Cory Wallace was one of the few top non-European contenders at the Crocodile Trophy mountain bike stage races a few weeks ago. The Canadian raced his first-ever Croc Trophy through the Australian Outback and ended up finishing fourth overall in the GC, despite a crash early in the race that injured his knee and took fellow racer Jason English out of the competition with a broken collarbone. Wallace shares his experiences during the race and between the stages in the account below:
The Crocodile Trophy is one of the greatest mountain bike adventures I have experienced. It's one part bike racing to one part playing Boy Scout in the Australian Outback . With blazing heat, crazy and deadly animals, euro racers and the "X-factors" of the Outback it makes for one heck of a challenging nine days and 900km of bike racing.
Coming into the race, I knew I should have good form, but having raced the Scott 24hrs just five days earlier, it was a bit of an experiment to see how the body would respond to such a tight turn around.
The race started out with a short, hard day on the Smithfield 1996 UCI Mountain Bike World Championship trails, which was concluded later that afternoon back in Cairns with the sighting of a Euro rider wearing black compression tights in 35-degree (Celsius) heat. I'm not sure what was going on there, but it just wasn't right. The rider must've been affected by heat stroke or something. I shook my head, grabbed some carbs for dinner then prepped for the eight days of true Croc Racing to come.
On stage 2 the fireworks went off early with fresh Euro legs taking off all over the place. 24-hour World Champ Jason English and I weathered the storm together and then started picking off casualties for the rest of the day. Fifteen kilometers from the finish we were comfortably in second and third, three minutes behind the leader when we ran into the first "X-factor" of the race, a family car driving around a blind corner on one of the last steep decents through the jungle. Jason went into the car at 40kph, launching himself and bike off the front grill and into orbit over the car. It was like a Looney Tunes cartoon when the wiley coyote gets smacked by a car with nothing but dust left in the air. I was 15ft behind Jason and nearly did the same but managed to use my right leg as an anchor and skid into the ditch just feet from being smoked myself.
Crawling out of the ditch, I made my way around the car to check on Jason. It was a bad sight to see him laying face first in the dirt as the crash looked catastrophic. It was a huge relief to see him come back to life and clutch his shoulder, obviously in a lot of pain but fully conscious. Making sure he was alright, I asked one of the four people in the car to drive up the hill to find help, while I would head down towards the finish line, with the three others staying onsite.
Back on the bike, I immediately noticed something was screwed up in my right knee as I tried to get to the finish ASAP, but I was limping. Pretty soon third place rider and overall race leader Ivan Rybarik overtook me just before the finish. Heading back to Jason with the doctors, we came upon the crash site with the lady looking after him a little hysterical as she claimed Jason had lost his mind and was trying to get back on his bike to finish the stage. "That man is crazy. He's hit his head and wants to get back riding but can't cause his bike was smashed in three places." If only she new just who Jason actually was.
Unfortunately, Jason did have a broken collarbone and had to pull out of the race, leaving me alone as the solo non-European in overall race contention. This would change my race strategy greatly as without a real ally, it was going to be a long road ahead.
Stage 3 we had a 20km neutral start which I barely made it through as my knee was giving me a lot of grief. At the start line, I tried to make some adjustments to my bike to protect my knee. It worked ok for the first hour as the adrenaline struck and I stayed within sight of the leaders on the first big climb but then had a puncture on the decent. My first tube went flat, the second one held and then I was on chase mode, getting back into the top 20 before having to back it off as my knee was screaming.
The next three hours, I was going backwards, walking up some hills, and eventually finishing one hour behind the leaders. This wasn't a good day on the bike although I did see a brown snake on course which didn't bite me which was a big plus. With 44-degree heat to boot, it was a really suffery day. In the end, I fell back to around 20th in overall GC contention. I figured my race was done that night. I spent 45 minutes with Clemends, one of the race physios who did what he could and taped my leg up like a cast . That night was a short sleep as the local hill billy band blasted through camp 'til midnight. They were suppose to play a second night, but we collaborated to pay them off not to play.
Stage 4 was four times around a 25km loop through the Outback. I went out slow as my only thought now was to soft pedal and try and survive the rest of the race so I wouldn't have to pull out and face the horror of riding in the race caravan till the end. Hitting the first singletrack in 30th or so place, I had a huge lift as the trails got pretty technical allowing me to pass all sorts of floundering roadies. For the rest of the day, I would hold my own on the 18km road section and then pick riders off on the 7km of dirt tracks eventually finishing sixth on the day. Unexpectadly I managed to get myself back into the race and had something to build off of for the coming stages!
On stage 5, a lead group of four Europeans broke away and had four minutes on us before we hit the first technical section 12km into the race. We would pass three of them fixing flat tires and the other one flailing on an off-camber accent. It was a short lived effort by the foursome. From there, the two Czech leaders, Ivan Rybarik and Ondrej Fojtik, along with Austrian Wolfgang Krenn would breakaway from me as I struggled up the hills . Things would flip around drastically as we hit 10km of really rough terrain which I took advantage of and launched into the lead with only Ivan staying close. It was a Roddi Legga type of effort.
From there the team tactics took over as Ivan decided it would be better to wait for his European counterparts which were two to three minutes behind rather then risk a long breakaway with a white boy Canadian. The rest of the day was straightforward as we were joined by Michiel Aelbroeck from Belgium, making a lead group of five. From there, the Euros teamed up as Ivan lead out Wolfgang to the finish for a sprint win, with myself falling off pace 1km from the finish to roll in fifth.
The camp this night was unreal as it was situated by a billabong (swimming pond) beneath the cliffs of Mount Mulligan. Having a few poor sleeps the nights before due to some other "X-factors" (tents zipping and unzipping, snoring and riders relieving themselves awfully close to camp) I decide to hike around the billabong and set my camp up in peace and quiet. This seemed like a brilliant plan. That night we had a bonfire in which the Aussies told us all stories about the poisonous toads out here that are little demons and will set your world on fire if you touch them. I figured they were bullshitting, but when I headed back to my tent I came across a field of hopping land mines as there were toads everywhere. I crapped my pants and headed back to the bonfire to get some more details on these toads as these Aussie creatures were pretty exotic for my Canadian blood. Apparently the Aussies get their golf clubs and deal with the toads that way as they are an introduced pest. I'm not a golfer but if I had my hockey stick, I might've practiced my slap shot, that was back in Canada so Instead I used a long stick to shove await the little critters. Eventually getting to my tent sweating bullets I quickly hopped inside and zipped myself in for the night away from the Outback critters.
Stage 6 was flat for the first 60km and then we hit some undulating hills of the last 60km to the finish. This proved to be one of the toughest stages of the race as the hills were all around three minutes long, then a decent and repeat, 30 or so times. It was a roller coaster. I made a fatal mistake at the feed zone trailing about 30 seconds longer then the two Czech leaders and was never able to recover this deficit as they roared along to the finish.
At one point, I was between 10 and 20 seconds behind these two leaders for over an hour, with them slightly upping the tempo every time I closed in. It was like they had a force field between them and me which was in penetrable. I would close in on the descents, keep it steady on the hills and lose time to the duo on the flats. Eventually Fojtik would pull ahead for the stage win with Rybarik trailing two minutes behind and myself another 45 seconds back. It was a good day as we put a ton of time into the other riders in the race and I was climbing back into contention for a top five overall/ podium place.
The camp this night was in the middle of nothing. With only a few trees and a billabong full of cow crap close by it wasn't a postcard-worthy spot. On the plus side, the sleep this night was surprisingly chilly. In the morning, we were all awakened at 4:45 am by the birds. These birds were unreal as they would arise the same time every day playing every possible melody/ rythym imaginable. Always way off tune and apparently still in training. It would sound like we were in the middle of the amazon rainforest not the dry Aussie Outback. I use to think roosters were a pain in the ass, but these contingents of Aussie birds were unbelievably noisy and never gave it a rest. If I had a shotgun I would've tested it out.
I fell asleep again after the birds died down and slept through my alarm to awake rather late at 7:15 am for a 8:00 am start. At 7:45 am, I was still in my jeans, had my tent to take down and water bottles to fill. It was a gongshow, but I made it to the start in time with a pile of riders attacking right at the gun. sixth place rider Michiel was on this early break so I had no choice but to go with it as the day was pretty flat, shorter at 90km, and set up perfectly for a successful breakaway and I was determined to keep my newly acquired podium spot.
I was in a world of hurt for the first 10km as I wiped sleep from my eyes and downed caffein- enriched gels as I tried to quite yawning and get into race mode. I managed to hang in there and eventually six of us would form the winning break of the day. With 10km to go we hit a sandy patch of track which sent the three Austrian roadies with us into a pile and left Mike Mulkens and I to battle it out for the win. The downhill finish suited the powerful Belgium as Mike Mulkens had his day, and after four years of racing the Croc trophy, he finally got his stage win and Boomerang to go with it.
At this finish was an unreal Billabong, deep, and apparently full of Crocodiles, just the freshwater ones though which are apparently not dangerous. In the other hand, you have the saltwater crocs which are apparently the deadly ones that hunt humans downs. Luckily for us, they are generally just found in the ocean and its connecting estuaries. We didn't know the water had Crocs in it or we would've never gone in but we followed the local Aussie riders and had a great afternoon of swimming. On this night the sky was clear and we had stunning display of stars which kept many of us up past our 10:00 pm bed times. The next morning the little tweety birds did what they do best and further decended down my list of favourite outback creatures.
Stage 8 was rough, a true mountain biker's course for the first 50km and then we joined a flat smooth road for the last 60km. I had a rather empty tank on this day and struggled to stay in a chase pack of five riders behind race leader Ivan Rybarik who was on a solo flyer from the gun. He would take the win and the five of us would jostle for second place. The last 10km of the races out here are really weird as riders start tapping shoulders and whispering as they make deals and allies for the finishing stretch. Its like a chess match with some bike riding mixed in. Things worked out as they did and I would come in fourth, and as an added bonus moved up to fourth overall in GC leading into the last day.
Following every stage, my physio saviour Clemends would work on my knee for 45 minutes and tape it up wit Spider Tech tape afterwards. I never really believed in this tape until now as we would use two to three layers surrounding the knee to provide support and it kept most the pain away. On stage 7, we only used one layering and I had knee pain all day and nearly lost the breakaway group as a result. Huge Thanks Clemends for keeping my knee intact and the race alive as I'm sure I would be a spectator without your help!
Stage 9 was a real gongshow as riders were sent out in waves of 10 at a time, from slowest to fastest in an effort to have us all finish around the same time on Grassy Hill in Cooktown. I pushed are group hard in an effort to keep us in contention for a stage win but there was no real interest from the other guys as they were mostly content on riding a casual pace to save energy for the Croco party that night.
With a solid head wind and 140km, a solo breakaway wasn't the most clever option, so I reset my goals for the day and tried to appreciate the casual pace and company of the other riders. At 60km in, I must've had my mind on algebra equations, or girls, and crashed myself out on a wide open fire road as we hit a pile of sandy corrugations causing the leader riders to slow and me not. I had to run into the woods to knock my stem back into place and then continue on. There was another pointless crash like this by one of the Aussie riders in our group, and then a couple of mechanicals that we all stopped for.
We were going carnival pace, but we were all together in GC so no one was too worried. Eventually we hit the 5km to go sign, there were attacks, I counterattacked and went into the 1km finish hill alone to solo in for the lead in our group, which should've equated to a stage win but we had screwed around so long that we were coming in over 20 minutes behind the other groups, of supposedly slower riders. No worries though as on top of Grassy Hill we had an unreal view of the blue ocean below and a cooler full of champagne and beers awaiting us. Amen to one heck of an Outback adventure!
The legendary Croco Party to follow was a bit of a blur for me. When you don't drink for six months and then polish off a couple bottles of wine, it has a drastic effect on a guy. Two hours of sleep later and we were on the bus back to Cairns with our bikes and luggage on separate luggage trucks. Back in Cairns, three bikes got misplaced, including mine and all my luggage. We are trying to figure out what just happened here as a lot of valuables were lost in this mishap. I had placed all the luggage on one of the trucks myself, so I knew it was there but come time to pick it up in Cairns it was all vanished. Things will sort out, and as of now I'm trying to take advantage of the bike-less situation and treating myself to a real off-season clear of any bike thoughts. It has been ages since I had an opportunity like this so I figure I better make the most of it and just be thankful my bike and gear got stolen after the race and not before.
The day after getting back to Cairns, 25 of us from the race went out on the annual post-Croc boat trip to the Great Barrier Reef. We slept on the way out there, snorkelled for an hour, cleaned out the free buffet and then slept some more awakening to some scorching sunburns. The boat captain asked our leader just what was a matter with us as he had never seen such a quiet sluggish like group on his boat before. If he tried nine days of Outback racing followed by two party nights I'm sure he would figure it out.
Huge Thanks to Kona, The North Face, Freewheel Cycle, the Mongolia Bike Challenge and all my newly acquired Aussie mates over here for making this trip Down Under a very memorable and successfully experience.
Wallace heads back to Canada on November 13 for some wintery work.