The metaphor of bacon equating to singletrack was used to promote this years Kowalski Classic. I initially thought they were taking this too far. For one, and in words describing the demise of Curly, “He had bacon for every meal…you just can’t do that”. Secondly, in last years inaugural event I found it hard to really get going. When that happens, in a forest that largely looks the same, an awful lot of groundhog porcine strips must to be consumed to get to the end.
But with promise of a new improved course, and good form (despite a pair of hangovers in the lead up) I was looking forward to giving it a go on the hardtail. Many of the top riders had this idea too, although English and Tupalski, who duked out the finale in an incredible time of 3:53, both commented, and I agree with them to an extent, that it really was a course for the dually. Oh well, about time I made a possible faux pas in bringing the wrong bike, but what would they know! Many new sectors had indeed been freshly cut and were yet to bed in properly, making driving at speed near impossible seated. Hence I ended up riding good chunks standing and pushing a larger gear, but I actually think this suits my capabilities. I’m sure I went quicker than the complacency-lending dually would have permitted. Basically, I just love the 29er hardtail platform.
Another reason I was ready for a middle of the pack performance was that apart from the fact that I’ve still a lot to learn about the art of squiggles, the field for the full length course was over 300, at least three times the size of the solo fields I’ve been competing against in the 7 hr races – which I’ve also learnt is a better length for me. With an expected race time for the 90 km in the order of 5 hrs (5:07 last year), this thing was going to be (perhaps mercifully) too damn short.
I thought the organisers did an excellent job with the pre-seeding, providing more numerous and smaller waves than for other events. Additionally, the long fire-road climb at the start made for a good thinning out before the single track was engaged. I was surprised to be able to cruise past Mr Welch on the middle sector of the opening climb and plant myself firmly on Mr McAvoy’s wheel (2nd in Masters and top 10 outright at last years event, and arguably the enduro benchmark for the Masters category). Funnily enough, despite racing frequently against Jason this was the first time I’ve actually been able to watch his wheel, in this case attached to a top-shelf Cannondale 29er dually. I was surprised by the ease with which I could sit on up the climb, and by how lean he looked. He always looks lean when viewed on the podium, but he looked particularly thin. By the pace I figured he might be treating this as more of a training race for the upcoming 24 than a balls-out affair, simply by virtue of my being able to sit on.
I followed him into the singletrack sectors that followed and had to work to stay in touch. Not surprisingly he was the better technician. I wondered how long I’d be able to hang on, and how the gap would blow when I truly conceded. As the km’s started to accrue I’d lose him in the squiggles, then claw back sightings on the climbs. Having lost touch for a while the first nasty fire road climb appeared, with JM still on it. I stayed focused and by half way up the ridge switchbacks of “The Escalator” I was but 20 meters behind, with a couple of riders preventing contact. We exchanged veiled glances. I lost him on the freshly cut sectors that followed, but sighted him again at the first feed. At this point just keeping in touch was a victory in itself. I finally ground up to his back wheel on another steep fire road at the 40 km mark and thought, what the heck, might as well play to my strengths. He complemented my as I came past, which was nice.
I tried not to look back but squirmed my best through many technical swooping bits, only really opening the throttle on the intermittent climbing segments. I knew I had a gap going into the 50 km transition, but how much? My no-stop strategy simply required me to drain a bottle and swap it on the frame. Riding without a camelback McAvoy would have to at least find his stash and swap bottles, which would buy me another 10-20 sec.
By this stage I was mostly riding by myself, pulling in riders slowly but consistently, one by one. There was no sight of JM as I crossed under the highway to enter the Sparrow Hill sector, but figured he couldn’t be far back and fully expected to be gobbled up at some point. No point waiting, I kept grinding away, pleased whenever the track pitched upwards or bogged up, knowing that on these sectors I was probably pulling time, or at the very least not bleeding it.
With 20 to go I caught a rider who turned out to be Mr Moore (another 7 hr combatant), which explains his not inconsiderable surge to try and be rid of me through extended sectors of squiggles. Once again, the climbs were my collaborators and I managed to regain contact just as the course crossed back under the highway for the last (mostly climbing) 10 km sector. Eventually the elastic broke and I managed to finish alone in 4:38, 5th in Masters and 33rd outright. Moore was 30 sec back in 6th, and JM another minute adrift in 8th. Another 3 minutes quicker would have had me on the Masters podium. Once again, tight and absorbing racing on what I thought was a terrific course – far more interesting and varied than last year. Top cuts of bacon indeed. As well as doing better than anticipated the other positive was that I didn’t finish a broken man (like last year) but could have burnt hard for at least another hour if required.
I suggested to Jason that he must have been finishing off another 1000 km week. He smiled and divulged that he’d ticked 200 the previous day (to my trundle of 35). This explains a lot…but I still rate it as one of my most complete performances. Welch finished 10 minutes adrift, no doubt still fatigued by yet another 750 the week prior at the direction of “Madman Selkrig”. If these guys keep trying to out-fatigue each other I might yet be a factor at WEMBO in three weeks time.
One rarely comes to these events alone. The meal the night before was shared with Sara and Giles (who stayed at more salubrious Queanbeyan digs), as well as Andy, Ham, Ben and Anita, whom bunkered down collectively at the establishment known as the Parkway Motel. I suppose Ben and myself were unperturbed, having stayed there previously (it was a mtb bike race after all), but the others gave the distinct impression something a little fancier might be appreciated next time.
Anita, Sara and Giles tackled the 50 km course which was quite a bit more challenging than the standard Mont offering, with an assortment of gristle, rind, crackling, chips of bone and charred offerings for the less initiated to choke on. Thankfully all came through in one piece and in good spirits. As for the full 90 km Monty, Ham again rolled around on zero training getting full value for money, but at least he didn’t need to complain about squealing brakes this time. I still can’t believe his front tyre, which started the day with about 30 bleed points, survived the distance. Please change it for the Scott!
Andrew probably did the ride of the day with a marathon effort on a track that for him must have been a real eye opener; not just because of the frequent technical rocky features, but because by the time he got to them most of the bogs had deteriorated to their worst – the combination of 75 mm of rain midweek and the churning of 500 sets of wheels. “Well…I learnt a lot” was his immediate summation. He did look relieved it was over.
Ben had another bitter-sweet Kowalski. Last year he ended up doing about 6 km extra due to poor course marking, which sent quite a few riders down garden paths. This year he ended up 11 km short due to a mess up at the feed servicing both the 63 and 74 km points, where the track looped out before returning to the same point. We think he inadvertently jumped the wheel of another rider who was effectively 11 km further up the road and in the process of making a correction so as not to mistakenly do this loop again. A shame as judging by his 50 km split he was riding strongly. Maybe next year the course markings will align! In any case, looking fwd to riding the Scott with Ben, Ham and Mikey in 2 weeks time.