All photos by Nat Jeanneret or Nick Miller
Day 2 of the Avanti Plus Hellfire Cup would see just one stage held for the day, but it was to be the longest stage of the entire 4-day race. The 50km Half Marathon stage was designed to test competitor’s endurance, after yesterday’s harder and faster-paced riding. With the pointy end of the field separated by mere seconds in their respective categories, the Half Marathon stage was sure to see some big movement as the more experienced racers put the pedal to the floor.
I woke up around 7:30am to the smell of freshly ground espresso, which was pretty much the sole reason my achy body even considered getting out of my sleeping bag this morning. (On that note, many thanks to Duncan and the crew for understanding the importance of getting a quality barista and excellent food options on site!) Although I perked up with a lovely flat white, I still had that sinking feeling that I may have spent most of my bikkies during yesterday’s racing, and I was just a little worried about how long I could maintain the full 50km at race pace.
At 9am, the entire field of competitors lined up in race transition, ready to take on the long climbs of the day. As with the first 2 stages, the race would start and finish at event HQ. As a competitor, this is such an appealing aspect of racing the Hellfire Cup, and especially when you’re camping on site.
After a nervous 10-second countdown, everyone shot off from the finish line, with a couple of km’s of fireroad to allow everyone to self-seed. The first 10km of the race saw us follow a similar route to yesterday’s 25km stage, meaning we were able to ride some familiar trail where you knew what was coming up next.
As we got further away from the race village though, drama ensued. A small breakaway group of 4 riders, which included race leaders Tasman Nankervis & Chris Hamilton, began to put some time on the main lead bunch. The breakaway group passed a small intersection on the trail, and during the couple of minutes that separated them with the main lead bunch, apparently a disgruntled local tampered with the bunting. This sent the main lead bunch in the wrong direction, up a steep fireroad climb. I was at the tail end of this bunch, and by the time I reached the climb, I realised that everyone had stopped and were panicking as to whether we were going the right way. Some riders who had competed in last years Hellfire Cup made the decision that we were indeed going the wrong way, and so everyone turned back before eventually finding the correct turn off point.
Many of the Elite field were fuming, but it wasn’t known until after the race finished that it was in fact the work of some dickhead in a ute who had messed with the bunting, rather than any mistake made by the event organisers. (I should point out here that all of the racecourses we’ve been riding up until this point have been incredibly well marked out, with a butt-load of bunting and warning signs whenever a tricky obstacle was to be encountered on course.) After everyone got on the right track, a rider in the main lead bunch made the decision to ‘cruise’ the remainder of the race, given that there was no way they could chase down the TORQ guys. Instead of racing as normal and perhaps working out a resolution at the end of the race, the main bunch effectively neutralised the race to finish in a collective pack. Talk about drama!
I learnt all of this after I crossed the finish line, and to be honest, it kinda pissed me off. Here I was spewing my ring out trying to keep contact with the main bunch, and it turned out they were cruising. Cruising! Way to rub it in jerks!
The top-3 for each of the Elite categories:
Jenni King & Karen Hill took a strong win in the female pairs, following up yesterday’s domination. Rebecca Locke & Naomi Williams came in 2nd, despite Rebecca having a massive over-the-bars crash on one of the loose fireroad sections. Brooke Rawland & Eliza Kwan maintained their consistency to finish in 3rd. For the mixed category, Renata Bucher & Olly Shaw crossed the line in front of Peta Mullens & Jarrod Moroni, with the TORQ Mixed team of Tristan Ward & Holly Harris chasing them down in 3rd. Meanwhile in the men’s pairs, Chris Hamilton & Tasman Nankervis took a convincing win, while the rest of the bunch came through some 25 minutes later due to the bunting debacle. Kyle Ward & Mark Tupalski finished in 2nd, which was pretty impressive given that Tu-Pac had a flat in the early part of the race. Anthony Shippard & Guy Frail rounded out the men’s pairs in 3rd.
The racecourse itself was pretty epic. It turned out the overall distance was closer to 47km, though with patchy GPS reception, my computer was reading 43km when I crossed the finish line, which didn’t do me much help in the nutrition strategy department, but that’s really my fault for relying solely on a GPS and not using a proper speed/cadence sensor. Given I’m so concerned by my race data and all that.
Overall we ascended nearly 1400m of vertical during the whole race, and gee my legs felt every one of them! The middle 20km of the racecourse was filled with long fireroad climbs and open stretches where we were pummelled by the wind. Bunches formed, and racing pairs stuck together to take turns pushing on the front against the wind. I watched Renata Bucher cling to Olly Shaw’s jersey pocket as he gave her a tow up one of the climbs, while Jarrod Moroni helped push Peta Mullens to help them keep touch with the main bunch. As we swung through the tight singletrack, I could hear Tristan Ward barking out encouraging words to his race partner Holly Harris, in between opportune pushes to help motivate on the steeper pinches. There was certainly plenty of teamwork going on, and today’s stage really proved just how unique the racing dynamic is at the Hellfire Cup.
It was at this point of the race where I started hallucinating a little bit. You know that episode of The Simpsons where Bart loses his soul? During that episode, he has a dream where all of his friends are hanging out and playing with their soul mates. The dream ends with all of his friends and their soul mates in rowboats cruising out to sea in pairs, while Bart is left on his own, rowing around in circles without his soul. Today, I felt like Bart.
I was on my own for long stretches during the latter part of the race, swearing at the wind as it blasted into my face, while the hot Tassie sun beat down on my back. Things started improving once we hit the feed station at the 28km mark though; where riders were able to refill their drink bottles and pick up any nutrition they’d given to race marshals earlier in the morning. After a TORQ bar, a gel, and a good swig of water, I found some inspiration to push a little harder and finish off the climbing a couple of km’s down the road.
Once competitors crested the top, we were rewarded with 6km of absolutely sublime singletrack descending. Without doubt, this was my favourite piece of trail from this year’s Hellfire Cup thus far. Initially beginning with plenty of rocky and technical rollers, the trail gradually became softer and loamier as we got further down the valley. The singletrack became smoother and flowier through the dense rainforest backdrop, with the temperature dropping along with the altitude. I was largely on my own for this descent, and amongst the enormous old-growth trees, I truly felt like I was the only human in existence for miles.
The last descending portion of the course took us along old tramway descents that were used back in the logging days for transporting timber. Nowadays, those double track descents have made way for some incredibly exhilarating descents, where I was able to let off the brakes and blast my way through the tunnel of overhanging scrub. This was proper rugged, natural mountain biking at its very best.
After one more (thankfully flat) fireroad section, the course sent us back around the race village, finishing off the stage with some of the familiar singletrack we’d ridden on the previous stage. While I’d initially thought I had another 7km of riding to go, I was incredibly relieved to find out that I had in fact reached the finish line despite my GPS reading a total distance of 43km. Incredibly relieved. Turns out this solo stage racing business requires a lot more fitness than I first thought!
With todays stage out of the way, we’ve now got ourselves a free afternoon to chill and relax before tomorrows racing. Currently the Ironhouse Brewery bar is doing a roaring trade, while the onsite masseuse is entirely booked out for the afternoon, addressing tight hamstrings and tender backs. There’ll even be music on later this evening courtesy of Brian Ritchie from the Violent Femmes.
Ok, so that’s it for me today. Stay tuned for further race updates as they come over the next two days as the racing continues to heat up. Will anyone be able to chase down the TORQ team? We’ll just have to wait and see!