This past weekend two of the skinniest racers from the past 2 rounds of Dirty Deeds ventured north to see how our northern brethren run 'cross races.
Myself and Professor Blakey convinced a slightly willing friend to drive us to the early way too early saturday morning to catch a flight north to Sydney.
After befriending a 'curious' old man at the airport as we built our bikes off we were soon rolling slowly (thanks to all our race kit) into the city and some very welcome caffeine.
It should be noted that 'cross bikes make excellent commuters and the wider tyres are very helpful when you have a lot of gear with you.
A meetup with our host and we were off to settle in and enjoy the wonderful warm Sydney sunshine by the beach.
All I'll say of the rest of the day was that we definitely carbo-loaded in preparation for the race and that while Ed Hardy may have entered bankruptcy it is still quite prevalent in Bondi.
The next day we were picked up by a very helpful e-friend, kit packed, bikes were loaded and the trip down to Wollongong (~2hrs south of Sydney) was started.
It should be pointed out that for the past 3-4 months it's been very little but mud tyres and and controlled power out of corners down here. Right from the word go I suspected that I wasn't going to need my WTB crosswolfs up there. It was hovering around the high teens/low twenties and it had been a week or more since it rained.
Arrival at the venue had us impressed with the club's use of their available space. Like DD#1 these guys had used all kinds of nooks and crannies around their velodrome, but in a very interesting way.
We were quickly identified as 'visitors' and heartily greeted. Everything short of the red carpet was rolled out to us and our 'pit crew'.
We quickly had our tyres changed ([cross nerd digression]Vittoria XG up front, my street tyre at the back in a gamble based on the dry course [/cross nerd digression]), bikes set up thanks to our wonderful 'pit crew' and rolled out to check the course.
The course featured a gravel start that quickly went to grass, a short, sharp uphill pitch around a tree and then back around past the start and over a double set of barriers, a tight u-turn into some trees and over a sand mound/pit. Through a series of tight s-bends and then out over a longer, shallower sand pit around a corner and a slight uphill to a triple set of ankle high barriers. From there it was back onto gravel then off down a quick piece of off-camber, root-covered singletrack that seemed to always spit me into a tree if i exited it too quickly. From there it was on the gas along a gravel path to a log barrier, quick u-turn section and then back over the log. You then hauled out and back along the edge of the velodrome before hopping an oversized sewerage pipe. it was then back along a gravel path before dropping into the velodrome and across the centre (and some thick grass) before climbing up the wall and riding along the top edge around a good third of the track. What came next was probably my favourite part of the course, as the organiser had you turn 90-degrees and drop straight down the wall into the infield, turn right and then immediately hop a barrier. Blow you turn on that corner and you were spat straight into a the barrier. Riders then rode back around and across the velodrome, up the wall again and around some final gravel before crossing the start/finish. Check the photos for more visual evidence. Another thing that is very much worth noting is that the organisers had mown the race lines out of the grass but there was a good metre or more of 'rough' inside the tape in lots of places. This meant that if you overcooked corners you had twice the effort to power back up as you went around. Riding smart lines was key.
We managed to convince the organisers that although we had flown up for the race we actually werent that good and it was safe to put us in Division 2. As we lined up at the start with only one practice lap done (all that talking to 'new friends' and prep/kitting up has killed any real warmup plans we had) i looked around and saw a lot of smiles and felt the normal butterflies in my stomach.
Then with little more than a 'GO!' we were off... I had a decent start and found myself in 3rd-ish place heading into the first set of barriers. A good transition and i was nipping at the heels of first then i decided to make the same mistake as i had in my practice lap and miss a turn around a tree and before i knew it i was doubling back to get back on course and at the back of the field. Now all the cross reading i have done repeats the same mantra in this situation 'Don't stress, settle down quickly, focus on riding YOUR race and let others make their mistakes'. So i hunkered down and focused on riding cleanly and smart and one-by-one picked off the racers in front of me.
I'm still new at all of this and am not afraid to admit that I'm a regular visitor to the 'pain cave' during races so I'm not sure which lap it was that i ended up hearing that i'd climbed back to a podium place. I do know that i was already aware that i should have learnt bunnyhops before the race as all the MTBers were hopping a few of the barriers and making up precious ground on me. This was good as it really kept me on my toes and made me focus on the areas I knew I could use my bike and gears to my advantage (notably the velodrome and gravel path). I then got locked in a pretty good battle with this teenager on a MTB behind me. He was definitely quicker on the singletrack/sand and was charging at the bunny-hoppable barriers, and i was giving everything i had at the gravel and velodrome sections to maintain a gap. It was about then i discovered that i could hit the drop-down turn on the track quite hot and skid-drift my rear wheel around the turn off of the track and wash speed off at the same time before the barrier. I guess all that time sliding around in the mud had paid off.
A little bobble on 2 remounts and then too much time in the rough through the grass turns and i found myself with not only the 'pesky' teenager slipping by me but also 4th place who had been hot on our wheels.
The difference between defending a position and chasing feels like night and day and now I was staring at two back wheels.
I threw almost everything I had at the kid trying to use my skinny tyred advantages while not blowing up and snuck inside him on a sharp turn a lap or so later, then hit it hard to try and build a gap.
Unfortunately while I focused on getting around the Junior MTBer, the guy who had previously been in 4th (on a flat bar 'crossbike) built enough of a cushion that I could see him, but never quite get close enough to realistically launch an attack.
About this time I heard the MC announce the 'bell lap' for the leader and I realised the end was near. I put my head down and focused on using every lesson i'd learnt on the course to build on the gap I'd built over third (upshift for the tight s-bends/hit the sand mound fast and loose/relax through the singletrack/power down on the gravel/shift up for the velodrome climb and then 2 shifts and punch it for the walls).
The next thing I knew I was turning onto the last gravel/grass section and there was a decent gap back to third. A quick jersey zipup and I crossed the line punching the air in 3rd. High Fives from my support crew and then i took my traditional laydown on he ground as I was completely spent. I'm always useless for about 5minutes after I cross the line as I try to regain the ability to speak.
Blakey was through in 7th a few minutes later... a great effort given he realised that he was overgeared a couple of laps in and had to fight an increasingly difficult gear through thick grass on his SS as the race wore on.
Whilst thanking the organisers and swapping stories it became apparent that there was no MC for the Div#1 race and having noticed my 'verbosity' I was asked to take over the mic. Summoning up my 'inner Brendan' I accepted and the racers were soon off and powering around the course.
A great battle for the podium spots soon developed between several local riders and the winner of an earlier ICC 'cross race who had now swapped his fat-tyred ride for a sweet Yeti CX ride.
Not being familiar with the riders I decided to nickname most of the field and soon Harry Potter, Biscuit, Singlespeeder, Timbat, Johnny Cash, Sweet Pinarello, Bumblebee and The Frenchman were being cheered on by the crowd.
A couple of crashes, some mid-race antics (beer handups! sausage sandwich ordering!), 'pain faces' and a brilliant battle for 1st and 2nd and the Div#1 guys were done.
Matt 'Harry' Potter came through with 2 laps to go and took the victory from, until-then clear leader, local Graeme 'Biscuit' Arnott with organiser Tim "Timbat' Bateman in a solid 3rd.
A quick trip to the podium to receive my winnings and thank the organisers and we were packing up and heading north with very tired legs but the huge smiles on our faces that 'cross racing brings.
It was awesome to see how other clubs put courses together and to meet some very friendly 'cross junkies.
I learnt some new tricks both for course design and also for racing... and made some new friends as well as a little money.