It’s very hard to write-up a stage race – so much happens within each stage that putting it all together makes for such a huge long list of events that it’s impossible to get the ‘feel’ for the event. Instead of writing up a blow-by-blow account of who won what, and who punctured when, let’s leave it at this:
During an MTB stage race, everyone: Every. Single. Team. will have some sort of bad luck befall them. Punctures, broken chains, snapped derailleur cables, missed TT start times, crashes, dropped bidons, wrong turns, and even just plain old ‘bad legs’; all of these things occurred to teams at the 2014 Hellfire Cup. As it happens to everyone – the equal amounts of bad luck – we can assume that the results accurately reflect the best racers over the course of the 4 days.
So let’s not focus merely on the racing – as it is only a part of what the Hellfire Cup is about. Let’s talk about the stages, the trails and the one thing that really sets this race apart from the rest – the vibe of the event.
Landing on Wednesday morning, a merry band of friends from Sydney all rolled up at rego together. The sun was shining and ribbons of bunting marked out intriguing, exciting, single-track loops on the hillside. Race organiser Duncan greeted us with his usual cheer – and really thanked us for making the effort to attend. He has poured his heart, soul and quite a lot more into this event – and he is truly flattered that people come along to enjoy it. To be honest, it’s an easy race to do. A flight from Sydney, and then a 40 minute drive from the airport to the event centre. Within 2.5hrs of leaving ‘the big smoke’ of the city, we were in lush fields, with no phone reception. Nothing to cause any interruption. Off the grid.
The effort that the race crew have gone to has to be experienced to be understood. Hand cut trails, built over the course of many years, lay testament to their belief that mountain biking should be an organic experience. You won’t find any perfectly buffed trails out here. Real rocks, steep climbs and descents, loose stones and surfaces – those are the characteristics of the fantastic singletrack crafter out here – and how perfectly it all works. When the two Commonwealth Games MTB medalists racing both say “this is real mountain biking – and we love it”, you know you are onto a good thing.
Duncan gleefully describes his trails as ‘Organic’ but as a group, we decided that ‘Paleo’ was probably the most appropriate term! There was many a section ridden that was greeted with comments about how ‘Paleo / Organic / Natural / Real’ it felt. Bring some strong, grippy tyres, and some suspension and you’ll love it.
The event center was a hub for everyone to meet and greet. An open marquee filled with bean bags, a DJ and free Wi-Fi meant that in between races everyone just ‘hung out’ together. A coffee van that seemed to be open from 6am until 10pm never had a queue longer than 3 people, and lunch was provided daily – locally made wraps, fruit, and muesli slices were a huge improvement on last year – and frankly were so good that I would have paid for them directly, had they not been included within the entry fee.
The Hellfire Cup is a pairs event, with some usual stage formats. Here is how the race is played out:
Day 1 – REPORT
Am: 26km XC loop – ridden together as a team – time given as 2nd rider over the line
Pm: 4x6km lap race. Riders tag and alternate lap on, lap off
Day 2 – REPORT
Am: 45km XC loop – ridden together as a team – time given as 2nd rider over the line
Day 3 – REPORT
Am: 16km – ‘2-Up’ Team Time Trial
Pm: 2x9km lap race. Riders tag and alternate lap on, lap off
Day 4 – REPORT
Split stage: Rider A – 3km hill-climb and descent, Rider B – 2km Dirt Crit
1hour break. Reverse roles, and add all times together….
Tasmania is a place where you know you will get all sorts of weather. Day 1 had us racing in near perfect conditions. Slightly overcast, early 20’s, gentle breeze. The first stage was a beauty. Probably 80% singletrack on some incredible trails. Basically it was a big climb up on some four wheel drive track and singletrack, and then a wonderful snaking, rocky, loose descent down a trail called ‘The Serpent’, back to the event centre that was littered with trails – including long sections of bermed ‘northshore’ style board walk.
The afternoon stage on Day 1 was a highlight – as riders could watch their teammates from various points on a ‘Figure 8’ loop and shout / sledge until hoarse. Dan McConnell’s XC speed was very special to see, a real master class.
The trails for day 2’s 45km loop were more marathon in style. Probably 50:50 singletrack and fire road, a couple of long long descents – one called ‘Baby head alley’, one of the loosest descents I have ridden in Australia – had the brakes burning. Beautiful forests, incredible views, and the lightest sprinkle of rain made Day 2 my favourite. The day summed up the perfect MTB riding in Tassie. Mud splattered faces and bikes, finished the stage having slithered down the final descent in the wet – yet everyone was smiling from ear to ear. There is nothing like riding in a bit of mud, and seeing your rear wheel catch up with your front wheel in a ‘sideways moment’ to get the heart racing – all the while knowing that the mud wasn’t enough to actually damage any precious drivetrain…
The rest of the day was free. We chose to spend it in a café. 3.5hrs of coffee, cakes, and chatting. Bliss.
The time-trial on day 3 is a special event. Its rare within MTB to race a TT, and even rarer to do it together with a partner, with an official starter heading off at 30 second intervals in reverse order. A long open gravel road for the first 2km meant that you could see maybe 2 or 3 teams ahead – rabbits! It also meant that you and your partner were also rabbits for the team behind. Rolling singletrack, and fast, sketchy, loose descents made for a bit of ‘tripod’ cornering (with tyres at 10psi more than normal – due to the fast nature of a lot of the course), but there is no feeling better than swapping turns with your mate collecting teams ahead of you and rolling along at warp speed trying to hold the wheel in front.
By the evening of Day 3, fatigue is really setting in. So – it’s one lap each, in a tag format, around yet more new trails of the event centre. With all the teams now knowing each other very well, there was a bit of tactical play involved in protecting leads, or in trying to win back time from previous ‘bad days’. Who would start first – your ‘fast guy’ against their ‘slow guy’? Who were they starting with anyway? Great fun, and again – a track that went in and out of the event centre 4 times meant for lots of screaming and shouting – cowbells, whistles, and loud music too.
The morning of Day 4 comes and the stages are very, very short. A 3km ‘up and down’ loop, and a dirt crit / eliminator that took 3 mins for a full lap. Each rider races in each format, and the times were added together. Despite the stages being short, there were positions decided in Elite categories even on this day. The racing was that tight. And tight racing over shot distances means only one thing – legs that scream louder than a new born Hyena! Bodies collapse over the line but are soon up and hugging team-mates in the knowledge of a job well done and 4 days wonderfully spent.
Well – the event sponsor is local brewery. And the sun is shining. And there is a live band playing a unusual mix of hill-billy rock and roll and blues. Oh – and the local butcher has provided sausages for the sizzle to end all sizzles. As a group of friends – both those we came with, and new mates made throughout the event, we sat back on the beanbags littered around the event center, took in the rays, celebrated the lack of ozone layer over Tasmania, and burnt our arms, legs and nose whilst getting quietly drunk and a little bit fat.
At about this point, someone strapped a pair of leaf-blowers to a home-made ‘chopper’ style bike and things got a little bit crazy – but I cant go any further as to what went on.
Pencil it in to your diary for next year. Go knowing that it’s a race, and ride hard by all means – but don’t ever take it so seriously that you forget the reason you are there – it’s just a hell of a good weekend with your mates your bike and some real mountain biking.