The Kowalski Classic is the ultimate single track marathon with some of the very best trails around. It’s a must do on anyones MTB race calendar. Our man on the ground, Sean Hill shares his personal account of the day with us.
The second weekend of October just gone saw me making my way to the nation’s capital, Canberra (and perhaps the MTB capital too) for my second ever XCM race. I’d done the Highland fling last year – 55 kilometres of farmland, firetrail and fun near Bundanoon, NSW. More importantly, I finished 5 minutes short of the 4 hour time I hoped to complete it in. That was a good introduction to marathon racing, the atmosphere and the people who regularly front up to ride bikes in the bush.
The Kowalski seems to be one of the big name events on the calendar every year, so I signed up and paid my money to do the Half – 50 kilometres of singletrack crisscrossing the pine plantations just outside Canberra. I wanted to improve my times (and not feel like my legs were going to seize up) so I made sure to fit in as much riding as full time work and family commitments would allow.
For me, this consisted of perhaps 3 rides a week of at least 20km, usually solo, so I could try to put my head down and set a fairly quick pace (for me at least). I’d also try at least one longer ride every second week or so of 40-50km, these were interesting at times. I’ve got a photo from one ride of me buckled up at the side of the the trail with cramps in both legs, wasn’t fun at the time, but I figure better than mid race!
Not Man Flu
Three weeks out from race day, I was struck down with a bout of the flu. Not man-flu either, honest to goodness on the couch, feel like death all over influenza. Thinking a 50km MTB race would probably kill me, I jumped on the website and changed my race entry to the Quarter Kowalski – 25km looked much more reasonable from the perspective of my sickbed.
Come race weekend, the rain and wind had caused the event to be postponed – arrgh! Why did I change my entry, I’m sure I can do 50km a month from now went through my mind. The weeks before the revised date of the race saw me slowly get my fitness up again, though I was a little disappointed I was “only” doing 25km. No matter, I told myself, treat it as a fun ride for the first time and there’s always next year.
The drive north from Queanbeyan leads to hills covered in pine trees – very different from our sandstone bushland in Sydney. The event centre is in farmland and was a hive of activity – the 100km riders had already left when I arrived, and the 50 and 25km riders were getting antsy, riding about, checking tyre pressures, carrying out last minute checks on their bikes and gear.
I did the same, then made my way up toward the start line for the race briefing. While I did have some pre race jitters, I felt pretty good. I had decided that since I was “only” doing the 25km distance, I was just going to not go too hard and enjoy the trails and the experience.
And We’re Off!
Once we had been reminded of the correct passing etiquette (handy for later, for sure) the 50km riders headed out – there was around 400 entrants, so it took a while, with waves of 50 or so starting every few minutes, disappearing into the wind and dust up the fire road. Once they were away, it was our turn. The 25km riders were a much smaller crew – there was about 130 entrants, so I was hoping it would mean less congestion once we hit the singletrack.
It was also at this point I had a moment where I thought to myself, I might have a chance of a decent finish placing – I thought if I was in the top 20 I would be pretty happy. The race marshal called us up to the line and the junior riders moved to the front (cheeky buggers) to get away from the rest of us. A bit of pre race banter and we were off!
The first 2km is basically straight uphill, a climb of just under 100m on fireroad – perhaps a choice by the organisers to thin the numbers before the singletrack begins. The first kilometre of most rides for me sees me blow up, then settle into a rhythm, so I wasn’t enjoying the climb at all! On approaching the top, there was a traffic jam where the singletrack began – this set the tone for the next several kilometres, as everyone tried to find their place.
The juniors were champing at the bit to go around everyone, and stragglers from the 50km were making their way through as well. It certainly made for some stop-start riding, especially where the trail kicked up suddenly, or some hairpins had to be negotiated.
The brief stretches of fireroad would see a bit of sprint to try and overtake those riders who hadn’t been able to move out of the way on the singletrack. It wasn’t until perhaps the 6-8km distance that the congestion eased, and the race route went under the Kings highway to Sparrow Hill.
Finding My Groove
It was around here that people had really set into their groove – there was a rider on an orange bike, who had a very similar pace to me, so I decided to stick with him. He was on a dually and I ride a hardtail, so while he would get away on the descents, I managed to make it up on the climbs and catch him.
I really think that doing this helped me maintain a decent speed – it’s sometimes too easy when climbing alone to lose momentum and not even realise you’ve slowed right down, while trying to keep up is a great incentive.
He knew I was there, so we chatted a little when we could, and both managed to overtake slower riders at the same times. For someone who had never ridden there before, having someone out in front made a big difference, even when he had gotten ahead on the descents. It removed a lot of the unknown on what was up ahead, so I could maintain good flow.
Did I mention how good the trails were? I’m used to eucalypts, sandstone and rocky, sometimes technical trails at my local. These trails were bumpy and had rocks and roots in places, but the trail builders have done an amazing job with swooping, flowing descents that wind in and out of the pines.
Even after the recent heavy rain, there were only occasional short boggy sections. The singletrack would be broken up with sections of fireroad that allowed you to catch your breath after a climb, or rest your legs after a long descent out of the saddle. And to think we had the merest taste of what is on offer there.
Halfway Point-Nice Surprise!
After the halfway point we reached a junction where the 50km riders turned right, while we went left. The marshal told me as I went through that I was 16th – hang on, what!? While I’d said I’d like top 20, I didn’t think it would actually happen! I called ahead to orange bike guy that we were 15th and 16th, I think it made us dig a little deeper into the energy reserves to maintain pace.
I had my second gel (first one before the start), though I’d have preferred to have had it before I dropped into a rocky section of track, eating and riding was a challenge I need to practice more!
We crossed back under the highway, only 6km to the finish, and straight into a section of singletrack that climbed for just over a kilometre. It was here that I really properly felt tired, like I was about to hit the wall, but managed to keep going and maintaining pace following Dave (I found out at the end of the race what his name was!).
We grumbled our way to the top, and he asked if I wanted to lead on the next descent, to which I replied I was more than happy to follow, besides he’d been in front this far. By this time the numbers had thinned right out, we had been passed by a couple of the 100km riders but hadn’t seen any of our fellow 25km for quite a bit.
The last singletrack was more of the Kowalski trademark, sweeping through the forest descending for around 2km before emerging onto the fire road back to the finish line. There was a short nasty little hill here too, it only kicked up about 30m or so but I felt every bit of it. The sight of the finish line in the distance was enough to spur me on – I could see where I’d be able to stop pedalling.
Finish Line – and An Even Nicer Surprise!
A right turn off the road and a last gentle descent across a bumpy paddock and I crossed the finish line, tired but happy with how I felt. I’d pushed myself to maintain a good speed but didn’t collapse in a heap at the end. Not a bad effort, I thought. I parked my bike and wandered over to the timing tent to see how I went.
Dave, the rider I’d ridden with for most of the race was there already. “You came 8th” he said. What? My brain, although a bit tired had trouble processing this – how did that happen? I was a bit shocked to be honest, I was always the kid who was just there making up the numbers when it came to sport. Now I know this was just the Quarter Kowalski, only 25Km, not serious distances like 50 or 100km, but for me, having been away from mountain biking for close to 15 years and only back into it for 2, I felt like I had really achieved something.
I rang home and told them, I was so elated, I reckon I gave them a rapid fire description of nearly my whole ride in 2 minutes. My placing was adjusted later to 9th as one more rider came in who started later, but I was in the top ten and was thrilled to bits!
Once I stopped grinning (who am I kidding, I grinned all the way home and probably for the next few days) I grabbed a coffee and soaked up the atmosphere at the end of the race – everyone’s happy to have finished and swapping stories from the race. It’s a great catch up for a lot of people from all over. We cheered as the winner of the mens 100km came charging in and I saw a couple of my local riding buddies finish the 50km.
The time to head home came too soon, so with that tired (but good tired) feeling I packed up my bike and started the drive home. I’d ridden the race far better than I had ever thought I could, and was already planning for next year!
The Kowalski classic is an amazing experience. I can’t recommend it enough – while it definitely is a challenge, with a little bit of training, the 25km event is a great introduction to XCM racing and the people who live and breathe it. I’ll be lining up again next year…
Author: Sean Hill
Sean Hill started riding far too many years ago on an all rigid Shogun Trailbreaker, when suspension was still a fanciful idea. After a break of quite a few years (more like 10+) due to not bothering to replace his stolen Giant dually, he finally bought another bike 3 years ago and rekindled his love of riding. He also wonders why he didn’t do it ages ago! In between work and family, he spends most of his time riding his local trails at Loftus and Menai.