Tips for success at the Dragon Trail MTB Stage Race
The Dragon Trail MTB Stage Race first ran in March 2021, tracing a point-to-point route from Branxholm to St Helens in north east Tasmania. The 3-stage event uses some of the most popular purpose-built mountain bike trails in the Blue Derby and St Helens trail networks, along with some connecting trails that don’t appear on the regular trail maps.
With the course design, the Dragon Trail may well be one of the most singletrack heavy mountain bike stage races in Australia, with options to camp, use a campervan or rent accommodation for each evening. Just about every service is available at the Dragon Trail, including transfers, mechanic services, meals, massage, tent hire and feed zone support.
You can find all the details for the services on the very thorough event website. But having raced the Dragon Trail in 2021, here are our tips for success.
Service and prepare your bike
Like any bike race, turning up with the right equipment in good working order is imperative. Make sure you book your bike in for service a few weeks out from the event. Most bike shops have a long lead time due to the huge uptake on cycling. So get on the phone… now!
Tell your mechanic that you’re doing the Dragon Trail event, a multi-day race in north-east Tasmania. You will cross from sandy trails to rocky trails, to granite boulders to loam and back again. New tyres and new brake pads would be a smart choice.
I used a 36t chain ring on a Shimano XTR 12-speed group set with 10-51t cassette, and probably should have had a 34t, but that wasn’t a deciding factor in my result (more on that later). I was happy to have sintered metal pads, a larger 180mm front rotor, a dropper post, 2.4” tyres on 30mm wide rims and riding a dual suspension XC bike with remote lock out. I used a Maxxis Rekon 2.4” on the front with a Rekon Race in 2.35” on the back.
Ensure your wheels have fresh sealant, that you carry a chain link and a derailleur hanger and know how to use them, and have a multitool that works with all the items on your bike. You don’t want to be attempting a trail-side repair and realise multitool doesn’t have the tool needed, or it’s too short to use.
This isn’t the time to fit fresh parts and check them out at camp at Branxholm. Get your bike ready and serviced ahead of the event so you can get a shakedown ride done at home before cleaning and packing your bike.
Do the right training
With three days of mountain bike racing, you need to make sure you can back up from one day to the next. This means having the appropriate training load in the lead up to the event. You should already be training, but if you ride a few days a week including two longer rides on the weekend – you’re on the right track.
Much of the Dragon Trail involves singletrack. Sure, you won’t be riding the demanding Enduro World Series (EWS) trails, but you will be riding across a wide variety of terrain at a range of speeds. While a lot of everyone’s local trails tend to prioritise descending singletrack and climbing firetrails, the Dragon Trail is far more diverse.
Make sure you’re comfortable climbing on singletrack, including line selection over rocky step ups, climbing on wetter terrain in the remnant Gondwana rainforests, and rolling down big rock features. You also want to know how to read a trail at speed, especially for the Bay of Fires trail, where the berms and rollers come thick and fast! A lot of trails will have a distinct riding line, but just because everyone uses that line it doesn’t mean it’s the best. Keep your eyes open and be ready to find the fastest line.
The trails that are older may present the most difficulty, especially the climb to the Blue Tier. If you’ve ridden in Sydney a lot with lots of wet sandstone step ups and a million line choices – you’ll love it. Throw in some water crossings and it’s a demanding and decisive section. The trick here is to practice technical climbs at home, understanding the demands on your body position and the importance of power delivery on potentially wet or loose terrain.
Determine your nutrition requirements
If you just look at the distances to determine your race time and therefore energy needs, you may come up with a significant calorie deficit on the trail. With a reasonable amount of climbing and a lot of singletrack, your overall pace will be lower than at an event like Cape to Cape. You need to concentrate more and doing that when starting to hunger flat is a recipe for disaster.
Use your prior experience to take the right mix of gels, bars and real food, and don’t neglect the question of water versus electrolytes for hydration.
While the event has food at the finish line, you can have a bag at the finish as well. There are food trucks at the event but having an easy to access post-stage meal in your rider bag is a surefire way to start your recovery well, and make sure you’re not hangry later.
The race isn’t over until you’re in the shower
This is a saying we have here at MarathonMTB.com. It’s mostly relevant for a stage race, but it still rings true at any bike race. The basis for the saying is that you are, in essence, still competing with everyone else after the finish line when in a race camp. For the bike wash, the post-stage food, the shuttle from the finish line to a camp (if relevant) and of course, in the shower line.
Now, it would be bad ettiquette to take your race face into this part of the day, but don’t switch off. Go and drop your bike at the mechanic while that annoying brake squeal is fresh in your mind. Drink that bottle of water you were dreaming of in the last 5km. Eat that burger – and better yet do it in the shower line so you can get your dirty kit off and into some clean clothes. You’re not really recovering if you’re doing chamois time in the beer garden. Why not do it in clean clothes after a shower instead?
Master the art of a time trial
‘But how do over 500 riders avoid congestion on all that singletrack?’ I hear you ask? AS part of the first stage, there is a seeding in waves. You cross the line in a chute and that is your start position for the 10 second start gaps for the rest of the race. So, whoever crossed in front of you will start 10 seconds in front of you, but you are now completely on clock time, not gun time. That means, if you caught that rider and rode with them to the finish – you’re now 10 seconds ahead overall (and will start ahead of them the next day).
This brings a unique challenge, and it shapes the whole event. You have to manage your pacing, but you also need to know when to go as fast as possible.
It is very tempting to keep chasing carrots in front of you, to keep collecting riders and not letting them jump on your wheel. It feels good, actually it feels great! But it’s likely not sustainable for a whole stage. I made this mistake and lost dozens of places as it felt like my entire world collapsed as I blew up on the way to Weldborough, limping to the finish where I could hear my wife tease me as I stumbled to the finish line.
The trick is to understand where your physical limits are, and to read the riders near you. Are you a stronger climber? Pass at the base of the climb or before it. Do you know (for certain) that you’re a better descender? Pass well before the descent, and I’d keep the pace high to be sure. There were a lot of stories coming out of the women’s field about heroes pacing them before descents, before said heroes were flailing and getting in the way.
On that note – don’t forget to be kind. Not all parts of the trail suit pulling over and coming to a stop to let someone pass. If you are behind someone, you have to remember that until this point, they have been faster in the race than you. They don’t need to come to a complete stop on a fast and technical section. Let them know you’d like to pass when there’s a good spot, and let them judge where that is. If you see a few opportunities pass by, make your move. The smart play here is to make passes on open terrain, with a sustained effort before things get tight and twisty.
Prioritise your sleep system
Camping at bike races often seems like a crap idea. But camping at bike races is usually the easiest and closest accommodation. The Dragon Trail event is setup to move your camp gear from place to place, within their set baggage limits. You can also look to hire a camper van, but you will need to find a driver to take it from the stage start to the finish. An AirBNB is also an option – but again you’ll need a vehicle and driver.
So if camping works for you, think about an easy to pack sleep system that ensures a good night’s sleep. My experience means this is a warm sleeping bag that can open up easily, a good quality pillow and a reasonable self-inflating camping mattress. The massive airbeds might look appealling, but they’re a lot to pump up and pack up each day. A thicker, full-length Thermarest or XPED mattress is designed to be inflated and packed up each day, and they do provide a good night’s rest.
Don’t forget earplugs and an eyemask, as the camp will have generators that may stay on past your required bed time.
Take some extra items and spares
It’s easy to take a few specific spare parts for your bike to be safe. Things like cables, brake pads, grips, cleats, bottle cage, bottles – even a spare saddle! In 2021 I loaned out a spare helmet to a friend who had crashed and broken his. And at other races around the globe I’ve been leant a saddle, given brake pads or tyres away, and even rebuilt a rear derailleur and swing arm. Pack some essential bike spares, but take a few personal extras as well. Your own roll of toilet paper may be worth more than TP even in a global pandemic, and a block or two of your favourite chocolate or a bottle of red might win over new friends in the evening.
8. Don’t walk in front of Huw Kingston’s tent
Ok you had to be there. But based on Huw’s fireside talk after stage one in 2021, don’t walk too close to his tent! He came up with an ingenius, sustainable and human powered method to keep flies from bothering him when bikepacking in Africa. Don’t tread too close!
Ok that last one is a joke, although Huw did regale us all with a story about how he learnt to take a massive dump outside his tent to attract flies when he was bikepacking remotely… that tip is best used remotely!
The key messages here are prepare your bike, prepare your body, and make sure you take what you need to look after them both at the event. The Dragon Trail is a unique event in a great corner of Tasmania, so make sure you’re ready to have a lot of fun!
If you’ve still got questions about the Dragon Trail – drop a comment below.
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