Croc Tales: 9 things we learned from the Crocodile Trophy
It’s only been two years since my most recent participation in the Crocodile Trophy but the 25th edition brought a new series of lessons and takeaways that will undoubtedly come in handy for the next stage race. There’s a lot of absorb across eight-days, 800km and 13,000m of climbing but the Crocodile Trophy is very much about the time off the bike too. Here, we present the 9 lessons learned from the 2019 Crocodile Trophy.
Words: Alex Malone
The Crocodile Trophy is unlike any other event on the Australian cycling calendar. It’s as ‘Aussie’ as it gets and takes the bunch into quintessential outback terrain and through some of North Queensland’s most stunning cycling-friendly rainforests. Camping under the stars, brilliant sunshine and true-blue bush tucker washed down with bottle of classic Czech beer, Celia… wait, what? There’s a European twist to the Crocodile Trophy but understand its heritage and one quickly realises it’s as much a race for overseas riders as it is for Australians.
Gerhard Schönbacher, former Austrian road professional, fell in love with Australia during his time racing for a Melbourne-based outfit and originally built the Croc as ‘the hardest, longest and most adventurous mountain bike race in the world’. The early editions included up to 20 stages with days exceeding 200km in length. It was nuts. The contemporary editions have become far more in tune with the other major stage races in terms of days and overall distance but don’t think that it’s now easy. It’s not.
I may have only missed one edition since my inaugural attempt but this year’s Crocodile Trophy was in some ways, chalk and cheese compared to the 2017 edition. Some classic outback stages remained but with a huge amount of input from local racer Bren Skerke, singletrack kilometres and general trail quality has gone through the roof. Fundamentally, the Croc is very much the same as it was but if it continues on the same improvement trajectory, there’s every chance it’ll start to attract more and more Australians to this iconic event.
Three years ago Mike Cameron and I rode into Queenstown after what was a seriously epic six days of The Pioneer. Six stage races later, I’m continuing to tweak things with the aim of enjoying myself even more at the next. I’ve written a few of these features – following the Pioneer in 2017, the 2017 Croc and the 2018 Mongolia Bike Challenge but each race has its own intricacies. And so, after a couple of weeks to digest the 2019 Crocodile Trophy I’m happy present the key takeaways from the 25th edition. Thinking about lining up for a multi-day event of some description? Well, read on.
Once you’re done here, ensure you head over to the Crocodile Trophy pack list that on departure, was close to bursting at the seams.
1. The Croc is the Croc
It might have once been dubbed as the ‘the hardest, longest and most adventurous mountain bike race in the world’ but the years of a 15 or 20-stage race and days in excess of 200km are gone. In 2019, the average distance was a touch under 90km however, there were three days in a row that went beyond 100km in distance. Off-road, that’s considerable ground to cover and despite what people tell you, not everyone can finish the Croc. Getting to the finish at Port Douglas demands serious attention to preparation and perhaps more than anything, a hardy spirit for adventure.
My overall race time was in excess of 30 hours, similar to my first Pioneer and just over 2,000 TSS (100 points equals 1 hour at threshold, as a general rule) points, which is helluva lot of cycling to do in eight days. Given the pair of relatively ‘short’ days thrown in, you have to be ready for some properly long days in the saddle. But that’s ok, you’ve come here prepared to spend in excess of five, six, seven or even more hours on your bike for days in a row, right?
One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the very much European flavour to the Crocodile Trophy. Gerhard brings his Austrian crew with him every year. The support staff are primarily European too which this year at least, made ordering a can of coke from the Croc Bar a little entertaining given the severe language gap. I’d nailed it by the last day.
2. Singletrack is in
Local Cairns rider Bren Skerke has been riding the Croc for years but it’s only in the last couple that he’s come on board as the official course designer. There’s really little comparison to the 2017 edition where the only proper singletrack was the Smithfield World Cup course and even then, it was only 30 kilometres in length.
This year included some superb singletrack that really made for a more interesting race – in my opinion. Stage 1 used a modified course from the 2017 edition to include a lap around Davies Creek Mountain Bike Park before finishing along the more traditional country roads to Ringers Rest. The course also dropped into Atherton on a couple of occasions across the week and the Queen Stage was filled with an amazing mix of terrain.
It wouldn’t be the Croc without some classic Outback style stages but Skerke’s input and local knowledge meant the chosen roads, tracks and trails linking it all up were far more considered. I’d love to see even more singletrack included in the years to come because ultimately I believe this is what the majority of Aussie riders would like to ride. This year however, there was a great mix and never did you feel like it was Groundhog Day.
3. Train the system
It was back in December of 2018 at The Pioneer when I last rode and raced a mountain bike so it’s fair to say I was a bit nervous about my steering ability ahead of this year’s race. With one ride around Manly Dam the week prior to flying to Cairns, I headed to the Croc relying heavily on my fitness to get me through the eight days.
A couple of warm up rides around Smithfield in Cairns would give me some time to get the suspension on the Focus 01E dialled and make any last minute adjustments. The rest I hoped, would come back to me pretty quickly but I wasn’t lining up totally unprepared, despite having recommended on plenty of occasions previously to ‘ride your mountain bike lots‘.
Having now ridden six week-long MTB stage races, I’ve come to fully appreciate the importance of general bike fitness. Living in Sydney offers no shortage of road riding possibilities with great options prior to work or in the early evenings however, off-road ventures take a little more foresight and time. Previously, I’ve used the mountain bike for mixed surface rides that might include a 100km ride that is up to 80 percent road and 20 percent off-road. It sounds a little odd but TOB (time on bike) is one area that can’t be skipped if you intend to push through eight-days of tough terrain. Any riding, road or off-road, will help. That’s how I’ve rationalised my lack of off-road riding this time around.
This year I’ve spent plenty of time on the road and completed lots of longer weekend rides which are ridden at what is basically an annoyingly uncomfortable pace for long durations. The best way to explain it is to ride at a pace that is just past where you can chat to a riding buddy. It’s not always pleasant but it gets the job done and trains your body to ride at a relatively high intensity for up to four or five hours. Throw in some climbs along the way (definitely no talking up these) and then take a breather over the top. Just don’t back it off too much.
It’s this sort of riding, blended with some easy rides and of course, proper intensity efforts, that seems to work for me. Depending on your base level of off-road skills, you may be better suited to more time off-road. I’m sure my arms and back would have appreciated a few more pre-Croc hours off-road. Access to trails will also likely impact how willing you are to head off-road in the lead up to an event like the Croc.
4. Don’t skimp on gear
This isn’t the top-of-the-line sales speech. Far from it. What I’m talking about here is ensuring your gear is up to the task of an eight-day stage race. You can start this gear list wherever you like but the main thing to consider is that the Crocodile Trophy isn’t your local cross country club race. The terrain up here might be a little familiar for past participants but even then, it’s been at least 12 months since you last rolled over that same track. Things change.
The gear you need for the Croc should be more robust that what you might usually ride around on, but it’s not totally necessary to start adding weight just for the sake of it. Tyres are one area where it’s worth sacrificing a few grams in return for better durability but even small things like your seat post collar should be the more meatier versions. Those hand made carbon handlebars from Schmolke? I’d leave them at home.
In terms of running gear, Shimano and SRAM both make extremely good drivetrains that are built for this sort of thing. The weight drops and the performance (potentially) improves as you move up the component pyramid but really, this will come back to your budget. Build yourself the most durable and lightweight ensemble possible, train on it (hard) and if it handles the abuse, it’s good to go.
Don’t bin all that hard work and perfect shifting by arriving to the start with flogged-out gear. You’ve spent far too much money and time dialling your bike and body to save a few pennies when it matters. Fresh tyres and sealant, a new drivetrain and pads plus new-ish cleats. These are the things that’ll give you the best chance of riding through the week unscathed.
5. Fuel for the win
This is sort of a new one for me and let’s be clear, I’m talking about personal victories here. Podium time has been an extremely rare occurrence ever since I started cycling. Fuelling for the win, for me at least, is about finishing as strong as you start. Assuming you’ve trained the system to handle long days in the saddle, endurance shouldn’t be your limiting factor but nutrition and hydration will leave you dead in your tracks.
For those that have bonked or hunger flatted on a training ride previously, you’re provably all too aware of the flow-on impact it can play on the day or days following. Go deep into the reserves and arrive at home or over the finish line barely able to mutter word? You’re done. Cooked. Those post-stage jobs like taking care of your bike and yourself will fall away as you crawl over to a place to lay down.
Races like the Crocodile Trophy are designed to push your body and mind to new limits but with a good strategy around fuel, that limit will get stretched a little further than you thought possible. Past experiences at The Pioneer, Cape to Cape and Mongolia were more about nutrition than hydration but up in North Queensland, you could fry an egg on your top tube. Hydration is equally as important as energy stores and after feeling like I hadn’t truly nailed the nutrition at race’s past, I made an extra effort this year to go hard on the calories.
Depending on the strength of your gut, chugging down huge amounts of carbohydrates for days on end might be a ride in the park but with a tendency to ride at a relatively high intensity during the opening hours of most stages, getting the fuel in can be more difficult if taken in solid form. Remember Chris Froome’s raid during Stage 19 of the 2018 Giro d’Italia? According to Froome and his team, it’s with thanks to a super high carbohydrate fuel strategy that allowed him to forge out a race-winning lead and smash out a 80km individual time trial effort.
There are a number of reputable brands that offer liquid form fuel sources and while I used Infinit at the Crocodile Trophy, Team Ineos use the sponsored SiS Beta Fuel mix and others like GU and Torq have drink mixes that contain slightly more than normal carbohydrate ratios. As mentioned in my pack list, Infinit offers over 60g in a single serving which if you’re operating at a high intensity for multiple hours, is a sure-fire way to keep energy topped up. Again, things like weight and general carb-burning rates will determine how much you need. Infinit also makes custom blends which may be a better idea for some.
6. Be sun smart
This year’s Crocodile Trophy was a hot one. That said, October in North Queensland is always hot. The difference between comfortable and scorching might only be a few degrees Celsius but this is very much a relative sense. The ‘cool’ days were 30 while the proper hot ones hit upward of 40 degrees Celsius. Throw in a lack of shade and you’re talking about serious sun exposure.
It’s not all bad news. With the right sun protection, even the most sun-sensitive skin types can survive the Croc hotbox. As a lifetime Sydneysider, I’ve become all too familiar with the potential for a summer season ‘meltdown’ and after a couple of personal experiences, reducing core body temperature immediately after super hot rides has become priority number one.
Given the time in the Outback sun, you’re going to want to choose a suncream that can go the distance and not feel like you’ve covered yourself in cling wrap. More recently, I’ve found some really impressive sports zinc which you can pretty much lather on yourself once and be confident it’ll still be doing it’s thing come the finish each day.
On crossing the line, get out of the sun (you don’t need to spend more time tanning), inhale as many drinks as you can and get into the cold shower as soon as possible. The showers will usually be cold at Croc but trust me, you don’t want them warm. Once clean, head for the coolest place you can find and do your best to stay out of the afternoon heat.
Do this and you’ll assist with sleeping that night and surprise, surprise, recovery for the next stage.
7. Pacing is key
For those who have followed the Crocodile Trophy, Pioneer or Mongolia Bike Challenge journeys, you’d know that I generally find a breaking point after around three or four days. I managed to push this out slightly further during last year’s Pioneer but coming into this year’s Croc, I knew a change of strategy would be necessary to complete the eight-day race.
Seven and a half stages into the 25th edition, I found a new ceiling but looking back on things, I’m not sure if it was genuine fatigue or simply a lack of proper fuelling at breakfast and during the high-tempo first 50km. A double-lesson day, it would seem.
With Pioneer coming somewhat closely off the heels of Croc, my aim was to finish in Port Douglas still motivated and interested in cycling. Achieving this goal was as much down to mental attitude as it was to paying attention to intensity during the opening stages. In a road race, you never let go of the wheel in front but off-road is a different beast which means that allowing a rider to pull away can sometimes be the best thing to do. Ride your own pace, don’t get caught up in an ego battle and bide your time. Team Ineos may have coined the marginal gains approach but I’m all about marginal losses. Do what you can to minimise lost time by occasionally letting it happen.
It seemed to work well at Crocodile Trophy but at Pioneer, I’ll have to convince a whippet teammate to slow down. That may be a tougher ask. In short, don’t go spending all your energy in the opening few days. You’ve done the work and your legs will feel good having properly rested coming into the race. Save all that training for later in the week when others will start to loose their freshness.
8. Treat yourself
The Crocodile Trophy isn’t a week of glamping. If you’ve chosen the ‘luxury’ camping option you’ll find your tent setup every day after the stage and the tents are extremely roomy, plus you get a stretcher which sits off the ground and makes camp life pretty easy going. The tents are far bigger than what is provided at The Pioneer with someone like myself at 185cm able to stand up and sort shuffle around easily.
That said, things are a little more basic in camp with communal outdoor showers for men and women and portable toilets at most camp sites. Ringers Rest, Wondecla and Skybury also had some real bathrooms which are a more pleasant option compared to the 40-degree hotbox. The Croc provides all your meals which are sufficient and you’ll never go hungry but it can be basic fare at times. Those with specific dietary requirements have a harder time so if you’re gluten-free, vegetarian, vegan or otherwise, consider supplementing your meals with your own snacks. I’m sure if you asked nicely the kitchen staff would keep it in their cool room.
Treating yourself with a few niceties can make all the difference after a long day on the bike and while you might think it unnecessary prior to departure, throwing in a few extra luxury items might just bring that smile back after the Queen stage. This might mean a couple of bags of lollies (leave the chocolate at home, it’ll melt) or going for another round of shakes at Skybury. These races/events are also doubling as holidays for most so make the most of it. Having a beer after each stage isn’t going to destroy your GC chances.
My personal treat is bringing my little Aeropress coffee kit. There’s something about keeping that one bit of morning routine which I really like. This year I was treated especially well following each stage by spending 45-60 minutes in a pair of Normatec Recovery boots. Two weeks post-Croc and I’m already seriously considering about buying a pair. It’s one of those one-time purchases. I’ll never need to buy them again. That’s the thought process and rationalisation that I’m dealing with ahead of clicking ADD TO CART.
9. Make Croc pals
Eight days, plus a couple either side for travelling, can be a long time to spend on your own – if riding solo. It might feel easy at the time to skip that pre-Croc dinner or slide away into your own world after the first stage but come mid-race, you’ll be having a much better time if you’ve made the effort to meet fellow riders.
The Croc is also a little bit different to other stage races because, apart from the singletrack days, there is a lot of wide-open terrain to conquer. This means that instead of riding on your own all the time, you’re likely to find a group that rides at around your speed. It’s these folks especially, that you want to become new best friends with because they’ll likely be the same ones you chat to before, during and after the stage.
Make friends at this race because it’s too bloody hard to do on your own.
Think we missed something or want further information? Feel free to comment below.