On May 6th, Max Adventure hosted another successful edition of the Convict 100, with the premier 100km distances being won by National XCM Champion Em Viotto and Joel Green. With 2022 being a wash out (what wasn’t?) the event had a bumper field of riders ready to tackle the 44km, 68km and 100km routes. There had been a little bit of uncertainty on what the 2023 Convict 100 may look like after the disastrous floods of 2022. But with just weeks to go, National Parks confirmed that the original courses were good to go, and riders were set to land in St Albans for this classic marathon mountain bike race north west of Sydney.
Getting to the Convict 100
The art of racing the Convict 100 starts with your approach – literally. With a race start just after 7am most riders are faced with an early start, or heading to the area to camp the night before. Having stayed nearby in Wiseman’s Ferry before, I’m still not certain the time saving is that significant, as you still need to bump out of your accommodation and join the ferry queue.
Having made the early drive from Sydney a few times, this time I was certain I would camp (aka sleep in my van) while on a visit to the Sydney area from Brisbane. Alas, the comfort of a warm bed on the Central Coast was too alluring, and I stayed at my parents house, with a dirve over slightly 2 hours to make the start instead. On arrival in the misty (and cold) valley, there was a sea of campers, cars arriving in a steady stream and a freshly slashed field to park in. Mountain bike racing at its finest.
Under starters orders
Australian racing can be pretty casual. You can race elite if that’s what you enter. And just about everyone knows each other. This was pretty much the case at the Convict 100 as we amassed in the start chute. Two skinny blokes were right on the start line already, and most of us milled around about where second row was probably going to be. With a minute to go I realised my rear tyre had a slow leak and I had half the slashed grass from the parking paddock in my jockey wheel – but otherwise everything wass situation normal, with riders getting their race faces on with 10-15 seconds to go.
We took off into the cold, misty morning. My Wahoo was reading zero degrees – it tends to record low, but it must have only been a handful of degrees. I was close to racing in an Attaquer Race Long Sleeve jersey but opted for the All Day short sleeve, All Day Cargo Bibs, armwarmers, and a DhB sleeveless undershirt. It felt like not enough.
Visibility was low, and the inevitable yell of ‘car’ came from the front as we needed to squish to one side of the road as a few vehicles were making the late dash into St Albans from the north for the shorter events. We hooked right up a driveway, through a front yard, and back down onto the road and towards the river bank, flailing in sand until it was time to ford the river and scramble up the other side.
River crossings are typically met with good humour, but I don’t think I was alone in finding this one a little too soon in the day. Back on the road, the front group was gone and I was in a group of three taking aim at the start of Jack’s Track. A small group behind held women’s leader Em Viotto.
Once more unto the breach
It’s this point of a marathon that I love and despise. It’s time to commit. Push on and get into a better decision, or pace yourself to finish strong. With head nor heart really in it at this point, I was happy to see what the next climb held, to understand what sort of battle would lie ahead. I’d heard Jack’s Track was a mess with some freshly rutted clay and loose sections, and as we gained the steep climb that was evident, with riders unclipped, forcing errors for others and making a wall of bodies stopped on the climb, while others rode away. This is where the split went, with Karl Michelin-Beard, Owen Gordon, Jason English, Joel Green and Tali Lane Walsh going clear. While I could see this unfold, at my current speed it was still a long way ahead, time wise.
As I felt like I was stuck to the ground, it was clear it would be a long day. 2012 team mate Werner van der Merwe joined me, and quickly passed me, having started in the wave behind. Given Werner was 2nd overall at the Crocodile Trophy last year, it should go without saying that he’s got some good form.
Once on the ridgeline, we were above the fog, and could look over the other sandstone ridgelines sitting like islands in the sea of fog. It was a stunning morning to be on a bicycle. We soon joined the second group of Alex Malone, Marc Williams, Morgan Fitzgerald and Anthony Shippard. The pace was consistent, taking us along the ridge, into the valley, and onto the horribly slow lawn to the kayak bridge, which I nearly fell off at the end. There was a feedzone at the start, where Shippard and Malone had grabbed small hydration packs – a smart move for the Old North Road section, where having a hand off the bars for extended periods is typically punished.
We climbed Sheppards Gully, now a motorway compared to many years ago, and headed towards the Old North Road, also known as the Convict Trail. This trail can start to be decisive in groups, as it’s best if you can see where you’re going. Better yet, if you know what is coming. It’s a series of broken rock and small ledges – never truly technical, but requiring attention.
Our group of 6 rode with Malone and Shippard leading., before descending to Ten Mile Hollow, to then climb out from Clare’s Bridge. The freshly graded dirt road was as soft as sand, and some legs came unstuck. Still, no one from the lead was coming into sight.
We turned left onto the Convict Trail atop the climb, and any semblence of grading was gone. Given the access to this area was so diminished until recently, the trail has suffered for it, with numerous downed trees and even lots of regrowth whipping arms and legs, with logs to catch pedals.
Soon enough we saw Karl Michelin-Beard who had caught his rotor on a branch, then his face on the ground. Next, Alex Malone yard saled across the trail. The trail here is testing, as at points it is flat and fast, but then rocky and with such a shallow descent speed doesn’t come easily, yet a pedal stroke can be swiftly punished.
Werner pushed to the lead and bombed the wide and rocky descent towards proper fire trail, where the rest of us took stock and set about catching up on hydrating and fuelling. Although that may have just been me.
The final third
From here on the Convict 100 is a battle of who can, and who did. I’d burnt some matches leading the tail end of the Convict Trail, and it was pretty evident that Marc Williams and Werner still had plenty of firepower. Alex Malone had ridden back after his crash, and Morgan span away in good spirits. I patted my pockets doing a mental stocktake of nutrition that I still had.
While we didn’t have a true climb to go, the next 15-20km is death by a thousand cuts, with rolling pinch climbs up and down ridgelines. Werner attacked a few times, but came back, until Marc Williams gave it some beans at about 20km to go, and Werner got across. Alex Malone was gone, and so Morgan and I battled on, to the final descent and down into the valley and through the farm. The conditions were fast, and we were moderate.
We rolled some casual turns, and came across the line to see the front of the race in the chute sharing stories. It turns out that Owen Gordon had been dropped, and Marc and Werner caught him, although Werner’s 10 sec advantage netted him 4th.
Joel Green won, with his team mate Tali Lane Walsh in second, with Jason English in third. Jason had been attacked by these two all morning, and all three snuck in under 4 hours. Malone finished just behind me, having pushed on hard on the descent and the road. The full results are online.
Em Viotto was triumphant in the women’s Elite race, with Leigh McGregor in 2nd and Katrina Skellern in 3rd.
Wrapped up at the Convict 100
I was pretty stoked to finish 7th, and also stoked to get a beer token at the finish as well. Having grown up in Sydney, the race was also a great chance to see some friends I hadn’t seen for four years, and roll some turns with them (badly) at times as well.
With a mix of riders crossing the line for their events in various stages of elation or exasperation, the beer garden was filling up and the mood was high. Marathon racing may be shrinking a little, but events like the Convict 100 show that events done well are a real treat to be part of. This race isn’t the most technical, it’s not the hardest, it’s not the hilliest. But it’s an honest race course with some variety that is unique to the region, with plenty of challenges thrown in. Max Adventure have set May 4th as the race date for 2024 – and I know I hope to be back in St Albans for another Convict 100 in 2024.
My bike at the Convict 100
This was my third race on my new Factor Lando XC full-suspension bike. I ran it with two bottles, as my only hydration for the race. Not smart, but it worked. I had a nearly full Shimano XTR M9100 group set, save for MT900 cranks with a Power2Max power meter and 34t North Shore Billet chain ring.
I use a 190x45mm Fox Float DPS shock for 115mm travel in the back, paired with a 44mm offset Fox 34 SC fork. Both are push to unlock, actuated with a beneath the bar lever.
I used Maxxis Rekon Race 2.4″ and Aspen 2.4″ tyres, with a Tubolight SL liner in the back, and Joes Elite Racer sealant in both. I didn’t have my pressure gauge, but I’m guessing 18psi front, 19psi rear. I opted for Ride Mechanic Bike Syrup chain lube as it’s so long lasting under high load, and it ran perfectly. I carried a Pirelli SmartTube as a spare, with a DynaPlug racer and Pedros tyre lever – all held on with a Backcountry Research strap.