Bearing in mind that a lot of MarathonMTB.com readers are from all around the world, and that many Australians don’t know where Alice Springs is anyway, I thought I’d start this series of blogs about Alice Spring’s biggest MTB event with this fascinating geography primer. Skip ahead a few paragraphs if you just want the race stuff.
All of Australia’s cities, and most of her 21 million people, are on the coast. This is because most of Australia, and all of the middle of it, is desert.
Australia is about the size of the USA, including Alaska, and if you stuck a pin right smack in the middle of it, you wouldn’t be far from Alice Springs, a town with millennia of Aboriginal history, and a couple hundred years European history. The ‘springs’ are waterholes beneath the dry sand. The Todd River, which is usually dry, ‘runs’ through the centre of the town, and could be called an upside-down river, as there’s always water to be found beneath its surface.
Alice is by no means small, in spite of its remoteness. The population is about 28,000 people, and so the town has all the conveniences of a rural centre: two large supermarkets, galleries, cafes, restaurants, nightclubs, the lot.
And the trails? A bit like the rocky terrain of South Africa, and as sinuous as BC’s best, with sand traps and nasty pinch climbs thrown in, riding Alice is a physical, mental, and technical challenge. Nobody knows exactly how much singletrack is out there, snaking around the town, but locals – avid trailbuilders – reckon it’s around 300 kilometres. Then there’s all the four-wheel drive and dirt roads, too…
Australian mountain bikers spend a lot of cash travelling to places like Whistler, Rotorua, and South Africa in search of the ultimate ride, but I think that instead of looking outwards, we should look within. Just a three-hour flight from all major cities, Alice Springs is world-class mountain biking, and no currency exchange required.
Australia – and Alice Springs – are still a long way from everywhere else in the world, so I’m going to try to give you a taste of what it’s like to race through Australia’s red desert heart in these race reports, so you can experience it all vicariously.
Here endeth the lesson!
The Ingkerreke (pronounced in-ger-uka) Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro (phew! ICME henceforth) is run by Rapid Ascent, a professional adventure and off-road race organiser based in Melbourne. Their team are a slick, fun organisation, and last night’s official opening is one of the best I’ve been to, with interesting, short speeches and a fantastic Welcome to Country where we learned that great mountain bikers make terrible Arrernte speakers.
This is my fourth time racing here, so I know how good it is, and warming up this morning for stage 1, I felt the same excitement and joy I did at Christmas when I was a kid that still believed in Santa Claus…
Stage 1, a 40-kilometre singletrack and four-wheel-drive track race sponsored by Adidas Eyewear, started with a neutral roll through town. I’m always surprised how disciplined and pleasant these neutral starts are compared to European ‘neutral’ racing, where I’ve witnessed some of the worst carnage I’ve seen in all my years on a bike. It was a shame, though, that today wasn’t without incident, when the lead-out car accidentally braked suddenly at the end of the neutral zone and took out one of the race favourites, 2009 winner Ben Mather.
After a quick, confused wait while the very tough Mather got back on his bike, the race was underway, but I was a bit slow getting into it. I’m sure I wasn’t alone feeling the need to calm down and stop the shakes after seeing Mather come off.
We hit a huge sand trap straight away, and if it weren’t the first five minutes of a stage race, I’m sure I would have laughed and the circus we turned into. People running up and around hills to avoid the sand, falling over, crashing into one another, trying – and failing – to remount. Women’s race favourite, the gorgeous Jo Bennett, who won in 2009, ran quite elegantly I thought, and disappeared from sight while I floundered in the sand. Once I got back on and things calmed down, I concentrated on finding my race rhythm and burning off some nervous energy over the rolling climbs until we hit singletrack, where I could focus on where I was going next, getting there as fast as possible, and not much else!
I passed a few men and rode away from some of the other women, and before too long Jo Bennett’s lucky bright pink socks shone out over the sand. I counted breaths and figured I was about 20 seconds back. I was stuck behind a nice guy and he seemed to be going quick enough, so held onto his wheel until we caught her, and both overtook.
No good – Jo stuck to my wheel and before too long we hit some fire road. I sat up a bit, knowing there was no way I could lose her, and jumped on her wheel when she passed, and we stayed like that for the rest of the race, both of us trying a couple of surges, neither of us letting the other go.
Until the final few kilometres and a railway line crossing, that is. We turned sharp left and up a steep embankment – I was overgeared and knew I wouldn’t clear the tracks, about a wheel’s breadth apart and several inches high – so I got off and ran while Jo, elegant again, skipped over them. I burned most of what I had left to get back on her wheel, just in time for ‘Blair’s Stairs’ – a technical climb for some, a hike-a-bike for everyone else. Jo rode well then dismounted and ran, while I tried to ride until I fell off and she pulled away while I stumbled, half out of my cleat, then Jo rode some more of the climb beautifully. I cleaned the top section, but the gap was there – it was a downhill run to the race finish at the Alice Springs Velodrome, and I knew I wouldn’t catch her, but was so pleased to finish with a real star of Australian mountain biking and all-around nice lady in my sights, 13 seconds down. Jess Douglass, World 24-Hour Champion and another nice lady was about four minutes back after getting very trapped in the sand early on.
The men’s race for first and second was quite similar to Jo’s and mine, with Ryan Standish, a young star, pulling away from a rather sore Ben Mather on the railway line and then Blair’s Stairs. The men were even closer together, just a handful of seconds separating first, second, and third – Cannondale’s James Downing.
I’m writing this in a bit of a hurry because in less than an hour I’ll be drooling my way up a 300 metre wall known as Anzac Hill in the second stage. I’ve eaten my third crumpet of the day, had a nap and a stretch, and an all-important recovery dip in the pool. Wish me luck