I finished racing hours ago but I’m still shaking. It’s the inevitable result of sleep deprivation, lactic acid accumulation, caffeine ingestion, and a lot of adrenalin!
I can now safely admit that I loathe night racing, but was trying to keep positive before Rapid Ascent’s ICME stage 5 last night in the hope that this would make me go faster (it didn’t). The mass start wasn’t too hectic, just a lot of dust, and I managed to find Jo’s wheel. We ended up in a train of men, but I was drifting off the back a lot. The key to night racing is to switch the mind off and let yourself drift – my mind’s not so great at staying quiet, and every time I felt hesitant Jo’s wheel would stretch away, then I’d have to put in an effort to catch up again. This went on and on, I must have got back on 50 times, until I couldn’t anymore, with about 7kms to go my legs gave in and I slowed a lot with no wheel to follow.
Jess Douglas caught me and gave me some great encouragement, but when my main lights went out I let her in front and lost her into what had become a very dark night. There was just one more technical section to clear and I picked my way down pretty gingerly, then tried to find some power for the last stretch. I lost a few minutes to Jo, but was pleased to only be a couple of minutes slower than my TT time – my night races are usually abysmal so this one was, well, better.
Ryan Standish, the young local in the yellow jersey, couldn’t hold his lead, and Ben Mather won, in front of consistent racers James Downing and Chris Hanson. Ben’s gap was big enough to take Ryan’s yellow leader’s jersey. Jo won my race, Jess was second, and I came in third. Apart from everything else, I’m just enjoying racing with such classy ladies.
It was a late night for everyone. I ordered some food at my hotel and waited about an hour for it, and was pretty shaky by the time it arrived. It takes ages to unwind after a night race so I focused really hard on relaxing and preparing for the next day, then got to bed a bit after ten. I slept relatively well, and woke up to… rain! Something that only really happens a couple of times a year in the central Australian desert just happened to arrive for our marathon stage. And did someone say ‘saddle sores’?
I’ve been having a lot of trouble with training and racing – the familiar cocktail of mental fatigue, stress, self-doubt. When I was interviewed by Rapid Ascent before the race, I was asked which stage I was most looking forward to. I said the marathon stage, but it was more to exorcise the demons than the truth. Plus I have ‘MarathonMTB’ written on my jersey. I had a lot of doubt going into this stage, even to the tune of ‘can I finish this?’
Today was brutal. It started with reasonably heavy, and rare, rain, which cleared up to a few showers. Rocky pinch climb after rocky pinch climb. The ‘Hell Line’ singletrack is superb, but very demanding and technical. I rode out of my league and suffered a lot to stay with some of the faster men, including Vintage leader Paul Darvodelsky. My plan was to stick it out until the 30-odd kilometre bitumen section so I could benefit from being in a group. I knew Jo wasn’t far behind me. It all went to plan until we hit the Simpson’s Gap bike path, a superb piece of infrastructure that winds and snakes its way towards a spectacular gap in the MacDonnell Ranges. I’d expected the boys to paceline it, but there were a few attacks, and I was hurting, had lost some air out of my rear tyre, and, most of all struggled with ‘trust issues’ with a bunch of large and enthusiastic blokes flying around curvy wet bitumen at 40 kilometres an hour. Plan fail. I dropped off the back but was picked up by a couple of guys. I bounced on my rear tyre a bit and decided not to stop to inflate it. Didn’t seem too bad. After 17 kilometres of this we turned onto the road and were picked up by a road train of strong men. And Jo Bennett. ‘I’m so bitter.’ I told her, and we had a laugh.
It was nice after that, with 30 kilometres to go our little group rolled quite long turns and we all ate and drank and enjoyed the view. I imbibed about 12 gels and decided that, no matter what happened, I was happy with how I’d ridden.
Pretty soon the party was over and we were back on the dirt. With 15 kilometres to go we hit some diabolical climbs and descents on red desert scree, interspersed with baby head-sized rocks. I think my flat-ish rear tyre (it had about 10 psi in it when I checked at the finish) actually helped me a bit here, and I managed to keep traction up these tough pinches. I knew I had a bit of a gap on the others, so I put my head down, kept the cadence light, and welcomed the suffering in like an old friend. Before too long I was back on flat sand with one other survivor, and we swapped off until we saw the 2km to go sign. I allowed myself to look back and couldn’t see Jo. ‘Go, gogogogogogo’.
I was so happy to win. Putting your arms in the air as you cross the line is almost as good as falling in love (but only lasts an instant). Most of all, I was happy with how I’d managed the mental battle. It was one of the toughest races I’ve ever done.
Jo has 3 minutes on me. That’s quite a lot. Whatever happens now, is fine. Tomorrow’s stage is 40 kilometres of Alice’s sweetest trails, and I can’t wait.