With stage 6 being quite a brutal stage for all but the strong and the canny, it was a triumphant cheer that went up at dinner on Thursday when Race Organiser Gerhard Schoenbacher announced that the 120km stage would be cut to 90km. With the route making a 90km trip to Maytown, and the extra 30km being an additional loop – it seemed like a great idea.
The day dawned and it was already quite warm at breakfast, despite low overnight temperatures. Apathy was setting in at the Croc Trophy. People were tired, forcing food in because they know they have to. Over breakfast, I was comparing blisters and callouses with Kate Major and Mark Griffin. Your body takes a beating at the Crocodile Trophy.
Stage 6 read as good roads, and many of us quietly hoped it would be a classic old school Croc Troophy day of straight flat roads. And while the dirt road surface for most of the race was good, it was neither straight nor flat. From the gun the race strung out as we exited Maitland Downs Cattle Station (or one of their far fields anyway), and a group formed a break quite quickly. Many top riders have had a bad run of luck at this years Croc Tropy – due to the terrain, illness, or mechanical mishap. As such, these top riders are down on General Classification
And today, they were all in the break. Mike Mulkens, Cory Wallace, Dominick Hrinkow, Patrick Konrad, Christof Marien, Josef Benetseder and Subaru-MarathonMTB.com’s own Justin Morris.
As Wallace was a GC threat, it took a while for the group to get a long lead. The hills came one by one, and Marien and Morris were collected by the bunch. The front group was being lead single handedly by Matt Page (Wiggle Bike Shop) who knew what tempo he could ride 90km at, and wasn’t fussed if others were to join him or not.
In time, a chase group was formed, although there was little impetus to chase. Rybarik and Fojtik were happy with the break, and Page had ridden off solo.
From the crest of every hill, we could see the next. And more often than not, there was a dry creek crossing with an ‘S’ bend at the base of each descent. There was very little free speed from each descent to take into the climb today. A few more riders caught this group with about 20km to go, and a few kilometres later, through a long sandy river bed, the group split up. There was no set attack, but Fojtik moved to the front, and rode off strongly with Rybarik, Van der Merve, Krenn, while others dropped off.
I popped off the group, and was scooped up by Mark Griffin and his team mate Aaron. Griffin drove it to the line, with two Belgians also in tow, who decided to contest the sprint for 20th in the dust bowl which is ‘Maytown’. Save for a muddy dam, there’s not much in this ghost town. Mike Mulkens took the win, getting away with Cory Wallace who took second. Kate Major won the women’s race and maintains the lead. Werner van der Merve maintains his domination of the Masters category, and is still sitting in 5th on General Classification. “A race is only as hard as you make it” says Werner. The curious thing is, he doesn’t even look like he’s hurting!
Stage 8 loomed, and 87Km with 1,300m of climbing doesn’t sound that difficult on paper but when the race booklet includes descriptions such as ‘extreme rough’ and ‘sandy’ you know it is going to be a hard day out in the Australian sun. “After the ‘easy’ stage on good gravel roads I was expecting that some of the top guys would be upping the pace on today’s stage from Maytown to Laura and we weren’t disappointed with the number 1 and 2 in the elite category and Mike Milkens dropping us soon into the first stage” said Werner van der Merwe.
“The real race for the rest of us started as we hit the first technical climb where Wolfgang Krenn, Ondrej Slezak and myself broke away from the rest of the group.” What followed was quite steep and technical climbs and descents on an old gold mining trail. “Today definitely felt more like a MTB stage with rocky sections and drop-offs making some of the descent interesting. At this stage of the race with a bit of a lead in the masters category there was no reason to take unnecessary risks” said van der Merwe modestly – his lead was very large by this point.
Once again there were some Australian support guys cheering on one of the technical climbs – complete with signs offering beer. I don’t think these guys always realise how much the encouragement helps. “Halfway through the technical section Cory Wallace caught up with us. It seemed that he had recovered quite well from his 24h solo race 2 weeks ago” said van der Merwe.
Hitting the sandy sections Mike Mulkens who had suffered a puncture caught up, and the group of four was were riding together, swearing at the sandy sections. The sandy sections really sapped the energy and riders tried everything including riding next to the track but this ended up being just as sandy.
Van der Merwe was in the lead group coming to the finish “with about 30km to go we could see the white points jersey in the distance and Mike made sure we all upped the pace to close the gap, which we did just as we hit the 3rd water point. With about 2km to go Mike and Fojtek broke away leaving me following Cory and Wolfgang. In the last 500m I was positioned well behind Cory but then I ended up crashing in the last sandy corner. 8 days with no crashes and then a crash in the last corner. At least Nadene was on hand with some ice for the bruising which made it much better.”
With tired legs, many riders enjoyed the location of the Laura pub, and made short work of the beer that was left in camp. However with one stage left to race, it wasn’t all over yet. The rumoured ‘handicap’ for the last 145km was confirmed. In reverse general classification order, we would be heading off in groups of 10, in 15 person groups. This meant the best placed riders were leaving at 10am! A sleep in for sure, but also right into the heat of the day.
There was stress about getting dropped, no assistance for mechanicals, and not knowing if you would lose out on your general classification, due to how different groups would work over the 5 hours or more of racing. Some groups just rode in steadily, others raced for the stage win. In the end almost everyone arrived safely in Cooktown, with a block headwind the whole way. Everyone was relieved to be there, and there were some hard luck stories that joined the crew on Grassy Hill with every bunch that arrived. Josef Benetseder took the stage win, with Australian Luke Haines taking a strong 3rd place!
The Croc Trophy in 2012 was a very different experience from 2011. The racing was on from the gun every day. It’s not that 2011 was easy, but more often than not the race developed, as the patrons of the race let the course and their talent dictate the racing each day. It was quite a different experience, but the depth of the Elite field was impressive, so finishing in 2012 was quite satisfying.
A huge congratulations has to go out to Werner van der Merwe, winning the Masters category, and placing 4th overall. And another big thank you to Justin Morris for taking time out of his racing with Team Type 1 to race with the Subaru-MarathonMTB.com Team. His race craft, dogged determination and character made the nine days go smoothly. It was this combination that let us take out 2nd on the Teams Classification.
We had a lot of support in Far North Queensland, especially from Werner’s parents, and his wife Nadene, who drove our Subaru support car and made sure we were fed and watered through the stage and at the end of each day. Thanks to Bianchi for the amazing Methanol 29ers, Fox for the capable Float 29 forks, Maxxis for the Ikon EXO’s, and SIS Nutrition for keeping us fuelled up. The Subaru support vehicle was a huge help this year, making us less reliant on the race organisation for transport, food and logistics. There are countless people who helped create this success, and all help was greatly appreciated.