d overtaken him at pace in the last couple of kms and neither of us had even realised it.
In retrospect, what blew the day for me was mainly an equipment choice. I chose to run bar-ends – mid-90s vintage X-Lite Stubby Pros, no less – which were a big contributor to the crash. They’re a trade off. They allow me an extra position on the bars, easing fatigue on my arms, and they also get me lower and longer over the bike on fast firetrails and road sections, but can be deadly in overgrown, narrow trails. I usually think this is worth the gamble. I rode them back in the 90s when most of my racing was open firetrails, and they paid off at Kanangra, a wide firetrail race. But they’ve put me in jeopardy a couple of times since on singletrack. I’ve cracked a rib while out training at Yellomumdee, hung up the bike badly at Awaba* and I’ve had more than a few near misses. But I still think they’re worth having. So I think I’ll be narrowing my bars from the stock 720mm to maybe 600mm and keeping the bar ends. For now. Any more disasters and they’ll be off to the museum.
And will I be back next year?
Well, the trails alternate between rocky technical horror and sandy nonsense, with a smattering of steep, rutted crap in between. They were enough to make me curse the very ground I rolled over. The climbs are rocky and difficult to maintain momentum on. There’s a LOT of sand. There’s fallen tree debris everywhere. The terrain sucks. the waterbars are potentially deadly.
Of course I’ll be going back next year. What sort of stupid question is that?
For the record, there are lots of other riders blogging their race, most of whom had a more positive experience. Some links:
* I went over the bars at Awaba after badly hanging on a tree branch at the top of a drop-off. I landed on my feet, then scooted gracelessly down the hill, still upright, stopped on my feet at the bottom and had time to think “Wow, that was lucky” before the bike caught up with me and knocked me flat. This, my friends, is the definition of slapstick comedy.