The latest rounds of the MTBA National XCO Series headed to Nerang, QLD. And riders from New Zealand showed the Australian elite how it is done.
Images: Mike Blewitt, Colin Levitch
Australia's National Cross Cross-Country (XCO) Series goes marching on in 2018, and round 3 and 4 were the second double-header of the series, landing at Nerang on Queensland's Gold Coast.
Round 3 had special interest as not only was it a test event for the 2018 Commonwealth Games course, but it was also the final selection race for the Commonwealth Games team as laid out in selection criteria. This also meant there was a strong influx of riders from New Zealand, keen to get eyes on the Commonwealth Games course, and no doubt put in final performances for their own selectors.
The course in Nerang is a mixed bag, using trails built specifically for the Commonwealth Games. Unlike other world-level courses in Australia (such as in Smithfield and at Mt Stromlo) the technical difficulties tend to be on the climbs, not the descents. As such, there are no true A and B lines. Instead, it's more of a case of ride or walk – and that's something many racers were making decisions on in practice, understanding that in the heat of the moment, nailing the perfect line would be difficult.
The heat is on
And there was plenty of heat in the moment. Queensland is the Sunshine State, and there is a reason most people ride early, 5am starts aren't unusual. While it might be hotter in other states, it's the humidity as well that really conspires against you. Queensland has been in a heatwave, and with temperatures looking to exceed 35 degrees on the weekend, the heat would always be a factor.
In Saturday's race, it was clear that the toll from the course and the heat was taking a toll as the Junior categories were on course. The tech/feed zone was awash with young riders coming in with flat tyres from rock gardens, and then with riders stopping, unable to cool down. One rider even fainted on their bike and crashed. These races started at 8:30am.
At 10:30am, all the women's races started, with Elite women leading them out. With a field that included the likes of Series leader and Oceania Champion Samara Sheppard, National Champion Bec McConnell, Eliminator World Champ Katrin Stirnemann, New Zealand's Kate Fluker, and various state XCO Champions – it was a small but strong field of 12.
There were bags of ice on faces, stockings of ice down backs, and umbrellas aplenty in the start chute.
With a strong start by Sheppard, McConnell (nee Henderson), Stirnemann and Fluker, the rest of the field were in hot pursuit, with Harris and Smythe right on the heels of the leading quartet. But soon, the course and the heat played a roll. Riders were hot, flustered, and gaps were increasing.