A gang of three walk into a bar: one lightning fast kid from Mt Beauty, one ultimate cyclist from Sydney and an iconic veteran from the Gold Coast. They order a steak, ride a bull and swap tales of roosting their photographer in dusty turns, pounding rocks on bikes and what bike races they were winning in 1999. It turns out both Jon Odams and Michael Ronning won the legendary 1999 Big Hill Downhill Race in Mt Beauty, VIC, just up the street from the hospital where the kid - Ben McIlroy - was taking his first breaths and stepping into the world as a wide-eyed baby. Funny, coincidence, eh?
We are in Rockhampton for the fourth round of the MTBA Gravity Enduro National Series, a place that none of us had visited prior, we’d heard rumours of an expanding network of trails where the weather is absolutely prime in July and as we’d also find out; it’s the steak capital of Australia. Joining us was Flow’s Mick Ross (Hi everyone, yes, that’s me), Toby Shingleton from Shimano HQ on his 765th domestic flight of the year and so eager to shred, and Ronning’s lovely partner Karla.
Our grand master plan was to race, test out the new Shimano shoes, Pearl Izumi threads, get Ben dialled in on his brand new Giant Reign and score some banger shots of the crew riding sweet trails.
So, we somehow fit into our deluxe low-speed rental mini-bus and let the spirit of enduro reign.
Ben McIlroy – The Kid.
Fresh off the press was Ben McIlroy’s new ride, trading in his trusty Trek of many years for a brand new Giant Reign, he enters a new era of support from the excellent folks at Giant and adding to his well-earned position as one of Shimano Australia’s investments as an up-and-coming talent in Enduro. Giant and Shimano have a knack for picking young talent to foster, it’s bound to do good things for Ben.
Let’s just talk about Ben for a moment here, for those that may not know who he is. Ben is born and bred in Tawonga just around the bend from Mt Beauty in Victoria’s northeast, one of Australia’s most iconic mountain bike battlegrounds of the mid-to-late nineties. The place is steeped in MTB folklore, it’s played stage to many great races, and anyone from this era will be fairly nostalgic about the mountain town. In his last year in high school, he’s just 18 and as mellow as a fat cat at 4 am on a weekday, but get him up to speed on the trail, and he’ll blow the doors off his opponents. Why so fast? Just take a closer look at his mentor – Chris Panozzo – who has taken Ben under his wing from a young age, showing him the finer things in life like holding your phone in your hand at all times, ok, not necessarily that, but riding damn fast and attacking trails like mad.
Ben won the U21 Category Enduro World Series round #2 in Derby, Tasmania – yeah, he’s kind of hot right now. It’s far from easy to win an enduro race anywhere, let alone the EWS in Derby; a rain-drenched nightmare where the biggest names in the sport floundered, fell to bad luck, struggled in the conditions and failed to live up to the hype. Ben tells us that his performance came down to drawing confidence from the reaction from the crowds, when he rode sections of the race at his best to the delight and cheers of the crowds gave it him the confidence he was racing fast and competitive, so he kept pushing for an amazing result on the international stage. He’s also th reigning U19 National and National Series Champ, solid.
He’s a quiet kid, super quirky and witty, he communicates in the modern channels of Snapchat and Instagram (we’re old, we know) and dresses in random garb from op-shops around the place, he’s likeable, a wizard on the bike and his future is bright.
Michael Ronning – The Iconic Legend.
A magazine cutout of Ronning riding a prototype Gary Fisher downhill bike on the late 90’s was glued into my high school diary, yeah, I was a big fan. Though I’m surely not alone, right, c’mon someone save me…?
Ronning ‘was’ – err, sorry – ‘is’ a huge name in mountain biking around Australia. He was amongst the first Aussie pro riders in downhill racing on the international scene, a real pioneer, and continuing to this day he plays a prominent role in the sport. He was a part of the experimental and fascinating early days, ask him about prototype Shimano dual disc rotors, water cooled brakes, racing downhill in 1992, etc, etc.
Opening a tricked-out Giant bike store in Nerang, QLD (with an upstairs bar dripping in fabulous retro memorabilia!!!) was bound to happen, he’s the man about the place and has a strong role in mentoring and supporting juniors in the local community, we saw it first hand at this race in Rockhampton. He’s famous to anyone who’s been around a while, yet at the same time, he’s approachable and warm to anyone who’s not awkwardly star-struck.
A wealth of knowledge from being deeply immersed in the mountain bike scene for so long is rare in Australia, and Ronning represents with heart and genuine love of the sport, he’s the one that kept dropping the term ‘spirit of enduro’. While he did vanish from the game for quite some time, it was inevitable that he’d come back to rekindle his love and passion for riding and racing bikes. A downhill pro from Cairns, the transition into enduro was natural, and he’s damn good at it, and this weekend would confirm that to all.
Jon Odams – The Calm Assassin.
Jon has enough medals from all corners of the sport to fill a filthy big cabinet, add to it his retro late-nineties national titles on the downhill circuit and you’ll agree that Jon is deeply entrenched in Australian mountain biking folklore. He’s a cool character, chilled-out, a father of two, wise with his energy during a race. He loves to ride his bike hard and far; he enjoys travelling to a new place to race. With all this comes an inherent confidence to hold his own amongst the whole field when it comes to race. He’s so bloody relaxed it’s almost unfair; maybe it comes from being around so long in a variety of circles recently like; road, cyclocross, cross country, downhill and yeah – enduro.
During practice at an enduro race, he will not tire himself punching multiple runs like a downhill race; rather it’s about recognising factors that will play to his strength. This time he’d see that if you pushed too hard many would suffer a flat tyre, a crash or a mechanical. Jon aims to stay above it all and remain competitive in the way he knows best.
We recall seeing him racing the Highland Fling on a cyclocross bike (crazy nutjob) with blisters all over his hands. He’ll be mixing it up with the elites at marathon stage races like the Port to Port and Cape to Cape, calling on his deep base of skills and base strength topped up with a dose of training to make up for sacrifices he makes from being a father of two in a nine-to-five job. He’s raced a Foes LTS in the late nineties, a GT Lobo, Intense M1, 6th place U19 World Champs in Sierra Nevada, Spain, 1999, and top-ten in a 24-hour World Champs. No way would you see many riders placing in the top ten at both Cross Country and Enduro in an MTBA National Round in one season either.
Last year he raced the World Cup Cross Country in Cairns admittedly stating no matter how much he trained and was in the form of his life, the level of racing was out of this world. See what we mean, pretty solid cyclist, huh?
By the colour of the place, it appears to have not rained for a wee while in South East Queensland, the Trailworx crew have been building trails like mad on the foothills of Mount Archer but it had not rained since, it was dry and dusty. Bad? Maybe, but damn it was nice to be riding somewhere so unique.
The moment we rolled out of the carpark and into the singletrack we knew these trails were going to be fun to ride. Coming from Sydney in early July, we were so stoked to be riding the warm trails in the dust. The terrain is quite varied, from tight jangly rocky sections, to open drift corners and massive berms it’s a real mixture of good stuff. The trails take you down steep chutes and along dry creek beds under thick canopies, and the descent from Mount Archer is a seriously mind-bending experience.
One down, two remain.
Ben McIlroy took a massive slam in practice, smashing his right side into a rock with a suspected rib injury he made the call to sit out the remainder of practice which would make racing on unfamiliar trails not ideal. Frustratingly sidelined, Ben trundled out on course to support his teammates.
When in Rockhampton…
A pit-stop to Rockhampton Vinnes for an outfit for the evening’s antics, the crew wanted to do as locals would do and wear some appropriate kit.
Oh yeah, we are here for the racing, almost forgot that bit!
A round of the 2017 Shimano Queensland Enduro, this event was also a part of MTBA’s National Enduro Series. There was a lot of talk about the ‘MTBA thing’ at this event; it was hard to ignore, possibly responsible for the entry numbers nearly half of a the non-MTBA events in QLD. In June they had almost 300 entries at the Toowoomba round, (admittedly closer to larger population centres of Gold Coast and Brisbane) including around 70 for the women-only event the day before, a very impressive turnout! While here in Rockhampton there was less than 150. What value does the MTBA National Enduro Series bring to the scene? Or does it intimidate potential entrants? We’re just speculating, anyhow.
A handful of dedicated privateers put in the work to make it to all the rounds, from Falls Creek in VIC, Stromlo Forest Park in ACT, Linga Longa in WA, Rockhampton in QLD so far it’s been a very varied and nation-wide series!
With a great format, and a well-thought out stage plan, riders would climb to the top of Mount Archer for the first stage and tackle each stage from 1-6 in numerical order which created a straightforward and easy format for spectators and riders alike. It all went off without a hitch.
That first climb was way harder than I thought it would be, took nearly one hour. And then dropping into the hardest stage of the day was hard, you hadn’t done any real riding that morning yet, just pedalling on the road and all of a sudden you’re doing Red Bull Rampage… Ronning.
After slogging it out on the trails with only a bit of skin and one collarbone casualty, it was time to compare times and pack up. And it was smiles all round in our camp, with Ronning on top of his age category and Odams taking a very impressive second place in the elite category. Yeaaaah!
I thought it was going to be super tight, I think it was consistency across the board that did it for me. It was tough, the old legs were feeling it towards the end. Coming from Brisbane I’ve been doing the South East QLD Series, and really loving it. Stage six would have to be my favourite, mainly because it was the last one…
I’m on the Santa Cruz Nomad, with NS Dynamics helping me with my setup, I use the Fast Suspension cartridge in the forks and a few special air spring mods, and they’ve got me on the Push ElevenSix coil rear shock which is a real standout after trying a few other coil shocks. I went from carbon wheels to aluminium at the last minute, too, it’s better to get down safe and sound especially on that first stage.
I don’t generally play with my suspension too much, I just let Aaron from NS Dynamics handle it, he knows what I need.