If you think of all the sports in all the world, from archery to zorb football, then divide all these sports into their different disciplines, so that gymnastics becomes parallel bars, pommel horse, the rings, beam, and so on, you’d have what – a couple thousand? I can lay these sports end to end on an imaginary spectrum of preference. At one end, of course, is marathon mountain biking. At the other end, there’s caving (which makes me cry). Right next to caving, however, sits a sport I call Any Kind of Bike Riding at Night. That’s right, as far as sports I’d like to participate in, I rate night riding below climbing, below showjumping, below water polo, and even below hammer throw. From the moment I signed up to do The Redback, I knew it was coming, and last night, it came.
Tackling The Redback’s night race
Stage four picked up where stage three left off, at the Alice Springs Golf Club. It all seems a long time ago as I write this 20 hours later, but I can definitely remember that the wind persisted, that I did zero warmup, that I felt a bit grim but not too nervous, and that the vibe was, as always, positive, as well as somewhat electrified by the buzzing lights, the setting sun, and the genteel crowd that had gathered at the Clubhouse to witness our lunacy and take stunning photos.
We set off at a belting pace up the sandy tracks out of the golf course. When a guy in front of me lost his front wheel I panicked and fell back a few places, but I felt like I’d got off to a good start. I was pushing hard but by the time we got to the singletrack, dust motes filling the air (and our lungs), I knew something was up. The legs hurt too much and I stuck the bike in reverse and went BACKWARDS. Kim passed me at warp speed and I couldn’t follow, then Zoe Cuthbert cruised by, clearly enjoying the darkness. I find night riding is a bit like Marmite – you either love it or hate it – so I tried (god knows I tried) to feel happy for all the riders around me who were clearly “Having Fun”. Then I suddenly became convinced that I was about to crash and dissolved into panic.
Situation normal! I let this silliness happen sometimes! I managed to calm down a bit but this was only achieved by slowing and giving myself a strong talking to with many swears. Then I hit a huge rock that, freakishly, tore my Di2 cable out. This never happens! I stopped to take stock and check my bike. The guys I had been riding with were swallowed up by the night, and a dazzling train of riders was headed my way. I jumped on my bike and squeezed into a gap.
If it weren’t for the total kindness and encouragement of this group of guys, Rapid Ascent would still be looking for me out in the desert. The pace was moderate, smooth and I felt safe. Soon we started climbing and they ushered me through in front of them, and then, as smooth and quiet as the race start had been sudden and ferocious, we were on the final, swooping descents back to the golf club. I thought I’d lost about ten or fifteen minutes to the other women, but it was just a couple and I retained the lead by 50 seconds. Kim Willocks won in a blistering time, and she explained to me that juggling three young kids with her sport, she does all her training at night (OMG supermum). Ben Henderson won the men’s race again, also in a breakneck time of 54:26. I was content with third, outridden by Kim and Zoe in every way.
Stage five – flowing trails and fabulous features
It can be hard to back up after a night race. I focused on going to bed as early as I could and tried not to stress about sleep, because this kills any chance you have at getting any. I got a bit. I hit the buffet in the morning but was devastated to find there were no pancakes. I will check tomorrow before handing over my twenty bucks.
Today’s stage was still a windy one, with strong gusts blowing in over the desert. We headed out on the usual sandy tracks, kicking up so much bulldust that, sitting in about 20th wheel, I was blinded, but wondered what on earth it was like at 80th place! I managed to find a wheel to sit on through some tricky crosswinds, then gained a gap over a charging Kim on the next rocky, technical climbs, burying myself to stick with the men in front, and failing, yoyoing off the back. Pretty soon I was on my own, and that’s mostly where I stayed for the rest of the 42-kilometre stage around Alice’s North.
I made a couple of new friends, leaving and catching each other as we rode through sections that suited our different strengths. Apart from yet another rookie error of misreading the feedzone information (and expecting two rather than one), and getting a thorn in my sock, my race went pretty smoothly. I saw a huge roo, talked to myself, and generally had fun. Immense fun. The course sent us over gargantuan plates of clinking rock, armoured switchbacks, beautiful natural features, and tricky descents and climbs. I loved every minute of it, but was equally glad to reach the finish line in one piece and in thirteenth place overall! A good day for me.
Ben Henderson also had a good day, gaining a little more advantage over Chris Hanson and Ben Gooley in second and third, his gap now sitting at about 3 minutes 30. I’ve extended my very narrow lead to about 5 minutes 30, with lots of work still to do tomorrow, when we face the final and longest stage of the event, a 45-kilometre loop north of town.