Matt Rousu was tasked with keeping an eye on Dan and Bec McConnell at the Otway Odyssey - and that's no easy task!
Words and photos: Matt Rousu
It’s 5pm on a balmy Friday afternoon, the sun is warm and the smell of salt water is in the air. I’m in Apollo Bay, VIC getting ready to photograph the Otway Odyssey mountain bike marathon up to Forrest, it’s regarded as one of the toughest 100km events in Australia. I’ve ended up on the doorstep of some of the most talented cyclists in the country and it’s a little frantic...
Bec and Dan McConnell are standing at the kitchen counter organising their nutrition for the race that kicks off in 14 hours time, bottles are sprawled out, coke cans and snake lollies are being loaded into bags. Friends Em and Karl are trying to start cooking dinner for 9 athletes and preparing to drive all the nutrition up to the feed zones, it’s a busy house to walk into.
Bec and Dan are as cool as cucumbers, they’ve prepared for a race or two, well with 5 Olympic Games, a World Cup win and multiple World level podiums between them you would think they’d be calm under pressure.
Usually the McConnells’ go to the races with a mechanic, a manager and all the little details are taken care of, it’s not the case here in Australia. Here they are just another racer like the 1500 other competitors at the Otway Odyssey. They wash their own bikes, change tyres and grips, mount their own number plates and figure out where to put the required first aid kit just like you or I would. As they are doing this we chat about bikes, Netflix, travel and covid restrictions, it’s a lovely afternoon and the vibe is relaxed.
Brendan ‘Trekky’ Johnston wanders over at one stage and notices Dan putting on new grips, he casually remarks “oh new grips hey?” I feel the slight cheekiness behind the comment, it’s more of a “I think you’ll need more than new grips to keep up with me tomorrow”. Trekky is probably right, as a 4 time National Marathon Champion and current National Road Series Champion he’s the hot favourite over the longer distance. Both Bec and Dan’s specialty is the shorter XCO format which is usually around the 25km mark, the mens and women’s field here at the Odyssey are stacked full of talent that specialise in the longer distance.
We chat a little more, take some bike photos and end the day with some carbo loading pasta. I head home after a couple of hours wondering how this super relaxed couple will fair in tomorrows epic. They are a big drawcard for the event and I’m sure Rapid Ascent are hoping for a fairytale.
The Otway Odyssey - race day for the McConnells
Saturday dawns cool and overcast, the magic sunrise start I was hoping for is a fizzer, instead I was stuck with a super dark morning (I’m talking 3200iso dark for the photo nerds). The Women’s field were the first to start at 7am followed by the Men at 7:30am, this created a problem for me as there’s an epic road climb with an ocean view that I want to capture but it gives me no time to get back to the start for the Men.
It’s a shame because it would have been amazing to see 500 riders speeding through Apollo Bay. I decided to chase the women up the climb (I had some insider info that Samara Sheppard was going to attack). It was an amazing spot to shoot and I’m glad I went up there for the women, the men all just rolled through together which was kind of boring in comparison.
This is when the fun began, the hunt was on... I’m not familiar with the terrain or the Otway Odyssey but I was given some advice from race director Sam Maffett of some locations to try and shoot. I ran back to the car and drove up the main road to try and leapfrog the women’s field, as I rolled into the next spot (about 25km into the race course) at 8:14am I was sure I’d beaten them but the marshal told me I was about 5 minutes to slow (F$@^). How had they ridden the first 25km (with 600m climbing) in just over an hour, obviously someone was pushing them hard. The marshal then told me there were two riders out the front followed by a small group. I wondered if Bec was one of the leaders, I didn’t have time to waste as the Men’s field would be coming through in moments at this rate.
It was an awesome spot to shoot, ferns overhanging both sides of a narrow fire road with a couple of sunlit highlights poking through, it felt like Jurassic Park. I was lucky to get see a few women come through (Neve Bradbury who suffered a flat) to get my exposure right (yes it was stupid dark again). Minutes later I could hear the waspy sound of 100 tyres flying along the road before entering into the dirt fern tunnel, the pace was ridiculous. Cam Ivory and Adrian Jackson leading the way and they were gone in seconds, Dan was sitting about 6th and looking like he was in the red zone.
Knowing that I missed Bec at my 2nd spot I decided to skip the feed zone at 40km and drive straight to the bottom of the famous Red Carpet descent. I pondered a couple of things as I hiked up the trail to find a good spot; would Bec be out the front? Had the men caught up to the women? Would this next spot please not be so dark... It turns out I found a nice green spot to wait and see. 20 minutes later Samara Sheppard came cruising into my view finder closely followed by Bec! They had a 1 minute buffer on Zoe Cuthbert and Karen Hill. Not much later the men came through, Dan sitting around 4th with all the big hitters close by.
It was only a short walk to my next location but the riders chewed off another 7km so I had time to snack (Plenty of nutrition required for me on these race days too). I ended up chatting with a man from South Africa who had decided to pull out of the race due to a broken brake lever and a very sore hip, he told me about all the amazing races they have in Africa (one where the feed zone was a full on Nando's) and I told him about all the top riders as they rode past (Bec now leading Samara and Dan now leading Sam Fox, AJ and Trekky), he had no idea who any of the top riders were but was super happy to be out here racing with a crew of friends. He was in a fair bit of pain so I drove him back to the event centre before heading to my next spot. I hope you’re feeling better Craig!
My next mission was to find some natural single track (I’d covered road, fire road, bike park and scenic). Singletrack doesn’t offer much opportunity to shoot lots, it’s tight and awkward and the forest is dense so you have to nail the shot first time every time. It can be super stressful to find a location and get the correct exposure (the first rider you see is going to be the leader). I also try to find a spot that will suit a wide lens and a zoom lens. Every rider deserves their own unique creative shot so the more diversity in your location the better. I was lucky to stumble upon some awesome grass trees that are very cool to shoot around, another advantage of this spot was the distance between Bec and Dan, only about 10 minutes (Sam now leading Dan and Bec with a 45 second lead on Samara) giving me plenty of opportunity to drive to one more location before the finish.
At my final spot Dan had ridden away from Sam and Bec had ridden away from Samara, with about 12km to race it was clear to me they would both win so I hustled back to the finish line. Sam Maffett (the race organiser) was there to greet me and was glad I’d had a successful day, I told him that Both Bec and Dan were out front he mentioned “its a good story for you and great publicity for me, haha”.
Not to long later Dan rolled in with a big fist pump, he knew that this was a big win and told me that “Sam had me on the ropes at one stage but I think we were just both in the red”. Blood on his arm and nose indicated at a tough day in the office; “man that’s just a killer race” he told me. 20 minutes later Bec would roll in to complete the story, waving to the crowd as she crossed the line. The first person she saw was Dan and her first question was “How’d you go?” They both started laughing. A perfect day for the McConnells.
After all the interviews and podium photos, a woman came up to the successful couple to ask if her daughter could have a photo with them (the daughter was too scared to ask), of course they obliged. After the photo was taken the young girl burst into tears exclaiming that Bec was her hero and she couldn’t believe she was here. Bec said “Look I’m all sweaty but can I give you a hug?”
That’s the moment I realised that Bec and Dan McConnell aren’t like you and me, they aren’t just mountain bike racers. They’ve put in the hard work to get to the top of our sport and have stayed humble, fun and approachable. They may have to put their own number plates on like us but they are the ones who inspire us to put a number plate on in the first place.