The Convict 100 is a classic marathon race near Sydney - and it just celebrated its 15th birthday.
About 9 years ago, it was the hey day of marathon mountain biking in Australia. The Highland Fling would sell out on the day entries opened, thousands of riders would flock to Forrest for the Otway Odyssey, and riders who loved the Convict 100 would travel to Woodend for the Wombat 100 sister event. Just about every event promoter would put on a marathon, some were great. Some were small, others were big. Some have stood the test of time and some haven't.
The Convict 100 still stands strong and harks back to the glory days of marathon mountain biking. It is one long loop, where you only see the township of St Albans at the start and the finish. No laps, no clover leaf format. It's harder for organisers, competitors and anyone wanting to take photos or cover the action. But without a doubt it is a way better experience for the people that matter - the riders.
A marathon race can be taken as seriously as you want. The men and women who win some of the marathon events in Australia are truly world-class, but it doesn't mean you have to be. A marathon race is about an adventure, a long journey and a personal challenge. And it's one heck of a challenge completing one big loop, whether it's 44km, 68km or 100km which are the options the Convict 100 offers. Doing laps to make up those distances just isn't the same experience - it doesn't let you take yourself way out from where you started, with your way of getting back completely reliant on you getting yourself there (ok, they have medics and course marshalls but you get the point!).
And that experience can be lost in some modern marathon races where 3 laps (or even 5) are used to make up a race distance. The Convict 100 stands as a unique race, and even though I have competed in it abouy 7 times now it still brings new challenges each time.
Lining up for the Convict 100
With three distances now on offer, the appeal for the Convict is a little broader than when if there was only one option. You don't quite see that if you tackle the 100km event as you line up before many riders in the shorter events have even arrived.
Since 2015 the race route has run in reverse, starting with a river crossing a few kilometres in, before the long climb up Jacks Track and along the ridgeline, before descending to the infamous Kayak Bridge.
While it's easy to swear at your bike, the hill, that annoying click on someone's bike and the race organisers while climbing Jacks Track, the effort is repaid tenfold when along the ridgeline you see down into the MacDonald Valley below, as light fog from the autumnal morning clears. The front of the race didn't stop for photos but I can guarantee you riders further back did. The Convict 100 is a bike race for some, but for others it's an organised adventure and a weekend escape.
The descent down to the river is a welcome change, before blasting along the road to the kayak bridge.
In previous years it has been two planks wide, in others 4 - the organisers have settled on 3 planks which is a nice middle ground. They're metal and have a raised edge, so with tyres wet from crossing a farmer's field it's not quite like riding along a footpath. There's a little more at stake.
Those tackling the 44km route take a left and aim towards St Albans. For the rest, we take a right and aim at Sheppards Gully. Once strewn with loose rock, moss and erosion gullies, it's nearly a motorway now. But the upshot of that is that Parks have formalised one of the other trails that ascends the ridge. While the formations could be seen across the gully previously, it's now a formalised trail.
Once on the ridge, things get a little harder, as you tackle the Old Northern Road - or the Convict Trail. While it would once see horse and cart navigate it, now it's rough and covered with natural rock steps on the sandstone ledges that typify the region. Add some slippery sections thanks to recent rain, and at race pace things become pretty technical.
Once on the Western Commission track it's easy going again, before the junction where the 68km course takes a left and the 100km riders descend past Wat Buddha and 'cross' Clares Bridge. The bridge has no spans - so you don't really cross it.
You're a long way out at this point, and at about the halfway mark. You're faced with a climb out of a gully and more broken up old double track with a lot more rock to come. And then there were the branches. The 100km riders got a flogging on their arms, legs and faces on some sections that were a little more overgrown. Nothing like what a Convict might have experienced on the receiving end of a Cat'o'Nine Tails, but in a first world modern way it is somehow similar.
Once out of the rougher section, potentially doing better or worse than you were when enteringm the final 30km looms. According to 2016 winner Imogen Smith, it's like death by 1000 cuts. There are climbs, then descents, then another climb - for about 15km.
You work your way back along the ridgeline, in this case in the warm autumn sun. Your race face edges towards a friendly grimace, and those you tried to ride away from earlier in the day are now a welcome sounding board for exhaultations on how good mountain biking is, and potentially the supplier of another gel or energy bar if you're flagging.
The slight downhill to the final descent starts, and you judge your prowess down a loose firetrail compared to your fellow survivers. Do you take the lead to keep an eye on things, or follow them for a better line?
At the bottom you regroup, power along the farm trail and rejoin the course where there is a steady stream of riders finishing the 44km and 68km event. You join in, you pass some, and you collect others. Glances pass around your small group before a final alliance is silently formed and you dispatch the hangers on.
You fly past the eMTB racers who are limited to a sensible 25km/h, as you start to wind out your top gear at 40km/h. You kake the turn onto the final stretch of road and wonder if you have what you need for the last 8km?
The end seems close but it isn't. One turn after another, a corner that looks familiar but isn't, until you realise that you can just trust your GPS, as all marked distances have been accurate anyway.
The end is in sight and one of your fellow riders is now an arch enemy again and they launch an attack! You shift, you sprint, you leave it too late but you cross the line in high spirits but with a briefly deflated sense of self-worth.
The true Convict 100
Even if you have been locked in a tight battle while racing between the tape, finishing in St Albans immediately removes you from the pressure cooker that racing can be. Even people riding for fun turn it on in the closing kilometres, but once over the line it's back slaps and tall tales - and beer tokens to go and receive a free beer.
Brendan Johnston went to the line with Jon Odams and came out on top as Andrew Blair rounded out the podium.
In women's, Briony Mattocks put a master race plan together to win the women's race and set a new course record, as Imogen Smith came 2nd and Em Viotto was 3rd.
But podiums were by the by, and took place as over a thousand mountain bikers sat around on the grass, ordered food from the pub or vendors and talked about their day, their preparation and their goals for next year. No one complained about course traffic, no one found the last lap too hard, no one grumbled.
The Convict 100 doesn't have singletrack, it doesn't have a single berm, gap jump or flow trail. But it's a bloody good day out on your mountain bike.
Photos: Outer Image and Mike Blewitt