On the 30th April, the 2017 Australian Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) titles were hard-fought at Cape Pallarenda in Townsville, Queensland. The event is due to be held for two consecutive years in Townsville, and the initial course we rode in January had some modifications for race day.
With the age group and open races decided on day one of the weekend, Sunday was left for the men’s and women’s elite races. Women would start first with 3 complete laps, whereas men would start 15 minutes later and race the Under the Radar loop, before 3 full laps of the course. The UCI allows marathons to be lap-based, as long as it’s no more than 3 laps of a route.
Henderson adds a marathon title to her XCO crown
The women’s field had just 6 hardy souls, as 2015 champion Jenny Blair lined up against 2017 XCO silver medallist Holly Harris, multiple XCO national champions Bec Henderson, U23 XCO national champion Megan Williams, Em Viotto who is on the rise in XCM racing, and Briony Mattocks, who was 3rd in the 2016 XCM Championships in Derby.
Let’s not mince words, this was a disappointing turn out for the race. But at the same time, it had some great calibre riders in the field that really only filled the front line of the race.
Rebecca Henderson is about to embark on her European season, and it was a last-minute decision to fly north from Canberra to contest the national marathon championship. Henderson was away solo from her first lap, and ended up crossing the line solo in 3:59:24.
“Tough, very tough.” Was Henderson’s first reaction, with little willingness to say whether she would be doing another marathon so soon! This is the first time an Australian rider has won the cross-country and marathon championship in the one year. The question was, would Henderson’s partner Dan McConnell achieve the same result within the next half an hour?
The fight for 2nd and 3rd was being duked out between Em Viotto and Holly Harris. While Harris is just out of the U23 category, and seems to have really hit her stride with elite XCO this past summer – Viotto has transitioned from the road, making huge gains on the mountain bike in the past 12 months.
While Viotto was ahead after the first lap, Harris passed her before heading out onto her final lap, and crossed the line in 2nd behind Henderson.
Em Viotto was less than 3 minutes back from Harris, and was soon surrounded by fans after her autograph. Both Harris and Viotto have ridden few marathons, but it is likely we will see them on podiums again.
Jenny Blair abandoned the race after one lap, with a recent injury causing too much pain to continue. Briony Mattocks had a mechanical issue on her first lap that was resolved in the tech/feed zone, and she resolved to finish the race although she had already given away about 15 minutes.
Brisbane’s Megan Williams came in for 4th, after briefly being mistaken for Brendan Johnston by the commentary team – but it was the smiling U23 XCO Champion instead.
Mattocks rounded out the race in 5th, with some very heavy legs after being relegated to riding her bike as a single speed for the whole first lap.
For the full lap results head to the timing website.
Johnston creates history with 3rd straight marathon title
The men’s elite race had plenty of people wondering how it might pan out. With two dual marathon champions in the field, plus a multiple and current XCO Champion, a multiple MTBO world champion, plus other strong units – how would the field of 17 end up looking on course?
While Andy Blair has been rebuilding his form after surgery, he wanted to be actively in the race. So after being dropped at first on the opening half lap the elite men completed, he rode back to the front group and straight through them – coming into the first full lap solo, with the rest of the main contenders about 30 seconds back. They were soon back together. Jeff Rubach was also pushing hard, the local rider also keen to make amends to some time off after shoulder surgery.
Later, it was McConnell and Johnston who were the only riders together, glued to each others wheels. McConnell had a flat sometime on lap 2 and had to work hard to get back. Johnston admits he realised that he would need to find somewhere he could make it hard for McConnell, and figured out the climb above the bay on the Smedley’s loop would be it.
After heading into their final lap still together, with Ryan Standish trailing in 3rd, Michael England in 4th and Adrian Jackson in 5th.
Out the back of the course, Johnston eventually made his attack stick, and worked to put time into McConnell. Also on the final lap, Andrew Blair started to move up, passing Adrian Jackson and Tasman Nankervis.
Johnston crossed solo for his 3rd straight national marathon title, stating it was the hardest yet.
Speaking after the race, Johnston claimed McConnell was pushing him the whole way, and it was 4 hours of racing on the limit.
McConnell crossed the line a few minutes later, his black kit showing more than enough salt for everybody’s hot chips.
Ryan Standish crossed in third, also showing the effort for the day. While Standish has had excellent results in marathons of late, results at championship events are often more impressive, especially considering the calibre of the riders in front of him.
The rest of the field continued to come in. Michael England surprised himself with 4th after the start of the year was interrupted by injury and then illness.
Andrew Blair was 5th, and then all sorts of things were mixed up from expectations. Marc Williams was a DNF, as was Adrian Jackson, Trent Pons and myself (not that I was in the race per se). Tasman Nankervis held on for 6th. In the end there were 10 finishers and 7 DNFs. That’s the smallest number of finishers in an Australian National Marathon Championship since I have attended – which is 2011 until now.
What can we take away from the 2017 Australian Marathon Championships?
Looking back at the weekend, there are a number of things we can pick up on. Firstly, Townsville has some great trails and would probably be a great town to live in as a cyclist. With Douglas MTB Park and Cape Pallarenda, they have a good mix of trails, plus plenty of cycle lanes, and flat roads for recovery days.
MTBA and Townsville Rockwheelers ran a pretty damn good event. I think it was a better run event than the 2016 race in Derby, although that could be argued either way depending on what you based that on. The numbers were down in Townsville comparatively, but with other events on in Townsville that spiked travel and accommodation costs, many riders from down south (where the majority of the Australian population live) would have thought twice about travelling to Townsville. The location of the event in Townsville is great – it’s just a long way to travel for many elite riders and top age group riders after the XCO season, and a national XCM series that has already visited 3 states, with another 2 states and a territory to go. While the flying is done by planes and not the people, if riders need to be making two flights from major capital cities to get to the event or get home – it is easy to question attendance.
You can also see that you don’t need to have big hills for a hard race. Lots of riders said it was brutal. And while that is a source of pride to some, it’s not likely to help draw more people in for 2018. The climbs were steep and short, the course was rocky and required a lot of attention, and it was hot (but Atherton in 2013 was hotter).
You can also see that XCO racers can race a good marathon. It’s probably hard to think that there is such thing as a ‘marathon specialist’ any more, unless it is someone who only does marathons and who is happy to not place as well when riders who also race XCO very well turn up.
And race times – almost smack on 4hrs for the women’s winner and about 4:10 for men’s. That must be close to perfect for a championship event looking to UCI standards.
What can change for the 2018 Australian Marathon Championships?
With the event heading back to Townsville, many are wondering what it will look like. Will the course stay at Pallarenda? Will it change direction? Can they add a couple of new trails to create a different loop? And how are they going to get more people there?
Townsville is a great location to come and visit. I went for a swim after the race, and was happy to be able to stay close to the event venue, and only put $7 of fuel in my hire car after the visit. Getting around was easy, everything you needed was nearby. I really think Townsville was a great place to visit.
But how do you get more people to the event?
Rockwheelers have one of the biggest clubs in Australia, but it seemed like only a small percentage were racing this weekend, and heaps, heaps more were event volunteers. With more riders at a club race the previous weekend, which is great for getting the trails running well, maybe there could be an incentive for the club’s members to compete?
From other events I have been to in north Queensland, it is clear that NQ people support each other. I’m sure there is plenty of inter-club communication, but making sure there was good communication with clubs from Mackay, Rocky, Atherton and Cairns, and even tying in a ‘NQ Clubs Cup’ side bet to the weekend’s races could be a bit of fun, and also help get a few more people along for a weekend of riding bikes in Townsville.
Working in mountain bike media, I saw one print ad for the event, and a Facebook event post to promote it. I don’t peruse all media, and I don’t think anyone has the time to trawl every medium for updates. But as the marathon championships are part of the Townsville MTB Festival, they need more people. They need more advertising, even if that’s engaging with people’s personal or media stories about the event. It’s fine to rely on social media for promotion – but engaging with others does as much as paying Facebook for extra reach. Engaging with members and with other mountain bikers to make them interested, and creating a story about the event, something to pull people in, is key.
Some changes to the course would be good too. I’d hate to race the same course next year. Not because I don’t like it. I didn’t even finish the race! But it’s good to change things up. Some people will always attend, like the sport’s top tier elites. But to capture more people we need a reason to visit – something with more interest. It might not take much, but a few more sections of trail, linked by the fireroad, which would be great to break up some of the longer sections of singletrack where possible, to make a longer loop so the women race 2, and the men race 2 and a start loop – as an example – could be a great change. And if there is any way to use the actual hill each lap… do it.
These are just thoughts post-race. I was impressed with the event – it just didn’t have many people there. If you’re reading this and attended, what would you like to see? If you passed on coming – what stopped you?