Remembering why at The Willo

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Everyone in the MTB community looks forward to The Willo. It’s a cool track, it’s close to home for lots of us, and it’s a chance to stop and remember a really, really great person. James Williamson was the guy at races who always had time to stop and say hi, and smile, and chat, and I really believe that this spirit always carries through into the race – it’s super friendly and relaxed. I mean, most MTB races are – but this one is special.

So what better event to bring along a total newbie! My big brother Charles, who is normally ultra busy being an incredible dad and working hard in a big job, had slowly got more interested in MTB over the years until he actually bought a cool Norco Optic and started riding. A few weeks ago. Charles was brave enough to let me sign him up for the 22km race at The Willo.

Imogen Smith MarathonMTB The Willo XCM
We went to Old Man’s Valley – right near where I used to live in Hornsby.

This is my first time ever taking a newbie to a race. Mike and I had been for a spin with Charles at Old Man’s Valley in Hornsby (great trails) the day before and – when you start yelling it all at someone – realised just how much there is to think about when you’re MTBing – ‘look up!’, ‘Use your core’, ‘lean in!’, ‘brake early’, ‘get your weight back!’, ‘get your weight forward’, and our favourite: ‘just relax!’. Added to this, Charles was worried about clipping in and unclipping, getting passed by elite riders, and how his fitness would hold up. Nevertheless, he happily levered his 6’2” frame into the back of the car next to three bikes – and at 5:30am the next day, we were away!

Now me, I’d had a week of poor health, having got through an awesome block of training then promptly fallen sick. My coach messaged me on the way to the race strongly advising me NOT to race – but when you’ve flown 1000 kilometres and driven another 200, entered an event that really means something, and to the outside observer (your big brother) have nothing physically wrong with you, it’s really hard to say no.

Imogen Smith MarathonMTB The Willo XCM

So, disorganised as I was, I made it to the start line on time. From the second we took off the field kicked up a huge cloud of dust – the likes of which I haven’t seen since the Dargle 24 hour in 2004. It’s really hard to go full gas when you are determined to breathe through your nose, but that’s what I tried to do! I want pink lungs! We rounded a rutted corner, the dust got worse but out of it I could see Mike holding up his hands and people scrambling about – a crash. I was in just the right place to get around it easily and ended up in a good spot. This is great! I thought. This is going to be a good race! But right then – that old familiar sound of rumpled tyre bead squishing against the ground – I had a flat tyre.

Fortunately or unfortunately Mike, who I’d passed in the crash, caught up and spied me fumbling with my spares and went full knight in shining armour on me. Like a really strict, annoyed, bossy, chivalrous knight. We use a plug repair system now, and Mike seemed uncertain of my capacity to use it correctly! Amaze! Anyway. The plug system worked a treat and Mike rode off to leave me to do some inflation. The stampede had long passed and I was left to remount and trundle past the assembled riders from the 44 and 22km race in a kind of reverse victory lap. I yelled something about my flat tyre in case my big brother was looking at his loser little sister and plunged into the singletrack. It had been empty of riders so long that I terrified a couple of lyrebirds.

What to do? I knew it would be hard to make up time with no wheels to follow – but I could try? Was I disqualified for outside assistance from my shouty, salty knight? And what about that thing my coach said about NOT RACING? Was the puncture three minutes in a weird Deus ex Machina moment and my coach has supernatural powers? Hmmm. I pushed it all away and tried to speed up.

But my legs felt heavy and pretty tired – my coach may have had a point. The track was a little more technical than I’d remembered and I suddenly got really, really anxious about my big brother. A newbie is a big responsibility! What if he crashed and it was all my fault? Should I ride back and save him? Soon I started to catch up to people. People who, like my big bro, are kinda new and a bit unbalanced and a bit scared. Dads with kids. Women having a go. I was like that, once, but it’s so easy to lose touch with it. And in fact, it’s when I was like that that James had been so kind to me. Had taken the time to pass politely and say a few friendly words. Everyone had. So I had a new mission – to ride around and enjoy it as much as possible, spread the love, and just remember what the sport was all about. And I had a great time. I didn’t see my big brother, and I pulled out after two laps (hoping that by compromising my coach might one day forgive me), but that was okay. And then there he was, the big bro, grinning at me at the finish line. He’d survived. I’d survived. Time for a sausage sandwich (him) and a milkshake (me).

At the front of my race, Bec McConnell rode on to victory – despite her own flat tyre – ahead of Em Viotto and Kim Willocks. In the men’s Bec’s husband Dan McConnell was in a 3-way fight with Brendan Johnston and Reece Tucknott, but won the race with an attack in the final kilometre. Amongst other race winners was Mike’s cousin Megan – winning the 44km (2 lap) women’s race. Families who ride rock! Full results are online.

Imogen Smith MarathonMTB The Willo XCM
Dan wins The Willo in 2019

Thanks Charles, and thanks to The Willo, for reminding me why all this is so special.

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