Mountain biking isn’t just about riding – it’s a very close, yet extended family.
Arriving at Colonial Brewery, we unloaded the support vehicle amongst the bike riders who were doing laps of the car park to stay warm. Warren was off getting his fingers re-bandaged while I jumped on the trike and crept my way to the groups lining up.
As usual we sat around during the riders brief while chatting with random riders around us. We also took a moment of silence to reflect on one of our fallen Capers, Chris Muller. Although the majority didn’t know him personally, I’m sure we all felt connected during that moment of silence. It gave me a moment to be grateful for how much the mountain biking community has supported me in times of loss, and how far I have come since starting off-road handcycling.
It was also a time to reflect on how blessed we are to have the joys and freedoms of pursuing our passion for riding, without prejudice or scrutiny. I felt that no matter what happens (good or bad) or where this off-road handcycling advocacy and adventure takes me, I am alive and it’s beautiful.
DAY 4 – Sunday 25th October
We rolled out over the mini water crossing – some deciding to take the makeshift bridge to avoid the water, while I put some grunt into it and freshened up with a spray of fresh water. AAHHH!
As with the other stages, I took some time to loosen up and warm the joints before picking up some pace.
Stage 4 is known as the ‘roadies stage’ due to the increased percentage of sealed roads and fire roads. It didn’t take long before Conor kicked in with his power assist and gained his distance.
There was a different vibe this day. As though we knew that the hard work was behind us and that we just had a day to embrace what we were going through. But no slacking off until the very end!
STICKS AND STONES
We took our first handcycling detour around the back of “Middle Earth” single trail. This was actually one of the more enjoyable sections consisting of semi-sandy, semi-compact, gum-nut-covered fire break. It stretched for about 2km and turned into a game of me trying to intentionally flick fallen branches and rocks into my support riders – I think I’ve got the knack for it!
I would joke about not seeing rocks or logs in front of me then scare Warren and Matt by hitting the obstacle with speed and then pulling out at the very last second. I won’t be surprised if I have two less friends after this 🙂
Sticks and stones hurt, but nothing compared to the pain rapidly attacking my left shoulder and neck. Without a physio around and not having treatment the day before, I knew it was going to be a painful reminder at every corner and every stretch of smooth sections.
THEM COUNTRY FOLK
We trailed our way through some quiet roads and fire roads when we turned into Celestial Bay winery where a very animated cheer squad welcomed us.
For every rider that went past the cheer squad would go ballistic with all kinds of cheering. A couple were dancing like a mash up between Elvis and the Wiggles on ecstasy. Someone was even manning a forklift and honking the horn. One of the ladies was riding along passing riders on an invisible bike – peddling and steering on air (air-biking?). When she saw me swinging around the bend she switched from ‘bike mode’ to ‘handcycle mode’ and immediately bent down and pumped her fists to the ground in a handcycling motion. You couldn’t wipe the smile off my face!
Not far down there was another small group of spectators – this time on a tin shed and on hay bails – lunacy! I guess this is one of the most exciting thing that comes through their backyard each year, so why not have some fun in the process! Heck, if I had hundreds of people riding through my small backyard I’d be doing the same!
OVER THE HILL AND FAR AWAY
Yelverton Forest was a little less sandier than I remembered, maybe because Stage 1 and 2 had the boggiest of sand which I didn’t go through last year. The forest is almost single track but had enough room for other riders to overtake. Towards the end of it was some seriously fast downhill which has a combination of rocky and silk smooth dirt – brakes, what brakes?
We came onto the main section of roads where we had a good 20 minutes of mucking around on the tarmac and drafting behind each other. It’s fun pretending to be a roadie! Top speed 57km/h (a little short of last years 63km/h, thanks to some strong head wind.
Churning along after a couple short checkpoint stops to refuel we came across some single trail fun in the last 10km in Dunsborough. By this time very few riders were behind us, so we could take our merry old time through here… but we didn’t – we smashed right through it. Would be a great place for photographers, and maybe there were a few earlier on. Some fast flowing and tight turns with minimal room for error to really test the trike skills.
We got closer to residential lots where I distinctively remember last year’s efforts by my support rider, Jon. This was the breaking point last year. It was where we were right at the back of the pack and had nothing to look at but the roads bitumen and the warped shadows from the sweltering sun. This year the climbs were made easier with a second support rider and much cooler weather, with barely any sun on this day.
10 TO GO
It was the home stretch, and typically 10km, in my mind, isn’t a long ride on the road, but things turned really nasty really quick.
We entered the Meelup trails adjacent to the Dunsborough Country Club golf course. The first couple hundred meters weren’t a problem, but the pea gravel and technical features started hitting us, one after the other. Large jumps, tight treads, sharp switchbacks, rocky edges, large log rolls, heavy bush shurbs either side, narrow bridge crossings and tight trees limiting my option to ride around made the ride a nightmare. My shoulder and neck were still causing me severe pain but that was overshadowed by the single trail mayhem.
Matt’s back was flaring up since the start of the stage, yet somehow managed to lift me up and over obstacles – I don’t think we had any other options. Warren couldn’t do any lifting with his fractured finger so he stayed behind and pushed me through the rough sections which didn’t have any major obstacles. Matt was busy behind with two bike in hand taking mini shortcuts through the scrub to reengage with us at the next obstacle.
Photographers Jane and Travis were scattering themselves throughout the Meelup section, but I was in no mood to put on a cheerful face for the camera. If anything, the photos will show the frustration of this section.
It got so hairy that at one particular jump I clipped a stump/rock with my right wheel which threw me onto my left side. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem but my knee was jarred between my leg rest and a jagged half-log sticking out of the dirt. I couldn’t move out of this, so I shouted frantically for Matt to pull me backwards. Luckily I had a full-length knee pad which bore the brunt of impact and would have helped my leg slide under the log, rather than the log stabbing straight into me.
LIGHT AT THE END
The nightmare came to an end when we hit a fast downhill part of the trail. Loose, large and slipper rocks re-lit the fire inside me as I opened the brakes. Another rider in front could hear me thrashing it down with plenty of “YEEAOW” and “WOOP WOOP”, so he decided to pull off to one side and let me pass. Again, when it comes to this type of terrain, I have to let the trike travel in its own line with minimal correction. It’s less safe trying to create my own line and resist the terrain – solid obstacles will always win over my tender body. With three wheels I’m guaranteed to hit something hard, so it then becomes a matter of how best to absorb the impact.
At the bottom of this section the rider I passed caught up and was amazed at how I navigated through the downhill. He complimented me on how amazing it was to witness it, I thanked him, and we continued on for the last 2km stretch to the finish line.
At this point I was just glad that this section was done with.
I later found out that the race coordinator was suppose to meet us there to redirect us around Meelup. Unfortunately, with the much faster speeds we were travelling all day, they couldn’t make it in time to meet us there – we’d outrun a 4WD!
Either way, I made the conscious decision that if we were going to start this section, then we were going to go through every pain-in-the-ass obstacle and feature in our way (even the 800 wide, 4m-long trench). There were a few moments were we considered taking cuts, but since I didn’t know where or what direction we were travelling in, I reverted to the automatic response of “Lets just keep going”.
Heading down the golf course to the finish line, I wasn’t feeling anything spectacular like last year. The crowd was much smaller than last year and all I wanted to do was get off the trike to stretch out my battered muscles. A few high fives, handshakes, congratulations and then an opportunity for me to pull away from the crowd for a moment by myself. As much as I wanted to be smothered with people, I needed some quiet time to reduce the buzzing in my brain.
What I was thinking was that my team did an absolute awesome job. There’s very few moments during the pain where I think about other peoples’ struggle, but this was one of those proud moments where that’s all I could think about. There was no need for a massive celebration or group hugs – we had an unspoken understanding of our accomplishment.
Months of intense training and organisation between riders, coaches, race coordinators, my support team and all it’s logistics – not to mention the 4 days of action – had left my brain fried like an omelette. It wasn’t a race or a sprint, it was an over-extended mental marathon.
“INSPIRATIONAL” 4-DAY RUNDOWN
Part of me wants the attention to help my cause, but a bigger part of me wants to be appreciated like any other rider. My mission is to raise awareness for off-road handcycling, have it integrated into mountain-biking events, and get it to the point where it’s no longer a novelty or sideshow. Thinking about it now, with every year that passes, the more accustomed I become to trail riding, and the more familiar people become with handcycles and less amazed by the ‘disabled guy’, the closer I am to accomplishing my mission.
Many times throughout and in between the 4 days of riding, people would pass me with pleasant remarks and words of encouragement. I notice that people who knew handcycling would simply cheer on my team and I – like they would with anyone else riding. For people who have only encountered me a few times, I am an “inspiration” to them. I know these remarks come from a good heart, and I am in no way attacking these remarks, but people need to know that I’m not out there to inspire people.
If I inspire people to accomplish greater things or help them push through adversity, then great! But this is a by-product of what I’m out there to do.
If you want me to really inspire you, then I’ll come do a 1-hour presentation about my challenges and adversity. While I’m on the trails, I’m simply a mountain biker!
We need to remove the stereotype that people with disabilities are amazing superheroes just for doing something we consider “normal” – we’re not, we’re simply people that do what has to be done for a dignified and quality life. Sure, if you compare an athelete with a disability to an athlete without a disability, there will be some remarkable differences – but don’t tell me that one works harder than the other! Let’s stop comparing people and start appreciating each person’s accomplishment based on their own individual merit.
Maybe I’m just bad at taking compliments…