My first national championships was a dusty and disappointing affair. However it was an amazing experience and one I hope to learn and improve on in the future.
I never went into this race expecting to win, let alone expecting a top three finish, as I knew the field would be much bigger, possibly a lot stronger, and last year's National Champ Dellys Starr was returning from America to defend her title.
My training leading up to the National Champs was great as I spent four weeks in Currumbin Valley, QLD, visiting family, but also making the most of the brilliant training conditions on road. This area is a cycling haven for road cyclists, with the likes of Robbie Mckewan and Cadel Evans spending time here to train. Unfortunately, mountain bikes are not welcome in the National Park areas surrounding Currumbin.
Ian and I were suffering mountain bike withdrawal symptoms and our marriage was on the rocks by the time we returned to Sydney, ladies don't ever come between a man and his mountain bike! Fortunately, we escaped being stuck in a Sydney bush fire by a few hours and I had two days to re-acquaint myself with off road terrain, before heading off to Canberra, Australia's capital city for the 2007 Australian National Championships.
Canberra is a city full of roundabouts, and one of the cleanest cities I have been to. Ian and I booked into a cramped little motel room next door to an Italian Opera Club that tried to entertain us each night, we also happened to be just down the road from the grand lodge of Australia's Prime Minister, Mr John Howard. I would have called in, but had trails to ride!
The Australian National Championships was held at Mount Stromlo, on the outskirts of Canberra. This weekend Mount Stromlo was announced as the venue for the 2009 Mountain Bike World Championships. A few years ago this entire area was destroyed by bush fire. As a result there are virtually no trees higher than my head! Mount Stromlo looks like a giant sand castle, with twisting sandy trails zig-zagging across the face of the mountainside, including a huge downhill course where spectators can pretty much see from top to bottom as there are no trees to hide the riders.
I spent three days, morning and afternoon, checking the course. In some ways I may have overdone the training, but I tried to ride slowly and just get totally familiar with the course. It was obvious to Ian and I that by the time Saturday came round the course was going to get more and more eroded and difficult to ride fast. Many racers were also concerned about the intense heat. By 10am each day the course had really heated up, and by midday the early morning breeze turned into a hot dusty wind that made your throat ache. Every afternoon Ian and I returned home with tomato heads and smokers cough.
The course is probably best described in three sections. The first section could be mistakenly thought of as a climb, but living in the Pyrenees it felt like an undulating climb, with virtually no steep sections. This was followed by flowing single track and tight switchbacks that brought you to the top of the first and only big downhill section. This was quite a long descent for a cross country course, but it was fun, with tight switchbacks and fast straights over small rocks, then a section of compact rock before more fun and flowing singletrack. The last section of the race consisted of long pieces of undulating singletrack with short fireroad sections in between. The singletrack was very sandy, but the dust was also very thick. There were really fast wide berms, that by race day had been filled with hard packed ruts and braking bumps. The main problem I found with this section of the course is that I had trouble distinguishing between the deep sandy sections and the hard packed sections. During practice I watched people ride and couldn't believe the number of people cycling past me with bloody knees or losing it on corners that appeared easier than they actually were when taken at speed.
By Thursday morning I could feel myself relaxing and was feeling comfortable with letting the bike drift around the corners. I surprised myself with the speed at which the Soda maintained around the sandy bends. For a change I didn't hear Ian's voice in the background shouting out 'heels down!', 'push, pull!', 'pedal!' All his little commands reminding me to be aggressive and not to ride like a spanner. If I don't hear Ian's voice it usually means he's running out of breath, and I'm riding well. Then suddenly I heard his dreaded, 'wrong line, go wide, go wide.not like that!'.
I hit an exposed rock that had been covered by dust and went flying.
Sometimes it's best to fall gracefully, but quickly, you don't have time to think about the 'ouch' factor. In this case I had time to think about the 'ouch' factor. I had time to think about where I was going to land, how I was going to land, and chose a nice little sand pit, with little sharp rocks that dug into my legs as a little reminder to respect their turf. I lay on my back and tasted dust..it wasn't nice. Fortunately no major injuries, just a head full of confidence damage.
Race morning was cool and we were set to start at 10am. I started warming up an hour before and took myself off to a long fireroad to practice skidding. Ian though it might help relax me as I was really stiff. It wasn't too long before I returned, head hung low, with a little problem. My chain and block weren't happy. A horrible grinding sound had just started, honestly, and there was resistance coming from the bottom bracket. Ian looked at me in disbelief, as the bike was perfect on the stand. Unfortunately the great Aussie dust kills bike bits. Luckily my race was delayed by 30 minutes and that gave us time to try and sort the problem out.
By the time the ladies were called to the start line at 11am, the sun was literally burning bright. Thankfully we brought along the Aussie mans' best friend, the Esky [English translation, ice box]. Usually an esky is stocked full of beer, but in my case I had bottles of icy cold TORQ drink to quench my thirst and keep me going. I think my Dad was hoping I had stocked up on some Fosters for him, as drinking beer whilst watching sport is an Australian past time for most men.
There were 40 ladies on the grid, and fortunately I had a good position at the front of the pack. When the gun sounded I had a perfect start and soon found my way to the front of the group. I lead most of the way, but could feel a couple of riders right on my tail. I eased off as I didn't want to overcook myself in this heat. When I reached the top, I was overtaken by local favourite Niki Fisher, who had a storming race. I descended steadily, perhaps too steadily, and soon found myself in fifth position. I lost a lot of time on the singletrack as I just didn't find my rhythm and could feel myself holding back on the corners. By the end of the second lap I started to fight back and managed to creep back into third. I could see Tory Thomas and Niki Fisher fighting it out in the distance, but I also knew I had last years National Champ not far behind me. I started to make up some time at the start of the third lap, but I was struggling with my chain as it grinded away and then slipped off a couple of times towards the end of the lap.
As the fourth lap started I managed to make up some time and found myself about 30 metres behind Niki who was in 2nd place. By the time I hit the descent I started to let the brakes go. I felt much quicker on the descent and less stiff on the singletrack. However Tory and Nicki were too strong from the start and I finished behind them in third position.
I wasn't disappointed with finishing third, in fact thrilled to be able to bring home a medal. I was annoyed with how badly I rode and how unlucky we have been with keeping the sand and dust from destroying kit.would you believe I miss UK mud!
I felt like I let my Cotic Soda down today, but I promised her that maybe we can try again in 2009. Even if I don't make the national team that year, I'm sure we will be due another holiday down under by then to enjoy all the excitement of the world champs.
As always I'm very grateful to the help and support I have received from a number of people who have enabled me to race in my home country.
Also special thanks to the boys at Hope, 2 Pure, Cyclops Powertap and Endura