Insider: 8 things we learned from the Crocodile Trophy

Earlier in the year we dipped our toes in the multi-day off-road scene by taking on The Pioneer. Having recovered and rebuilt for another challenge, we signed up for the iconic Crocodile Trophy – claimed to be the world’s toughest mountain bike stage race. Here we present the 8 things we learned during the eight-day event.

Words: Alex Malone

Photography: Igor Schifris/Crocodile Trophy, MarathonMTB.com and Alex Malone

Earlier in the year we packed up and shipped ourselves off to The Pioneer in stunning New Zealand. The pairs format, held over seven days and seven stages, served as our entry into the off-road stage racing world. We prepared as best we could, albeit with a limited time on the dirt and lined up ready to take on the challenge: seven days, 545km and 15,508 meters of climbing over stunningly brutal terrain. Our campaign began strongly at the Christchurch Adventure Park, we battled through fatigue during the middle of the week and finished in Queenstown completely spent.

We learned a lot at The Pioneer about ourselves, equipment, preparation, race tactics and nutrition. So, with all those lessons taken on board, we thought to try our hand again. This time however, we’d stay in our own backyard – sort of – and race the 23rd edition of the iconic Crocodile Trophy. In a departure from The Pioneer, this one would be a solo mission. There would be no more ‘we’.

I’d make friends along the way but there would be no default shoulder to lean on or wheel to sit behind. I’d be doing it on my own, for eight days straight. There’s a reason why eight-time Croc finisher Martin Wisata said to avoid making enemies during the race. It can be a long week if you end up without any pals.

After months of research and asking the experts in stage racing for how best to tackle the week, I lined up at Smithfield for Stage 1 full of fight. Eight days later, with good and bad days, I immediately promised to make a return. Despite the somewhat overly relaxed organisation and questionable UCI ranking, there’s something about the Crocodile Trophy that lures riders back. It’s Australia’s most iconic mountain bike stage race. It’s also the most Austrian/European/Australian outback experience you can have with a bike in tow. That alone, is pretty special.

We packed a fair amount of gear for this race but funnily enough, most of it got put immediately in the bike bag for the express trip to the finish line at Port Douglas. So, with a revised list to exclude those things we absolutely didn’t need, be sure to scroll back up here and read what we packed for the Crocodile Trophy.

1. Don’t underestimate the Croc

It was Martin Wisata, now eight-time Croc finisher who told us shortly before the start of this year’s race ‘not to underestimate the Croc’. Martin holds the record for the greatest number of race finishes and clearly knows a thing or two about the event, the organisation and how best to manage the ups and downs of a week-long race. The team at MarathonMTB.com provided some great tips for conquering the Crocodile Trophy but this came only shortly before kick off. Really, any event or race held over multiple days should be taken more seriously than a one-dayer, regardless of the distance, difficultly or elevation gained. This isn’t a Peaks Challenge nor a Velothon. It’s an entirely different beast.

For most, including us, our lives revolve around work (making magazines), family, partners and social engagements. Fitting in an appropriate level of training in the months leading up to an eight-day event is where you show your respect or decide to arrive with the hope of miraculously making it to Port Douglas.

With prior experience training for multi-day races, albeit on the road, I have a fairly good idea of how to prepare the body for an endurance race like the Croc. With two off-road stage races now completed I will say that using a coach, power meter and potentially heart rate monitor in the lead up would likely lead to an improved final result, or at least a greater level of readiness.

I was far more confident in my preparation as compared to The Pioneer however, it became evident that I lacked some of the specificity needed to really put in a strong showing. The ‘roadie’ parts of the race were a breeze and often where I could make up time or create a gap while the longer and steeper climbs, the real grinders, is where I struggled.

Highlighting this area earlier in my preparation would have led to a greater focus on these high-torque efforts. That said, growing up racing downhill certainly made up for some of these climbing shortcomings.

Going back to Martin’s comment, don’t underestimate the Croc.

2. Pack for the conditions

This year’s edition was pushed forward to September, with the hope of attracting elite riders fresh off the UCI Mountain Bike Championships. For a number of reasons, the race failed to attract more than three elite riders, all from Canada. The 2018 edition thus slides back into the late October slot where it should also lead to a greater number of overseas riders signing up.

Even a month earlier than usual, we enjoyed 30 degrees or above (in the shade) almost everyday. The humidity varied considerably depending on the stage and surrounding conditions. Some days we’d be in the sun all day while others were spent in the darker parts of the rainforest.

It was absolutely necessary to lather on the sports sun cream at the beginning of each day. I was also sure to cover the areas seemingly protected by the jersey as the kit I wore featured quite a bit of lightweight mesh material. There was only one stage where I wore an undershirt and it rained all day, reportedly over 30mm. At no point did I feel cold. If you’re really game, leave the arm and leg warmers at home. You won’t need them unless of the sun-shielding type. A vest or light rain jacket is worth packing just in case of rain but you’ll likely remove it shortly after starting the stage.

Unlike The Pioneer which had a laundry service a couple of times during the week, hand washing is the primary method for cleaning kit each day. If it’s sunny, it’ll be more or less dry by morning but you should bring at least three sets for the race. You never know what could happen. Bring summer jerseys and bib shorts if you can. Despite having a great list of what to pack for the Croc, it wasn’t until the morning of departure when I actually pulled it all together. This led to flying with far too much to Cairns before bagging up most of it, along with my bike bag. This would not be seen until the finish at Port Douglas. There was nothing I missed during this time.

Take a look at what to pack for the Crocodile Trophy to see our list of essentials and what to leave at home.

3. Bike maintenance – know the basics

It was raining at the start of Stage 4 and forecast to pour all day. There was a bit of life remaining in my front pads but not for a wet day that included some ‘dangerous descents’. A few minutes later and a fresh pair of Shimano XTR sintered/metallic pads were installed and adjusted. The sintered pads eat sand and grit for breakfast and I was completely confident in taking on the day. A fellow racer watched with interest as I made the swap and promptly handed over a set of set of pads for his bike. ‘Reckon you could throw these in for me?’. Under normal circumstances, ‘sure thing, give me a sec’ but with barely 20 minutes to start, I had to politely decline.

Slightly flustered after the last-minute maintenance, I took solace knowing that I had been able to remedy any issues before they arose during the demanding stage. Knowing how to repair, replace, adjust or fix small mechanical problems is absolutely critical for a stage race. If you don’t know how to do something, you’ll no doubt have many months to learn. Ask you LBS for advice on doing your own maintenance – perhaps when your bike is getting serviced – or ask them to run a maintenance seminar so you can learn the basics of your specific equipment.

It goes without saying that replacing your own tubeless tyres, repairing a puncture or adjusting gears after a crash are the very minimum you need to complete on your own. Don’t rely on the race mechanics.

4. bring your favourites to the outback

Gone are the days when the Croc ventured deep into the outback but even the contemporary edition is remote enough that any form of outside amenities are generally beyond reach. Save for the stage to Lake Tinaroo, when the holiday park across the street served up burgers, coffee and shakes and two days at Skybury cafe, the rest of the race started and finished in the seemingly middle of nowhere. A 10-15km ride to the shops after you’ve been racing for four hours may as well be the end of the earth.

All of those nice little post-ride snacks you enjoy back home, bring them.

The same should be said for dietary needs or preferences. While some of the meals catered to vegetarians and gluten-free requests, there were a few days where the best had to be made out of the available meal options. As mentioned above, pack your favourite bread or wraps (they pack easier), vacuum-sealed baked goods, sweet and salty treats and ensure you’ve got enough for the week. A couple of pieces of liquorice shared by Haley Smith after Stage 6 was like tasting it for the first time. I refer to lesson one in this case.

5. Mind, body and spirit – Look after yourself

The fatigue of stage racing slowly builds up so it’s important to learn how best to unwind after each stage. Given our supported entries for this year’s event, my routine varied from most others as I raced Mike from MarathonMTB to the publish-button finish line. The finish of each stage would normally run in the following order:

1. Inhale recovery beverage and perhaps a soft drink.
2. Grab gear from luggage truck.
3. Find tent, set-up stretcher and unpack as necessary.
4. Shower and wash kit.
5. Eat lunch (sometimes in position #2).
6. Take a few snaps, open laptop and write stage report.
7. Finish upload in time for dinner, most evenings. Otherwise, finish post-dinner.
8. Bed between 2130-2200.

There were two occasions where I squeezed in a massage. This made a huge difference to my mental state and of course, the aching legs, shoulders, arms and back. On one particular stage – six, I believe – I lost my cool when trying to unfold a broken stretcher. After a couple of earlier than usual starts, I’d failed to realise how wound up I had become. Finding a few minutes each day to unwind, switch off and relax does wonders for enjoying the week.

‘You’re on holidays, have a beer’, I told a number of riders who suggested they wouldn’t be having a coldie until reaching Port Douglas.

6. Friends – you need them

Unlike a pairs race, where it’s easy to isolate your interactions to your teammate, the Croc is a one-person affair. (Note: there were a few pairs racers this year). After a few stages it became clear what level you were at and this meant riding with similar people each day. Perhaps you’d start with a few but finish with others. Either way, it was absolutely key to be civil with your fellow Croc riders. Of course, it’s easy to get along with likeminded folks so the responsibility is on yourself to not put anyone off-side.

Do your turns at the front of the group, offer a gentle push of encouragement and maybe buy them a beer at the end of a long day. Sure, it’s a race but you can’t do it alone at the Croc. You simply won’t make it.

7. Things don’t always go to plan

The Crocodile Trophy has a UCI ranking which is primarily designed to attract a few elite riders each year. Points accumulated during the race can assist riders with their starting position for World Cup events and this can make a huge difference when lining up in a 130-plus rider field. The UCI ranking also stipulates a minimum amount of prize money for the elite field. This doesn’t apply to the open categories. We do it for fun.

With the ranking comes UCI commissaires who are responsible for the elite field. Commissaires watch over the race to ensure everything runs according to guidelines. That said, the Croc seems to be afforded a little wiggle room when it comes to general accepted practices. On the plus side, it was decided early in the week that remaining stages would start at 9am as opposed to 8am as per the Tour Program. This was received with a huge thumbs up from all racers.

On the flip side, the remoteness of the race and huge distances covered provides organisers with a host of complex route marking challenges. I lost track of how many sections of private and government land we passed through over the week. Much of this is generally inaccessible to the public, let along motorised vehicles carrying race signage.

The UCI ranking does great things for the status but it also means holding it to a higher expectation that your usual club run. The lack of signage on Stage 2, which caused a number of riders to miss critical turns, should never happen in a race of this category, let alone one with such a long history. Commissaires acted swiftly to amend affected riders times, it put a slight dampener on the race. Is the UCI ranking necessary to hold a great race? No, but if it is ranked this way, it should be run accordingly to expectations.

8. It’s an Austrian-Australian experience – embrace it

Gerhard Schonbacher is the man behind the Croc and has been doing so since the first edition in 1993. Gerhard is a former road professional and is Austrian born and bred. He brings a wealth of experience and with that, a huge entourage of Austrian workers and backpackers. Without these folks, the race simply wouldn’t happen. It’s Australia’s most iconic MTB stage race but it’s very much an Austrian-European experience.

It’s a rare sight to see such a continent of Europeans at a cycling event in Australia but I certainly loved hearing the stories from so many of the other racers who travelled all the way Down Under for the Croc. This is probably one of the most unique aspects of the Croc.

For details on the Crocodile Trophy head to crocodile-trophy.com.

Keen to take on a stage race like the Croc? Here’s what to pack.

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