New to the enduro calendar, the inaugural Kowalski Classic would meld sections of Sparrow Hill and the neighboring Kowen’s Forest, to produce a 90 km loop with lots and lots of wiggle. Anyone who has ridden the Mont24 (which in recent years has used both venues) knew what to expect, and we were not disappointed.
And it falls just 2 weekends before the Scott24 solo, so would be a good hit out to see where I’m at relative to the competition. “The Competition” primarily equating to one rider in particular, alluded to in my Convict100 post but whom I will refrain from naming here, as I’m trying to fly under the radar, you see. Long story short; in 2010 24solo worlds he won the 35-40 age group category, finishing 7th outright, posting 21 laps to my 19 (44th outright), and has since greyed sufficiently to now compete in my age division for domestic events (40-50). He seems to win or podium in everything he has competed in since (which is most weekends), and at last years Scott24 finished 5th outright, topping the masters podium, a feat he often achieves with daylight second. In short, this guy is a bit of a machine; good engine, good skills. He is also foolish enough to post a well-written blog with his name attached to it, which makes it easy to see; which races he is crushing, his recent experiences in the brutal 2012 Trans-Alp stage race in Austria, and where his weaknesses lie (only one in this department, discussed later). In the lead up to the Kowalski I’ve been telling all and sundry that I will be giving him a run for his money at the Scott24.
Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, as with rose-tinted goggles I can boldly state that back in 2010 another lap or two might have been possible. But it can be delusional as well, and I’m starting to suspect that my mouth might already have bitten off more than my body can chew, if the Kowalski is any indicator.
Having been humbled by The Competition to the tune of 18 minutes during the Convict100 in May, whilst in good condition on a course that suits my meagre abilities (although not necessarily the attributes of a 26er), I was keen to see how we compared over a very different 90 km. The answer turned out to be approx. 33 minutes slower. The Competition cruised home in 4:34 (3rd in division, 11th outright), to my 5:07 (13th in division, 48th outright, of ~300).
I started in the second wave and had to burn a few matches early to gain entry to the single-track ahead of a bunch of riders whom shouldn’t really have seeded themselves so highly (so I arrogantly thought). The Competition, who also nominated to start in the second wave thought better of it when it came to the crunch, starting on the tail-end of the elite field (wave 1). A smart move, but probably not making much difference in the end. The devil on such a course is in the detail, and the detail in this case was literally hundreds, if not thousands of corners which would have to be negotiated. I am always a bit rusty at the start of these things and it took me probably 10 or 15 km to get into the groove, but I was genuinely enjoying the trails. Corners are great when you rail them with a semblance of competence and efficiency. But come about the 30-35 km mark the engine room was having trouble delivering the power I had started with. Coupled with the chronically sore lower back, which faithfully shows when I go hard on the mtb, I started to lose a bit of focus, riding the brakes too heavily and not leaning the thing over enough. Riders I had crushed earlier started to file back past me, one by one, and there was little I could do about it, apart from bid them fair well with the ear-splitting squeal of my rotors as I butchered yet another corner.
Navigation was a bit of an issue as well. Most of the course was well marked, but at one stage, with two riders hot on my heels, I somehow missed a RHT at a junction of single tracks, and blasted through another halk K of descending wiggles only to be spat directionally onto an unmarked fire road. Another half K descending later it was obvious that we’d (that is, I’d) messed up. With curses aplenty from my companions, who subsequently left me in their dust, we about-faced and had to grind everything in reverse to regain what should have been a speedy right hander into a lovely traverse section. Coupled with my aching back this ~5 min penalty tempered my enthusiasm for trying to hold position, and I rolled into the 50 km transition seriously questioning whether I wanted another 40 km of this shit.
I was running a no-stop strategy but did pick up half a banana from the basket as I passed through. A few Kms later I actually got off for a few minutes to relieve myself (no probs with hydration), and lie on the ground and arch my back, all whilst more riders cruised by. The 75 km feed couldn’t come soon enough. I was well hydrated but underdone with regards effort expended and carbohydrates taken in. During the first half of the race there were hardly any stretches of non-wiggly trail making feeding extremely difficult, but I should have taken more care to ensure I topped up. At the final feed a mouthful of chips was washed down with half a banana and an orange quarter, to add to the two Cliff bars I’d consumed thus far. A little later the first caffeinated gel was consumed, and then magically, at the 80 km mark, the legs finally came good. Suddenly the pain in the lower back was gone, I was riding 2 gears heavier, and during the last 10 km about 10 riders were reeled in one by one and dispatched with. This was the sort of riding I love, the sort where you and the bike somehow become one. The only problem was that by the time this state was attained the race was over as far as The Competition was concerned.
My major off-piste diversion can’t really be held accountable for a below-expectation performance as subsequently, in the company of another rider I (we) unwittingly missed another turn, which this time more than compensated for my earlier screw-up. Half a Km later we were pleasantly surprised to meet riders whom had passed us a little earlier, turning back onto the trail we were running. Classic! At the end most riders had tales of assorted navigational errors. I’m sure the organisers will iron out some of these bumps for next year. At the finish my clock only read 89 km to the 90 expected, so all in all the 5:07 is probably a little flattering.
Ride of the day IMO goes to Ben, preparing for his first tilt at a 24solo and my soon-to-be stable mate in pit-lane, who on far fewer Kms lead up, and suffering his own blend of navigational hiccups did a time of 5:23 to cover 93 km. Accounting for a 4 km difference we did nearly the same time. So great ride Ben!
If nothing else my goal of flying under the radar of The Competition has been well met. Although a bit demoralized I am still hopeful that I might put in a good show at the longer format that is 24hr racing. If The Competition starts fast, as might befit the style of one with a chance of genuine overall podium honours, then maybe, as has happened in the past, he’ll suffer a bad patch in the wee hours, which might allow me to give him a late scare, assuming I run a smooth, intelligent, incident-free race – that’s a lot of assumptions (and pressure) BTW, in a game where a lot can go wrong. But having done some reconnaissance of the Stromlo course being served up I’m at least confident that accumulated laps will be a little kinder to the body than they were 2 years ago. At the very least I want to finally tick 20 laps at Stromlo, and run all the way through if possible. Fingers crossed.