Words by Nic Learmonth | Images by Rapid Ascent

Winter is the season of discontent for most mountain bikers in Australia, thanks to all that wind and rain and sub-par temps. But for the singletrack fanatics in Alice Springs in Central Australia, winter is the season of racing.

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The mighty MacDonnell Ranges are always there, looming over you in Alice! The way the scene changes colour as the sun drops is incredible.

Alice in winter

By May, when other parts of Oz are taking a right old beating, in the Red Centre smatterings of summer rain have damped down the dust, and clear blue skies are the general rule until next summer. By May the daytime temperatures in Alice are in the high 20s, and the locals are starting to complain about ‘the cold’. Winter conditions like that put the muddy grey days of winter riding in Melbourne and Sydney to shame. Suddenly flights to Alice for you and your bike start to feel as justifiable as post-ride beers and chips.

Alice Springs locals love their winter riding, and the event calendar reflects that. Alice’s mountain bike club, the Central Australian Rough Riders, runs a marathon, a 6-hour, a 12-hour night race, a three-day Easter stage race and a point-to-point series – and they’re all awesome. But for many interstate riders, Rapid Ascent’s Ingkerreke Commercial MTB Enduro is the drawcard.

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A cloud in the sky during an Alice winter is enough to make the locals stop and stare. You’re almost guaranteed perfect riding conditions, with clear days topping out in the high 20s.

 

The Ingkerreke Commercial MTB Enduro

With seven stages over five days, the Ingkerreke (pronounced ‘in-gear-uh-kah’) is long enough to feel like a break, but not so long that you need more than week off work. Rapid Ascent has been running the Ingkerreke for years, so the event runs as smoothly as your bike does on that first post-drivetrain overhaul ride.

This year’s Ingkerreke attracted some fast elites, with Jo Bennett securing an overall win in the women’s division, ahead of Imogen Smith (second) and all-but-local Jess Douglas (third). In the men’s division, Taswegian past-winner Ben Mather took the honours after fighting off recently returned local Ryan Standish (second) and Veteran class winner James Downing (third – more results here). But one of the things we’ve always enjoyed about the Ingkerreke is that it’s not just a race for the sharp end. The Ingkerreke throws together elite riders, mid-fielders and keen mere mortals for a solid week of awesome riding in a beautiful place.

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Jo Bennet, on her way to another Ingkerreke victory, leading Imogen Smith through the ever-shifting, super-fast singletrack.

In contrast to 2013, which started with rain, this year’s first three days were dry – even us locals had to concede that the surface was a bit loose. As we slogged down the sand on Smith St at the start of stage one, we could practically hear the thoughts of the interstaters, who were trying hard not to dwell on all the suffering they were in for in the week ahead. But the groans transformed into grins at the 10km mark when we hit that Alice Springs singletrack.

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Cloud cover kept the first day cool; on days two and three the sun came out, cranking up the heat and restoring the local advantage. On day four a very un-Centralian rain toned down the heat, prompting the locals to resume their complaints about ‘the cold’. But rain is always good news for mountain bikers in Alice – it packed down that otherwise loose, tyre-swallowing sand and rejuvenated the singletrack in time for the final stage, which rode fast.

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The Ingkerreke’s infamous Anzac Hill sprint climb! A brutal 300 metres, but the view is worth it.

 

It’s all Central-ised

When it comes to logistics, racing in Alice Springs is so easy. Alice is small enough that all seven stages of the Ingkerreke can start within a 10-minute ride of wherever you’re staying, and you’ll be finishing your stages in time to lunch at a café. But if the town is small, its trail network is massive, and growing – it can easily accommodate a week of riding without repeating sections. There’s plenty on the track menu, too, from fast and flowing zip-lines and loose, off-camber turns, to tight, rocky and technical switchbacks and step-ups. You can taste every dish within just a few corners and then find yourself back at the top of the menu again. The riding has a raw backcountry feel that Victoria-based Scotsman Gareth Syme described as ‘like real mountain biking’.

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Singletrack and fire trail

Rapid Ascent used fire roads for early course sections to prevent singletrack congo lines. For the sharp-end, those fire roads were an opportunity to hustle; for the rest of us they were a chance to have a break and a yarn. Indeed, one-time-local Adam Nicholson said he was riding singlespeed because ‘there are more people to talk to in the mid-field’. (Adam spent his fire road time exchanging banter about gear ratios with his friend and fellow singlespeeder / bitter rival John.)

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Imogen Smith, Jo Bennet and Jess Douglas. Alice always attracts a classy, talented field.

Alice Springs’s steadily growing tangle of trails can be confusing to the uninitiated, though some tracks are now officially mapped and sign-posted. With so many new tracks added in the last few years, Ingkerreke vet Ben Mather described this year’s event as ‘a totally different race’ to the year of his previous win, in 2009. But combining a mountain biking visit with an event like the Ingkerreke means you can follow the pink tape through some of Alice’s finest sections of track without worrying about geographic dis/orientation.

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James Downing, Ryan Standish and Ben Mather.

This year’s Ingkerreke covered some of the best trails, old and new, while retaining some iconic sections of fire trail from previous years. And on the nights we weren’t racing, there were things on at the Chifley Alice Springs Resort event base, showcasing some of Alice’s local music talent, including local rider Mick Cafe.

For the full results from the 2014 Ingkerreke Commercial MTB Enduro, jump on in here.

Chris’s parting shot

So what is different about mountain biking in the Alice Springs? A lot has been written about that since Alice hit the radar a few years ago, but here’s my two cents: it’s cross-country riding at its purest. There are no big hills and no long technical descents, just endless undulations, pinches and flowing turns under a big sky. The riding surfaces vary, from hardpack to loose corners to short rockgardens to sand, and a bit of mud if you’re lucky. There’s nothing really nasty to spit you off, and the few serious obstacles have B-lines, but every corner promises something different, something to keep you on your toes.

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