The Flight Centre Epic has established itself as South East Queensland’s must do MTB event. It has grown in to a 2 day event, encompassing kids races, cyclo cross, a 50km race, and the main event, the 87k Epic. While the event draws a strong contingent of interstate riders to chasing the significant prize money on offer, for many participants it is their first ever MTB event, and all effectively in the same race. With over 2000 competitors across the weekend, this was the biggest Epic ever.
This was my 3rd attempt at Epic and was quietly confident of a good result in the Single Speed category after finishing 2nd last year. [pull_quote_center]Conditions were looking great, although perhaps a little warm.[/pull_quote_center] The “specialty” categories and teams started dead last, and after a little bit of a slow start due to lining up a bit too far from the front, and trying to get my Garmin started (after it powered down automatically while waiting). I didn’t know at the time, but I was in 3rd for about 5k. I could see one single speeder (Chris Lusty) in front of me, and I worked hard to catch him up, and metre by metre I did. On the first descent, while bouncing through some rough stuff, I lost one of my two water bottles. I was now on fluid rations for 50k of tough dirt riding in 30+ degrees.
When we got out to the first bitumen section, I worked with Chris to catch the only Single Speeder he knew was ahead of us. We managed to catch him before we hit dirt again, and on the first climb I was able to get to the front and I fairly confident we were in 1st, but since I was down to 1 bottle, I paced myself. Back on the flat Chis and I worked together again and could no longer see the 3rd rider behind us. The long bitumen drag to Mulgowie saw us trying to latch on to the packs of geared riders as they flew by. Spinning like crazy, I could feel a few muscles starting to protest, and a moment of inattentiveness, and I let Chris get away, and I suspected he had taller gearing than me. I was able to jump on the back of a pack of geared riders, and not get left too far behind. When we turned on to the dirt road leading towards the iconic climb that defines the current version of the Epic, I could see Chris just ahead. When the road turned skyward, I was able to catch up fairly quickly.
The first part of this climb is a lot of fun, and the comments of disbelief as we passed geared bikes spinning in their lowest gears really spurred me on. This was followed by some hike-a-bike as we hit the really steep, loose stuff, and only the strongest of geared riders are able to pedal the whole way. This climb is a real test of character, because there are at least 3 times when you’re convinced you’re at the top, you turn the corner to find another climb. Finally we reach a checkpoint, and it is then that I remember this is the real top. At last we get a chance to get the heart rate temporarily below 180bpm. The descent is interrupted by slow/cautious descenders, but that’s the beauty of MTB in general, but especially The Epic. “Weekend warriors” get to rub shoulders with the likes of TDF stage winner Robbie McEwen and multi time 24hr MTB World Champ Jason English. The reality is that you can descend too slowly, because at just the right speed you float over the bumps, too slow and you feel every drop.
At this stage I was in front, but picking my way around these riders let Chris catch back up. We rode together through the next sections, I was happy to pace myself knowing that there was still another 15k or so to go before I was able to pick up the bottles I had waiting for me at the start/finish line. I went to the front again as it allowed me to set the pace. In some single trail, despite knowing that it’s not the best place, I was so desperate for something to drink that I ran off on a corner because I was not able to brake with only one hand. Chris was able to get quite a gap as I struggled to get past some earlier starting riders, but at least I could still see Chris in the distance. As we dropped own the final descent before another SS soul breaking flat section I pushed hard to catch up to Chris. I went straight to the front and we bounced across a fairly rough paddock section until we hit a section I know very well. “Escalator” which I love to hate, although it doesn’t faze me nearly as much as the first time I rode it in a night race in 2008 falling off twice.
Chris and I went past on “lap 1″ about 2s apart. I stopped for my 2 bottles and grabbed some bananas, Chris passed me, but stopped where his support handed over his food and water, and I passed him back and was in the lead again. We headed down “Happy Gilmore” and enjoyed the berms, the ride across the flat of the billabong is thankfully short, and we hit the strangely named “Old Man’s Schlong”, which while being a fairly long climb, really suits SS. I was aware that Chris was still some 10-20m behind me. I have ridden these tracks so many times, that apart from changes due some minor erosion, I could almost ride blindfolded. I flow between rocks like passing between old friends, and I know when to attack climbs and when to cruise up them. I’m still not pushing super hard. To be honest, I have never ridden for this long with a competitor in an MTB race, and tactically I don’t try anything, mostly because I don’t know what to do. [pull_quote_center]Traversing a bit more flat stuff we dropped in to “007” which is as exciting as the name would suggest.[/pull_quote_center] It seemed like we were the only people in the race, there were no riders ahead or behind as far as I can see.
I was still leading at this point, and I tried to push a bit, hoping my familiarity might give me some advantage, and I do feel the distance increasing back to Chris, but on the next gentle climb I realised I really hadn’t made much ground. Chris passed me as we headed through the skills park for the 2nd time, and I was OK with that. When we hit the climbs, I felt that I was climbing strongly, Chris asked if I wanted to come through, but I was content to let him lead. I followed Chris through the next section of single track, but following someone going a bit slower than you really want to go on a single speed is hard work. It is also hard to see upcoming obstructions, but it was Chris that hit a rock with a bit less momentum than required, and he went over the bars in slow motion. It appeared quite harmless, but I stopped to help him get untangled from his bike and unwedge himself from between 2 trees. I slid past as he hopped back on his bike. Happy to ride my own pace, I heard a bike behind and assumed it was Chris, but when the rider asked to get by, I worked out that it was a geared rider. I started to wonder if Chris was injured or if he was OK. Not sure where Chris was, I started riding at my own pace.
Things started to look familiar, and I realised that we were on the part of the circuit that we ride twice, and I start passing some 50k Pursuit. I start having to call “track”, but at times it seemed to take forever for these riders (possibly in their first ever race) to let me by. I was back at the soul destroying paddock section with the sun really baking now. Finally back at Escalator, there are riders walking, but I made it to the top with no problems. After Escalator, it is a dirt road sprint to the finish. Chris came in about 5 minutes later. I am not sure what happened for 3rd place, but there are two 3rds awarded to Chris Duncan and Paul Langton.
In the Elite men, Andy Blair beat Jason English by less than a second, and in the Elite women, Jodie Willett won her 5th Epic. But for many the Epic is just about finishing, and there were still riders (some category place getters) coming in during the presentations, and they got some of the loudest cheers of the day. The crowd that remained for the presentations was massive, and the atmosphere was fantastic. I would like to extend huge congratulations to all the competitors, and the Epic team for a successful event and an especially massive thanks to the volunteers who assisted at the checkpoints and administered the odd bit of first aid.