I thought Id start with a picture to illustrate that unbelievably I've managed the top step in Masters for a 7 hr mtb race. But before I get too carried away with my own magnificence, there are a few caveats to acknowledge. Firstly, some of the gun protagonists were absent (Adams, Brodie, Morris etc). Second, the ever-youthful James now has his own super-masters category to crush. Third, other combatants opted for the 4hr version of proceedings (Moore), or, like Master Welch (my usual sparing partner), raced as pairs.
Perhaps most significantly, however, the raging favourite with the bookies, Mr McAvoy, had, as the French would say, "un jour sans" (or a “shocker”, as he later acknowledged)- still suffering from flu, carrying a hand injury, and to top it off had been eschewing the bike for the joys of swimming and running, as is demanded by triathlon. But this was unknown to me as we assembled in the chilled air at the dog’s breakfast known as the start. I fully expected not to see him again.
I'd been sick the weekend prior as well, but felt I was on the up. We funnelled into the singletrack and before long I was most surprised to catch glimpses of Jason, not too far ahead in the conga line. I methodically sniped places and half way up the 2 km climb which dominates the first half of the course I attached myself to his wheel, getting the impression that the universe was distinctly not as it should be. I was stumped whether to go or sit for a little longer. I didn't want to kick a hornet’s nest, but 2/3 rds through the first lap I felt I really should push on as I suspected that Bridgland, another fast starter with good recent form, was further up the track. I offered some encouragement as I went past.
Although we’d raced against each other a few times I’d not actually met Bridgland, but I’d taken note of his bike, which I spied adorned with number plate in the pit area before the start. I caught sight of its seatpost-mounted toolbag half way up the main climb on the second lap, and latched onto his wheel. At least I suspected this to be him. Suspicions were confirmed when he lifted immediately as I passed. After a bit of yo-yoing I finally gapped him on the nasty pinch at the top, but barely a km later dropped my chain on a rubbly creek crossing and Ian slammed past. It took me another 3 km to wind him in, and jumped in front just before the unbelievably delicious “snake track” segment commenced.
A few words about the course. Absolutely brilliant, in beautiful tall-timbered native forest, and well worth the 4 hr drive. The 12 km loop was deceptively hilly, with two main sections of climbing, totalling 300 m of rise per lap. That said, the grade was mostly mild, with only two real pinch climbs to damage the legs. It was almost entirely sandy loam throughout, which would have made descending awkward apart from the fact that, aside from one or two off-camber numbers, almost the entire course was fantastically bermed - massively in places, and buttery smooth, fashioned for speed, and with hardly any rough. In short, perfect for the hardtail. Descending was similar to what I imagine skiing powder must be like. The snake track segment, in particular, rates as the best sculptured km I've ever surfed. Cory Dimmer was all over my wheel for the first trip down this sector; "how good is this " he yelled, justifiably proud of his home track's ooze. “Shame you have to do so much climbing to get to it”, he lamented. This, of course, was to work in my favour, compensating for my general lack of skills in the gravity department.
With Bridgland finally gapped I set to work putting down some solid laps, making the most of the climbs. Little known at the time there was another speedy Masters rider up the track, Thompson, splitting a minute of two quicker. Luckily for me though, after 3 hours fatigue eventually got him and by half time I was finally correct in assuming I had the category lead. McAvoy having an off day was certainly an anomaly, so I was committed to making the most of the opportunity.
Most of the riding at this point was quite meditative, as 7 hr events often are. Conditions were still cool, although the arm warmers were now off. When not engaged in polite communication, or simply hanging on, senses were diverted from the rhythm of breathing by the beautiful forest, peppered with the dalmatian trunks of spotted gums, and even the odd antechinus attempting to sneak across the track in front of me, only to retreat at the last second. Not much in the bird department, aside from the odd whistler and treecreeper calling – it is the middle of winter after all.
Come the 4 hour mark Ed McDonald surged past, kindly suggesting I was doing well. A lap or so later I passed the all-seeing all-knowing Wendy Stevenson, who was initially surprised to see me, noting that I was probably in the lead. Gaining the pit area, Anita, who’d returned from the hotel after a more civilised start to the day, was now present and offered, “your doing well, keep it up”. A lap later I got my first split. 5 min. Not as big as I’d hoped. But to whom? I feared that McAvoy had finally come good and was tearing up the course behind me. At the 5 hr mark I knew id probably be out for another 4 laps, but by this stage my body had started to fail me. I got my first bout of cramp on one of the pinch climbs. Five minutes all of a sudden didn’t seem like much of a cushion. I spent the next two laps guzzling fluid and being super careful metering out my effort. Amazingly my gap was holding, and I finished my 11th lap with just 2 min to spare, but opted not to roll again given that my chaser, Mr Bridgland, in fact, would likely roll home safely after the 7 hr cut off. The gap in the end had blown out to 10 minutes, placing me 5th outright.
And so it was over. Very relieved to have closed it out for the top spot in Masters. It really was totally unexpected, although in hindsight I reckon it was one of my best performances, aided by lovely cool conditions, and in no small part by Jason, who is usually on another level, having a shocker. But I’ll take it!
The mighty Snake Track;