The concept sounded pretty fun: get together a bunch of clean-cut tarmac-focused roadies, and throw them headfirst into a new(ish) teams category in a 24-hour mountain bike race. With our varying off-road abilities we would be there for the good times, rather than laps times, and the category we were entering would allow us to consecutively accumulate our 24 hours, rather than riding as a relay.
This would potentially mean plenty of relaxing between laps, and plenty of laughter while riding. In both aspects we were not disappointed!
The Thule Bright 24-hour MTB Race was born out of an idea to bring a mountain bike race right into town, allowing participants to tailor their own weekend. To encourage this, an ‘Esprit de Corps’ category was added to the traditional solo and team 24-hour categories.
In the Espirit de Corps (“morale of the group”) category teams of four or six riders were encouraged to all be out on the course at the same time, collectively accumulating time. All six riders could ride four hours each, or alternatively, a few stronger riders could take up the slack and wind out some extra hours to reduce the workload for the team. With lap times only starting once each lap had commenced it was easy to roll a lap, have a break while going into town or enjoy a beer before coming back to roll another lap.
We quickly assembled our CyclingTips crew, and despite plans to get out on the trails for a few practice sessions life quickly got in the way (as did planning for a ‘little’ ride out in the Yarra Valley!). We instead decided that we’d just have to dial things in on the first lap. Always good in theory …
We were fortunate enough to be set up with a quiver of bikes thanks to Specialized. The only decision was which ones to bring? Hindsight is 20:20, as they say, but we should have been able to see the problem we were about to ride into.
Our first mistake was thinking that as roadies it would make sense to have a few CX bikes in the mix. After all, we all ride a little CX from time to time. The second mistake was not reading between the lines of event organiser Andrew Miller’s thoughts about riding CX on this course. “If you guys have some solid CX skills, then this course shouldn’t present more than a handful of challenges”. We might have been a little optimistic with how we interpreted that advice.
The final mistake was asking three-time Australian Cyclocross Champion Lisa Jacobs her opinion of whether CX would be ok. Naturally the answer was yes. We were in for an interesting ride.
As we arrived in the event village on a stunning Saturday morning we couldn’t help but notice the prevalence of mountain bikes. It shouldn’t have been a great surprise given this was a 24-hour mountain bike event. As we wheeled our CX rigs through to registration there were more than a few comments about “bringing a knife to a gunfight”. If that was doing nothing to settle our pre-event nerves, then the conversation with the mechanics at the course really had us starting to question our decision.
We quickly negotiated a ‘lap two bailout option’ in the form of a Specialized Stumpjumper 6Fattie, and nervously attached race numbers to the front of our drop bars.
Our team lined up at the entry chute, half straddling mountain bikes, half atop CX bikes. It was roughly 500m into the course that we realised just how tricky and technical this was likely to be. Oh well, only 16 kilometres to go …
“You’re going to want to really float over the rocky sections” was the pre-race advice we’d been given, hand-on-shoulder by the mechanics. “You’ll need to run a super-low tyre pressure because pinch flats on that are pretty likely”. It was easy enough to pick a line avoiding the basketball-sized rocks, and from there we floated as best we could across the rest. Soon enough we had some sort of rhythm going, and could relax into the ride a little more.
The great thing we were soon to discover about the course was the variety of terrain. From open fields, dry pebble creek crossings, and thick pine plantation through to fast flowing single track and a long grinding firetrack aptly titled ‘Crybaby Hill’ there was seemingly never more than a few minutes of any type of riding. Like any good mates, we would call each other into the A-lines, ensuring we were positioned to catch any spill on film ‘for posterity’.
With arms like jelly and quads burning from the unseated floating required, it was somewhat of a relief to roll through the tent city to the finish line of lap one. Of the hundred or so people lining the finishing chute preparing for lap two it felt like everyone watched the only CX bikes in the race roll through. It was tough, and there were plenty of laughs on that first lap, but it was high time we took out the 6Fattie.
There could hardly be a greater difference than going from picking our way through the sometimes technical course on a CX bike, to blasting through it on a dual suspension carbon mountain bike. Forget about knives and guns, we were sitting on a tractor with this bike. To say the subsequent laps were a blast would be an understatement. Rocky chopped up sections that we had held our breath for (and cursed under it) felt like rolling hotmix, and the dual suspension meant any descent could be taken at full gas.
By now our in-between-lap Cokes had been exchanged for beers, and we relaxed and chatted with the other Esprit de Corps competitors. Having already accumulated our 24 hours a few of the crew decided to continue on with another lap. It was just too much fun out on the course, and everyone we were bumping into seemed to be having a great time.
Officially done for the day we tucked into a couple of beers and a counter meal at a pub in Bright only moments from the event village. Being able to ride on the course at the same time as our mates, take plenty of breaks along the way, and even decide at what points of the day to do our laps (including some bonus morning laps) meant this was the sort of mountain bike event we would have no hesitation going back to.
Next time we’ll leave the CX bikes at home though.