On the 24th May, Lauren, myself and my bike departed sunny Cairns for a 5 day, 7 stage MTB race held in Alice Springs from the 25th -29th May. The 2009 Anaconda MTB Enduro.
This is my account of 5 days of racing in the Red Centre.
It started with a magazine article talking about the highs and lows of the 2008 Anaconda. The terrain and the layout really appealed to me and the seed was planted. The training started, and over the coming months this grew and grew until race week finally arrived.
There were four riders from Cairns who made the journey. Warren Pike, David Elms, Calan Macleod and myself.
The Anaconda is seven stages of racing spread over five days. One major drawcard to this event is that the race headquarters is based at the Heavitree Gap Outback Lodge (HTGOL) each stage excluding stage 4 starts and finishes within riding distance of Alice Springs and the HTGOL. With most riders staying at HTGOL it made for plenty of company and tall tales after the races with recreational riders able to mix it up with some of Australia’s and Europe’s best MTBer’s.
Each day started with a pilgrimage of riders leaving the hotel and heading for the race start. Despite the chilly mornings it was a good chance to warm up for the day ahead and talk to others about the riding.
Day 1 saw the official start with two stages planned for the day. The morning session started at 9:00am and was a 34km race around the outer edges of Alice Springs. The trail consisted of mostly rough four-wheel drive tracks. While not overly technical, it consisted of several steep, rough climbs that most riders did not expect.
Stage 2 was a 300m climb up Anzac Hill in the centre of town. This stage saw riders leaving in reverse order at 30-second intervals with a sprint to the top. First impressions were deceiving. Riders that went out too hard early paid a price. This climb had 3 kicks before flattening at the carpark, with one final kick to the top. Too big a gear at the start saw riders grinding gears and pushing hard in an attempt to maintain momentum as they neared the first peak in a world of lactic acid pain. Having ridden the hill the day before I planned to stay seated until the second corner before getting out of the saddle and going for broke. The road was packed with spectators and their cheers spurred everyone to pull out all the stops. I finished in 56 seconds with the leaders flying up in 44-seconds. Warren pulled his pedal twice and come in over the minute mark.
Day 2 was a 50km race from the historic Telegraph station. On route to the start I managed to get lost and was lucky to meet Melbourne rider Tim Harmon. He claimed he new where the start was and after following some rough tracks we made the start with 10 minutes to spare. As per the previous day the trail was part four-wheel drive track and a lot of single track. Of all the stages, this stage was voted the best with km’s of flowing single track through some of Australia’s most spectacular scenery (when you had a chance to have a look). The first half of the race went smoothly and was followed up by some of the worst cramps I have ever had. With 20km to go every hill caused my legs to cramp and forced the pace to slow dramatically. I struggled over the line in 3:03 and knew I wasn’t alone. The pain was evident on the faces of those already across the line.
A big part of this type of racing is the recovery. I had eaten well and rested the night before. Despite this I was in a world of pain and mentally quite despondent. The prospect of tomorrow’s 70km was on my mind. Lauren came to my aid with a good meal and massage before it was lights out for the 4am rise.
Day 3 saw the longest stage coming in at 70km. Unlike the other stages the start of this event was on a remote cattle property called Owen Springs, approximately 65km from HTGOL. As usual the race officials had organised transport for all competitors to the start. The previous evening, riders wrapped their bikes in bubble wrap, foam, blankets and what ever else was available. Why you ask? So that all 268 bikes could be loaded onto the back of a truck for delivery to Owen springs station.
We arrived at Owen springs in the dark, greeted by a very cold and dewy morning. After finding our bikes in the darkness, attaching our pedals and removing the layers of clothes it was time to start. Not all the bikes made it unscathed during transport; James Williamson from Giant had a hole punched through the carbon on his seat stay. Regardless to say he rode the stage with no problems. All riders departed along a very sandy track for the first couple of km’s. This saw a few riders come unstuck in the sandy conditions. The terrain didn’t really change with the stage made up of mostly sandy four-wheel drive tracks. The highlight was crossing a ridgeline and coming out between two steep ridges, we rode parallel between the ridges for many km’s and the sight of riders stretched out in front and behind was a spectacular sight. I caught up with Tim Harmon and we worked together pushing into a strong head wind that had persisted all week. By the time we hit the bitumen section we had caught a lot of riders. From here some of the group started to work together with three of us doing turns on the front to keep the pace up. We caught Warren but he couldn’t hold the last wheel was dropped almost immediately. This continued km after km until I popped. I started to drop of the pace and after coming back twice I was dropped. I was left to ride the remaining road section alone into a strong headwind with nothing but rolling hills and sand for company. I could not catch that group and thankfully was not caught on the road but expended untold energy maintaining speed. Finally I turned of the tar and onto the last 12km of trail. I caught some riders and was joined from behind by more. The last 3 km saw us sprinting along footpaths and along back streets before crossing the railway line and riding straight into the Todd River. This river only flows once a year, which is good in one sense but makes it difficult to ride through. In fact it was impossible, the sandy section was around 300m of soft river sand. This saw around ten of us pushing and running with our bikes to find some hard ground. I made up three or four places here and with only a short 500m to the finish it was all over. Tim Harmon finished around 40 seconds ahead of me and Warren came in 2 minutes later.
Considering the previous days discomfort I was greatly relieved to have made it through the day with no camps and feeling quite good.
Day 4 saw another 2 stage day. The morning stage was a 23km time trial. Starting in reverse order again. This was a very rocky stage with some awesome single track thrown in. The time trial meant that there were some open trails for you to go hard without being held up by slower riders. Some technical climbs and large rocks with loose gravel saw many riders going down and derailers being smashed. I managed to finish in 1:09 ahead a couple of minutes faster than Warren and Tim.
The second stage was a night stage over the same course run this morning. The steep climb 3km from the start was going to make or break riders if you got caught in the pack. It was not possible to ride this section so it was hike a bike to the top and weave through the riders on the descent. It was amazing to see how fast the pros were as they’re lights disappeared into the distance.
Warren managed to catch me with a couple of km’s to go. We put in a surge and broke from the pack to cross the line together in 1:16.
Day 5 saw the final stage and 34km of rough rocky terrain. The rivalry between Tim Harmon and myself had grown to mammoth proportions; with speak of bike sabotage before the race start. Warren was pretty relaxed and new he had to have a shocker for Tim or myself to worry him. At race start Tim was off like a rocket, hell bent on making up some good time on me. I stayed with Warren who still had a good 10 minutes on me and just enjoyed the first half of the race. At the first drink station I could see Tim up ahead and it stayed like this through the next 10km of single track. At the last drink station I had caught Tim and Warren had skipped ahead. Tim and I rode the rest of the race together and when we reached Emily Gap and had to push the next 300m through soft river sand we again saw warren up ahead. From here the track got really sandy and my legs were feeling it. Finally the sand ended; replaced with rocks, large sharp rocks that had the potential to tear the sidewall out of your tyre and made it difficult to keep a clean line. Finally we caught Warren and the three of us rode together up and down the last km’s of the race. I was toasted, my legs struggled to turn and when they did the power was minimal to say the least. I struggled to keep with the boys and dropped back on the climbs. I managed to catch up on the descents and the flat sections. By the last checkpoint we were told it was only 300m to go. Suddenly the legs were good and the three of us hammered it down the hill and over the finish. All three of us finished with in a second of each other.
After 12hours and 30 minutes of racing, the overall results were Warren 88th, Tim Harmon 110th and myself 98th.
As a fairly new MTBer and a virgin to stage races I was unsure of what to expect as we departed for the red centre. My major concern was if the body could back up day after day and still manage to put in a good effort. Surprisingly it did and I feel stronger physically and mentally for the experience. With the exception of stage 3, I was pleased with my performance and would happily return for more.
As always MTBer’s are a friendly bunch, and this event was no different. The pro’s mixed with the recreational riders and their attitude and approach to racing shows the professional side for what it is….fast, very, very fast.
It was a great experience and one I will not forget in a hurry. If you get the chance to do the Anaconda or any other stage race, go for it.
Regardless of your fitness, goals or reason for riding, jump in, with both wheels…..trust me you won’t regret it. Just do yourself a favour, when you get to the top of that next climb to take a deep breath and admire the view. It may remind you of why you got yourself into this situation in the first place. You’ll arrive in Alice Springs with a smile, but compete in the Anaconda MTB Enduro and you will leave with a bigger one. New memories and friends to boot.
A big thanks to my partner Lauren for her love, support and patience throughout the week and during the lead-up.