Today’s stage always looked like one of the easier days: 90km, wide gravel roads for 60km but constantly undulating. The talk around the camp was that it suited road racers and that a breakaway might stay away- not exactly my kind of stage then!
With that in mind I decided to race my own race. 8am we were underway, already scorching hot above 30 degrees. The break went away early, about 9 to start but settled at 6 people. At first I was following wheels but after seeing that there were lots of fast corners, I took to the front for a clearer view ahead. Kilometres went by and I was still on the front. Everyone must have thought I was stupid but I hate speed alterations so setting the pace suited me. The terrain was rolling with pretty testing climbs, up to about 2 minutes but a gradient that I could power up.
The breakaway had about 3min 30sec at one stage and noone seemed to want to chase them down. Cory was the highest placed rider in the break and no threat to the top 3. I hardly looked back while I was riding but when I did I was surprised to see there were only about 10 guys left and some of those seemed to be suffering. Maybe my legs were good today?
After 30km I looked back and I had a gap, completely unintentional but I was content with that and just kept pushing on at the same pace. Through bottle depot 1, I had clear space in front and behind. No chance of catching the group, I thought. 5km on the gap was 2:00 then a bit later 1:50, then 1:45. I was still feeling good and happy to crank it out. At the 60km mark we had bottle depot 2, I made a very quick stop and after the gap came down.
One hill soon after I had them in sight and clocked it at just 30 sec but after that they seemed to up the pace. Given the quality of the riders in the break I didn’t think I’d catch them but I didn’t want to get caught either. Then suddenly I saw a green jersey ahead, one if the Austrian riders had dropped off the group. It didn’t take me long to catch him and he stuck on my wheel for a while until we hit a more technical section where I decided to try and get the gap, which worked.
The last 10km was tough as I was low on energy and with 3km to go I finished my water but I could cope with that. One more long, steady climb and I saw the finish line, crossing in 6th place and about 6min behind 1st & 2nd and 4min behind 3-5. Mike Mullkens was a very popular winner today, he was never won a stage despite several coming close many times. Cory was 2nd, showing how strong he is. I’m really happy with 6th, the competition here is really crazy and a top 10 puts you among the best riders in the world.
Camp tonight is literally the middle of nowhere. It’s a deserted mining town and the only thing here is a lake, which was great for swimming in. It was great to finish early as temperatures today were crazy high, 45 degrees in the shade and someone had 52 on their Garmin while riding! I’ve never experienced anything like it! Even at 9pm the temperature was still 29 degrees.
Stage 8, the penultimate stage, is going to be another hot one. It is short again but more technical so should take longer. It will be interesting to see how the legs feel after today!
The penultimate stage. Everyone is feeling that the end is close but there is still 230km left to ride.
Today is the shortest ride of the event, just 87km, but not the easiest by any means. The first 60km was set to be “extreme rough” from the handbook. In other words, slightly technical!
Same as usual at the start: 8am mass start, full gas from the gun. I struggled to stay with the group but felt better than some days so just about managed it. Mike Mullkens went out, no one chased him. Then a little later, the race leader Ivan also went which I think took everyone by surprise. No one followed him, he is really strong and I don’t think anyone felt capable of keeping up.
I was at the back of the bunch and a few different people were setting the pace, including Cory Wallace who has been consistently strong this year. After about 20km the group was down to 10-15 people and we starting hitting steeper climbs that split the group. I always struggle on the steep stuff so lost the first guys but managed to hang on to a few others. It became pretty rough, the descents were great as you really had to pick a good line. I was riding around similar people, sometimes dropping them on descents to be caught again on the climbs which was a little frustrating, especially when people were intentionally blocking me from passing.
Through a the first feed station I didn’t need to stop, so caught several people in the process. I was feeling good on everything except the really steep climbing, of which there was quite a bit! The rough riding continued until about 45km when it started to flatten out and turn a little more sandy. After sticking it out on the big ring and smashing the pedals for a few minutes, I had 3 riders in sight which gave me motivation to keep pushing. I eventually caught them but at bottle depot 2 I had to refill my Camelbak, so lost a minute to them. On one technical rocky and sandy section I managed to catch the back up and we rode as a group of 4 for a while.
After 60km the terrain mellowed and from here to the finish at 87km it was all pretty boring but fast. The group worked well and we caught another rider at the final bottle depot at 75km. I was still feeling good, but there was no chance to attack as I’d just end up dragging everyone behind me. Into the final few kilometres there was a small section of Tarmac that a few people attacked on and from there it was every man for themselves. From our group I finished 3rd which I think put me 8th overall on the day. Satisfactory but nothing incredible. Ivan was the stage winner with Mile Mullkens recovering from a puncture to take 2nd place and Cory was 4th.
Today was the last of the technical riding. For the final stage it’s dirt roads all the way with some sealed roads towards the end. 140km to go, the end is almost in sight!
The final day. 8 days of hard riding to get to this point.
In the briefing the previous evening, we found out the details of the starting procedure. The organisers decided to change the format for the last day in an effort to get riders to finish around the same time of day. We were split into groups of 10 based on overall GC. Being 11th meant I was in the penultimate group to start at 9:45 with 15 minute gaps between groups.
Discussion during the evening was all about this setup, who was in which group, what tactics would come into play and who could/ would win. I think it’s fair to say among the top riders, it was not a popular idea. It would be impossible for riders to tell who was leading, until afterwards. Given the stage profile and description, “getting dropped” was a real worry for the later groups. Also there was nothing really to gain, except starting faster riders off in much hotter temperatures. The start times for the lowest placed riders was only 30min before the usual start time of 8am.
The stage was 140km, mostly flat with a significant climb after 70km and all dirt roads, which we were told were in good condition. Because of the good roads, I pumped my tyres up harder to give some extra speed. We were also warned about the wind as it is ALWAYS a block headwind from Laura to Cooktown. Even by 7am it was getting really hot and by 9am it was well above 30.
When it finally came for our group to start we all had a chat and decided that we would stick together and work as a group- everyone staying together would get us back quicker. We set off and things started well, although it was soon apparent that the road was not great and there were corrugations. Despite the road being 5m wide, it was single file and struggling to find a smooth line. The corrugations were some of the worst yet and my hands were sore. The wind was also pretty intense. When it was my turn to ride on the front it was a real battle, but speeds were still around 30kph thanks to being in a group.
The group was working well though, everyone understood the importance of staying together on such a long stage. After 25km disaster happened, I was physically unable to turn the pedals, something had happened to the bike. I had no option but to jump off. First thoughts were seized BB or pedals but both were fine. Free hub next, also fine. I was baffled! After removing the rear wheel I discovered the cassette lock ring had come undone, jammed against the frame and stopped me from pedalling, not something I’ve ever had happen before. All I could do was tighten it up by hand, which was really difficult. By the time it was sorted the group was just a speck in the distance. I wouldn’t have asked them to stop for such a big problem. Had this been any other day, I could just tag onto a group straight away, but not today with the different starting procedure.
So now I was on my own and with 115km to go, not a nice situation to be in. I considered waiting for the last group, but it would be a long wait and I could easily loose them too. So I set off alone, average speed dropped by 8kph but I was still working hard against the constant wind. The track was straight, bumpy and horrible! I knew I’d get caught by the group behind, it was a matter of when and if I’d be able to keep pace. Kilometre after kilometre passed by and nothing really changed. After about 65km I could see the group on the distance behind, I was hoping to make it over the climb first but I was caught just after 70km as the hill began.
The pace in the group was fairly relaxed, I sat in and felt reasonable although I was tired after so long on my own. 75km another problem, I ran out of fluids. A feed was not too far away so I hoped I’d be ok. At 80km my rear wheel jammed again, bugger! I stopped and then realised the group had stopped too.Wow, cheers guys! A quick fix and I was back on the group, around the corner there was a bottle refill- things were looking up! After leaving, despite eating when I could, I realised I was on the verge of “bonking”. I rammed a gel down quickly but I was suffering. On the climb Andrej Foitek was even pushing me up, trying to keep me in the group.
I was just about hanging in there, the last of the climb was nearly over! The wheel jammed again. Fantastic! I told the group to go ahead, I’d already held them up long enough. I fixed the wheel the best I could and headed off again, now the very last rider on the road. 50km to go.
I knew long ago that I’d be dropping down several places, that really was not what concerned me as I just wanted to finish. The 100km marker passed and with it, more rough corrugations. The last 40km were hell, part tarmac and part gravel and with the most persistent headwind I’d ever ridden in. I was running low on food, but thankfully a feed station came just in time at 110km. A few muesli bars and some watermelon stuffed down and off to go again. Each kilometre was a real target and when it came down to the final few and I had a view on the finish, I was so grateful. Of course there would be no easy finish as the final 1km was a super steep 30% ramp to a viewpoint over Cooktown. It was painful but eventually I reached the top. 140km in just under 6hrs and all of it (except the first 25km) was absolute hell.
In the end I’d lost over a hour to most people and dropped down from 9th to 11th overall. I picked a really bad day to have a mechanical, but I’d still finished the Crocodile and with just 5 days rest after a 24hr. It was a great experience and I had some amazing highs and lows. I think I’ll be back to conquer my demons. I was really lacking the initial burst of speed needed to stick with the main bunch when it really mattered but with the exception of the last stage, I showed good endurance. I showed that I can compete with the top racers in a stage race, with the prestige that the Croc carries.