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Benefits of a Classical Education

17 October 2012

17 October 2012

Benefits of a Classical Education

Have I ever mentioned how spoilt the mountain bikers of Canberra are? We have world class tracks, with great variety (and fantastic facilities) at Stromlo, fast, fun tracks at Bruce Ridge, tricky, technical downhill tracks at Tuggeranong and, just to the east of Canberra, lies over 50km of smooth, flowing singletrack created by dedicated volunteers Paul Cole, Alan Anderson and the Kowalski Brothers, available to riders for the cost of a car trip (or, a longer ride for the freaks!)

So, when the Kowalski Brothers put on a new event (they also run the Mont) it’s worthwhile entering. Not because it’s bound to be a great course. Not because there’s bound to be a fantastic atmosphere. And not because it’s a chance to get out and try out some of their fresh new track. No, it’s worth entering if only to say “Thanks guys, we love your work.”

Have I ever mentioned that I’m an optimist? In fact, if I was a Transformer, I would be Optimist Prime. Kind of like the big truck dude in intent, but come time to transform I’d be more likely to turn into a Reliant Robin and hope I could still keep up with those fast rollers. Which is why I entered the 100km version of the inaugural Kowalski Classic. Fortunately, through a combination of Groucho telling me how hard it would be, then taking me out to ride the tracks of Kowen and Stromlo in a single day, I came to my senses and dropped down to the 50.

You see, the Kowalski Classic is not your standard mountain bike race, like the Back Yamma, Capital Punishment or Husky, where great stretches of single track are linked together by long stretches of fire trail. The Kowalski Classic is a showcase of many of the trails of Kowen Forest and Sparrow Hill. So, the 50km loop contains pretty much 50km of single track. Sure, there is some linking firetrail, about enough to take a sip of your drink before flowing back into the single track. Not that I’m complaining, it’s great fun! But it’s also hard work - it means there’s no let up. When you’re not pedalling you’re hanging on for dear life. Well, maybe not you, but certainly me.

And, given there was a bit of hype about the event, there would be a lot of riders out there. On single track. With limited room for overtaking. So, while the whippets at the front may have a race on their hands, back in the friendly part of the field we happy labs will be loping along, having a good, non-competitive time. Just like going for a ride with your mates on a weekend; it’s just that on this weekend I would be riding with about 490 mates (and that’s just in the 50!) Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting to break any records on this race; I was just hoping to come in under four hours (and maybe not fall off).

So, on a fine Canberra spring day, marked by clear blue skies and barely a hint of frost, I set off to Kowen Forest. And I reckon the view of the road to Kowen (the highway) would have been a sight to behold: a convoy of cars heading out, with bikes firmly attached to the back or roof. From the sky it must have looked like a long line of shiny, metallic ants heading back to their hill carrying leaves. Even with my poor navigation skills, finding the forest wouldn’t be a problem.

Green fields of riders
Looking back to the hub and carpark.

The clear fields of the carpark (the same areas as is used for the Mont) provided no shelter from the frosty mountain wind; I would no doubt be thankful for the cool breeze in a few hours, but standing around before the race, well, it was just cold. So I figured that was nature’s way of telling me I should actually do a warm up for this race. And I actually did, more or less. I did a few laps reconnoitering the hub, where there were a few stands, trying to ride up the little hill a few times, before moving to the starting chute to join my wave and wait for the race to start.

As with many mountain bike races, the start waves were self-seeded. Thinking myself maybe slightly below average, I put myself in the fourth wave. It wasn’t long before the small elite wave took off, followed by growing waves of riders. So, the fourth wave seemed quite large by the time we started.

Mountain bikers at start of race
Far too much lycra for a mountain bike event!

The start was easy riding along firetrail to give us all a chance to sort ourselves out before the single track. I took the opportunity to push forward a few places, for no particular reason other than I could. Then, as we were about to swing into the singletrack when I saw the legendary man of the trails - Paul Cole. I thanked him for his wonderful work as I turned down a track, only to have him call back, “I’ll see if you’re thanking me after 50km!” Fair call.

Riders on fire trail
Riding with the other labs

I have ridden Kowen quite a bit, and I have to say, I seem to like it more and more every time I ride out there. But the first few tracks were entirely foreign to me - well, the first run I was familiar with, it’s just that we were doing it backwards. But the race started on entirely new track, which was a nice surprise. And, in the Kowalski tradition, they were nice, fast and flowy tracks that we were roaring through. There were a couple of rocks that seemed to bother some people, resulting in minor congas, but they were short and most people were very well humoured about it all, which was refreshing really.

The tracks were so flowy, and so much fun, that I hardly noticed the time or kilometres fly by and in what felt like moments we were across the highway and into Sparrow Hill, with more flowing singletrack. Though, I was having a few issues with the bike, I suspect my tyres had a bit too much air in them (I thought this at the start too). Naturally, rather than take a few seconds out to release some pressure and have a much more enjoyable few hours on the bike, I kept riding and thinking, “I really should let some air out...” as I tried to control the bike around sweeping corners at speed.

It was around about this time that I latched onto my first bunny-a rider who seemed to be riding just that little bit faster and better than I. In my opinion, that’s one of the better things about these races: you can find someone who’s slightly better than you, and just try to hang on. It pushes you that little bit harder, and you get to see their riding style, and the lines they choose. Sure, I wasn’t following and learning from Jason English, but really, I can learn something from just about anyone. And I had to work to stay on this guy’s tail! I did hold him for quite a while - he lost me on some of the more technical sections, and I managed to catch him back up on climbs. Eventually he stopped for a break, and I continued off on my own.

Which was probably a mistake really. A few more tracks after that and my mind was wandering as I rode through the serene forest; everything was just flowing nicely, and I was starting to feel a bit tired and getting to that stage where you’re in an almost meditative state, and your mind empties of all the usual noise and bluster and it becomes as if you’re just kind of watching the world go by. At least I get like that. Then I saw a big rock. A big rock that wasn’t even on the track. And in my calm, contemplative state, I naturally focussed on the rock. And my bike followed my focus... Fortunately I actually kind of sort of managed to jump over the rock, though lost control shortly after. So, I did have a prang, of sorts, but didn’t actually come off, which is a bit of a highlight for me!

A little over halfway through the race was the feed station, and what a feed station it was! They had mini-Mars bars! Normally I don’t get those without spending an hour donating my bodily fluids! I was very happy about that! So I stopped, ate, grabbed some water, and had a gel at the feed zone - while chatting to other bikers. Everyone was happy and friendly; so I managed to get food and laughs at the rest stop - very refreshing. And just as well, for I knew that, as we hadn’t gone through a time section, we still had the KOM challenge to come; a nasty climb somewhere in the forest.

So then it was onto more singletrack fun, going through more familiar tracks (though in reverse!) Last Tango - which I normally have lots of trouble with, but in reverse it was great; and Hammer Time. I do like Hammer Time, for some reason as soon as I see the sign I put the hammer down and start pedalling hard (and try to outrun the sound of Can’t touch this echoing through my mind). Then in moments the nightmare began - and I’m not talking about vague memories of that song coming back into my head. No, no, I’m talking about Short and Stout.

Now, it’s probably worth pointing out here that wonderful work that the Kowalski Brothers, Paul and Alan do out at Kowen and Sparrow. So good are their trails that were it not for the inclusion of Short and Stout, one could forget entirely that there any climbing at all out at Kowen. But indeed there is. There are hills there, hidden behind the flowing single track. Seeing the timed section start, I began to pick up the pace, then rolled around the corner to be met by the terror of Short and Stout. I rapidly slid down my gears, and still by about halfway up just could pedal no more, so I got off and walked like everyone else. Which was fortunate, because it turned out to be “one of those” climbs. One of those deceptive little buggers with a false summit, so what I thought was halfway when I got off was actually about a third. It flattened out slightly, then rose even more steeply! But, is it really a mountain bike race if there is no mountain?

So, that was the worst of it. What’s better is that it was downhill after that, through some fantastic, fast trails: the Kowalski Sideshow, followed by Corkscrew, which were great fun. Then into the twisty Sweet Apples before starting on Cherry Lane.

I love and hate Cherry Lane, it’s normally one of the first tracks I do coming into Kowen, so I tend to hit it just as I’m warming up. Needless to say; I was well and truly warm by the time I started in that day, and really enjoyed racing through the track. But that track also drives me insane. Every time I see the sign, I get a fragment of a song stuck in my mind, which just rattles around and and around in there, driving me slowly insane. And now I’ve worked out why I could never find it - I was actually thinking of Penny Lane by the Beatles! Now I’ve found it, I can have the song rattle around my head in it’s entirety next time I go through the track (instead of just some vague parts of the chorus!)

Back on familiar ground, and finding myself alone again, I figured I might as well start to push it a bit. My hazy memory of the Mont told me that I was into the last few tracks of the race, so I could go harder. I caught up to more riders around Love Child, but there was some double track there for overtaking, and I found myself following a single-speeder. They get around those singlespeeds! And he was putting me to shame, pulling away climbing the hill. Although, he stopped at some firetrail just before entering Bliss Out, and I pushed on through for the flowy fun of Magic Mushroom.

As I tried to race down Beer Garden, I was once more reminded of how much pressure I had in my tyres, as I tried to control the bike sliding around the corners. I heard a fast rider coming behind me, who turned out to be Nathan Spencer from OnTheGo - he called back after overtaking me to ask if I was doing the 50 or the 100, then asked if we were approaching the end. I told him we were, and he whooped and hollered the rest of the way down the track - going about twice as fast as me after doing twice as many kays (and still having heaps of fun!) Bloody whippets.

There’s something about finish arches. I don’t know what it is. But when I see it, I just have to sprint. It doesn’t seem to matter what sort of event it is; I’ve done it running, I’ve done it in adventure races, I’ve done it riding; if you put an arch there, I just have to sprint to it. I dare say I’d sprint to my own funeral if someone put an arch over it! So, I probably shaved a few microseconds off my hours-long race time through that sprint, but it felt good!

And my luck held, shortly after completing the race, I ran in to the Beard which provided me with the opportunity to have a chat to him and ensure he didn’t take any offence about the Back Yamma Report. Fortunately, he didn’t, although he did think my tyres had too much pressure...

All in all, the Kowalski Classic was another fantastic event put on by the guys at Self-Propelled Enterprises. It was a fantastic course, over some excellent trails with a fun and friendly atmosphere. Which isn’t really surprising; the Kowalski Brothers seem to be all about the biking (and less about the racing) so they tend to be much more inclusive, ensuring all of us plodding labs are just as welcome as those whippets. Definitely one to add to the regulars, next year I may even man up and do the 100! And they put heaps of cool stuff in the show bag too! (Did I mention the mini-Mars bars at the feed station? I wonder how many feed stations the 100 has... )

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