This year the route had been changed from the traditional point to point race leaving Toowoomba and finishing at Hidden Vale to a loop leaving and arriving back at Hidden Vale. This was mainly due to damage to the trails from the floods back in January in the Lockyer Valley. From a logistical point of view this year's format made it much easier to ride without a support crew to get you to Toowoomba for the start. But with this new course being only 75 kilometres, down from the traditional 100km, would the Epic be well...Epic?
Sunday morning saw me lining up for the start contemplating how little training I had done this year. Chatting with friends...contemplating how I have been sick for the last two weeks. I told myself I would just take it easy, take some photos and enjoy the ride as a ride, not a race. Ok. How hard can it be? It is only 75km. Hmmm...as I see it I haven't ridden a mountain bike that far in one sitting all year. This might actually hurt!
When it was our turn to head off we shuffled through the start gate to the electronic warbling of the timing equipment and then we were off. Nice and steady, chatting with Andrew while warming up gradually made good sense. It was nice to have a few kilometres of farm road to help spread the riders out a bit and it made for good social riding too. That was until the trail pointed downhill at the beginning of the "Epic" singletrack. For the next few km it was time to grin. It was time to also observe how many riders drag their brakes on even slight downhill sections. To me, Mr Unfit, this is sacrilege! All that effort to get up the hill then they turn it into heat in their brake pads rather than forward velocity?! Anyway, I made at least twenty places down this descent that seemed to go on forever. I was passing some riders at about twice their speed! I was only to be passed on a downhill once all day long and that rider came past here, so I tacked onto his back wheel and we whooped and hollered all the way down until the trail spat us out onto the sealed road for the next climb.
Over the next few kilometres the race leaders began to power through the masses. I find it hard to conceive how these guys can ride so fast up hill! They would be sipping icy drinks long before I was finished slogging over sweaty, heartbreaking climbs!
Over the next climb and the knarley downhill and it was onto more flat sealed road in the tiny rural township of Mulgowie. I was wishing I had some support crew here to meet me so I could stop and give my legs have a little respite. Powering into this headwind I found myself to be out in it all alone. I look up the road and there is a train of riders slipstreaming. Looking to the rear I see the same. Yet, here I am, all alone. Pushing this damn headwind! Maybe I smell?
Turning off the sealed section onto the dirt again and I am steeling myself for the climb up over the range again. Gee, I am glad I saved my legs on the flat road section......Grinding away here I am being passed by a lot of riders and when I spot Jimmy going past I realise they must be the last group to start. The sub 5 hour riders.
We then turn off the dirt road into a paddock. A cow paddock. The cattle had been doing their best postholing work while the ground was wet earlier in the year! My bike has turned into a mobile jackhammer as it judders over umpteen unseen indentations! Add to this the trail going up and down small, steep hillocks and it is pure torture. I pass a rider wheeling his bike back along the trail, his front wheel a huge taco. I make a mental note to ride super smooth, be gentle on the front. There is some killer climbing in this section which is pure walking territory for me. I ride the descents with massive amounts of attention and brake! Everyone else I see is either walking or crashing. Hehehe.....this is sorting out all those psuedo mountain bikers!
From about the 38km mark the track is back onto the Hidden Vale single track and it is hard going as I tackle Yowie and Western Creek with rapidly fading legs. Hmmm..I may have gone out a bit hard early on. The next 10km proved to be very tough for me. I backed off the pace to conserve the legs and that feels like the right move but I am getting held up on this section of trail by riders that cannot get over even small obstacles. My frustration is sapping energy fast but then as I see a rider tumble bacwards into a rocky creek I remember my status today. Not a racer, a cruising paparazzo! So I stop to take some photos(creek boy was ok by the way) and munch on an energy bar. So, nicely mellowed I press on.
As I approach the point where the 50km riders split from the 75km nutjobs I ask myself some tough questions about my status, like "can I finish this", "is there enough left in the engine room"? I decide to ride on the right side of the track and not look at any of the support crews waiting for their riders as I pass through the arch. No way am I going to quit. Do not turn left!
About 5km down the trail I want to quit..........badly. The first twinges of cramp are nibbling at my quads and even gentle slopes reduce me to walking. In fact I am walking as first Neil, then Gav come cycling past on a hill with a gradient to match Lake Eyre! Shortly after they leave me in a heat haze I happen across The Caterpillar. I decide to take a break in the shade, eat my banana and slyly check to see if it has the key in it! If I could drive up this next insane 28% climb I would. The fun thing is that everyone that passses "The Cat" askes the same thing. "Is there a key in that thing"?
With nothing else for it I forge forward and upward. Along here I start chatting with a guy who assures me that on the next hilltop is a tent where they are handing out free ice cold Cokes and massages. I believe him for about 3.5 seconds, but they were a blissful 3.5 seconds. In reality there is no tent, only relentless ups and downs as we scamble along a fire trail that is cut into the very ridge top. I look to the left and have a magnificent view out over Hidden Vale and to the right is the Lockyer Valley. Here I am, stuck in the middle with pain. To put into perspective how much I was hurting by this stage, the final suicidal, never ending downhill off this ridge line required me to stop on the only flat section to give my arms a rest. Never!! As I do I see another guy actually blow the hose right off his rear brake caliper! It got so hot, the pressure blew the hose to smithereens!
From this point on (actually from about 5km before this point!) I decided I was in limp home mode. I wasn't sure I could finish, but I wasn't going to quit! Even if I had to walk in on my lips! So, limp I did. The pace seemed very social for about 10km or so until I came to the Epic singletrack again and I couldn't help myself, upping the speed and having a hoot. Out the other side of this trail and I was in limp home mode again as we crossed open cow pasture. I finally drank my Camelbak dry here so stopped to add some Nuuns and Staminade to my water bottle.Hmm...my last 750ml of water. I wondered if I would make it or if the Hidden Vale camels would stand over my withered body and laugh?
After yet another walking climb I happened upon a goddess standing under a shade asking "Would you like some water"? "Er, yes please" and "how much further to go"? I am told "just 4km"! You beauty!! It is funny how you will believe what you are told even though all the other indicators point to a different answer. My Garmin was saying I had another 10km to go, but 4km sounded like music to my ears. Even better, I was at the top of the "Rock Bottom" singletrack. My second wind had arrived and I set the spinnaker to catch as much of it as I could! Through this section I was powering, passing about a dozen riders including Chris and Nick who had opted to do the 50km. Up Escalator I was even passing people. At the top a very nice chap was shouting something about 50km riders turn right, 75km riders turn left. Left? That was away from the finish line?! "How far to go mate"? I yell. 6km is the response......I cannot reprint what was said after that......that goddess under the shade, the one with the honest, pretty face had lied. I was gutted. But even better, I was angry and I smashed the pedals, called track left/right to every wobbling rider I saw ahead and actually enjoyed the hell out of that last 6km! Looking at my heart rate data for the last 10km and it went up from around 150bpm to almost 180bpm as I gave it eveything I didn't know I had left! I passed quite a few riders in this last 10km which no doubt assisted in catapulting me into......drum roll please, 205th place outright!!! ;) Yes, I think I missed my chance at glory by about two hours.
Sitting back, gnawing on cool watermelon and not able to bend my legs lest the cramps grab me, I reflected on what I feel is the hardest race I have done in my four or so years of mountain biking. It may have been the lack of training or the fact that I had a cold for the preceeding two weeks ,but in reality I think this course would have ripped my legs off and beat me with them no matter how prepared I thought I was.
See you next year. :-)