When James Downing first rode the Otways, he was blown away. Not just for the challenging climbs, or the towering trees; but combined with kilometre after kilometre of swooping singletrack made it the race he would never miss again.
The Otway Odyssey presented by Focus is the first cross-country marathon (XCM) of the season and one of the 'classics' of Australian XCM racing according to Downing.
What goes through the mind of a rider in the lead-up to the first big one of the season, and what keeps him coming back for more?
Firsts and Worsts
Years on bikes: I've been racing bikes since 1989 and riding since about 82 I think. Almost forever ;)
How you first got into riding:
I always wanted a bike and finally got one when I was 8 years old. I used it to explore the neighbourhood when I was a kid and it was the first bit of freedom that I got. Still to this day it is exactly that, a freedom machine! In grade 9 I visited a mate who lived on a farm. He had a 5 speed mountain bike. I rode it and was instantly hooked. You could go anywhere on it and from that moment on I was hooked!
Preferred style of riding and has this evolved over time:
I like to ride bikes no matter what. I have been pretty fortunate to have been able to race all disciplines of mountain biking, road and BMX. My true love lies on the dirt though and nothing beats just heading out the door and racking up some fast miles followed by some general maintenance chugging! The 100km mountain bike races are probably my current favourite type of event but I am also pretty partial to a multi-day stage race like The Redback in Alice Springs.
The Cannondale F-Si mountain bike and the Cannondale Evo road bikes are as close to perfection in my eyes.
Favourite place to ride:
I am really fortunate in that I get to race all over Australia each year in some pretty awesome locations so I see a lot of what is out there. Stromlo, Hidden Vale, Alice Springs, Tathra and Forrest are all places that I make sure that I revisit each year because of what they offer you.
Best moment on a bike:
you know when you are riding and you just find it easy? That is the pipedream for me. You can be out for what seems like forever, but you just want to stay out there and not go home!
When you hit the wall or if you are injured are probably two of the most ordinary things that can happen to you. When you have nothing in the tank and you still have 20km to get home is character building to say the least. When you are injured and can't ride just plain sucks. We've all been there and it doesn't get any easier.
1989, Anzac Park in Brisbane, Cross Country mountain bike in Sport Class. I was so excited to race as I had been reading Mountain Bike Action for about a year and wanted to be like John Tomac LOL! I got second that day which stoked me big time.
Most recent competition:
The most recent race I did was one of the Thursday night local Canberra dirt crits. These are so awesome and I always try to make time for them every summer.
There have been quite a lot of races since that first one to say the least! I race between 25 and 40 races a year and I have won over 100 events during that time. Some have been small local Thursday afternoon races and some have been ones where you get 2500 rock up. I just really like and prefer to compete. To date my biggest win was in the 2014 Flight Centre Epic, but I am also pretty fond of winning the Back Yamma Bigfoot 3 times. I also worked pretty hard to get 3 national champion jerseys for XCO and XCM in the hotly contested Masters category...it's way harder than Elite LOL!
this year will be another solid round of the biggest XCM races as well as a few stage races in QLD, NSW, Victoria and the Northern Territory. I'll also do some local short races to keep things tuned and to support the grass roots scene. That is pretty important for the growth of the sport.
Motto: Never give up.
It is pretty simple, but probably one of the hardest things to do, especially when it is hurting, you get dropped, you suck on the day and a million other reasons. However, it will always give you a result, which beats a DNF every single time.
On the Odyssey
Q) You had your eyes set on the Odyssey for some time before you made your Otway Odyssey debut in 2014, what was it that made you leave the trails you know and ride of Canberra to tackle this challenging MTB marathon you’d heard so much about?
The thing that made the Otway Odyssey a hard decision in the past was the logistics when it started in Apollo Bay. I think that 2014 was the year that they decided to start and finish it in Forrest. That for me, was what made me make the choice to get down there. I remember the day being really cool and a bit wet on the first climb...and by wet I mean beyond moist....it was muddy and none of us could get any grip up that last climb! Because of this I had a really good day on the bike cresting the KOM in the top 10 only about 20 seconds behind Jongewaard. I had ridden the Forrest singletrack the day before so was able to consolidate my position and stay efficient. I do remember having to take a quick nature break at the side of the trail because I was busting at about the 60km mark! LOL!! The bit from the 70km mark is probably the best part of the race and I had a good one out there to finish in 5th place. The thing that I liked was the variation in the race. I find that it is almost the perfect mix of singlet
rack to fireroad. You do need there to be a good mix and I reckon that it is pretty spot on in this race.
Q) What did you think when you first rode the Otways? Which tracks did you ride and what bike did you take?
I was blown away to be honest. The climbs go up to the sky and you are riding beside the thickest, tallest trees you could imagine. The first day I rode there was the Friday before the race and I took in the 20km of singletrack just out of the Forrest football ground on my Cannondale F29er. It was like a big bmx playground with jumps, berms, ledges and logs. It totally rocks in there. The hardest thing on the day before a race is trying not to ride too much so that you don't wear yourself out...in Forrest that is the hardest thing to be disciplined about!
Q) What’s the riding been like over your Summer so far?
Not too bad ;)... it's all up on Strava...no secret training these days! I spent a couple of weeks on an awesome road trip and got to ride Mount Canobolas, Mount Coottha, Gap Creek, Daisy Hill, Bayview, Hidden Vale, Taree and Awaba. There is nothing like just taking off and exploring what is out there.
Q) If you could have had any tips before you rode your first Odyssey – what would they have been? And would these have changed the race you had?
I probably would have liked to have known more of the course as I only knew 20 of the 100km that we had to do! It may have allowed me to try and push a bit harder at certain times when I had to let go. These were only in the first hour though. Having done the race another 2 times I do know where they are now! LOL!! Also, leave a bit in the tank for when you pass through transition at about the 65km mark. There is a fairly decent climb to be done. it isn't steep, but it goes on for a while.
Q) What sort of preparation will you be doing now in order to give it your best shot and enjoy the moment come race day?
Long rides definitely won't go astray. Looking through the results gives you this little #protip! I'll also try and do a few hillclimbs to remember how these go. There are a couple of climbs in the Otway ranges. I think that the word 'ranges' gives the game away there! But really I reckon that the hills occur in the first 30km and the last 30km mainly. So I will make sure that my rides have a good long climb at the 70km mark. if you get the chance to see the hill profile graph in the race pack, check this out.
Q) Which of the 6 race formats will you pick and why?
I will definitely do the 100km XCM race. This one is a must-do for me as it is one of the 'classics' of Australian XCM racing.
Q) Do you gravel grind? And what did you think when you heard about the all new Great Otway Gravel Grind (GOGG) joining the line-up of races on offer at the Odyssey?
I can totally gravel grind! To me it is pretty much what gets done on part of quite a few rides that I do over the course of any weekend. The big question will be whether I can still walk the day after the 100km XCM on Saturday! Lucky I know where the best Thai restaurant in Colac is right?! I think that having different formats of riding in the one location over the course of a weekend is brilliant as it adds to the atmosphere of the event. Gravel grinding is great because you don't need any specific sort of bike as you can pretty much do it on anything.
James' 5 all-time reasons to race this February in the Otways
- Event logistics - starting and finishing as well as having 2 feed zones in the Forrest football ground make this event soooo easy to do.
- Season opener - the first XCM race of the season is always what you are waiting for!
- Trails - the variation here is second to none. Big climbs on fireroad and singletrack that rewards a technically competent rider.
- Event atmosphere - probably one of the best in Australia. It is one of the only races that I go to where there are lots of people still hanging around long after the race itself has finished. The sign on board is so #pro!
- The chance to ride an iconic classic event on the Australian racing calendar cannot be passed up! You won't regret your choice to make the trip out to Forrest for this one!
We're excited to have mountain bike superstar James Downing racing at the Odyssey and honoured he is one of the official event ambassadors.
James genuinely enjoys helping out other riders with any aspect of the sport; be it bike advice, skills work, line choices, training, nutrition or just about anything to help you get more out of your riding.
If you’ve got a question about The Otway Odyssey, MTB races or just MTBing in general? Email James.