Today was the 6th running of the James Williamson Enduro Challenge, an event that has been held in memory of James after he passed away at the 2010 Cape Epic. Proceeds from the popular race are used to support a range of activities to develop junior mountain bikers in New South Wales and the ACT in Australia. But many race or ride the event to just pay tribute to a friend lost.
On a typical Southern Highlands summer’s day – drizzly and overcast – some of the best mountain bikers from around Australia centred on Wingello State Forest to race in memory of James. Aside from that – the event has become highly popular because of the range of distances available, kid’s races, and how well-run it is, plus using the highly popular Wingello trail network.
The start sheet was stacked for this year’s race, with the likes of Andrew Blair, Dan McConnell, Shaun Lewis (non-real), the in-form Kyle Ward, Jon “Enduro” Odams, Jason Chalker, Tristan Ward, Marc Williams, Anthony Shippard, Kane Macri, 2014 Croc Trophy winner Greg Saw, Andrew Lloyd, Dylan Cooper… and of course National XCM Champ Brendan Johnston, winner of the AMB100 last weekend.
The women’s field was no less sharp. While with no Jenny Blair, Jenni King or Peta Mullens there – the likes of Samara Sheppard (fresh off winning the Snowies MTB Festival), 2014 XCM Champ Mel Anset, the ever-smiling Eliza Kwan, QLD recruit Imogen Smith, Briony Mattocks, Cristy Henderson, Lucy Bechtel… the whole event was stacked. Not bad considerng the Odyssey was on yesterday, in another state.
Fresh changes for 2016 James Williamson Memorial Enduro
With some logging work where the event centre would normally be based, this year the start, and loop, was slightly different – seemingly with a heavier load of singletrack than before. Although that’s based on ‘feel’ not research.
It did mean that from the gun, we didn’t have a whole lot of firetrail to spread the open men’s 75km race out before the singletrack. Everyone squeezed in, but if you weren’t happy with your start, you were unlikely to be happy for a while.
I settled in to a pace with plenty of roadies who were having a day offroad, and that was fairly good. The trails were a delightful mix between hero dirt and some slightly slipper rocks. The addition of extra trails, and some machine-built sections, have really changed Wingello for the better, creating more variety than many new trail centres, but more interest and fun than some older trails that get a little passe with the passage of time.
Brendan Johnston lead the first lap with Ward, and then it was McConnell, Blair, Odams and Cooper behind. Groups were forming, as much of the singletrack is readily ridden with wheels close, and the fire road sections are typically exposed enough to warrant being with a few other riders.
My group of roadies cum mountain bikers was strong on the flat, and conversational in the singletrack.
In the women’s race, while Sheppard didn’t light it up off the line, she did come through after the first lap with close to a 3 minute lead already in her jersey pocket. Henderson followed, with Kelly Bartlett, Mattocks, Anset and Bechtel behind.
By the second lap the trails were really tacky, having had 400 riders pass over them they were running extremely fast – not quite enough for negative splits, but Kyle Ward had dropped off and Blair was in a solid second as others chased behind.
I popped from my group and collected a fresh bottle for a third, and solo, final lap.
Racing laps for a marathon is a bit odd. It does give you the chance to pull out if you’re not ‘feeling it’ quite easily, but it’s far easier for race feeding, and typically means races can use high quality trails without having to add too much ‘filler’. It also means you can ride a little bit on auto-pilot towards the end – which is a sure fire way to go slow as well.
Johnston didn’t seem to do that, kicking pretty hard all the way to the finish, winning well clear of Andrew Blair. And while Cooper was leading when on the final ascent of the KOM just before the finish, a painful cramp saw Jon Odams capitalise and have a brilliant ride for 3rd place.
Samara Sheppard was never in trouble, winning with almost 12 minutes to spare ahead of Cristy Henderson, with Mattocks just behind.
On reflection, it’s easy to see why ‘The Willo’ is such a good event. Obviously it’s close to Sydney and Canberra, and the trails are well-suited to marathon racing, with high speed sections, enough technical interest, and a good amount of fire trail to eat and drink. I certainly hope this race has many more years in it, as it’s a firm favourite, and an excellent memorial.