Some of you might have read the blog I wrote last year where I decided to give up racing and just focus on endurance riding. And focus on endurance riding I did indeed, with some pretty epic ‘wins’… and some pretty epic ‘fails’ as well. And in fact, it was after one of those ‘fails’ that this story came about… but let me back it up a little bit first.
The beginning of The Beast
Some people call their bikes such lovely names. I call mine The Beast, because it’s a suitable name for it. She’s a 15km monster hardtail which my husband and I picked up as a joint Christmas present for each other a couple years ago. The entire goal of the bike was to be able to ride trails with our kids, so we grabbed one after the Christmas sales, with little to no knowledge of mountain bikes. This one had no defining features which made it stand out, other than it didn’t cost a fortune and didn’t have bad reviews. And then after we purchased it, life got in the way and it sat in the garage until late last year.
After spending five weeks riding a heavy CX bike around Copenhagen last year, I found when I jumped back on my light roadie I was stronger. Much stronger. So integrating this into Marty’s training plan for Sydney- Melbourne I rode the CX and the MTB on the gravel roads and fire trails, and saved the roadie for the much longer rides.
After Syd-Mel was over the boys decided it was time to start getting me out onto their favourite type of ride – the single track. Which meant a lot of walking for me, and a lot of them laughing at me. Turns out roadie skills are completely different from MTB skills. And given I’d never really ridden a MTB before, well, let’s just say it was pretty hysterical. And awkward. Like a baby giraffe, but on a bike.
After that first MTB training day, I think we all realised where my skill level at: pretty much near zero. Even as a kid I only rode a ‘basket bike’, and the first bike I bought (at the tender age of 10) was a road bike, so legitimately it wasn’t ‘just like riding a bike’ for me. It was starting from ground zero.
But then one event led to another event … led to my exhaustion and endurance burnout in January. And I was off the bike for nearly a month, aside from the Audax Alpine Classic. After not being even sure I’d make the Classic this year, I managed to get myself up the back of Falls and into what I fondly refer to as ‘the Watermelon Checkpoint’ at the top of Falls Creek. It was here I met Meg (aka: The Wholesome Athlete) who, after a number of Instagram chats, suggested we should team up and look at The Pioneer. Mostly because, as she said, she couldn’t find anyone else crazy enough to ride with her. And she’d heard I was on the ‘crazy epic adventure let’s do it’ side of things. So I looked it up:
- Teams of two (so far so good)
- 6 day stage race (a bit longer than I’d done before, but do-able)
- 430km with 15,500m of vert (erm… that seems like a lot of climbing. But hills ARE the way right?)
- On the MTB (oh crap)
Right. So I’m going to have to actually learn to ride the MTB.
Skills. We need skills.
While I was doing okay holding my own with the guys on the fire trails, once we hit single track it was pretty much game over. And I found that trying to keep up with them was (possibly) teaching me bad habits without really having a solid understanding of handling myself on the mountain bike. So after a full recovery post Alpine Classic, I signed up with the Bendigo MTB club for the women’s skills session, run by the ex-Australian champion MTBer Jo Wall. The skills session was great, there was a heap of things I hadn’t really thought about in terms of my positioning, the bike itself, and how they combined differently than the roadie, so it was definitely worth heading up to Bendigo for some training.
Then on the Tuesday I had a crack at the 10km summer series race, which was heaps of fun (and gave me a chance to hit a new personal best for highest heart rate (185 average, 194 high. That HURT). Oooh, this is going to be harder than I thought!
After that I tried to get as much practice as was possible. Dan Hale and Steve Cod were my main men here, and Dan would spend most Tuesday nights ‘coaching’ me out on the Wombat MTB trails. Then Saturday’s I’d either hit up the CX for some gravel grinding, or more MTB practice with the Wombat Mountain Bike Club lads. I signed up to race the Wombat Classic, but then that was cancelled (Dan later said this worked in my favour as it would have been a hard 50 to start out with, given my still significant lack of single track skills). So I kept chipping away, trying to get out at least one time a week (ideally two) on the MTB. They nicknamed me the ‘giggling assassin’ due to, well, my hysterical laughter on the trails as I learned how to approach log rolls, jumps, drop offs, and other assorted obstacles.
Some nights this went fantastically, and I felt like I actually was flowing through the tracks. Other nights it felt like I was exhausted just trying to stay upright, and steering into corners, knee thrust out like a roadie again, leaning my body into the corners and then nearly wiping out.
With every rough night on the trails the self doubt would creep in. That insidious voice in the back of my head telling me to give up, go back to the road, that this wasn’t for me. I was too old to start learning, who was I kidding. With this (lack of) new found confidence I went to The Pioneer info night in Richmond, and realised that it wasn’t a technical course and was designed to test endurance. I could do that!
But what I couldn’t do was afford it. Meg and I were looking at a cost of around $10,000, including flights, accommodation, and the entry fees. On top of that I’d need a new bike, as there was no way The Beast could handle this kind of event. So it stuck in the back of my head as a ‘one day that’d be amazing’… but probably not today. And we agreed we would keep looking around for other adventures we could do. Meanwhile, I’d keep learning how to ride.
During the Gippsland Gold I asked Marty about my next race idea: The Golden Triangle Epic. It was about 5 weeks away, would I be ready in time for it? He said yes, so I signed up that week. And then continued the training regime I had cooked up for myself: Tuesday with the Wombat MTB Club (giggling assassin training), Thursday climb night (where I would get my butt handed to me every climb, but managed a bag a few PBs towards the end of the season), then staying on the gravel roads as much as possible to keep up the strength training (see Jem’s blog for some of our adventures). I knew there wasn’t much of a chance I’d overtake anyone on the single track, so Marty’s suggestion was to hammer the climbs and the firetrails to make up ground there.
A few days before the race I started getting encouraging messages from friends who had seen my name on the start list. Along with advice on how to race it, which was to just have fun out there and keep smiling. During one ‘any advice?’ chat with Warren Smith (Waz) he suggested ditching the hydration pack idea and going with water bottle drops instead. I expressed concern at this as my cages weren’t tight enough and my bottle had a tendency to pop out. He said I could borrow his cages and bottles, and I jokingly said how about I just borrow your bike, save you the effort of taking the cages off.
He said yes.
So the night before the race I picked up a 10.5kg proper xc racer. A quick spin on some local gravel confirmed that it was indeed amazing and that I would properly fly on this thing.
The Golden Triangle Epic
Cue race day morning. Max and the kids drove me up to Bendigo, and then had plans to hang out during the day and then see me at the finish line. A bit of confusion, stress, and a few terse moments later, and I was dropped off at registration. There were riders EVERYWHERE, and I was a bit overwhelmed. But registration was a breeze, bottle drop no problem, and the guys had sent me a text saying where they had set up. So off I went, just in time to watch Marty, D’Wayne, Adrian, and Hayden head off on the men’s 100km event.
With nearly an hour until my start time, I picked up a coffee, got my bike ready, and then tried to just chill. Soon enough it was go time, and I lined up near the start, trying to find the women who would also be racing. I looked up and spotted Jo Lythgo of the Bendigo MTB club (and who I had met at the women’s race in February) so moved up to where she was hanging with the other women. I then spotted Jo Wall (who Jo Lythgo referred to as ‘pro Jo’, she was ‘amateur Jo’) and waved at Purdie Long who was also doing her first MTB race after her mammoth achievement of riding the Indy Pac ride a few weeks earlier. A few nervous chats later it was race briefing time. I tried to take in as much as possible, but literally caught the following words: watch for the bump under the bridge, spaghetti junction, checkpoint Charlie… spaghetti, powerlines, something something, over the bridge, and you’re done. I looked at Jo, who shrugged her shoulders. She knew the course and some of those words made sense to her, but still it was a lot to take in. With that, the first wave of guys went off, with us following a little bit afterwards.
The first part of the race is a bit of a blur, or a bit of a dust storm. It was so dusty out there, and with a stack of riders flying through it was had to see anything at all. Eventually we hit the first climb and the roads opened up, so off I went up the climb, passing riders as I flew up the hill (see this YouTube clip to get an idea of what the first 4:30 of the race was like). This was pretty consistent throughout the first 10km or so, any incline or fire trail and I was off like a shot, trying to keep Jo in my sights as she also powered up past all the guys. I got past her after the first checkpoint, but then we hit some single track. Jo yelled out behind me that it was going to get rocky, and the guy in front of me laughed as I yelled back ‘you mean rockiER?!’ as he agreed that it had been pretty bumpy so far. But she was right, and from behind me she yelled out what lines to take on the way down, and with a ‘whoop I didn’t die!’ I made it through. We traded places a few more times, and then the two of us managed to break away from the pack around 17km in. Along the firetrail, I suggested maybe we could work together, which she said was a great idea. I suggested I’d help drag us along the fire trails and climbs, then just before it hit single track she could take the lead. And off we went… until we hit “The Climb from Diamond” and the road went up, down, and then up again. Once it flatted out a few km later I glanced over my shoulder… and realised I was alone. Whoops.
So off I went again, having no idea how the rest of the race would go. I had already lost half a gel at around the 13km mark as the gel bottle had flown out of my hand, but managed to get the other gel in me just before half-way checkpoint so was doing pretty good. The biggest challenge had been trying to get water in, as I needed pretty smooth fire trail before I felt confident enough to reach down and get the bottle out… but that smooth fire trail was also my ‘attack’ section, so it was mostly sip, sip, back in, and GO!! I had put my average heart rate on the Garmin screen, and looking down noticed that I had averaged 169 for the first half of the race. That’s not too bad, I thought, and I wasn’t feeling sore, cramping, or tired, so rolling through checkpoint Charlie at 25km I changed to my full water bottle, two more gel bottles, and off I went.
I ended up behind a pack of men who were ticking along nicely, so I pulled in behind them and took it easier for a bit. And with that easing off my hot foot flared up. OH COME ON I thought, seriously I’ve only been riding for 90 minutes! But no, turns out my feet forgot that they only kicked in during long endurance riders and started burning then and there. Whatever, time to suck it up, and keep riding behind the guys. But once they hit the hills, I found I was struggling to maintain my balance at the pace they were going (since when did I become so strong on the climbs??). The second the climb opened up to a wider track I let them know I was passing, and with a couple other guys we all took off up the hill. More downhill tracks, and then I spotted the powerlines. Now, what had the guys mentioned about powerlines? Think Tiffo think, there was something important here…
Oh yeah. Another climb. THE climb. Now I remember. Something about once you see the powerlines it starts climbing, then it just keeps going.
So up I went. And what I really loved about this event was the guys attitudes towards being ‘chicked.’ Coming from a road racer background, let’s just say that many (not all, but most) guys have a bit of an issue being overtaken by a woman, especially on a hill climb. Not these guys (or, if they did, they didn’t have the breath to say anything). More often than not on this ride they were cheering as I went past. And if I hit a tricky section (as I did later on, a few gullies leading to sharp pinches) they would yell encouragement as I battled up the short rises. When I hit my ‘snail single track’ sections, I’d hear them catch up behind me, and yell back ‘sorry, I’ll pull over as soon as I can’ to which they’d call back ‘no worries, you’re doing great!’ This more than anything made the race incredibly fun, and helped me stay very positive even when I was suffering later on.
A few kms later and I rolled through checkpoint Charlie for the last time. Only 11kms to go, and I’m feeling amazing! No cramps, no drama aside from my feet being on fire, but that’s (unfortunately) becoming my norm, so I could deal with it and keep pedalling. Rounding the corner, I spotted my first woman rider since Jo at the 17km mark.
And the chase was on.
But it wasn’t pretty.
Turns out that last 10km of the course are THE WORST 10km of the entire race. Lovely open firetrails gave way to rocky single track, pinchy climbs, windy roads, and other assorted obstacles which, in my increasingly fatigued state, became more and more difficult. And with that came back that insidious voice again. This is too hard. It’s too hard to chase her. She’s probably not even in your category, look at her, she’s young, you’ll never catch her, might as well just give up. Give up. Give up. My speed got slower, and slower, and I started making stupid mistakes. Wrong lines, ugly too slow cornering. Eventually I hit an incredibly nasty pothole on a wide open track (looked at it, said to myself do NOT ride into that… and then proceeded to hit it square on) which nearly bounced me off my bike, caused me to slam my left hand into the handlebars, and then sent the back of the bike flying up to hit me square in the butt. And knocked some sense back into me.
All right. Enough of this. Let’s finish this stupid thing.
So the chase was back on. I’d come close, then lose her again, then closer, and closer… and finally on a wide section of track I came up next to her. She looked over, face full of pain as well, and we both agreed that it would great if this was OVER RIGHT NOW please. Please let it end. So I took the lead, and off I went, with her right behind me. But fatigue was kicking in now, and the track wasn’t smooth enough for me to get my gel out, I was just hanging on at this stage. Another km or so later I saw a split in the track: A-line or B-line? Hard or easy? I chose the C-line, and stopped right between them. My heart rate hadn’t dipped below 175 for the last few kms, and I was starting to feel pretty bad. So I took a break, had a gel and some water, and expected the other woman rider to fly past me at any moment. But she didn’t, so I clipped back in and started to head down the B-line, only to see her come up behind me and hit the A-line… and get stuck!
That was all I needed, I hammered past her and on to the trail, knowing there was only a few kms left in the race. I hoped. With just over 2km left to go it was up and over the bridge, and then onto tracks that I recognised from the women’s series. I was nearly finished! I tagged onto some guys in front of me and away we went towards the finish line. “We’re nearly done!” one yelled out behind me. “I know!” I yelled back excitedly, and we hit the Sidewinder Shortie section on the way to the finish. I knew even if she was right behind me, it was all single track now and she couldn’t get past. Flying through the berm into the finish line, I was done. A little fist pump, a little woohoo… and then I rode straight to where I had put my gear so that I could rip my stupid shoes off. My kids and husband came over to hug (and then perhaps decide not to) me after the race.
One of the differences between MTB and road racing was summed up by Waz before the race:
If you can find a wheel to follow do that because unlike road racing when you are generally in a group MTB is an individual sport but having someone in front of you keeps you focussed.
And because of that individual sport thing, at the end of the race I had absolutely no idea how I did. I know I passed every woman that I saw, that that I hadn’t seen anyone else in front of me, so perhaps I did okay?
Well, no. Turns out the reason I hadn’t seen any other women was that they were SO far in front of me, and I wasn’t even close to a podium in my age category. And that woman I chased for eight kms and then finally overtook? She came third in her category (way to go Mel!). And Miss Viss who had been hot on my tail and ended up passing Mel just before the finish line came 2nd in her category.
So I still have a lot to learn about MTBing. But you know, I’m not too old to give this a go. And I can have a crack at this stuff. Because why the heck not?
Was it hard work?
Will I be back next year?
So what about The Pioneer?
Well unfortunately unless I fall into a monster pile of cash this one is out for this year. But I hear there might be another event planning in the wings…
So stay tuned 🙂
- 51km with 785m elevation
- Time: 2 hours 56 minutes and 7 seconds
- Average speed: 17.3 km/h
- Max speed: 45.4 km/h
- Average heart rate: 171
- Highest heart rate: 188
- Average temperature: 23 degrees C