The red centre of Australia holds some of the best trials on the continent - and as Imogen Smith states, it truly is a mountain bike wonderland.
Words: Imogen Smith
Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith
By now, most mountain bikers in Australia have at least heard of Alice Springs’ magnificent network of hand-built trails. Given that they take you deep into the desert, AMB reckons the best way to experience Alice is in an event, when bunting, arrows, and feed stations take at least some of the mystery out of navigating an endless maze of scorching flow. Imogen Smith gives the low-down on racing Easter in the Alice, a three-day, four-stage race with, at around $100 bucks, arguably the lowest entry fees of any multi-day MTB event in the world.
Stage One – The Bunny Buster
Easter in the Alice is the only stage race I’ve ever known to incorporate a top-level XCM event, and this year stage one’s ‘Bunny Buster’, a 90-kilometre romp through desert singletrack, doubled as the second round of the National XCM Series. Doubling up is a clever strategy that attracts top riders who, invariably, stay to complete the stage race and bring a bit of star power to the event. It’s only fair to those contending the XCM series, that the long stage be first up – this prevents giving any advantage to riders who might choose only to contest a single day – the downside is that from then on, all Easter in the Alice riders are racing with the sting of 90 clicks of desert slog in their legs – and the desert has a special kind of sting all its own.
This stage, like other years, starts just after dawn at 6:30am – sensible, because temperatures rose to the mid-thirties before the sun had even got out of our eyes. One thing the Territory is yet to master is ‘neutral’ starts, and Andy Blair went extra hard to score a sweet sit behind the lead out car, which sped up the highway at about 50km an hour. It was soon over though, and we hit the dirt at speed, sliding and kicking up bulldust into the dull morning light, so that riding in deep ruts of dust and sand behind a line of speeding racers became an act of blind faith more than fitness or skill. Before too long we hit the rough, undulating fireroads that turned us back east and into the rising sun which sat at eye level and burned red and gold shapes onto our retinas. I squinted, I pulled my helmet down over my eyebrows, but still struggled to see until finally the sun had risen high enough to start burning triangles on my forehead through my helmet vents.
Once the sun was out of our eyes it set about warming the atmosphere, and by about the second hour of the race the air swelled and enveloped riders in burning, scratching desert heat. Up the front of the race Ben Gooley, the Alice Springs local, had Blair in his sights when he hit one of the trail network’s 100,000,000,000 sharp rocks on just the wrong angle and flatted, taking his time to make the repair. Blair stretched out his lead to win the day in an incredible 3 hours 50, but admitted that towards the end of the race, in spite of going through about eight bottles of fluid, he was feeling the sun’s sting.
Youthful Luke Pankhurst – who is just sixteen – took up Gooley’s role as the chasing Alice local, and was happy to finish ten minutes off Blair, while Jeff Rubach came in third. In spite of making a lot of mistakes in my race, I managed a win over Briony Mattocks and retired to the pool.
Stage two: The hill
Everyone expects the desert in central Australia to be flat, but Alice is actually dominated by the red, towering, bent East and West ‘Macs’, and ‘the hill’ we were riding up on day two, Mt Gillen, is just one peak of the West MacDonnell ranges. Everyone arriving at Alice Springs airport has driven right past Mt Gillen on their way to town, it’s just to the left as you pass through the gap.
According to the Dreamtime story, giant caterpillars created the landscape surrounding Alice Springs and became the East and West MacDonnell ranges. The day before the Mt Gillen ascent I had accidentally ridden over a line of marching fuzzy caterpillars on the bike path and wondered if I had squandered my chances of a good race.
The hillclimb stage is new to Easter in the Alice, which has previously held an hour-long individual time trial over the flowy trails just east of race central, Lasseters Hotel. Never intimidated by a challenge, race organiser John Pyper is determined to introduce as many different types of riding as he can into his event, so moved heaven and earth to get his hands on the key that unlocks the gate at the bottom of the rough tar climb to the peak.
A long time before riders arrived in Alice, rumours began circulating about the hill itself. Locals fuelled the fire, posting Strava files and spreading the word that its gradients kicked up to over 30%, and on an especially hot day the tar can slide right back down to the gate. I wondered what gearing to run… on a 29er, I usually use a 32-tooth chain ring with an 11–40 cassette… should I throw a 30-tooth on instead? On one hand, it was steep, on the other, the climb was ‘on-road’ and we’d be pretty tired. I left the 32-tooth.
I’ve done hillclimbs in stage races before where people have transformed their bikes: stripping spares, changing wheels, and chucking bottles – all of which are reasonable measures when your race starts at the bottom and ends at the top. Unfortunately for anyone looking for marginal gains on Mt Gillen, the race started seven very rough, very rocky, and very risky kilometres from the bottom.
After a neutral roll to race start somewhere near the town dump, the field set off at breakneck speed, the elite riders looking for any advantage before the base of the climb. Andy Blair found his moment when the rider behind him had to unclip and never looked back, reaching the top of Mt Gillen with barely a competitor in sight. In spite of a dropped chain in the rough stuff before the climb, which prompted some dreadful language, I knew if I could get to the climb first things would probably be okay. Once I was there, I switched the burners off and just mashed the pedals until it was over. First man and woman across the line on the hill earned a $1,000 bonus… the Mt Gillen hill climb was my favourite stage.
And the hill? Well, it was steep – really, really steep. So steep that if you put a witch’s hat there for traffic control it would probably fall over. So steep that spectators – and there were plenty of those, many in drag or dressed as superheroes – strained their ankles, one foot on tiptoe, just to stand still. Over two kilometres, vicious ramps of yes, over 30% gradient forced many riders off their bikes, although, mercifully, the steepest parts were done with by the time the finish line finally appeared in sight.
But at the top riders were rewarded with Alice’s least seen tourist attraction – spectacular views over the entire town and the desert stretching for hundreds of red, undulating miles before disappearing under a cobalt horizon. The town’s communications towers sit at the top of Mt Gillen – that’s why the road up is tarred – so access is prohibited. Riders spent time taking selfies and soaking in a vista that was unlocked just once, and just for them.
Stage three – Mad-maxing the golf course
Race organiser John Pyper hadn’t just worked magic on the town’s utilities managers – he’d also sweet-talked the owners of the golf course into letting a couple of hundred maddened, blinded, tired, and desperate bike riders rip up the ‘greens’ around one of the town’s prized recreational facilities. After a day spent lazing poolside at Lasseters we hauled ourselves back into our lycra and headed to the start line right outside.
Popular last year, Easter in the Alice’s night stage is probably the best night-time format I’ve ever seen. Starting just after dark, riders switch on their highbeams and get unleashed on a combination of bulldust, sand, and hardpack – although which surface lies where is anybody’s guess – night lights, no matter how powerful, simply aren’t capable of picking up the texture of dirt as we see it in daylight…
The result is absolute carnage at warp speed and, at the start at least – total whiteout thanks to the tonnes of dust kicked up. I was lucky enough to stay in one of the rooms at Lasseters Hotel overlooking the golf course this year and the morning after the night stage I walked out onto my balcony and the air still smelled, unmistakably, of bulldust. Packs form, attacks are launched, poor lines are chosen and generally, people also crash. After a furious ten kilometres, completed in around 15 minutes by the elite field (that’s 30km an hour), the race is over. Andy Blair continued his unstoppable form to win the night this year, with brothers Jeff and Daniel Rubach just a handful of seconds behind. I escaped to win the women’s field over Briony Mattocks. Soon the dust settled, and riders were left to wander into the hotel for dinner, then later to deal with enough adrenaline to see them through 300 skydives during what was for many a sleepless night before the fourth and final stage the next morning.
Stage four – The warm-down
By now it was Easter Monday. Some of the elite riders had abstained from eating chocolate eggs all weekend and everyone was hurting, so it was time for some fun. Problem was, this year the final stage of Lasseters Easter in the Alice race rolled out onto searing desert heat. Easter came early this year, and the desert is always going to be hot. Unperturbed, we all pedalled down Alice’s main bike path next to the Todd River, each with a set of fluffy bunny ears attached to our helmets, a complementary gift in our race packs provided for the express purpose of lightening the mood on this the final day of racing.
For many elite riders, places had pretty much been decided (barring mechanicals and crashes), so everyone was happy to chill out at the Telegraph Station (the focal point of Alice’s trail network) before race start. Some locals were cooking pancakes on a barbeque and handing them around. People sat on the grass and played with their kids. The sun rose and everything got hotter, but the locals didn’t seem to notice.
While the bunny ears did make a spectacle of competitors, this clearly wasn’t enough for the course-setters, who sent two hundred racers careening into the deep sand of the dry Todd River from the gun. Before long we were all off and running, save for a couple of elite men who managed to push through the dragging sand. Apart from a couple more crossings of the Todd, stage four really is all about fun. It’s a sampler of the town’s smoothest, flowiest, fastest singletrack and, in spite of the heat, the three or four hours it took most riders to complete it went by reasonably fast. The temperature shot up to 42 degrees out there in the desert, but not one rider got into trouble, mostly because of the careful attention from volunteers at the feed zones and at the finish line, where riders were handed cold water and ice to cool down. This day suited a local, and Ben Gooley snuck away from the charging Andy Blair to steal a stage win for his home town. Blair crossed the line a few minutes later in second, holding onto his overall win, while I grovelled through nausea and general malaise to win the day and take out the women’s GC.
The only thing left to do was pack the bikes and attend the after party, where locals dressed up nicely and out-of-towners bought drinks for them. I first attended a community, club-run stage race in Alice Springs over ten years ago, and every time I go back I’m thrilled that the welcome’s still as warm as the desert. When I ask John Pyper, the man behind Easter in the Alice about it, he’s clearly pretty passionate, saying ‘there are plenty of dusty and rocky trails on the planet but no others are in the shadows of the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges, no others have an ancient normally dry river meandering through the middle, and none are as welcoming as the ones in Central Australia. The trails are amazing but the local hospitality is like nothing else anywhere in the world.’ I’d have to agree, and for as long as they keep putting on races, I’ll keep going back.
Where to stay: Lasseters Hotel and Casino is an ideal base –it’s race central, has plenty of places to eat and a luxurious pool for recovery.
Don’t forget: Tough tyres, plenty of water bottles and a hydration pack, moisturiser, your darkest sunglasses, and a bike lock – no need to hire a car.
Hot tips for desert riding: Concentrate hard to avoid the sharpest rocks, stick to the trails, watch for course markings and drink plenty of fluid.
Easter in the Alice: Look out for earlybird entries in late 2016, and book flights early to save some cash: easterinthealice.com
Imogen Smith was a guest of Tourism NT while in Alice Springs.