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Last year, my mate Al Iacuone and I embarked on a journey that we never saw coming. I honestly thought my ‘competitive’ days were over and would never be reclaimed. Running a business, having a family and all the responsibilities that come along with those things had taken a priority, but if I was honest, there was still a small flame burning deep inside.
Could I find that extra quarter point in my life to start setting some mid-life athlete goals again?
The concept of mountain bike team-racing appealed to me and offered something I’d never experienced before. Alby and I decided to enter the Pioneer to have a goal to work towards and get us through the winter. After hiring a coach and partnering up with a likeminded teammate everything started coming together again. I began to jump out of bed early in the morning and ready to train. My eating got better. My weight began to drop. Everything became more consistent and easier with our goal in mind, and for me, the added incentive of not wanting to let Alby down.
Many months later, having competed in both the Pioneer and the Cape Epic, we’re back for more. This year and next, we’re looking to race in more of the Epic Series events as a build-up to the 2020 Cape Epic.
Which brings us to last week, when Alby and I travelled up to Cairns in tropical north Queensland to race the Reef to Reef. It’s a race that only came alive last year, but was tacked onto the Triple R – one of Australia’s longest-running mountain bike races, in its 29th consecutive year.
From what I’m told, mountain bike racing has seen better days in Australia: no funding for national high performance programs, not many sponsorship opportunities, less media coverage, disciplines and events getting more and more fragmented, and less people turning up to each type of event.
Coming to Reef to Reef, though, you wouldn’t know this to be the case. With a vibrant community who you get to know better each time you show up, I couldn’t think of a better vibe for racing and socialising. Not to mention that it was the luckiest weekend we could ask for, with 27C temperatures every day, while the rest of Australia seemed to be suffering through apocalyptic weather patterns!
Alby and I wanted to use this race as a gentle start to our eight month Cape Epic build-up. Neither of us were starting from scratch, but there hadn’t been any real training in the past five months. The kits we wore for the Pioneer and Cape Epic were quite a bit tighter than both of us would have liked, but it served as a fitness gauge of where we were starting.
On paper the stages were relatively short (anywhere from 18km to 70km) with only a few hundred meters of climbing in each. That’s a mixed blessing, though, as everyone races harder and it hurts nearly as much as a 100km stage! The main difference is backing up each day is much easier on the body, and there’s more time left at the end of each stage to go to the beach and trade war stories.
Stage 1 was a short and sweet 18km blow-out through the trails of Smithfield mountain bike park, where the 2017 World Championships were held. This was world class single track heaven with enough climbing to dull the legs for the coming days. The van der Ploeg brothers (Neil and Paul) set off 20 seconds before Alby and I and while we joked about catching them, they were immediately out of sight and never to be seen again. That is, until 2km remaining, where we saw Neil had a puncture. We turned on the gas like never before, and made up a solid three minutes on the VdP young guns – all is fair in love, war and mountain biking. Alby and I had made it to the finish without a nuclear meltdown and a good placing (2nd in Masters, 6th overall) and the pecking order was established.
I’m never overly confident of my form, but this stage made me less confident going into stage 2. You see, the difference with these pairs races versus solo racing is that you never want to let your partner down. And if your strengths are different, you can’t really separate from each other to try to take advantage of those differences. You need to roll together at all times, and what that means is that someone is usually being pushed beyond his or her comfort zone.
Stage 2 couldn’t have offered more different terrain, travelling through the dry bush and hardpacked trails of Davies Creek Mountain Bike Park. The course map said that there was 600m of climbing over 50km and I mentally prepared for this kind of ‘easy’ day. But after we started at an extremely uncomfortable pace and reached 450m of elevation gain within the first 20 minutes, I knew something was awry. Kudos to the guy on the flat pedals in sneakers who dropped us like a bag of hammers and did some Nino-style tail-whips over the waterbars that we wouldn’t think of trying to replicate at 50km/hr.
I did feel slightly guilty and didn’t laugh like I did at the van der Ploegs when we passed him fixing a puncture shortly later. Mechanicals and punctures: they’re the great equalisers in mountain bike racing, and unlike in road racing, are fair game to turn the screws on your competitors.
Once again, we were nowhere close to the first masters team across the line, but we were a solid second. And as expected, the van der Ploegs made up their three minutes on us, as well as a few other minutes as well. Now it was their turn to gloat – and if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of their gloating, you’ll know how unforgiving that is.
Waking up on the morning of stage 3 was reminiscent of some of the bigger mountain bike stage races we’ve done. Day 3 always seems to be the worst for me. My body was sore and tired, the excitement had worn off, and relative normality had set in. I always find it a hard day to get moving, until thinking about it a bit more, we realised we had only done three hours of racing up to this point! Perhaps the biggest challenge was keeping this in mind and not eating like we were racing six hour days.
This was described as the most ‘roadie’ of all stages and I was looking forward to a bit of a rest. And this is exactly how it started off. However, as the bitumen roads turned to gravel, the gravel turned into double track, and then the double track devolved into rutted-out muddy 4×4 tracks, the pace picked up and the group strung out. Alby and I found ourselves in good position keeping up with the leaders. Then to our surprise the top masters team who were as strong as ten men got a mechanical and had to pull over. I was the last man in a big split and we were keeping pace with the likes of world class riders such as the van der Ploegs and Brendan ‘Trekkie’ Johnston & John Odams. It may have been just a little outside of my comfort zone because without any warning my front wheel slipped into an innocuous water-filled rut and in an instant, I was flying through the air in a Superman position thinking ‘this is not good’. We were warned about the deadly ‘wait a while’ vines that looked more like barb wire than a plant, and I landed upside down on my right shoulder and slid into a bush of similar biting plants.
It was one of those crashes where I immediately scrunched up into the fatal position and wiggled everything from my toes to my ears to take stock. It didn’t take long to notice that someone hit my right quad really really hard, and there was definitely something wrong with my shoulder. Collarbone? Dislocation? Separation? I wasn’t sure yet, but it would probably be one of those things, if not more. And worst of all, my beloved Wahoo ELEMNT was missing!
I got up after doing the full body re-boot and walked around looking for my ELEMNT to no avail while assessing my injuries. We were about 15km into a 70km stage and with hundreds of mountain bikers behind us, turning around wasn’t really an option. I was able to hobble back on my bike to get to the next aid station (about 10km away) but immediately knew that I wasn’t going to be able to continue. Funnily enough, though, I was in far less pain riding slowly with some decent injuries than a few minutes earlier going full gas with a full body lactic burn.
Alby and I made it to the aid station where there were a couple ambulances on stand-by and as much as I wanted to continue, it wasn’t an option. I wanted Alby to carry on and fortunately there wasn’t enough room in the ambulance for him, so riding was his only option. Alby got sick at Cape Epic and he insisted that I finish, and I now caught a glimpse into this mindset. It’s never nice letting down your partner and all you want is for them to continue.
In a massive shake-up in our masters category, the leaders had dropped massive amounts of time due to a mechanical and this time 3rd place on GC ended up winning the stage and only had a couple of minutes to make up to take the overall win. It’s such a cliché, but there’s enormous truth in the old saying ‘anything can happen’ and it couldn’t be more true in mountain bike racing.
On the morning of the final stage I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than to race. It was the polar opposite of yesterday when I woke up tired and haggard. Perhaps it was a case of ‘you want what you cannot have’. After my injuries had 16 hours to settle, I found that my leg was better than I had thought, but my shoulder was worse. I couldn’t even get my hand up to brush my teeth, never mind grab the handlebars to ride down the infamous ‘Bump Track’.
I insisted that Alby set off on stage 4 to enjoy another day in mountain bike paradise and I’d meet him at the finish. This was the day I had been dreaming about since we signed up to Reef to Reef. There was something cathartic about finishing along the hard packed sand of Four Mile Beach against a backdrop of palm trees and mountains after four days of hard racing. Simultaneously, I learnt that one of the worst feelings in the world is standing amongst everyone who finishes a gruelling event and missing out being part of that. It took a while to realise it, but the pain of riding on is far less than the disappointment of not finishing.
I’d like to thank the organisers of Reef to Reef and all the volunteers for putting on such an outstanding and memorable event. I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the generous sponsors who are a part of making these events happen: Shimano Australia, Koda sports nutrition (formerly Shotz), Camelbak and many more, whose support makes these events not only memorable, but also viable.
Next up, Cape to Cape in Margaret River!