It’s always exciting to see a National Series kick off. It signals the beginning of summer, and a time when riders can start to measure their form against the best and work out their goals and plans for the rest of the season. It’s a time to get some payback for all the pre-season training and head off for an early holiday adventure while most people are still stuck in the office finishing off the year.
Orange is a beautiful town about 250km west of Sydney, and only 50 kilometres from where I was born, in Bathurst, many eons ago. The town is known for its cold climate and rich agricultural heritage, so it’s decorated with spectacular European trees and beautiful English country gardens. Interesting fact: Orange is actually a centre of apple, pear, cherry and apricot production, but NO ORANGES are grown in the region because it’s too cold. The town was named after the Prince of Orange, William II.
Orange’s Kinross State Forest was popular when it hosted the first two rounds of the National Series last season, so it drew a good crowd of the country’s top racers in the Elite and age group categories, with a few notable absences including soon-to-wed Olympians Dan McConnell and Bec Henderson, who everyone agrees have enough on their plates with the approaching nuptuals!
Orange turned on spectacular sunny weather for the entire weekend, a big improvement on the lashing rain of a week before, and perfect conditions greeted riders for official course practice on Friday (although the course did get quite dusty over the weekend). Both the Saturday and Sunday courses served up pure old-school mountain biking: twisty pine forest singletrack, log jumps, a few rocks, and off-camber corners. While there were no stand-out gnarly features, the fast, forested descents tested the skills and reflexes of the whole field and provided plenty of fun in payback for some heartbreaking climbs.
The Saturday loop had riders climbing up through dark, twisty pine forest singletrack and into a more open climbing section, including a leg-sapping ‘big rock’ pinch, before taking a rooty descent and ducking back into the pine forest for some log jumps. Then the course opened out with a bit of a fire road climb before a final dive down a long descent to transition.
In Saturday’s sunny, mild summer weather, Kiwi and Oceania Champion Samara Sheppard won the Elite Women’s race in front of Holly Harris and Kathryn McInerny. In the warmth of the afternoon, Cam Ivory posted a convincing win over Ben Bradley, with Tasman Nankervis rounding out the top three.
Racers headed home to wash kit, bikes, and bottles fuel up and rest (if they had time) for the next round of the double header on Sunday.
Sunday dawned warmer than Saturday, with temperatures touching thirty degrees by mid-morning. The Sunday course included much of the same pine forest climbing trails as the Saturday course, but instead of the ‘big rock’ section, ducked into another loop of diabolical climbs and tight, twisty descents, with an extra bit of fire road thrown in for good measure, before taking in the same long descent as the day before. Sunday drew a bigger crowd of spectators, with rowdy gatherings cheering riders down the last hill before the start/finish zone.
The women headed up the merciless start climb at 10:30am in a race shortened to four laps. The winner’s time on Saturday had been over the UCI limit but this time officials got it spot on, with Samara Sheppard victorious in 1:17, again tailed by Holly Harris and Kathryn McInerny.
Also shortened by a lap, the Elite Men’s race top three also mirrored the day before, won by Cam Ivory, with Ben Bradley and Tasman Nankervis rounding out the podium.
The next round of the National Series heads to Nerang, where riders will have the opportunity to tackle the already notorious Commonwealth Games course. Rounds three and four will take place over the 13-14 January.