I remember a time when Karen and I were bush-walking well inside the most remote area of Victoria around the top end of the Wonangatta Valley. We were navigating off track, it was pouring rain and we knew that we had at least three full days of walking to get out to our car. That was around 1996.
On New Year’s Eve in 1997, we trekked from Jomsom to Muktinath at the foot of the Thorong La Mountain Pass in Mustang, Nepal. What is a well-trodden track in most circumstances, was covered in deep snow and it was technically very dangerous. We arrived in Muktinath late in the evening thanking God we had made it through, and I spent the whole night worrying about how we were going to make it out the next day without the correct gear (snow-shoes and/or crampons). The next morning we did in-fact experience snow-slips and land-slides on our descent.
The combination of demands during these past experiences came somewhat close to the those required to get through this past week in the iconic 8 stage mountain bike race. It may seem silly that I talk of emotions… it’s just a bike race isn’t it? I think those who have attempted such challenges themselves will understand why I make such a point of it. The effort required both physically and mentally, draws on every element of your being so that in order to complete your goals, you can’t help experiencing all of the feelings and emotions that go along with it.
Goal setting and sacrificing
“When it’s no longer possible to complete all of your goals, you sacrifice lower priority goals in order to perform and fulfill higher priority goals.” – Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, Miracle on the Hudson.
(I happened to be reading this book throughout the week and took comfort from Sully’s words. He was talking of things a little more significant than a mountain bike race – like saving 150 lives versus a relatively insignificant 60 million dollar airplane but hey… it was presently relevant to me.)
It’s extremely hard to set realistic goals for a race such as this. I found that task hard on the Port to Port earlier this year where you have no idea of the standard of rider competing. As that turned out, my position of third with a podium finish overall was what resulted from me doing my very best.
The Croc has been my ‘A’-race for the year so I wanted to do well – my very best. Again, I had no idea of the competition the race would provide. I knew Gary James (AUS-Canberra) would be there and he’s won the last three; I was confident I would bring him good competition and reasonably confident I could beat him but the rest was completely unknown.
Goal – Hmmmmm… not really sure what I can do (that’s hardly S.M.A.R.T. – Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely!)
Stage 1 at Smithfield Mountain Bike Park provided me with an early opportunity to use my strengths and find out a little about my opposition. A technical single-track stage of 35 kilometers without a lot of climbing was perfect for me and I had prepared well. Had I not snapped my chain on the steep switch-back climb of the third lap, I’m certain I would have walked away the winner of the stage – my lap times were consistently the fastest to the end. That was my first emotional challenge of The Croc; get over it and move on.
Goal – okay… to win (getting S.M.A.R.T.er)!Stage 2 to Lake Tinaroo smacked me in the face again when a sharp rock pierced my rear tire on the first steep climb and that puncture continued to cause me problems right to the finish line. The issue cost me many minutes but more importantly, the huge amount of climbing on this stage (2100m) and the next day on Stage 3 (3000m), exposed the real competitors in the category. Three mountain-goats came to the fore; Michael (AUS-Tas), Graeme (NZ) and Peter (Austria). My God… these blokes could climb and climbing fast in stage races mean huge gains in General Classification time. This is where my first goal flexibility came in to play… ‘Okay, maybe a win is going to be hard. A podium is still a possibility but let’s just see where my best effort can get me.’
Goal – best effort.
Stages 4 and 5 offered flatter terrain which played much more to my strengths. I enjoyed riding many of these kilometers with another main contender in the category, Jean Luc (Belgium). He was not quite the mountain goat but was all muscle and he ground away outback kilometers for miles on the front of our bunch as we took hot turns on dusty corrugated roads.
I was happy to get to the end of Stage 5 and find myself three minutes off third position with Jean Luc just holding that last step on the pod (Pete and Michael held the top two positions). Going into Stage 6, I felt I really had a chance at the overall podium with more grinding kilometers to come in Stage 7, less climbing and a Stage 8 time-trial which suited me well for the final stage.
Goal – back to the podium again… why not I say?!
I pause with the progression of this story to give you some context around how bloody hard this thing was; stages 3 to 6 were four days in excess of 100 kilometers each (specifically – Stage 3/100km, 4/122km, 5/125km, 6/102km). For many weeks leading into the race I had been dreading these four days in a row and was trying to prepare my mind for the pain of many grinding kilometers on the mountain bike.You now have some idea of how everyone felt going into Stage 6; hot day, tired legs, 102km with over 1000 meters of climbing.
It started like a frantic road race (only on dirt!). It was a big bunch and everyone wanted to be near the front to take advantage when attacks started to go down. Touchy brakes, high heart-rates, loud tyres, nervous tension. The race strung out pretty quickly and after a few kays Rod and I were happy to find ourselves settled into the fastest bunch a short distance behind the main break containing Erick Dekker (NED-former pro) and a couple of other elite riders. Phew… now to settle and consolidate.
The benefits of this bunch were tremendous for me. All four of my main rivals were there; Michael (AUS), Peter (Belgium), Graeme (NZ) and Jean-Luc (Belgium). All I needed to do now was stay with them for as long as I could, particularly Jean-Luc who was holding third position overall and was clearly my best target to take opportunities to immediately improve my standing. We settled into a nice pace-line a couple of times but the consistency was absent.
At the 23 kay mark, a rider directly in front of me touched a wheel and went down. Before I knew it there was a mountain bike and rider high-siding then sliding directly in front of me. I could not avoid it and rode straight up onto his rear wheel, cassette and derailleur before riding up and over his left thigh as he groaned with pain beneath me. I ended up completely off my bike sliding along the road but managed not to go down to skin on bitumen myself. A commissaire attended to the accident and Rod and I (he had been on my wheel – that is, right behind me) put in our best effort to get back onto the bunch. We managed it but soon after I realised I had double-flatted (front and rear), smashed a bottle cage, lost a bottle and caused some kind of damage to my rear derailleur. I pulled over to fix things, the bunch was gone and there went any chance I had of a good finish and a General Classification (GC) podium.
Here lay my most significant emotional challenge for the race. I rolled (or clattered) into the first feed-station and further inflated my front wheel which wasn’t sealing properly. By the time I got to the second feed-station I had mentally pulled the pin on the race. If John our support had been there with my car, I would likely have thrown my bike straight up onto the rack never to roll a pedal in the Croc Trophy again.
For better or worse, John couldn’t make it that deep into the bush and I rolled on… just rolled… slowly, not even steadily. I was mentally checked out and exhausted until I snapped it all back together again at the third feed-station and came up with a new goal and a brand-new focus. I had to literally shake my head and yell at myself repeatedly to snap myself out of my miserable pathetic attitude in order to re-focus.
Focus – accept the destruction of my GC time and ignore overall position from now – soft pedal for the remainder of today – ride Stage 7 tomorrow as much like a rest-day as I could – smash out Stage 8 as strong as I can.
Goal – win Stage 8.
Job done. The end (but read my little epilogue).
There were a couple of other important things which occurred through this week-long journey which I can’t ignore. Three of us set out to do this thing, not together but together – if you know what I mean.
Good friends don’t let you do stupid things alone so the three of us decided to do this stupid thing together. Rod and Mick were there for me, Mick and I were there for Rod and Rod and I were there for Mick. John was there for all of us.
My dramas of Stage 5 paled into insignificance when I crossed the line to find that Rod had crashed a few kay before the finish line. We spent the next half hour first-aiding and getting him off to Mareeba Hospital from where he was later discharged looking like a dressed up crash-test dummy. His current prognosis four days after is bark off, a bit of a sore knee and a more seriously sore shoulder. As I type, he is off at the doctor then the specialist on the Sunshine Coast to ensure his shoulder is not going to present more permanent problems. Rod couldn’t ride Stages 7 and 8 and has “unfinished business” he says – clearly our #copsatthecroc page will need to exist for another year.
Mick rode his typical consistent race every stage; no issues, no complaints… just sure and steady to firm up good mid-field positions in every stage and overall every day. My circumstances also provided a highlight for me in that they gave me the opportunity to ride nearly the whole of Stage 7 with Mick. It was lovely to bitch, moan and celebrate through the varying terrain of the stage together as we wound our way through the 78 kilometers of the Mareeba district and Wetherby Station.
Will we be back? Hmmmm… hard question. Rod will apparently – and he might need a little help and a mate or two to do stupid things with him.