Every mountain biker has an event that’s special to them, one that sticks out as a highlight amongst the years of bunting, finish lines and training rides. Perhaps it’s an event you do every year, maybe it’s an event you’ve just ridden once. It could be special because it’s a rare chance to ride with old friends, an annual reunion, maybe it was a race where you pushed yourself harder ever before, or it’s a yearly yardstick, a chance to compete with your previous best, maybe it’s special because the location is somewhere mind blowing.
For me, that special race is the Convict 100. This brilliant, long-established marathon race loops out of St Albans, a tiny village that’s one of the hidden gems of NSW. Sydney’s sprawl hasn’t conquered the divide of the Hawkesbury River yet, and this place hasn’t lost its charm.
It feels like a trip back through the ages; even though each bike on the small ferry across the Hawkesbury River has $5000 worth of mountain bike hanging off it.
The journey to and from the Convict is a tremendous part of our own sentimentality for this race. It feels like a trip back through the ages; even though each bike on the small ferry across the Hawkesbury River has $5000 worth of mountain bike hanging off it, the very act of piling onto a punt to cross the water still feels like an undertaking from a different time. With the setting sun making the sandstone ridges glow, you can easily imagine what it was like 150 years ago, when Wiseman’s Ferry was a far-flung commercial outpost of the Sydney colony, and the ferry was transporting wheat and salt meats, not carbon and lycra.
Even though the race itself is going to be hard – a furious effort to hold a wheel, a tough grind up sandy climbs – the journey out there into the stunning landscape of the Hawkesbury puts you in a different frame of mind. You cross the river, Sydney is now 100 years away, suddenly it’s tranquil, and any nerves about your race performance start to abate.
Eventually, excuses are made, tents are assembled in the dewy campground, last minute bike adjustments are done under a headlamp’s glow, and quiet falls on St Albans.
In deep Autumn, when the race is run, the Friday night before the Convict is invariably chilly. But the fire in the Settler’s Arms Tavern is always roaring, and the tiny pub, its stone imbued with 150 years of drinkers’ sweat, heaves with riders lifting beers and joking about carbo-loading for the race tomorrow, carefully counting their drinks, so as to not undo a couple of months’ training. The stories and bullshit flow, adding themselves to the encyclopaedia of tall tales these walls have already heard. Eventually, excuses are made, tents are assembled in the dewy campground, last minute bike adjustments are done under a headlamp’s glow, and quiet falls on St Albans.
A fog greets you in the morning. The warmth of the river meeting the cool night air creates a blanket of mist and gives the village a fairytale quality before the stillness soon gives way to frantic action; riders queue to piss, scramble to find shoes or helmets, peer skyward into the soup hoping to get a GPS signal, or fret about how many or few layers to wear against the morning cold. Horses watch on from the paddocks. I wonder what the locals make of it.
There’s no singletrack, none at all, but that’s not a negative, the weathered rocky fire roads are way more engaging than any ribbon of buff singletrack could ever be. Loose rocks pepper the edges of the trail, ruts and ledges give a natural rhythm, sandy water bars launch you into next Wednesday. The terrain is uniquely Sydney too, chunky sandstone under your wheels and rising up all around you in big cliff faces, long patches of sand that send tired riders careering across the trail. You drop from the ridge lines to the valley floor, descending like mad, then claw your way back up to the top again on brutalising, long climbs. You curse each one, but affectionately.
Much of the race follows the old convict road; racing on something so established, with so much history, feels somehow more consequential than simply riding loops in the bush on a purpose-built bermed racetrack. It’s one of those intangibles of this race makes it special, makes it stick in your mind.
Back in St Albans, 100km later, the presentation takes place under the branches of stout fig trees in the beer garden, a flock of chickens clucking off to one side. Riders lie with swollen legs extended in the shade, reluctant to join the procession back to the ferry queue and onwards to the bustle of Sydney. It’d be nice to stay, just for another night or two, wouldn’t it?
The Convict 100 is on again this year, Saturday 5 May, 2018. Entries are open now. See you there?
All photos by outerimage.com.au