The Nowra round of the Chocky Foot 7 hr got washed out and rescheduled to early August. This was actually a blessing in disguise, falling only a week after I was to return from Europe, hopefully with good miles and no sickness in my rucksack. The unanticipated downside was that I was finding it almost impossible to get over the jet lag, which seemed to be particularly powerful this time, perhaps due to the body clock having been rigidly calibrated by 2 weeks of exercise-fueled daylight discipline. Even though I returned on the Monday, I was still yet to sleep through, or anything even nearly approximating such a feat. Ben predicted that the 7 hr should cure that. He was right.
On top of sleeping terribly the other main stress during the week was the fact that the rear wheel on the superfly, which I was still in the process of getting tubeless and race ready, was holding air poorly. The front was shod with a Schwalbe NN, which inflated straight off the gun and didn’t lose a psi. On the rear I had issues getting a Conti Race King to fill out, which it eventually did, but it would be flat in the morning. I swapped to a second of these, again with a gallon of sealant sloshing inside and with much shaking but the end result was the same. A trip to the local bike shop and $120 later allowed for a Schwalbe RR to be fitted late Friday night. Fortunately, like the NN, it went straight up and stayed there.
Saturday morning was filled with a short test ride, running a few errands, and getting the car packed for the 3 hr drive south. I arrived at about 4:30 pm with just enough time to roll a lap. The course was a fast and relatively non-technical 10.5 km loop, with very little climbing – even lacking the usual pinch climbs that normally extract one from a gully. I was hoping for something a bit lumpier which might better suit my abilities. The big powerful units were going to love it.
The classically shitbox car of Welch’s materialized just as the sun was setting. Phil and I got our tents up then made the short drive to Nowra, in my equally shitbox jalopy (although it does have central locking), getting a decent feed at “Wing and a Pear”. It was windy in town but nothing compared to what had been going down at the campsite. The innards of my crappy tent (under the fly it is merely a stylized mosquito net) were already coated in a layer of filtered sediment. Terrific. I positioned the car, eskies and other large objects as close as possible to act as a windbreak. As I lay in bed to the sound of a hurricane I wondered, not whether any branches from the small sized eucalypts overhead would dislodge, but whether the entire things were going to become uprooted and collapse over the car.
Flecks of particulate swirled past my face as I tried to read myself to sleep. Small dunes collected on various ripples on the sleeping bag. The down jacket stayed on to counter the wind chill. Eventually the winds subsided. By 1 am the air was deathly still – a sea of tranquility. The Doppler-style drones of cars moving along the distant Princess Hwy were now clearly audible. As were the reverberations of neighbours clearly doing a better job of snoozing than I was. The canine contingent, scattered about vastly separated properties were now touching base in a Morse code of yaps and yowls. 2 am and the crickets were still going. By 3 am the winds had returned and I finally drifted off. I was first out of the tent at 5:30 am. It must be love.
Of the 90 odd solo competitors almost half are in the Masters category, which at the pointy end contains the usual suspects; McAvoy, James, Bellchambers, and Welch. Bellchambers it turns out is scratched (sick). Welch suggests that Moore is another quality rider to be wary off. Once again if I can crack top 5 I’ll be happy. Ben turns up just in time to get his stuff sorted before the start. He is sick as a dog so will be out to simply enjoy the trails.
The “self seeding” at the start is once again a complete shemozzle. I felt a little embarrassed pushing in about a third of the way down the field. I haven’t quite got the balls to plonk myself near the head just yet. Welch had no such shame and (quite rightly) sneakily planted himself near the front row, rubbing handlebars with all the other solo and team guns.
I managed to dust off a dozen or so riders on the opening firetrail before riding the conga line for much of the first lap, a 34 minute split. Disadvantage; losing 2-4 minutes on my rivals. Advantage; getting a no-pressure feel for the new race platform, and saving my matches. The hardtail is great. The rear end is so light that a roll of the wrists is enough to pick the tail over various obstacles. I’m soon bunny hopping log clusters I would never have cleared cleanly on the dually. Slowly getting used to position and front wheel traction. The front washes a little on occasion, but each time I manage to recover it.
And so the laps start to accrue, just a tad over 30 min splits. I’m swigging the usual half-half mix of endura and staminade, with a gel every second lap, but not having to drink too heavily due the cool and (very) windy conditions. At 3hrs I try a bottle of perpetuem, courtesy of Ben. Hmmm. Two bottles later I go a bidon of coffee milk – much more palatable.
It’s been fun thus far but I’m starting to hurt and I’m wondering about my race standing. I get my first glimpse of Welch at the four and a half hr mark. Out the back the hour-glass course crosses itself via a bridge/tunnel arrangement. I’d previously timed this loop at about 5 min. Just as i’ve come off the top Welch is going under. We see each other. I convince myself I’m feeling good and put down a harder lap, all with a view to seeing what the gap will be in 30 minutes time. Much to my astonishment Welch is already through the tunnel, having pulled a further 30 seconds on me. I squeeze out another fast one. This time Welch is even further up the road when I hit the bridge. Too good.
I take a few slower laps as I’m now struggling with fatigue and with the mathematics of whether I’ll be quick enough to sneak through to start a final loop before the 7 hr cutoff. The rear wheel is now slamming into obstacles I would have picked it over earlier in the piece. Funnily enough, despite this being my first hard-tail experience, everything seems to be hurting apart from the posterior. An extra lap is certainly doable, so with two laps to go I poison the entrails of a bottle with a can of red bull. Should get me home.
On my penultimate lap I finally catch Ben and we chat during the small loop of the hourglass. To his enquiry of “where’s Welch”, I reply, “about 10 minutes up the road”. We part company on the fireroad that follows, which is where I’ve been doing all my feeding, and take my first swig of the rufous bovine. About half a km later magic happens and I catch a glimpse of what looked like Welch’s jersey flitting through the trees. That’s impossible! I put the hammer down and soon am cruising up behind him. It is him and he’s labouring. Not that I’m the type who would normally kick someone when they’re down, but this is racing. I proffer a word of encouragement but then do my best, borrowing from Krabbe’s excellent take on the racing experience, to “kick him to death”. Phil is the type who never gives up, so I pass and go as hard as I can in order to perhaps break his mind, establish a gap, and maybe hold it through one more lap. Now the adrenalin is really bubbling. I succeed.
I knew Phil would either be running 3rd or 4th so was more than a little surprised to learn that I had finished second (and 5th outright), some 17 minutes behind Mr James, who atoned for only finishing third in the Tarree edition. Despite travelling well McAvoy succumbed to a mechanical. Phil still came in 3rd, 4 minutes behind me, with Moore a mere 1 minute adrift. Once again, that’s pretty tight racing.
My tortoise-like tactics and Euro training had paid off…just. It became apparent during the presentations that I wasn’t the only one to have gained an edge courtesy of a European sojourn. Mr James himself had only just returned from doing the “Trans-Alp” mtb stage race through Germany, Austria and Italy. The winner of the female Masters field had also just returned having ridden extensively whilst following Le Tour.
It’s fair to say that I’m probably close to the best shape I’ve ever been in, which unfortunately will be impossible to hold. The only solution; 3 weeks prior to any upcoming mtb event I dispatch to Europe, ride hills for 2 weeks solid, then return a week prior so that the magical benefits of jet-lag can add the final kick. Now, if I can only convince the partner, work and the wallet…