That looks like trouble... © Blakey

That looks like trouble... © Professor Blakey

While we may just be ramping up our season in the northern hemisphere, Down Under the action is already full gas. This past weekend two of the skinniest racers from the past two rounds of Dirty Deeds Cyclocross Series in Melbourne ventured north to see how their Australian brethren to the north run ’cross races.

by Nick Cee

Professor Blakey and I convinced a slightly-willing friend to drive us to our way-too-early Saturday morning flight north to Sydney. We spent settling in and enjoying the wonderful warm Sydney sunshine by the beach. The next day we were picked up by a very helpful e-friend. Kits packed, bikes were loaded and the trip down to Wollongong (~2hrs south of Sydney) was underway.

It should be pointed out that for the past three to four months, it’s been very little but mud tires and controlled power out of corners down in Melbourne. Right from the word go, I suspected that I wasn’t going to need my WTB Crosswolfs up north. It was hovering around the high teens/low twenties (Celsius) and it had been a week or more since it rained.

Upon arriving at the venue, we were immediately impressed with the club’s use of available space. Like Dirty Deeds race #1, these guys had used all kinds of nooks and crannies around their velodrome, but in a very interesting way. We were quickly identified as “visitors” and heartily greeted. Everything short of the red carpet was rolled out to us and our “pit crew.”

Swooshy sand © Blakey

Swooshy sand © Professor Blakey

We quickly had our tires changed over ([cross nerd digression]Vittoria XG up front, my street tire in the back, in a gamble based on the dry course [/cross nerd digression]) and bikes set up thanks to our wonderful pit crew, then rolled out to check the course. The course featured a gravel start that quickly went to grass, a short, sharp uphill pitch around a tree and then back around past the start and over a double set of barriers, a tight u-turn into some trees and over a sand mound/pit. Then it was hrough a series of tight s-bends and then out over a longer, shallower sand pit, around a corner, and a slight uphill to a triple set of ankle-high barriers. From there it was back onto gravel then off down a quick piece of off-camber, root-covered singletrack that seemed to always spit me into a tree if I exited too quickly. Next it was on the gas along a gravel path to a log barrier, a quick u-turn section and back over the log. You then hauled out and back along the edge of the velodrome before hopping an oversized sewerage pipe, back along a gravel path before dropping into the velodrome and across the center (and some thick grass) before climbing up the wall and riding along the top edge around a good third of the track. What came next was probably my favorite part of the course, as the organizer had you turn 90-degrees and drop straight down the wall into the infield, turn right and then immediately hop a barrier. Blow you turn on that corner and you were spat straight into  the barrier. Riders then rode back around and across the velodrome, up the wall again and around some final gravel before crossing the start/finish. Check the photos for more visual evidence. Another thing that is very much worth noting is that the organizers had mown the race lines out of the grass, but there was a good meter or more of “rough” inside the tape in lots of places. This meant that if you overcooked corners, you had twice the effort to power back up as you went around. Riding smart lines was key.

A "natural" course feature? © Blakey

A "natural" course feature? Professor © Blakey

We managed to convince the organizers that, although we had flown up for the race, we actually weren’t that good and it was safe to put us in Division 2. As we lined up at the start with only one practice lap done – all that talking to new friends and prep/kitting up had killed any real warmup plans we had – I looked around and saw a lot of smiles and felt the normal butterflies in my stomach.

Then with little more than a “GO!” we were off… I had a decent start and found myself in third-ish place heading into the first set of barriers. A good transition and I was nipping at the heels of first, then I decided to make the same mistake as I had in my practice lap and missed a turn around a tree. Before I knew it, I was doubling back to get back on course and at the tail end of the field. Now, all the ’cross reading I’ve done repeats the same mantra in this situation: “Don’t stress, settle down quickly, focus on riding YOUR race, and let others make their mistakes.” So I hunkered down and focused on riding cleanly and smart and one-by-one picked off the racers in front of me.

I’m still new at all of this and am not afraid to admit that I’m a regular visitor to the “pain cave” during races, so I’m not sure which lap it was that I ended up hearing that I’d climbed back to a podium place. I do know that I was already aware that I should’ve learned bunnyhops before the race, as all the MTBers were hopping a few of the barriers and making up precious ground on me. This was good as it really kept me on my toes and made me focus on the areas I knew I could use my bike and gears to my advantage, notably the velodrome and gravel path.

Hoppable log barriers © Blakey

Hoppable log barriers © Professor Blakey

I then got locked into a pretty good battle with this teenager on a MTB behind me. He was definitely quicker on the singletrack/sand and was charging at the bunny-hoppable barriers, while I was giving everything I had at the gravel and velodrome sections to maintain a gap. It was about then I discovered that i could hit the drop-down turn on the track quite hot and skid-drift my rear wheel around the turn off of the track, washing speed off at the same time before the barrier. I guess all that time sliding around in the mud had paid off.

A little bobble on two remounts, then too much time in the rough through the grass turns, and I found myself with not only the pesky teenager slipping by me, but also fourth place, who had been hot on our wheels. The difference between defending a position and chasing feels like night and day and now I was staring at two back wheels.

I threw almost everything I had at the kid, trying to use my skinny-tired advantages while not blowing up, and snuck inside him on a sharp turn a lap or so later, then hit it hard to try and build a gap. Unfortunately while I focused on getting around the Junior MTBer, the guy who had previously been in fourth (on a flat-bar ’cross bike) built enough of a cushion that I could see him, but never quite get close enough to realistically launch an attack.

About this time I heard the MC announce the bell lap for the leader, and I realized the end was near. I put my head down and focused on using every lesson I’d learned on the course to build on my gap back to my challenger – upshift for the tight s-bends/hit the sand mound fast and loose/relax through the singletrack/power down on the gravel/shift up for the velodrome climb and then two shifts and punch it around the track banking.

The next thing I knew I was turning onto the last gravel/grass section. A quick jersey zipup and I crossed the line punching the air in third. High-fives from my support crew, then I took my traditional laydown on he ground as I was completely spent. I’m always useless for about five minutes after I cross the line as I try to regain the ability to speak.

My cohort Blakey was through in seventh a few minutes later, a great effort given he realized that he was overgeared a couple of laps in and had to fight an increasingly difficult gear through thick grass on his singlespeed as the race wore on.

Whilst thanking the organisers and swapping stories, it became apparent that there was no MC for the Div#1 race, and having noticed my verbosity, I was asked to take over the mic. Summoning up my “inner Brendan” – who is a Dirty Deeds co-organizer and MC of dubious humour, but exceptional stamina – I accepted, and the racers were soon off and powering around the course.

A great battle for the podium spots soon developed between several local riders and the winner of an earlier ICC ’cross race, who had now swapped his fat-tired ride for a sweet Yeti CX. Not being familiar with the riders, I decided to nickname most of the field and soon Harry Potter, Biscuit, Singlespeeder, Timbat, Johnny Cash, Sweet Pinarello, Bumblebee and the Frenchman were being cheered on by the crowd.

A couple of crashes, some mid-race antics (beer handups! sandwich ordering!), pain faces and a brilliant battle for first and second, and the Div#1 guys were done. Matt “Harry” Potter came through with two laps to go and took the victory from the until-then-clear leader, local Graeme “Biscuit” Arnott, with organizer Tim “Timbat’ Bateman in a solid third.

A quick trip to the podium to receive my winnings and thank the organizers and we were packing up and heading north with very tired legs, but the huge smiles on our faces that ’cross racing brings. It was awesome to see how other clubs put courses together and to meet some very friendly fellow ’cross junkies.

I learned some new tricks both for course design and also for racing, and made some new friends as well as a little money.

Wollongong CX Photo Gallery: