November 06, 2014 (Australia) – Every year the Crocodile Trophy gets better and better and I have gotten closer and closer to the overall title. The nine-day race through the outback of North Eastern Australia is a blast and a real engaging challenge with its variety of hard courses and great outback experiences. With it becoming classified as a UCI S1 race this year there were lots of valuable UCI points on the line for the World Ranking system which is part of every Nations Olympic qualification process. What was already a tough race with the rough outback conditions, heat, tough mining roads, twisting single-track and deadly creatures now become a real battle with 10-12 of the Worlds top marathon racers taking part in the 100 competitor race to battle it out over 700 km.
The days leading up to the race were spent relaxing at the Tropic Days backpacker hostel and had me feeling refreshed and fired up for stage 1, a 5 lap, 30 km cross county race on some really easy trails in the same area were the Cairn World Cup was hosted earlier this year. Lap 1 went alright but by lap 3 my head was over doing circles in the bushes on what was a very dizzying course with little technical challenges. By lap 4 I had a full on meltdown and lost nearly 5 minutes to the leader by the end of the race as there were loose connections in my system some where. No worries though, every stage race there is a rough day and I got mine out of the way on day 1!
Stage 2 is a classic Croc stage climbing out of Cairns through some very steep rough jungle roads, briefly into the dusty outback and then back over a 10 km climb through the jungle before descending down to Lake Tinaroo for the finish. It’s always one of the most decisive days in the Croc and was very important in this years race as it was guaranteed to eliminate at least half of the overall contenders and I didn’t want to be one of them. Heading up the first climb, 2012 winner Ivan Rybarik, Portuguese Olympian David Rosa and myself had a descent gap over the rest of the field before I hit a rock and lost my climbing gear, losing valuable time trying to fix it then having to run up the steep climbs without the easy gear at my disposal. Soon after I would come upon Ivan you had flatted, David who was cracking a bit, thus leaving unknown Norwegian rider Greg Saw alone in front. After losing another minute at the feed station trying to fix the gears, it was into chase mode to catch up to the chase pack of 3 riders behind Greg. Things would shuffle a bit more by the end of the stage with Greg taking a 3 minute win ahead of 3 of us chasing hard behind.
Stage 3 was a 3 x 20 km loop on some very typical swooping Aussie single-track. This sort of course is all about carrying your momentum around endless berms and has little areas to really put the diesel down and is all about swooping. We let the smiling Portuguese flyweight David Rosa take the lead early on as he was already an hour down on GC after a wheel malfunction on stage 1 and not in contention. My body was offline this day, not sure what it was but I was hurting right from the start and made sure to get into the singletrack ahead of the rest of the contenders to try and slow the pace down. This worked for the first lap before they attacked on the 2nd lap, leaving my smoking body to push through two more laps of the fun but unrythmic course. It was another meltdown which I tried to manage as best as possible but still lost around 7 minutes to the top contenders and was nearly 15 minutes back from the leaders jersey by the end of the day. It was De ja vu to the Croc Trophy in 2013 when I spotted the overall winner Mark Frendo a 10 minute lead in the opening stages after trying to recover from a 24 hour race 5 days previously. In these Stage races it is really important to grab the lead early on as trying to come back later on is nearly impossible as all the leader has to do is suck your wheel and stay out of the wind. I had dug myself a big hole again this year and was unsure whether or not I could get the body back online before the deficit was too large to overcome.
Austrian friend Martin Wisata and I had a big Bar-Bar with the physiotherapists this night. We started a tradition last year in which we all dump are bags of protein bars on a table and do tradeoffs and eat till were primed for another day on the bike. Sometimes it works, other times it leaves us with gut aches.
Stage 4 started with a steep 4 km climb from the start. I was dropped early on and then the legs magically came back on line and it was game on! Heading over the top I had a small lead over race leader Greg Saw but started to run into troubles as a herd of 4 cows were in the middle of the dirt road stampeding ahead. I tried to get around them but they were stubborn and kept in the way. It was sort of fun as I began feeling like a cowboy on my Dad’s ranch in Mcbride as I marshalled the cows along for a couple minutes before one of them, a big bull got pissed, turned around and faced me with his head down. Already too close to stop or turn around I was a bit screwed as the Bull shook is head and stomped his feat. It was a shocker but my Dad being a true cowboy had always taught me we are higher up in the food chain and to never be afraid of a Cow so I rode straight at the Bull and last second vered to the left into the ditch, just out of reach of its flayling horns.
This had stunned the bull and now it was super pissed, turning around trying to kick me and then taking off down the road in a full charge towards Greg who was about 200 ft behind. Greg yelled as he dove off his bike and ran into the woods, just nearly missing becoming the Bulls rag doll. The Bull finally took off, and Greg came back out of the woods nearly as fast as he went in as he had jumped into an infamous stinging tree. We would ride together for a bit after the incident before I managed to drop him and would ride 60 km solo through a great mix of steep climbs, bushy jungle tracks and rough mining roads. It was one of the best Croc stages ever as I gained nearly 3 minutes by the finish line over Greg and his riding companion Ramses from the Netherlands.
Stage 5 was another Classic Croc stage racing over a mix of rough mining tracks and hot outback gravel roads from Atherton to Irvinebank. There were alot of snakes snaking around this day with one large black one making a few of us nervous as it slithered around. The race itself was going to plan with Greg, Ramses and I riding together as I planned an attack over the last 35 km of the course as I remembered it as being very hard from years past. Unfortunately as we arrived at the 2nd feed we were notified the course had been shortened by 30 km due to a missing bridge. Immediatley attacking my riding partners I road away pretty easily but could only gain around 1.5 minutes over the last 10-15 km of the race. Greg had been hurting this day after a rough sleep due to the pain from the stinging tree and was lucky the course had been shortened from 100km down to 65 km as some serious time could’ve been made up this day.
The small outback town of Irvinebank had traditionally been the heart of the Croc experience with it’s local pub and Hill Billy band but this year the pub had shutdown. We had alot more sleep as a result but it was sad to see this place so sleepy. Starting stage 6 I rode hard off the line as I tried to take advantage of Greg and his hurting state. This backfired as the body wasn’t happy with this early effort and went into shutdown mode. For the next hour I struggled, politely asking my body to come back around as Greg, Ivan, Ramses and Milton gained nearly 4 minutes. It took alot of patients but eventually the body gave me the green light to start riding hard again and over a 30 km section of rough track I made up the 4 min deficit to the leaders and attacked them as soon as I got there. Getting a small gap on a rough descent I pushed hard the final 30 km to the finish into a headwind. It was hard ride solo but I managed to hold off the chase pack to claim another stage victory, but again just gaining over a minute on Greg and his leaders jersey. He was lucky to have such good allies working for him as it really dampened my efforts to claw back large amounts of time on him.
One of the side stories of the Croc this year was the 4 man Japanese film team which was following Yuki Ikeda through the race to make a 2 hour documentary for Japan television. I can’t wait to see there footage as they were everywhere. Yuki was a trooper as he walked around with a video camera in his face during every waking moment. It started to get hilarious as everywhere we would go there would be a Japanese video camera catching the action. One day they even “accidently” followed Yuki into the shower room before turning around after seeing all the naked euro asses in there. They also had two riders following us with helmet cameras every stage. This could be the best race documentary ever once it comes out, minus the euro ass part!
Stage 7 was an old school flat roady type croc stage. Greg stayed on my wheel for the stage as I tried attacking whenever the roads got rough but couldn’t quite shake him. The stage ended at the Skybury Coffee plantation which specializes in Coffee, Papaya and bananas. It was a splendid afternoon sitting up on the cafe deck loading up on Papaya and coffees and could be the best Croc stage host ever.
Stage 8 started with a long 60 km into headwinds which kept the race together before hitting some undulating hills in the jungle to the finish. I kept attacking Greg as he was struggling again on this stage but the hills weren’t long enough to get much of a gap as on the descents and flat roads afterwards his allie Ramses with the help of a couple other riders would work together to pull me back in. Eventually after the 5th or 6 attack we hit a real hill and Greg would be dropped for good, but once again I could gain just over 2 minutes in the last 15 km of the course as Ramses worked his butt off for Greg again to keep him close. I’m not sure if Greg and Ramses were old teammates or if Greg was paying him but Ramses did an army load of work for Greg to keep him in the leaders jersey.
The stage ended at Weatherby outback station, a classic Australian ranch. We ate some great beef and had another Bar-Bar as we prepped for the last stage of the croc, a 30 km time trial down to the beaches of Port Douglas. With the gap to Greg down to 6 minutes it was unlikely I could catch him on the last stage but if he had a flat tire and I had the ride of my life it could be enough. Being the 2nd last rider to set off on the stage I pushed hard and was getting time gaps putting me in the lead for the stage. The legs were firing good, a little too good as I pedalled through a twisty jungle section at 30-40 km an hour, catching my pedal on a hanging vine which tore my bike right from under me. As I flew through the air all I could think was “where the hell did my bike go?” It was a rough landing, luckily resulting in no serious bodily harm but my handlebars were bent backwards which took a bit to get fixed before continueing on. At this point it was time to get to the finish line in one piece without anymore dramas. The last 4 km of the race was unreal as we raced along the beach of Port Douglas to the finish line. The croc always picks the best spots to finish these epic races. There’s nothing like diving into some fresh ocean water after a long dusty week on the bike!
This was by far the best Croc ever, the organization is solid, the courses are great, and the camping and hanging out with other riders in the outback make this race second to none. After two consecutive 2nd places here I will hopefully get a chance to come back one more time to try and finish this thing off.
As far as my bike (Kona Kina Kahuna) went it has been nearly flawless for over 4 stages races in the past couple months. The SRAM XX1 is great for flawless shifting, the Maxxis Ikon tires are bombproof and the Kona frame is the perfect balance of light weight and toughness for these epic races! Also a huge thanks to Stans No Tubes, Truvative components, Rock Shox, WTB, GIRO and Clif bar for supplying all the gear for this big trip!
A controversy arose after the race when female race leader Imogen was notified here prize money was going to be cut in half. This was unfortunate timing for this news as the UCI should have told Imogen at the start the prize money was going to be reduced. She still received the overall winning prize of $900, but they wanted to cut down here stage winning money since she didn’t have to race anyone for it being the only Elite woman in the race. In the end, she would still be paid close to $1,800, the 5th most out of anyone in the race which seemed fair.
If it was left the way it was, she was going to make nearly $3,500, way more than Greg Saw received ($2,300) for winning the overall title. This I don’t think would’ve been fair for Greg who had to battle 95 other guys for the title. I understand why Imogen was upset, though, as the prize money should be settled before the race starts and shouldn’t change later on. Hopefully things like this can be avoided in the future as it would be great to see more women in races like this as there is no reason they shouldn’t be here. They add a lot to these races and it’s awesome to see them getting faster and faster every year and giving the guys a run for there money. With the small fields they would be guaranteed to win some descent prize money for there efforts as well.
The days after the race were spent up in Mossman with Steve Rankine and a few friends from the Croc. We would spend the days up in the Daintree rainforest at the Mossman Gorge making like a bunch of seals, swimming in the refreshing Mossman river followed with crawling up on large boulders to sun bathe. Toss in a few ciders and it made for a good life. Everything was top notch until Kathi and I went for a 7 hour hike up to Devils Thumb peak. It was a really cool hike through the Jungle to a huge rock outcropping sitting 1200 Meters above the valley floor. We made it back to the bottom and were joined by Steve for a dip in a swimming hole before we were all headed to Cairns to celebrate Halloween.
It was going to be a real treat, but I was tricked on this Halloween as I slipped on a rock leaving the swimming hole and flung my arms back for balance, throwing out my weak shoulder. Unable to get it back relocated into its socket it was a long 1 km hike out to the highway and by the time we hit the Hospital the shoulder had been dangling for over an hour. The Doctor gave me some laughing gas and told me to suck on it really hard as he tried to twist my arm back into place. It was an odd experience as I laughed and cried at the same time. Still unable to get the shoulder back into place they had to knock me out for 30 seconds to relax all the muscles and finally get the arm back into place. All in all it took 20 minutes, cost $2,500 and after a couple hours of looking out for side effects from the drugs, I was finally released. After all the racing in the past year, it is ridiculous the only two times I’ve dislocated my shoulder is via canoeing, and walking. It seems like you might as well take all the risks in the world and live your life to the fullest as it is usually during the down times that crazy things happen.
Off to chew on some more ibuprofren as I wait and to see if the shoulder is good for another race or if it’s time to call it a season.
PS Big Thanks to Sayako Ikeda for all the feedzone support during the race. Also a big thanks to Steven Rankine and his Dad for opening there house in Mossman for a week of post race recovery!
Visit Wallace’s blog at www.corywallace.com.
More about the Crocodile Trophy at www.crocodile-trophy.com