By Imogen Smith
Ahhhh good old stage race mass starts. I’ll never learn to love them. Today we rolled out in two big waves on super fast gravel roads around Wetherby Station, host of many Croc Trophy stages (oh the trauma).
While I wouldn’t describe the start as hectic, strictly speaking, it was definitely intense. There were a lot of riders up the front who I’d never seen before. There was a lot I couldn’t see at all, with the road completely shrouded in dust for all but the first few riders. I moved up a couple of times, and I hung off the back a couple of times. At other times, I felt a rising wave of panic so intense I nearly pulled the ripcord, but Mike threw me a few pushes and we moved forward anyway. We were lucky when there was a small crash on the left-hand side to be riding on the right-hand side, and that this crash happened right when the trail narrowed – finally, finally the large group split into bite-sized chunks.
Again we found ourselves with Mitch and Holly, as well as Ella and Tim, riding brilliantly. When Holly crashed straight down the guts of a horrible, rutted ditch, it kinda felt like time for a breather. Mike and I were away because of the crash, but we took it down a notch. I tried to shake out the nerves and followed Mike’s good lines on the rutted double, triple, and single tracks that snaked in and out of dry bushland.
Soon it was just Holly (multiple national champion) and Mitch (World Tour rider) vs me (should be racing masters) and Mike (not a World Tour rider) riding at a pace I would describe as ‘solid’ through undulating fire roads in dark rainforest, in and out of creeks of varying depth.
I could see Mike’s mouth twitching as he moved out from behind Holly’s wheel, as if sniffing the breeze. I’ve seen this look before. It’s the face Mike makes when he wants to pull a turn.
Prepared from numerous other stage race disasters when Mike has dropped me while drilling it on the front of a group, I suggested he sit behind me for a bit ‘to help me if something goes wrong’. Although it must have hurt his pride, Mike was very caring and sat on the back. It worked well. I could duck in and out of Mitch’s wheel as he and Holly pushed or drafted, and Mike could keep an eye on everything and help me if I dropped back.
An hour into the race, we’d already travelled about 30 kilometres. We knew Em and Karl, Peta and Jarrod were up the road, but we were moving at such a rate that I felt like things were going well for us. We might even catch up to another team and have a three-way race. We might achieve our goal of reaching the podium today. Mitch was doing a huge amount of work but I felt great and could keep up, even with only a couple of little pushes from Mike (not a World Tour rider, let’s remember!).
In fact… I was feeling awesome! Confident even! It occurred to me that mountain bikes are awesome! Reef to Reef is awesome! Holly and Mitch are awesome but we are also awesome and today is the best day! Today we are finally going to have a great resul—
Someone shot my bike!
I was pitched violently to the right of the trail and let out a yelp, followed by a loud expletive as Mitch and Holly disappeared. It was immediately clear that the damage was bad and we knew our day, if not our race, was completely over. Not today!
My rim had exploded and my tyre blown out. The force of it had been so violent I’d been ejected from the track and nearly crashed. We tried to work out why it had happened. It was pretty smooth terrain and I weigh 54 kilos, so we think the rim had been cracked at some other point, maybe at Smithfield, and morphed into an expensive, lightweight, round, carbon fibre timebomb.
Mike, despite not being a World Tour rider, is a smart and resourceful bush mechanic. We stuffed the rim with gel wrappers and plastic tube wrapping, then put in a tube, got the tyre on, wrapped it in duct tape, secured that with two zip ties, and inflated the whole weirdly lumpy sausage of a thing. The wheel was completely busted, wobbling so bad that riding became a fabulously intense core-and-balance-workout that I would have paid to do under normal circumstances.
The main issue, though, wasn’t the wheel at this point. It was turning. The problem was that it was so out of shape it was rubbing both stays, on both sides, and wearing through the carbon fibre of my bike. We stopped a few times, finding bits of tape on our bidons to try to cover up the main rub points. Then we got wise and started accepting offers of help from riders around us. Two gentlemen stopped and gave us a tube, which we cut up with the other guy’s huge Leatherman and tied to the frame. We had bits of tape from another rider, and all kinds of offers of help. We limped the nine kilometres to the feed zone at the 41 kilometre mark. And here, gallantly, I stole Mike’s wheel and rode to the finish solo. I really wanted to finish this stage and Mike was kind enough to understand.
The kindness of the other mixed teams was really touching. Reef to Reef has managed to create an atmosphere that’s both friendly and competitive, and after a quick chat with Peta Mullens I decided that Mike was going to finish this stage too! I drove his wheel back to him at the feed zone, where he had been entertaining himself filling people’s bottles and lubing their chains. We put his wheel back in his bike, and Mike held aloft the Lanterne Rouge (not a World Tour rider) to finish the stage before they deflated the finish arch. Just.
I started mountain biking twenty years ago, almost to the day. Back then, I had absolutely no aspirations or competitive goals. I just started doing it because the people were so nice. They were kind. So today was really special to me and I was a little emotional riding along solo to the finish. The people who mountain bike, from the front to the back of the field, are fundamentally lovely people. Thanks everyone who gave us a hand or a kind word today. It meant a lot.
Also a HUUGE shoutout to Alex Hall, who is personally delivering us a spare wheel for tomorrow. Mike, who is a vastly experienced mountain bike stage racer, will be very gentle with it.
All race leaders won again in the Open categories – full results are online.
All photos: Flow MTB