Myself and Kyle Ward (Rockstar Racing) were lucky enough to get an invite from Alan, of the famed Kowalski Brothers Trailworks crew, to head into East Kowen forest for a preview the trails they’ve just built for the Kowalski Classic Marathon, and also to sample the first 50km of this year’s course – and after riding the course I can see how much work has gone into it. They appear to have linked every single bit of trail available in the forest into what looks to me like a cat’s ball of string when viewed on the GPS trace.
I love racing marathons. People that know me will also know that I don’t mind a bit of fire-road – a chance to pedal, to drink, to feed, even to chat. Bloody roadie.
Obviously however, people don’t get into riding mountain bikes to nail fire-roads, so – it’s the fabled ‘Single-Track’ that they look for in races and events.
Alan explained to me pretty directly what the plan was for the Kowalski Classic race:
“From the very beginning, we wanted to create a race like no other in Australia – we wanted it to be as close to 100% single-track as possible. I’ve got nothing against the other races available – all of which have their own unique characteristics – but our race will be known for its single-track.”
If the readership of this piece were some sort of MTB Houses of Parliament, I think I can almost hear the mountain biking back benchers calling “hear, hear”, and generally being in 100% approval of such a noble quest. Give the people what they want. You want Single-Track? Ok – you asked for it…
I rode the first loop of the Kowalski Classic, which also serves as the full distance for the ‘Half Kowalski’. It is 50km almost to the metre, and I was absolutely smashed by the end. Honestly, I have never ridden that much single-track in one go. In fact, I doubt many people have. You think of trail centers like Rotorua in NZ, or Afan Forest in Wales, or even Mt Stromlo in Canberra, and you think they have lots of single-track. They have nothing on this place.
Alan’s ridiculously intimate knowledge of the trails has really been brought to bear on this race. As he rides along, he calls out “you’d have ridden this track in the 2011 Mont, but backwards, and linking up to the track on your left, we are linking up to the track on the right then heading off on a new link that has yet to be cut in”…. We get off our bikes, bush-bash for 5 metres, and find ourselves on another bit of perfectly groomed trail. “Don’t worry, we’ll be out in the next week or so cutting that link in – it’ll be perfect on race day”.
I have no reason to doubt him.
The three new tracks that have been built out West are fantastic, and are still under a shroud of secrecy… at least for now. We get off our bikes after probably the longest section of fire-road in the 50km loop – it would have been maybe 400m, and all uphill – and we trapse through some sticks and branches. Alan says “We haven’t created an entrance to this trail yet – we don’t want the motos finding it” and there it is – The Escalator track. It weaves up and up and up, left, right, left, right – each straight is maybe 10 or 20m long before a sharp bermed turn taking you up and round. It is slightly rocky, slightly off-camber and not slightly uphill – it is very uphill. It flies by though, as it’s a really interesting piece of native single-track that forces your concentration so much so that you don’t feel the pain of climbing.
Spitting you out onto a fire trail link of maybe 100m (a good time to grab a drink) you get to another yet-to-be-made entrance of the aptly named ‘Effing Track’.
(Al says “effing high, effing long, effing nice!”). It is in fact it’s the highest piece of single-track the Kowalskis have ever built, and is at 915m above sea level. That’s a good 70m higher than Mount Ainslie and a full 100m higher than Black Mountain. It is in deep woodland, and it is hard work. It sweeps back and forth through the compartment like silly string before climbing out toward the exit, but again, you don’t really notice that. It’s the bumps, lumps, jumps and corners that take 100% of your concentration.
As you near the end, you see sky and exit the pines at the very top of the hill and right at the back edge of the planation. In front of you is a massive panoramic view of Wamboin, Bungendore and surrounding ranges, even right out to Lake George. Even if you are racing your heart out, take a moment to look up at the view. It is incredible.
The descent off the hill begins with a short run of fire road before diving into the single-track again. Lots of jumps and corners to keep you occupied for the first 600m or so before the hill eases out into a traverse and then out onto fire road and heading back toward more familiar trails. There were a few nasty little pinch climbs before we got there, but essentially, it felt like you were heading down after that. All of a sudden the tracks became a little bit more familiar, and we realised that somehow (almost magically) we had linked back onto a trail that in your ‘minds map’ was not even in the same district – let alone right next to you.
That trend continued for another 17km. Flowing along new trails, with wooden board-walks, with berms, with jumps, ruts, corners, roots, and then – like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, Alan spits you out right on top of where you had started, 50km ago, with a final 400m of fire-road “We all love a sprint finish, no matter which place we are competing for – so we had to give everyone that opportunity” he explained with the gleeful smirk of someone who just sprinted their training buddy for 68th place… I had no idea, but was astonished that we were back at the cars.
This would be the end of the race for those doing the Half Kowalski, but the riders in the Full Kowalski will spin off for a special loop of Sparrow Hill (approx. 25km), before coming back into Kowen and ultimately finishing with an additional 40km or so.
What were my thoughts? Well – like I have said – I was exhausted at the end. It is relentless. Physically, it is much more demanding than a race with many, many more metres of vertical ascent. In fact, I was riding with a power meter, and my average power for the ride – i.e. the amount of pushing on the pedals I had done – was really low. Yet my average heart-rate was actually consistent with a good endurance ride. It had worked my body. Not just my legs.
In fact, it had worked my mind too – I was focused, concentrated for the whole time – and it was fantastic. So rewarding, so incredible.
Alan and his crew have achieved what they set out to do – create a cross-country marathon course unlike any other in Australia.
Entries close soon, so these are the considerations for you:
If you don’t like fire-roads, if you love single track, or if you want to do an event that will test you in ways you hadn’t imagined (i.e. I have no idea when I found the time to drink or eat!), then this is the race for you. I’d estimate less than 2km of fire-road in the 50km loop.
If you are not really a ‘racer’ but want to be part of something very special, something that is clearly the work of a passionate, dedicated, unsung group – people who have clearly given up hours and hours of time, to deliver an extraordinary ‘facility’ – then you should enter too. I have a strong suspicion that the Kowalski Classic will become a classic in more than just name – in reputation and status, it is destined to become so.