Words by Chris Giuliano
“I can see one, two, three… seven, eight… fifteen kangaroos… aaahh… four emus, and… one, two…, eight, nine… eleven jumps! How good is this place?!”
Sure, I could have announced the new day to other occupants of the room with the usual “Good morning”, but that cliché isn’t going to cover how absolutely GREAT today was going to be. Unlike myself, my fellow lodgers had never been to (nor seen, since we arrived in the dark), the Bungarra Alpine Centre, nor had they raced the Snowy Triple Trail. If they had known what I knew, they would be as giddy with excitement as I was. And the morning’s sky was blue, blue, blue, which meant the only uncontrollable element in the completion of a great weekend was going to be rain-free.
Jack Lavis leads Aaron Bashford and Ben Comfort at the start of the second stage at Bungarra.
As I reported last year, the Snowy Triple Trail was the best event I’d ever been to and was now my favourite race of the year. I wanted so much to share this event with other mountain bikers that my goal was to get a worse result than last year. Yes, worse. Let me explain. Last year I came fourth overall out of about forty competitors, my usual 10:90% result, but this year I wanted to come outside the top ten because I wanted to bring enough riding buddies along that I would be pushed down the results list, which meant I needed more than a hundred particpants. So for the past few months I’d asked… or more accurately harassed, cajoled, ridiculed and bribed many riders to come along. Unfortunately many of them were pre-committed to Fitz’s Challenge, the Husky 100, the Cape Epic, or injury [heal up Kye!], and so our crew was not as large as I had hoped. But what we lacked in quantity, we made up in quality: Onya Bike Team member Aaron Bashford, Giant Off Road Team member Scott Chancellor, Target Trek rider Jack Lavis, Rock Star Racing’s Dylan Cooper, and Onya Bike Woden manager, A Grade sprinter and keen bird watcher Bob Mathieson (whose highlight of the weekend was seeing a pair of dromaius novaehollandiae in flagrante delicto). Rounding out the heavy hitters from the Canberra MTB world were the small spherical object hitters hockey player Emma Taylor and golfer Madison Giles. We also had one non-racer with us, Bronwyn, who so enjoyed the relaxing locations last year that she braved the increased level of UV at altitude to accompany us again.
The format of the race was simple. Three stages at different locations – lowest accumulated time gets the cash prize of $500 each to the fastest man and woman, and $250 to each of the fastest man and woman over 45 years of age. The first stage was a nine kilometre individual time trial at the Mill Creek trails between the Lake Jindabyne dam wall and Tyrolean Village. The next stage was Saturday arvo and was a 20km XC race at Bungarra. On Sunday morning was another XC race of a tad over 40km at Lake Crackenback Resort. That’s two days, three distinct courses, three to four hours of hard racing, epic singletrack, one free Kosciusko Pale Ale, one free Snowy Mountains cookie, one discounted meal at Serges Cage, and, in an impressive and clever addition, photos of yourself from photographer Steve Cuff. Work out the price of all that and you’ll see the hundred and a bit dollar entry fee is the best value around.
After breakfast we drove off to the first stage; an individual time trial from Tyrolean Village almost to the dam wall and back. The course was in dense natural bushland and consisted of almost 100% singletrack. The ‘out’ section consisted of some technical descents and three climbs, each bigger than the previous, and then an undulating higher-speed return using some of the more-tourist-friendly main groomed trail that traverses the contour between the dam and the Village. We all registered and then went for a practice lap, during which I was reminded that, well Toto, we weren’t in Canberra anymore: crank placement, crank-ratcheting, popping the front wheel onto or over obstacles, quick front/back weight transfers, precision steering, and good ol’ fashioned rolling down rocks and hoping for the best were the bevy of techniques needed to conquer the course. The course designer (and Bungarra’s builder of exquisite trails) Paul said that “This is not an easy race.” And it isn’t. Before you come and race next year (and you most definitely should), I’d recommend spending some time at Jerrabomberra, Tuggeranong Pines, and hitting some of the technical climbs and descents at Stromlo like Blood Rock and Western Wedgetail.
The vibe before we all set off on our race runs was great. There were so many familiar Canberran faces I could have been at a CORC race. I was riding around and saying hello to everyone and introducing myself to known but previously un-met riders. I was like the hostess working the room at a cocktail party, though one difference would be that I cared a lot more that my accessories matched my outfit (black and blue shoes arrive any day now). You could see the organisers were stoked at the turnout – Paul and Rob had been working for years to get Rolling Ground events happening. The amount of love they have put into their event can only be compared to an infinite number of monkeys hugging for an infinite number of years in a room of abandoned typewriters.
The course started at a higher elevation than it finished, so we rode our way up the asphalt road to the start. People were riding up and down the road, warming up, or hanging around the start line chatting about trails and bikes. The first few riders were to be set off in the finish order from last year which meant Aaron would start first, followed by Ben Comfort, then Peter McKellar-Stewart and then me. Then the organisers inserted two late-entry fast riders before us: Dylan and junior rider Guy Frail. One by one, we set off at thirty second gaps, sprinting away from the applause and yells and into the quiet Australian bush, where soon the only thing I could hear was the sound of my own breathing, especially once I hit the first climb.
The practice lap meant nothing. At race effort, things were very different. Things I cruised up thirty minutes earlier felt like purgatory, and the climbs left me so fatigued that on the descents obstacles I planned to float over like Baryshnikov were bumbled over like a dead sailor. I saw Pete ahead of me and ever so slowly gained on him, and finally overtook him right at the bottom of the final climb whose top marked the turnaround point. I knew this was the last big climb and therefore where I could really make up some time. So I dug deep. I heard a rider behind me. At first I thought it was Pete but I heard Pete giving encouragement to the person that just overtook him. I thought to myself that it must be fifth place gaining thirty seconds on me. I heard the rider’s polite overtaking call. Since the climb was a very wide at this point I barely had to pull to the side and then the rider was beside me and started pulling away up the hill, giving me some quiet and calm encouragement with no more breathlessness than if we were skiers chatting on a rope tow. It is my fellow lodge-mate Scott, taking a minute off me even before the half-way point. ‘The bastard’ I jealously think to myself, but I yell “Go Scott!” When I recover from the effort needed to yell, I yell “It’s the final climb!” meaning he should bury himself up it. He doesn’t hear me but it makes no difference as he flies up the switchbacks we’ve just reached as if they were pointing downhill. Scott and I have ridden together quite a bit but I have never seen him at race pace until now. And in a matter of seconds I can’t see him at all.
Peter McKellar-Stewart gets some air on the lower portion of the main descent.
I dig deep and in a few minutes I make it to the top of the hill. I know that the climbs are all over bar a few smaller rises here and there, but the bigger worry is the technical nature of what comes next. I am weakened by my maximum effort (fast enough to get a Strava KOM for one of the climbs, though it was eradicated the moment others uploaded their results). I genuinely fear for my safety. To throw caution to the wind on trails whose rocks remain exactly where God put them would not be prudent. I put the cap of maturity on my head and strike a nice balance between safety and speed. I know the course and I’m relieved when I hit the groomed main trail where I can rest a little for the final technical finish. In a treeless field I check that there is no-one behind me. I think or dream to myself that I am more of a technical than fitness rider, and therefore this is stage is the one where I can make up the most time. Then reality hits me and I just try to make it to the end without dying, be it from heart failure or hitting something very, very solid.
I see the orange tape of the finish chute and have to stand to make it up the final nasty twist of a pinch within metres of the line. A round of golf applause greets me and I’m handed a bottle of water. I overtook one rider and was overtaken by one. Net result – zero gain/loss. I turn to watch others roll in and look at their numbers to gauge how fast they had been. Pete comes across the line, followed very closely by another lodge-mate Jack Lavis. He is competitor number 12. “Geez Jack, you must have overtaken six riders!” “Seven”, he corrects me, in a voice that fools you into thinking he is older than he really is because it sounds like he has been smoking for twice as long as he’s been alive.
I upload my Strava ride and it shows that I’ve gone faster than last year; that’s all that I could have hoped for and regardless of my result, I know I have to be happy with my effort. Interestingly, last year I had competed on my carbon Anthem 29er, but this year I was on the aluminium Anthem 27.5, which is exactly the same weight. Was I fitter, or was the 27.5 faster? Or a little bit of each? All I know is that the twenty-seven-five sure as hell didn’t slow me down on a course that had a bit of everything. And, most importantly, it looks great with all my race kits.
One by one all but one of our gang finish, so I ride and walk the trail against the grain to find Emma in case the course is getting the better of her, pretending to be a gentleman. I shouldn’t have worried, as she is smiling when she comes into sight and is free of any signs of crashing. I give her a little space and ride to the finish with her. I am obviously not her lucky charm as she has gets balled up on the worst set of rocks on the entire course and falls sideways right in front of me. As she picks herself up I apologise profusely for putting her off but she blames herself. We finish the course while blood trickles from her knee to her socks. Emma isn’t put off by the accident, which I have to attribute to her years of top-level hockey. She’s been through far more pain during combat with a bunch of ex-private-school girls wielding big sticks.
Louise Cook leads Ronja Hill-Wright in what was an intense battle for the Women’s title.
We all decide to utilise our vouchers at Serge’s Café for a very early and tasty lunch, some of us driving there, some of us riding via the new groomed trail all the way into town. I must have breathed hard on my race run because ‘pursuiter’s cough’ accompanies me all through lunch.
After lunch, we return to the quietness of Bungarra where we snack, sleep, drink, chat, and joke around in the warm sun and await the next race that starts within cooee of our lodge. To say that staying at Bungarra is convenient is an understatement. When we can take no more relaxation, in twos and threes we gradually splinter away from the lodge to ride the course. I am most anxious to try out the new climb and descent that Paul has been building since Winter.
Results from the first stage have been posted at the second stage start area. The order is Dylan, Aaron, Ben Comfort, Scott, Guy Frail and then Jack. One minute seventeen seconds covers these six fastest men. Scott is only ten seconds behind Ben, so I’m hoping he can make it up and our lodge can get the trifecta for the men. The women’s order is Louise Cook, Claire McDonnell and Ronja Hill-Wright. A forty-five second blanket covers those three. I make a mental note to keep an eye on the women’s battle and keep my fingers crossed that Louise can defend her title.
My personal results, of which moments before I saw the morning’s placing didn’t care about, were suddenly cranked up in importance due to pride. I’m in 13th followed by Bob ten seconds behind, and Maddo is two places and one minute behind me. Distance-wise, we’ve only covered one sixth of the race, so there’s plenty of room for those two to crush my newly-seeded dreams of beating the both of them. Normally I wouldn’t have a chance against Maddo, his laps at the Scott 24 were a few minutes faster than mine, but he’s recently fallen in love with his 27.5 Trance and won’t ride anything else. The Trance would have been helpful in the morning, but not so much over the next two smoother stages. Both of them have many roadie miles in their legs, unlike myself, so the sixty plus kilometres of racing over the next two stages are going to be interesting for the three of us.
Scott, Maddo and I start our practice lap, but we ignore the rest of the course and go straight for the main climb. The climb consists of switchbacks through a eucalypt-covered hill – Round Hill. There are many switchbacks to the top. There are so many that you think “This must be the last one” but it isn’t. And then soon you think the same thing, but you find you are wrong again. You have the same thought one or two more times after that, and then you reach the top. And then it’s ‘payoff’ time. If you like riding it, it’s on this descent. There are berms, jumps, drops, flat corners, a rocky chute or two, some parts to make you slow and think “What do I do here?” and some more berms and a few more humps and jumps thrown in. Paul and co have built a good trail. And when I say good, to qualify it, I hear Maddo behind me say out loud but to himself “This is the best descent I’ve ever ridden” and we were only about two-thirds of the way down. The final third gets less and less tight and the speed increases as you head to what would normally be the end of the descent. Fortunately for us sixty racers, Paul, in a stroke of genius, made the descent even longer by linking it to a wonderful flat-cornered descent on the other side of a fireroad. It ended up being a descent of 150 vertical metres over 2.5 km, and quality the entire way. The three of us have smiles from ear to ear.
We head back to the start in time for race briefing, except for Maddo who flatted on the descent – he’s back at the lodge doing a hasty repair. Luckily for Madison we are told there is a ten minute wait for the gun. Riders re-start their warm-up routine while Madison pumps the last of the necessary air into the tyre.
On the start line I consign myself to the second row with Maddo and Bob, with all the guns on the front. Rob starts the race and there is a massive sprint on the fireroad designed to sort us all out. I’ve taken off at my usual slow pace and am quickly outsprinted by many, but once we turn a corner and the fireroad turns uphill the wheat is sorted from the chaff quicksmart. I’m on Bob’s tail and Maddo is nearby so there is no need to panic. Once we hit the singletrack Bob and I find ourselves cruising behind some young guys who’ve bitten off too much too early. Bob won’t have any of that and with a commanding voice sees them off the trail. After a few constant radius flat turns we get to the other very long, low-grade meandering climb to the second-highest point of the course. The turns have no camber and feel a little loose at our magnificent speed. Bob leads a group of about half-a-dozen and we are climbing well, until, suddenly, Bob’s rear wheel starts sliding out at an apex, and it takes the other ninety degrees of corner for the wheel to get so far out of alignment that Bob falls to the inside of the corner and onto the soft grass. I could just tell he was thinking “I’m gonna catch this, I’m gonna catch this…” by the way he doesn’t try to correct the slide, and by the look of shock on his face as he rolls onto his back. Hilarious. He executes a text-book commando roll and he looks to be perfectly fine. On reflection he may have actually laughed, the sign of a guy who’s in this sport for the right reasons. I start to laugh as I check he’s alright, though I don’t even contemplate slowing down. “Bob, are you.. ha ha ha… are you ha ha ha okay?” I hear him shout that he is and by the time I’ve rounded the following corner I look around to see he is already up and back on the train.
The author on the main descent. As you can see, the sweat band on my wrist is not just for show.
As much as I’d like to ride for fun, I have a grudge match to win, so I get to a pace I know I can sustain for two laps and gradually pick off a few more riders, constantly checking over my shoulder for Bob and Maddo. The meandering climb and sparsely populated trees make it easy to spot the Onya Bike blue-clad duo. I’m not leaving them for dead but if I can keep this up I at least won’t lose any time to them, and may even gain a few seconds buffer for the longer race tomorrow. I think I’ve gained more of a lead by the time I get to the top of the climb, so on the BMX track of a descent I keep a cool head and rest, happy to get a few nice manuals and jumps on the way down. There’s another kilometre or two of singletrack, including another meandering but small climb and a sapping bit of grass to negotiate, before I find myself in the start/finish chute to end lap one of two. I start the final lap which, unlike the first lap, includes the big climb which starts right away.
I chat a little to Geoff Hale, the eventual winner of the men’s Masters category (at this race it is 45+). We get to the first of, if I’m been told correctly, forty-three switchbacks. I lead the first dozen and then Geoff takes the lead and ever so slowly pulls away. I’ve got a good rhythm and I’m working hard. I keep looking down the fall-line to monitor Bob and Maddo. Bob starts to get closer, and I feel he is making an attack. Maddo is also not far behind Bob. After decades of racing I know how hard I can go and for how long, so I refuse to go any faster for fear of ‘popping’ and blowing the entire race. Bob and Maddo get closer. I yearn for the top of the climb to end as I think I could probably hold off Bob on the descent, but I sure as hell will need a lead over Maddo in order to keep ahead of him, his text-book cornering, and his longer-travel Trance.
Several times I look up the hill only to see Geoff still meandering his way up a few switchbacks ahead. When will this climb end? More switchbacks. Seriously, when will this end? I look down towards the chasers and see the familiar blue and black jersey, only it is Madison who is closest now and Bob is nowhere to be seen. I assume that he has simply popped on the climb. When the last switchback is finally behind me, I am spent and can’t summon the body-English to do the first techo part of the descent justice. I focus on reduced braking in an effort to maintain some ‘free’ speed, though I know it’s not free because the potential energy I am expending was paid for dearly in sweat and, by the feel of my deadened legs, lactic acid. I expect Madison to catch me at any moment, but my body freshens with every second of coasting. I soon start to attack the descent and summon the guts to obey some spectators’ chants of ‘Drop! Drop! Drop!’ at a large drop I skirted in practice. When the descent mellows towards the bottom I follow Scott’s example on the practice lap and put the power down, cross the fireroad to the cheers of Paul’s wife Helen, and nail the next dozen corners to the lowest point of the course.
I’m still nearly six kilometres from the finish and have over a hundred vertical metres to climb, and is that something blue I can see over my shoulder?
To be continued…
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