The family and friends of James Williamson, who sadly passed away whilst competing in the Cape Epic, have been the driving force behind this event since it’s inception, and they must be given credit for doing a wonderful job. I have race the Willo nearly every year since it was first organised, sadly missing out last year as my car didn't make it to Wingello so had to turn for home before making the start line. I had an added incentive this year as it was the day I turned 40, and was racing in the highly competitive Masters category. And in celebration of my birthday my best mate Garry was back racing for the first time since Kowalski last year.
Everyone involved in this race makes it a great day, the volunteers all have smiles on their faces and seem genuinely happy to be involved. Arrival, sign in and registration all went smoothly. Despite the showers that we drove through on the way to Wingello the conditions at the race site were almost perfect, cool and dry, with the track being tacky from the dampness in the air.
After setting up the bikes, chatting with friends and getting set I had a bit of a warm up with Brian, Phil and Wayne then headed to the start for race briefing. I lined up in the Masters wave alongside Sxc Racing teammates Brian and Wayne and Minter (race favourite) was also there on the front line. In order to break up the group the race starts straight up a climb of 400-500m to the finish line. It's a tough start and stings the legs but once over the top it's pretty easy to sit in the group. After 3kms we had already caught the slower starters in the Open Category and I entered the singletrack in the first 2/3 positions... however it was chaos. Within 20 or so metres there were riders everywhere, someone fell off on one of the first left hand corners and we snuck by, then on a section of small rocks someone unclipped creating a backlog. At this point I was leading the Masters group, not really sure who was behind but could hear some talk and realised that Minter had fallen. After a fast descent out of the singletrack there is a small climb and confirming that Brian was on my wheel pushed up the hill realising we had a small gap. We rode onto the KOM hill and pushed quite hard, it was here that Minter had caught back on and we were a lead group of 4. We rode as a group for a while and I was enjoying being part of the race (more often than not I am simply riding my own race rather than influencing the result).
Knowing Minter’s speed and skill in the singletrack I hoped to hold his wheel as long as possible and I just about managed until we hit the straight firetrail. We jumped onto an Open riders wheel and he put the power down towing us along (so thanks whoever you were). It was at the bottom of the next hill that Brian dropped off our little group and not much further up the trail I did too, knowing that the speed up the hill was unsustainable and going to hurt me later in the race. Watching Minter and Brad ride away was initially hard but was probably the right decision. At the end of the lap there was a left turn off into s/track but I could see a straight arrow just up the firetrail, so chose to follow the arrow which was ultimately the right choice. A bit further up the trail the s/track rejoined the trail and could see Minter and Brad riding through. I ended up in front of them but knowing that they had taken the wrong turn I pulled over and let them pass so they were back on the front, said hello to Dave (DoC) who’s in recovery and was supporting and taking photos from the trailside, and we rolled through the end of the first lap together.
The fast start had taken its toll on my legs and I didn’t manage to stay with them and I was getting some weird cramp feelings at the top of my hamstring meaning I had to back off on the hills and pinches. At the end of the 2nd lap I came across Brad who had blown up in a big way trying to race Minter and I knew I was slowing as Paul Brodie had passed me. So, pretty certain I was still running in 3rd I headed out onto the final lap. I was mindful of being caught and was continually looking over my shoulder expecting to see Brian. The final section of s/track is always a welcome sight and I got held up a bit by a few riders at this point. Popping out onto the firetrail Garry was there for support but I was pretty spent by now but pushed on to the line and only then realised that Brian was rounding the final corner.
So my first time racing in Masters and I managed to sneak onto the podium so I was very happy with the outcome. A great way to spend a birthday with friends and riding mountain bikes all in aid of a good cause! Looking forward to being back next year.