In the lead up to every new event, there’s usually a theme that holds the hype together. This might be the attraction of series points, or supporting a local club. Some races trade off their history, while for others it’s about doing something new. While there were a lot of things that were new about the Kowalski Classic, the biggest talking point was the trails.
[private]The Kowalski Brothers have been building trails in the Canberra region since 1994. While this used to tick along fairly quietly, in more recent years there’s been a Kowalski explosion. This crew of shovel-wielding mountain bikers even have custom branded hoodies.
“I’ve been a Kowalski for almost a year now and it’s been a great thing to be part of,” reveals Tyno Hawke, outing himself as a member of the no-longer-so-secret crew of dedicated building buddies. “I get to hang out with a great bunch of people and make tracks that people love. The Kowalski Classic is just an extension of that – and Al’s truly disturbing endless tank of enthusiasm and energy.” Al is Alan Vogt, one of the main driving forces behind the Mont 24 Hour, this new marathon event and the trails they traverse.
The inaugural Kowalski Classic was held on the last Sunday of September just outside of Canberra. Half and full distances were on offer giving riders the chance to take in close to 90kms of purpose built trails in Sparrow Hill and Kowen Forest.
“What made the race so different to all of the other 100km races out there,” continues Tyno as we catch up after the finish line, “is that it’s almost entirely singletrack. It presents a completely different challenge to have a course where you have to be awake 100% of the time.” There was some fire road thrown in to remind riders to eat and drink, but it never seemed to last for long.
While the pre-event hype built on the appeal of the course, a few other extras added to the relaxed, biking-as-lifestyle vibe that made for a great weekend. Race rego took place at the nearby Bungendore Royal Hotel and, if you timed it right, included watching the AFL grand final with mates or trying your legs at Roller Racing out the back. The feed zones, filled with a collection of sweet and savoury treats of the type I might hope for at my next birthday party, were also a big hit. And then there was merch. A biddon, event branded stem cap (motivation to train for next year?) and a plastic phone sleeve meant you felt like a winner just for turning up.
A few things didn’t quite go to plan. While it took another well-known Canberra trail builder, Paul Cole, a rumoured five days to put signage out on the course, you needed to be looking up and ahead to follow the many twists and turns. Back where I was in the field, riders gave each other a holler if someone continued along a fire road, head down, chewing their new stem cap.
Up at the pointy end quite a few of the fitter folk took some wrong turns and rode more or less of the forest than intended. Hats off to Dylan Cooper (Rockstar Racing) and Peta Mullens (Anytime Fitness) for not only winning the event outright, but for staying observant when it was so easy to get distracted and roll with the flow.
Needless to say course marking and extra bunting will be ironed out for next year along with a few other tweaks to keep the racing fresh and fun. 12 months is a long time to wait for the next event though. What else do the Kowalskis have in store for the time between then and now?
Tyno comments that he’d like to see more riders enjoying a few different loops when they head out to these trails for a ride. “There are some real gems out there that get next to no riders most of the time, so there’s definitely scope to make some other fun options more popular.”
The Sparrow/Kowen network is becoming an increasingly popular social ride destination for Canberrans and out of towners. Trails and more trails are on the cards for the energetic Kowalskis, along with maintenance of the current collection. Chats are happening with the Parks and Conservation Service (who ‘own’ the land) about formalising the network, creating a trail head and producing maps.
The Kowalski’s endless passion for building trails is only usurped by their desire to share them. Rather than feel protective of trails built for specific races, Al sees the value in other event teams adding a sense of diversity to the ways the trails are enjoyed – provided there is mutual respect in both directions.
“We’re not opposed to other organisers running events over the trails we build,” says Al. “In fact we’ve really helped groups like Chocolate Foot (with course design, marking and event operations) and AROC (with course selection). These event organisers understand and appreciate the time and effort we contribute building these trails. They were very respectful and accommodating in their approaches to us with ideas for their races and tracks they’d like to use.”
More than the trails themselves, the generous, proud and bike loving attitude of the people who craft them is what made the Kowalski Classic such a great weekend. Its success lies in the fact that it’s not just a race, it’s a celebration of riding as a lifestyle. It’s the culmination of months of work that gives back to the mountain biking community in ways that reach beyond the impact of the event alone. The bacon, beer and other take home treats? Well that just made it sweeter still.
Check out www.selfpropelled.com.au for more information on the trail team, merch and events. If you live in Canberra, or are riding through, consider joining the Kowalski Brothers on a build day and give something back as well.