Since finishing my PhD earlier this year I’ve gone back to tutoring. Sixty per cent of the academic workforce in Australia is casual, an issue that I’m probably not going to explore in a blog about mountain biking, but one that I thought I’d mention in case you’ve ever wondered why I never seem to get a job. There aren’t many going around.
Of course there are upsides and this flexible academic life allows me to go on trips to races. Last weekend Mike and I took a big risk, visiting Canberra in AUGUST.
A weekend at Stromlo
We headed down for a couple of Rocky Trail Entertainment events. Rocky Trail are one of the best event organising outfits in Australia and since leaving Sydney a couple of years ago we haven’t been able to attend their races as much as we’d like. They run a regular series of lap-based endurance events called the Shimano MTB Grand Prix, and have just introduced a new format for elite racers, called the Elite Sprint Cup – something Mike and I really wanted to get behind. Both of these races were taking place at Canberra’s incredible mountain bike facility at Mt Stromlo. And Canberra has something else going for it – Dylan Cooper from RideTechnics. He’s perhaps the best skills coach in Australia so whenever I go to the ’Berra, I make sure we book a couple of hours with the King of Stromlo.
Canberra was as chilly as expected and, after building our bikes in the dirt at Stromlo’s car park, we got some skills coaching underway. I learnt a bunch of new ideas about navigating singletrack. When I tutor at Uni I encourage my students to look at texts and ideas differently, to question what they know and what they think they know, and after a couple of hours with Dylan I started to do the same thing on the trails of Mt Stromlo. I grew up in a household that treated sport and learning as two very different things (one being far superior to the other!), but I can honestly say the intellectual process of, say, thinking about a problem for an essay, and looking at a piece of singletrack, are very similar. ‘How can I approach this problem in a new way?’ ‘What can I borrow from people who do this better?’ ‘How can I combine my own experience and knowledge with what people before me have done?’—that sort of thing.
Canberra’s Shimano GP four-hour
Both Mike and I raced the Shimano GP four-hour the next day, so I had plenty of time to keep questioning lines and braking ruts and my body position and timing on Stromlo’s combination of rough and flowy trails. Some things worked for me, and some didn’t, but I’m glad I tried some different lines and got through four hours of tough riding. I didn’t have great sensations in this event and got pretty frustrated—then I stopped myself. Instead of falling into the vortex of despair (which can lead to a DNF), I tried to work with what was going on and actually ended up feeling better and better as the race went on. All I had to do was accept I wasn’t having an ‘on’ day, adjust my goals (I decided I just wanted to finish the four-hour ride), and carry the hell on. Like I tell my students: it’s amazing what happens when you try new things!
Inaugural Rocky Trail Elite Sprint Cup
Having had a good look at the vortex of despair for a good few hours on Saturday, though, I was a kinda worried about Sunday. Some of our biggest mountain biking talent comes from Canberra and the elite women’s field for the inaugural Elite Sprint Cup, while small, was super strong. Every rider on the start line is sponsored and supported and races at national level. Eliza Smyth was there, and she’s heading to World Champs in a week! I felt a bit of impostor syndrome and had a lousy practice lap, which included a dismount up a nasty little pinch of 30%. I felt like an amateur on the course, which took in most of Stromlo’s four-cross track and a whole bunch of pump and jump lines besides… not my specialty. But instead of sitting the race out I decided to treat it like an intensity session and Just. Have. Fun. I had a coffee to try to get my blood pumping a bit. It was four degrees after all.
Off the start line I managed to reverse all the way back into last place for the first corner, but snuck forward a bit when the track split and rejoined. Then something weird started to happen. The pace didn’t feel too fast and I discovered that I could juuuust hang onto the other girls through the lumps and berms, following their lines and throwing in a few new ideas of my own from the RideTechnics lesson.
Then, even weirder, I started having fun. The track was awesome! And nobody was riding up that 30% pinch! I overtook Claire, then Em, then had a little back-and-forth with Eliza. I got really excited (I just shouldn’t be allowed coffee) and threw my bottle on the ground. Every time I rode up to one of these Canberra ladies they took me straight to Stromlo School. I did my best to absorb some of their skills and borrow a few little ideas to put into use, pedalling hard into the wind when the track opened up. It was sweet to come second, but much sweeter to race close with such skillful and talented, and LOVELY women. We really hope to see the Elite Sprint racing grow, and Mike and I even talked about moving to Canberra.
Then it snowed. Nah.
Safely home in the subtropics, I am still surprised at how much I learnt in one little weekend of riding. I’m 36, I’m neither new to life nor bikes, but I’m always amazed at the lessons mountain biking still has to teach me (OK, I’m also a really slow learner). I’ve got a bunch of new ideas on how to read and ride trail, a kinder way of approaching events when they flick the grovel switch, and a better appreciation for just how random leg sensations are. May as well smile and enjoy whatever comes your way.