A big weekend of racing: Shimano MTB GP Round 5 and The Oaks Classic

My legs are somewhat tired. It was the biggest race weekend of the year so far for me, with Saturday spent lapping Stromlo Forest park in round five of the Rocky Trail Shimano MTB GP, and Sunday on the annual 25km smashfest that is the Careflight Woodford to Glenbrook Oaks Classic.

It was also probably the most successful weekend of racing for me since the 2012 Kanangra Classic. But enough of that, let’s look at this weekend.

Driving from Sydney to Canberra on race day is a heavy proposition, so I booked myself a Canberra hotel and arrived on Friday. Last time I did this, Capital Punishment 2013, I screwed up and booked in to a YHA hostel in the CBD, spent the early evening in a pub, and spent the later evening being kept awake by slamming doors and yelling backpackers. My preparation thus shot to pieces, I lined up unfueled, unrefreshed and unprepared, cramped up badly in the first long section of forest and spent the rest of the race in survival mode.

No such disaster was going to occur this time. A quiet apartment hotel in Woden, a suburb with only one pub (owned, apropos of nothing, by former Scottish footballer Alan Strachan) would ensure a quiet night and the chance to make a proper evening meal in peace rather than hunting for a good takeaway or restaurant. It was also handily close to Stromlo and at the end of a nice cycle route to Lake Burley Griffin, for an evening trundle. Perfect preparation.

And so it was I lined up well rested, though not without pre-ride jitters, the next morning under the inflatible Shimano Start gate, which somewhat hilariously deflated onto the heads of the Elite field, including Swell Specialized’s Andy Blair and Shaun Lewis. That fixed, and we were off, into a fantastic figure-eight loop including Fenceline, Cockatoo Switchbacks, Rascals, Wattle Happen, Slant Six, Blackberry, Heartbreaker and the stunning return combination of Skyline, Luge and Duffy’s.

The field was as ever a wide cross-section of riders, from the frighteningly fast Pro contingent to first-time racers, and with this much singletrack, there were moments of frustration. This was especially true with the inclusion of Heartbreaker, which features some nastily technical uphill rock steps. I’d put myself in the dirt on my recce laps on Friday, and knew there’d be some hairy moments when the first-lap conga lines got to these sections – and this made for a challenging time of things when slow and fast riders came together.

Nevertheless, I spent my first few laps at a good pace, with not too much trouble. The first problem surfaced on about lap four as the temperature went up. I’d set my bottle station on the second half of the lap, after the figure-eight crossover and at the start of Wattle Happen. I decided in the lap that it was time to shed my base layer in the rising warmth, so at my refuelling stop, I did just that, before setting off with an empty bottle still in the cage. I’d forgotten the most important part of the stop, and promptly spent the longer half of the lap cursing myself and rapidly dehydrating even further than I’d already gone. In Luge and Duffy’s I started to lose concentration and had a few dodgy moments in the dust before I could cross again through transition and do the shorter half back to my bottle stash. Luckily, the start zone had a refill station and I could fill my empty bottle and start recovering. A slowish lap followed as I rode myself back into shape, and by the three hour mark I was starting to feel a little better and actually got some fast segment times in. I finished my fifth lap around the three hour mark, which meant another two laps, barring disasters. And so it went. On lap six I got in my fastest descent of the Old Duffy segment, and in lap seven I managed the second fastest, before crossing the finish line and heading back to my base camp to find the beer I’d cunningly stashed. Shortly afterwards, I was sipping from my beer as Kyle Ward, GP4 winner and series victor crossed the line. I toasted his success and was rewarded with a clink of bidon against my bottle of Hoegaarden, for a close to a great day. I finished 18th in category and 33rd overall in GP4 – a placing consistent with my series performance so far, and one I was very happy with considering the strength of the elite field.

And so back to Sydney, the election coverage and a sleep. For the next morning, I’d be back out again at 6am and heading for Woodford for the Oaks Classic.

Last year I’d ridden with a lung infection and a severe lack of racing miles in my legs, to about 35th in category. This year my targets were somewhat higher. A sub-hour time, a top speed of more than 53km/h and an average speed of over 27km/h were on the shopping list, as well as a stretch goal of a category podium. I was in the company of two racing novices, Dan and James, who would be starting in my group, and I’d made some tactical decisions.

One: race light. One bottle should be enough on a cool-ish day. Two: Minimal emergency kit of one tube, levers, CO2 and a multitool. Two energy gels in case a top-up was needed, my phone and car key and that’s it. Three: Rear suspesion set to Pro-Pedal, for stiffness but with optional unlock. Four: No need for a base layer in the race despite the lower temperature. I’d freeze a bit on the startline, but I was willing to put up with that, though my companions could probably have done without the whinging. James agreed to carry a jacket for me, so I could at least be slightly warm at the finish. I was in the D start wave. Elites first, 15-19s, 20-29s, then us, then to 40-49s, at three minute intervals.

I got a little mobbed at the start as I lost my front-row position in the shuffle of riders to the timing gate, but By the time I hit the firetrail I was in among the category leaders and smashing hard. I hit the first dusty bends in a group of three with an average speed of over 35km/h on the Garmin, and avoided disaster when one of our number badly overcooked a bend, nearly taking out the third member of the party. He was unceremoniously dropped on the first of the climbs and I made a bid to leave my remaining groupmate in the next few rolling climbs. This I did, but was caught at the first of the fast descents, when a lack of commitment on the loose surface meant I basically toddled down expecting a sandy, grip-free surface. The traction was much better than I’d expected and I was passed and chasing again. I wasn’t sure who else was ahead, but at this point I guessed that we were the chase for the last category podium, and gave it some beans.

I pulled level again and we exchanged a few pleasantries as we consolidated the pace and passed a few riders from the earlier groups. Soon, I decided that it was time to go, and attacked the next few minor climbs heading towards the helipad, and the move stuck. I was on my own and rapidly heading through the helipad, taking a drink and belting onto the fast downhill section.

There are a couple of potentially hairy moments at the opening of this section, and I moderated myself through the bends before getting out of the saddle and into the big ring. This is where the fast riding happens, and from what I could see of my Garmin screen, I was peaking in the high 50s and averaging only a little under the 30kmh mark. The only downside was at this speed aerodynamics start to play a role, and I was riding alone, with no partner to swing leads into the wind. This meant a few extra watts had to be eked from every effort, and a little after the gate, I became aware that I was being hunted down by a small peloton of riders.

Turning into Bennetts Firetrail, the catch was made, and I tagged onto the back of a group of about five. It seemed to be a mixture of verteran riders and a couple of 20-29ers who turned opportunist after being caught. I rested up on the tail, watched as a rider in a Rabobank jersey made an abortive break, then made an attack myself to try and break the group down into a more bite-size chunk. This acceleration stuck as a couple of riders made it away. One offered me the wheel for a while so we could work together to pull away and I gratefully accepted the opportunity to get out of the wind.

A mere kilometre from the finish line and I was considering the final attack. I knew, though, that there were a couple of potentially hairy corners, including one I’d messed up badly in 2012. I could either break before and risk overcooking the corners, or use my partners t get through the bends in one piece, then attack before the clearing. As things worked out, I almost lost the wheel in the first left-hander, then while fighting to get back on, I overthought the next right-hand corner, braked too hard, hit the bump I’d been dreading and washed wide, forcing me to take to the bank on the outside of the bend. I almost came to a dead stop, letting the group open a gap as I got back up to speed.

Luckily, we’d gapped the riders behind us, and I had enough power to pull back to the pair before entering the clearing, but had little chance of making a pass in the remaining section, which has an off-camber – and often slippery grass surface. Still, I kept pedalling and crossed the line with a time of 48:02. My groupmates Adam Clark and Brendan Soper, crossed the line three and eight seconds ahead of me respectively, and deserved hearty handshakes, as did Pete Tydeman, who crossed shortly afterwards. It turned out the category leaders had also had a close one, with Nic Webb crossing in 46m59s and Fabian Diaz a mere three seconds behind. In the Elites, Brian Price managed a time only just over 40 minutes to take the overall win.

So I missed out on a podium by a mere eight seconds, due mostly to a disaster in the last critical corner. It’s uncertain whether I could have stayed away from the hard-chasing group – my time on the Helipad-Gate segment was only my third fastest – but a podium was only a nice-to-have rather than an actual goal. My goals – a sub-one-hour time and a strong high speed were both fulfilled in spades. My top speed according to the Garmin was over 58km/h, and my race time was under 50 minutes, with the concomitant average speed sitting comfortably over 30km/h, all of which were well out of reach last year.

Dan and James, for their part, had more modest, but nonetheless solidly worthwhile goals of getting to the finish and not being last, which of course they achieved with big smiles and stories to recount. Both said they’d be back next year, which was the last of my goals achieved – that is to say: give the guys an introduction to bike racing that’ll make them want to do it again. Well done you blokes. Here’s to next year!

So the weekend as a whole can only be written up as a success. A few grazes, par for the course for a weekend’s mountain biking, and tired legs are a small price to pay for such a great time. Thanks go to Rocky Trail Entertainment and Careflight for putting on two great races, and of course to all the other riders

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