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Racing through sand, heat and tire-eating rocks

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The finish line at the end of the 95km stage four.

The finish line at the end of the 95km stage four. (Image credit: Rebecca Rusch)
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Bikes packed for the bumpy ride for the start of stage 4

Bikes packed for the bumpy ride for the start of stage 4 (Image credit: Rebecca Rusch)
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Dawn at the start of stage 4

Dawn at the start of stage 4 (Image credit: Rebecca Rusch)
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My brand new Specialized S-Works Era swaddled in hotel towels to protect it for the journey.

My brand new Specialized S-Works Era swaddled in hotel towels to protect it for the journey. (Image credit: Rebecca Rusch)

Day 2, Stage 3

I'm glad I'm riding the full suspension Era. I was considering bringing my Specialized Stumpy HT 29, and now I'm glad I didn't. I am using all of my suspension in this race.

Stage 3 was another 50km cross country type stage that was at least 50 percent rocky singletrack. It seems relatively flat out here in the Red Centre of Australia, but the riding does not feel flat. The hills are really small, but they are relentless and technical. The singletrack here is nothing like the buff, smooth trails at home.

It's super fun racing that is keeping me on my toes, but it makes it very hard to eat and drink. Before day 1, the medical volunteers gave a speech and suggested taking twice as much water as we expected to need. I figured I knew enough about racing to know how to hydrate, so I did not follow her instructions on day 1, and I paid for it.

For day 2, I wore a Hydrapak and left bottles at the aid stations. The air here is so dry, it just sucks the water right out of you. I was happy to have the extra water, and I raced better on this stage. I'm not sure if it was the extra hydration, getting over the jetlag or just getting into the swing of racing again.

Regardless of the reason, I felt much more like myself racing today and had a better result. The stage took me just under three hours, which was good enough to move me up one place in the general ranking to third position.

The afternoon was packed full of bike cleaning, maintenance and packaging it up to be loaded onto the truck for tomorrow's stage. The trucks will drive 80km out into the desert and drop our bikes off in the sand. There, the race director John will sleep out under the stars and guard our bikes for the long stage.

Day 3, Stage 4

The 4:00 am alarm clock wasn't necessary. I'm normally a hideously cranky morning person who dreads early race starts. However, I think jetlag has hold of me, and I've been waking up at around 4:00 am every morning anyway. So this morning, it was no big deal to be ready for the 5:15 am bus ride to the start (for the point to point stage - ed.).

Our bikes were packed into the trucks and transported the night before. I had no idea this was the transportation arrangement for our bikes, so I ended up using hotel towels and electrical tape to package my bike for transport. Most other athletes had brought bubble wrap or more traditional forms of padding.

My bike survived, and we arrived on the start line in time to watch the sun coming up through Trephina Gorge. Today's stage was the 98km big daddy. John said that the tracks were in bad condition and extremely sandy. I was looking forward to a longer stage in hopes that it would play a bit more to my endurance strengths.

The first 90 minutes of the stage were incredibly fun. It was like shopping for a line through really open scrub forest and sandy washes. There was no distinct trail, so it was a matter of quick thinking and watching the people in front of you to see which lines were a go.

It reminded me of my adventure racing days of hunting for the quickest way from point A to B. I was having fun during this section and was happy jumping on and off my bike, jumping across huge erosion ravines, then jumping back on the bike.

I was in the lead for this portion of the race, but then after about 90 minutes, I got caught by race leader, Jodie Willett and Under 23 Australian National champion, Gracie Elvin, who was sitting in fourth in the GC.

At this point in the race, we had more than half the race to go on primarily jeep roads with headwinds and multiple, deep sand bogs. The three of us made a great team and started working together, trading pulls and finding lines through the sand.

The group effort was a huge benefit and way more fun than slogging it out alone through the sand. We all came in relatively close together with Gracie pulling ahead for her first stage win here. The solid effort also moved me up another placing in the GC and I am now sitting in second.

The top four women are all close. Jodie has a commanding 15-minute lead, and I have about six minutes on third, but with three more stages still to come and the Australian tire-eating rocks out there waiting for us, anything could happen.

Many riders finished today cursing the sand and the wind and hating the course. I'm not saying I had fun pushing my bike through the sand, but it was beautiful scenery and exciting racing.