In Australia, The Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA) XCO National Championships is the race that brings out all the big names. 2020 was no exception, with previous winners returning to defend their titles in Elite Men and Women, under 23 Men and Women, and other big names like Cam Ivory (2018 XCO, XCM, XCC champ), Brendan Johnston (multiple XCM Champ), Reece Tucknott, Holly Harris (2019 XCM Champ), and Peta Mullens (every discipline champ).
In my category, under 23 Men, Matt Dinham was there to defend his title, Cam Wright the 2017 Junior World Champion was there to take it, and I was there to try do the same. The under 23 competition this year had an uncommon depth (most 19 year olds have discovered parties, or got real jobs)… However many riders had pushed through the hours of training, to be ready for this race, with 2019 Junior Men’s champion Corey Smith looking to add an under 23 title to his palmarès, Michael Harris looking strong, and Brent Rees among many other contenders, motivated to take home a jersey.
The 2020 National Championships returned to Bright Victoria, for my 4th time in 6 years. However there were no complaints as the little town in the Alpine Shire is one of the most beautiful towns in Australia (my opinion), boasting excellent mountain biking all summer, and skiing nearby in the winter. Full of cafes, a brewery, and local businesses everywhere you look, it is an excellent place to relax before the biggest race of the year. The local club organises volunteers to run the event, alongside MTBA, and sets the course, with this year’s being my favourite yet.
From the event village the course blasted out along a fire trail, before climbing briefly up to the first section of singletrack. This singletrack traversed the hill to the top of the course, where it briefly popped out onto fire trail before ducking back into the pines where it began the descent. Here you found the first of the obstacles, with a jagged section of rocks, followed by another, and another, riders had to make it through this before some sharp corners into the second obstacle, “A’Hole”, a wombat hole in the side of the course that riders had to ride around without falling into. From here the course descended right to the bottom where riders could receive outside assistance, bottles or food, before beginning the second climb. The second climb, while shorter, was far steeper.
No nice switchbacks eased the gradient, instead it punched directly up the hill, a pure power climb that left riders gasping for breath as they dropped into a challenging section named Pavé. A tight switchback followed by off camber rocks, and finally a steep drop into a corner, as riders came to the bottom they had a brief second to breath before winding their way along the rocky river trail back to the start.
My race week
For me, a typical race week involves a lot of laps of the same course, a lot of lying down, and in Australia, a lot of catching up with everyone. After driving up from Melbourne, I began with a lot of laps of the course, interspersed by chats with everyone along the course, and finished by lying down at about 8:30PM and falling asleep. Katherine Hosking had asked me to join her relay team the following day, and with my coaches approval I gladly agreed. The team consisted of myself, Katherine Hosking, Evan James, and Liam Johnston. For those people who haven’t done an XCR race, it is a one lap race by every member of the team, in any order they decide is best. The team must consist of one junior (Liam), one elite (myself), one master (Evan), and one female rider (Katherine).
We decided to send myself first, Katherine second, Evan third, and Liam to bring it home. I started from the second row and after an appalling start, that nearly ended in a crash, I made my way towards the front. A fast pace by young Ryan Smith put me 3rd into the singletrack, and with Ryan suffering from the high early pace, Michael Harris took advantage and rode away. After passing Ryan I chased hard and managed to close the gap, finishing my lap just behind him.
Unfortunately I missed the next two laps, as I found a soft patch of ground and lay down… However I made it back to see Evan bring home a blistering lap that put us into 3rd, with a flying Matt Dinham hot on our heels. Liam flew out on course and we waited with baited breath for them to return. Finally they came into sight, Liam and Matt in 2nd and 3rd position respectively, Liam opened up the sprint, and promptly pulled a pedal! He recovered just as Matt pulled up next to him and they threw for the line. Liam’s reach came in handy as the extra centimetres was what we needed to take 2nd in the XCR, behind the RideCoach Victoria team, and just ahead of the TrekShimano team. An excellent start to the week!
After a few easy days, some spectating, and lots of mental and physical preparation, it was race day! As every rider knows, this is a hard day to stay calm, but with a 3pm race, it is essential, as nerves are a bad way to waste your energy. I spent the morning trying to distract myself, and after what felt like an eternity it was time to prepare. MarathonMTB kit on, straight on the trainer, warming up, with some beats and cold towels, courtesy of my superb support crew (Mum and Dad). Maxxis tyre pressures checked, Shimano drivetrain running smooth as always, and we were off to the start boxes. Ranked fourth I was on the front row, right next to the speaker playing the pump up music. With 30 seconds until the start, the music is replaced by a heart beat, and all eyes turned to the start.
“The race will start anytime in the next 15 seconds”
And we were off!
As usual Cam Wright set a blistering pace off the start, and he led into the single track, followed by Matt Dinham, Michael Harris, and myself. Thankfully the pace eased off up the climb, and we reached the top together. A little mistake at the start of the descent cost me some seconds, and by the time I closed the gap, Cam had a small gap on Matt, who likewise had a gap on Mick. Unfortunately Mick dropped his chain and I snuck past, and closed the gap to Matt. Matt and I eased off in the hope that Cam would fade in the latter half of the race, and continued to swap turns for the next two laps. Eventually it dawned on me that Cam was not slowing, and I didn’t feel the need to spew, which at a National Championship is a sign you’re not going hard enough. I went to the front and set the pace up the first climb. In the search of lactic acid, and a green and gold jersey I attacked Matt up the climb, getting a small gap and maintaining that through to the next lap, where I increased the pace again. Hearing that the gap to Cam was closing I dug deep and did my second fastest lap of the race, into the last lap I could see Cam ahead, and at the top of the climb he was only one corner ahead of me.
However Cam saw this too, and in the second half of the lap he rode strongly and managed to get away again, despite my best efforts. Cam crossed the line 37seconds ahead of me to claim his first under 23 national title, and (I believe) his 4th title since Under 17.
While I have mixed feelings about the race, as I was there to bring home the national title, and felt I had the ability to do it, it is by far my best performance, and is affirmation that the training I am doing, and components I am using are perfect. It is also proof that the support from MarathonMTB, their sponsors, my coach, and most importantly, my family is second to none, and without them, the possibility of the title wouldn’t have existed to begin with.
Now it is on to another year of chasing the minimal gains that will lead to a national title, and with most races now cancelled or postponed, a lot of training!