Escaped Convict: Why the Convict 100 is our favourite marathon race

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.

Battle stories in the Settler’s Arms beer garden.

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.

There’s always an autumn chill in the air on the start line.

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.

Some of the descents along the course see you drop like a stone down fast, water bar covered fire roads, drifting on the sand and dodging loose rocks.

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.

The picturesque valley floor.

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.

The canoe bridge is possibly the race’s most notorious feature, the mere mention of it sends some riders into convulsions!

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?

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Convict 100 Gets Tweaked (and Reversed) for 2015

The Convict 100, is one of Australia’s most popular marathon races. Just a couple of hours from Sydney, the rough, raw and fast course runs largely over fireroads that were built by the convicts back in the 1830s. The riding is rugged and the setting is stunning – it’s definitely one of our favourite events.

Andy Blair. The Convict always attracts some big guns.
Andy Blair. The Convict always attracts some big guns.

Read on below for the official word.

“After celebrating our 10 year anniversary in 2014, it was time to introduce some new challenges to the regular Convict riders.  The 100km was relatively easy, for many years we’ve been contemplating running the course in reverse which is what we are doing next year.  This change will present a very different challenge to those familiar with the 100km course.  For example, riding up Jacks Track in the first 15km will be very different compared to flying down it in the last 15km and tackling the rock gardens and rock drop-offs in the opposite direction along the Old Great North Road will require some renewed focus.  It also means the two major climbs on the course will now come earlier in the piece.

The legendary Settlers Arms, the perfect place to finish a race!
The legendary Settlers Arms, the perfect place to finish a race!

“2015 will also feature and all new 68km course to replace the “Half Century” and a new 44km option for the “not so serious” novice mountain biker.

“In the early years of XCM events it was the 100km course that was getting the majority of entries.  In the last few years the “half course” or 50km has seen the biggest number of entries sometimes making up two thirds of the participants.  For this reason we are introducing an all new 68km course that will include the famous Convict kayak bridge and technical sections around Shepherds Gully and the Old Great North Rd.  Although riders will have to cover a bit more distance the new course is a marked improvement and will present a much more diverse and challenging course to those wanting to race the Convict half.

Convict 100 MTB enduro 2014, 50k, 75k, 100k

“The new 44km course has been earmarked as an entry level ride mostly made up of fire trail and dirt road sections. Most beginner riders take up cycling and if they are disciplined in their training, can quickly build the endurance to cover 40 – 50km on a mountain bike.  It’s is the ability to ride technical terrain that is often the stumbling block and takes more time to master.  That is why we are introducing an easier 44km course option to give those novice riders a feel for racing, get them out on the dirt without any serious technical challenges.  Having said that, the 44km is no cake walk with a 300m ascent in the first 15km and an opportunity to ride the kayak bridge.  The perfect introduction to MTB racing.”

Entries for the Convict 100 are open now.

Racing: Wallace and Fay crowned Real Insurance XCM series champions

Canada’s Cory Wallace and Irish national marathon champion Jenny Fay have taken out the 2014 Real Insurance Cross Country Marathon Series following an exciting conclusion to the series at the weekend.

Both Fay and Wallace capped off standout series’, clinching victory in the final round’s Convict 100 in St Albans.

In the men’s series, former Canadian national champion Wallace had a consistent series which included taking out round three’s Wombat 100 and a runner up place in round four’s Tablelands Classic.

Wallace finished the series on 225 points, just 20 points ahead of round one winner Adrian Jackson (205.5 points) while Shaun Lewis (184.5 points) finished third overall, 40.5 points behind Wallace.

After winning round two in Mt Joyce and round four’s Tablelands Classic, Fay took out the series on 248 points, 17 points ahead of national marathon champion Melissa Anset (231 points). Sarah Riley (185 points) rounded out the podium, 63 points in arrears.

Runner up Anset also had a stellar season, finishing on the podium in all four events she competed in, including claiming top spot in both the High Country Classic and Wombat 100.