Words by Chris Giuliano
So where was I up to? The princess was in the water. She was frightened. The shrieking eel came towards her… No, that’s not right… Oh yeah - I had just finished the longest descent at Bungarra of the second stage of three at the Snowy Triple Trail. I had two riding buddies (Madison Giles and Bob Mathieson) close behind me in the both in the standings after the first stage, and close behind me in the stage we were currently racing. I have about six kilometres to go. I only have to hold both Maddo and Bob off on the second biggest climb of the course, and hopefully maintain the gap on the descent. If I can do that, I would go into tomorrow’s stage with a few minutes’ lead over both, and then all I’d have to do was stick with them and victory in the grudge match in my head was all mind. Oops, I mean ‘mine’, ha ha.
Like all the trails at Bungarra, the climb ahead of me consisted of many, many corners. Even though there are only eighty vertical metres to the top, the meandering four kilometre track takes a toll on your legs because, although the grade is slight, there is no rest. I had competed in the Wicked Wombat in 2011, completing lap after lap of this climb on what was a freakishly hot day for the Snowy Mountains, so I know every turn and rock with a familiarity that only comes with the games one plays in one’s mind to try and suppress an unpleasant reality. So once again I tick off corners and obstacles to pass the climb, looking over my shoulder for the blue and black Onya Bike jersey of Madison, or perhaps Bob, who may have recuperated after popping on the major climb of the day. There is no sign of anyone behind me, of any jersey colour.
Colourmatch: The author beside the Little Thredbo River, making a scenic view even more lovely. Matching helmet, jersey, knicks, gloves, socks and frame is a complete fluke. I’ve just ordered a pair of shoes in this colour blue because it’s the only one that comes in ‘wide’, I swear.
If anyone was to ask for my racing ethos in one word (which they wouldn’t, but indulge my keyboard fantasy), it would be ‘consolidation’. During every race I always get to a point where I think “There’s no point trying to go any faster to gain a position, just keep this pace up and don’t get overtaken.” Out of countless races I’ve been in, I can count on one hand the times I’ve actually fought for position, and in nearly all of those cases it’s been because I was part of a team. I’ll fight for others, but I’m happy to consolidate my position when the only person I am accountable to is myself. So, on the final climb on the Bungarra stage of the Snowy Triple Trail, instead of looking for the next person to overtake, I look behind me. For four kilometres I look behind me often. I see no-one.
Just before the top of the climb, the terrain flattens and there is a nice big-ring-spin straight section, then a hairpin, and then more of a spin. It is the perfect precursor to the descent because it partially clears the legs of fatigue before the descent, and it clears the mind of the preceding consistent big-ring-grind and reminds you of what it is like to go fast. There a few final trees to get through and then you round a corner to see the track you will be on in moments. It is pretty much a four-cross track, with very big berms and jumps that you can roll, manual, or clear. The first berm is a little tight, but the rest of the corners are great fun and it is so easy to feel like a hero (or a waitress?) and clear the tables. It is also a bit of a rest, but you have to keep your wits about you. This descent can be relaxing after the climb, but you sure don’t want to relax. I’m cursing the fact that I don’t have a dropper post on my Anthem because I feel I could go a little faster and rail the berms a little harder. Not because I care about gaining time, but just because I want to enjoy this part of the course, and the corners on the singletrack that follows the jump trail. The flow comes to an abrupt dog-leg within sight of the start/finish area, but I know I still have about a kilometre to go. I cross a fireroad and start the final short loop, which has actually some really nice turns to it, skirt the flat grassy camping area, and then start another looping winding but small climb that, once again, is much longer in distance than the vertical gain would suggest. I know I have to spin out after such a race, so instead of keeping up my pace all the way to the end, I back off and start my warm-down spin early. I’m just trying to conserve energy for tomorrow’s forty kilometre race at Crackenback Resort, and I am exhausted. Shortly after starting the winding loops in the trees I finally see another competitor coming up behind me. He is close as the crow flies, but some distance as the track winds. It’s Maddo.
My warm-down comes to a halt as I put the gas on again; not quite a rolling boil, but certainly more than a simmer. I manage to maintain the gap as I cross a fire-road and into the final fast section of singletrack. I spin to a nice pace and then coast, my bike and a little gravity maintaining the pace. I cross the final fireroad and I’m in sight of the orange finishing chute, but, because this is Bungarra, there is still a short hairpin of trail to go. It takes me away from my destination, and then a sharp turn, and then I am facing the finishing chute again. I hear laughing to my side and, to my horror, Maddo has completely bypassed the hairpin and is heading straight for me, cutting the course severely and blatantly in the sight of the spectators, timekeepers, and the dozen guys who have already finished. He thinks it’s funny and the crowd’s laughter tells me he’s not the only one. I sprint for the line but when I look behind me, Maddo has hit the brakes just before the line, he waits a few gentlemanly seconds, and then rolls over the timekeeping mat, still laughing.
Thredboriver: Elise Burriss leads Eva Boland along the Thredbo River. I told you the Crackenback course was pretty.
I am so glad it is over, but I little disappointed that I didn’t get a bigger gap on Maddo. He says he could see me the entire way up the final climb; I guess I just didn’t see him. Not that I could have gone any faster. As I explained in Part One, I know exactly how hard I can push and for how long, and I just will not go beyond that, especially when tomorrow’s stage is the longest.
I roll around and spin out the legs, and while doing so I see my friend Saxon Cook. He’s on child-minding duties as his wife Louise defends her title. She hasn’t finished yet and there were only forty seconds covering first and third after the first stage. Knowing Louise, I expect she won’t be too far behind me. My expectations appear prescient because Saxon yells and points to the other side of the grass where Louise has just come into view. She obviously knows she is being pursued closely because she has her head down and is pedalling like mad, knowing every second counts. A few tens of seconds later and Claire McConnell comes into view, also head down and spinning furiously, trying to counteract Louise’s final effort.
The ‘gap minding’ that is part of the Snowy Triple Trail is another interesting aspect that only stage races have. As far as I know, this is the most accessible MTB stage race to Canberrans. It certainly makes a difference from other races where you have no idea how you are doing until after you cross the line. Last year the gaps messed with my head a little as I was only one spot away from a podium finish, but this year, it didn’t matter as much. It mattered, but not as much.
I spin down for a few minutes and then put the finish line behind me and our lodgings in sight. It is just so good to be able to finish a race and within seconds be ‘home’. Many of my fellow lodgers are lolling on the lodge’s front lawn, swapping race tales. Dylan Cooper won the stage, and Scott Chancellor did overtake Ben Comfort to come second in the Open Men, though came third overall in the stage behind Guy Frail, one of the Junior Men. Aaron Bashford punctured his Racing Ralphs (of course), losing quite a few places and possibly putting him out of contention for the overall podium. Jack Lavis, Bob, Maddo and I have all reflected our morning’s placings, give or take. Emma much preferred the easy Bungarra Trails to the Mill Creek technical first stage, as predicted. I know she’ll enjoy tomorrow’s beautiful trails at Lake Crackenback Resort too.
Once we’ve all showered and pulled on our best jeans and MTB logoed t-shirts, it’s off to the Banjo Patterson Inn in expectation of ribs. Alas, that was last year’s menu so instead we consume quantities of pasta, schnitzel, shanks, salmon and chips, repairing and rejuvenating our bodies with carbs, fats, and proteins. The race organisers Paul and Rob are there handing out the afternoon’s results to the many tables occupied by fellow racers, plus free-beer vouchers (or soft drink, for the young’uns and those with a young’uns’ complexion). There is much consumption and conversation, and then a few more rounds of consumption. Eventually we are the only table left in the restaurant, however the bar at the other end of the room is hosting a lady’s fortieth birthday. The bar area cranks up the music and Bon Jovi instantly turns the room into a Blue Light Disco, reminiscent of the birthday girl’s youth (and mine, cough). This is our signal to leave. On the way back to Bungarra my sober driving brings chastisement from my passengers. Even the owner of the vehicle wants me to give it a bit o’ wellie.
Sunday morning shows a white sky, but it soon lifts to reveal another bluebird day. The course at Lake Crackenback Resort is treed for the most part, thankfully. The loop starts with a little singletrack and then climbs to the top of a small MTB park with a few berms and small jumps, crosses the resort’s access road and then heads on a slight but very fun downhill run alongside the Little Thredbo River and then down to the Thredbo River, which it parallels for three kilometres. Riders then pedal back up to the start/finish area on a mix of single-, double-track and a service road that runs behind the resort. Race distance is three laps of an eleven kilometre loop. The trail is, for the most part, the least technical of the three stages, but there are a few spots down by the river where a few large rocks impede the flow, and there is one combination where you need to go over a rock with a large overhanging gum that needs to be avoided. At the race briefing Rob tells us that the combination has pushed riders into the cold, cold Thredbo River. I take mental note, as does everyone else, I’m sure. After last year’s race Aaron and I had a wash in that river and it was so cold it took my breath away, and a few other things disappeared too.
At the start line, again, Maddo, Bob, and I relegate ourselves to the second row. Louise is behind me and is nervous. She cannot lose time to Claire. Ronja has had to pull out due to aggravating a back injury of a few months prior. It seems both Louise and I only have a minute or two leeway to our main rivals. Last year I spent most of this stage riding for fun with Kye Hore and it was a great way to end the weekend; competition is just so… competitive. I hope to stick with Maddo and Bob, and we can make a black, white, and blue trio for the next two hours. At two and a half minutes behind me Bob is too far behind to threaten, especially since he popped on the main climb yesterday. Maddo is just over a minute behind and is fitter than me, but he’s on Trance which, on paper, shouldn’t be as fast as my Anthem. Barring disaster, the three of us should place exactly as we stand. Mind you, I am in eleventh overall which is on par with my goal of coming outside the top ten (see Part One for explanation) so, in reality, no matter what happens it is mission accomplished for me. I’ve already had a great time and I’ve shown others how great this race is.
I don’t know it yet, but before the bidon between my legs is finished, I will be fighting as hard as I’ve ever fought in a race.
Dylan: Dylan says “When you see a photographer: flex, fingers off brakes, and ‘blue steel’.” He’s actually forgotten to flex his calves in this photo.
The front row takes off as Rob’s countdown completes the word ‘one’, just like it did yesterday. The rest of us go on ‘Go’. As is my way, I just try to avoid the hustle and bustle and I don’t sprint like a madman like the rest of the contents of the washing machine that is the first minute of a mass start. Bob and Maddo are also content to lose a few places to the over-enthusiastic and we are all within a rider or two of each other. The three of us keep pace with the maelstrom, even turning to yell at each other just for the fun of it. Both are great guys, and just two of the reasons that, after trying many sports, I finally settled on MTB for life. Some say that “Hell is other people”, but I think Heaven wouldn’t be much chop if you were the only one there.
Bob gets his road crit face on and blasts past me and a few others with a whoop, Maddo in tow. There’s suddenly half a dozen riders between them and me as we hit the first singletrack, but I don’t care. I’ll overtake these guys and catch up to them shortly. Or so I think. On the very short but very steep climb to the top of the MTB park I overtake a few riders. There’s no opportunity on the few berms of the descent, so I overtake a few more between the bottom of the park and the open space to the start of the fast descent that’ll take us beside the river. There’s now only one rider between me and Maddo – Cam Lange, who first came to my attention when Strava, on an annoyingly regular basis, would tell me “Uh oh. Cam Lange just stole your KOM by 15 seconds.” Cam is fast, way too fast for me to overtake, and I think it would be sort of pointless too as our speed is quite respectable. What I don’t realise is that the group that Maddo and Bob are in are ever so slowly gapping us. There are some amazing turns on this first section, and Cam nails them all. I’m very content to let him be the ‘corner speed’ guinea pig as it is always easier to follow someone going fast than to lead the same person. So I sit back and follow Cam and groupe Maddo imperceptibly stretch the gap between Cam and I. I see them every time the terrain widens or the trail straightens so I don’t panic.
After a few minutes of me having the slightly easier time, when we get to one of the straighter sections I ask Cam if I can overtake. He secedes and wishes me all the best. This sport is full of good people. My speed picks up only a little as I work the pedals and the terrain towards the Thredbo River. I think that I only have to go slightly faster than the group ahead and I will catch them. This is true, but exactly how fast are they going?
By the time I reach the Thredbo River I start to realise that it is going to be harder than I thought to reel them in. Maddo is tall and easily spotted up ahead, but the effort I am now putting down is only just enough to perceive a decrease in the lead. For three kilometres of slightly undulating, narrow terrain, on what is normally a ‘fun’ trail, I push myself close to maximum effort. I finally catch up to Maddo at the turn-around point at the furthest reach of the course, and I breathe a mental sigh of relief that I will be able to draft the group on the double-track and rest a while… but that was last year’s course. This year, there is new singletrack in this section, and one needs to weave some turns between narrow-spaced trees before one can rest a little. What’s worse, Maddo has punished himself in keeping up with the grupetto, and asks me to help him catch up to the group, who have now started to gap him. I tell him that I am close to being done too, but I really want to catch the group and rest, so, I take the lead and try and drag the two of us up to Bob.
Maddo’s tall frame and larger bike doesn’t nip through the tight turns between the trees as easily as my middle-of-the-bell-curve carcass. Indeed it seems he has pushed hard to keep up with the group as on the straight sections he does not come back to my rear wheel, unusual for him. I slow up a tad so that Maddo can draft me when we finally get to the double-track. I want to help him rest so that we can work together to bring ourselves up to Bob. The devil on my shoulder wants to drop him so that, perhaps I can breach the gap to Bob. Bob popped on the main climb yesterday, there is no way he can keep this pace up. We are only half-way around the first lap of three. He won’t be able to keep this pace up, I tell myself again. Maddo and I discuss this and agree. Let’s just keep a level head and Bob will come to us. The angel on my other shoulder tells me to keep the lead so Madison and I talk and boost each other mentally like we have done on countless trail rides before. Every now and then we spot Bob and co, but it become rarer and rarer as they widen the gap.
When we finish the first lap we don’t even bother picking up fresh bottles. We hit the first shaded singletrack straight away, and twist and turn and backtrack towards the short pinch that takes us to the top of the mini-MTB park again. Bob descends the park as we climb up beside it. When he hits a certain berm I start counting seconds. Maddo and I climb to the top of the park and then descend it, and I hit Bob’s berm at a count of sixty. He is one minute ahead after one lap with two laps to go. If we all stay at exactly the pace we have been going, he will overtake me in the overall standings by thirty seconds. Or he’ll pop, like he did yesterday, and the three of us will finish the race together. Or perhaps I’ll just blast past him with a whoop!
Maddo and I reach the start of the long descent to the river. He leads and we talk. He tells me that Bob told him he was going to try to overtake the both of us, an outcome joked about at the dinner table. It seems Bob is serious. We swap leads and by the time we get to the Thredbo River once again either we are overtaken or we catch up to a guy in black and white, either way, there’s someone in front of me that I talk to. He is a good rider and springs over a certain large boulder like a gazelle; perfect form. We ride and I’m tired. We make it to the turn-around point where I pop my one and only Gu of the race. I usually avoid caffeine but I feel I need a boost, even a placebo, whatever. The turnaround point on the second lap means we are half-way through the race, which is a little depressing, but it also means we have some time to catch Bob. We negotiate the tight section of trees again and there we find Jack Lavis standing beside the track, holding his ribs. He jumps back on his bike and joins our little train. He tells us that he tried to keep up with the big guns on the first lap and it hurt a rib injury he sustained in a crash at the Scott 24 Hour, but he’s fine. I can use a fit guy like Jack at this point and I tell him we need to catch Bob. Jack jumps on the front when we get onto the double track and I’m glad of the rest. He cranks the big ones out and we hang on, and I’m feeling we are definitely going faster. The guy in black and white gets dropped.
Jack and I swap leads all the way back to the start/finish area and then he quits the race, to my disappointment because I could use a fit young guy like him. Use to my own advantage, that is.
Before the race I had set up a marquee for my little gang of soldiers, and so that Bronwyn has somewhere to hide her fair skin from the high-altitude sunlight. For the first time in my life I actually throw my bottle and then grab a fresh one from the table without slowing down. It makes me feel good and fast – not a second wasted.
Maddo and I start the third and final lap. As we head towards the MTB park we can’t see Bob at all. I time it and he is definitely more than three minutes ahead of me, and at least four ahead of Maddo. “He’s done it!” I yell and Maddo agrees. I still have the vast majority of a lap to go and I think if I really try hard, I may be able to keep the gap to a less than two and a half minutes. Uncharacteristically, I continue to fight. Maddo and I make decent speed along the Little Thredbo River. He has one of the smoothest styles I’ve ever seen and, like all good riders, makes everything look effortless. Even when he rides at his limit he shows no sign that he is pushing: not a bobble, not a correction mid-corner, nothing. I’m told his golf swing is jaw-dropping and I believe it.
By the time we get to the Thredbo River, I’ve been pushing myself hard and I’ve started to put a gap on Madison. The guy in black and white is back. I let him pass and follow him through exactly the same section as I followed him last time. If I had known we would come together again I would have just sat back and drafted him for a lap and saved a bit of energy. Every time I try to float over a rock I feel a twinge of cramp in my legs... great. The two of us get to the turnaround point and as it doubles-back on itself I hear Maddo yelling encouragement from the parallel track near the river. It makes me feel like less of a bastard for leaving him behind, but I’m a bastard nonetheless. How dare I drop one of my best riding buddies, who is obviously hurting, in a vain attempt to reel back Bob, probably taking me from thirteenth to twelfth overall, or some other insignificant ranking of race fodder. The real winners are probably finished by now.
Argh, who cares? I’ve got time to make up so I get behind black and white man and try to stick with him on the double track as long as possible, which isn’t very long and I’m all alone again. I don’t care about the solitude; it is the lack of help that is depressing. I bet Bob is in a gang of ten and sitting up and being sucked along in the wake, barely putting in a pedal stroke. Thoughts like this spur me to uncharacteristically stand on all the climbs, but my quads hurt and they have no power. I press on. I must minimise the gap.
I get to the first of the Crackenback Resort Houses, so I know I am not far, but I keep pushing as hard as I can – every second counts. If I lose to Bob by mere seconds I will kick myself, cramping legs or not, for not pushing as hard as I could have. So I push hard and I don’t give up at any point. If I finish so much as one second behind Bob I want to be honest with myself and know that I gave all I had. It’s all I can think about. The wind seems against me. I bet Bob is following someone out of the wind, my brain tells me in a kid’s nyah nyah voice. What is a bastard like me doing in a nice person’s sport like this?
The service road I am on turns into singletrack, and I know that is all that stands between me and the grassy finish chute. I stand on the climbs and I even pre-empt corners, things I didn’t do on the previous laps. I get to the final dog leg, and then there is a shortcut drop and I smash into the gutter next to the road, cross the road, and I’m on the final grassy horse-shoe-shaped finish. I pedal hard, cross a bridge at the bottom of the horse-shoe and then stand and sprint for the line. Rob announces my arrival and strangers clap me home.
I collapse on the grass and look for Bob. He is sitting in the marquee and he tells me he finished about five minutes ago (which is accurate). I congratulate him and we swap stories of how hard we pushed. Our stories are similar, but he was faster, and he was as solo as I was, contrary to my imagination. I didn’t do myself any favours in the first minutes of the race, and Bob asks me what the hell was I doing, cruising during the most pivotal part of any XC race. I’m lying on the grass, and I can only smile. I’m pleased with myself. I’m strangely happy and I feel fantastic. Weak, but fantastic.
I see that Emma is sitting in the marquee. She only did one lap. Her heart wasn’t in it, though she did admit the course was pretty. Speaking of pretty, Maddo crosses the line and he is toasted. The marquee turns into a cross between a garage sale and a seal colony, with bags and bottles and dirty bikes strewn amongst mammals lying around yelping. The fast guys in our gang are nowhere to be seen as they are on a warm-down ride, the sickos. Dylan won the stage, followed by Scott. Then there was the Junior rider Guy Frail, then Ben Comfort and Aaron Bashford. This is exactly the same placing when the final times of all three stages are added.
Saxon and his kids are there, anxiously awaiting the arrival of mummy, who needs to finish ahead of Claire to take the win. The first woman across the line is the Masters racer Karen Evans, and many minutes pass and I wonder if Louise is going to make it. Saxon says that Claire was with her the previous lap, but anything could have happened out on course. We both watch the final section of singletrack and we wait. She finally comes into view and there is no-one with her. She’s done enough to take the win.
I stumbled off to the café to buy whatever nutrition I could find, my legs jelly-like on the measly three steps to and from the café. Mmmm… my favourite: fat, protein and carbs with some sorta tasty sauce. Brain… was working… bad. Drink. Green stuff. And something cold from a can.
The presentations start mercifully shortly afterwards. The trophies look great. The crowd seem proud to have some big guns turn up to their little race (and I have no doubt that next year there will be more). All weekend Dylan Cooper showed everyone he has class on the bike, and he backed it up off the bike by donating his $500 cash prize back to the organisers, Paul and Rob, who will put it to good use within the Jindabyne Cycling Club helping junior riders.
Last year there was a trestle table full of spot prizes donated by local businesses, and when there were only forty competitors, I think everyone walked away with something they liked (last year’s gang of five still love our red anodized water bottles). This year there were two trestle tables full of goodies, some cycling related, some not. The first racer whose number was pulled out of a hat got first choice, and so on until the tables were emptied. I scored a bottle of Wild Brumby Pear Schnapps, which I was told by a local was an excellent choice. Once all the prizes were taken, there was a secret prize left over, and it was a very, very good one: two nights’ accommodation, breakfast, and a dinner at the Lake Crackenback Resort. I’ve stayed and eaten there and the couple that won it are very lucky indeed.
It was time to shower and pack up. So I showered and packed up. Getting into the car after such a great weekend was such an anti-climax, but all good things must come to an end. At least I know that I only have about three hundred and fifty days to wait until the next Snowy Triple Trail. And so do you… so do you.
Podium: From left to right: Ben Comfort in third, Dylan Cooper in first, and Scott Chancellor in second.
Results (1st, 2nd, 3rd)
Open Men: Dylan Cooper, Scott Chancellor, Ben Comfort
Open Women: Louise Cook, Claire McDonnell, Elise Burris
Junior Men: Guy Frail (3rd overall!), Tae Powell, Ballie Tallow
Masters Men: Geoff Hale, Warwick Dunstone, Hugh Kingston
Masters Women: Karen Evans, Michelle McFarline, Ursula Berchtold
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