There's something about Australia's Crocodile Trophy mountain bike stage race that draws racers from all over the globe. Former World and Olympic cross country champion Bart Brentjens is the latest accomplished professional mountain biker to be lured Down Under by the race.
After spending last year focusing on preparation for his fourth Olympic Games, veteran mountain bike racer Bart Brentjens has been enjoying the opportunity to focus on some marathon and stage racing. The cross country star has raced the Cape Epic four times, and next week, he'll add the 10-day Crocodile Trophy to his palmares, too.
"I was always focused on the highest level of racing, the Olympics, and I never had the possibility of doing races like this," begins Brentjens. "They can be dangerous to your health, and they often don't fit well into your schedule. Now this year, I started my own team and I have more options for participating in races like this."
"Based on the race's name, people expect that you will cross rivers and see crocodiles. I don't know if this will happen, but I hope not!"
"I did the four-day AlpenTour Trophy race earlier this year. I raced with my team there and met race organiser Gerhard Schönbacher. He invited me to do the Crocodile Trophy," Brentjens explains. "I decided to do the race in June."
Fast forward four months and the recently turned 41-year-old Dutchman is ready to race the 10-day Australian stage race, much of which takes place in the Outback. He has been preparing, with diligent endurance training, for several weeks.
Physically he's ready, but mentally, he's not so sure what he's getting into.
"I've tried to find out as much as I could. I read a little about the race on the internet and heard stories from Belgian riders who have done it," he explains. "Still it's a challenge for me, and I don't know what to expect - especially with the kind of terrain. It'll definitely be a hard race for me."
Stage racing is a different animal from two-hour World Cup or World Championship cross country racing. "There are not the best circumstances to recover - you are sleeping in a tent and there are limited showers. It's more like an adventure race."
In the spring, Brentjens raced with his teammate, Australian Chris Jongewaard, to a second overall at the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa. The Cape Epic is eight days long and has been hitherto raced with two-person teams. With its early season spot on the calendar, it attracts many top elite cross country racers and marathon specialists preparing for the season.
But the Cape Epic has many miles of fireroads and it's shorter overall than the 10-day Crocodile Trophy, which racers compete on their own.
"For me, it will be a great experience," Brentjens predicts. "Based on the race's name, people expect that you will cross rivers and see crocodiles. I don't know if this will happen, but I hope not!"
Conquering the wild south
The Crocodile Trophy seems to fascinate Europeans, drawing many from the Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark and Holland, and Brentjens sheds some light on why:
"The organiser is well-focused and he gets good coverage of the race on Belgian TV in the wintertime. People watch it. It's a famous race in mountain biking - especially among those in Holland and Belgium. There is something exciting about the name of the race. It's a big trip, and an expensive trip, but because it's so extreme, it draws people."
Brentjens faces many obstacles however, the first being a brutal travel schedule. He is scheduled to arrive on Sunday, two days before the start of the race, after a 25-hour plane ride.
"I am going late so there is not much time to acclimatise given the jet lag. But there has been so much work for me that I couldn't go earlier. There was no choice," he admits.
"I have two days to take it easy before the race once I get there. The first few days will be difficult, and I hope to get better as it goes," he adds, in true stage-racer style.
After recovering from round-the-globe travel and the time change, Brentjens, who is travelling from the Netherlands, will face two other obstacles: heat and climbing.
"In the last month, the weather wasn't that warm [where he lives]. It wasn't over 30 or 35 degrees [Fahrenheit]," explains Brentjens, who remains optimistic nonetheless. "Normally, I like riding in warm weather, so I don't think it will be a problem."
For competitors from the northern hemisphere, October is the end of a long mountain bike season, but Brentjens doesn't think that will be a problem for him - even as he takes on those with fresh legs just starting their racing season in the southern hemisphere.
"Most of the riders are already tired at the end of the season. Many take it easy this time of year. But I've been focused on the national championships and this race for the last several weeks," he said.
For some racers, another obstacle could be age, but don't expect that to slow Brentjens – he is one of many former top cross country pros who seems to just get faster in the endurance disciplines with age.
"I still like racing, but I can feel that it is much harder than when I was younger," he readily admits. "I have a lot of experience, and I know my strong points and weakness. You have to deal with them and try to be good every day. I still do a lot of riding and try to stay fit."
He proved his fitness just last weekend with a win at his namesake race, the Bart Brentjens Challenge, which also served as the Dutch marathon national championships.
Brentjens plans to race without any teammates, bringing just one mechanic along for support during the 10 days That doesn't mean he won't end up teaming up with some riders during the way - some of the road-oriented stages have historically encouraged the formation of alliances among riders, often according to nationality, and there are many other Dutchmen signed up.
However, each year, organisers add more challenging non-road sections to the race. With his long-time off-road race experience and fitness, Brentjens may do just fine without teammates.
"The trophy is one of those events that people without knowledge of the event seem to like discussing on web forums," says race PR manager John Flynn. "The reality is vastly different to the perception - it’s not a road race on dirt, hence why it is generally won by highly experienced, endurance mountain bikers - World Cup champions among them."
Remembering the good times
The Crocodile Trophy starts in Cairns, Australia, on October 20 and runs until October 29. Cairns is an important place for Brentjens - it's where he won his first World Cup cross country race in 1994 - a breakout victory.
"It's a special town for me. It's a special feeling to go back," says Brentjens. "I did another World Cup there in 1995 and raced the World Championships there in 1996. It's been 10 or 14 years, but I still have good memories."
He fondly recollects some time spent off the bike in the area, too. "I can remember some things about the Great Barrier Reef where I visited on holidays, too."
Brentjens' success in Cairns set him on the path to a long and productive professional racing career. In 1994, he won bronze at the World Championships and went on to win the overall World Cup. A year later, he won the worlds. Then in 1996, in the inaugural Olympic mountain bike event in Atlanta, Brentjens won gold.
Some other achievements include bronze medals (2000 and 2004) and silver medals (2003 and 2005) at the World Championships.
Brentjens has been shifting some of his racing effort from Olympic-distance cross country to the endurance disciplines.
"Cross country is more difficult now," he explains. "I like stage races. You have to be good every day, and I like the atmosphere after the race and before the start. Everyone stays in the same place. You only do one time on the same track. Every day there are new trails. You can focus on the GC, and you have to master recovery."
Speaking of races like the Crocodile Trophy, he says, "I like this kind of racing. I will be doing more marathons and stage races."