A huge field of riders took to thr trails that make up one of Australia’s most respected (and toughest!) mountain bike races at the Otway Odyssey MTB Marathon on Saturday 20 February, 2021.
Olympic representatives’ Dan McConnell and Bec McConnell were the first male and female to conquer the 100km, branding themselves in the history books as the course returned to its’ roots after a 10 year hiatus – starting in Apollo Bay and crossing the Otway Ranges to finish at Forrest.
With the Odyssey returning to its roots and starting in Apollo Bay, many riders came out of the woodwork! However the ‘old’ course wasn’t without its challenges before the race even began!
Hitting the road for the Otway Odyssey
Chasing a big block of racing I arrived Thursday the week before Otway for the Melbourne to Warnambool road race. Arriving on the boat that morning, clueless to how I’d be spending the next week… By lunch time a state wide lockdown had been announced, cancelling the road race the following day and putting the Otway Odyssey in jeopardy! Unfortunately there were no flights or boats home before the lockdown began so I committed to a week on the Zwift platform, and confined to a 5km radius from the house.
After just 5 days of lockdown I was jumping out of my skin (being from Tasmania I hadn’t experienced the vast majority of Covid response), and I had a newfound respect for anyone who has been in lockdown or quarantine to keep us safe.
Thankfully the lockdown ended, just in time for the Otway Odyssey to go ahead. A scramble from lots of riders to make it to this event meant there were over 400 entries for the 100km event alone, a true testament to the quality of the race.
After driving for a few hours through the Victorian countryside, you arrive in the oasis of Forrest, where the centre of the event is held, a small town in the Otways, with lots of great activities available. However with the race starting in Apollo Bay, riders get to experience both towns, from the seaside town to the homely bush of Forrest.
Thankfully race day was a little cooler and overcast than the previous few days of 35 degrees, a huge field meant a great party like atmosphere on the startline, where you could practically taste the anticipation. A small spin along the great ocean road then up “wild dog road” to climb out of Apollo Bay. The first 43km is almost all up hill, and is a great test of the legs, with the field rapidly whittling down.
An early move from Raphael Freienstein saw him escape the main group and disappear into the distance. The pace increasing significantly, the front bunch became Brendan Johnston, Adrian Jackson, Kyle Ward, Dan McConnell, and myself as we came up to the first feedzone.
Some swift bottle changes and everyone was off again, with all eyes on the “red carpet” descent, a flowing fast descent that brings riders to Forrest just to ride. As a young rider I’m always frothing the descents so I increased the pace to make sure I’d make it in first, and hit the descent with pace, 10 minutes later and with a small gap to Dan and Brendan I appeared at the bottom, with Raph in my sights.
After finally reeling Raph back, the entire group came back together, with Dan setting a quick tempo on the front. Through the second feedzone, and into Forrest itself, Dan increased the pace yet again. Accelerating away, I just managed to stay on his wheel, with Brendan not far behind. From here the race begins to twist its way through the singletrack just outside Forrest, with Dan and I swapping turns at the front, gradually increasing the distance back to third. However just as I hopes that I would be able to hang on to the finish materialised in my head, I made a mistake on an easy section of trail and went OTB…
Dan was kind enough to check up on me, and seeing I was OK, got back into racing. After the crash I struggled to find my rhythm and the gap to Dan grew larger and larger, and finally I settled for second. Brendan coming in 3rd not far behind me.
“I put the pressure on for 50-60km but I couldn’t get away early. I knew as soon as I got into the final section, I could get away from Sam (Fox) so I put the power down – it’s a super tough track, but I’m super happy to take the wine,” said McConnell.
“I had about three little crashes in the singletrack which got me a bit flustered; so needed to keep calm and stay on the line. Seriously, anyone who gets through that course should be super happy!” added McConnell.
The pointy end of the field showcased a number of big name riders who no doubt were frothing to race again after a year where events were heavily affected by COVID-19! Fighting to take home a piece of the pie through the first two-thirds of the course until the tough singletrack section were Johnston, former winner Adrian Jackson, and quick-paced Raphael Freienstein and Kyle Ward.
Bec McConnell takes the women’s Otway Odyssey
In the women’s race it was just as exciting, with a smaller field, but just as much quality, gaps opened up quickly, with Samara Sheppard and Bec McConnell escaping from the young talent Zoe Cuthbert. Karen Hill showed she is still just as strong after surviving the Victorian lockdown throughout 2020, chasing hard on the heels of Zoe, and Em Viotto hot on the heels of Karen!
Zoe made a huge inroad into Samara and Bec down the Red Carpet descent, taking the women’s QOM (downhill), in 9.57 ahead of Izzy flint, and over a minute quicker than the leaders. The battle out front continued, right through until they had come through Forrest for the first time, with Bec escaping Samara through the Forrest trails, eventually putting nearly 3 minutes into Samara over 5h:26 minutes of racing.
“That was so tough; it certainly lived up to the reputation that I heard about it – massive congratulations to everyone participating because that really was tough!” announced McConnell.
“I think neither Samara or I wanted to show our cards too early, so the pace on was ok. I always knew that the single track would work for me as long as I was fresh enough to ride it. So as soon as we got in there, I tried to get a gap, so I’m happy with how it rolled out today,” said McConnell.
Sheppard couldn’t stop raving about the rewarding yet challenging course!
“It was amazing out there – very tough,” said Sheppard. “I haven’t raced in a really long time to I’m really happy to be back racing.
“The distance was great for me – good to try to hold Bec’s wheel; but when that tight singletrack hits you, it gets really hard.” Said Sheppard.
Full results for all categories available here.
However the racers at the front were not the only ones enjoying the Otway Odyssey, the 400 starters from the 100km race continued to stream in as the afternoon progressed, cheered on by family and friends, as well as riders from the 30km and 50km races, an achievement in itself. So while the startline had an air of apprehension, the finish line was one of accomplishment, and great stories from the trails, with food vans set up, and beers available for all the thirsty finishers, everyone was (while tired), content.
Top action in the 50km
The 50km Otway Shorty event also saw a monster field of riders for the 15th edition, with Liam Johnston breaking the course record in 2:06:05; Dom Paolilli was only seconds behind in 2:06:51; and Noah Morton in third (2:18:09).
“That was amazing and the single track was gnarly as!” said Johnston.
“50km is a great course, I loved it; it’s got climbing, the red carpet descent – I can’t wait to come back next year,” said Paolilli.
Phoebe Thompson won the female 50km Otway Shorty in a jet setting speed of 2:39:32; Jacqui Stephens was second (2:44:59) and Gemma De Campo placed third (2:55:55).
More than 300 riders took on the 30km Odyssey Rookie designed specifically for novice mountain bikers and developing juniors. First across the line was Jude Jesson in a time of 1:23:17, and finally standing on the top step after placing second last year to his brother Connor Jesson.
Under 16 year olds Maddie Burton and Alana Fletcher were just seconds apart in the 30km Odyssey Angels event, posting times 1:26:21 and 1:26:28 respectively.
The action continues tomorrow, Sunday 21st February, with the Great Otway Gravel Grind—The GOGG. Competitors will be taken on a wistful journey through the Otway Ranges to the coast and back. Trails spread over smooth rolling dirt roads, for a Big Ring 97km course, and the Small Ring 49km course.
“The event has had a huge following right from the get go and we’re rapt that its popularity continues. The trails of Forrest are world class, combined with the wilderness, the terrain and the friendly atmosphere all help make it the successful event it is today,” General Manager of Rapid Ascent Sam Maffett said.
“Thank you to everyone for making today such a fantastic 15 year celebration of the Odyssey, and to the locals of Forrest who dedicate their time to helping maintain the awesome trails here.”