Crocodile Trophy – My Journey to number 7
By Brendon Skerke
Continuing on from Part 1 of "My Journey to Number 7" as mentioned Scott and Abby a couple from my hometown Cairns made me a proposal to play support role in her endeavor to conquer the infamous Crocodile Trophy, arguably the longest, hardest, hottest, mountain bike race in the world. So with around 3 months to D day, the Road bike was traded for a MTB with the arrogant and naive thought, "Pffft all I have to do is sit on the front of a C Grade road racer girl for a 10 day MTB bike holiday that was fully supported and paid for. How hard could it be"???
Well, I soon found out. Scotty was a hard taskmaster, he was driven, determined and as tough as nails. He had completed the Croc Trophy a couple of times previously and there were legendary stories of him completing this awesome race under the most extreme of circumstances.. One such story was that after a couple of brutal stages of corrugations Scotty had developed a saddle sore. This wasn’t just any saddle sore but a gapping wound. While most would call it a day at this point, Scott would attend the medical tent at the end of each stage and have the doctor, without a local anesthetic (wasn't available), put a couple of stitches in only to have them tear out the following day a couple of k's into the stage.
So just as I found out Scotty was tough, then there was Abby... Abby the average C grade local road racer, the beautician with the immaculate hair and makeup, athletic build without any real muscle definition and always smelling of perfume despite having just ridden and kept up with the male dominated C Grade bunch turned into something else of the dirt.
I found this out early one morning when I met them both for our first training session together. Scotty wanted me to see some of the climbs on stage 1 that were out the back of one of our local road climbs 'Copperlode'... Now when it comes to long climbs I struggle, but again with the mindset as stated earlier, 'How hard could it be, after all I wasn't riding support up a climb for my A grade team?'
Well, after the traditional road climb ended and we'd crossed the dam wall, I was feeling pretty smug. I had climbed reasonably well and felt as if I could have easily ridden away from Abby and Scotty at anytime. We lifted our bikes over the Park and Wildlife gates designed to keep out unauthorised trail bikes and 4x4 and head towards the dense tropical rainforest.
As we approached the final bit of bitumen and turned right, I immediately thought "O. Oh". In front of me was a wall. It was a small track 20%+ that just went up through the forest entirely covered in the rainforest canopy. I heard Scotty and Abby's frantic clicking of their gears as we started the ascent. The next 30 minutes was dead set embarrassing. Scotty and Abby appeared effortless as they disappeared out of sight within minutes. Not only could I not keep up on the climb but also as the pinches reached 30% I couldn’t even ride my bike. With my tail between my legs I walked for what seemed like an eternity up climb after climb only to eventually to see Scotty and Abby waiting patiently. Abby still looked fresh as a daisy, makeup intact and barely breathing. The scary part was as I found out, we'd barely put a dent into the Vertical metres we were to climb in that stage. How was I supposed to ride a support role if I can’t even keep up???
At this point I began seriously considering withdrawing from the Croc. Over the following weeks I didn't really feel I was improving on the climbs no matter how hard I trained and I didn't want to be responsible for taking away Abby's chances of winning all while affectively being paid. Scotty and Abby were very encouraging and supportive but I sensed they too were questioning their decision to have me along.
Another month passed and I’d come to realize that those long steep climbs were far and few, especially after the first couple of stages and majority of the race was heavily corrugated, sandy rolling type fire road or rocky hard pack tracks through cattle stations. After a few reccie rides out west I discovered that was why I had been recruited, this terrain suited me to a tee. This was a great relief and I again became confident of performing the role I was being paid to do.
Finally after months of tough training it was race week. I'd taken some time off work with the plan to rest and recover and enjoy the lead up festivities. Scotty had also arranged some media exposure for us. A couple of days before the start, I was riding into town along the Esplanade to conduct a radio interview with the ABC and have a photo shoot with the local paper and TV stations. I won’t lie I was feeling like a super star as I swanned along the Esplanade. I was fit, tanned, confident, I remember thinking this is what it must be like for Pro athletes...
And then reality set in. As I pedaled along the esplanade feeling pretty good about myself I saw a small group of MTBers coming towards me. As I got closer I knew these were no normal riders. These guys were lean, their legs ripped with veins bulging, they had their sleeves and legs of their knicks rolled up, skin tanned and shiny and just looked the business. Turns out they were, as I soon found out it was multiple Green Jersey wearer at the Tour De France Rene Haselbacher, and his teammates. They were here to ride the Croc!!!! Scary thing was that even amongst this cycling royalty their were even more accomplished riders both MTB and Road with Olympic XCO Gold Medalist Bart Brentjens, previous Tour De France maillot jaune wearer Jan Kirsipuu and Swiss XCM National Champion and 2009 winner Urs Huber.
The next 10 days were an absolute blur. We rode hard and fast rubbing shoulders albeit only for the first 20k or so of each stage with some of the best riders in the world past and present. Our race plan each day was simple and almost flawless. Basically we would keep Abby amongst the lead bunch for as long as possible. Most stages started fast and the other women were often not strong or fast enough to hold on. Once we had shed all female competitors we would assist Abby anyway we could to hang on and benefit from the faster peloton putting large time gaps into her competitors. Once she was unable to hang on I’d position myself in the bunch so as to drop the wheel in front and cause a split in the hope that we would intern create a second bunch that was a little slower and Abby could back off.
This seemed to work perfectly on most stages however it wasn't long before the Euros had identified what we were doing and as payback would leave me on the front for hours at a time. To make matters worse we'd lost the support of Scott as a result of an accident in stage 3. One of the other local riders thinking he was helping gave an unexpected hand in the back to Abby to help her through a small climb. Unfortunately Abby having a drink at the time plowed into the back of both Scott and I and as we fell she inadvertently put her foot through Scotts back wheel damaging a number of spokes..
We dusted ourselves and sent Abby off to stay with the bunch while Scott and I tried bush mechanics to get him going.. Given Abby was now unsupported and I had all of her repair gear and gels etc. it was decided I chase back across to Abby and the bunch and Scott remain to continue to fix his wheel. Unfortunately as only Scott knew how he fixed his wheel and unnecessarily attempted to chase us down seriously dehydrating himself and never really recovering for the remainder of the race. By the time we crossed the final finish line at the beautiful Cape Tribulation beach Abby had finished overall female winner by a record 8 hours..
As I sat there on the beach, beer in hand totally exhausted and with every part of my body screaming at me for what I had just put it through, I knew I had just experienced some of the best days of my life. I felt I had achieved something that was so unbelievably challenging and despite the pain and suffering, the brutal conditions and heat, the primitive camp conditions, the sad passing of a fellow competitor during the event, I knew I was hooked and I was going to be back to do it all over again and again and again...