Sunday, September 16, 2012

Back on the horse at Hiddenvale

Ollie ponders the early break on the start line
After an extended break from mountainbike racing post Tour Divide, my thoughts about returning to the XC racing fold were mixed. On one hand, there is no denying the rush of a rowdy elbow to elbow mass start, and sheer elation of finishing up a ‘short’ race after an hour or two on the limit. But on the other, I rate the sheer adventure of bikepacking pretty highly in terms of riding joy. Cresting ridges and dropping into exciting unexplored terrain, all the while with the profoundly motivating requirement for food, shelter and survival at the forefront of your mind.

But when the opportunity to race at one of ‘stralia’s biggest marathon MTB events came up, I couldn’t say no to a day in the sun. The Flight Centre Epic is held at Hiddenvale, about an hour inland from Brisbane. Turned out that my good mates at Ground Effect were an event sponsor, and kindly hooked me up with an entry.

Ground Effect -supporters of grassroots MTB and all round nice people
At a relatively short 87km, and with the unrelenting Queensland sunshine in fine form, I was assured of a fun day on the bike. After a month or so of devoted attention riding my Gates carbon drive equipped Ventana El Commandante, I feel like I’ve got the hang of riding it in the dusty and loose surface that seems to prevail here in Queensland. Races like this are a great way to explore tracks in new places. Taupo’s Huka XL, the Whaka 100 and even the Nelson Mammoth all thread together a seamless loop of the best trails, and what better way to ride them than in on go as fast as you can!

Andrew and Ollie talk race plans
Mr Andrew T. again offered up a ride to the venue, and Heidi came along to act as official photographer and chief supporter, proving exceptional in both roles, even holding back from eating post race sandwiches despite a ravenous hunger.

I’d thrown my helmet in the singlespeed ring, which was curiously lumped amongst the ‘special’ categories starting dead last, along with super oldies and clydesdales (>100kg). Some 18 ‘special needs racers’ had entered which is pretty good SS field, and I knew nothing of the strengths of those making up the class. Being a bit rusty on XC racing tactics I opted for the approach that you can only pull off if you’ve got the legs to back it up. While it is rare that a marathon is won on a start, it can be a bit of a psychological blow for competitors when they are gapped off the line, and this is what I proceeded to do, boosting ahead to the categories that had started earlier and using their proliferation as camouflage. Fortunately my legs were up for it, not even wavering when the climb moved from gravel road to singletrack and I was forced to ride proper offroad over logs, rocks and critters to pass the slower riding masses.

Seems like the endurance XC scene is massive here in ‘stralia, and with more than 2000 riders over the weekend’s events the scene is vibrant with the kind of buzz that seems to be escaping the NZ scene, especially with the popular shift to enduro and Super D racing of late.

The course itself was very well suited to singlespeeding, with the exception of a depressingly long 8km sealed road section which spun my legs into a dizzy mush, and a few knee poppingly steep pinches, the course was teeming with fun and flow.

A first loop of close to 50km was dispatched in a couple of hours, and while I’d been sitting comfortably enjoying the company of other riders and the sketchy loose surface, my efforts had caught up with me and a twinge of cramp struck as I rounded the turnaround point and headed out for the final 37km loop.

Fortunately the second loop offered up an even better array of singletrack that helped distract me from the growing disquiet in my legs. Whereas for the first couple of hours I was bounding up climbs with ease, the cumulative fatigue had reduced my cadence to a slow grind, as if pedalling through treacle.

A stop to refill my bottle and wolf down some lollies offered a brief buzz, but as the grind returned all I could do was dig deep and hope that my previous efforts were enough to hold off the posse of singlespeeders biting at my heels. As it happened, it was more than enough and I crossed the finish line about 5 minutes ahead of second to take a solid result and earn a well deserved sit down.

Crossing the finish line
The course conjured memories of Gunnison’s Growler, both in terms of singletrack delectability, length and the stinking heat. Fortunately the lung punishing altitude of the Growler was not at the Epic, and with no post-race sneezing fit I could enjoy a tall milkshake in the shade.

Ollie’s dust induced african american legs
While my body had performed admirably, only faltering towards the end, I felt my bike had served me graciously most of the way. Some adjustments to the carbon drive ratio on my El Commandante have meant I have been able to squash the back wheel into the seat tube, thus unleashing a bodacious level of flickability hitherto unheard of on a wagon wheeler.

Smiling post race. Note dust eyeliner. Very chic.
My Ground Effect threads were great too, plenty of wicking from my Road rage top helped with the heat. My Juggernaut shorts complete with leg vents (definitely activated for the race) are just the perfect fit, their tailored crotch quashing my fear of ‘baggie-snag’ and making them a realistic choice for racing.

Saddling up and riding at the Epic proved to be fitting re-entry into the XC scene. Far from being a bucking bronco it was a fun day out and I can’t wait to explore further afield and see what other ‘stralian races can offer!

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Dingo stole me baby!

A sunset view from our Brisbane apartment, with Mt Coot-tha in the backgorund
For those not in the immediate loop, it may come as a surprise, even a shock that Heidi and I have pulled up our tent pegs and jumped over the ditch to ‘stralaia.

Motivation largely came from a desire for new work and recreational challenges, and the location we decided to pitch our tent was Brisbane, a city with an entirely undeserved reputation as Australia’s bogan capital.

After arriving, it was with trepidation that we explored the immediate world around our apartment, which my work had kindly put us up in for a month to allow the dust to settle.

What immediately struck us was the tremendous number of people out and about at all hours of the day, mostly using an uber-smooth bike super highway dubbed the Bicentennial bike path.

A rare quiet time on the bikepath

Stretching for almost 20km up and downstream of Central Brisbane on both sides of a lazy river at the city’s heart, the path was a great introduction to the city, allowing us to explore without the snarl and rush of traffic.

And explore we did, clocking up multiple laps up and down the river, crossing most of the bridges and linking up loops, all the while coming to terms with this new place which would become our home.

Having brought only one bike over on the plane with me, my singlespeed, and having reached the limits of fun spinning up and down the mellow bike path grades I also ventured out for a few runs, and was stunned to see morning groups of runners almost as numerous as the bikers. Clearly Brisbane was doing its best to cast off the flubber which has earned the country the dubious honour of world’s second most obese nation.

Early indications are that the H grade commuter race is as intense as anywhere, even rivalling the infamous Ferry Road drag strip. I can’t wait till I get my road bike to throw my hat in the ring and take on some hi-vis clad punters, and if I get sick of this there are plenty of hilly loops and a bubbling criterium scene to get stuck into.

Addicted as I am to the spinning of knobbly tires, it was only a matter of time before I explored the trsils, and with an old friend Andrew (a kiwi expat with 2 years in Brisbane) as a guide, I got the royal tour around the extensive maze of trails at Gap Creek behind Mt Coot-tha. I’m only just coming to terms with the criss crossing network, but already I’ve found the joy that can only come from shredding forest singletrack.

Singlespeeding the Gap Creek trails

The trails well built (apparently to IMBA standards), with the surface a curious mix of loose kitty litter over hardpack and plenty of dust (think Vic Park in the summer). A few rocky sections, structures and log rollovers thrown in keep things gnarly. Still sitting on the fence with tire choice (TC), with the Race Kings I’m rolling on doing okay, although a bit under gripped through some of the higher speed corners.

Elevations are a bit small with the biggest hill in riding distance, Mt Nebo just shy of 500m, but the well designed trails make great use of the limited height, and there is always a straight up the guts approach up the access roads if you are looking for a brutal hill climb.

Incidentally these same access roads make for great descents, with the large water bars at seemingly ridiculous intervals making for great jumps that kick you high into the air. While there are no landing transitions to speak of, the humps have just the right amount of kick to practice whips. While with seat up and weight forward I’m yet to approach the steez of the superstar riders at the Whistler Whip-off, I’m definitely improving. This will no doubt come to the relief of my poor XC wheels which have been taking a hammering from sideways landings.

I’ve tried a few of the steeper climbs on the singlespeed and come up short, my feeble legs no match for the grade and loose surface. Everywhere else the mono-gear is awesome, with no super high speed sections and plenty of corners and bumps to pump off. In summary the trails here are pretty awesome and this is only one of the riding areas with several around town yet to be explored.

Temperature this time of years is divine, a cool fifteen degrees in the morning reaching highs of mid twenties, all of which feels suspiciously like a New Zealand summer.

Warnings about the deadly critters inhabiting the forest are widespread, but as yet I’m yet to encounter anything more threatening than a vampire turkey lurking around the carpark outside work. The morning bird chorus is more of a remix of death metal yells, with the shrieking of various random birds bordering on annoying.

A deadly vampire turkey lurking outside the office

While I’ll be cautious about the more deadly critters, there is always the risk of being overzealous, with a work colleague regaling a tale of a recent immigrant whose reaction to a snake sighting caused an amusing but painful incident. Steaming down a trail he spied a brown snake (the ones to avoid) and his immediate reaction was to jam on the front brake, pitching him over the bars and supermanning onto the very snake he was trying to avoid. Apparently he got away bite free, but a broken collarbone was a fitting memento. Hopefully I’ll be able to avoid a similar reaction when my snake encounter comes!

So far Brisbane has rocked our socks, and if initial indications are anything to go by, it’ll be a fantastic base for exploring Australia and further afield.

Will keep you posted.