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The 12 Hour at Yarramundi was my first mountain bike race. I had been a spectator at many cross country and endurance events, watching elite riders and others many times, watching them as they carved down the switchbacks, flew over jumps, flowed around corners, those fit young men, making it look so easy.
My nephew was a mountain biker, so we would go to mountain bike races, to watch him. “You should get a mountain bike” my roadie friends said, “You could do it, you would be so good at it” they all chorused. And so I got my mountain bike. It looked too clean…
I took it out, to the forest behind my house, came back an hour later, feeling pleased, having negotiated a few mild bumps and gentle corners – getting the bike a little dusty - “this is easy, I’ll be right”, I thought. “We’re going for a mountain bike ride Meg, come with us” – they all asked me a week later. Off I went, on my new bike, met them at the bike shop, out to the bush, tentative at first, trying to figure out the gearing, but soon getting the hang of it. Hung in behind them, getting dropped a bit as they tore off down hills, and over rocks and creeks at great speeds (I thought) but slowly gathering confidence and surviving the ride – 3 hours later, I was happy. I had gone through puddles, got the bike dirty, held on up hills and not fallen off.
But this, I didn’t know, had been a mild track – mainly forest road and no single track at all. And so I felt mildly confident as I fronted up for my first mountain bike race – the 12 hour at Yarramundi, and only the third time I had even been on a mountain bike. I was in a team of four chicks – my roadie friends. I had ridden with these girls many times, on the road. I felt confident, strong, equal to them on the road, thinking that probably, after a little practice, this ability would transfer over to the mountain bike. I’d be fine I thought.
The days before the 12 Hour had been damp, making the sandy sections of the track firm, but the wet sections of the track, well, they were muddy. I was to be our second rider. The race began. Tarsh, our first team member tore away, doing the run and the first lap in what seemed like no time – she returned with a big smile on her face “that was great, perfect track, easy ride – I enjoyed that ” she beamed. That meant it was now my turn! Off I went. Trouble began on the first corner – these corners were tighter than I had ever ridden on and I hadn’t even left the tenting area. “Best if you stick to the track” one helpful observer commented as I wiggled my way around corner, loosing it and nearly ending up in his tent.
Swallowing my pride, I continued, going OK until a section of trees appeared where the track wound even more tightly in and out of a nest of trees. There is no way I can wind around these I thought (and this section I never did get on top of, for the whole race, resorting to just leaping off my bike at the appropriate times). After this, the track opened up a bit – “ahh, this is good” I thought as I relaxed and sped away. Down a track onto a rocky road, flying, feeling good, to the first rocky hill. Down a rider came in front of me, so of course, off I came, on top of him. “Sorry sorry” he repeated – “Oh that’s okay don’t worry, I am fine” I said, knowing this was his fault I had come off, not mine. Feeling superior, off I went again – up a hill. I’m OK at hills, do lots of hill work on the road bike. Down along the track further, around a bend, and then, the track just disappeared……. into the dark slippery undergrowth, disappearing around a corner. I stopped. I stared. There is no way I can go down there I thought. What am I going to do? And so I walked it. Slipping down the slope, around the corner, over a narrow slippery dark bridge, and up a little but steep rise the other side. “Is this what you have to do when you mountain bike?” I wondered a bit, trying not to let the apprehension I was beginning to feel take over too much and also being aware that riders might be behind me about to crash into me. Up the other side, onto the bike again, and to a notoriously rocky area which many riders cannot negotiate successfully ….but I didn’t know this then.
Still confident, feeling, “Just go at it Meg, you will be right” And so I did, driving straight into it, and of course, off I came, splat, right into the middle of the muddiest section of this rocky climb. This was also a popular viewing area; this is where the crashes occurred, and near to the tent sites, so a great opportunity for many spectators.
Standing over me as I struggled out of the mud was one of my club friends “You’ll be right Meg, just get up again, and stop breathing so heavily. Get you breath. Try to slow down” I tried to. But by now I was feeling a little bruised – my confidence mainly. Then the track became road again, and then onto the best part of the ride – winding, carving, between trees, generous curves, soil… firm….a joy. Few more corners, bumps, steep sections, feeling now, a bit scared, but refusing to give up, my heart rate way too high (I’ve only been riding for 40 minutes) but I made it, back to transition.
I was shell shocked. Is this what mountain biking is all about? Smiling, and trying to seem more confident than I felt, I joked “You said that would be easy” to my team mates “ I found that really difficult” but not actually saying to them, “I am not actually sure I can do this.” One and a half hours later, change of nicks, hot drink, something to eat, and relaxing, calmed me down and I started to re-a assemble my shattered confidence, and even began to look forward to my next lap.
This was going to be a double lap. My nephew had agreed to ride with me on one lap to help guide me, but he was no where to be seen, so off I set. I went well – still got off the bike for the tight corners, still got stuck on the rocky area, but feeling better this time. And then along came my first challenge – the steep dark slippery channel which wound over the little bridge and up the other side. “Just put your brakes on gently and slip down the slope Meg, you’ll be right” they had told me. And so with my heart in my mouth, I just did that. I entered the slope, slipping, sliding down, around the corner, onto the bridge and up the other side. I had made it. I had not fallen off.
I had not fallen into the creek. I was exhilarated. “I made it” I yelled out to anyone who wanted to hear me. But before long, up came my next challenge, the rocky hill area which had undid me on my last lap. This time, sensibly, I just did what many of the other riders did, I got off and walked it. My nephew met me just past this section – and so for the rest of the lap I followed him.
This was wonderful, taking some confidence from his skill, not having to think, bit like when you follow a skier down a slope, curving, sweeping, riding. I still got stuck on a tree, hit a rock, and managed to fall off two or three more times, but I felt happier. The following lap I was by myself again. I now had some idea of what I was in for. I steadied my pace, slowed down; it didn’t matter how slow I was really, I just had to get around the track, and began to get a feeling of what all this mountain bike riding was all about. I finished this lap much more happily. By now it was five in the afternoon so it meant my next lap would be a night lap. “I find night laps actually easier” they all said. “Because you can’t actually see all the rocks and bumpy bits, you just glide over them anyway” they all advised, not really calming my anxieties at all. “I’ll ride around with you for the night lap Meg” a friend offered. This relieved me.
So off we set. I felt tired, not so much from the riding, as my having my poor body battered from all my falls. But we had a lovely ride. The lights picking out the trees, the warm evening air, a single beam lighting the track, the quietness of the bush and the echo of voices in the night air. I was determined not to fall off again. I was not sure that my body could take another fall. Three quarters of the way around, we came to my favorite area, the easy area, but there, my tyre got stuck in a rut, and you guessed it, I came off. Ouch. Straight onto my poor bruised shoulder. But I had made it.
Back to transition, the lights, the people, the music. I had made it. I was a mountain bike rider. And you know what, we won our category – first in the four women team! Thanks to Tarsh, Jen, and Cathy, whose skill and speed made up for my slow laps, and to all those whose encouraging words did make a difference, and really were what kept me going….and I am planning many more mountain bike rides.
by Meg Patey