Earlier this year, my Dad and I voyaged to Australia for the inaugural BMC Mountains To Beach (M-T-B, get it?) race... 11 stages over five days from the shadow of Mt Kosciuszko, Australia's highest point, all the way to the beautiful beaches of the NSW south coast. I rated it as the best, or at least the most enjoyable race I've done in recent years.
Personality type has a lot to do with race tactics and attitude. Elite riders start from the front, have a clear run through technical sections, and rain or shine score the best track conditions. However the number of variables by which they measure their success can yield only a 50:50 'enjoyment or investment' return. Age groupers are niche operators. They're only concerned with the half-dozen riders in their category. Training is full-on and placings hotly contested. But regardless of results, come the after-match they're likely to be the ringleaders drumming up enthusiasm for next year. Sport riders pay the event organiser's bills... the lemmings in the sandwich. Fired up on the starting line, they are perhaps most likely to engage in the true spirit of competition: seeking self-improvement or something equally noble.
John and I raced the Mountains to Beach as a pair. A conjoint of washed-up elite rider and age grouper took us hors category, but still firmly in the at-risk group of taking it all too seriously. This risk profile was down graded by Huw Kingston, the irreverent event organiser. With a combination of local knowledge, a history of backcountry touring and a dose of creative luck Huw and his Wild Horizons' team designed an outrageous race through interesting and varied terrain. The timed stages were interspersed with non-competition stages, usually along less challenging farm tracks and backcountry roads. So no Tour de France style transfers by plane, train or space shuttle - resulting in a more connected flow to the event. In the pairs category there were three stages raced as individuals, while the longest day across the plains and off the escarpment required team mates to always be within two minutes of one and other.
While both being capable navigators and long distance riders, John and I were also certified Australian backcountry greenhorns. So there was a certain release for us to just bowl up and enjoy 400km of great riding through new territory. A marked course, first aid support and a packed lunch meant no lost sleep planning the next day's route. Most competitors opted for the 'all-in' package, with food and accommodation provided and gear ferried between stages. We had our family as support crew. Squeezed into a Hi-Ace van they met us at the end of each day, setting up camp in some spectacular locations: beside the Thredbo river; on the edge of Lake Eucumbene; and above the surf in Narooma.
One of the race highlights was the very first stage from the top lift station at Thredbo ski field. Huw warned us to take it easy, but how serious can you take a guy who conducts the race briefing in board-shorts, mask and snorkel with a rubber ducky floatation ring around his waist? Something must have sunk in though as the 7km downhill claimed no victims and the complete field of 172 riders continued on the cruise stage to Lake Crackenback Resort. These non-timed stages invariably took us through wonderful landscapes and offered plenty of opportunity to exchange banter with fellow riders.
Day two was jump started on the Ski Tube to Perisher- an underground train trip that added 600m vertical to the day's tally without breaking a sweat. Following the once mighty Snowy River, now reduced to a trickle, our spirits were buoyed with big vistas after an arduous climb onto the Snowy Plains. Surely one of the most spectacular landscapes in Australia, we were rewarded with brumby sightings and a wild skyline threatening unseasonal rain. The stage finish included a woolshed lunch as we sheltered from the last of the disappearing rain. A cool cruise to Buckenderra campground at Lake Eucumbene finished us off.
The following day commenced with a memorable pre-dawn race stage with night lights then straight into a sunrise slap-up sit-down breakfast. Hot weather escorted us down onto the plains at Cooma - all thoughts however were on the next day's leg. This, the biggest stage took us from the high country, over and off the escarpment and down to the coast. With over 1600m of climbing and 2500m of descending we knew we were in for a wild time. Cooma Racecourse hosted the race start, with a hot lap to the sounds of Beethoven before crossing the agricultural plains and onto a historic path of the Djiringanj. The downhill off the escarpment was devilishly fast and unrelenting. It deposited us into an unfamiliar lush environment laced with a whiff of salt air. But we were still a ways from the coast so it was more likely the fresh sashimi for lunch. Sashimi? Yes, lunch was served up by the Bermagui Dirt Surfers, a motley bunch of south coast surfers who have built a network of 'only a surfer knows the feeling' mountain bike tracks close to town. Another 40km cruise took the odometer to 130km for the day - well over the distance published in the route guide. It transpires Huw chose not to disclose the full distance in case he freaked us out.
Once at the sea, the Grande Finale celebrated the organiser's intimate knowledge of the local coastline. After a whip around the Dirt Surfers' 'waves', the course traversed behind sand dunes and across beaches, linking short sections of sweet singletrack and public access ways. It finished on the beach cyclocross style, bikes held high and ear-to-ear grins.
Without waiting for the endorphin rush to wear off, the Wild Horizons' crew sat us down for a sumptuous dinner at the Narooma Golf Club, complete with spectacular views over the Tasman Sea. Huw is a man with a reputation and his prize giving ramblings form part of event folklore. There was much hilarity, gushing speeches and tears - more like a wedding reception. Albeit with 'old' friends gathered over the previous five days - now familiar faces even without helmets and race strip.