Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Mont24 reloaded

The Mont24 is normally held in late March, but a last minute deluge that would have had Noah grinning resulted in the event being cancelled, then shifted to a late October time-slot.  But didn’t the weather make amends on the second attempt!  Nice and warm on track, a brief mid-race shower to settle some dust, and a mild night which had the track getting tackier and tackier before the sun dried it all out again. Although the Scott24 appears to be struggling (courtesy of the more demanding Stromlo venue, and the re-scheduled Mont wouldn't have helped), the Mont24 appears as popular as ever; with some 2800 riders alone camped at the venue.

The Soggies were represented by a 40s male team of 4 (Mike, Ham, GK and yours truly) and a (truly) mixed team of 6 (Sara, Nicki, Anita; Giles, Dave Longbottom and Ben).  After mostly racing by myself this year it was nice to have the “band back together”, so to speak, and enjoy a more social outing.  Soggy central was the same spot next to the dam we’ve used in previous years.  Thanks to Giles, Sara, Mikey and Ben for getting there early and erecting the Taj. 

Not only did the weather oblige but so did the course designers who conjured a nice 19 km loop, which, although a bit rooty and choppy in places, was generally flat and had a super last km descent chock-full of lips and pump features for those wanting to porpoise their way back to transition. 

Ben and I had the dubious pleasure of rolling the first (very) dusty lap, which we cruised together – a nice opportunity to have a bit of a chat.  But from thence on the loop seemed to cope nicely with the 600 riders max on track at any one time. 

Also good to report that, unlike the last few years, no one had a nasty off or got banged up this year, although Giles was on hand to give assistance to another rider who had misjudged things a little.  Nice one Giles.  I made sure I got my crash out of the way pre-event, binning it on a greasy metal plate the day before whilst on my commute.  At least this tempered ambitions of trying anything too experimental come race day.  The only mechanical of note befell GK, flatting 4 km from home on his first outing.

Day became dusk became night.  The team of 4 switched from the 1-2-3-4 rotation (completed twice) to the 1-2-1-2 strategy, to give riders 3 and 4 some down-time before they did the same.  However, with Ham carrying a bit of a cold, The Riders Union held a strike and declared that “No one shalt ride between the hours of 2 and 4”.  Well, I didn’t have the legs to keep circulating and cross that picket line, but I might as well have given that by the time I finished my late shift the shower trucks had run out of water.  The lure of a hot shower was a big motivator for getting my pair of late nighters out of the way.  Come to think of it though, the showers are always empty post midnight.  Chalk that one up to a failing memory.  Another motivator was having Brad McGee looking hungry rolling short circles at transition as I waited.  No pressure.  Before my second nighter it was brother Rod limbering up.  In both cases I fully expected a McGee express to come barreling past.  The syncopation was such that neither caught me.  At least pizza was still being churned out, even when Mikey finished his late shift around 1:45 am. 

Although the 3-4-3-4 rotation was a little delayed, true to word, the embargo was lifted and the quartet fired back into action come 4 am.  This meant I was back on track around the 9 am mark for my 5th and last lap, with GK stepping in for Ham to tick our last lap for a total of 19.

In contrast, the mixed team of 6 was having none of this union clap-trap and soldiered on seamlessly through the night, embarrassing the show-pony quartet by netting 20 laps.  This placed them high on the mixed team sextet leaderboard, against many teams consisting of “5 blokes and a chick”.  Chapeau!

Congrats also to “Benny and the Jets”, comprising guys I regularly race against in the 7 hr series.  They clocked 25 laps, just holding on to 3rd in the Masters 4s and coming 20th outright.  They achieved this mostly as a team of three due to Ian having to pull the pin early due to the injury he sustained at last weeks Choc Foot.  It was touch and go there for a while, the final gap only blowing out in the last few hours.  They held on by only 6 minutes.  What a nail biter.  Fantastic racing!

Credit to the organisers for re-scheduling (presumably at a loss), then running such a great event.  A smart move though, as I’m sure many will eagerly sign up again for another tilt at the format come late March 2015.  Hopefully the Soggies (in their various forms) will also be partaking.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Chocolate Orange 7hr

I almost didn't do this race.  My last race was 4 weeks ago at the Kowalski.  Since then I’ve had a terrific bike-free 3 weeks off, climbing and bashing about out west.  It was such a break that riding to work on the Thursday prior left me with a bruised posterior – damn uncomfortable road bikes!  But I really like the Choc Foot vibe.  Joe and Fi run the whole thing on passion and a shoe-string budget, so I was keen to get out and support the event.  Additionally, the Orange track is one of my favourites.  A finish anywhere in the top 10 would net me sufficient points to be on the Masters podium for the series.  So, at the very least, I’d bump round for as long as I could stand before pulling up stumps, and putting a beer in hand to watch the front runners squeeze out the last lap or two.  Little did I know at the time, I’d be one of them.

Anita and I spun a few laps on the Sat, before dinner at a nice pub and retiring to swanky digs.  Our mood was severely tempered, however, by news that the rider killed by a motorist in Neutral Bay earlier in the week was none other than the the lovely and inspiring Benj, whom we knew mostly from the climbing scene.  Benj was a top-notch Masters racer on the road (with a collection of nationals titles), and had also dabbled in the mtb scene in recent years.  So sad.  His friendly face and good humour will be missed by many. 

The next morning Anita kindly dropped me off at the event center early before returning to the Motel to catch a few more hours Zs.  Meanwhile, I pinned on the number plate and caught up with the usual assortment of friendly mtb faces.  It turned out that “the Mac” (who has great form at the moment) had not made the trip up from Canberra, and that Ian Bridgland (the other raging favourite) had experienced a very uncomfortable night having gone over the bars during practice the day before.  After getting the all clear from Orange Hospital he stoically showed with a bandaged leg and some facial bruising. 

Early in the first lap Ian was not too far up the track – his usual fast start tempered somewhat.  It wasn’t long before I was on his back wheel.  Usually it’s me making silly errors earlier in the piece, but this time it was Ian’s turn, and I popped by when he was forced to disengage pedals due to some pilot error.  Later in the lap I realized that a gap seemed to be there, so I pressed on.  I was really enjoying the cool air and the generally bermed lines.  Even the shuddering downhills didn’t seem too bad.  That was, until about 2 hours (or 4 laps) in, when fatigue started to bite.  I guessed that the gap must have been about 2 minutes, but with legs starting to feel heavy I wasn’t sure I could maintain it.  I was starting to run sloppier lines.  I whacked my tendonitis-ridden left elbow on a dead trunk, 3 consecutive laps in a row. 

At the 3 hour mark I was astounded to be passed by Ed Mcdonald, who was either on a flyer, or I wasn’t travelling as well as I imagined.  At this stage I was still splitting just on the 29-30 min mark (incidentally, similar to last year on the same course), so I assumed that Ed must have entered the 4 hr event.  This was disproved when he lapped me for the second time at the 6 hr mark to eventually record an incredible 17 laps. 

The last three hours were a real struggle.  I was cramping in the toes, but more crucially in the hands, and on the (now) intensely painful downhills, where I needed functional arms, hands and index fingers for braking purposes.  Both arms were taking a beating but my left side was a real mess.  Tendonitis on the outside of the elbow, as well as some sort of acute pain progressively getting worse on the inside.  I started to think of reasons to step off and call it a day, but in the end couldn’t come up with any I’d forgive myself for.  In hindsight I’m glad I pushed on.  This last part of the race was made easier by now having Anita in the pits to give me splits.  Even though I was getting slower, Ian was too.

I finished my 14th lap for a most unexpected Masters win (5th solo outright).  As a few pointed out at the start, “well, you’ll be fresh”.  Makes me wonder about the value of huge miles, although I suppose they do provide the base for being able to pull one out of the bag after such a break.  Huge respect for Ian, keeping me honest even though obviously compromised.  Racing injured sucks.  I hope he recovers fully for his tilt at 24solo Nats in 6 weeks time.  By finishing second he deservedly picked up overall series honours.  Thus ends another great Choc Foot Single Track Mind series.  Looking forward to the announcement of courses and venues for next year.

Strzelecki in rock-sharp

Strzelecki in rock-sharp

It's fair to say that Anita had her reservations about doing the Strzelecki - it would be hot and there'd be nothing to see.  She softened, courtesy of a reasonable forecast and the lure of checking out the Gammon Ranges (far-north Flinders), which are up that way anyway.  We filled up with supplies and fuel and reversed the 5 hr drive Neil and I had done the day before, pulling into the same campsite Neil and I had called home for a week.  

The following day was forecast to be the stinker of the lot, but the morning was cool and breezy.  We did a short walk where Anita got great views of southern scrub robin (above), before taking in swanky coffees at the Wilpena resort, entertained by yellow-throated miners hoovering up cafe scraps.  The plan for the rest of the day was to push forward towards digs in the Gammon Ranges, but not before firstly having the traditional peak at Stokes Hill for short-tailed grass wren.  By the time we got there the wind had picked up considerably to near gale force. Clothes did a good job of even hanging on.  In sitting down to avoid being blown down, Anita spied something budgie sized pressed against the hillside amongst the spinifex.  It wasn't a grass wren but something just as special.  An elegant parrot had stapled itself to the hillside and was foraging.  It dared not take flight or it'd get blown off the mountain.  It seemed relatively unperturbed by me getting within a handful of meters and getting some great shots.  Only the second time we've seen this species.

We pushed north to Blinman, where enjoyment of the local pies and quandong scones was tempered by a realisation that the town had no fuel, which we desired for the next long push, not quite knowing what would be available further north.  We eventually filled up, but this required a 14 km out then back detour on a very-rough track.  After the detour we were finally under way for the next 150 km dirt leg as the temperature climbed well into the 30s and the wind drove a dust storm that pretty much obscured sun and scenery.  The next 4 hours were some of the most harrowing driving I,ve done.  The road was rough and corrugated, and only 25 km in we suffered our first puncture.  The car immediately filled with dust as contents were unloaded to source jack and star wrench.  The hole in the tire was so big I could have rammed two fingers into it. No amount of sealant and bung was going to repair this.  We were down to the Clayton's spare and on the cusp of about-facing, but given how far we've driven on dirt before and how few punctures we've actually had, I thought it worth the risk to push on.

I'm sure we would have seem some amazing scenery that leg, but the heat, wind, dust, poor visibility and nervousness of puncturing again in sharp terrain, prevented me from appreciating it.  If felt like we were heading into the apocalypse.  The only saving grace was that if we had broken down, satellites and a pre-downloaded map would have told us exactly where - not that we had any form of mobile coverage.  We had seen a few other vehicles, but all mega 4wds in a single convoy, heading south at the end of the long weekend.  Conditions were so wild that the emergency tarp, which used to be strapped under the shovel on the roof, was lost somewhere en route.   So somewhere out in the nothing, like a discarded lolly wrapper, wafts a silver and blue object, big enough to gift-wrap a car, probably visible from space, now at the relentless mercy of the elements.  My most flamboyant achievement with regards littering Australia.

With satellite guidance we stayed the course.  The mood improved when out of the dust appeared a tourist bus making even slower progress.  At least now if we did puncture again we could send a message.  We finally gained the entrance to the park and the few buildings, which constituted the rangers station.  For 5 dollars a generous shower was most welcome even though the corrugated roof threatened to blow off.  But things were looking up with the knowledge that we'd survived the worst, and that a cool change was on the way, with 22 C max predicted for the following day.  We camped near the bed of an ancient river populated by mangled old red gums.  The wind dropped and the change arrived.  All was well.

In contrast to the relatively lushly vegetated Wilpena area, the northern Flinders feel older and even tireder.  The next mornings drive was intercepted by squadrons of budgies as we drove the 35 km dirt track to the tourist outpost of Arkaroola, managed in a similar vein to Wipena Pound.  The local mechanic kept us entertained as he changed our spare, and provided some local knowledge about road conditions further north towards Mt Hopeless and the Strzelecki.  He also clued us in on the eclipse of the moon, due in two evenings time.  We did a lovely circuit walk, ticking red-throat, crested bellbird on call, chestnut crowned babbler and hooded robin, and after a few beers checked out a hole that actually contained water, complete with painted wallabies.  We filled up with fuel and ice before heading back to camp.

The following day proved to be probably the most magical of the trip.  We headed north into the nothing with the ever dwindling expanse of the northern tips of the Flinders over our LH shoulder, before leaving them behind as the mesa flat tops came and passed.  All through this stretch fantastic flowering wattles kept us company, eventually replaced by saltbush, then gibber plains.  It was in the gibber that the first rarity appeared.  First a pair of Pratincole, then another. Then another dozen.  The bird we were really after, gibber bird, didn't show.  However, whilst searching an obvious sector, the only other car travelling in our direction pulled up,and out popped a couple from QLD, complete with binoculars, on a similar quest - to tick some of the mega inland rarities; specifically grey falcon and letter wing kite.  Turns out they were at Stokes Hill for 3 hrs the same day as we were, eventually ticking the grass wren.  But unlike us they'd dipped on a Pratincoles thus far.  They gave us some good info on the paths to come.  Shortly after we finally turned right onto the Strzelecki Track proper,  meeting it Half way on its run north to Innaminka.  

Compared to what we'd been travelling, the Strzelecki was a super highway; wide with at least two possible lines for the most, and with the odd road train rattling past.  It was considerably more interesting than expected.  Whilst the Ood is predominantly gibber plain, the Strz is mostly slowly rolling sand dunes.  Not coloured the red, that tends to be standard currency out here, but often gleaming white, populated by vegetation I'd never seen before.   We stopped at the Montecollina bore for a few oranges and apples.  We were greeted with the almost Jacque Tati spectacle (we are talking Monsieur Hulot's Holiday here) of an elderly gent in stripy swimsuit bobbing on the bore in the embrace of an inner tube.

A marsh turn hovered low over the water picking off insects.  Raptors glided above. Waves of zebra finches zipped between thorn shrubs, and the ruddy variegated fairy wren made itself known.  We had initially planned on staying, but the sun was still high, it was hot, and the glare so intense we decided to push on another 50 clicks to the Strzelecki Creek crossing, where a nice spot above a diminishing salty pool was picked out for our 4th camp on the trot.  That night, in the jewelled company of desert skies  we watch the full moon gradually succumb to eclipse by the shadow of the earth.

The next morning we got our next new tick for the trip, straight out of campfire chairs while drinking coffee, as red-browed pardalote bobbed about just meters above, singing a delicate song.  We were expecting the next sector - cutting across to Cameron Corner to be a bit dull, but it turned out to be anything but.  White dunes were replaced with salmon, then deep red.  Rather than rolling along parallel to the dunes, the road increasingly hit them perpendicularly.  Our path started to resemble a sine wave.  Red sandy roller after roller, sometimes with a period of only a hundred meters, with the crests sometimes booby-trapped by hidden dusty holes,.  Repeat for 100 km!  Amazing country.  

In contrast, Cameron Corner itself was always going to be anticlimactic.  Sure enough; a run down store with a bowser next to big fence and a pole marking the junction of NSW, QLD and SA.  But the interior was interesting and the owner did a mean fried egg roll.  White breasted wood swallows played in the tree above the toilet blocks.  Onwards to Tibooburah, another 150 km slog.  The dunes slowly dissipated and the gibber plains returned, along with more and more pratincoles (but no gibber bird or grey falcon).  Quite expectantly just as we were approaching town, the gibber stones changed from red to white, the quartz coincident with the eruptions of granite tors that littered the landscape.  Tibooburah (pop 150) was the biggest settlement we'd seen since Wilpena, and turned out to be a bit of ant artsy place, commensurate with the funky landscape.  We rumbled into the National Park campsite for our 5th bush camp on the trot.  

Left her there without payin the bill
Hitch hiked back to Broken Hill
Left my wallet somewhere
Wrong directions are shown
This is not the way home.          (The Cruel Sea)

Well not exactly.  The plan from here was to bomb the 330 km south to Broken Hill, (mostly still on dirt) from whence sealed roads would takes us in an easterly direction the 1000 km back to Sydney.  We tweaked it a little by having our 6th and last bush camp at Mutawintji, hoping for owls to turn on a show as they had 2 years prior.  They didn't this time, but the next morning we did one of the gorge walks we missed out on previously.  The swim at the end was a most soothing respite from the heat, and we ticked both masked and white-browed wood swallows in the creek gums, giving me the full set for the trip (along with little (Moonarie), dusky (Gammon), and black faced (everywhere).  

The days had been progressively getting hotter and we finally rolled into Broken Hill with our last segment of dirt behind us.  Pulled into a cafe. Ate lunch.  Returned to discover one of the tyres had limped flat.  Couldn't have happened in a better place, although it was now the weekend, so the dummy spare would be the sole backup for the rest of the journey.  Having changed the wheel we cruised out past saltbush vistas to Silverton, where Mad Max and other films were shot, and had a beer in the pub.  We were joined shortly after by a bunch of mountain bikers, pre-riding a local 6 km loop for a race the following day.  Some horses also wandered like they owned the place for a drink.

The hotel shower was Terrific.  Toweling myself off my face left a red imprint like the Shroud of Turin, so engrained was the dust.  We wandered up to the corner pub, The Palace, the interior lavishly painted in vibrant landscapes, and featuring in Priscilla.  Top notch grub in a dining hall not unlike Goulburn's Paragon, although a fair bit creakier, but just as popular.

Our return to Sydney was broken by a night in Mudgee, where the local wetlands threw up plum-headed finch and red-kneed dotterel.  On the last leg we stopped at Mt Vic to say hi to Cathy and Tony, before racing the “storm of the century” back along the Bells line of road, pulling into Marsfield literally 3 min before the horizontal rain-front actually caught us.

Unfortunately that now means somehow breaking out of holiday mode and making the uncomfortable transition back to this thing called work, which we allow to consume most of our lives.  Hopefully it wont be another 2 years before getting properly outback again.