In 2005, XCM as we know it today wasn’t really a thing. There certainly wasn’t any XCM series, and people participated in 100-kilometre races because 100 is a nice round number and they were looking for a challenge.
The Convict 100, or Dirtworks 100 as it was known then, was a pretty radical idea. Someone got permission to race over heritage-listed convict paths, through farmland, and on public roads, and the wild ride over sandstone ledges, through scratchy undergrowth, over the infamous canoe bridge, and above spectacular ridgelines was born.
In the days of 26-inch wheels and triple chainrings, when our hubs were attached to our bikes by spindly skewers and everything was made of alloy, 100 kilometres took, well, longer. Quite a bit longer, in fact. While the Convict course has changed a little over time, some bits getting smoother, it’s always been 100 kilometres, and with ten years of timing data available on the Convict 100 website, MarathonMTB thought it was high time we took a look at it to see what the trends are, and what they tell us about marathon racing as a whole.
The fast finishes at the Convict 100
The most interesting thing to look at is, of course, the finishing times. In the chart below we have plotted the elite winning times for men and women, but also the median finishing time for the whole field. Take note that the median is not the same as the average – rather, it’s the time that the finisher right in the middle of the field did – so if there were 600 riders, we’ve plotted the time of the competitor who came 300th, and so on. When times are as closely grouped as they are in a marathon race with hundreds of racers, we think it’s a good representation of where the ‘middle’ actually is.
So, we can see a general upwards trend, especially in the median times – the times of the ‘average’ competitor. What can we put this down to?
Of course there are advances in bike technology – the aforementioned wheel sizes change that gives us access to faster-rolling, more forgiving bikes that roll over bumps like the famous Convict sandstone ledges and steps faster than their 26-inch predecessors. There’s the gearing that goes along with that, and which, with each passing year, has got lighter as we’ve dropped from three chainrings, to two, and now for many of us, to one, eliminating the weight of a front derailleur too. There’s the rise and rise of carbon fibre, which makes our bikes stiffer and, best of all, lighter. We should also consider that, back in 2006, disc brakes were not ‘the norm’, mostly coming out on newer, more expensive bikes. The ability to brake later and smoother increases the speed riders can approach and clear obstacles, and surely pushed down times in those earlier years as they went from special to standard additions to most competitors bikes.
In recent times, too, we’ve seen fabulously powerful new training tools become useable and accessible for everyone with the time, money, and desire to use them. Recreational riders now have access to the kind of guidance that, just a few years ago, was the exclusive domain of elite riders at the top of their field with the money and support to pay for an expert coach. We now regularly think in terms of FTP, know when we’re peaking or over-tired, and have access via services like Today’s Plan and Training Peaks to professional training tools, programs, and tips from experts that simply weren’t widely available even a few years ago. Even knowledge on things like hydration, pacing, and tactics that were previously only learned through years of experience are now or discoverable with a few clicks.
There have been course changes, too, with the introduction of, for example, a wider canoe bridge rideable by everyone just last year (a dunk in the MacDonald River has cost many a rider several minutes), and in general the fire roads have been in better condition over the last few years. The reversal of the course in 2015, designed to give competitors a different experience, doesn’t seem to have affected times too much, although the elite field had a slight drop in times.
The pointy end
Looking at the elite field gives insights of its own. For the elite men, it looks like every three years or so there’s a jump in finishing times, with the record, set by Shaun Lewis in 2013 standing at 3:47:23. For these guys, small things like track conditions, temperature, wind direction, and tactics play a role in the end result. Racers can make huge gains by racing with a team partner or forming alliances on course to draft through the Convict’s longish road sections, and work together to attack and form breakaways.
While times have stabilised at around the 3:45 to 3:55 mark in the last few years, there’s a chance that this could be set for another jump. Last year’s Convict was postponed due to the freak storm that hit Sydney a week before the event was scheduled, and it was held in the depths of winter instead. It could be that a combination of cold temperatures, a new course, and a significantly diminished field all conspired to drive the winner’s time down. If course conditions stay good and the field is back to its usual numbers, we predict a new record in 2016.
The women’s times tell a similar story, but one skewed by the exceptionally fast times between 2012 and 2014, something we like to call, ‘the Jenny Blair effect’. By far Australia’s best ever female marathon racer, these are the years that Jenny raced and won the Convict. The first woman to break 4 hours 30 in 2012, she went on to set the current course record in 2013 – an unbelievable 4:22. Jenny won’t be at the Convict this year, but our recent National Champs has proven that the women’s XCM scene in Australia has taken a huge leap forward, so it will be interesting to compare times once the race is over on Saturday.
The story of the Convict 100 reflects, we think, the story of marathon mountain bike racing in Australia. You can see from the graph below a steady growth and a huge peak in the number of competitors in about 2009, when XCM as a mass-participation sport really hit its stride. Since then it dropped off (some of us do need a year or two to recover from each of these events), but it’s clear that organisers have been putting in some hard yards – advertising, blogging, and emailing prospective racers to get them to show up, with pretty good success.
It’s hard to ignore the massive drop in numbers in 2015, when about half the usual number of racers made the start line. As we’ve mentioned before, the #Sydneystorm wreaked havoc on the city, particularly in the north, and the course was all but unrideable. It must have been tough for the organisers to take the step of postponing, and it clearly had a terrible effect. The new race date was in August, when race central’s sleepy town of St Albans frosts over and most of us hardy Sydneysiders prefer to sleep in than jump on our bikes first thing in the morning. The sudden rescheduling would also have affected the leave pass approval process in some family homes, and a lot of riders were already booked out that day. But! Pretty good weather is forecast for this unique marathon this weekend. Let’s hope numbers pick back up.
Apart from similar drops in competitors in 2015, entry numbers for the elite field tell a completely different story. First of all, it’s great to see that it’s possible to compete in mountain biking, even at the top, for a very long time, and that a quality marathon race has the capacity to draw elite riders year after year. The start lists of the first few years of the Convict eleven, ten, and nine years ago show up names like MarathonMTB’s Mike Blewitt and Imogen Smith, as well as Shaun Lewis, Jason English, and Andrew Blair – some of whom will be racing again this weekend.
Secondly, it’s interesting to see that the elite men’s field is fairly static. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and attracting an average elite men’s field of 24 is actually incredibly healthy, considering the total number of riders at our National Champs this year was 28, and the Camelbak Highland Fling, situated right between Sydney and Canberra, generally attracts around 20.
Unless an event is a part of a series or a national champs, it’s actually relatively unsual for elite riders to travel huge distances. Very few have sponsorship arrangements that provide for travel and accommodation. Even when an XCM race is part of a series, generally points are only counted from riders best, say four out of seven events, so even riders will often target those closer to home, picking the most convenient and economical races they need to gain the points. Even when the Convict was a part of the Maverick Series, for example, we saw relatively few competitors, elite or otherwise, coming from Queensland or Victoria to take part in the Convict – and by and large racers in every category are drawn from a stable pool of NSW and the ACT.
The very small fields of elite women competing bear mention. The most elite female competitors the Convict has attracted since 2006 is just seven, and that was way back in 2007. It’s hard to know exactly why numbers reached their peak then, particularly given that XCM racing for women has been on the rise in recent years. For those who remember, however, the mid-2000s was an era when XC racing was alive and well in NSW, with a healthy state series and clubs like Western Sydney Mountain Bike Club putting on regular races. Lap-based endurance races were popular, too, with a healthy eight-hour series – all of these attracted the names on those early Convict entry lists. Today, NSW has no state XCO series and, while clubs are active and outfits like Rocky Trail put on regular events, it seems that the rigours of XCM racing at the elite level may simply not seem all that attractive to large numbers of women. We’ve seem healthy fields of elite women at XCM Nationals recently, so our hope is that growth is coming to the Convict and other XCM races, too.
The Convict is coming up this Saturday 30 April and today is your last chance to enter… Will you beat the median time this year? Will the elite men’s record fall? Whatever happens, the Convict will remain a very special race on the XCM calendar – with no singletrack at all, it still offers some incredibly technical riding that challenges even the best riders. With only 1800m of climbing, it’s still an immense physical challenge. It offers a great dose of history, incredible views, and a relaxed and friendly race atmosphere. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll take another look back at the data to tell another story.