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National Elite XC Champs

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By Antsonline - Posted on 22 March 2016

After a last minute call (Tuesday afternoon, with the race on Saturday am) to race Elite Nationals XC Champs, I was feeling a little nervous. My old age, allied with the fact that I have been training solely for marathon racing, meant that any ‘raw’ speed might be lacking.
The one thing you know about XCO Nationals – its all about raw speed.
The other thought that you have is about the course. World Cup courses are becoming increasingly technical, and the National Champs aspire to be as close to a World Cup XC course as possible.
Oh great….

You can imagine my delight when I speak with Kyle Ward, who was at the course a few days ahead of me and is known for having more than enough skills to pay the bills, and he says “Mate, do you have a spare dropper post? I’d like to run one for this race, and if you can get one, so should you. It’s as steep as I have ridden in an XCO course”
I put it to the back of my mind. I have been working super hard on my technical speed and it is now as fast as anyone on most trails and single-track, but this was still going to be a new challenge.
It’s funny because only a few weeks ago on this very forum we were discussing the use of dropper posts in XCO. After the race, I was chatting with Shaun Lewis, and he isn’t the tallest of riders – but I noted that he had chosen to race with a dropper. It was a good call.

As Jon Odams and I drove down to Bright on the Friday, we discussed what we expected. He was delighted to hear it was going to be technical as hell. We arrive at the race course at late lunchtime and bump into some downhillers – in full face helmets, knee pads etc. It’s a nice reminder of what we are about to face when they say “Wow! We borrowed some trail bikes and rode the XC loop – that is one gnarly course, really tricky and steep”.
Cheers lads.

We unload the bikes and grab Paul Van der Ploeg for company and head out.
The lap is just under 5km long. It starts with a bit of paddock and then you drop into some berms like you might imagine at Kowen Forest. It tips you into a steep roll-off and then you are committed to either an A-line gap jump (only about 1meter wide) or a b-line detour.
This is 250m into the lap.
From there it winds its way along the river bed before climbing a firetrail and hitting a very steep, twisty single-track climb. I was in the 42t on all my pre-ride laps up here, fighting for traction on the dust.
Cresting the pinchy climb, you have 5 seconds to catch any breath you can before an acute turn of around 120degrees around a tree that is also dropping away in front of you. Like riding down a helter-skelter with roots in it. As it straightens you have a line of rock drops on an off-camber hillside and a choice of an A or a B line. The B line is pretty straight forward. More of the same. The A-line drops you into a straight vert, rock armoured gully. Its like the drop-in at Ourimbah but steeper, narrower, and with a log at the top to form a ‘lip’ to roll of. You just have to grip and roll.

It was super challenging, and it could catch you out at any time at all. I saw some of the very good, technically capable elite women make mistakes here and their bike ended up 50m down the hill in the bush.

After some smooth rolling singletrack you hit climb 2. A two-stage firetrail which was steep enough to require some standing up to feel like you were making progress. These pinches transitioned into a rolling climb on singletrack and before long (3mins climb) you were winding your way back down to the start finish via some forests and more Kowen style rooty, pine forest trails.

It was, by far, the most fun XCO course I had ever ridden. It was also the very hardest I had ridden – in the sense that it was difficult to see where you could really make up time. It was about getting 0.5 seconds on all of the corners and drop offs, and that would make up to about a minute at the end of the lap. A drop off combined with a corner – that makes 1 second to lose. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is XCO racing – an accumulation of perfect corners, drops and climbs. Clean, smooth and always fast. Fitness is key, but it doesn’t buy you speed. I was as fit as I have ever been – but riding REALLY FAST is different to riding PRETTY FAST. 0.5 seconds every corner..
God it was a wake-up for my Marathon senses!

Race day comes and I am keen to get it on. I am gridded at the very back (4 rows) due to my lack of any UCI points or National XC races so far this year. Gun goes and I am stuck. Nowhere to go. Everyone is going full speed.
Inevitably, there is a touch of wheels here and there, but the whole field is good enough to handle it, and give back “with interest”.
There is something special about racing along with Dan McConnell these days. It’s a benchmark that Australian XCO has needed for a while. You know that Dan is one of the very best in the world. If you are near him, then everything will be fine. I could see Dan at the front, thus I was moving fast enough.
After the start-loop, we hit the singeltrack and the gap jump etc. this is where the difference becomes apparent. 0.5 second per corner is immediately a bike length that needs to be made up. Then another.
I am screaming at the guy in front of me to hold the wheel. It wasn’t his fault – its racing. I also noticed that I was too calm – still too much in a marathon racers mindset of ‘a rider in front or behind here won’t matter, it’s a long way to go’. Not the case. It really does matter on such a tight course.

The first lap is a blur. No crashes, a few overtakes, and also one time when a dude tried to overtake me on the tech descent.
I get his h-bar in my ribs as he tries to squeeze past me. I said “Dear friend, would you like take your bars elsewhere?” (but used a shortened, blunter version of the language). He said “I’m trying to get past”
I was able to reply with “well, this is an XC race, not a downhill race, so I suggest you practice your uphilling a bit harder in future, so you aren’t faced with this issue again”

No need to go into detail of every lap, as they were all clean, no crashes and proving my fitness (which was really great) there was only about 30secs separated my fastest lap from my slowest (the middle lap). In fact the final two laps I went my fastest in some sections – just proving that you quickly get used to the need to push another gear, and drive harder.

So the result was 18th (although there have been some timing gremlins), and I am happy with that. On reflection, I realise just how important racing XCO is to ride anything at real pace. I was too relaxed, too calm, too content to sit on wheels up hills and ‘wait’ rather than really push myself. I rode it at a fast Marathon pace. A few more XCO races, some specific sessions and you could take a minute off each lap without too much drama. Its funny – because I knew that at the outset, and anyone that ever asks any coaching advice from me – the first thing I tell them is that speed is king, distance is queen.

For interest, I ran my saddle 2cm lower than I would do for a marathon, and also rode bigger tyres (2.3s) for more confidence and speed. Otherwise, the bike was pretty stock – Sworks Epic – lovingly maintained by the guys at Cyclery Northside, with C-bear ceramic bottom-bracket and bearings throughout (check these guys out if you haven’t done already – amazing product). It was under 10kg on race day, but never got to actually weigh it officially.

What next? Well it’s the fun stuff – a new pairs event in Forest called the Otway300, and then the very weekend after that – the National Marathon Champs in Tasmania. Can’t wait.
Highlights of the XCO race will be shown on SBS on Easter Sunday at 5pm (confirm that with your tv guide though) – I dearly hope it shows how amazing the course was.

Here is a strava file from the race...

Pete B's picture

Very interesting read. Always good to hear an insiders view of these events.
Also interesting to hear that the XCO trails are gettinh more technical but the'real world' trails seem to be getting more groomed, Wylde can be done on a CX for example!
Good luck with your marathon races this season spins like you've done the work

hawkeye's picture

Great read, thanks for posting.

BAS's picture

Good write up, glad I wasn't the only one who thought it was a hard course. As an A grade roadie and fairly recently turned MTB'er I was at my limit technically, I was managing the A lines rather than looking to ride them with any speed. It was way more techy than anything we race in Perth. I ended up trying too hard, little OTB and snapped brake lever meant DNF. Those little bike lengths that the really quick guys put into you on every hard section just add up to so much. But therein lies the challenge!

Fatboy's picture

Great read Ant. And you managed to beat your in form mate John Odams. Not a bad scalp!

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