Onwards and mudwards, as my friend Oli says, was the direction for the second round of the Australian National Cyclocross Series, held the day after round one but this time on the other side of town, at Darebin Parklands in Ivanhoe. Dirty Deeds CX have been putting on races there since 2010 and thanks to a spot of rain, with plenty of leafy greens and slippery browns (also evident at what were apparently some quite problematic public toilets) it was destined to be suitably different from the race the day before. Although not super muddy, corners were getting chopped up and spectators were on the chop and chanting at the hundreds of riders taking to the start line. In a similar fashion to NZ cyclocross races, and highlighting one of the differences between 'cross on this side of the world and in Europe, pretty much everyone is catered for on race day - from kids through to beginners and age group competitors, and the elite of both sexes, there are numerous races throughout the day all held on the same course. In Belgium, as a contrast, at the big races there are only the UCI categories (Junior, U23, Elite sometimes even without women's races) - age group and amateur riders have different races and courses on other days, which don't tent to overlap with each other.
There were far more spectators this time around, what with the location being closer and perhaps more conducive to good times. Tents abounded from all brands of bike and shop, with teams of riders or riders in team-themed kits swarming all over the place. I couldn't help but enjoy my first moments there standing around soaking it all in, partly in awe and partly full of hope for how much it has grown here and the likelihood that it will do the same back in New Zealand.
The women's race was a similar story to the day before, where I just had time to see Lisa Jacobs riding away from everyone before I headed back to Lewis's car to prepare and warm up before our race. On my way past the block of toilets I was reminded of Kenny, the movie about a plumber who works for a portaloo rental company, as I watched a couple of guys using brute force to dislodge a swathe of material and unblock the system - which had more or less formed a blanket over the ground in the surrounding area, its olfactory charms slithering and smothering through one's nostrils. It hadn't appeared to deter a bunch of people from practicing mediaeval arts and quarterstaff combat just a short distance away however, perhaps their bladders were bigger than their bodices and codpieces.
I had time for a snack, and having brought some of the Peak Fuel cookies Fraser McMaster gave me (although they are shaped like bars, giving rise to what I imagine is a lifetime of existentialist pondering for the poor consumable items) I found myself in the ideal scenario of neither being too hungry nor too full. As simple as it sounds, it's occasionally a bit of a quandry.
At the start line we were called up based on the previous day's result, which meant I was in the same place again, about 3 rows back. I was feeling much more alive this time, as if the race had woken my body up from some sort of intensity slumber. The squidginess of the course appealed to me, and combined with a small but passionate group of cheering fans had me much buoyed of spirit.
I had no problems through the start, and even managed to scrape up a few places around the early corners - everyone was so tightly jammed together that it was just luck that dictated whether it was faster on the inside or outside line, and there wasn't all that much choice as a part of it. Inclined to have a better race than the day before, and seeing I wasn't far off the front of the race after the first lap, all further contributed to my much improved sensations. A gap soon began to open up to the next rider behind me, and occasionally a rider would slide out in front of me on one of the greasy, motley marzipan corners.
Tyres with a tread pattern to cater for mud were not ideal the day before, on this day however they were ideal.
But even excellent traction can be at odds with sloping ground and speed, and on an otherwise fairly innocuous corner I carried a little too much of the latter - the heavier cornering load just taking my front wheel with it for a fraction of a second, then releasing, then sliding, then superbike style knee grazing. I was hardly on the ground for long, but enough to have a rider slip by me and lose the train of the team Focus riders who I had just caught up to. Over the course of the last 3 or so laps I saw them creep away from me, riding in formation. At the same time though I saw them catch and pass the Rat, Lewis Rattray, one of the biggest fans of both beer and bowel movements I've ever met in an elite cyclist. He was looking strong earlier in the race, but his effort the day before and thus far in the race looked to now be catching up and causing him a few problems. Each lap I was significantly closer to him, and as he started to make occasional slip-ups this only increased further. Finally on the last lap I heard a curse from up ahead and when I rounded the corner saw him untangling his bars from the course tape. Still ahead of me leading into the final rocky climb, but looking to have exhausted most of his competitive spirit, I managed to make my way past a few hundred metres before the end, on the outside of a corner through loose red chip sand - almost losing my front wheel twice in doing so - and keeping ahead of him over the barrier and last few tight corners, secured a 10th place.
It was with a good deal more satisfaction that I cleaned my new Champion System kit that evening, and after a wild, stormy night the likes of which we hadn't even experienced in Wellington for some time, with trees and wheelie bins flying everywhere, the next day dawned sunny and drying of temperament.
The weather may have been cold, windy and wet, but there's something else almost imperceptibly different about Australia, and Australian 'cross. The popularity of the sport, driven by the surrounding cycling industry and sustained by the larger population, dare I say it yet again, was fantastic to witness. If indeed we are headed in the same direction back home then winters are looking bright in years to come.
Plus I saw a cat and a peacock on the roof of a cafe basking in the sun, so as far as I'm concerned Melbourne has everything.