Sitting down, in clean clothes, using free wifi. As the Croc gets into swing, scenes like these are getting rarer. It’s day three and we cruised from Lake Tinaroo to race at Atherton, another MTB mecca, this morning, where we’ll have a brief reprieve from the daily pack-up for two nights. Mike and I were lucky enough to get a cabin at the very bike-friendly Big4 Atherton Woodlands Tourist Park and it’s like a dream come true. A bike cleaning bay with tools! Lovely room with comfy beds! Lots of horizontal surfaces! Complimentary milk and orange juice!
Yesterday was a dreadful race for me. First I missed the start, which I don’t think I ever have in 10 years’ racing. Last year there was a long pause once racers had rolled from Cairns to the race start, but not this year, and I took a toilet break only to hear the gun go off when I was still getting my kit back on. That wasn’t so bad compared to the excruciating heartburn I developed half-way through the race. I always get it to some degree in long hard races, but it’s only been that bad twice. Last time was in Grand Raid in Switzerland. The A race I’d been training for all year and one that I just had to finish to qualify for World Marathon Champs next year. I made it to 107km of 125 but, drooling and heaving on the side of the track, could go no further. Yesterday was almost as bad, but I made it, and after a quick chat to the race doctor this morning, I’ve been prescribed some Nexium. And it works a treat.
Today the race really started to bed in. The ‘soft trophy’ riders have left us, and the Euros seem to be getting used to how Australians do neutral starts… i.e., neutrally. We had a pleasant 18km roll to the start line, plus there was time for a bathroom break.
I started with the Elite Men, which as the only Elite Woman racing had me pretty anxious, due to a number of gun Amateur riders starting a minute behind me, but it all went fine. In spite of feeling like a little white-jerseyed bunny rabbit lure, I held them off until we started climbing, and just kept pulling to the side when they approached. The vibe was incredibly patient, positive, and encouraging. Most of them thanked me by name, which is really lovely in a race.
The Atherton course is set into a brutal monster of a mountain, and because of the amount of rain it can cop each year (up to 6 metres apparently), is built with strong emphasis on drainage. This means lots, and lots, and lots of reverse gradient. None of the climbs simply, um, climb, they bump up and down over lumps designed to encourage runoff. After the tolerable first climb and a very fun, bermy-jumpy descent, the ‘stairway to heaven’ climb is a horror of momentum-sapping bumps followed by steep switchbacks, over and over. It takes about 30 minutes to get to the end of this section of climbing, or so you think. There’s always a bit more.
But this is very nearly worth it when you get to the descents. They are, without exception, smooth, flowing, bermed, fast, and technical. There are plenty of jumps that even noodle-armed racers like me can get some air over, and because the ups are so long, so are the downs. The last one, down number 9 trail, is a true joy to ride – steep berm after berm, each flowing into the other around tyre-rollingly fast switchbacks, and takes you almost all the way to transition.
I went out quite hard and about fifteen or twenty Amateur men passed me on the stairway climb, but I managed to hold others off on the descents. If nothing else, racing in with the boys like this has given me confidence in my technical ability, which I hope I can draw on when I’m back racing with the girls. I’ve worked really hard on it this year, so I’m pleased. Only one guy passed me on the second lap (plus a pro man who’d had a flat, but he was already in front so it doesn’t count), and after getting a bit dehydrated and finding myself pretty sketchy on the final descent I stopped at transition to gulp ‘iso’ and so a few guys caught up who, having probably availed themselves of the Red Bull they were also handing out, charged past me on the stairway climb. There was one guy who was approaching me on the climbs, but who I could lose a bit on the descents, so I made it my mission to hold him off, and that kept me going until the end.
The best bit was: no heartburn, in fact a better stomach than I’ve had racing almost all year. Who knew you could fix this!?
It’s interesting (and certainly disappointing, apart from the clean jersey every day) to be the only Elite female. It can be difficult to keep pushing through a lot of pain when there aren’t really any consequences, but I’m just setting myself new goals to keep me racing hard. Now I have a good idea of which men are just above my level, so it will be a good challenge to try to stay with them when the Croc turns Croccy in the coming days, with lots of corrugated, undulating dirt roads (not my forte!) to negotiate. I’ll have to try to hang on… the singletrack party is over for now.
The Croc is still a very ‘Euro’ race, so today was a special stage as far as I’m concerned. Race organisers have shown our European visitors a live crocodile and a python, termite mounds (Euros are mad for them), and rainforest. Today, I think, was about sharing what an Aussie Marathon is all about. Non-stop technical singletrack, heat, and dust. Welcome to Australia!
David Rosa from Portugal, who had to run two laps of Stage 1 at Smithfield with a broken wheel (ouch), made a stunning comeback today to win by four minutes. Milton Ramos, from the Pyrenees was second, and ex-local boy (now resident of Norway) Greg Saw took another step towards curing his homesickness with a third place. Greg Saw retains the leader’s jersey.
Full results are online.
Tomorrow the race will take us on a diabolically steep, loose loop south-west of Atherton. We’ve got blistered hands, feet, and asses, but the nerves are blown away, and growing exhaustion has mellowed bloodthirsty racers, particularly as we realise how far there is to go. The middle is my favourite part of a stage race.