Report: Imogen Smith at the 2018 Oceania Championships

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I headed off to Oceania Champs on my own this year, a week after my 37th birthday. Last year was meant to be my last year racing XCO, but I had an accident and couldn’t, so this year I’m doing all the stuff I’d planned to before I hit the deck, making up for lost time. Last year Oceania Champs was in Toowoomba, in my backyard – but this year it was in Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, an expensive flight away –I was still determined to go.

I was determined to go because the other goal last year (now transferred to this year) had been to throw myself into an XCO World Cup, and to do that you need points to qualify. 20 points. There were big points on offer at Dunedin and, sadly, a small turnout. All I had to do was finish and I was pretty much guaranteed to score enough to compete in Europe later in the year. I also wanted to push myself by racing at the next level up from the Aussie National Series. I was looking for new challenges – technical and mental – and I definitely found them.

Off I went with my bike bag stuffed full of clothes and gear. My time in Dunedin coincided with a window of simply perfect, dry weather – a real mercy – because with the roots and rocks on clay soil at the Signal Hill race venue, I’d have been running half the way around if it had got wet. I spent a couple of days getting my head around the course. By no means ridiculously gnarly, it was still tricky – designed to test skills and fitness in equal measure. You can read our description of the course here, but to recap it consists of three climbs, two of which sat in the first half of the course, and descents that ranged from flowy to extremely steep. Oh and a few roots. I hated the roots.

Working out the course and lines on my own was a challenge. When I arrived on Thursday the place was deserted and I practiced what I thought was the course. When I finally coaxed myself over some tricky off camber roots and down a near-vertical chute I was ready to go home, satisfied and proud. Right before I left I noticed riders negotiating a bunch of corners up the hill. Corners I hadn’t been riding. I’d missed out an entire loop of rocks and steepness in the first half of the course, so I dragged myself back up to the exposed, windy top of the climb to have a look.

Uhoh! Standing there looking down this rocky chute with a dropoff at the end, my confidence sank away. I rolled down the B line, around a gap jump, and walked a moving off-camber thing. I went back to the hotel utterly defeated. With just a pre-race the next day to get my lines sorted, I felt the course had got the better of me.

But the next day brought salvation in the form of Kelly Bartlett and the Harris Family. We went around together, and in this supportive and positive little group I was able to get down the A line without any trouble, and ended the day feeling happy, if a little terrified of doing it all five times at race pace the next day.

I didn’t feel too nervous on the morning of the race. In fact, the whole experience was a little odd. My fitness has really suffered from a month off during December and I’ve only just started doing structured training again, so I’m pumping out a lot fewer watts than I was at, say, this time last year. I’m terrified it’s my age, but in the last month I’ve found that my form has stubbornly refused to improve, despite putting in some solid weeks on the bike, and in my weaker moments I imagine that maybe, in spite of my motivation and goals, my body isn’t going to play the game anymore. My main race goal isn’t for months though, so I keep telling myself to be patient, and that I’m in the right place for me, now.

Pre-race nerves on the start line. Photo: Russ Baker

So I felt a little out of sorts, surrounded by the electric nerves and huge motivation in the other girls around me. My heartrate barely rose on the start line and after a decent first minute I quickly faded and a gap opened up both in front and behind me. By the top of the first climb I was completely alone. I wondered if I should take the A line down the first tricky descent, then decided ‘hell yes you’re taking the A line’, and forced a smile while I rode down it. I was so elated by the time I landed the dropoff that I forgot about the jump around the next corner and simply rode into it and had to carry my bike out of the ditch, but I was still smiling. I don’t know. At this level the other girls seem to just float down anything without so much as a glance. It took me a lot of mental energy to get through all the A lines on the course at race pace, and each time I made it I felt a massive rush of joy, relief, and adrenalin – so much that running into a ditch in front of a few dozen spectators didn’t dent my positivity at all.

There wers some tussles early on, but pretty soon big gaps opened up. Photo: Russ Baker

The Signal Hill course is built into the slopes around a flat grassy paddock at the bottom, which forms a natural amphitheatre. I could see a long way in front and behind, and I could hear everything commentator David Harris was saying, so I knew I was in fifth place, and that Samara was out in front. I knew that there was a bit of a tussle for the other places, and that the gap both in front and behind me were huge. As long as nobody had a mechanical or a crash, I knew by the end of the first lap that my position was unlikely to change.

So I decided to have a great time. I started chatting with spectators and whooping myself down the A lines. I must have pushed just enough, too, because I was absolutely amazed that I wasn’t pulled at the end of my fourth lap and that I would get to finish the race. I gave a fist pump to the commissaire with the clipboard, then rolled around the course again. I was pretty proud to get through what was, for me at least, a challenging course. I was thrilled for the other place-getters, particularly Samara and Holly in first and second, who I really enjoyed getting to know better during the trip. But it was weird. I finished feeling like I hadn’t really raced. I’d been completely alone and unchallenged – as well as unable to challenge anyone else.

Spectators line the A line at the top of the first descent. The crowd was super supportive and encouraging. Photo: Russ Baker

I got the UCI points I needed (I got 80!), so if all goes well I’ll be able to experience the craziness of a World Cup before I reassess the meaning of life at the end of the year and focus more on big, long, adventurous races. I’m so glad I went to Dunedin to experience that next level up, but I’m sorry I wasn’t able to fire the legs a bit better on the day. That said, even if I’d had the race of my life I probably still would have come fifth, but with a more respectable gap.

Even though I’m 37 there’s always plenty to learn and room to develop. I gained a lot of confidence at Dunedin. I discovered that with the right attitude I can roll down just about anything, and enjoy it. It’s been a huge leap in the mental game and I’ve never looked forward to techy elements so much.

I didn’t have great legs on race day and spent the race alone, but was still pretty happy to complete five laps. Photo: Russ Baker

A huge thanks to my sponsors for the incredible gear that make racing possible – I was happy to swap a Shimano XT 11-46 cassette and a Fox Float EVOL rear shock into my bike this race. They made a hell of a difference. Also a big thanks to the wonderful Harris family and Kelly Bartlett for making me feel so much a part of an Aussie contingent, and to Pete Selkrig for the feeds.

Next up is National Champs in Armidale on 25 February. Not much I can do with my fitness before then, but I gained a lot of confidence in my skills at Oceanias, so I’m really looking forward to bringing a bit more courage than usual to the start line in a fortnight’s time.

Full results from Oceania Championships are available online.

The Elite Women’s podium: Samara Shepperd, Holly Harris, Kate Fluker, Bec MacConnell, me. Photo: Russ Baker

The Elite Men’s podium: Anton Cooper, Sam Gaze, Cam Ivory, Ben Oliver, Dan MacConnell. Photo: Russ Baker

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