The Australian National Championships are done for another year. While I’ve raced both DH and XC in previous years, this year’s schedule didn’t allow me to race both disciplines. So, I decided I would have a more serious crack at the XC race this year and continue training and building a base for the upcoming Enduro season. Regardless of how the race turned out, my main training goals would be achieved. My preparation has been really good, I haven’t cut any corners and I know I’m the fittest I’ve ever been. With that in mind, I would still be pretty disappointed if the race didn’t go well.
This year’s National Champs were held in the small alpine town of Bright in Victoria. Bright is a nice little town with a really cool vibe and atmosphere; it was a perfect spot to spend a week of riding and racing bikes. I arrived a day early to settle in and enjoy the week by relaxing and avoiding the typical pre-race rushing and stressing. The Polar Bear Hughes came with me to keep my bike dialed and give me one less thing to worry about during the week.
Wednesday - I checked out the course and wanted to do a fair bit of riding. The first EWS round is 5 weeks away and I have to keep on top of some quality training. While I was taking an easy week to make sure I was fresh for racing, I didn’t want to take it too easy and lose focus of my EWS aspirations. The XC course was definitely one for the climbers, which isn’t ideal for me. I know my ability to climb and recover has gotten better over the past months’ training, so I wasn’t too stressed. Longer climbs mean longer descents and there were a couple short sections on the descents where I could take some time from the rest of the field. So, I did five laps of the course, put in a couple solid climbs to get the heart rate going a little bit, and then a bit of a spin on the nice quiet country roads for about an hour. It was so nice to just cruise along and have some time to think about things. There wasn’t too much else going on this day, just relaxing and keeping the feet up
Thursday - More of the same from Wednesday…pretty boring stuff really. Haha! Did two more laps of the course, and a solid road spin to take advantage of the scenery on the roads. A pretty easy day all around.
Friday - The day before the XC race and I started getting a little nervous. I wasn’t nervous for the race itself, but I was nervous because it felt like a culmination of five months of my life and the goals I had set for myself. As a competitor, you can’t help but start thinking about how the race would play out and how you wanted to go about your own race. I suppose I was just really keen to have a solid race and show people what I was capable of. It was also a good opportunity to fine-tune some prerace preparation type stuff that I would normally do at the EWS races… tick all the boxes and get into the swing of doing the prerace rituals again. I stayed off the course, but did a few punchy efforts out on the road to make sure I was firing on all cylinders and that the body was awake for tomorrow’s racing.
Saturday - XC Race Day. As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, I don’t get all worked up on race days like I did when I was young. I’m still eager and ready to go, but I don’t get that feeling like my life depends on that one race. I ride my best when I’m a little nervous, but with the knowledge that I have good races and bad races and that I can learn from the bad and move on.
I did a bit of a warm up spin in the morning and everything was feeling good. In my head, I went through my checklist and felt like I had done all I could do to that point, and was keen to get the race underway!
It was nice to race a little earlier than we normally do at National Series rounds, but the 12:30pm start meant we would be racing in the hottest part of the day.
Before I knew it, I was on the start line and we were off on a short road start loop. I had heard reports from earlier races that the road loop could get a little crazy, and I knew I had to get to the front and stay out of trouble. The other part of my plan was to go out easier than I had at previous rounds and ride my own race. While XC is a sport for pure endurance athletes, I know that I don’t really fit into that category. My main strength and training for the past 18 months has been based around going hard for 5-20 minutes. I intended to go out easy on the first lap and build into the race to avoid leaving myself with no legs in the last couple laps of the race.
As we descended into the first singletrack section, I made my way to the lead and started to cruise. I felt like I was soft-pedaling the first lap, and was surprised to see the field spreading out as we got towards the top of the course on Lap 1. From there, I knew that we should be in for a good race. Dan McConnell was sitting right with me and put in a bit of an attack about half way up the climb on Lap 2. I knew I could have gone with him, but I decided to let him go. I had a plan to ride my own race and do what I had to do to get myself from the start line to the finish line in the shortest possible time. Dan got a small gap of around 10 seconds and it stayed around that mark until the 4th lap. The mid part of the race was uneventful and I kept to my plan; I felt good and my laps times were staying all within 10 seconds of each other. I kept Dan in sight, but he had better climbing legs and slowly extended his gap. With each lap, I pulled about 30 seconds ahead of the chasing riders in 3rd, and (barring a mechanical) knew a top 2 position was sorted. On the last lap, I picked up the pace a bit and gave it all I had left to finish in 2nd place a little over a minute behind Dan. Dan’s just too strong on the climbs for me, but I’m looking forward to progressing and hopefully having some good battles with him next year. I know I have a lot of room for improvement left in me, so we’ll see how it goes!
Sunday - XC Eliminator. I have to admit that I’m not really a fan of XCE. I probably feel that way because it is the discipline that the UCI replaced 4X with, but I also know that it’s a race discipline that suits me perfectly. Having never raced it, I thought it would be fun to have a go at it. Australian Paul Van Der Ploeg is the current World Champ in the discipline and I was hoping to get to race him, but he’s recovering from a shoulder injury and did not start on race day.
The track was 800 meters long and took about 90 seconds to complete. It was a fun track with a few good turns, a quick pump single track bit, and a long road sprint to the finish. During qualifying, I came in fastest by almost 4 seconds and was feeling confident knowing I was more of a sprinter than any of the other guys in the field. As the rounds progressed, I stuck to my plan of getting to the front and staying there. I was able to take it pretty easy and keep my legs fresh right up until the Final. In the Final, I did the same thing…got to the front and went as hard as I could. I opened a good gap and started sprinting to the finish and everyone behind sat up and settled for their positions. So, with that, I am now the National XC Eliminator Champion. Sweet! I’ll take it!
It’s been a tough, but rewarding last few months and I feel more ready than ever for what I want to achieve this coming season. I can’t wait to get home this afternoon and jump straight onto the SB66 and start putting the next step of my year’s plan into action. The tough part is making myself get the recovery time in and not riding too much! So, I have about three and a half weeks at home to fine tune a few things on the enduro bike before heading off to the US for a quick team camp and then straight to Chile for EWS #1. OOOOOHHHHH…getting excited!
- Jared Graves