28 Sep 2013

With so many events to choose from at the moment, it takes something special to stand out from the rest. If it’s a good event, your mid-race garble will reflect the fact that you’re in your happy place. If the event is a dud, and you’re not the whinging type, you’ll probably mumble something unintelligible, or grunt a bit.

Good, fun trails make for good, fun riding.
Good, fun trails make for good, fun riding.

Chatting with riders who rode the 50km and 90km circuits at Sunday’s Kowalski Classic, it was clear that the Kowen/Sparrow singletrack network had imbued riders of all types with very positive experiences indeed.

In fact, it felt like event crew, Self Propelled Enterprises, had sat down and written a long list of everything they could think of that would make their event one to froth about in a manner akin to a pouring bubble bath into a public fountain. Then they set about making it happen, mountain biker style. With 950 people entered in the second running of the Kowalski, they are obviously onto a winning formula.

We wrote about the development of the massive trail network the Kowalski’s have been building in last year’s story on the event. Their passion for creating fun singletrack was even more evident twelve months on.

This year saw a refinement of the start wave system and an opening uphill fire trail. This eased congestion and put like-minded riders together as they embarked on the day ahead.
This year saw a refinement of the start wave system and an opening uphill fire trail. This eased congestion and put like-minded riders together as they embarked on the day ahead.

Signage was clear, comprehensive and stood out from the pine trees. The distance never disappears as fast as when you’re completely immersed in the trail ahead.

Chase your mate

About 20km into the maze, Flow video man Reiner Schuster, came whooping through the forest behind me. We rode together for a short period and gave each other a quick tow through the trails.

‘They are a beautiful set of calves,’ I found myself yelling at the Samoan Sprint Champion, a clear happiness indicator at this early point in the event. He’s not really Samoan, but it’s a name that has stuck. His calves hold their glowing tan all winter long and produce a solid amount of power when he’s not carrying 20 kilograms of camera gear on his back.

If you appreciate fine calves, cycling is a really good sport to get involved in. Better still is when those calves belong to a friend who makes you laugh out loud as you blast along, leaning and pumping your bike in response to finely crafted dirt ahead.

These moments offer the highpoints of a social ride with little bits of food and drink stashed in the forest along the way. There’s also something addictive about pushing each other to ride better than when you are on your own.

The pace was hot up the front.
The pace was hot up the front.

Mark Tupalski, who finished second overall in the 90km race, revealed a similar sentiment: ‘If you get split up too much and you’re riding by yourself, you can get a bored and loose yourself a bit. But if, like today, you have to think about things a bit, and there are people around all day, it makes it a bit more interesting.

Mark Tupalski: The course is really flowy, but it’s also really chattery. You have to work hard everywhere and really work the trail.'
Mark Tupalski: The course is really flowy, but it’s also really chattery. You have to work hard everywhere and really work the trail.’

Soon enough a gap formed between the Rainman and myself that was widened by the feed zone. And what a feed zone it was. In terms of terms of enhancing riders’ experiences of the event as a whole, and keeping the impetus on fun over finish times, the feed zones were gold.

Bacon. Eggs. Bananas. Jelly Belly jelly beans. A barista, behind a coffee machine, who asked riders what they would like.

Fresh made coffee a the feed zones? And jelly beans, and bacon!?
Fresh made coffee a the feed zones? And jelly beans, and bacon!?

‘This is the best invention since the beginning of ever,’ I said, eyes bigger than a set of 29” wheels. The barista’s reaction implied he’d heard equally extravagant statements from the several hundred riders in front of me, a sure sign that we can expect similar goodness at next year’s event. Why rush through a race when you can sit in the forest and drink art before fanging through the trails again with a thousand of your friends?

Suited Escapades' David Grech (right) won  the Sram XX gripshit random draw prize. 'I'll have to get a new bike now,' he said.
Suited Escapades’ David Grech (right) won the Sram XX gripshit random draw prize. ‘I’ll have to get a new bike now,’ he said.

There was coffee?

There is always a group of riders who do like to finish in a bit of a hurry, and the Kowalski Classic served up the things that they enjoy as well. Equal prize money for men and women saw podium contenders travel from afar hoping to hold the $2000 novelty cheque at the end of the day. Oddly to us, both winners left their novelty cheques behind. Perhaps something to do with catching a plane home or the fact that signee, Des Kowalski, isn’t a real person.

Jodie Willett travelled to the bush capital from Brisbane. She praised the logistical ease of racing in Canberra and was upfront in saying it’s the prize money that attracted other quick women from interstate to the event.

It's not the hilliest course for a race, but it's definitely one of the singletrackiest.
It’s not the hilliest course for a race, but it’s definitely one of the singletrackiest.

‘For the average rider I would highly recommend the Kowalski Classic. It’s a well-marked course and the single trail is amazing. You can be at the back of the pack and still have a great day. But I think for Elite riders, given the choice of races, there really has to be a bit of an incentive to come over. If a race wants a high quality elite field, that’s what they’ve got to offer.’

Physically tired after a win at the Flight Centre Epic a week earlier, and suffering in the Canberra cold, Willett was dropped by the lead girls in the first hour of the event. ‘I just kind of hoped that the legs would come good. In the middle I tend to ride really well, and that’s what happened. I just sort of picked them up one by one.’

Jodie Willett: 'A lot of riders like Tory Thomas (right) and Jo Bennett (left) have now come back. They’ve had kids and now they’re hitting top form again.'
Jodie Willett: ‘A lot of riders like Tory Thomas (right) and Jo Bennett (left) have now come back. They’ve had kids and now they’re hitting top form again.’

The Progressive Coaching Systems coach finished the 90km course in 4:31:30, one minute and 43 seconds ahead of Jo Bennet from Perth and eight minutes in front of Victorian, Jenni King.

‘When I first started racing you could pretty much pick who was going to win. It was, like, “Ah well, she’s going to come first and she’s going to come second.” It’s just the way it was. Whereas now there’s a group of five or six girls who could be on the podium.’

A singletrack heavy course, and a solid depth of field, made it hard to pick a winner in the elite men’s event too. To see local 22 year old, Mark ‘Tupac’ Tupalski, mix it up with the best of them, then fight it out with Jason English all the way to the line, was exciting to say the least.

The hard work of the Kowalskis is evident every where you look.
The hard work of the Kowalskis is evident every where you look.

‘Jase and I got away from the rest of the guys with maybe about 20km to go. On the last couple of climbs, I put a bit of effort in to try and get rid of him before it came down to a sprint.  I didn’t quite manage to – he’s very strong! Coming into the sprint he just pipped me at the end.’ Andy Blair rolled in two minutes further back after a flat.

‘I’ve been working pretty hard lately,’ said Tupalski, who is faster every time he hops on a bike. ‘I do feel a lot better and feel a lot more comfortable chasing those guys now. I’m pretty darn happy!’

Last year the Kowalski travelled to the Royal Hotel at Bungendore. This year, the pub came to the Kowalski. Scotty Preston from The Royal pours a thirsty rider a cold draught.
Last year the Kowalski travelled to the Royal Hotel at Bungendore. This year, the pub came to the Kowalski. Scotty Preston from The Royal pours a thirsty rider a cold beer.

Laughter lines

Riders trickled in over the next few hours and the start/finish area transformed into a social hub. Riders chilled out in inflatable lounges, refuelled on hot pizza and celebrated their efforts with a cold beer from the Bungendore Pub. The good vibes from the feed zone and singletrack earlier in the day continued on through to the presentations.

Post-race chillaxing. Matt Carling and Gaye Camm swap stories after their respective  races in the retro category (for bikes from 2000 or earlier).
Post-race chillaxing. Matt Carling and Gaye Camm swap stories after their respective races in the retro category (for bikes from 2000 or earlier).

That night I caught the sight of my face in the mirror shortly before I went to bed. It had more lines etched into it than normal. Those big ones you get on your cheeks from laughing all day were the most prominent and made deeper by some light sunburn and dehydration; a sure sign of an excellent day outdoors.

Thanks Kowalskis. I had a marvellous day experiencing your trails. Reiner’s beautiful calves and pictures in a mid-race coffee certainly added to my own highs. But what made the event so good overall was seeing so many others transported to their happy place as well.