The Otway Odyssey is looming for 2022, and as mountain bikers around the world turn to the great indoors to train and prepare for the new season, here in Australia we instead have near ideal conditions for a summer of riding. Much of our racing starts in February, and one of the biggest races in the first quarter of the year is the Otway Odyssey, which has been joined by the Great Otway Gravel Grind (GOGG)since 2017. With multiple distances on offer for the Odyssey, and two distances for the GOGG, the two events make for an ideal weekend of riding and racing off-road out of Forrest, Victoria.
The Odyssey is a demanding mountain bike marathon, with hills, lots of singletrack, sometimes some heat, and a large field of riders chasing success. The list of riders who have won the Odyssey bears the names of some of Australia’s best riders, and I reached out to some winners and podium regulars to get their tips, alongside my own team mates. Here’s what they said you need to focus on.
Make a hydration and nutrition plan
Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, and eating and drinking correctly are of vital importance – like any marathon mountain bike race.
“Eat as much as you can!” Sam Fox told me. “I used both gels and carb/electrolyte mixes last year.”
Justin Morris agrees, being adamant that you can’t skip a feed zone as you can’t catch up. “Use every feed zone and be sure to inhale plenty of water or hydration mix, especially early in the race.” If you don’t have the ability to have a bottle at each feed zone, Samara Sheppard says “a quick stop to refill your bottles from the water drums provided in the feedzones is also a good option.”
Tasman Nankervis says that your nutrition needs to be planned, “make a plan and stick to it and don’t forget that your have a plan. When you’re making yourself dizzy with singletrack it’s still worth slowing of for that few seconds taking a bottle or gel. More time will be lost with a poor nutrition strategy than that 10 second mid singletrack sit up.” Tasman had further tips, based on finishing in good shape as well. “Finishing a marathon hunger flat/bonked is a scaring experience and will put a dampener on post race celebrations!” So eat up – and recover well!
The feed zone at Forrest is an ideal place to have a stash of food and fluid, but as Imogen Smith points out – everyone does this. “The main feed zone in Forrest fills up a lot more than you might think, so if you don’t have someone feeding you, put your things somewhere very obvious, and remember where that is.”
Peta Mullens, who has won 6 Odysseys, uses her understanding of what she needs and matches it to the course to create her nutrition plan.
“I can’t stress enough how important hydration is in an event like the Odyssey. If it’s a cooler day I’ll run carbohydrates in my bottles. If it’s a hotter day I’ll switch to electrolyte half way. Usually I can only tolerate about 3 litres of liquid with a coke at the final feed. For the OG course (from Apollo Bay) I traditionally run a hydration pack because the feed stations are further apart. If you’re a slower rider and feel a little less capable on singletrack, then it’s nice to run a hydration pack through the technical sectors to promote drinking. I try to drink every single time I finish a singletrack sector.”
As for energy, Peta doubles that up with her hydration.
“I cheat by use of carbs in my bottles, but I also go crazy on gels. I don’t usually have a start line gel on the Forrest course because we have a nicer lead-in, but for the OG course I need all the amp I can get at that time of the morning. I’m a unicorn in that I’ll have Coco Pops for breakfast and I also try to fit in some toast. During the race I’ll have anywhere from 8-10 gels. Because of the intensity I don’t go for whole foods; I don’t want to draw the blood away from my muscles into my stomach to help me digest a bar. It’s also easy to rip the top off a gel and the liquid form hits you a lot faster. Sometimes I’ll have a gel with just 3km to go because it helps me even after I’ve crossed the line.”
From her vast experience of 15 Otway Odysseys, Peta still knows that it’s no walk in the park. But trusting the process pays off.
“Some years my body lives up to its hydration and nutrition routine easily, and then other years my stomach struggles to deal with it. The times you don’t feel like you can handle it are the times you need it the most. Take the 10 seconds to have that gel or that 30 seconds to fill that bottle and your body will repay you with faster, fresher legs. If you’re racing beyond the 6hr mark I recommend you take proper food. If you’re out there for that long chances are you aren’t riding for a podium, so take the 1-2 minutes to stop and eat a jam pikelet, banana, muesli bar… whatever you enjoy eating on your longer rides.”
Have a race strategy at the Otway Odyssey
Whether you’re racing for the win, a top 10, a personal best or just to beat your mate Dave, it pays to have a race strategy
“The Otway Odyssey is a big day, but goes much faster when you find another rider or group to push on with or hang on to,’ Samara Sheppard told me. “It’s also a nice way to enjoy adventuring through the Otway Ranges and the trail network in Forrest.”
“Riding good position on the early road section can put you in a good place to ride with a solid group once the dirt and climbs start,” Justin Morris said. “If you fancy your chances, make it a priority to hold a position in the top 20-30 of the bunch for that first 10km.”
“The first sector is the hardest, and it is easy to completely cook yourself in the first 35km,” Justin added. “A good strategy is to ride at a difficult but manageable pace on the long climbs then really keep the hammer down over the top and on the pedally descents. Many of your competitors will go full gas on the climbs then immediately go into reco mode as soon as they crest the climb. If you can hold your power for a little while over the top of the climbs you should pick up some positions.”
Sam Fox takes has a little more fluidity with his strategy, adapting to those around him. “I always like to know where I’m strongest and be in front there. That way I can go my pace there, and they have to work to keep up.”
Tasman Nankervis reckons it is all about pacing, and being honest with yourself about it. “Don’t go out too hard, if you think you’ve gone out just right… you’ve probably gone out too hard. No one finishes a marathon going ‘boy, I could’ve emptied the tank more’. Ride your own race and don’t get excited by all the others around you, pick a group that suits your abilities.”
“Study the profile, look to where you can take it easier (saving energy) and where to push. The Odyssey is easily broken down with portions of fire road climbing vs singletrack in the middle half.”
Imogen Smith says part of her strategy is using any time before the event wisely, especially if it’s your first visit to the Odyssey.
“Using the Friday for some prep is a good idea. Lots of the singletrack is close to Forrest, so if you have time to take a look on Friday, it’s worth while. Alternatively, follow someone in the race who looks like they know where they’re going!”
Peta Mullens’ strategy is to break the course down, into smaller sections. “I like to break the course up into sections… all about 1-1.5hr in length and I’ll have sections where I plan to rest, and other sections where I plan to be on the attack. Resting on the fire trail might seem straightforward, but in terms of race time, you’ll get more bang for your buck for an effort on a fire trail, and then turn the dial down a few percent on the singletrack so you aren’t sprinting and braking into corners. Again this comes back to the level you plan to race at. If you’re taking it on as a real challenge event, then rest and eat on the fire trail to keep your mind sharp for the technical aspects.”
“The course is tough… but the toughest part for me is when I get deep into the race and I’m surrounded by less people,” adds Peta. “Some years I’ve gone 20km without seeing a person, and then comes the game of keeping your mind focussed on the task, or even just keeping it entertained. When you start to fatigue mentally you’ll need to draw on physical reserves or you’ll find yourself bouncing from tree to tree instead of riding around them!”
Equipment choices for the Otway Odyssey
Whether you are lining up for the 30, 50 or 100km event, it pays to take the right bike, and the right equipment. First and foremost, don’t forget to read the mandatory gear list from Rapid Ascent. Yes they check, yes you do have to carry it!
You’ll need to carry a face mask with you, and a first aid kit with 2 crepe bandages, 2 non-stick wound dressings, 6 steri-strip would closures, a triangular bandage and a pair of surgical gloves. A sachet of rehydration mix or painkillers is worth throwing in as well!
Water, spares, food and the rest is all recommended equipment.
Sam Fox enthuses that taking spares makes sense, “spare tubes, spare plugs, anything you can think of! It’s a long walk out…”
In terms of a bike to take, Sam also added that an efficient bike counts, “you want something that locks out. I saw a bunch of people on longer travel bikes previously and I have no idea how they did it. 100mm is perfect for winning the race, but 120mm would be a lot more fun and likely be a bit easier on the hands.”
“Take a full suspension XC bike with two bottle cages and fresh tyres,” said Samara Sheppard. “The course has its fair share of fire trails and singletrack so you want a set-up that caters for both.”
“It’s a long race even on a young body,” Peta Mullens explains. “When I first started racing bikes dual suspension bikes weren’t really a thing, but nowadays, no matter the amount of climbing, I pick an XCO dual suspension bike every day to make the ride a little smoother. It’s also nice to sit down a lot in longer races and dual suspension allows you to do that.”
Bike Check: Peta Mullens’ winning Otway Odyssey bike in 2017.
While Samara mentioned fresh tyres, Peta adds that she has learnt what works for her. “I’ve punctured once, on a year that I didn’t run Maxxis Ikons and always a tubeless setup. Enough said.”
“Chainring size is a great debate too; I’ve run a 1×12 SRAM Eagle setup for the majority of my years with 10-50 cassette and a 34 front chainring for the fast open sections, but if you think you’re not in it to win it, really tailor your selection to the climbing; even a 30t chainring isn’t too small! There are some STEEP climbs… so expect to have to walk sections of the course.”
Training for the Otway Odyssey
While you can choose different distances, the Otway Odyssey will always be a challenge. It’s one of the most demanding marathon routes in the country – although one of the most rewarding too! So it pays to make sure you’re prepared for the effort. You need to train accordingly.
“There are some long climbs out there,” Imogen Smith said, “so make sure you do some climbing in training so you know what a manageable pace is for you.” It is easy to get carried away, but as so many riders noted in pacing and strategy, do what works for you. And stick to it.
Peta Mullens, in typical Peta fashion, is very matter of fact about it all. “Be prepared for a certain race time. You don’t have to do a 9hr training ride, but you do need to spend time in the saddle. I do a lot of 4-5hr longer rides on the road to prepare my legs and lungs for the effort of a marathon, and some shorter ones on the MTB to get my body prepared for the strain that mountain biking adds to your upper body and your hand strength. I never do 6hr MTB rides in training because it takes me a week to recover from them. It’s better to do two days of 4.5hrs than a 9hr day.”
“To be fair, you don’t need any tips to ‘survive’ the course beyond mental strength and physical ability, but over 10 editions I’ve honed the craft and can tell you that with the right preparation the journey is much more enjoyable and your physical state much more predictable. Five times there has been less than a minute between first and second and I’ve had TWO sprint finishes, so every one percenter counts.”
So what are you waiting for?
While the Otway Odyssey might be a tough marathon, the reason riders keep going back is that it’s a rewarding one as well. One thing is for sure, you need to do your preparation to get the most out of yourself on the day, and to truly enjoy it.
It’s a big challenge, with a course that tests you repays the effort you put in. Put these tips to use and make sure you get your entry in for February 26, and take a look at the GOGG as well!