Race Report: Rocky Trail entertainment Stromlo cruise 2012.
Calling the event a ‘cruise’ was a cruel understatement to the endeavours asked of riders who raced in this years Rocky Trail race at the National Mountain biking venue at Mt Stromlo, Canberra. The 33km loop of pure, unadulterated single track snaked its way to the furthest reaches of the Stromlo reserve, making use of multiple challenging assents to the summit of the mountain. Riders were given the option of 33, 66, 100 and 160km race lengths, and while I was feeling fit and ready to tackle a big day in the saddle, a quick peek at the elevation gain for the loop had me reassess by 100km ambitions down to the 66km option. Even considering the tempering of my bravado, the prospect of 66km of technical, steep, loose, tight and demanding trails had me approach the race with a little trepidation.
This race would be unlike any of the XC marathon races I have completed before. In races like the 113km Highland Fling or 100km Husky Enduro- sections of single track were separate networks of trails connected by over arching sections of 4wd or fire trail where easy time and Kms could be made. For this race, there would be no easy distance or elevation gain. All the distance was on the fun stuff, making for a much harder but rewarding day overall.
The day was clear, still and warm early- anticipating a long and hot day on the exposed Stromlo mountainside. Mt Stromlo was burnt out by a massive bush fire in 2003, the limited shrub cover that has returned does not provide much shelter from the high summer sun. I prepared my camelback for the race with extra water and staminade, knowing that a failure to hydrate properly could be a crucial mistake. The riders were let off in waves, and by 9.15am the 66km group (largest and most popular distance for the event this year) were off and racing. In the first few 100m I found my position in the pack and hit the lower sections of the loop in a mixture of high and low gear. The single track was rolling with a few tight corners, flowing up and down sections- the close racing quarters and initial pace making me be 100% focussed on the trail. A UPD here would no only be bruising for my ego but also for the 4 riders sitting right on my tail at 15km/hr. After skirting the fence line on a combination of nice warm-up green rated (easy) trails, the course pointed riders upwards for the first big sustained climb of the loop.
I like climbing. Not only because it is an area where the mechanical advantage of a bike over a unicycle is shortened, meaning I am more likely to keep up or pass other riders, it also provides a whole new set of challenges for fitness and riding technique. Both of those skill sets would be put to the test on the technical climbs of this race. There were tight switchbacks, rock slab roll overs, exposed roots, rock gardens that were pedal strike territory if your line was a few centimetres off. The air was warm and still and in no time I had a considerable sweat on. I picked off some overly keen novice mtbers in the first few big ups and made my way through some really tough rocky sections that had other riders dismounting and walking their bikes. The mid morning sun was beating down on competitors and the white, sandy soil and light sandstone slabs reflected a lot of the glare back. After a good few kms of tough elevation gains the trail flattened at the peak of the mountain where an observatory sat in silent spectatorship. From the peak there was some more moderate single track that wound its way down and then back up to another of the peaks on the mountainside. From here the trail headed west down the back side of the mountain on a series of increasingly steep, narrow and technical trails.
Its pretty rare to race in a XC marathon event and come across trails of this technicality- let alone have them as the sole basis for a race. The technical bits in the other races I have competed in are infrequent gems that require kms of fire trail and 4wd access roads to uncover. Never have I done a race where you come across 4kms of balls out downhill trails without interruption. This was outrageous fun, and while my legs were fresh and my trail sense sharp, I cut through these sections with very few dismounts and without having to clear the trail for faster riders. Once riders emerged from these trails pumped full of adrenaline with aching fingers from braking it was time to regain some of the height that was lost- and gain it fast. Your heart rate had hardly subsided from the exertion and excitement of the downhill before it was asked to kick it up a notch for an extended effort on energy sapping technical climbing. After a climb that substituted overall difficulty for longevity the course utilised the gained height more sparingly as the course followed more gentle and flowing trails into the far North Eastern reaches of the reserve.
On the lower slopes of Stromlo the heat was building up, radiating off the chalky white gravel. There was not much air movement and it was a never ending struggle to keep downing enough liquid to keep sweat on my skin. Every now and then as you crested a smaller ridge a brief gust of wind would catch your sticky perspiration and offer a little relief. As you rounded to the East side of the mountain, overlooking the car park and event centre in the distance you could have fooled yourself into thinking the hardest part of the lap was over. But it was not to be so predictable. Instead, the course pointed riders back up the mountain on trails like Blackberry climb and Heartbreaker until it intersected the famous Skyline trail. What this trail lacks in tough riding, it makes up for in panoramic views towards the Canberra city centre and the various mountains that encircle it. From here it was literally all downhill and the track utilised berms and switchbacks to pass the meters gained. Before you knew it you were speeding along the flats towards the criterion track where the timing station was positioned. I finished my first 33km lap with a time of 2hrs 32min 22secs. I stopped briefly to refill my 2l water bladder, eat a banana, a museli bar, ditch my used Gel packets and try to reapply some sunscreen to dirty, sweaty and very salty skin.
After a few minutes I was back out on the trail. The first sections were much faster and relaxing without a whole pack of riders on my tail and only every now and then did an elite 100km or 100mile rider call track on me. I was already noticing the increased heat in the early stages of the 2nd lap and attempted to stave of and early exit by being extra cautious with my water and food consumption. Its hard to say for sure but my second climb up to the observatory seemed to be much faster than that on my first lap. The backlash of this was that with no one to slow me down, by the time I got to the top I was overheating and the initial twangs of quad cramps could be felt when ever I got up off the saddle to push through a technical section.
Any time I gained in this climb I quickly lost as I recuperated at the top of the mountain- my head cooling in a steam of fresh water from tap beside the Observatory. In the 10km or so of my 2nd lap, I had already nearly drunk as much as in my entire first lap. After topping up my water bladder, managing to cool my body temp down and letting my heart rate drop somewhat, it was back into the saddle for the next lot of climbs and big descent. The water dripping down from my hair was an absolute life saver- the extra speed I was carrying as I lost elevation helping it evaporate and keep me nice and cool. The rest of the race was a real tough slog. The heat, glare and demanding course taking its toll on me in the latter stages. I struggled to keep up the level of climbing I had set in my earlier lap and ended up walking some of the tougher pinch and technical climbs in the latter stages of the race. As I faded physically and mentally my riding suffered and I was UPDing in increasingly frustrating circumstances. I tried to focus and keep it all together and on the whole I was successful – despite my pace falling off sharply in the 2nd half of the lap. I eventually crawled through the timing gate with a lap time of 2hrs 57min 57sec.
My overall time for the 66km course was 5hrs, 30min and 19 seconds. Per Kilometre, I think that this race was the toughest one I have attempted. Even races like the Karapoti pale in comparison to the demands of a course made entirely of single track. The race was great fun- I had a lot of support from the organisers and the other riders out there on the trail. The whole vibe was really positive and the race was a great excuse to re-visit some of my old favourite trails out at Stromlo. Again, I encourage any unicyclists reading this to look up any MTB events in their area and get involved. Its a great way to push your limits, and excuse to spend hours on the unicycle in preparation for the event itself!