They say that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it… or to put it another way, you think I would have learned from the last time I was silly enough to try and ride my bike packing rig for 5 long laps of Stromlo.
Last year as part of my preparations for Tour Divide I entered the (then) Rocky Trail 100 mile race around Mt Stromlo. My reasoning was that it was about 100 miles of single track and that it would be a good way to get some practice at both longer distance and also some extensive time on rough terrain. That experience didn’t go so well with me pulling out on lap 3 with bleeding hands as a combination of the terrain and new gloves tore them to shreds. (and the rub is that it is not particularly good Tour Divide practice as there’s more single track in that one day of Stronlo than there is on the entire 4700km TDR route!).
Anyway, fast forward a year and with nothing really to prove but looking to get some race(ish) laps under my belt I once again entered the (now) AMB 100. There’s a lot to like about this race – the organisation is fantastic, I quite like the course (more on that later) and especially for the 100 milers there’s a good sense of camaraderie around the start (although 5am – yuck!). Besides – surely it wasn’t that bad…
Well kiddies, as anyone who has more than one child will tell you – the human animal has an amazing capacity to forget and downplay negative experiences whilst simultaneously remembering the positive ones perhaps more fondly. This is why we have two children – we simply forgot the awful experience of newborns and just remembered how nice it was when our eldest was really little. I digress but the point is that in my head I simply forgot the bad parts of racing a rigid single speed at Stromlo and remembered the fun things – ‘yeah that race had a great vibe and the track was awesome and…’ you get the picture.
So in the 12 months or so I figured I’d gotten to know the trusty Black Sheep pretty well and had learned from last year and put on a wider front tyre to give a bit more squish. Added to that was a double layer of bar tape and gloves that had traveled with me across an entire country. I was good to go and was feeling pretty confident.
Setback number one was not being able to find my helmet mounted light and figuring that the dynamo setup would be good enough for the 2/3 of a lap or so that would be dark. Ok, no it wasn’t – you need about 16km/h to get the full power out of it and my setup is showing its age a bit with a max of 600 lumens. This, for future reference, is not enough speed to pick your way through Pork Barrel and Slick Rock in the dark when there is no squish to hide your mistakes.
Setback number 2 was the basic width of my bars. At 830mm wide they’re awesome for getting out of the saddle and cranking up a steep climb. Not so awesome for negotiating trees and rock. After the third time I bashed my knuckles on a tree or rock I was a little over it!
But mostly the first three laps or so were pretty fun. Stromlo, for the most part, is pretty single speed friendly – the longer climbs are gentle and the stuff around the back part of the circuit has some pinches in it but it is all rideable (well apart from that step up just into Heart Breaker which probably required more pace / legs than I had). I had a ball on the climbs and really enjoyed this part of the ride.
However, what goes up must come down and it’s time to be honest. I love riding a rigid bike on rough terrain – to me it makes it more ‘real’ whereas suspension can just isolate you a bit. Sadly I actually went faster through most of the downhill sections on the Black Sheep than I did on my squishy bike (thanks strava!)… but… suspension was made for a reason. Sure you can ride a rigid bike over rough stuff quickly but all that shock gets absorbed by your body instead of the machine and when you hit it again and again. Well. The memories of why I ended up pulling out last year came flooding back.
Still, up to lap 3 I was still having fun – I certainly wasn’t going to threaten The Bearded One but still, on bike, on good single track and the legs were feeling pretty good.
Then lap 4 it all went to bits.
Somehow I’d managed to get to this point with only Ed and Callum having lapped me – a big change from last year where I’d been caught by the top 10 or so by the third lap. I was feeling pretty good up the climb but then I got to Western Wedgetail and Pork Barrel and it all went to pieces – legs were good but my poor bruised hands cried enough and it was challenging enough hanging on, let alone being able to use the brakes effectively which led to bad line choices and yet more trauma. On top of that the heat had climbed steadily and was nudging 37’C.
By the time I grovelled my way back to the start / finish area I was done – I was about 15 minutes slower that lap than my two previous and more to the point was slower than the lap I’d done where I couldn’t really see. Facing a 2 hour + sufferfest for my last lap I decided that enough was enough and pulled the pin.
So, what did I learn (this post by the way is partly to serve as a reminder to my future self as I’m entering the race next year)? Well. Rigid bikes are awesome fun but lets face it, suspension was developed for a reason and at some point the pursuit of a ‘pure’ experience just becomes sheer masochism! Apart from the lack of squish though, my bike packing rig was surprisingly good for the majority of the course its geometry is more targeted as the relaxed end of the XC spectrum but still more than adequate for most of the hairpins. I also raced with my BikeBagDude framebag holding a 4l water bladder and Top Tube bag to hold some food – I was racing unsupported and it was nice to know that I had all of my stuff with me (including enough water to last the race) and still didn’t have to wear a backpack.
Despite the blistered and bruised hands I had a ball on Sunday – its a fun, well organised event that I don’t believe suffers from it being a ‘long lap’ format marathon race rather than the point to point style we more typically see. Also *mini rant mode = ON*, as a bonus Rocky Trail is happy to run under the MTBA banner so that race license you shelled out for actually gets used as opposed to a stack of other events which require you to take out their own insurance cover even if you do have a license… *mini rant mode = OFF*
I’ll more than likely be cursing about a 5am start again about this time next year but hopefully will have remembered to get some squishy bits by then – ok, maybe just for the day. Ok, I’ll probably forget again but at least I know it’s fun!