What’s my favourite thing about mountain bike stage racing, you ask. The camaraderie? Wrong! The epic scenery? Wrong! Visiting new places and experiencing new cultures? That’s great, but wrong!
Nope, it’s the buffet breakfasts. So. The Redback got off to a good start for me when I hit the buffet at the Mercure Alice Springs right on opening at 6am today. Over 45 blissful minutes, and undeterred by the hotel’s ‘most depressing hits of the 90s’ soundtrack, I devoured a bowl of rockmelon, two bowls of cereal, an English muffin, a stack of pancakes with maple syrup, and a tub of yoghurt. Usually I finish on a few pastries but I held back today, thinking that the 40-kilometre stage wouldn’t quite require that amount of energy.
Wrong! Today’s Redback stage, which took in Alice’s infamous Hell Line trails and the notorious West Alice singletrack required more power, concentration, and yes—calories than I had anticipated, and caught me in completely the wrong ‘relax, it’s the NT’ mood.
The Redback rolls out
The Redback kicked off with a neutral roll-out incorporating the usual things famous and successful cyclists do: getting escorted through red lights by police cars, sledging one another, and waving to (very impressed) local onlookers. I sat up close to the front, mostly for terror of crashing, and expected the boys to jam the pace when the car rolled off, but they didn’t, and we were all together when we hit sandy double track heading north of the Telegraph Station.
Of course, things got a bit hectic, with riders trying to pass and find positions, our lactate buffered by adrenaline and our nerves making everything feel particularly urgent. Thinking about the next four days, I tried to find what I call my ‘marathon pace’. In these circumstances marathon pace feels little better than a plod – until I’ve ridden for a couple of hours, when it starts to feel really hard.
Pretty soon another female racer, Kim Willocks, passed me up a fire road climb, which being in holiday mode I did nothing about, but carried on plodding behind a lovely smooth-riding bloke. Eventually we caught up. Kim was riding strong so I decided to be conservative and follow Kim’s wheel rather than risk blowing myself up by attacking. I’ve barely raced since a big crash in March, and still find it hard to judge how I am feeling, and what my body is capable of. Eventually I passed Kim, got a gap, then ran into a tree. Then I messed about in the feed zone for an embarrassingly long time and we were together again. I had an unopened gel in my mouth and rode some ultra rocky, techy trails with it there for about ten minutes, until my jaw got so sore and drool (which I really felt I needed for hydration purposes) was slinging off my chin, and eventually I had to slow down enough to get the stupid thing in my pocket so I could get back to trying to ride properly. I stole a look. There were only a couple of guys on my wheel, so I relaxed a bit and turned to wondering when the damn stage was going to be over. I suppose it was starting to feel hard!
I wondered this for quite some time, through building heat and through an incredible taxonomy of rockgardens. We had uphill rockgardens, downhill rockgardens, flat rockgardens, and sideways rockgardens. Grassy rockgardens, sandy rockgardens, and my favourite: rocky rockgardens. In fact, it’s safe to describe Alice Springs’ western trails as a 50-kilometre rockgarden and leave it at that. I passed a few guys who were clearly enjoying the heat and the rocks and carried on, over another couple of kilometres of – ah you know what – until my bike stopped working.
This came as quite a surprise. It always works! I pulled over to check it out. The Di2, which I have come to love and rely on to make racing a billion times easier, had checked out. The battery couldn’t be dead, I charged it two days ago. I checked the cables. They seemed ok. The guys I’d passed overtook me and I knew I needed to get moving in a hurry. ‘Well singlespeeding’s ok’, I thought. ‘Some people even do it for fun!’
Off I went in the 32/38. Great gear for climbing, lousy gear for Everything Else, and definitely not a gear anyone ‘singlespeeding for fun’ would select. It turned out all the uphill rockgardens were behind us and we only had downhill and flat ones to go, plus quite a lot of (hallelujah!) rockless flat pedalling, which was even worse. I alternated between four activities: Looking over my shoulder, violently spinning 140rpm cadence, aerotucking, and swearing, before finally crossing the finish line, a little bit bewildered, about a minute in front of Kim*.
Here’s a link to my ride on Strava.
The Elite Men’s race
The Redback’s elite men got off to a clean and tidy start, with hitters Ben Henderson, Chris Hanson, Ben Gooley, and James Downing entering the singletrack in essentially the same order they emerged from it 40 kilometres later. Henderson won the Redback’s first stage in 1:53, but there looks to be some close racing ahead for these guys. As expected, Kim Willocks finished just a minute behind me, followed by young talent Zoe Cuthbert.
Riders had a brief respite to rehydrate, wash bikes, and swim in the pool before reconvening for the awful, wonderful Anzac Hill Climb stage. This ITT style stage sends rider up the town’s iconic hill for a brutal 1-2 minutes of pure burn, assisted, of course, by rowdy, inebriated hecklers who would put a Belgian CX crowd to shame.
In the men’s hill climb, whippet Oliver Hartung claimed victory by a nail-biting margin, while I was really happy to hang on the extra 50m past what I imagined was the finish line for a win on the hill.
Tomorrow The Redback serves up an individual ITT in the morning, and the incredible night race after dark, run over the same course as the ITT, and I’ll be having pastries at breakfast.
*For those curious to know it turns out the Di2 problems are All Imogen’s Responsibility because I probably didn’t plug the connectors in properly.