2014 Shimano MTB GP Series Round 1

This weekend saw the first round of the Rocky Trail Entertainment Shimano MTB GP go off at Awaba MTB Park in NSW’s Hunter region. A huge turnout braved the mud and changeable weather after some rather touch-and-go weather conditions through the week. The first attempt at running the event was a washout, so everyone was eager to get the series started, not the least being the organisers, who took to social media to calm nervous entrants who’d spent much of the leadup glued to the BoM radar.

I was, of course, entered – with two changes from last year. This year I’d be racing in the seven hour category instead of four, and also I’d be ticking over from the Elite into the Masters age group, since I’ll be turning 40 in 2014.

The track configuration at Awaba this time round was brand new. A mostly reversed loop taking in some hardly-used firetrail, some newish linkages and several sections of the track – such as Salad Bowl, Rocky Descent and Wayne’s World – in the ‘normal’ direction. This eliminated much local knowledge, with only a few sections feeling at all familiar. Switchback climbs were now tricky downhill zig-zags and what had been quick descents with small drop-offs were now technical, bumpy climbs with step-ups, something that caught out several riders even on their warmup laps.

For my part, I was feeling a little unprepared. The hardtail was well set up, but my time on it in muddy conditions has been minimal. Hell, my riding time overall has been lacking since January, when a string of minor injuries started to surface.

After a quick stop to secure my loose rear brake caliper, we headed to the start. I was lined up maybe a third down the field among a group of Masters riders, a little behind Phil Welch and just next to Ash Turner, when the start was sounded.

As usual, I got away a little slowly, regained a few places as I got up to speed and generally just tried to stay upright in the dash for the first section of singletrack, washing up in not a bad spot just behind Ash, who I tailed through the opening sections. I was a little down on power on the first long firetrail section, and felt a tad nervous in the corners that followed, something which normally works itself out over a lap or two. The mud, it was clear from even the first lap, was going to be a drivetrain killer. Shifting problems were surfacing for some riders even this early. As for the trail, well it all felt rather new.

I was generally holding station, though I dropped back a place or two maybe a third of the way though the lap. A couple of riders got through but had trouble hopping a wet log on one of the technical climbs, meaning after a bit of a kerfuffle I could get back through and chase again. I nearly came a cropper here, as my eyewear had fogged up and I got unsighted in the subsequent rocky gully, but kept it together somehow.

By the time we came back towards Siberia and the singletrack back to the event centre, I got Ash back in sight. I decided not to chase too hard for fear of maxing myself too early, and after transition I took it easy and made sure to get some fluids into my system.

The next few kilometres didn’t go all that well. I started overcooking bends, which made me nervous on the brakes and tense in the corners, and I’d lost grip on how to dose out my effort. I’d already lost sight of Ash again but now I lost my mojo too.  The mud wasn’t helping, and the thought that the sand and clay combination was grinding away at my drivetrain was constantly in the back of my mind. I made a mental note that by halfway I’d probably need to hop off and use up a bottle of plain water cleaning out the chain and gears, just to keep everything running.

I kept going, did a little passing, let a few charging pairs riders through and tried my best to settle into the rhythm, though I must confess I was far from happy through the middle of this lap. By the end, though, I was starting to hook up the corners and feeling quickish again.

Starting lap 3 I got a fresh bottle onboard, took a slug of electrolyte, slammed a gel, and got moving. Lap two had been a little slower than lap one, though only by about 40 seconds. I was feeling a bit more dialled-in on the bike now, though, so gave it a bit of a kicking into the first short singletrack section. I had a minor scare avoiding someone’s dropped bottle on the firetrail, and splashed through the streambed a little off-line. My chain and gears complained bitterly about the mud and water, but I kept going. There were backmarkers ahead and I made a few passes, pushing it a little as now I had jerseys I could chase through.

Coming towards a short climb I managed to put a pedal on the ground and unclip myself. I swore a bit and got going again but a few corners later I did more or less the same, this time rather painfully as a rotten log disintegrated around the front of my shoe. I stayed clipped in though, and soon came to the technical climb and gully where I’d fogged up on lap one. I’d got into my stride by now but the two dodgy moments had got the adrenaline going. I was a little loose going over the log, badly lined-up into the drop and, as a result, totally offline by the bottom. My front wheel lost traction and I was off, landing fortuitously on a soft bed of vegetation, facing backwards and seated quite comfortably, considering.

Right.

This lap wasn’t going as well as it should have, but that just spurred me on. I was sorely annoyed and fired up. The bike was performing well, I was railing quite a few of the quicker corners, but tripping up on the unfamiliar, technical ground through my own stupid mistakes. Quick check of everything and I got back on, determined to get a grip on things. I was soon heading out of the new section to join the familar ‘Rocky Descent’ segment, which is fast, furious and forwards. I gunned it here. Which turned out not to be a great idea.

I was looking maybe ten or fifteen metres ahead while pedalling through a quick left-hander when I felt the left pedal make contact with something unyielding.

The bike bucked under me and I took flight. The words “Oh fuck, this is going to hurt” floated through my head just before impact. And it did. It left my ears ringing and my vision blurred. I’d come to rest just off the riding line with the bike half on the trail and half on me. Still on the ground I dragged the bike clear and got to my feet, thinking “That’s it, I’m out”.  A little way down the track, was my escaped water bottle. I limped over and picked it up, which hurt. So I threw the bottle in a fit of annoyance.

Realising I’d be needing a drink, I went off and retrieved it, feeling a little stupid. There wasn’t much drink left. Oops.

A few riders went past, checking if I was OK. I answered in the affirmative.

I gave it a minute or two just to see what started really hurting, then gave the bike the once-over for damage. No visible problems. I got back on, double-checking brakes and steering. Everything OK. I wasn’t really hurting too much. Maybe I’d be able to go on?

Well, there was only one thing to do. Pedal on a bit, see how things feel and if need be, take one of the escape routes back to the event centre.

I had some mixed feelings through the next section. Some of the cornering felt good, some felt a little nervy. I caught and passed a few of the riders who’d asked if I was OK, giving a thank you to each one as I did. One called out “nice cut you’ve got there” and I almost did a double-take. “What?”

“Your leg, it’s covered in blood”

I looked down. “Oh bollocks”

It was. My right leg was liberally painted with fresh blood from the back of the knee to the ankle. It didn’t feel bad, but there it was. Lots of blood, mixed in with all the mud and clay. At my next couple of opportunities I tried to figure out where it was coming from and if it was still bleeding, to which the answers were 1: Pretty much everywhere but mostly from a slash above the knee and 2: Errr yeah. A bit.

I had started to think maybe I’d be OK to keep riding, but by the time I reached Cowbell Corner I was starting to feel a fair bit of nausea and headache. By the time I was switchbacking up towards the event centre I’d lost pace, lost my cornering ability and my head was positively throbbing. A rider passed and asked if I was OK, and I replied that I was probably out of the race and let him through. Reaching transition I signalled retirement and climbed off the bike. Things were starting to really hurt, and more importantly I was pretty sure I had a mild concussion. I dropped off the bike and headed, in order, to the coffee van and the first aid station for a flat white and a concussion check, in that order. Priorities!

My pupil response was OK, and I wasn’t in a terrible state, but that was the end of my race. A headache, a bunch of cuts, bruises and scratches  and last place on classification as the first Masters rider to drop out. Not a great end to the day. I was, though, neither the first retirement overall or the last. The retirement rate was sky high from crashes, mechanicals and general malaise. Ash climbed off after four laps, blaming the conditions, lack of motivation, and a wish to keep the bike intact. Andrew Wells popped over for a chat and noted he’d dropped out of the Four Hour Masters after two laps. The results sheet tells a sorry tale of broken bikes, brains and bodies alike. Phil Welch, for his part, hung in there – despite having spent a week battling ‘flu – and took a Masters podium with eleven laps.

In the Elite field, Canadian Marathon Champ Cory Wallace took a heavily-tipped win in the Elite 4 hour, with Andrew Lloyd taking out the GP7 solo elite category. Full results are over at the Rocky Trail site.

In summary, I think RTE were probably right to run the race instead of postponing again, but the conditions were pretty terrible. The more technical reversed track layout added a lot of interest but also a lot of chaos. It would have been nice for the first race of the series to have a higher finisher rate, but that’s Mountain Bike Racing for you.

Thanks go out, as ever, to the entire RTE crew and the HMBA for staging a good, well-managed event and to all the riders, whether they finished or not, for getting out there and making it a memorable – if not entirely pleasant – Saturday afternoon out.

 

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