A Favourite End

2016 was a year of many salient points.  The apparent tragedy of many celebrities dying, mostly of natural or self-induced causes.  The older half of the British population systematically screwing the younger half.  More Americans not bothering to vote than voting for either candidate, with a slightly spectacular outcome.  The transcendent ascension of alternative facts (the world is actually flat – you read it here first).  The ultimate victory of Fear and Loathing.

For me, honestly, it was a rubbish year on the bike with one spectacularly good ride.  But it was also a fun year.  A year highlighted by ditching Strava – which was more a reflection on me than the app – of heaping scorn on my road bike, and of finding again a bit of singlespeed loving.

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If there was one thing I’d attribute a good ride at the Scott 24h too, it was having fun on a singlespeed.  So I’ll call it – it was the year of the Singlespeed.

With limited weekends left in the country, I decided it was time to do one of my favourite rides – the long esteemed Canberra to the Coast.

And, following on from the Year of the Singlespeed, the wisest thing was to do it singlespeeding.

Spinning out into the odd warmth of a pre-dawn summer morning, I’d chugged through good kms before the sun came up, and was rewarded for the early start with a splendid sunrise.

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By the 100km mark, I’d crested most of the major climbing and was ready to plunge into the fun part of the ride.  Unfortunately, I’d roasted my legs into something resembling an oblivion on the first 100km in the heat.

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What followed was not pretty, and a good reminder that, while singlespeeds are great for blasting around singletrack, they make particularly sub-optimal touring bikes when your legs are imploding and you can’t spin.

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However, the promise of a full afternoon in the surf was adequate motivation to keep chugging on, and I was soon safely wrapped up in the ocean.

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It was good to sign off with one of my favourite rides.  I’m looking forward to some more riding on some of the most beautiful trails in the world, and exploring a volcanic crater rim as my new backyard.

If there is one mantra from 2016, it’d be this: mountain bikes are fun! 🙂

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Looking back to 2010 to look forward!

 

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The Definitive Chugger’s Guide to a National XC Round

The Definitive Chugger’s Guide to a National XC Round stands alone and distinct in the myriad world of cycling guideline publications.  Refreshingly free of dense acronyms and meaningless jargon intended purely to confound, it provides a holistic and synergistic approach to the cycling experience delivered mostly by counterexample – the splendid model most spectacularly demonstrated by incompetent project managers teaching project management – and is delivered from the snobbish moral high ground held exclusively by cyclists.

To begin with, dear Cyclist, know that you can take the moral high ground.  There is no propellant in the world more potent than the smug sense of self-satisfaction attained when you cruise merrily pass a jammed queue of traffic, replete with a facial expression cogently expressing the transcendent tranquillity of motion by bicycle.  You will then proceed to yell at an innocent pedestrian to get out of your way.  You are simultaneously saving the environment and the public health system.

Lesson 1: Preparation

The most important consideration for a national XCO round is preparation.  With the promise of very high intensity, physical health and well-being and sharp legs are an absolute priority.

Inappropriate preparation activities include any of the following:

  • Going cycling touring – at least your bum will be used to hours in the saddle
  • Going drinking the night before.  While in certain sports this may elevate you to a certain form of status, as a cyclist, your body weight will render you completely incapable of handling even the lightest of beers, and you may indeed get high off the fumes.  While under the influence of alcohol, shining examples from popular sports express optimal conduct:
    • Getting in a pointless fight, because after all, you’re kind of a big deal
    • Posting your uninformed opinions on social media
    • If you are a footballer, stay away from sexual relations with anything, but most particularly, animals.  A special research branch of the Australian Federal Police has been set-up to investigate the correlation between overpaid footballers and truly grotesque deviances

Starting the Race

One major problem with the men’s XCO races at National Rounds is that they are held in the middle of summer at 2.30pm in the afternoon.  While there is, of course, a very practical reason for this to do with scheduling all the day’s racing throughout the day, being a post on the internet, we are more concerned here with anti-fact than common sense and fact.

It means the racing is rather hot in the literal sense as well as the metaphorical, and held during the long dark tea-time of the soul .  The long dark tea time of the soul is that desolate period around 2.30pm when, crushed somewhere between a lunchtime food coma and the dazzling mediocrity promised by the afternoon.  During the working week, it’s the time spent fighting off the insatiable desire to gnap with a strong afternoon coffee, followed by a willingness to procrastinate and to drag coworkers into desultory banter.

Suffice to say, it’s best to plan your day around this, and not go into the race thinking that a very nice use of your afternoon would be napping in some shade by the river.

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A special starting box! Photo by Michael Crummy

This blog will also thoroughly recommend being seeded dead last.  Sitting up, you can guarantee that you’ll be free from the startline carnage that invariably results when 20 mountain bikers try to spend on uneven terrain, mashing gears, 700mm bars swinging wildly, and all looking for the same line.  When seeded last, you can pause for a nice stretch, and then head off, with a view of where the holes are opening up in the pacelines, before being swallowed by an immense cloud of dust.

Going into the Red

Your first racing strategy should be to go as hard as physically possible on the first hill.  On the plus side, your position then will be as good as it could possibly be.  On the negative, you are tempting all sorts of violent and painful forms of come-uppance in the subsequent minutes of racing.

Looking up after the first climb, I was horrified to see another climb.  And then another.  They kept coming, and red transforms into the Lactic Acid Bath of Cross-Eyed Dreams.  Stumbling like an addict across the top of the climbs, descending becomes a much harder proposition in the glorious froth of the acid bath.  Arms don’t work, legs flail, and judgment is poor.  Trees miraculously jump out at you, and soft edges on the trail unpredictably give way.

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The Lactic Bath Gaze of Despair – Photo by Peter Henkel

This is an unusual issue at Orange because the descents are spectacularly good.  Berms link up roots and chutes in a smorgasboard of IMBA-violating perfection.  Hitting with lactic though meant that jumps I was clearing in 7 hours were now a daunting task, and I was skidding wide in berms everywhere.

Don’t Panic

The most useful advice for almost any situation in life would be “don’t panic”.  In cycling terms, this can be equated to “don’t blow up”.  Somehow, wading through the bath, one must remember to eat, drink, and attempt to settle into something vaguely resembling a rhythm.  This might allow you to recover a few positions late in the race while others descend into smouldering pits, provided, of course, you don’t descend into smouldering pits yourself.

The Camping Experience

As bike racing is an outdoors pursuit, there is no better way to spend the night than camping under a warm Australian summer sky, with balmy stars twinkling above, and the sounds of screeching rubber from a chorus of V8 utes echoing across the valley for true, Castle-esque serenity.  You’ll even have millions of blood-sucking mosquitoes to keep you company.

Drifting off to sleep, the sounds of a clapped-out ute then could be heard through the race venue.  Profanities in accents so broad they make Kath and Kim positively regal.  Burnouts galore.  Eventually, the ute disappeared, then 30 minutes later, re-emerged down the small fire-road adjacent the forest I was camping in.

Engine growling with obvious cogitation, the headlamps slowly rolled up.  Right up to my tent.  A few anxious minutes passed while I pondered what would happen next.  Realising my best form of self-defense would probably be my portable bicycle pump, I began to think of the inglorious obituaries:

“Mountain biker found run over in forest.  NSW Government calls for tougher and more punitive restrictions on cyclists to reduce fatalities in NSW forests”

“Vehicular terrorism in Kinross State Forest as ute plows through race venue.  Sonja Kruger calls for all Muslims to be deported”

“Cycle blogger found brutally murdered in remote forest.  Readership of two devastated”

In the midst of these thoughts, the ute – probably looking for unlocked bikes it could hoist away – eventually moved on.  Suffice to say, unexpected glimpses of mortality did not lead to a comforting night of sleep.

Lessons Learnt

Messing around with my bike set-up, I’d decided that, despite a decent result on Saturday, I should tweak my position further in search of more power.  It’s a rule universally recognised that you should never change anything just before a race.  A quick spin suggested a slightly better cadence, and I was sold.

With a higher starting position, I was looking forward to a good ride.  Unfortunately, on the start, I soon became “that” guy.  I missed my cleat and completely dabbed the pedal stroke.  In a second I was swamped and the attitudes of the riders behind me turned justifiably murderous.  In a familiar position at the tail end of the field, I decided to try to race conservatively on a course with some punishing pinch climbs.

These strategy might well have been prudent had I not been an idiot and messed with my position.  Within half a lap my back was locking up and descending ability was in the unholy domain of the triathlete.  Within 3 laps my back had locked up and crippled my poor, as  I contemplated my life ahead as a balding geriatric cripple and wondered whether the ute of doom the night before would have been merciful in finishing the job.

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Climbing with a blown back. Photo by Bre Shepherd

In such situations, even with morose thoughts, it’s time to look for the fun factor.  Cowbells on the track.  Wheelies popped on the climb.  Endless heckles that results when a 24 hour race displays a noteable absence of endurance and fades abysmally.  The sheer ludicrousness of riding around in circles in garishly coloured lycra.  Most importantly, kilometres of brilliant descends in the afternoon sun.

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Orange – where even berms get wheelies! Photo by Maisy Evans

The List of Definitive Items

  • toilet paper
  • Tiger skin suit (and what a brilliant ride that was by Anna Beck)
  • bucket loads of water
  • Bucket loads of suncream
  • Cowbells
  • A backpack with a pump, you never know when you might need it for self-defense.

A huge thank you to Team Davy Sprocket (Bre, Jay and Adam) for letting me tag along for a weekend of fun, and to Mike Dunlop for slinging bottles in transition!

 

 

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Bike-packing myths and realities: Touring the Snowies and the Wicked Wombat

With the prospect of mandatory Christmas shutdowns comes the need to take a bit of a holiday.  Last year saw the Tassie Boys Tour de Tasmania – and this year saw the potential of a tour of the Snowy Mountains.

Touring with old riding and uni buddy Callum soon proposed a route winding through the mountains to the Wicked Wombat in Jindabyne, and the prospect of a trip down the coast that didn’t quite eventuate.

Bike Packing Myth 1: It’s not that much harder than riding unloaded – Canberra to Tumut

One of the iconic myths of bikepacking is that, somehow, loading yourself up with bags all over the place doesn’t actually slow you down.  The reality is that it makes mountains of molehills, and himalayan peaks of mountains.

Our route headed out on the dirt towards Wee Jasper on the iconic Doctor’s Flat road.  This road was a silly choice, because it’s anything but flat, and actually rides as a procession of violent climbs.

While on the road, we also encountered the Onya boxing day ride.  A ferocious series of anti-social attacks, the Onya rides are not where one goes for pleasant trail-side chit-chat or gentle rolling turns.

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Pick the odd one out…

Clinging by our coat-tails to the bunch, we were soon encountering the difficulties of riding loaded.  The possibility of accelerating onto climbs evaporates.  Out-of-the-saddle is difficult with the extra weight hanging off the bike.  Disturbing understeering tendencies emerge on the descents, adding an extra degree of sketchiness.

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Clinging by our coat-tails into Wee Jasper, it became apparent that we’d have to slow the pace down.

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Of course, being two shameless racer boys, we didn’t.  And the climb out of Wee Jasper – a 500vm slog quiet pleasant in winter – was roasting in the summer heat.  There is nothing pleasant about the brutal force of the sun in an Australian summer, and we’d soon plowed through almost all our water.  Additionally, being shameless racer boys, a hard slog was accompanied by a complete lack of breaks, and soon turned into a death march.  The kilometres ploughed by, and eventually the stunning descents opened up into Tumut – thoroughly out of food and water, with complete bike-packing noob mistakes.

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Bike Packing Myth 2: It’s always downhill with a tailwind

Day 2 dawned in Tumbarumba with a loop of the fantastic local trail network.  With a proposed rail trail on the way too, Tumbarumba is well positioned to take a Beechworth/Yackandandah approach to tourism.

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Day 2 was one of those iconic bikepacking days.  A net downhill, and a tailwind almost all the way.  Easing, flowing kms – the stuff that dreams were made of.  With an easy route of about 100km planned,we were soon rolling out on the tar.

Of course, net downhills don’t always tell the full story, and you still spend a heap of time climbing.  Such considerations can be redeemed by comical attempts at wheelies, or singing David Brent songs.

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Eventually, the net downhill came through, and with views out to the Snowies, we were soon cruising along.  A gravel re-route soon provided a nice break from the main road, and we were cruising into Khancoban in excellent time.

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After a lunch break by the river with some casual rapids riding on the body, it was time to slog out the remainder of the day in the roasting heat – a climb up to the Geehi walls, and then a descent down to the river to camp out.  Now traversing into the mountains, the progress was slow but rewarding, with a beautiful forest road leading to the top of the walls, and the violent downhill back down to the river for a peaceful campground.

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Day 3: The Hard Realities

Day 3 had been freaking me out, because I like to stress about things, and there was a promise of rain coming through.  With a high alpine pass proposed, this would lead to very cold potential conditions over the top of the pass – a rude variation to the crippling heat of the past few days.

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Day 3 started slowly without coffee or a massive breakfast.  Slogging up the initial climb back out of the Geehi, the reality of a very slow average speed presented itself, with a the prospect of a 1500vm climb looming.

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We turned off and began to head slowly up the Geehi gorge.  Rainforest corner followed rainforest corner in an incessant grinding gradient.  The rain began to fall.  After hours of climbing, the rainforest transitioned to scrabbly, rocky forested terrain, as we followed scrabbly fire-roads and powerline trails around the Geehi dam.  The progress was painfully slow and we were running concerningly low on food supplies.  Each new look-out gave us the opportunity to survey the powerline trail climbing ahead, with small downhill pitches leading to steep climbs again.

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Eventually, we crossed the river, and began the final climb towards Schlinks Pass.  A depressingly slow average speed of about 12km/h was testament to the unyielding difficulty of the climbing.  Gorge transitioned to snow gums, and finally to the tundra of the Australian alpine.

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With a more open landscape to enjoy, we found ourselves in a better mood as we gradually approached the past.  The rain moved swiftly in at the past to limit the enjoyment, and we pushed straight over the top and down to Guthega as quickly as possible to stay warm.

From Guthega, the route options to Jindy were debated, with minimal food remaining.  We could follow the fire-roads down Snowy Adit to Lake Jindabyne, with much more pinch climbing, or take the sealed road climb back up to Rennix Gap and cruise down the other side.  We opted for the sealed road climb in the rain and very slowly slogged our way up the pass.  I’d conveniently forgotten that the Guthega climb is, in fact, about 350vm, and no walk in the park.  Grovelling ensued, but was rewarded by a long flowing tarmac descent down into Jindabyne and a spectacular bakery raid.

Days 4 and 5: Jindabyne Trails and the Wicked Wombat

I’ve never seen the Snowy Mountains so busy in summer – with ski resorts re-orienting for summer months with hiking, water sports, and perhaps most critically – mountain biking.  The reasons for councils to get behind mountain biking are compelling, with the ability to drive a strong influx of hungry and thirsty riders from crowded and trail-less cities.  The icing on the cake? It’s dirt cheap. $250,000 of council money won’t cover much more than about 250m of road construction, a statue or sign here or there, but it will build about 10km of professional trail network.

Jindabyne was heaving with riders and the trails were packed with couples, solos, and families all out for an explore.  After a quick blat around the superb East Jindabyne trails, the focus shifted to the Wicked Wombat – and a reconnaisance revealed a beautiful flowing course with tacky trails, and the occasional terrifying territorial emu to keep riders on their toes.

The Wicked Wombat is a unique participation-oriented 8 hour race held on the trails of the Bungarra alpine centre. With 12km of flowing singletrack, gentle climbs, and A-line / B-line options, it provides a superb race venue with the convenience of well set-up race centre.  Instead of functioning on a relay format, the race allows riders on track at the same time, with the cumulative lap count.  Intended to allow mates / friends / families to ride together, it creates a very relaxed and friendly vibe out on the trail.

With legs duly roasted from the tour, the change to early race pace came as a very rude shock to the legs, with lactic flooding through, and lungs failing to respond.   With trails tacked down beautifully from storms the previous two days, the first lap provided some entertainment with soft surfaces giving away to biting days and leading to big drifts through the mud.

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Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

Backing off slightly to let the legs find their rhythm, the trails soon began to reveal a gentle, slower paced flow and rhythm, hopping the little hardtail carefully through the rocks, and pushing hard through the grippy corners.  The first few hours sped by, and Callum and I, thinking we were riding in a team, rode together and swapped turns at the front, working on smooth lines.

With the touring approach came a revised approach to race nutrition.  Racing on water only, we were also riding on “traditional” food sources – bananas, croissants, muesli bars, and similar sources.  Even in the heat, it worked suprisingly well – with legs free of cramps and energy levels solid throughout.

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James gets a bit wild. Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

Coming into the middle hours of the race, the heat began to rise, but the diesel engine from touring kicked in and began to chug along happily in the warm conditions.  With differing paces, Callum and I soon split apart, and I rolled along with guest laps from the flying Jarrod Hughes and Lewy Cressy.

Over the course of the day, the course began to dry  out significantly, and formerly tacky corners required far more attention and care to avoid massive washouts.   The sun drifted around in the afternoon skies, bits I didn’t even know I had turned a sunburnt shade of scarlet pink, new climbs began to emerge on the course, and the rockgardens got sharper and sharper.  The last lap soon rolled around, and the promise of an easy lap soon gave way to a very speedy hot finish to the lap to bring home what transpired as a solo win after all.

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The chop! Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

After one New Year’s eve beer successfully knocked me for six, it was time to ponder the ride home.

Day 6: Jindabyne to Canberra

One salient feature of the tour had been our tendency to overestimate our ability to ride distance, or push too hard in effort.  With bodies distinctly baked from the Wombat, the plan had drastically changed to head straight home instead of touring further down to the coast.

Initially, this was planned as a two day jaunt through Adaminaby.  Rolling out  under overcast skies, we soon made good time on the tarmac.  We even hit a stretch of dream bike-packing – mild downhill with a block tailwind, cruising along with hands off the bars.

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And then, someone got a bit cute with navigation, and trusted Google Maps a little too implicitly.  Sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason.  The road less travelled turned into the road not travelled.  A poo-loaded creek crossing, and a lot of paddock bashing and fence-hopping later, we were back on main roads, albeit a little bashful and ashamed.

35km of tarmac remained to Adaminaby – but into a block headwind.  The Snowy Mountains highway along this stretch was busy, and afforded almost zero shelter from the punishing headwind.  Progress was slow and painful.

Arriving in Adaminaby and joining up with Mark Simpson, it was time to refuel the tanks and consider the long plod home.  Happily, heading out of Adaminaby brought the wind back in our favour.  With a decent tailwind and quiet roads, we soon made excellent time up through the Boboyan foothills.

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Crossing over the border into Namadgi, we swung off for Old Boboyan road – a dirt gem through frost hollows and native scrub that bypasses the main road.  Here, the riding was beautiful in its own right, and we made excellent time as we approached the final climbs through Namadgi.

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Pushing slowly over the last few climbs, the last remaining hurdles were clear, and what remained was a 40km tarmac slog.  With the wind down and the temperatures mild, this soon turned to a bikepacking time trial, and we were swapped off at 40km/h along the tarmac, bags and all.

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Approaching home, there was no more appropriate way to finish than with some local dirt and a great view out over the mountains, to round out a fantastic little trip.

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The Fall

I read an article a few months ago on Pauline Ferrand Prevot – the rider who achieved the unbelievable triple of road, cyclocross and MTB world championships within a year.  As startling as her high was, it’s been matched by the depths of the low.  Injury, illness, and misfortunte – and watching her race this year, the crashes and the body language tell a story of a shattered confidence.  She even said how much the triple crown had been the worst thing that had happened to her.

For every towering high, there’s the fall.  And while winning an amateur 24hr race is not remotely fit for comparison with a single one of Prevot’s titles, I’ve come across the fall.

Successive sicknesses and a body begging for a physical and mental break.  Late nights at work desperately wondering how it will all get completed.  The realisation that a bike race is just that – a bike race, and fundamentally, it won’t change your life.  The same insecurities, the same resentments – all these things will haunt you.  It is naieve to expect them to change.

But as much as the separation can make it feel hard to feel like a racer, it also gives a sense of perspective.  There is nothing quite so beautiful as descending into a spring sunset.  Nothing quite so thrilling as late-race pace to secure a win, pushing through the pain barriers.

In the immortal words of Captain Jack Sparrow – “bring me that horizon…. and really bad eggs”.

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A Wild Fling: the 2016 Highland Fling

It is a promising spring morning on the Highlands, and the early morning light is gathering around the edges of the horizon.  Birds sing lightly in anticipation of the jocund day.

In the midst of this serenity resonates a single clear dulcet tone, stirring the heart of every red-blooded (and likely haired) Scotsman – the bagpipes.

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The Bagpiper. Photo by Wild Horizons

It was an appropriate beginning for a race set to a musical theme: the 2016 Highland Fling, this year a Wild Fling.

While Googling “wild fling” may lead to grand hopes of the sort of debauchery and depravity so publicly exposed with the Ashley Madison scandal, the age of middle-aged men abandoning their families to pursue silly bike races appears to be drawing to a close.  However, as the tag line went, a good Wild Fling could certainly make the heart sing.

The Highland Fling is held between Bundanoon and Wingello, and combines a variety of events on the Saturday and the Sunday, including a frantic 6km “dash” with a fantastic hill-top finish, the immortal Roll-off World Championships, a trail running race around Bundanoon, with the town shutting down and gathering around the event.  With the whole race camping out on the grounds of the Pony Club, it somehow captures a spirit and camaraderie of adventure.

The race itself includes multiple options: the 60km Half Fling, the 110km Full Fling (indubitably the main event), and the 100 mile Fling, for those a little more sadistic.  I’ve come to love the miler – the race is epic and grand on a whole obscene scale, and I’ve enjoyed many a great battle and imploded on numerous occasions around the track.

Lining up once more the 100 miler, I had mixed feelings.  After an amazing 24hr (to toot my on trumpet), I seem to have struggled just to stay healthy with flus continually relapsing.  On such occasions, sometimes one is just happy to be on the start line of the race, and able to enjoy a day out in the sun.

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Wild Fling

The race began with a jovial roll-out behind Huw Kingston pedaling the beer trike.  The first pace soon came from Martin Wisata, doing the Euro thing.  There are two things I’ve discovered about Euro cyclists: a) they love getting naked and b) they love smashing a good flat fire-road.  Fortunately this occasion was more about b) than about a), and we were soon off and bashing through the paddocks.

From the sickness, I really had no idea how my general fitness and form would be tracking.  Over the course of the first 10km, I began to test it gently on the hills.  Not well, soon came back the answer, and I caught myself clinging to the coat-tails of a group of Full Flingers and counting down the kms to the transition.

Barrelling across the fire-roads of Penrose State Forest, we were soon heading into the farms at the back of Wingello.  Here, we ran into the rougher paddocks, and my elastic began to stretch a little.  I’d been concerned that, while distance would be doable, intensity would be akin to setting the “implode” button on my respiratory system, and was struggling to go into the red.

Eventually, we rolled around into transition with a good little group, and enjoyed the advantages that come from a neutral transition.  Already, the day’s wind was picking up, and the sun was driving hard, demanding good hydration.

You Make My Heart Sing

Heading out of transition and into Wingello State Forest, the pace ramped up again, and we swapped turns on the fire-roads.  Soon, we were diving into the gorgeous, flowing singletrack of Wingello, with soft trails carved with delightful, loving flow in the native forest.  It was truly an environment to make the heart sing beneath an increasingly painful scream of ITB friction from my right knee.

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Wingello flow! Photo by Wild Horizons

Bombing through the early trails, we were soon up for one of the memorable features of the Fling – the great Wall, a 20% brute that sneaks up around a blind corner.  Scrambling up in our smallest gears, hearts were soon singing in a different way.  Stinging legs were soon appeased by the appearance of more flowing singletrack, and we headed through the impressive Wingello trail network, the flow of Tangles, and out towards the hills, with a rude blast of headwind to greet us.

Heading through the aid transition, I’d committed mentally to refilling my major bottle, with the aim of keeping hydration levels at a conservative high with unsually high demand post-flu.  After years of racing, I’ve finally when to sacrifice 20-30 seconds on such occasions in order to save minutes down the road – conservatism trumps the necessity of the moment.

You Bent my Chainring

Chasing back on to the group, I possibly went a little bit red on the subsequent climb.  As Cam Ivory and Trekky came flying past on an epic race in the Full Fling, our group scrambled to make the junction and take a ride for a bit.  Struggling with the intensity, I failed to bridge and was left watching on Halfway Hill.  As the immortal tester over the years, Halfway Hill has been both a friend and a foe.  In this instance, it led to some slow and grovelling suffering in my smallest gear.  With a hefty blast of headwind, the powdery steeps of the Kick soon followed.

Many a Flinger has previously made the mistake of getting through Halfway Hill and the Kick and thinking they are mostly back to Wingello.  This mistake can be extraordinarily costly, and ploughing into the wind in a small group with Dan McNamara and Jason Chalker, we were all soon struggling a bit on the rough climbs through Outer Limits and the Wild West through drier, scrubby bush.

Opening up on to the wild, open fire-roads of Lawyers Lament, the chase group of the Full Fling caught us.  Playing silly buggers with each other, their pace consisted of violent surges and lapses.  With the wind now functioning as an epic tail wind and my concentration a little shot, I soon tailed off the back, and found myself plodding into Wingello on my own, with the prospect of a second loop.

I think I love you baby…. but I wanna know for sure

Heading out for a second loop of the long Shimano stage is always an exercise in commitment.  There is no pairing up with other riders and hiding from the wind – you are truly on your own for a long time in the bush.  Hills that hurt the first time become leg amputation in repetition.  Negative-splitting the second lap is almost mythical, and hasn’t been done in long time.

In having said that, it’s also an opportunity to dig deep into the riding love.  To find the flow on the trails, enjoy the sunshine of the day, and find your own rhythm.  To test the riding love, and find something happy on the other side.  Riding on ploddy, chuggy, intrinsic motivation, I realised I certainly wasn’t fast, but didn’t seem to mind too much – finding flow in the corners, eating and drinking to a set regime, and enjoying the fact that my body hadn’t actually fallen apart in a hilarious episode.

I started to tick the harder sections off: the Wall, Halfway Hill, the Kick, all past by mildly enough, and I even felt better the second time through on the climbs.

You Brought Your Headwind

Heading into the open forests the second time through, the wind was vicious.  Cowering into the depths of my stem, I plodded on, slowly passing the back-markers and attempting to yell encouragement over the cacophonous trumpeting howl.   Eventually, plodding on perilously, I reached the open road with the tailwind.  Violent turbulence transitioned to the growling grumble of grippy tyres over loose dirt and I chugged back into Wingello.

You Make Everything Groovy, Wild Thing

With a transition behind me, a belly full of food, and a chain re-lubed with Squirty goodness, I was soon trundling off onto the final leg.  With a very restricted and the realisation of the actual speed of the previous long leg, I was now focused purely on bringing the race together and home in the least messy way possible.

The final 30km of the Highland Fling starts innocuously enough, with a flat fire-road blast, a scoot down across the river, and some great singletrack leading back into the pine forest.  A second wade through Free Bike Wash (and oh, the cold water is bliss on a blown knee) and the end truly feels nigh.  However, such easy finishes wouldn’t be fitting for the Fling, and the last 15km is genuinely tough.

Heading into the singletrack of Boundary Rider and Rollercoaster, I now know much more what to expect – with a series of violent punches and pinches carved into the hillside next to the creek, slowly wending up the hill.  Forcing off cramps and trying to shift gently on the tired bikes, these trails feel like a test in restraint, patience and planning.  My strategy was to avoid the Garmin, forget the distance and time, and enjoy the punchy trails in their own right.  Swooping around and across the gullies, I was soon across the creek and climbing the slopes of Brokeback mountain to the accompaniment of a howling westerly.

If you sing into a howling wind, at least no-one will have to hear it.  With this in mind, I was soon belting out A Candle in the Wind, but without the delicate respect or snipes that made its use so famous.  Now laying into the caffeine gels, I was definitely feeling the groove.

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Baker’s Delight. Photo by Wild Horizons

Bouncing my way through Baker’s Delight, I hit the final fire-road stretch towards Your Call and the Finish.  The realisation that caffeine overdose may have done funny things to my body soon eventuated and the final climbs passed in a bizarre state of pumped-up weakness with a pounding heart and busted legs.  Perhaps, indeed, my heart was singing, after nearly 8 hours, 160km, and en epic day out on the bike.

There are a few people I’d like to thank for helping with my Wild Fling:

  • Phil for the emergency last-minute brake replacement
  • A race sponsor – Maxxis tyres – I’ve had no racing flats all year and I can’t think of better tyres to run for a happy balance of grip, weight, and reliability
  • Onya for keeping the XTC 650 hammering away
  • Wild Horizons, the amazing volunteers, and the Bundanoon community, for putting on an amazing weekend out in the bush
  • A big congrats to Max for smashing to 2nd place on the SS – stomping ride!

And while I’m sure racing sick will bite my severely this week, I’m happy to have had a Wild Fling!

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Courtney and Charlie – legendary rides to complete the 100 miler

 

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Riding Inspiration: The 2016 Scott 24 Hour

The 2016 Scott 24 hour rolled around as the 18th consecutive, and slated as the final in a long standing sequence of an incredible race.  Although I’d only partaken since 2007, the race (in its glory days) had drawn up to 3000 people into a tent city amongst the forests of Kowen, then later back at the dust bowl of Stromlo.

From my perspective, it’s a good time to take a step back, and look at just four of the riders who have inspired me.

The Disciplined Racer

A horrible thing about 24hrs is that they start at midday.  While most races are a frantic explosion of preparation and narrowly avoiding imminent disaster for an 8am start, 24hrs start at the very civilised time of midday.

This also means there is far too long to get nervous, break the morning-poo-world-record, or also get excitable, listen to some pumping music, and go wild.

In past years I’d become almost notorious for irresponsibly fast starts.  With a lovely climb ahead of you, a hefty dose of adrenaline, and a wild explosion of energy disturbingly contained through the whole morning, a fast start is always tantalisingly floating – because after all, fast is fun, and fun is fast.

If there is one thing I’ve learnt from the man who has dominated the sport, it’s that endurance racing is much more about discipline than heroics.  The discipline to contain excitement on the first lap, to ride sustainably, to eat and drink, and to be quick and efficient through the transitions.

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A true champion. Photo by Russ Baker

The first lap started with an admirable degree of restraint, and some pleasant chat on the climb, with Jason commenting flippantly on his low heart rate while mine orbited in the stratosphere.  The descent soon provided the opportunity to push away and try to open the field up, with the eternal delights of Western Wedgetail, Skyline and Luge tempting fast, aggressive riding.

This plan worked well, but after a couple of dry days, areas of the track had packed hard with erratic, skatey, marble rock over the surface.  Grip was completely lacking, and in the wake of riding in wet conditions, I was completely out of touch with cornering on the loose surface.  A massive wash-out soon followed, with some bark of the knee, and a stinging cramp ripping through my left quad.

With my wings somewhat clipped soaring too close to the sun, I attempted to settle back and sit into a rhythm.  Jason caught up and I sat on for a little while, content to be patient, as we rolled onto the second lap.

It soon transpired that the crash had also ruined my shifting, with chaotic ghost-shifting on the climbing range.  I gave myself another reminder not to panic, and plan carefully, 2 laps of single-speed inspired climbing followed before a speedy bike swap.   We rolled onwards with rapid rolling double feeds from Phil and Seb.

After three hours of patiently sitting on Jason, I was beginning to sense his impatience to test me.  The afternoon was warm but with pleasantly cloud cover and a sprightly easterly breeze, and the trails, while wet in places, were holding up beautifully, with smooth lines settling into the marbles.  On the first climb, the pace soon ramped to 30km/h.  The tests had started.  Over the next three hours, surge after surge followed on the climb, and I tried to use the long, flowing Stromlo descent to recover.  My legs were riddled with little cramps from the crash and a right hip flare-up from Beechworth resurfacing.  It looked ominous.

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Early race fun. Photo by Russ Baker

It’s in times like this that you can look for the wisdom you might have learnt from your opponent.  The ability to keep perspective, to be patient, to know the limits, and to remind yourself that is an extremely long way to go – and plan ahead.

Eventually, around 6pm, the elastic snapped.  I didn’t bother panicking or going into the red to close the gap, instead taking the opportunity to settle into a steadier rhythm and wait for the night.

The Singing Singlespeeder

Almost relieved to be able to back off the pace, we’d soon donned lights and were heading off into the night with heavy, crampy, tired legs.  While the course immediately began to slick up with the descending dew, I relished the colder temperatures and the opportunity to bring the legs back around into better condition.

If there’s one racer I’ve learnt from immensely over the years, it’d be the bearded giant – a man with a massive beard and an even bigger heart, Brett Bellchambers.   Brett’s the sort of guy who will just roll around all day, having a ball, and finding a happy place on the bike, irrespective of what the race does.

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The Beard at Sunset.  Photo by Rohan Thomson

Coming through the sunset, I took the time to enjoy a spectacular cloudburst over the western horizon of the Brindabellas – that place of so many grand adventures.  Certainly a happy place, and a skyline that fills me with an immense feeling of identity and home.

Content to be racing for second, I focused on finding a happy place on the the trails.  Finding a rhythm on the climb, knocking off lap by lap, and enjoying the fantastic flow on the way back down.  Belting out songs at anyone and everyone I could find.

At about 8pm, a particularly bad version of “Eye of the Tiger” over the bridge into the Luge was met with a response of “oh, there he is!” – and I was stunned to see the yellow stripes of a Pivot jersey only 20 seconds ahead on the Luge.  On the subsequent scoot around Slant Six to Wombat Junction, the immortal ballad of Teenage Dirtbag soon hit the airways.

There is nothing quite so motivating as remembering your awkward 12 year old experiences of loneliness at the year 7 disco, and I was soon bombing down the remaining descents with a wonderfully atonal falsetto screech.

While this was probably a terrible race tactic – in the sense that the singing was that awful to be around – somehow, it helped control the adrenaline of the catch.  Slipping away over the course of the next lap and into the night, it was time to channel the happy place Brett had so regularly found.

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And so, the night flitted away, with songs, cool air, climb by climb, then enjoying the descent back down.  Channelling my inner singlespeeder – dancing on the hills, and finding skids and fun on the descent.

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Photo by Russ Baker

People talk a lot about training tactics for events.  For me, it was very simple – over the course of a wet and cold winter, I’d fallen back in love with threading a cone of light through a forest of darkness, the rush of the unfamiliar corner, and the cool night air on my skin.  The night ride had, one more, become a happy place.  I plodded on, oblivious to gaps, focusing on the unrelenting tempo.

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Phil dominates the rolling feed. Photo by Russ Baker

The Lunatic

There is no question that riding a bike between the hours of midnight and dawn is a silly exercise, and one that runs counter to most people’s natural biological clock.  For this period, it’s time to channel the Lunatic.

The Lunatic isn’t really the Lunatic.  He’s the guy with the brilliant sense of perspective on what his adventures are, and what they mean.  The guy who’s so well adjusted that, however hard it gets, it’s still better than being at work.

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370 burpees!

For me, this inspiration was close at hand – with the superb Phil in the pits.  As a man who’s ridden solo across Canada and Australia, my dominant impression of Phil is his insurmountable ability to flourish in the face of adversity.  The tougher it gets, the more he loves it – whether it’s a brutal hike-a-bike, ridiculous weather, or just a freakish storm.  To keep himself occupied, Phil was doing 10 burpees for every lap I did – surmounting to a monumental 370.

The Lunatic is well positioned to ride through the witching hours.  I marvelled at the city streetlights shimmering on the horizon.  Every lap, I used the cool air on the descent to keep myself uncomfortable, and force myself to warm up on the climb once more.

People tend to reflect on 24 hours for the glamorous moments – the sunrises, the highs, the joy of the finish.  The reality has more to do with suffering, soreness, and an interminable slog.  Added to this was significant chain suck on both bikes in the sloppy conditions, and the stress of a snapped chain was never far from my mind, and I threaded careful lines on the descents to keep the tyres safe.

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the reality…

While the reality may be slightly grim, it’s also slightly mad.  And in that madness, lies the hope.  It’s madness. Go with it. It’s the best part of living.

With my first caffeine shot piling into the blood, I plunged deeper into the heart of darkness, looking to the east each lap for signs that might betray the coming dawn.   Not knowing gaps, through the night I felt the pressure of the inevitability of the final six hours of truth bearing down on me.  I’ve raced Jason enough to know how strong his second morning is.  When the sun comes up, it’ll be on like donkey-kong.

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The Mongrel

The come down from the joy of dawn was a rapid and rude one.  While the brilliance of dawn starts with a soft and cleansing beauty, it soon gives way to the garish truths of illuminated day.  There are some truths that shouldn’t be illuminated.

Usually, this is related to the return of fresher riders to the track from the 6+6 or sleeping teams, and they blow past you like you’re standing still.

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Moff at dawn – a gutsy 4th place

I’ve found in the past that the past 6 hours require the biggest and deepest pushes of them all, and in this case, with the unexpected weight of the lead on my shoulders, and the pressure of Jason bearing down on me, I had to find some deep motivation.

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Photo by David Blucher (Flickr Trainspotting)

In times like this, it’s time to find the inner mongrel.  The guy who, although the nicest man on earth on the exterior, can turn himself inside-out in pursuit of a goal, and push through unreasonable levels of pain.

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The Mad-Dog himself

There is no-one who, in my mind, fits this bill better than Jason McAvoy.  An inspiration to get into long races, Jason could pull himself inside out to bring the dream across the line for his family with a fierce competitiveness that summoned strength unforeseen.

With the rising sun, I was riding on the strength of the night, but with a sense of pure paranoia.  Knowing Jason’s unrelentingly strong finishes, I had no idea of what gap I had or the lap pacing I would need to maintain to stave him off.

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Finding a smile. Photo by Russ Baker

Settling in to 40 minute laps, I had to fight the urge to count the laps down and dig deep to stay focused with a body waning in the heat of the day and the rising sun.  McAvoy style, I channelled the motivation of the people who’d supported me over the years: people like Phil in the pits, a long suffering family putting up with cycling over real-life development, and an endless line who’d supported me in 24s over the years: it was too late and too close to let them down.

I was relieved around 10am to hear that the gap was steady and my lap times were sufficient, and I could back off the pace slightly to bring the race home safely and sustainably.  With a few dying minutes to go, there was even time to sneak in another lap – an idea that seemed well planned for about five minutes until my legs caught up!

There are a few people I need to thank for helping me achieve a life-long dream:

  • Phil Byron, super-burpee-man, pit boss, who did an unbelievable job managing 24hrs of chaotic rolling feeds
  • Seb Dunne, Brenton Rogers, Brendan Morant, and everyone else who jumped in to the pits
  • Onya Bike for keeping the old Black Beauty running smoothly, and supplying the yellow Bumblebee at late notice – I couldn’t have asked for better bikes than the Anthems
  • Canberra Off Road Cyclists for keeping the 24 hour dream alive a little longer; it’s been an amazing ride with an amazing community.

Riding bikes is fun!

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A champ to share a podium with!

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6/3 Hours in the Saddle at Beechworth

The divine, glorious, all-knowing and loving conservative press in Australia would have you believe that cycling is a form of social degeneracy and anarchy with dangerous degenerative elements and criminal intent that threaten to destabilise the very fundamentals of our good, car-loving, intolerant society.

They couldn’t be further from the truth.  Cycling is, in fact, bound by a system of rules more arbitrary and laced with prejudice than an inflammatory Sonja Kruger rant.

The rules are expounded on the writings of the Velominati, a secret cycling society akin in internet presence to the (now-mythical) Sydney Secret Singlespeed Society.

We are the Keepers of the Cog. In so being, we also maintain the sacred text wherein lie the simple truths of cycling etiquette known as The Rules. It is in our trust to maintain and endorse this list.

This blogger’s battle to embrace, obey and ascend to spiritual enlightenment by the rules has been chronicled in numerous Back Yamma Bigfoot write-ups over the years.   After all, Rule No. 1 simply reads: obey the rules.

Back Yamma was postponed this year, due to somewhat troubling fact that most of Central Western NSW is actually underwater, and a 100km kayak around a flat forest is a little less exciting than a mountain bike ride.

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However, the 6 Hours in the Saddle at Beechworth promised trails with great resilience to gratuitous and capricious precipitation.

The two days before the race were, by Australian standards, of monsoonal proportions.  I awoke early in the morning of the race to the sound of rain drumming on the roof.  Trails pre-dampened are one thing, but the addition of falling water changes the dynamic entirely.

It was time to consult Rule 9:  If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass. Period.

Huddling beneath a rain coat, I relied on the internal glow of pure badassery to keep me warm in anticipation of the race.  Epic photos of mud splatter could follow, worthy of a Rapha photoshoot.  Photos in greyscale or sepia cast tone reflecting the sky and true epicness of the day.  The unfortunate reality was that epic riding would have to be earned, and actually raced for.

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Dignified

The race started with a splash across the golf course and into deep, boggy grass.  Perhaps distracted by working out how best to portray it on social media, I went slowly through the grass, and into the singletrack far further back than intended.  I whipped out the rule book and consulted Rule 70:

Rule 70: The Purpose of Competing is to Win.

With this stunning epiphany I tried to move up the field.  While the golf course had been wet, the trails were admirably dry, with grippy, granitic soil and swooping turns rock gardens nestled between the gigantic granitic boulders of the forest.  Pushing heart-rate up to a level not sensible for 6 hours, by the end of the lap, I had tagged on to the back of the leading group of riders, possibly assisted by a bit of navigational confusion.  On the tarmac run into town, I shamelessly ignored Rule #67:

Rule 67: Do your time in the Wind.

No-body likes a wheelsucker, expect possibly the person sucking wheel.  Sitting on and merrily enjoying the tow and a hefty dose of spray, we barralled into town and out on another lap.  Riders rolled between the front.  I ducked and dodged to avoid doing anything in the wind.  Abundant excuses about having to ride for 6 hours were on the lips, should I be challenged.  In this circumstance, it was time to attempt redemption by going for Rule 19:

Rule 19: Introduce Yourself

If there is one possible way either to make up for poor etiquette or make yourself even more unpopular, it’s by attempting conversation.  This either results in some good banter or alternatively in awkward and menacing silences.  In the context of a wet and muddy race, it worked quite well.  The second lap passed in a series of jumps, hucks, and chat amongst the trails.  With a shabby pretext established,  on the roll back into town, Rule 67 was flagrantly ignored again.

Rule 42: A bike race shall never be preceded by a swim or followed by a run.

Coming through for the third lap, and with the rain continuing to fall, the carnage on the course was beginning to show.  The golf course was now basically underwater and a slog through deep and gloopy slop and a deep puddle akin to a bog.  After a brief and muddy descent, a sharp pinch soon followed.  Struggling to find traction, it was time for a muddy run up the hill, flagrantly breaking Rule 42 in both pre and antecedents.  With an attempt at a graceful flying cyclocross leap onto the saddle which resulted in little more than a dissonant crash of cleats, a stumble, and a rather tender groin, I was off and riding again.

With the course slower and without buddies to ride with, and with the body cold and muddy, I began to struggle a bit.  4.5 more hours in this?  Would my brake pads survive?  Would the chain hold out and not snap?  With the course degrading under the weight of the wheels, each climb felt slower than the previous laps.  This misery was compounded on the headwind roll back into town.  It was time to consult the immortal Rule #5:

Rule no. 5: Harden the f*ck up!

Rule no. 5 is the ultimate refutation and rebuttal to just about every whine ever heard on a bicycle, whether internal or external.  While perhaps too frequently abused by those whose bikes never actually go outside and equate riding with some sort of atavistic asceticism, it provides short shrift to most excuses.  I was in a good position in the race, the Anthem was performing flawlessly in the conditions, my tyres were managing the mud well, and everything was actually going rather well, if a little bit muddily.

From Rule no. 5, Rule no. 6 soon follows:

Rule 6: Free your mind and your legs will follow

Freeing the mind from the distractions of pain, mud splatter, and other trivial forms of discomfort, I settled in for the last lap with a bit more focus.  This probably coincided with finding out that the race would be called just prior to the 3 hour mark.  With a happy mind, I spent the last lap enjoying the trails, flipping around the rock gardens, swooping the corners, and absorbing the beautiful Australian bush.  The waterfalls gurgled pleasantly, and the granitic environment provided the perfect backdrop for the beautiful flowing trails.   Despite the best efforts of the rain, it had still been an awesome day out on the bike.

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Some thank yous (ewes) for this one:

  • The Beechworth Chain Gang team for putting the race on – always a hard call in the wake of belligerent and rapidly changing weather.
  • The Quaglios for putting us up in beautiful Yackandandah – with its own brilliant trails!
  • Onya Bike Civic for keeping the Anthem purring through a wet winter
  • The Velominati for providing the path to true two-wheeled ascension to enlightment

 

 

 

 

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