In the last few years, as cyclocross has been growing steadily in New Zealand, it has been exploding across the ditch in Australia. As far as I know there have been no actual explosions, but its growth has seen entries in races such as the Dirty Deeds CX series in Melbourne rise from the teens to the hundreds since 2011. I'd been hoping to make it over to a race there for the last year, but it wasn't until this season that I was finally able to. Dates came out early for the Australian National CX Series and I saw that the opening rounds were in Melbourne on June 21/22 and thanks to some very generous support from Ricoh New Zealand, I was able to help internationalise the local Aussie scene by flying the Kiwi colours, and further spread the fuss about this southern hemisphere cyclocross by nudging elbows with our near neighbours.
Before I could go though, I had to prepare a bike to ride. While I've enjoyed riding and racing on my Yeti ARC-X for the last few years, I felt it was time to retire the beast, returning it to the snowy alpine pastures from whence it came. Next up was the recently released Niner RLT ("Road Less Travelled") disk brake-equipped 'cross bike. Well, not just a 'cross bike is what they say - gravel roads, commuting, 'cross racing if you like. It had been a while since I'd had a disk brake wheelset on a CX bike, and it had been a case of riding them into oblivion in the most borderline in-control fashion on MTB tracks of all shapes and textures. Needless to say, the road rims I had used didn't last and some replacements were necessary. Although I have some fine rim-brake tubular wheels at my disposal, they are unfortunately not very useful now - Paul Larkin came to the rescue with the HED Belgium C2 rims to wed to my Shimano XT hubs. Master wheelbuilder and celebrant sir Oli Brooke-White of Roadworks fame saw to it that proceedings ran smoothly, and even shared some words of encouragement on the day:
Behind the scenes was the ever tireless Jonty from Revolution Bicycles to help me with last minute assemblage of the steed. While I do endeavour to be prepared as much in advance for this kind of thing as possible, the combination of getting back into training after a hiatus due to sickness, and doing this:
meant I still had a few loose ends to tie down, and things to glue in place - such as the awesome FMB tubular tyres I have come to love in the year since I first felt the subtlety of their supplety beneath my wheels. Lastly but not leastly I was loaned the new biknd Jetpack bike bag by Mr C. Smith of Spoke fame. Comfy and padded the Niner was happily ensconced for the journey.
After a pub quiz introduction to Melbourne I made my way to the house of fellow Belgo-antipodean 'cross crusader Lewis Rattray for the weekend's activities. Probably the most experienced cyclocross racer in Australia, Lewis has witnessed its growth over the past few years from the inside, and has most likely been a large part of the reason for its success. We've always enjoyed a good in-field rivalry, off-field friendship, so we were both looking forward to going head to head once more.
Last year's Australian National Championships were held at Cranwell Park in North West Melbourne, and it was a slush fest of a race by all accounts. This time the course was host to the opening round of the National Series, also the Victorian State Championships, in completely different conditions - lush, dry grass below and clear sunny skies above. The course skirted across the face of a large sloping park, with two steep climbs and a whole lot of long straight sections with 180º corners at either end to punctuate what was clearly going to be a course for those with the most consistently powerful output.
I had the feeling it would be a tough race, not just from the relentless course but more importantly that some well-known riders were being called up to the startline. Reportedly the most competitive field at an Australian CX race to date, with the likes of Allen Iacuone and Chris Jongewaard, former professionals and riders from different disciplines have embraced cyclocross in a way that hasn't quite happened to the same extent here in NZ just yet.
The seeding system used for calling up riders had me significantly further down the list than I had hoped, and than I had been expecting as I assumed the otherwise officialness of the races would include going by the UCI points ranking. I don't know how long I would have been able to manage it at the front of the race, and there was plenty of room so in the end a third row start didn't make much of a difference to my race. Having only just got back into shape to do a race a week earlier at the local Hüttcross series in Wellington (more on this to come) I could feel early on that it was going to be a matter of survival and latching on to other riders and holding the pace as long as I could.
It didn't take long for the field to spread out, and I watched as my neme-cx Lewis ease away over the course of the first couple of laps. There were plenty of other riders to battle with however, and I managed to roughly hold my place from where I started.
One of the key things to be sure of when you pack and reassemble a bike after travelling is that you have tightened all bolts sufficiently. I had been confident of everything, evidently though my seatpost had held something in store for me during my practice laps and it wasn't until a couple of laps in that I found myself shrinking into a crouched position and had to call on the services of friend and experienced soigneur, mechanic and rider (and Belgian) Roeland Suys to bring me an allen key in the pit. After a short pause to raise and cinch, I was back in for what turned out to be the last two laps - doing my best to both catch up to the riders who had just slipped past, while also keeping an eye on those behind me looking to make a last ditch jump up the rankings. I made it over the finish line in a lower than desired 18th place, but satisfied that I had ridden consistently and with the less than ideal leadup to racing of late.
The race had definitely woken me and my racing legs up, given my lungs a good workout, and proven just how good the level over there. The following day promised the communal and party-like atmosphere that the DDCX races have become known for, as well as potentially a more technically challenging and varied course - which all sounded good to me.