Monday, October 26, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 9 - ITT

I’m sitting in Cairns airport the day after the final stage of the Crocodile Trophy - I leave with bags of coffee from Skybury (yum - Mel will be so happy to see it when I arrive out to her with it), a few bits and bobs from the race, a minor cut below my left knee (why oh why, always the left knee) but more importantly a bunch of great memories from my two and a half weeks racing, riding and enjoying North Queensland.

The final stage of the race will surely become an iconic one in years to come. Basically we have an individual time trial (I don’t think some folks knew that this means no drafting) of 15km rolling dirt roads followed by a 4km rollercaster descent aptly named the Bump Track, a little flat around the suburbs of Port Douglas followed by a 4km sprint across the beach. Have a look at the strava file - it looks cool.

Like every night here I slept like a baby (one of the good ones, not the ones that wakes up every 2 hours) and woke at the usual 5:50am (it isn’t as bad as it sounds - you go to be at 8!). Due to tides, our start times were much later than the usual 8am and we had plenty of time to chat, relax and do this unknown curiosity called a warmup.

Finished with no new scrapes Mel will be happy to know - Photo Stewart Carr
As my race started I got into it pretty much perfectly from the start - one last effort to end the season was the motivation but I still wasn’t going to go nuts on the Bump Track (I like my mostly healed skin on my left knee) - easy to land in the bushes on that one as many riders found out. The race through the suburbs of Port Douglas was a little crazy but that was all forgotten when I hit the beach. Man, that beach is long I thought as I could barely see (a mixture of sunscreen, sweat and salt water leaving me half blind) - I rode as steady/hard as I could to the finish eventually seeing the large red finish banner. I finished empty to be greeted by Stewart and his family at the line. My time was the fastest at that point but showing the quality if the field Urs who won the stage went over four minutes faster breaking the course record by four minutes… And we didn’t even have the usual strong tailwind! Crazy crazy strong.

As I mentioned at the start, from the time I picked up mountain biking I always wanted to race this race - it has changed a lot since then (Mongolian Challenge is probably more similar to the old Croc) but remains a fantastic race with a mix of all types of riding.

My eyes, oh my eyes - Photo Stewart Carr

Saturday, October 24, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 8

The penultimate stage, a mostly flat 108 kilometres on dirt roads through the rain forest. Like every night here I slept well in the tent, got nine hours of sleep and woke hungry for breakfast. As stage races go along, at times it gets more difficult to eat at breakfast - not so here. I’m not a fan of all the pasta and white bread that is served but man, the eggs make up for it.

As there were no serious climbs to split up the race the first 30 kilometres was fast and a little more like a road race on dirt trails - mostly non-technical but at times on jeep tracks things were tight and you really had to trust the wheel in front. 

As we arrived at the first feedzone there were about 20-25 riders in the front group. I was prepared not to stop if needs be but thankfully the herd decided a watering hole was good (the next one was 71km into the race). I grabbed my bottles from Ken and started to head to the road crossing. This is were things get annoying - as we all moved towards the crossing (you have to dismount and walk) the first few riders that got there got across but the rest of the group was held as there were cars coming. Safety first etc… BUT you should either stop the traffic and let the riders cross OR make sure the group leaves in the same group it arrived in 10 meters earlier. The riders that did make it rode full gas and there was panic stations - 2nd and 4th on GC missed it but they (just about) had the legs to get across after a long chase - I’m not at their level, but I am a guy that should be nipping at their heals. The rest of us didn’t make it. This is a UCI S1 race and the main split of the day occurred due to some arbitrary cars in the middle of nowhere.

River crossing - was waist deep
After some chasing a group of seven formed and we rode pretty well together - I had hopped that there would be a stall at the front and we may get back on so was happy to drive the pace a little (another racing lesson, don’t give up). On the only real climb of the day seven become three and we kept at it. I got a split of two minutes to a group of five but I seemed to be the only one interested in racing. Vincent (who passed me on GC the day my cable snapped) was concerned with protecting his 10th place on GC rather than try and get a better placing. Frustrated, I did most of the riding for the final 40 kilometres finishing up the day in 10th.

I have been feeling good, eating well and sleeping like a baby but sometimes things just don’t work out. One last stage to finish the race out - a 30km TT made up of 15km rolling, then a 4km steep descent finished off with a sprint along the beach. Should be less than an hour

Friday, October 23, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 7

Today would be the longest stage of this years race at 127 kilometers but having had a look at previous years race times I knew that it would be a pretty quick stage with chunks of gravel and even tarmac roads with only a small amount of climbing.

As we headed out of the old mining town, Irvinebank, that we had called home for the last two nights the pace remained steady giving us all something to ease ourselves into. After ten kilometers a rolling climb began and as expected the speed went up - nothing crazy - just enough to make your legs hurt a little. We all had known about a long twisty rough downhill and there was a sprint to get into it from the front group - the riding was fun as we snaked along with about 14 riders in the lead group. With dust everywhere you simply hoped the rider in front was picking a good line as you had little idea what you were going to hit.

Things settled after a while and I was in a group of four just behind the leaders hoping to get back on before the long fast sections. There are some races where things just seem to work out right for you - this Crocodile Trophy has not been one of them - psssst - and I had a front puncture, I think that is the first front puncture I had in years and it occurred on some normal trail - no sharp rocks/stones etc… Crap. I fixed that and got going again quickly enough but was alone on LONG tarmac roads into a headwind. After ten kilometers a train of riders caught onto me and I latched on - I must have been a carrot dangling for them to catch as the speed seemed to drop when I joined in. After another ten kilometres on a short rise another elite and I found ourselves well off the front and we just continued on eventually picking up some more riders that I had been riding with earlier.

We rode really well together and despite the high temperatures (touching 40C for most of the day) I felt comfortable. We took the time to properly refuel/refill in the feeds so dehydration was thankfully not an issue. As we closed into the final kilometers of the race we started to attack each other with Nicolas Pettina putting in a big effort on the final climb. I got across but with Milton and Vincent for company - the final 500 meters was a twisty up and down singletrack rollercoaster and the order we entered the singletrack was the order we hit the finish line.

Today I felt good, the heat wasn’t an issue but I still didn’t come away with anything. We only have two more days left so not much time for me to actually do something in the race. Fingers crossed.

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 5 and 6

Sorry for the lack of updates for the last few days - there is literally no mobile coverage/wifi/anything out here in the sticks - but we did get good ice-cream :)

Stage 5

Okay, day five of the nine day stage race - surely today we will take it a little more gentle at the start. At 95 kilometres and close to 3,000m of climb we will ease ourselves into it… Ehh, no. From the start Nicolas attacks like it is a 90 minute XCO race. After making the mistake of not doing more to hang onto the front of the race today I tried - I failed - I guess 400W+ for 15 minutes isn’t enough (too many pies - I’m not exactly fat but 1-2 kg lighter would make the difference). Fortunately though I was in a good group of four with last years GC winner Greg Saw. As we got further into the race the nice cool temperatures that we had gotten used to changed to the more typical tropical hot conditions - I was pretty baked. 

The four of us made a good chain gang and we started to slowly real in the chase group of three riders. These guys did hold onto the the lead four for a little longer than we did but were now paying for their early efforts.

The last 25 kilometres was like a road race for us, not for the speeds, more for the attacks and counter attacks - we were taking chunks off each other but nothing stuck until the final sketchy three kilometre gravel road descent down to the finish - to be frank, I didn’t have the balls to follow the lead few (I had heard about the guys who ended their race on this descent in previous years) and instead of sprinting for 5th on the stage I came in 9th. It was a solid day and in the remaining daylight hours all I could do was drink and eat (and barely had to pee).

Stage 6

I woke to find my body felt great - how did it turn out to be a bit of a disaster of a day…

The race FINALLY started at a slightly more sedate pace for the first five kilometres - we were riding up the roads we descended down the day before but as we hit the steep three kilometres of climbing the pace rose and groups split. Fortunately this time, after a bit of a crazy descent and some hard riding we formed a front group of around eleven riders. Happy days, the heat wasn’t bothering me and my legs felt good. Sometimes I wonder if some guys have the self preservation genes turned on - break neck speeds down gravel roads we have not seen with a nice marblely  coating on the corners…

Today we would have three feed zones (you have to fill your own bottles although today they did a bottle drop too) and as we neared the first I slowed and stopped to fill up (an average of 35C for the day with humidity!) - crap, no one else did and now I’m watching them ride off into the distance… Well, at least I’m not thirsty. On these trails we were averaging around 30 and being in a group was critical - not so for me today - I would spend almost all of the day solo. 

I got back going, legs were still good and I had the hope of picking off folks as they blow up from the heat. 20 kilometres later I see Greg Saw and the Spanish rider Milton. Greg rides about 30 seconds in front of Milton and I for the next 40 kilometres and we ride pretty well together - he is a climber type and the long flats suit me more so I pulled a little more - he seemed to be having his first bad day (at this point he was 5th on GC).

Around 40k to go the roads got to Milton and I went on chasing Greg myself catching him shortly after the last feedzone. Hitting the final set of climbs disaster struck - my rear derailleur cable snapped as well as my motivation. Greg rode by and I did what i could - I screwed in the limit screw so the rear derailleur sat in the 14t cog and just got on with it - I had to walk a few climbs (I was feeling great coming into these climbs and now felt in a pretty crappy mood) and coasted the fast descents.

I finished feeling a bit sorry for myself - I ended up 8th on the stage and only a few minutes off 5th which was annoying me.

I started to feel less sorry for myself when I saw the luck of some of the other top 10 riders - Nicolas, who had been 2nd on GC triple punctured and finished after me dropping him down the GC and french rider Vincent Arnaud who I had been battling for a few days crashed into a car on the final descent and finishing the stage in a car. Fortunately he is fine but that can’t be said for his front wheel or saddle.

Today I felt good and with me effectively riding easy for the finally 45 minutes I’m hoping I have similar legs for tomorrow. I’m motivated!

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 4

I have been very lucky with my mountain bike racing this year - other than both the Irish cross country and marathon Championships I have barely raced in the rain or even in wet conditions. Seven day stages all over the world and barely a drop. Coming to Australia I thought that this trend would continue but I really should have payed closer attention to us racing in the Rainforest.

Today started out like yesterday, overcast with passing showers but the temperature was nice - kinda in the Goldilocks zone - not too warm, not too cold. The race today looked to be a good one for me, lots of climbing and a large section of double track racing through the aforementioned rainforest. We started off fast not nothing too crazy and as we started the major climbs I tried to settle into a good rhythm rather than following many of the attacks. Last years GC winner Greg Saw seemed to be taking the same approach so I was happy enough with that. In the end, I think that was a mistake as a group of five just hovered a couple of minutes in front of me all day but I never got over. The legs were okay but not great and I just could never make the bridge. I seemed to be stuck on one speed all day riding all the climbs at the same pace whether at the start of the stage or end.

I finished 9th on the stage with Urs claiming his third stage win closely followed by Nicolas. Urs now has a commanding lead but with five more stages to come, anything can happen (everyone keeps telling me this).

Having looked at my uploads as I put them onto strava I can see some of the rides from other riders (the leading few) from previous years, this year the pace is way up despite the wet conditions - I was faster up climbs than podium guys last year but still well off (at the moment - my day will come!) the front runners this year - four days in and there hasn’t been any easy riding along!

Monday, October 19, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 3 - Atherton Bike Park

After being incinerated on Stage 1 I requested Mother Nature to turn down the heat a little, she kindly did for Stage 2 but on the 15km neutral rollout this morning to Atherton Bike Park for stage 3 she turned it from comfortable to very much Irish - in Ireland we would call today a “soft day” which basically means raining but not too hard and cold, but not too cold - it felt like home.

The style of racing for stage 3 would be pretty much as far away from the type of mountain bike racing we had the previous day as possible. On Stage 2 it was about peddling hard, a lot - today, left right up down, left right up down for three plus hours - my brain is more tired than my legs! Basically it was 60 kilometres with 98% purpose built single track very similar to what we would see in Ireland or in the UK. I love it as it makes mountain biking very accessible and pretty much weather proof but for racing, I’m less of a fan.

The race started with a mad rush to get into the singletrack as passing opportunities are very limited - I wasn’t so good at this bit and ended up picking off riders as the day went on. For the second of the two laps I started to enjoy it a lot more and started riding reasonably well with my second lap being a lot faster than my ‘fresh’ first lap - I guess the engine turned on and my hands were too sore to yank the brakes much.

As I type this I just found out my finishing position, 8th, two better than yesterday but I was happier with how I rode the day before - funny how that works. I now sit 10th on GC with the four hardest days coming up. As I said at the start, today was polar opposite from yesterday but Urs is showing his class by winning both stages - an excellent all-round performance.

Tomorrow is a stage for me, up and down long climbs all day and so far the forecast isn’t giving it too warm (we will start to bake again a little later in the week though).

For power geeks, if you look closely at my Strava file today you’ll see how different it was versus the previous day - today you were either pedaling hard or coasting/soft peddling - not much in-between.

Also, many thanks to Stewart Carr of Phyxme in Cairns (formally of Ireland) for keeping everything going well.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 2

After being well and truly cooked yesterday (it was the hottest race I have had since the Philippines in 2013) I had hoped for slightly cooler temperatures today - mother nature kindly agreed and even added in a bunch of rain for the first 90 minutes. In previous editions of the race, the second stage usually blew the GC apart - this year the organisers took out a 20 minute climb towards the end and about 20 kilometers overall with I’m guessing the hopes of keeping things a little closer together - it worked to some degree but the leaders jersey still changed hands.

A gradual five kilometre climb was our warmup until we hit some very steep climbs with fireroad descents - unfortunately at this point I became unstuck from the front of the race with Nicolas (the previous days winner) riding hard. Fortunately though the pace was hard for everyone and after descending back down to the tablelands I had a KTM rider with me to share the riding for the next 30 rolling kilometres. We got splits that the front group of three was only five minutes up and a group of seven just two but we were not able to close it down as the kilometres ticked down. Unlike yesterday, with the cooler temperatures and a days racing in the legs I felt a lot better throughout - not 100%, but getting there. As I closed in on the finish line I caught a French rider who had been in the group of seven finishing just a few minutes back on the bulk of the front riders. Happy enough but wishing I had eat a few less pies so I could have gotten over the steep climbs with the front guys!

The Marathon World Rankings leader Urs Huber won todays stage and snatched the leaders jersey off Nicolas while I finished up 10th - hopefully up up up as the days/stages go by for me.

Tomorrow is around the Atherton MTB trails - purpose built singletrack heaven. Having ridden one lap of the course last week (tomorrow we do two), I know my body will be in bits afterwards - basically 100% rough, tough singletrack with barely a meter of fire-road to relax on. Can’t wait but I’m hoping mother nature doesn’t decide to turn up the heat.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

2015 Crocodile Trophy Stage 1 - XC in Smithfield MTB Park

After having an incredible experiencing racing the Azores XCM World Series Race starting in Ponta Delgada I made the long, long trip to Cairns, Australia for the final race of my season. 51 hours after leaving my hotel in the Azores my friend Stewart picked me up at Cairns International and I was ready to acclimatise.

Out training

The race I traveled for was Mountain Biking’s oldest stage race - The Crocodile Trophy. In the past it have been a two plus week long race covering 2,000+ kilometres. It is different now, more technical and shorter at *only* 9 days. It is also now classified as a UCI S1 stage race and with next year being an Olympic year, many strong riders have turned up not only for the race, but also for the hope of gaining critical UCI points for their nations qualification.

Riding around Atherton

After a little over a week of acclimatising (we actually only had one hot hot day) we were all toeing the line for the first stage - an XC race around the Smithfield MTB park, home to XC World Cups and in 2016 the XC World Championships. The course, although not technical in a dangerous obstacle sense was very tricky for me - short explosive climbs and almost all single track between trees. Amazing trails that were super to ride but don’t play to my stengths. Being efficient with your brakes (or lack of) and line choice being critical and not exactly in my forte.

The gun blew and off we sprinted - day one of nine and it was full out from the start. About ten minutes in and I was already cooked - as I rolled up to the start I saw 37C on my Garmin - for an Irish guy trying to sprint up climbs I felt like a well done steak. After the first lap I thought I was going to collapse into a bush - all I hoped for was that the bush wouldn’t be poisonous and not too spiky.

Before heading to the start

I kept at it trying to ride as smoothly as I can and passed a few - just keep pedaling I thought as I dreamt of the brief few seconds of cooling I got from the bottle of water I would dump over myself each time through the feed zone.

Thankfully, for the last 30 minutes it cooled a little (as I sit now writing this the temperature has actually dropped a lot to a nice Irish summers day level) and my engine turned on a bit. The trails were awesome and I started to ride the climbs a little more comfortably. I felt that I would no long collapse and would make it to the finish okay.

Just after the feedzone - Photo by Stewart Carr

I finished in a time that would have put me in the top couple of riders in the last few years (which were cooler) but with Nicolas Pettina (the rider who I finished behind in Mongolia) annihilating the field I was a good chunk back. In fairness, I usually start slow at these things and there is a reason this is only my second XC race of the 2015 season.

Many thanks to Stewart and Lewis for the support (and photos) today.

Tomorrow things return to a more normal marathon style of racing as we travel towards Atherton.