It’s a famous phrase – “the winter of my discontent” – reiterated and echoed on an annual basis with surprise each time that the inevitable does return. Short daylight hours barely exceeding the time spent at work, cold driving rain, grey skies – it’s a time of year better suited to books and hot chocolate than to mountain biking.
The Ashburton 6 hour slots in as an escape from the incoming winter, set on a small and sinuous network of trails between the Ashburton river and the stop banks built to protect the town from flooding. With a forecast maximum of about 8 degrees and rain, it was always going to be a cold and wintry race, with the optimism that the rain would hold off. A local event run by the Mid Canterbury mountain bike club, it’s got a great, relaxed vibe, organised race paddock, and just the right track numbers for a balance between speed and sociability.
Although the track seems quite flat with the minimal elevation, it can be quite a handful with any grease. Running next to the river, it’s constructed of shingle stone and frequently gets overrun by the river. The shingle can become quite treacherous when greasy, making it very difficult to judge the limits of traction in the corners. In addition to this, it’s pretty fast, non-stop pedalling, with very limited recovery. Perhaps not so easy for 6 hours after all!
The race began with a slightly terrifying start, rolling downhill from a mount and funnelling from a wide start. It seemed a recipe for disaster, but everyone was pretty careful. A snapped chain emerged and riders slotted around carefully – and the race was away and unscathed (for all but one!) into the paddocks. Held up by the snapped chain, I tried to move forward a little and not be too far back in the singletrack.
A consequence of a fast track is the importance of drafting. In the back-end of the first lap, I found myself at the front end of a little group, and even with light winds, the impact was noticeable. Opting for a conservative approach with legs and lungs complaining indulgently in the cold air, I tried to spend the second lap drafting off a couple of teams and conserving energy. This worked until I became worried that the pace was too casual, and a few other solo riders were a fair way up the road. Mild feelings of disconcert transitioned to outright alarm when I realised Daniel Barry (riding an extremely pretty custom blue Norco) was a couple of minutes up the road, when heading through the paddocks. Riding with a small group of solo riders including young speedster Cathal Guiney, we set to work in swapping off a bit and rolling through laps. With the speed of the track, there was a massive gulf in effort between riding on the front, or following the wheel. This had the practical consequence of making it very difficult to ride someone off the wheel or establish an effective gap without putting in a huge acceleration – and in long races, huge accelerations are dangerous ideas.
Around the 3h mark, we were somewhat surprised to catch Daniel in the pits. Stopping for 20 seconds or so at my table to grab bottles and fill up pockets with food, I caught the group of three shortly afterwards and noticed the pace had stalled. Although I wanted another lap before trying anything silly, I soon saw an opportunity when Brent Miller – riding in a mixed team – came steaming up one of the stop bank climbs behind us. Latching onto the wheel desperately, I buried myself for as long as possible to hang onto the fast draft. The strategy worked in establishing a gap, although heading into the next lap, I realised just how much the acceleration cost me.
I spent 2 laps desperately trying to recover while rolling and salvage my legs for the remaining 2 hours. Cross-eyed from the acceleration, in the red with irregular breathing, struggling to keep energy levels up – it took a bit of focus to remember the basics of eat, drink, eat – it’ll come around – and dug into the old pocket of mental tricks:
- Legs are still working. Woohoo.
- You’ve got the gap and it’s just about holding.
- The forecast rain hasn’t eventuated. Hooray!
- The bike is running impeccably.
- You could be at work right now.
After 2 laps of struggling I started to settle a little and paced for the finish. Banana dependence led to bloating, and then irregular hydration in the cold weather led to cramping. Basic mistakes and made repeatedly – some things we never learn! In lieu of this, I realised my best bet was for even pacing and effort to ensure I didn’t blow entirely. In the meantime I watched the fierce battle between Oamaru Honda – the Rush brothers who are winning everything in the South Island – and the Christchurch based Fire Breathing Rubber Duckies – who came blowing past with the speed you can only dream of late in the race. Keeping a weary eye on my tail and trying to monitor the gap, I was happy to scrape home just ahead of Cathal, who came charging back in the last hour, and probably would have overtaken and left me a dribbling mess had the race been an hour longer.
With lovely consideration, the rain held off until the pack-up was complete and we were inside for presentations, mostly rugged up in every form of clothing owned!
A big thanks to MarathonMTB and all its sponsors for on-going support. I’ve had a great, reliable and robust racing set-up for a while with the XTR and Fox equipped Revolvers, and with Maxxis tyres – and knowing you have reliable equipment week after week makes the racing and training that much easier. A big thanks also to Mid Canterbury Mountain Bike Club for running a great event and having faith in the weather – there’s so much to enjoy with the club races (especially the hot chips at the end!)
Full results can be found here, and a neat video of the event by Ashburton TV is below:
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