Arriving at the start line at 6am, I set-up my wind trainer to get ready forthe fast start required. Despite it being 2 degrees, I had a good sweat on after 15mins of high cadence spinning and efforts. A quick trip to the loo, a change of jersey, and off to the start line I went.
I got a spot on the front of the grid, and looked around. Despite having raced with them all many times now, it is still daunting to look to your left and right and see the likes of Cooper, Blair, Jackson, Fleming, Hatton, Lewis, English - you know that they are there to win, and to do that they need to finish everyone else off. Its as simple as that.
At the purest level, other than the winner, everyone else gets dropped at some stage. They get dropped because they cant push any harder. To get rid of those guys, in that fashion, would mean for some fast riding.
It turned out to be pretty much exactly that.
The gun went and I got the 'hole-shot' into the first right hand turn. I was well warmed up, so sat on the front for a km or so, just keeping the tempo high enough that others wouldn't swamp me into the single-track which came at 2.6km into the race.
At about 100m before the turn into the single-track, everyone sprinted. Flatout. As expected, it was a squash, but from my perspective, it was quite clean. No broken bikes (which is normally the case from a front wheel into a rear mech, or a pedal into spokes) and a clean congo-line into the single-track.
A few riders had managed to get into the bunch that couldn't keep the pace, and I soon found myself telling them to "keep up, or move over" "HOLD THE WHEEL IN FRONT - DO NOT LET THEM RIDE AWAY" I shouted. Inevitably, the gaps opened and I found myself a bit behind (maybe 50m) as we hit the next fire-road. I was out of the saddle in full sprint - to both pass the slower guys in front, and also to bridge across to the safety of the front group. Just making it onto their wheels, we hit the next single-track. I was breathing from holes that normal are reserved for other things. Still I was there. Relax now, follow the line, and keep quiet.
As so it continued. After about 5km, the lead group had been 'selected'. It was Lewis, Blair, English, Hatton, Cooper, Fleming, Downing, Tupalski, Jackson and myself. All of us supported by the major bike brands. Its really interesting to look around at what is in the pack. Giant was there - with the Rockstars -29er, 26" hardtail, and 26" dually. Cannondale was there, as was Felt, and Merida. I was doing it for Specialized.
There is still a real difference in opinion as to what is the fastest type of bike.
What also became clear - as we exited Sparrow Hill - was that the race was going to be tactical, and one which was ridden fast on the single-track and slow on the fire roads.
There was no shaking anyone. Every now and again, the speed would raise to close to break-neck - typically going into single-track, and I found myself thinking "Jeez - this is bloody fast". If you remember "StarWars - The Return of the Jedi", you will know what I am talking about when I say that I felt like I was racing through the Ewok forest being pursued by the Emperors forces. It was fast, with trees flying past in a blur.
What really forced this point home was that even at 40km into the race, we were still sprinting at full throttle to get the first line into the single-track. To the point where people were shoulder-barging each other - despite knowing that no-one was going to get dropped regardless of where they sat in the congoline. It was very aggressive.
All together still.
At 45km, Pete Hatton launched a huge attack. It was incredible. We chased for nearly 5km. The gap not really getting smaller. At one point, a stiff climb cased the bunch to break. I looked back and saw Fleming, Downing and Tupalski struggling behind. They were done for the moment.
Entering Kowan forest, with only 10km to go, and I was next to feel it. I was so disappointed, but my legs locked up in cramp. The surging nature of the race had taken its toll. James Downing rolled past and I told him I was having a 'moment'. I rolled through the 58km water stop about 45 secs behind the leaders. I had to stop again, and stretch again. Tupalski, and Fleming rolled past "everything ok?" they asked in between their breath."cramps" I shouted back. I got back on the bike and found myself ok, and raced hard. I so nearly caught Flemmo at the KOM / end of section 1, but couldn't quite do it.
Time to relax. Start of the neutral zone. I had 'secreted' some supplies in James Downings front garden (on route) so quickly got them, and ate them whilst riding really slowly to the start of section 2.
When I got there I was greeted with cheers. I was first of the 100km to get there. I had 20mins to spare still, so I sat, ate, stretched and waited for the guys. Soon enough, the pack appeared.
I knew the first 5km of the next section was rolling hills, and I also knew that if I started too hard, it would be curtains for me. James Downing and I looked at each other and said "if we want to have any chance of winning this, lets go now, early, together, and hope the lead pack mark each other out of the race and don't chase".We went. James knew the tracks really well, and was perfect. He was riding really strong too, so I sat in. We belted along, and hit the arboretum in goodshape. A quick check of the shoulder and the 'leaders 'were not in sight.
We pressed on.
Just as we got to the final bit of bike track before Stromlo, we were caught. It was a great attempt, and James had worked his socks off, basically pulling me, but it was in vain. The key was now to sit in and try and hang on up the mountain.
I tried. With everything. But there was nothing. The cramps were coming and going, and having raced a near perfect 95km of race, the final 5km was to be myun-doing. I struggled up the hill, and found the slower 50km riders to be quite a distraction. They tried to get out of the way, but couldn't. It's a real shame that the race should be affected so much by other people on the track. Its not their fault, its their race too - but the organisers need to look at this.
I got to the top, have been joined by team mate Kyle who was on a recovery spin after his 2nd place in the 50km. We descended together. Down Skyline, the luge, over the gap-jump, and then follow your nose until the finish line.
Results are slow to arrive. Its univerally agreed that Shaun Lewis won. He was very strong all day, and rode a great race and has a strangle-hold on the series already. Beyond that, its actually very hard to tell how it will break down. The podium presentations on the day could prove to have been wrong. I just don't know how they could accurately get the times calculated to enough accuracy after the neutral zone. I hope its all correct - with Cooper and Blair on the podium - they were both super strong, and rode well. Changing the results now would be a real shame.
For me, I am not sure. It was a good race for many reasons, but equally frustrating. I was so close, but in reality so far.
My bike helped me so much. S-Works Epic. I have my position dialled now - slightly higher at the front that I used toride, and with a wider bar - 710mm. I'm running my tyres at 28psi - which I perfect for my 79kgs.
I have both the front and rear 'Brain' set-up one step away from fully locked, and this gives me the rigidity to sprint, but also the travel for traction, cornering, and descending. I am also finding myself running slightly less pressure in the shocks than the manufacturers recommends. Eg - for my weight, I should run about 110psi in the fork, but I'm at about 90psi. It feels perfect. I couldn't be happier. A 29er, full suspension, at under 10kg with 'heavy' XTRpedals, and also the Control (stronger version) Renegade tyres.
Thanks to Jet Cycles and also to Specialized again - it really would be much much tougher to race at this level without your support.
Next week is the Convict 100km. One of my favourite races. I know the track well, feel good, but need to recover in time.
Bring it on.