At briefing a lovely young guy sidled up to me.
‘You’re a great rider’. He said.
‘Who me? Thanks!’
Still got it.
‘Yeah, I really liked your blog.’
Oh. Writer. Never mind.
All that stuff I said in my previous post about the Rocky Trail Enduro was wrong. Different location, different sort of track, and no support in the pits for me. The only thing that hasn’t changed is the cat-sitting. Scrap the optimism, too. A few days of freezing rain in Sydney and the organisers made the call to move the race to Awaba, near Newcastle. My big brother got a whole lot of work dumped on him and my Dad, it turns out, was only feigning interest.
I drove to the track but it wasn’t the Awaba I remembered, which had fast, scrubby singletrack and nasty, open fire road climbs under gargantuan power lines. I assumed that it was just the start that was different and that those lovely, open uphill sections were waiting for me somewhere down the 12km track.
I got myself sorted, largely thanks to a coffee, and did about 30 seconds of track to warm up. It seemed great – curvy, flowing, sticky singletrack. A bit damp, but not too bad. The sun came out.
The start was one of the slowest I’ve seen. There was a mass start on the fire road, which entered the singletrack after about 50m, so, 50m into the race we sort of had to unclip and wait almost a minute for the traffic to subside. It was all very polite and good-natured and I got into a good rhythm behind a line of guys with a girl on the front. There were almost no opportunities for overtaking until a steep climb on sticky mud. I overtook the girl in front, then the track turned down into the rainforest and my problems started.
Did I mention mud? After we got through the first section the track got progressively sludgier. This was probably one of the muddiest rides I have done. Not that that’s saying much. My MTB heyday coincides with the massive El Niño event that lasted from about 2003-2007 and left most of eastern Australia in drought. Dust is my specialty. This was like riding on iceskates rather than wheels. A couple of times I had to jump off, my clogged tyres sliding away. And so, about 4kms in, my race turned around. I was the proud wearer of brand new shoes and brand new pedals to clip them into. I’ve used almost every pedalling system in my life, and this time chose Shimano. When I bought them I swatted a brief second thought about mud clearance: ‘But how often will that matter?’ I thought. ‘Like, once every two years?’
Let’s hope so. I could. Not. Clip. In. I stamped my foot onto my pedals, stood and tried to bounce them in, when that didn’t work, I whacked my foot against the pedal as hard as I could. Every time I thought it was in I’d try to put the power down and it would pop out. I tried to ignore the pedals and focus, but every time I had to get off and run it’d take ages and ages to clip back in, especially the right pedal. When I cleaned it later I discovered a rock wedged into the mechanism. I did 5 laps and I think I probably rode about 2.5 of them unclipped. Especially the last lap, but I’ll come to that.
Anyone who knows me well, or has even spoken to me on a wet day will know that I have one morbid fear. It is not snakes. It is not spiders. It is not ticks, or murderers or rapists, or flying in planes, or heights or enclosed spaces. It’s leeches. It’s not only the devastating and at times paranoid fear: I am also irresistible to the creatures and they flock to me like seagulls to a fish and chip shop.
In Brisbane if I go riding on any wet day I’m guaranteed at least one leech, and that’s road riding. If I mountain bike on a wet track I usually have to stop every 1.5 minutes to flick entire extended families of them off my tyres, my frame, my legs…
So it won’t come as any surprise that I was a bit worried. In between bashing my shoes violently against my pedals, I was trying to investigate the wet, squishy feeling around my ankles. There were very limited opportunities to let go of the bars, so all this was at the expense of drinking or eating. Or steering. A girl in pink passed me and swished away.
The singletrack went on and on and on. Not really up or down, just back and forth. I couldn’t get any rhythm or speed in the mud – my legs felt fine and I was hardly puffing, but I couldn’t handle the terrain at any more speed, and my hands were getting minced (like every other part of my body, they’ve got a bit soft from road riding) I can imagine that in the dry this is one of the sweetest tracks in Australia. Here, after days of rain, ducking in and out of rainforest, it was clogged and slippery. I was desperate for a long climb, like, a two-hour climb, where I could open my legs up and ride to my strength. Where’s that goddamn fire road? I thought. I really need it.
I’m going to remove all that suspense right now and just tell you: There was no goddamn fire road. The Awaba I remembered was long gone. This is was singletrack heaven and I was in roadie, leechy, unclippy hell. I lost heart. My head played games – different games – it wasn’t telling me to stop, but I felt deeply, deeply ashamed. I felt exactly as you do in those dreams where you go to school naked. It was somewhat distracting and even the kind words of people passing me – ‘It’s a bit sloppy isn’t it?’, ‘Oops, wrong line!’ etc. – made me feel foolish rather than encouraged. And a little sad.
I dropped back to conversational pace, and had a few nice talks with children and people wearing underpants under their knicks. At one point a young woman racing pairs came up behind me and we had a chat. I told her that I used to mountain bike and was getting back into it after doing some road racing.
‘Well’, she said, clearly trying to make me feel better, ‘just have fun.’
‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I’m trying to.’
‘Unless you want to go fast of course.’
‘You don’t want to go fast though, do you?’
‘Well, I guess so… I used to be pretty fast.’
She went quiet for a minute as I bumped and slid sideways through a v-ditch or two.
‘Um. Can I just… scoot by you?’
And she rode off at the pace of, oh I don’t know, someone trying to escape from a pathological nutbag liar.
Have you ever accidentally swapped your keyboard settings so that everything you type comes out gibberish? You know you’re hitting the right keys, but the output makes no sense? That’s how it felt. I know how to hit the keys – where my tyre should go, when to let go of the breaks. But my body is speaking a foreign language, flinging a ream of mountain bike gobbledegook out behind me on the trail.
Coming to Sydney there were a couple of things I hadn’t packed. 16 gram threaded CO2 cartridges (banned on flights: learned that the hard way), and gels (readily available at Coles). A note for next time: Coles Pyrmont doesn’t stock gels, but they do stock Stinger Waffles. Gaufre Stinger (say it with a French accent. Do it!) – And they were on sale: Who could resist! I’ve found them pretty good on the road, but on the road you don’t have bumps and corners and mud and rocks packed into every metre you traverse. Stinger Waffles are round and flat and they’re really hard to get out of your pocket, let alone open and eat. Lap four and it took about 10km of trying and I still couldn’t get my hand on it. I was starting to see stars and at one point the face of my mum’s cat appeared in a tree, green-eyed and laughing. In transition I pulled over and in a fit of passion emptied my pockets, throwing everything in a heap, my keys, my Pump*, my other food, several handfuls of mud. Triumph! I shoved the Stinger into my mouth and nommed hard. A swig of water and I pedalled on. I found my groove.
The track had improved with every lap, and I’d learned some good lines and was finally letting go, getting some flow. I cleared a very muddy section I’d managed to stuff up every lap and then I heard it. The sound of a continuous raspberry being blown at you. A flat front tyre. Remember the pump? The one I threw away? I was 4kms in and it was a long walk/jog back. I felt sad again – this time because I’d managed the naked feelings and the pedal woes and the leech obsession and come through it. And it was going to be nice to finish.
The race organisers were great and genuinely felt for me for pulling out. There was a great atmosphere down at transition and I would have liked to have stuck around a bit but something else weird has happened – I didn’t know anybody! I walked around a bit, packed the car, and got back on the road.
As I drove home along the F3 that young woman’s question was still running through my head ‘do you want to be good?’ Driving in the traffic over the harbour bridge and through the entwined vines of underpasses and ramps I had the same sense of physical disorientation as I’d felt on the track. And it’s not just personal. It felt like everyone else on the road knew where they were going and how to get there with smooth, uninterrupted swiftness. Like they had a clear path, knew it, travelled it easily. They must live here and do it every day but I was overwhelmed with the sense that everything was scaled too big for me – the harbour, the pylons, the skyscrapers. ‘Do you want to be good?’ the city was asking me.
I want to be good now, better than I was before, but I need a bit more time in the MTB world. To live in it and learn the language of the trails and the bike.
*This seemingly irrelevant detail will have great significance later on…