The Redback: Mountain bike racing in Alice Springs
The more I read the more nervous I became. “We strongly recommend tubeless tyres”, said the official event guide. “You’ll be stuffed if you don’t have slime in your tyres”, said an old race report on CyclingTips. “Be prepared for endless punctures if you aren’t running tubeless”, read a blog post. The mountain bike trails of Alice Springs, it seemed, were as famed for their tyre-shredding thorns as they were for the sand and rocks they ran through. And I was far from prepared.
I wasn’t running tubeless tyres — my wheels, I’d been told, weren’t compatible — and the spare tubes I brought with me weren’t filled with sealant. But I’d run out of time — the race was upon me and I had little choice but to wing it and hope for the best.
The Redback is a four-day, six-stage mountain bike race held in the central Australian town of Alice Springs. It’s run by Rapid Ascent, the same folks that put on the Vertical K riding/running event I’d done late last year, and as with Vertical K, the team at Rapid Ascent was good enough to help my brother Brendan and I out with our entries.
I wasn’t just underprepared in terms of my equipment — I’d also barely turned the pedals in the preceding six weeks, thanks to being on the road at the Tour de France. And of the very few rides I’d done, just one was on the MTB. But from what I’d heard, The Redback was a race that attracted a real mix of abilities and Brendan and I wouldn’t be too out of place.
I was keen to get things started; to get through that first stage with tyres and body in tact, to give myself some confidence that I’d be able to make it through the whole thing. I started the race wholly unconcerned about my position in the general classification … with the one caveat that I didn’t want to finish dead last.
Brendan and I slotted ourselves into the back half of the field as we waited for stage 1 to begin. A quick police escort through town, a turn off the main road and then, already well ahead of us, the big-hitters flew off the front, the field thinning out in response.
It all came back together as we hit the first section of trail, a steep rocky obstacle causing much of the field to unclip before the single track had even begun. We crawled through those opening kilometres, a long line of nervous riders trying to find a rhythm on the technical, rocky trail. It was probably the most challenging terrain of the entire six-stage race.
The field eventually spread out again and we were able to find our place in the field. It was nice to be able to take our own lines and to not have the constant stress of more technically proficient riders sitting on our tail.
It was a tough slog that opening stage, the near-30-degree temperatures making the going even tougher than it might have been. I felt strong in the middle, flowier section of the stage, and slogged through the final kilometres to cross the line in a touch over two and half hours.
While I’d gone into the race unconcerned about my placing overall, I was interested in a bit of friendly competition with Brendan. The last time we raced against each other — me running up Mt. Donna Buang and him riding — we’d been separated by less than a minute (<1%), with Brendan the victor. I was expecting another tight contest. Unfortunately Brendan struggled in the heat on that opening stage of The Redback and came in 13 minutes behind me. For the remaining five stages we each focused on riding our own race, not worrying about beating one another. To be honest, I was just glad to get through that opening stage in one piece. I hadn't had any of the punctures or side-wall blowouts I'd been fearing, nor any other mechanicals or crashes. I was taking that as a win.
Duration: 58 seconds
As a roadie with a penchant for riding uphill, this was the stage I was most looking forward to: a 300m individual time trial up the steep Anzac Hill, a few hours after stage 1. Being so short, the stage wouldn’t really have much bearing on the overall classification, but I was still determined to give it everything I had.
We walked the course beforehand to get a sense of where the steepest parts were, hoping to pace our efforts on the punishing 11%+ grade. Even then I went out too hard, fading towards the top of the steepest section, and grovelling over the line. I was surprised to learn that I’d set the equal fastest time to that point.
I’d been aiming for less than 70 seconds, and managed 58. The winner would go on to do it in 42 seconds with my time good enough for a placing just outside the top 20.
I’d recovered well from the first day’s exertions and was looking forward to another time trial: this one back on the trails rather than on a sealed climb. I’d managed to get blisters on my thumbs the previous day, and taped them up to allow more comfortable riding. By the end of the race I’d be three Band-Aids thick on each thumb.
My goal for the stage 3 ITT was to pass more people than I was passed by. I’d give the stage a red-hot go but with another stage that evening (and two big days to come), I wasn’t going to cook myself for some negligible benefit.
I passed the first rider less than a kilometre in and started counting. I’d ride hard when I was on my own, and take a moment to rest each time I caught someone. I’d pass when safe, tick up the counter in my head, then power on in search of the next rider. It all proved thoroughly motivating, always having someone to chase down.
The course itself was considerably easier than the first day — far less technical and far flowier. Deep sand pits on sections of 4WD track proved challenging at times but I quickly learnt the best way to navigate them — relax your hands, keep the front wheel straight, and let the bike do its thing. No use fighting it.
A tough headwind at the start meant a beautiful tailwind for the dash back to the finish, allowing me to pick off a couple more riders in the final sprint back to the Alice Springs Golf Course. By the end of the 22km I’d passed 24 riders (we were set off at 30-second intervals) and I’d been passed by just two.
More importantly, I’d got through another stage without punctures, mechanicals or crashes, and for that I was becoming increasingly grateful.
Later that evening, as the sun set on another beautiful day, we returned to the golf course to ride the same course as the stage 3 ITT, albeit as a mass-start race, in the dark. I was nervous about this one — I was desperate to keep my crash-free streak going, and I knew that some of the trails, despite being easier than day one, were going to be pretty interesting in the dark.
It was a timid start as riders battled for position in the sandy opening kilometres, headlamps illuminating little but the dust kicked up by the stampeding pack. I settled into the conga line of riders, trying to do everything I could not to bungle each technical section, for fear of holding up those behind.
An overly aggressive rider a few spots ahead of me barked orders at those ahead of him. “Come on! Let’s go! Keep going!”, he yelled. It was all thoroughly unhelpful and only added to the stress — everyone was doing their best; no one was stopping suddenly with the aim of inconveniencing those behind. His aggression was even more jarring when contrasted with the poise and grace of sponsored rider Shaun Lewis, who broke his chain at the start line and had to thread his way through a field of more than 100 less-skilled riders. His politeness, from a rider with far more to lose than the rider barking orders at us mid-pack, left a lasting impression.
Me? I still felt a little timid on the bike, not overly confident on the tight corners, my hesitation at least partially motivated by a desire not to take too many risks. My mind wandered every so often and I would yell at myself to concentrate, to focus on the task at hand. When a rider ahead of me crashed hard on a rocky descent, flipping over his bars and landing hard on his back, it was a timely reminder of the importance of concentration.
The sandy sections I’d found easy earlier in the day proved considerably more challenging at night — picking a good line seemed harder. But there were plus sides to racing in the darkness, too. The full moon rising over the MacDonnell Ranges, the long line of bike lights slowing threading its way into a climb in the distance — it all would have made for quite a sight had I the time for more than just a fleeting glance.
More than ever, my goal for the night stage was to get through unscathed. Another rider in front of me crashed on the final descent, another reminder to take things easily. But again, I crossed the finish line incident free — no punctures, no mechanicals and most importantly, no crashes.
It was more than a relief after a stressful hour or so on the bike. The woman who yelled “I’m alive!” as she crossed the line summed it up perfectly.
At nearly 50km long, stage 5 was the longest of the race. I went into the day with a plan of taking it easy to begin with and pacing myself throughout. And, as with the days previous, I also wanted to minimise the risks I took, to ensure I didn’t take any tumbles.
A few kilometres into the stage I passed fellow Melbournian (and fellow roadie-turned-MTBer) Evan Henley who was sitting by the side of the trail wrapping a bandage around his calf. “You alright?!” I yelled out as I passed by, noting he was receiving assistance. “I’ve got a hole in my leg!”, he replied with a smile.
I’d find out later that Evan continued on after his little spill, but was stopped shortly afterwards by medical staff who recommended a visit to hospital to clean out the wound and get some stitches. He’d get out of hospital later that day but, frustratingly for him, his Redback was done.
As had been the case for much of the race, stage 5 featured a combination of nice flowing sections of single track, with rocky, technical sections and the odd sandy 4WD track thrown in.
Several times throughout the stage I found myself looking up from the track in front and being surprised at just how nice the scenery was. There’s an intimidating beauty to the arid semi-desert of the Australian Outback — the remoteness of it, the low, sparse shrubs, the angular rocky outcrops. The fact I rode most of the last hour alone only added to the feeling of remoteness; to the feeling that it was me against this wild, unforgiving landscape.
I wouldn’t get to appreciate the views for long though — each time I looked up I’d wobble off the track momentarily, a reminder that I needed to stay focused on the job at hand. On the plus side, I’d finally started to feel more confident on the single track and was riding smarter and more efficiently than I had all race. Maybe it was the fact the trails were a little more forgiving that day, or maybe I was just starting to get the hang of it, but it felt nice to get into that rhythm and to tick off the kilometres, almost in a trance-like state.
I faded a little in the second half of the stage, my lack of fitness finally showing, but when we turned onto a flat, smooth and sealed bike path for the final kilometres back into Alice Springs, I had more than enough in the tank to wind it up and pass a few riders in the dash to the line. Five stages down, one to go, and still no crashes, mechanicals or punctures.
It doesn’t rain very often in Alice Springs — it can be years without a drop one local told us — but it did rain the night before the final day of the race. When we woke to get ready for that final stage, dark clouds hung ominously over the nearby range and the air was heavy with the smell of rain.
It drizzled a little as we rolled out of town under police escort. But far from being a hindrance, the rain actually worked in our favour. What little moisture fell on the red earth helped to tamp down the sand and the dust, making the tracks a little firmer under tyre.
I was riding well, confidently, the kilometres ticking surely away. And then, suddenly, I couldn’t turn the pedals. I looked down to see my chain slinking its way off the chainring, coming to rest into a sad little pile on the ground in front of me. Closer inspection showed that my rear derailleur had found its way into the spokes of my back wheel, somehow breaking the chain in the process.
I quickly resigned myself to a long walk to the next drink stop where I’d, hopefully, be able to get a lift back to town. I was convinced my day was done. But then it wasn’t.
A passing rider stopped when he saw me standing by the side of the track and asked what I needed. As luck would have it he had an old spare 10-speed chain link he’d been trying to get rid of for years and, in my misfortune, he’d found the perfect opportunity. Brendan helped me rejoin the chain, I bent the derailleur back into shape as best I could, and we were rolling again.
The shifting certainly wasn’t perfect — only four of the 10 cogs were usable — but I was able to continue, gingerly. I jammed my chain in my front derailleur a short while later, cursing my bad luck as I stood by the side of the track trying to unjam it. Brendan again came to the rescue and before too long I was rolling again, hoping that the last of the mishaps was behind me.
I guess Brendan must have caught some of my bad luck on that final stage as he copped a puncture just a few kilometres after my two chain issues. Between the two of us we’d lost a whole chunk of time. But with neither of us concerned about where we finished we just took our time and rolled through those final kilometres, each at our own pace.
It wasn’t all easy — the steep, rocky technical sections, the surprisingly icy wind and rain, a drivechain I wasn’t confident I could push — it all made for tough going. But soon the trails opened out again and the end was in sight. I crossed the line well back in the field, but I was still satisfied — I’d finished all six stages, I hadn’t crashed once, and I’d avoided the dreaded punctures I’d been so worried about.
I still don’t know exactly where I finished overall — I know it wasn’t last though. I probably could have pushed myself harder and achieved a better result, but I was more concerned with having fun and staying safe, and I’d achieved both of those aims. Even with my final-day mechanical I’d been much luckier than many riders.
I had to feel sorry for one guy who managed four punctures on day 1, ran 10km of the stage, stopped to help someone else and lost his sunglasses in his process, helped to evacuate an injured/ill rider later in the race, and then, on stage 5, managed to dislocate his shoulder in a fall. Poor bloke.
I’d been slightly worried in the lead-up that my lack of training would be a problem but in the end I found it was my poor technical skills that were the limiting factor. I felt strong on the climbs and in between the technical sections, but I could never really hold a hard effort for long because I was always having to slow down, to ensure I didn’t bin it on some sketchy rock-laden section.
I probably spent more time on a MTB at The Redback than I have in the past few years combined. And that volume of riding served as a great reminder about the key differences between MTBing and riding on the road. As road riders, it’s pretty easy to get by without concentrating too hard, when you’re riding on your own or in a small group at least. Take your eyes off the road to enjoy the view while you’re climbing? No problem. Do that on a MTB and you’ll be tumbling down a rocky cliff faster than you can say “Check out the view!”
I had to constantly remind myself to concentrate on the job at hand, to focus on the path just a few metres ahead of me, to look through the corners, to balance my weight properly. I found it mentally taxing to do that for hours on end, and when I got physically tired, it made it even harder to maintain that mental concentration. But I relished the challenge and thoroughly enjoyed by time at The Redback.
One of the things I enjoyed most about the race was the spread of abilities. From sponsored riders all the way to 70-year-old guys who were just keen to get around and enjoy themselves, it was an impressive mix. Just as impressive was the fact that very few people seemed to take things too seriously, even those at the pointy end of the race.
I’m certainly keen to head back to Alice Springs at some point, to ride the trails again and to take it all in. It’s a surprisingly beautiful part of Australia — to me at least — and my biggest regret is not taking more time to appreciate just how great the scenery was. One thing I did appreciate was the weather — while it was 10 degrees and miserable in Melbourne, it was 25 degrees or warmer just about every day in Alice Springs. And it’s not even spring yet.
In closing, I’d like to say a big thank you to the folks at Rapid Ascent for putting on a great event and for looking after Brendan and I. And, of course, thanks to you for stopping by and having a read. Stay posted to the site for a video I shot throughout my time at the race.
Until next time!