Starting on Monday, nearly 200 riders will clip in and pedal off into the uncharacteristically damp desert to tackle the five-day, seven-stage Ingkerreke Commercial Mountain Bike Enduro race, taking place May 16-22.
And while sport pundits will be keeping a close eye on the elite pack - which includes the recently crowned male and female Australian 24-hour solo national champions - others will be cheering on six riders whose equally impressive claim to fame is having raced in every edition of the event since its debut in 2008.
Michael Heyburn, Paul Darvodelsky, Stephen Brady, Alf Bluch, Jane Ollerenshaw and Steve Munyard will return to the Red Centre as "Four Timers" with a unique and knowledgeable perspective on what's in store. Yet they also look forward to fresh challenges incorporated in this year's race, with route changes and fresh, new singletrack.
"This is actually my fifth year," said Ollerenshaw, from Victoria, who competed in the event run by Alice Springs Bike Club the year prior to Rapid Ascend taking it on.
"I love Alice Springs. It's such an exciting place to ride with amazing scenery and fantastic singletrack," said Ollerenshaw, who will ride with her husband (who last year broke his ribs) and friends, while her parents - currently caravanning around Australia - will be cheering her on from their posts as race volunteers.
Riders will travel from far and wide to compete in the event - some from as far afield as Vanuatu and Singapore - experiencing the unique beauty of the Red Centre from a two-wheel perspective. It will be new adventures for many first timers, but even local entrants are surprised by what they discover in their own backyard.
"The event provides an unparalleled opportunity to access many routes which we, even as locals, would not usually be able to ride due to their remoteness and the need for rider support," said Brady. "Every year I discover more beautiful places in Central Australia."
While the "Four-Timers" hope to beat personal bests, crunching the dirt up front will be a stellar field, led by Australian 24-Hour Solo champions Jason English and Joanna Wall, who each bagged their crowns in April. English is also the 24-hour solo world champion and the reigning champion of the Ingkerreke MTB Enduro. He is expecting a tight tussle for the coveted yellow jersey presented to each stage winner.
"I think this race will be close like last year. I'm planning on running some non-carbon rims this year and am still deciding between a hardtail and dual suspension based on how well my wrist recovers in the next 10 days," said English, in a telling sign of how much a toll his 24-hour success took.
"I'm looking forward to the new route for day 1, and to the tracks around the golf course as they were awesome last year. I like how all the tracks around Alice feel fast as they are all rock based. It makes for quick racing."
So who does English believe will be pushing his (hard) tail? "I think Andy Blair will most likely win the race based on his form at the marathon nationals. However, I think Aido (Aiden Leffman) will also be a hot contender based on his cross country form.
"If I can win one stage, I think I'll be going pretty well. I'm also super interested to see how the juniors go - I'm impressed to see how many have entered," said English.
In addition to English and Wall, other elite riders to watch include former 24-hour national champion Andrew Bell, former under 19 champion Ryan Standish (Team Merida), Rohin Adams, past stage winner Aiden Leffman (Team Merida), Scotty Chancellor (Team Torq), Andy Blair (Red Shift Racing), Nick Both (Red Shift Racing), 24-hour solo world champion Jess Douglas (Giant), Terri Rhodes (Team Merida) and Anna Beck.
Old and young from far and wide
The event is as much about the weekend warrior as the leading lights of the sport, so it's worth keeping an eye on Malcolm Robins, from Port Melbourne, VIC. At 65 years of age, he is the eldest statesman of the pack.
Jacques Jacobie from Longreach QLD, is at 14 the youngest rider out there, riding alongside (or speeding off on) dad, Christo.
For the title of "It's a Long Way if You Want to Rock 'n Roll", it's a tussle between Kristian Russet, from Vanuatu and Lars Spangberg and Richard Sinclair, both from Singapore. Singapore is 4251.4km from Alice Springs, while Port Vila, Vanuatu, is only 3664km. But travel time including stopovers is 25-35 hours from Vanuatu, and only 12-20 hours from Singapore, so Russet won the award.
Best ever course over seven stages
According to race director, John Jacoby, it will be air miles well worth covering. "The rivers and creeks are flowing, the grass is green, the flowers are out and there is more singletrack around Alice then ever before," he said.
This year's race stages have been reduced in length compared with previous years. Stages vary from the lactic acid feast of the Anzac Hill climb (stage 3) which takes approx. 60 seconds, to stage 4, the traditional long stage which this year will be 77km with a mix of twisting and turning sealed bike track to some hilly fire roads and a spectacular ridge top ride at the end.
The crowd favourite, the 23km night stage, is back again as one of the most exciting stages.
"Last year, stage 1 was a tough 50+km initiation," said Jacoby. "This year it we've listened to feedback, and reduced it to 39km. A lot of the tough sections have been taken out while the singletrack heaven that exists between the 10km mark and the 36km mark is still featured."
The now famous Telegraph Station eastside stage remains unchanged and takes in the challenging, fun and awesome singletracks that invoke strange images when negotiating "helmet track", "dunny track", "sink track", "the washing machine" and "the roller coaster".
Following Jacoby's recce last week, more singletrack is included in 2011.
"The final stage 7 is probably one of the most fun stages I have had the privilege to ride," said Jacoby. "It includes 5km of brand new singletrack, plus a combination of some of Alice's best tracks joined up to make a final outstanding 41km stage which finishes in the majestic grounds of the Old Telegraph Station. It is a fitting end to a brilliant week of mountain biking."
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