The Wagga 6 hour was the last of the evocities mountain bike series, and after my reccie lap, I had a feeling it’d be the best. The weather was perfect, the sun failed to dry up the course completely after all the rain, but mud only makes for a whole lot of fun. I hit up a reccie lap at a casual 1 hour 10, and with the sneaky bits of climbing, I figured I’d be doing laps at around 1 hour for the race. The race setup was a little different, instead of being able to start your last lap within the 6 hours, you had to finish your last lap within the 6 hours! For me, that meant cutting it super close to the teeth if my laps were at 1 hour, and a final lap that didn’t count may not be worth the effort. In the end, I planned on 5.
First lap was a hoot! With Jason English (the series winner) racing past after he missed the briefing (nice to know even the pros can be disorganised at times!), I settled into a fun and comfy pace behind a chick who wasn’t a super confident downhiller, but was hitting it up on the climbs. I like to pick people out and either try to stick with them, or catch up to pass. I felt so comfortable after the first lap that I didn’t stop and just whizzed through to immediately start my second lap. My goodness the ride felt good, legs burning on the climbs, chest heaving up the hills, and then the sweet flow of the downhills and slowing down of the heart rate for the tight and twisty weaving. This is my favourite track of the evocities series.
In the end, I did 5 laps. Turns out I could have comfortably fit in 6 laps, if I had very very quick transitions, like the pros! But, I was happy to enjoy the day, enjoy my laps, hanging out with some cool dudes between laps. The little bit of down time between each lap helped me recover and keep my timing pretty close. But the best part of the race, was realising that I like it at the back of the pack.
It’s a complicated thing, the back of the pack. Knowing that everyone is waiting for you to arrive on group rides can make you feel like a burden. Having rider after rider appearing behind you wanting to pass can make you feel like a hindrance. Feeling like the world can hear you huffing and heaving as you climb the hill as slow as a snail can make you feel embarrassed. But, there are some upsides.
First, I like being at the back, as I get into a flow and before I know it, I’m following the person in front over an obstacle I may have been hesitant to attempt. I get so caught up in keeping up with whoever I have picked to follow, that I end up following them everywhere. If you’re following too close, that’s an issue, but I try to choose someone who makes me work hard to keep them in my sight. This leaves enough distance to allow me to see what they do and the line they take, whilst still giving me time to slow and balance in place if they come unstuck on something, so I don’t have to stop and put a foot down.
Speaking of catching up, the second thing I like is that at the back of the pack, you’re always catching up to someone. It’s not all about being overtaken, there are those (sometimes rare) times when you overtake others (usually because they are crippled with cramps it seems!). Which brings me to the third thing I like, I feel you can see your progress a bit easier. After a few races through the season, a whole lot of new faces at each race, perhaps it’s the luck of the draw, but every so often you catch someone on a climb and you think, “wow, I’m getting better at this”, or you catch them on a downhill, “wow, I’m super quick on the down hill”, or you catch them through the technical turns, “wow, I’m getting better with my skills”. Now, perhaps this is something you can experience anywhere, but I feel it’s something I’ve noticed and grown to appreciate as a back of the pack racer. This doesn’t necessarily mean that I am getting better at these things, but it plays a pretty convincing mental trick to have me thinking I’m quick and skilled! I’m not likely to be the fastest or the most skilled, I’m not that motivated to become those, they aren’t goals I have set for my future. But, it is nice to know that it’s always ok to be that slower person, who isn’t good on the uphills, fast on the downhills, or comfortable in the technical sections, because with gaps in training, or falling in and out of love with riding, or coming back from injury, you’re place in the field will keep changing, but you will always welcome. Which brings me to the final thing I like about being at the back of the pack.
Almost everyone who passes will say something encouraging, will tell you that you’re doing a great job and to keep it up. Everyone is hurting just the same. Ten laps in a 6 hour race hurts just as much as four laps. We are all out there trying our best, wanting to enjoy the pain as much as you possibly can and push our bodies to achieve something awesome, and everyone appreciates that. When you pass each other on the fire trail, that elite rider looks at you with a look of empathy for the pain you’re both experiencing as you climb that hill and is followed by a smile because we are sharing the experience. That rider who passes and tells me to dig deep for the climb, or who says I look comfortable handling my bike, or any possible complement or nice thing they say, it magically boosts my confidence. All of a sudden I find a surge of energy for that climb, or I feel less awkward taking the rock garden, or I just feel like I’m hot shit on my bike, and I reckon that’s a pretty great feeling.
So no matter how fit you are, how fast you are, how skilled you are, I think it’s a pretty great place to be at the back of the pack.