This weekend the Australian XCM Championships take place in Derby, Tasmania. This is the second year that the event has come to Derby, and the sixth year that the race has taken a lap-based format.
In 2015, the marathon racing stars of Australia came to Derby unsure what they would find. While many knew that about 30km of World Trail built singletrack had been carved into the hills above the tiny town in North-East Tasmania, many were uncertain how they would hold up to racing.
Given some damp and cold conditions, and a primarily singletrack course – it was a brutal day for the elite racers. The strongest riders won, no doubt, as Brendan Johnston and Jenny Blair took the 2015 titles with commanding performances in strong fields.
The Australian XCM Championships in 2016
As Derby was announced as the venue for the XCM Champs for two years – this year sees things a little more developed. Partly the town is clearly better setup – as more locals are investing in setting up accommodation options, or services. There are cafes, a functioning post office, two pubs, lots of bed and breakfasts, self catering accommodation and more. While a lot of this was there in 2015 – a year of business has no doubt benefited the proprietors.
But the trails have had the gift of time, and have started to settle into their environment. Last year the trails were still soft, and they felt like they had just been built. Because most of them had! But after a dry summer, a year and a bit of use, and some maintenance – the trails are in great condition, and feel really settled in. This is my fourth visit here, and conditions are definitely the best I have seen.
Overall though, after riding a lap of the course today, I do believe the course design trumps that from last year. With the long start climb out of town remaining, and some of the singletrack near the lake, the course then climbs on a fire road all the way to the top of the Atlas trail.
While some is well-groomed, a large section isn’t, with only one optimal racing line amongst the rocks, soft dirt and erosion gullies. With about 8km of climbing on this stretch, it really offers a section for eating, drinking, and pedalling hard. Given the climbing as well, it should showcase who can really climb.
Let’s not disregard the Atlas descent though. I’ve ridden it on a trail bike in the wet previously. And while it’s a trail designed to be shuttled – it’s perfect on an XC bike. An intermediate rider would have a blast on a hardtail down this. More advanced riders on longer travel bikes will find more features to use and more speed.
It’s worth remembering that it’s not all downhill though, the first part has a lot of flat sections and small climbs. You can’t roll to the finish from here!
But for a descent in an XCM race? It’s really good. There are enough technical features to really find the best riders. Tight corners into chutes, small steppy climbs on the descent, fast linking corners with off-camber exits – it’s all there. As it runs into Dambusters and then Kruschkas the trail moves onto what was part of the 2015 course. IT’s fast and dry, and pretty loose in corners thanks to the dry summer.
What’s really going to be hard about the course will be eating and drinking. While the firetrail climb will help – it’s also where plenty of hard racing will be happening, especially for the best line through the creek if a small group is coming through there on the first lap.
There is a neutral feed at the top of the climb but it doesn’t seem that useful for the elite race, save for those off the podium on the final lap looking for some help to get through (I’ll say a big thank you now!). A bottle drop feed could be excellent here for the Elite races, but logistically that’s difficult without dedicated feeders.
The other notion is does a lap-based race ever truly feel like a marathon? My favourite races are big point to point events or single loops. And while the benefits of a lap-based race for media coverage, feeding, safety and marshalling is obvious, it doesn’t quite harness the sense of adventure, or of purpose, that marathon racing embodies – for me anyway. All that said, Ben Mather has set a winning course, as it really takes you somewhere, right to the top of the hills, before bringing you back down. You ride through a variety of forests, from native bush that is regrowing, plantation forest, and everything in-between. This could prove to be the best XCM Championship course we have had in years.