With the dust barely settled after the National Championships in Canberra, the fourth and final downhill round of the Australian National Mountain Bike Series descended upon the small town of Mt Beauty for a weekend of impressive and exciting racing. Team Mt Beauty are no strangers to running national-level events, and this one was no different. With a few big names rolling into town, including reigning Australian National Champion Nathan Rennie and two time World Champion Sam Hill, nobody doubted that there would be some supremely fast times thrown down. The women's registration list also forecast a showdown between former junior World Champion Tracey Hannah and one of Britain's most experienced World Cup campaigners, Tracy Moseley. Last year's winner, Amiel Cavalier was leading the series points tally coming into this round, and wasn't about to let go of his position without a fight.
The track was the same as last year bar the very bottom section, with a couple of berms from the disused 4x track being bunted in shortly before the finish. From top to bottom, you were looking at fast, pedally bits with quick yet rutted corners, leading into the steep, tight middle section that got progressively more blown out over the course of the weekend, making technical lines even more difficult as time wore on. Some cornering lines disappeared entirely over the weekend as rider after rider blew through what little support there was to be found in the loose bulldust during practice. Further down the track, riders were treated to more rocks, ruts and a bit of pedalling before the spectators' favourite section, the steep, rocky, rutted, fast derailleur-killer known as "the chute". Survivors were shot out on to the aptly named "cheese grater", then onto the 4x course for a couple of corners, before a fast finish section consisting of some attention-grabbing off-camber braking and a tricky final corner. Some riders loved the track, others found it tricky and scary, but given the business the first aid tent was doing it was pretty clear that the track was taking its toll on a number of riders of all ages, abilities and underpants colours. Fortunately not too many major injuries were reported, nobody likes to hear about ambulance rides or airlifts.
Hill was - not surprisingly - looking like the man to beat during practice, with his trademark flow and relentless pace. Rennie was stomping his way down in typical fashion, but the Santa Cruz rider said the course didn't really suit him. Canadian import Steve Smith, fresh off a 4th place at Mt Stromlo, was pinning some impressive lines on his bright yellow Cove and had more than a couple of people wondering "Who IS that guy?". Bryn Atkinson was doubling up sections that normally shouldn't be doubled unless you're macho enough to like the taste of trees, but he pulled it off without even thinking about looking sketchy while Jared Rando went about his usual business of riding a bicycle very fast with minimum fuss. Now and then some small orange and white blur would rip past at speeds that made you wonder if there was any point racing against people like this, but scarily that fast grasshopper was an U17s rider, Mongoose-backed Troy Brosnan. Keep an eye on this kid. Fast shuttles all day Saturday kept the riders pouring down the hill, and well-placed marshals did a good job of ensuring downed riders weren't endangered by others. Props to TMB for their slick organisation.
Up early on Sunday morning and the weather forecast was not looking good - thunderstorms rolled in about 10am and turned what was previously talcum-powder dust into an interesting mix of slippery and somewhat tacky mud. By this point, plenty of people were more keen to guess how much Hill would win by rather than if he'd win at all, as we're all aware the guy is a total machine in the wet. The moment water touched ground, the bottom grassy section turned from grippy and predictable to, well, slippery and unpredictable. The last corner was quite possibly the most difficult on the track after the rain, and it caught plenty of riders out. As is the standard at any big race, the track was getting flogged hard, and plenty of corners developed big holes that would have required rope ladders to get out of if we'd ridden them much more. The rain died down a bit as practice ended, and faded right away as the cross country short course racing provided a crowd-pleasing interlude between practice and race runs. This made tyre choice a bit of a worry for many riders, with some choosing to run dry tyres and others going for full wet spikes. Some of us didn't have the option of mud spikes because we're cheap and only own the set of tyres that happen to be on the bike at the time.
Qualifying runs for the fast guys saw Hill way out front, with Amiel Cavalier taking 2nd and Mitch Delfs, Jared Rando, Josh Button, Rennie and Mt Beauty local Liam Panozzo all within a couple of seconds. A few people crashed out attempting "innovative" lines like gapping the cheese grater, and the very slippery final stretches left nice brown stains on the side of a few jerseys, but the pointy end of the field all looked like they were keeping a bit in the tank for race runs. The juniors class had a very high attrition rate at the final corner, with quite possibly half the field opting to use their handlebars and clothing as brakes. The U17s followed suit, and only a few riders in either class managed to both enter the final corner fast, and come out upright. In the U19s, Queensland pinner Rhys Willemse held it wide open to claim pole position, 1 second ahead of Shaun O'Connor, who plugs his sponsors enough to be fairly sure he'll receive sexual favours next time he sees them and/or when he turns 18. Elite women's qualifying had Raw NRG's Tracey Hannah throwing down the gauntlet to Tracy Moseley with a solid 4 second gap, and a good 20 seconds back to 3rd qualifier Jayne Rutter.
With qualifying out of the way, the slowly drying track was reasonably tacky most of the way down, with only the very bottom of the track chewed up and muddy enough to remain very slick. Plenty of riders in U15s and U17s came blazing into the final corner only to find their bike disappear from underneath them either during the tricky braking section or the super slick berm, and getting back up to speed on the slippery final straight was difficult enough to cause a few riders to bin it a second time as their rear wheels failed to hook up. U15s was taken out by Connor Fearon with a blazing fast time of 3:43, which would have had him qualifying in Elite by over 10 seconds, and which would have also won U17s by nearly as much - impressive stuff from this little fella. Aden Wyber managed to take out U17s, a couple of seconds clear of his nearest competitor in Phillip Piazza. Melburnian track-builder Ben Reynolds decided to smack the rest of the Vets field's collective bitch up with a couple of seconds' margin, which might not have been so impressive had he not crashed in his run. The Masters guys pulled in some respectable times too, Geoff Lovie taking the top step of the podium with 10 seconds to spare. It was nice to see no sandbaggers in Expert men, and some tight racing ensuing as a result with Callan Ridge edging out Steven Ruffell for the top spot.
Some of the gnarliest, most ragged, as in holy-hell-that-guy-might-actually-die riding I've ever seen came from the hardtailers, who as usual were dispensing their own brand of silliness, and a couple of them were hammering the chute as hard as nearly anyone on a proper DHer. This track was steep and rough most of the way, and for those guys to pull the times they did (close to 4 minutes) was impressive. Also worthy of mention were the three U17s girls who managed to not only ride the most technical parts of the track cleanly all weekend, but give each other some good competition in a category that's usually empty or sparsely populated. Another couple of years and these girls will be putting up a good fight in the Elite Women's category for sure.
Come finals time, the track had dried out a bit, become fairly grippy most of the way down, and the qualifying times were looking set to be blown apart. The crowd was getting worked up, louder and rowdier, spurred on by the combined enthusiasm of Stu and Juzzy on the mic. The last grassy section was still slippery although obviously not as bad as earlier in the day, and the final corner was looking marginally less treacherous than it had previously been. Spectators littered the bottom section of the course, with the chute being a major tourist attraction as well as the very tricky off camber grass section and that final corner that brought so many undone. The U19s men made their way down with a good portion of the field having made major mistakes, yet most riders still taking sizeable chunks out of their qualifying times. Reigning Junior National Champion Dylan Prohm was unable to put together a clean run and ended up some distance down the order, while quick qualifier Aussie Hicks ripped his derailleur off and was unable to pedal to what would have otherwise been a very quick time. DH Direct rider Matt Vincent rode the entire track flat out, until an unfortunate drivetrain malfunction at the last corner resulted in him scootering his bike to 4th place. Hans Hadley and L'Oreal/ForTheRiders.com's James Taormina took 3rd and 2nd respectively. Fastest qualifier Rhys Willemse had some major trouble in his run and left ThorMX's Shaun O'Connor to take the win by a comfortable 4 seconds, made all the more impressive by O'Connor apparently having crashed early in his run...twice.
Elite Women came down the hill with no major surprises, KHS rider Caroline Buchanan fighting her way to 3rd place, with Tracy and Tracey set to re-enact the previous weekend's super-close battle. Hannah looked keen to beat Moseley after narrowly missing out in Canberra, and with a 4 second difference in their qualifying times you could have forgiven the factory Kona pilot for being a little worried. Moseley's time of 3:42 looked difficult to beat, but coming into the final corner Hannah was right on time. Unfortunately the same bastard corner that wrecked the runs of half the people who raced caught her out and she hit the deck to the disappointed gasps of the crowd. Any hope of winning sunk, she pedalled to the line to take 2nd place.
As the Elite Men began to come down, the spectators got more and more revved up. Hearing split times from the commentators was awesome and usually proved to be a fairly good indicator of how someone's run was going. Steve Smith, despite a big crash in his qualifier, took the hot seat early with a blistering 3:17. Rider after rider came down, some throwing out some pretty crazy lines in order to shave every tenth off, including Perthert, Stuart MacDonald who was lucky not to get torn to shreds when he crashed gapping onto the cheese grater at warp speed. Only Panozzo, Rick Boyer, and Rennie managed to get under 3:20, none of them managing to crack Smith's time. With only last year's winner Amiel Cavalier and one Mr Sam Hill left to come, Smith was guaranteed a top 3 position at least. Word came through that Cavalier had made some major mistakes early on the course and pulled over to let Hill through. Hill reached the split, the commentators getting very excited and the crowd was working itself into a frenzy as he shot through 3 seconds faster than any other split time. As he approached the chute, there was some serious background noise being made, and smooth as silk with no risky lines he fired himself into the finish arena. Off camber, muddy, grassy braking area into the super slippery berm... this was Hill's playground and everyone knew it. He cranked hard across the line, and again the crowd was witness to why this man is twice world champ. Sam Hill, 3:10.98, seven seconds clear. Like we expected anything less than domination.
After all the high speed stuff was over, Hill, Atkinson and Rennie spent some time signing autographs for their legions of fans in the SRAM tent, before presentations got underway. At this point I think it'd be appropriate to again thank Team Mt Beauty for their stellar event organisation and the sick track we got to race, as well as series and event sponsors such as SRAM, Yarra Valley Cycles, Felt, Maxxis, Torq, Mavic, Pedros, Kona, and Rocky Valley Bikes among others. Every event has a few people whingeing about something (legitimately or not) but I didn't hear much in the way of complaints this weekend.
Thanks to Josh McDonald and http://www.darceymedia.com.au
for the photos.
Discuss this article here.