Sunday, Bloody Sunday. As the 4th and final day of the Hellfire Cup, Sunday’s racing would see not one, but two different stages held around the event HQ in Kellevie. The early morning stage (Stage 7) was to be a test of everyone’s hill climbing prowess, with a 3km lung-burner circuit proving to be a challenge for even the fastest and lightest riders in the field. The late morning stage (Stage 8) would then be a more traditional XC sprint-fest, with riders given just 3km to muscle in some time over their competitors.
Waking up this morning on the final days racing felt somewhat surreal. Although there had been pain, exhaustion, cramps and blisters over the previous three days, I still wasn’t quite ready to finish up and head home. I was loving the trails, and I was digging the relaxed approach that comes as standard with the Hellfire Cup. I had also just started getting accustomed to my stage-race morning routine, which went something like this:
1. Wake up
2. Check phone messages
3. Doze off to sleep
4. Wake up again to a 2nd alarm clock
5. Hastily put on smelly underpants and dusty thongs
6. Grab a grilled sandwich and a coffee from Double Shot
7. Wake up
8. Fill up my water bottles
9. Say good morning to the race marshals
10. Talk about the weather and the fact that as long as it wasn’t as wet as the 2013 Hellfire Cup, the weather would be fine
11. Spend about 30 minutes attempting to stretch
12. Give up stretching 3 minutes later
13. Take a nervous pre-race leak
14. Apply about 2 litres of chamois cream
15. Spend the next 5 minutes trying to decide whether the caffeine advantage of having a second coffee would be worth the added milk intake trade-off
16. Have second coffee
17. Begin racing
18. Regret having second coffee
I’d definitely become used to the beautiful environment we’d had the pleasure of camping in and riding around for the past four days, and I’d only just started getting to know some of the ladies and fellas I was racing with. As the clock neared 8am though, there wasn’t much time to dwell on my impending farewell. Instead, it was time to gear up and get to the start line.
Many riders had been whispering about the Tuff TORQ Hill Climb Stage the evening prior. Rumours were flying around about how steep the climb would be, and about how gnarly the descent back down was. A human-made rock garden made for quite the technical feature, and being positioned close to the event HQ, it made for terrific spectating too. But it was intimidating. All morning, riders walked up the hillside to peek a look at the rock garden to work out whether they would walk it or ride it during the race.
True to form, I ignored any desire of pre-riding the course and decided I’d just be better off riding it blind on the race run. In hindsight and for anyone who’s interested, I think pre-riding a course is actually a really good idea. If I’ve learnt anything useful from my Hellfire Cup experience, this would be it.
Riders were grouped together in a bunch of 8-10, and sent off in waves every 30 seconds. The fastest riders took off first, with the climb starting almost immediately out of the start gates. Aiming to get the hole shot, rider’s heart rates (including my own) were put into the redline a little quicker than anticipated. As it turned out, the climb on the Mountain Trails ‘Elevator’ course seemed to go on forever, with the trail zigzagging it’s way to the top of the ridgeline that overlooks the event campsite. Getting into a rhythm and controlling heart rate was crucial. The climb got mega steep at one point, and despite having a big 42t rear cassette sprocket out back, I had to concede defeat and jump off for the final pinch.
Once at the top though, we blasted our way back down a series of steep switchbacks at ball-tearing speed. It wasn’t a particularly nasty descent, but when your heart is beating out of your chest, everything seems a lot harder than it is. Towards the bottom, two tricky log rollovers preceded the chunky rock garden, which I’ll admit to being quite nervous on, as the cowbells clanged and spectators hollered at us from the sidelines.
As quick as it had started though, the hill climb was over. It was a smash and dash that really, really hurt the lungs and legs. But geez it was satisfying finishing off that mother of a climb!
In just 10 minutes flat, the Elite Male pair of Mark Tupalski & Kyle Ward smashed out the win for Stage 7. The TORQ boys followed 10 seconds later, while the 4Shaw DYAD lads romped in 3rd place. For the Elite Women’s category, Jenni King & Karen Hill took the glory ahead of Rebecca Locke & Naomi Williams in 2nd, and Therese Rhodes & Jaclyn Schapel in 3rd.
The Mixed Pairs racing was super close, with the young guns on the TORQ Mixed team of Tristan Ward & Holly Harris taking honours for Stage 7, while Jarrod Moroni & Peta Mullens just pipped Renata Bucher & Olly Shaw on the line by half a second.
While it had been a painful stage, most of the overall classifications hadn’t shown much movement. The general consensus amongst competitors was that Friday’s half-marathon stage had really settled most of the placing’s for the overall leader board. The shorter stages on Day 3 & 4 may not have left a whole lot of room for making up time, but with a field as fast and as talented as it was, we all knew that it wasn’t going to be over until that champagne bottle was popped.
Setting the scene for the final showdown, Stage 8 of the Hellfire Cup would send competitors out onto a 3km course made up of familiar trails around the Kellevie race village. As was becoming the theme over the previous days racing however, it was impressive just how many different routes the organisers could coordinate using the large network of singletrack, 4WD trails and dirt roads. We wouldn’t be climbing as much as the mornings Elevator course, but it would still be a smash fest.
I had a couple of hours to chill out before my race started, where again I’d line up in the starting grid with 8 other riders. The first and fastest group set off first, but drama ensued as Tasman Nankervis snapped a chain almost immediately off the start line. Although the TORQ boys had a decisive lead over their nearest rivals (Tupalski & Ward), a snapped chain all of a sudden meant that anything could happen. While teammate Chris Hamilton pushed him along where possible, Tasman pulled on his best cyclocross impersonation and ran his bike through the singletrack. Nervous banter went around race transition, as marshals and spectators tried to work out how much time the TORQ boys might lose.
In the end it was Guy Frail & Anthony Shippard who took out Stage 8, with the pair’s first win of the Hellfire Cup. One second later, Mark Tupalski & Kyle Ward crossed in second position, with the 4Shaw DYAD team taking 3rd line honours. Coming in nearly 4 minutes later, the TORQ boys managed to minimise their losses from the snapped chain, but it was a clear example that showed anything could happen in a 4-day stage race. It also raised questions about the unofficial race neutralisation of the half marathon stage on Friday. If Tupalski & Ward hadn’t ‘cruised’ that stage, would there have been a closer contention for 1st position?
I guess that’s an answer that none of us will ever know, but it just goes to show that even when the chips are down, you’ve just gotta keep pushing. Ultimately, you never know what could happen to the riders around you. A snapped chain, a puncture or even a hard crash could change everything.
After it was all said and done though, Stage 8 wrapped up four hard days of racing. As the numbers came through, the general classification ended up as this:
Elite Female Pairs
1. Jenni King & Karen Hill 7:23:17
2. Naomi Williams & Rebecca Locke 7:31:42
3. Brooke Rowlands & Eliza Kwan 7:57:49
Elite Male Pairs
1. Tasman Nankervis & Chris Hamilton 6:09:20
2. Mark Tupalski & Kyle Ward 6:20:42
3. Tom Goddard & Scott Bowden 6:31:21
Elite Mixed Pairs
1. Holly Harris & Tristan Ward 6:51:14
2. Renata Bucher & Olly Shaw 6:53:59
3. Peta Mullens & Jarrod Moroni 6:55:47
And that is how the 2015 Hellfire Cup was run and won. In the end, it was the riders with the best all-round abilities who took out their respective categories. Fitness is one thing, but endurance, technical skills and mental toughness are all together different aspects that can win or lose a 4-day stage race. Of course a bit of luck thrown in there certainly helps too.
But what about this Lone Wolf? Well, my wolf pack of one had a thoroughly enjoyable time at the Hellfire Cup despite being pushed well and truly beyond the limits of my endurance. My legs were starting to feel pretty hollow by this morning’s hill-climbing stage, but I kinda expected that given how little long-distance training I undertook prior.
At the end of the day for me, the opportunity to spend a few days camping out in the bush while riding the rolling trails around Kellevie and enjoying the beautiful landscape surrounding Marion Bay, far outweighed any result on the timesheet. I tip my hat off to Duncan and his partner Sarah for putting on such a fantastic event, despite all the adversity they have faced over the past few years. To come back after the devastating bushfires of 2013 and the apocalyptically wet conditions of the inaugural event, is an impressive feat that many others would not be capable of. They are indeed surrounded by a great group of volunteers, who have worked their arses off to make the Hellfire Cup such a fantastic event. And it’s this tight group of friends and riders who also deserve an enormous thank you from all of us competitors for all of the hard work they’ve put in.
My final thoughts on the Hellfire Cup: This isn’t just an event for those elite riders who are dashing for the cash, it’s also an event for everyday riders who want to come out and ride with their buddies, while enjoying several days of camping in a serene outdoors environment. It’s an opportunity to see the best that Tassie has to offer, and it’s a great excuse for mainlanders to take a few extra days off, take the ferry over, and make a proper road trip exploring all the other fantastic trails around the island. In fact, that’s exactly how I would recommend you tackle the next Hellfire Cup – make a proper trip of it and while you’re at it, tick off all those other great riding destinations like Hollybank, Blue Derby, Meehan Range and the North-South track. This place has a lot going on for us mountain bikers, and like the Hellfire Cup, I’m sure it will continue to grow and thrive in years to come.
Oh, but make sure you do the Hellfire Cup as a pair. It’s way better that way.
(I’m looking at you Mike Blewitt).