There are few things more fun than mountain biking with your mates. This is what followed the text message “3 Ring Circus is $46 each!”.
An hour later entries were entered, payments paid and each of the three ‘rings’ allocated to riders.
It’s probably useful to explain that the 3 Ring Circus is a mountain biking race in the picturesque Southern Highlands, run by the masters of event atmosphere, Wild Horizons. We would be racing the teams event, and Jamie Sell, another of our Ride 365 clan, would be racing solo. The event is near Jamie’s hometown, so he was great for pre-event advice.
Wild Horizons events are notable for their as-competitive-as-you-like attitude to racing and relaxed entertaining off the bike feel. Everyone is always made to feel welcome and the multiple fire pits dotted around the event centre certainly added to the atmosphere!
With the rain and cold of late in Canberra, our preparation largely consisted of road riding and lengthy conversations where Nate and I were alternately targeted for (not entirely undeserving) harsh comments about our lack of MTB skill.
While these events attract some of the fastest folks around, we gave ourselves a fair chance of not being embarrassed. With national level experience, Sam is a force on the MTB, Nate is our secret weapon, being an NRS rider, his super quick pace should transfer from the road bike and see him slam the 6km start loop. As for me, I can drive a car and get the team to the race – and hopefully the time on the bike over the past 12 months means I can be useful on the 19km fire road.
This plan held until Sam took Nate on a lunchtime MTB where Nate busted out his old BMX skills, and then busted his helmet. No sooner had he walked a bruised and dirty Nate through the door, Sam announced a change to the line-up. Nate was quick, he’d be riding the 19km fire road section and I was humbly relegated to riding 6km. Nate grinned – although his vacant stare suggested it was likely more due to concussion than any recognition of praise.
Race day arrived, and by 5:20am we were in the X-Trail heading down the Federal Highway. A quick stop for banana bread in front of the warm fire at the Trappers Bakery in Goulbourn ensured we were 100% ready for the race ahead.
Navigator Nate announced we should head to the middle of the forest and find our way from there. Completely discounting his Hansel & Gretel approach, some debate resulted. Having been threatened with the loss of responsibility for navigation (and possibly a seat in the car on the way home), Nate relented and searched for a more specific location. Soon I was forced to eat my words - the middle-of-the-forest location upon which Nate had stumbled happened to be the event-centre for the race. Fortunately the bag of mars-bar pods we picked up in Goulburn made my words much easier to stomach.
The event centre was buzzing, people having breakfast at their campsites, people registering, and loads of mountain bikers catching up with friends. We did the rego thing, dropped our bags in a pile and headed out for a warm-up spin.
Soon it was time to head to the start chute. Sam had been telling me all week that I could hold the fast wheels, I just needed to position at the front. So position at the front I did – or at least thought I did… In an event this size you feel a long way forward in the first 3 or four rows – although once things kick off and the mud starts flying, you realise where you should have been.
My 6 k’s went by in a blur (I’d like to say flash, but that has an inference of speed to which I have no claim). We were either climbing or descending on the fire-road, the wind was brutal, and the only time I stopped pushing was about the 5k mark, just over the top of a climb, having gone too hard and briefly popped. HR under control again I was able to breath and push to the transition.
Getting into transition had the relief of a job done, and seeing Sam sprint out of the blocks with a smile on his face was a great reminder (not that one was needed) of why we were there.
Nate walked me back to our spot under the trees. Being super supportive and encouraging as always, he told me I’d ridden really well - we were the first of the teams into transition. Subsequently, possibly concerned that I may become over confident with this praise, then smiled and recounted a brief interview Sam had with the event ringleader, broadcast across the event centre from transition – “Yeah, we are really disappointed with our lead-out rider, I’d been telling him to get a good start position all week and he’s let us down a bit…” This just about killed me, Nate got me in the middle of a coughing fit and adding uncontrollable laughter to the mix just about wiped me out!
Sam rode as the champion we know he is – taking on the technical stuff with ease. It takes guts to race unfamiliar singletrack and just trust the trail builders and race organisers – the more I ride with Sam the more I appreciate this skill. Sam passed some and was passed back on a couple of occasions (he was amazed by the single speeder that passed him climbing up one of the longer hills) – with not much time on the MTB lately he maintained our overall position (remember who set this position up… anyone…?), with only one team sneaking past to take the lead in the teams race.Meanwhile, back at the bat-cave, Nate had completed his warm-up and we headed over to transition. This is where I had the opportunity to witness Nate’s racing experience and professionalism. Nate went from moderately nervous not MTBer to relaxed and focussed elite cyclist in the blink of an eye, only becoming more relaxed as his start got closer – I love seeing capable people do what they do best, and Nate was in his element.
When it was announced that the first team’s rider was coming back into transition Nate quietly asked me to start a stopwatch. He talked me though his race plan and when Sam was spotted, asked me for the split. Sam tore into transition and Nate powered out.
Having completed a cool down spin, it was Sam’s turn to collapse in a heap at our treed spot. Sam recounted what was going through his head at different points of the trail, and I could tell that despite the distraction of not feeling near 100% he had given it everything (I should have mentioned that Sam had spent the last half of the week sick and had raced still recovering). Sausage sandwiches and chomp bars followed as we awaited Nate’s return.
The 19k section suited Nate to a tee. Heaps of climbing, managing high winds and grinding it out on the fire road. Nate later recounted how he’d set his targets to reel in the competition, made sure he accelerated when passing to ensure riders couldn’t easily hold his wheel, and kept just a bit in reserve if needed to hold a fast wheel – I’m looking forward to trying to put some of this into practice!
First through the finish was Tristan Ward, a super quick MTB rider from team Torq. Not long after this came Ride 365 solo rider Jamie Sell. Jamie set a super pace all race and finished with a great 7th overall.
Sam and I watched a number of riders flying home, knowing Nate wouldn’t be too far behind. We caught up with Jamie and his dad. Jamie’s brother Josh, a great mechanic, worked with us at Ride 365 before fulfilling his goal of joining the army. It was great to hear that Josh was not just surviving, but doing really well and enjoying himself!
Suddenly Nate appeared at the top of the fire road, powered down the hill and across the line. Nate had reeled in our competition and put minutes between us! Not only that, he recorded the second fastest time overall on his section!
We packed the car and caught up with everyone we knew while waiting for presentations – so many great performances on the day. By 3:00 we were on the road heading back to Canberra (via Maccas Goulburn of course for the recovery food of champions).
Riding with these guys on a wintery Sunday in July will go down as a real cycling highlight for me. If you get the chance, grab a couple of mates and give a race like this a go – so much fun to be had!