For 2017 the Crocodile Trophy moved to new dates, bringing the race forward to September instead of the traditional date in October. It was hoped that some riders would stay on after the recent World Championships. And while not many did, today it was Haley Smith and Leandre Bouchard from Canada who backed up their 18th and 24th places at the World Championships with elite wins on stage 1 of the 2017 Crocodile Trophy.
Day one of the Crocodile Trophy in Smithfield
Since 2012, the first stage of the Crocodile Trophy has been a lap-based XCO race in Smithfield mountain bike park. And the 6km lap hasn’t changed much since then, although the start and finish was right on the same start straight as used last week at the UCI World Championships.
With a smaller elite field than previous years, elite riders were called up to field the front line, including 2017 World Cup winner Yana Belamoina as a guest rider for today’s stage. Amateur riders filled in behind and as we were under starters orders, everyone turned their eyes to the sharp gravel corner under the bridge.
It was time to go and pressure from amateur riders and a jump on the gas from some elite riders got the race moving – with no start loop the first few hundred metres were critical. Riders chopped or were chopped, and there wouldn’t be much they could do once in the first section of trails.
Leandre Bouchard got the hole shot into the singletrack, with Andrew L’Esperance, Anton Sitsov and Alex Malone at the front for most of the first lap, until Ondrej Slezak also joined them.
Today’s top three placed finishers had raced together for the first half of the race until Anton Sintsov, Russian National Cross-country Champion, lost valuable time due to a mechanical issue. He was able to fix it at the technical feed zone but couldn’t catch up to Leandre Bouchard the U23 National Marathon Champion from 2014 who put in an attack on fellow Canadian Andrew L’Esperance on the last lap increasing his 10 second lead to a finishing gap of 1:30min. Bouchard secured the elite men’s leader jersey in a race time of 1h38:07.7.
Haley Smith sat comfortably inside the top 15, until Yana Belamoina joined her and the two rode ‘for fun’ with some pretty focused pedalling.
Bouchard would finish solo with his compatriot l’Esperance over 1:30 back. Anton Sitsov was 3rd. Ondrej Slezak got the better of Malone for 4th, and behind Malone in 6th was Erik Dekker.
This placed Bouchard and Smith in the leader’s jerseys, with Slezak in Best Amateur, a higher ranking jersey than Best Australian which he would also wear – that jersey falls to Malone.
Asking Bouchard about riding the easier trails, compared to the World Championships, he said, “I like riding the really technical trails, but also the easy ones, as you can ride them super-fast!” Which is what he did.
Andrew l’Esperance was also backing up, and rode to 2nd behind his country man. “We were here for Worlds last week so the trails are familiar, it was nice to have a ride on them today.”
“I’ve done a small 3-day stage race back home in Ontario, Canada before. But it was pretty relaxed and I was quite a bit younger when I did it, so this is the first real big epic adventure,” said Haley Smith, who won the Elite women’s race. But Smith understands the coming stages will be very different. “Days two and three are going to be pretty tough with a lot of climbing.”
Time on the course
Today’s course used some of the World Championships course like the Canefields, plus the start/finish and fun Veemass section. Otherwise it uses some of the trails from the 1996 World Championships course, and the majority of the green and blue trails in Smithfield Mountain Bike Park to make a course of just over 6km per lap.
As it’s the end of the dry season, the trails in the jungle are dry, a little slippery, and surprisingly rough for how they look. There’s plenty of roots and rock to hit.
With few training hours and plenty of snacks under my belt, I rode as instructed by my coach (Imogen Smith) and aimed to stay under 170bpm average. Which is a little hard with race adrenaline, but meant I could finish feeling ok in 13th place.
Where to from here in the Crocodile Trophy?
In a word – up. Tomorrow we climb onto the Atherton Tablelands, and it looks unlikely that it would bother the race leaders, but it’s likely to play to the strengths of other riders in the field like Erik Dekker, and some of the riders less-experienced with Australian singletrack. With a 9:30am start and a neutral roll out, tomorrow will be about staying hydrated, and preparing for the longer day ahead.