A first-hand account of the elite Australian CX National Championship.
Part one in a series by Fiona Millburn
Sitting three across in the MAAP van, we are bleary eyed from a 5am wake up, the silence punctuated only by the countdown to the first stop for breakfast and coffee. 2 hours, 1 hour, 15 mins...finally coffee.
As we pile back into the van, the sun has started to provide some warmth, the mood has lifted and the jokes begin. I often contemplate whether it is better for me to sit in the middle of Garry and Jayden in some attempt to calm their wild ways or if I should sit to the side and let their banter go in full swing, I’m yet to decide the best option.
Arriving at the team house, we quickly unpack our bags and bikes, the long drive has us keen to get out for a spin. We throw on some kit, check our tyre pressures and stop briefly to pat the hand reared sheep that is on the property. Surrounded by green pastures and a smattering of towering gum trees, the air is crisp despite the suns presence. We roll down the dirt road, through a small country town and onto a gravel bike path.
Garry and Jayden ride side by side, the chatter quickly turns to the following days racing. Although in my third year of racing, my experience pales in comparison to Garry’s 18 years of racing, I listen quietly soaking up the calmness in which they speak. Strategy, course features, tyre choice, I add it all to my ever growing knowledge.
Back at the team house we wash and dial our SuperX bikes before re-packing them in the van. We stoke the fire, put dinner on and settle in for the night. There is a big weekend of racing ahead of us.
FRIDAY - THE WARM UP ACT
It’s always a flurry of activity on race morning and today is no different. We arrive at the course early to get set up - pit tents, bike racks, trainers, chairs, pressure washers, tools, the list goes on. Even for a well-supported Australian team, there is a lot beyond training and turning up with our bikes to racing.
We roll out onto the course as a team for practice, having raced at this venue only 2 weeks ago I have a pretty good idea what lies ahead. A lumpy and technical singletrack section leads into a run up, before an off camber muddy section and then out into the vineyard with some all-out power section. While not a super technical course the single line through the mtb style section certainly plays an important role. I mentally note to myself to get into that as far up the field as possible.
Back to the tent, onto the trainer and before long it’s time to roll to the start line.
3mins, 2 mins, 1 minute, 30 seconds, 15 seconds, GO!
My start is mediocre, I’m not where I want to be. But it’s only the first lap, I stay calm, I wait for it to eventually open up and make the most of it by riding up to third wheel. Small attacks come, it quickly disperses the field and suddenly there is just the three of us. The wind is picking up quickly, I can hear Garry on the sideline, “sit in, there’s a big gap to 4th”.
The pace is ramping up, I can feel my legs burning, I’m pushing hard to hold the wheel. The elastic is stretching and with every effort to bring it back I’m burning more matches, until I eventually let it go. Sunday is more important.
I ride the remaining laps conservatively, keeping the pace firm but not extending myself. As the course crosses back on itself I can see my teammate, Stacey, in a fierce battle. I keep an eye on the gap from me to them, never letting it close down. I cross the line, content with 3rd, and watch as Stacey comes home for 4th. The sensations are good, for both of us.
Quickly scrambling to clean up, grab a protein shake and find my podium cap, I wish Garry and Jayden good luck and head for the podium. I’ve been in the top 5 all season, but getting called to the podium and receiving a national series medal still makes me grin like a Cheshire cat.
The elite men’s race is about to start, I head to the start line, the whistle blows just as I’m arriving, from there it’s a quick dash to the pits. Most of the time, I am rushing from racing to the pits, today we have a mechanic...but I’m so used to working in the pit, I get nervous if I am anywhere else. Garry and Jayden are in the front group, a small mistake and Jayden loses touch. Lap after lap the placings don’t change, it’s going to come down to a sprint. I watch nervously, two corners from the finish a small rear wheel slide and Garry goes from on the front to 3rd wheel. Garry finishes 3rd and Jayden 4th.
A successful day.
Pack up, clean bikes, re-pack the van...it’s like deja vu.
SATURDAY - WE WAIT
The forecast is rain, wind and cold temperatures. But today we don’t race.
We lazily have breakfast and coffee, talk about how our legs feel, discuss the weather forecast, um and ahh about ride time before eventually kitting up and rolling out the door. As we hit the farthest point of the ride the rain splatters down around us, lightly at first, before big droplets fall from the sky. I’ve never minded riding in the rain, in fact I find it quite peaceful, but as quickly as it started, it stops. We head for home, my toes are feeling the cold and I’m dreaming of a hot shower.
SUNDAY - THE FINAL ACT
The day starts almost the same as Friday, breakfast, early to the course, kitting up… however today there are a lot more people at the venue. Racers and spectators, everyone is keen to see the show-down between the nation’s best.
Some extra features have been added to the course to make it harder and more exciting to watch - a very steep sandy hill, a technical off camber section and another punchy little hill. As we roll out for course practice we can see the crowds gathering at those sections as well as groups of riders contemplating their options of running or riding the new features.
I follow Garry and Jayden, taking their lines and committing to riding each section. It pays off, I can feel my smile growing, I can sense the good sensations in my legs. I’m ready for this.
Back to business - onto the trainer to finish my warm up and before long Stacey and I head to the start line. Our names are called up, I throw my jacket off, the 30 second call is made, I hit start on my watch, a deep breath and the whistle is blown. My start is good, we hit the first corner, then the next, and suddenly I can feel bikes coming together.
I’m not sure what is louder the pinging of spokes as my bike is ridden over or my heart thudding to the bottom of my stomach. What feels like a lifetime is merely seconds as I watch the race ride away from me. My bike is tangled with others, I try to stay calm - there is no point not. We detangle, my chain is off on the front side of my crank, seconds pass as my mind can’t get my head around what’s happened to my chain. It suddenly clicks, I put it back on, jump on my bike and in that moment I decide this is not over. I may be dead last at this point but surely I can salvage something.
I put my head down and ride my own race, my legs are feeling like jelly but I ignore it, instead focusing on the rider I can see just ahead. I chase hard, I catch one rider, then two. The sandy hill is just ahead, I hit the hill full speed, half way up it kicks me slightly to the right, my front wheel digs into a hidden tree root I didn’t know was there. I go straight over the bars - the crowd half cheers, half cringes. I am up and running...nothing is stopping me.
The chase continues, I’m slowly working my way through the field, but I know time is running out. I hear the bell ringing to signify the final lap, only 3km’s to go. I keep pushing but the adrenalin has completely left my body, my legs are heavy, I just can’t catch the next rider.
Corner after corner the finish line draws near, until it’s in sight. As I cross the finish line a wave of deep emotion suddenly hits me and my eyes sting, I push it back down deep inside so I can congratulate our new National Champion. Her sheer ecstasy is the complete opposite to how I feel.
I escape the finish line crowd, avoiding friends who are trying to find me. I hang my bike up on the rack, I climb into the back of the MAAP van, I sink to the floor and sob. Never have I felt like this about a race before.
I quickly pull myself together, the Elite Men’s race is about to start. A quick splash of water on my face, I rush to the start line to grab jackets off Garry and Jayden. The whistle blows and they are away.
The next hour as I watch the racing, I feel in a slight daze, my head is cloudy. I wander the course watching Garry and Jayden racing. Everywhere I turn I am greeted with hugs from friends and fellow racers, commiserations for a tough race and congratulations for keeping the fight.