Two weekends ago I took part in my second mountain bike stage race. My first stage race, the Hellfire Cup, provided me with some good experience and I wrote a post about some of the lessons that I learned. As mentioned in that article, the weather for Hellfire was absolutely terrible. Many of the stages were cancelled, re-routed or shortened. As a result, Wildside was really my first “true” experience of a full event, with 200km of riding over four days.
Wildside is a four day mountain bike stage race, held every 2 years on the West Coast of Tasmania. The event starts at Cradle Mountain and, through a large variety of terrain, makes it’s way down to the beach, eventually ending in the town of Strahan. To get a feel for the event check out this great write-up from Flow: Racing – The Pure Tasmania Wildside. SBS’s Cycling Central also covered the race and has daily highlight videos.
The format of the race consists of multiple race stages each day, with cruise stages in between. The race stages are all challenging in their own way, and the riding was tough. There was never really an easy trail and it took a lot of concentration to navigate the huge variety of tracks. The race organisation was amazing, food was ample and overall it was a pretty seamless experience (providing you had a good support crew, more on this later).
Given the challenge of the event, it is no surprise that I have a few more lessons learned so here we go:
Lesson One – EAT
Whilst racing multiple days in a row, eat twice as much as you normally would at any given meal. Then eat some more. That’s probably a slight exaggeration but I did underestimate how much I needed to eat to keep myself racing hard for several days in a row. Breakfast and Dinner weren’t really a problem but it only took until the second day, after lunch, for me to notice my energy deficit.
Day 2 commenced with a 4.2 km cruise stage, followed by a 13.6k competition stage. That doesn’t sound like much but we had aready completed 33.6km of cruising and 40.2km of racing the day before. By the time we finished the first day 2 comp stage we had done about 90km all up.
The stage finished on a nice sunny oval with a track around the outside, it made me feel like I was finishing Paris-Roubaix! We had a nice long 3 hour break for lunch, bike washing and any maintenance. Most importantly, if we could get through all that, we had a chance to rest. We decided to eat lunch straight away and then chill out. My riding buddy’s (Elvin) version of chilling out was to spend over an hour trying to get a new tubeless tyre to seal, then having the mechanics do it with a compressor in 2 seconds.
So we helped ourselves to the bountiful food and ate until we were stuffed. Three hours later, bikes sparkling, we cruised for about 1k then headed off a 26.2k comp stage. I started off quite well, using the 5k road climb to move up through my start group. I continued to pick off riders as we encountered the second climb but as I came towards the top I started to slow down and become sluggish. I lost all my flow and started finding the whole track a huge bother to navigate. It was a pot-holed, muddy 4WD track, but I could tell I was struggling as lines became obstacles.
After a little while one or two of the riders I had passed on the climb came past me. I know my strength is in the climbs but I wasn’t expecting to lose places on the descent necessarily. I did some self-assessment and realised that I had a hunger pang! In fact, I was starving! I was pretty surprised as I felt like I had been eating heaps in the lead up to the stage but I hadn’t catered for how much energy I was expending to sustain a race pace.
Due to the stage being reasonably long, with a longer cruise stage afterwards, I was carrying a Camelbak rather than a bidon. We knew we weren’t going to see our support vehicle until after the cruise stage so we’d both packed heaps of water and quite a bit of food. The problem was that my energy bars were zipped up in my backpack! I made a call, stopped, rummaged around in my bag and hurriedly stuffed and entire power bar into my mouth.
Unfortunately the stoppage was all that was needed for about 12 riders to catch me on the descent and pass me. It took another couple of kilometres before I started feeling good again. The track suddenly felt more flowy again and I picked up plenty of speed. I did manage to overtake one or two of the same people again, but ally my hard work on the ascent had been lost by having to stop.
So, lesson learned, eat more than you think you could possibly need.
Lesson Two – Carry Gels in your Jersey
This lesson is related to Lesson One. In particular, if you’re going to carry food with you whilst racing you should carry it where you can reach it without stopping. It should also be stuff you can consume on the go. My stoppage to rummage around in my backpack could have been avoided if I had kept some food in my jersey pockets instead of putting it all in my backpack.
I had never used gels before, and was hesitant to try them for the first time in a race. During the second Comp Stage on day it worked out that Elvin, and I completed the stage riding together. With about 7k to go I saw him rip open a gel and realised that I was actually hungry again (despite just coming from the lunch stop). We’d discussed my previous days issues and Elvin kindly handed his gel over to me to try his Vanilla Bean gel when I told him it was happening again. I drank it down. It was disgusting, but it worked a treat. Pro tip – don’t put the ENTIRE contents of the gel in your mouth at once. Two slurps work better for me!
After that I was convinced of the usage of gels due to their easy access and easy consumption. It probably seems stupidly obvious to many but I’d never really needed them before. I took a mint-chocolate on the last comp stage and it was much more enjoyable!
Lesson Three – Carry Two Tubes
Unbelievably, I got through the entire race without a mechanical issue. However I learned a valuable lesson from Elvin’s experience when he lost an hour’s time by having four flats on one stage whilst also suffering from a broken pump! Admittedly the Wildside terrain was pretty rough with lots of sharp rocks and uneven terrain. You may not consider it for other races, but the benefits of carrying two tubes far outweigh the disadvantages.
While you’re at it, make sure you also carry at least one tyre boot (empty gels or plastic money notes suffice but a tyre boot will stay in place more readily when you’re inflating your tube).
For me, I always carried one tube in my saddle-bag but started carrying a second in my jersey. They’re not that heavy and you (or someone else) might really appreciate that extra one at some point.
Lesson Four – Work with others when you can
There were a couple of times during the race when I was in a bunch of riders but, I let them go. Generally speaking this wasn’t a problem in most of the stages but the last stage involved a couple of opportunities where drafting was crucially important. The run down the beach was not so bad, with a tail wind pushing me along at around 38km/h. It was awesome fun! I started in a very fast group and stuck with them for a while but eventually dropped off the back. Due to the tailwind I didn’t really mind as I was able to comfortably maintain a high speed. I was eventually caught by another bunch and life did come a bit easier for me there.
The crucial error was losing touch with that bunch through the sandy pine forest. I was having some issues with the deep sand and eventually slipped out of the back. As soon as we exited the forest it was a long dirt road straight into the wind to get back to the finish line. I was slooooow, sitting at about 17-18km/h. Another bunch caught me and my speed immediately jumped back up to around 24km/h. I regret not sticking with the original bunch through the forest. I knew the exposed road with a headwind was coming up but didn’t quite appreciate how much I needed their help.
So that’s about it for lessons learned from this race. However, I did want to follow up on Lesson Three from my previous post. At the time of writing I wasn’t really sure how I was going to resolve the issue of mud-covered sunglasses. I did some research and ended up buying a Mucky Nutz Bender Fender.
It was cheap and amazingly effective. Some of the tracks we rode were ridiculously muddy (see image above!) and I didn’t have problems with my glasses through the entire race. I’d highly recommend one. It is so unobtrusive that I am going to leave it on my bike permanently.
So, Wildside was an amazing experience. West Coast Tasmania was stunning, the riding was hard, the riding was rewarding and overall we had a great time. People have asked if I would do it again, at the moment I am unsure. It is only held every 2 years and I have no idea what I will be doing in 2016! If I had to do it again next week, or next month, I would probably say no. Maybe in 2 years I will be keen again! I probably will. I ended up coming 56th overall, and 23rd in my category (Mens Veterans). I wouldn’t mind cracking the top 50.
However, I will say that one key element is having a good support person to look after you. Elvin’s wife, Jess, was generous enough to take care of us throughout the race. It is a tough gig with a lot of driving and annoying logistics to cater for. Jess did an amazing job and I’ve never been more surprised and thankful for a cold can of coke as I was at the end of day 3. Thanks Jess!