Words – Nathan White

Photography – Jacqueline Bailey (Wonderbox Photography)

Come and ride in the NRS Battle on the Border they said.  Should be fun.  Well, it was, and a whole lot more…

We got a call up last minute for the 5 stage NRS Battle on the Border tour a few weeks out from the event.  By the time our team manager Dugald had signed off on the entry form and arranged a squad, the realisation of the pain and hurt to come had begun to sink in.  A fortnight out, Dugald called after work and stated ominously ‘Do you realise we are racing in a NRS event.  [email protected] sh#t!’.  This echoed my sentiments entirely.  It’s one thing to jump onto a moving train, but it’s another entirely different beast trying to drive it.

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The crew readies themselves for Stage 1

That’s not to say we were completely ill prepared regarding fitness and logistics.  Cobra9 Racing has been around since 2009 and each year we have taken it up a level.  This process has always been slow and steady with a focus on improving within our capacity.  No point jumping ahead two steps to come crashing back three.  By the time we committed to racing NRS Battle, we had 2 years of Queensland Team Series under our belt and a stack full of elite racing within Queensland as well.  More importantly, we also had a dedicated team of managers, drivers and support crew to help the lads on and off the bike.

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Phil’s race would end early on Stage 1

Our riders too had reached a point where we their condition met the rigours of top level racing.  On this front there is always some trepidation as until you dip your toe into the cauldron of NRS racing, you don’t know if the water is too hot.  Our consistency in the top level of Queensland racing helped provide impetus for making the jump but those inherent self doubts would linger until the starting gun fired at Point Danger.  From our team of Dugald Macarthur, Hadleigh Milligan, Nathan White, Philip Cavdarski, Tom Helleman, Rupert Leigh and Kurtis Brent, only Hadleigh and Nathan had experienced NRS racing previously.  Hads had raced for a few season with Pensar Racing and was soberly aware of the challenges that lay ahead.  Nathan’s sole experience was many years ago being punted from the bunch on the hellish climb up Poatina in the now defunct but sadly missed Launceston to New Norfolk Road race.

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Contemplating another day in the saddle

As we headed down on Wednesday night to settle into our very comfortable digs at Kingscliff, the mood was bright but an underlying tension permeated the casual banter.  My sentiments were, either you’re strong enough or you’re not.  If you can’t handle the heat, move on, train harder and come back ready.  Sleeping the Wednesday night was easy and fulfilling.  A contented and fatalistic attitude crept in and allowed me to drift off easily.  What I would have given for that contented sleep again over the coming days.

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Calm before the NRS storm

Stage 1 of the tour began naturally on a tourist brochure of a day on the Gold Coast.  Everyone was fresh and carbo loaded to the eyeballs.  Everyone looks bling in their kit with a colourful array of riders rolling around the start line at Point Danger.  Lots of espressos and casual grins hiding the tension simmering beneath.  Our team were ready to roll and a long neutral zone would give us ample time to warm up.  As soon as the gun cracks, the tension gives way to exertion.  It’s hard to feel nerves when your hammering yourself mercilessly.

After 40kms of flat cane fields, the road started to wind its way into the hills around Buringbar.  This would serve as the first true test and falling off the bunch would likely end in missing the time cuts at the end of the stage.  As we climbed, the pace evened out and a firm tempo kicked in.   The sheer speed of the bunch means you are over the KOM quickly and the drafting effect is intensified.  After 5 minutes of stem chewing we were over the top and descending like kamikazes over the other side

After 5 minutes of stem chewing we were over the top and descending like kamikazes over the other side.

The climb was quick, KOM on strava stuff.  It certainly reduced my personal best by 3 minutes in the process.  The climb takes a toll but on the first day of the tour, the legs handle it well and the ensuing flat lands allows a decent recovery.  Unfortunately we lost Tom with a puncture prior to the climb and despite the best effort chasing, he couldn’t get back into the group.  In terms of timing, his his puncture was poor.  Flatting whilst the bunch is cracking along at 60kph makes getting back on difficult for those not used to riding behind team cars or as many of the more experienced teams would do, holding on to a door pillar.  Whilst not strictly legal, taking a 5 minute sticky bottle from a team car was a routine sight over the next 4 days and one that would have no doubt saved Tom’s tour.  As it was, his experience ended early and cruelly on the foothills of Buringbar.  It certainly won’t next time as we will have a collection of sticky bidons nestling comfortably in the back seat for future tours.  Lesson 1 learned.

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This edition of NRS Battle featured plenty of climbing

After Buringbar, tragedy struck.  Our youngest team member Phil came down when the bunch failed to negotiate a traffic island.  Phil and a rider from Subaru Albion bore the brunt with both coming down heavily.  Neither would get up.  There is no sight more horrific then riding past a fallen team mate writhing on the ground in agony and being unable to assist.  Crashes are a part of racing and as the level of racing increases, so to do the number of crashes.  The speed of the peloton and the desire to be in the best position always ends in torn skin and broken bones.  If you want to ride amongst the elite, you need to digest the inescapable truth that you will eventually come down, and do so hard.

If you want to ride amongst the elite, you need to digest the inescapable truth that you will eventually come down, and do so hard.

We are a family at Cobra9 Intebuild racing and leaving a rider on the ground is not performed with causal flippancy.  It is a testament to the bike handling skills of the bunch that more crashes don’t occur.  In Phil’s case, it was sheer bad luck and he was a trooper about the whole experience.  We would not see him again for many hours and the extent of his injuries was only realised later at the Tweed Hospital where it was revealed he had suffered 2 broken wrists and a shattered collar bone.

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A brief tour for Phil

Stage 1 ended up the tortuous Mt Warning and the peloton rode cautiously aware of the punishment that the climb would bring.  With the sheer peak in sight, the bunch speed picked up ensuring only those who wished to attack for the stage win would remain near the front.  The last 2 kilometres are ridiculous.  With the finish line in sight, the gradient moves above 20 percent and getting over the line becomes your dedicated focus.  Apart from our jettisoned riders, the remaining 5 made their way to the top.  First over was Kurtis who’s climbing prowess is well known to those who see his Strava stats dotted all over the big climbs around South East Queensland.  His effort to finish just 2 minutes down was epic and with a more aggressive position at the start of the climb, may have finished closer.  Once team vehicles start littering the climb, moving around and up them becomes difficult.

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Mt Warning was typically brutal

Hads, Dugald and Nathan finished between 5 and 8 minutes down after getting up the climb to the best of their abilities.  Rups was a few minutes further back after getting into difficulty on the penultimate climb of the day.  He was well within the time cuts and all 5 would line up again for the 178 km sufferfest the following day.

The mood that evening was one of tempered joy.  The guys rode strongly, proved they had the ability to hang in and immensely enjoyed the painful experience.  The fallout from Phil and Tom’s experience was palpable however both were stunningly positive and upbeat despite their tales of woe.  It is a testament to their attitude that neither dropped the bottom lip at all.

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Dugald looking weary after climbing Mt Warning on Stage 1

Stage 2 was long.  Long and full of bergs.  Full of bergs and high speed descents.  Some of us got to ride and ‘enjoy’ it for much longer then others.

After a fitful sleep punctuated by long periods of restlessness, day 2 started again under blue skies and in warm winter sun.  The noon starting time suggested the 178 km stage including 3 categorised climbs would be completed in around 4 or so hours.  Chew on that if you will.   The bunch rolled out on undulating roads cracking a merciless pace as the race wound through cane fields and over highway crossings.  After 40 kilometres another huge crash at the front of the bunch brought the field to a standstill.  The yellow jersey came down and etiquette dictated we wait for him to return to the fold.  He soon reappeared minus skin and some kit and the pace was on again in earnest.

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Another stage down, never an easy day

My tale differs to those up front after the first KOM of the day.  My legs were sore and in trying to take it easy over the climb, I managed to loose touch and watch as the peloton rolled away into the distance.   From that point on, 127 kms of suffering remained.

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Trying to get those tired legs moving

Those remaining 127 kilometres were nothing more then pure pain.  The continuous time cut pressure combined with fatigued legs and only a small team of helpers makes for a sordid experience.  At each feed station, we would loose another rider who decided they had suffered enough.  With 90 kilometres remaining there were four lonely souls winding their way through and ever darkening evening.

With 90 kilometres remaining there were four lonely souls winding their way through and ever darkening evening.

Regular speculative time estimates were discussed with no rider brave enough to decide whether we were ‘safe’.  As we passed the turn off for the finishing straight with one lap to go, the compulsion to deviate and climb off was immense.  To the credit of our small grupetto, it wasn’t even discussed.  Instead we faced 50 kilometres of further rutted roads and bergs.  As the end neared, the skies darkened and we faced completing the stage in almost darkness with no support crew and no bike lights on busy highways.

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No smiles after completing 178 kilometres of bergs

As we crested the final KOM, we were 20 minutes behind the bunch and we finally knew we were safe for another day.  The level of weariness became obvious as I climbed off at the finish line only to suffer spontanious epic cramping through both legs.  The sky was pitch and the finish line deserted.  A volunteer had the temerity to ask if we were ‘still in a race’.  Our finishing time kept us well within the race limits so we would line up again tomorrow.   The energy expended would become a huge issue over the coming days however and this is a unique feature which sets the NRS apart from any other domestic racing event.  There is never an ‘easy’ day.  You have to dig deep, then deeper into your reserves until you have nothing left to give.

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Kurtis at the end of stage 2

Kurtis rode a prefect race to finish with the bunch time on stage 2 with the assistance of domestiques Hads, Dugs and Rupert.   He moved up the overall standings and looked good with another hilly stage on the menu for Saturday.  The other boys finished safely a few minutes back after again riding solidly and smartly over the duration of the stage.  Rups had a trip to the bitumen at a feed station however remounted and punched on with only scrapes and bruises to show for his accident.

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Rups all smiles before experiencing 178 kilometres of hills and a crash thrown in for good measure

A big feed it was then off to bed.

Stage 3 was slightly shorter then stage 2 but every bit as lumpy.  4 categorised climbs and plenty of uncategorised bergs littered the route.  The importance of rest become obvious.  Each night, the ability to sleep became more difficult.  The late finishes combined with sore bodies makes it hard to get comfortable.  It is also hard to get your heart rate down after hammering your body for 5 hours.  The last two nights of the tour resulted in very poor sleeps.  Less then four hours each night despite having a wonderfully comfortable abode.  I have undertaken stage racing before but this was my first experience with sleep deprivation.  It is an area as a team we will have to address, and a routine related to massage and winding back the body and mind will feature heavily in coming tours.  Lesson 2 learned.

Another beautiful day to race but by day 3, the body is becoming a little beaten up.  Legs remain sore as well as all other parts of your previously untested anatomy.  Triceps, wrists, necks and your perineum all cop a literal pounding.  Warming up on the trainer allows you to perceive this with unfaltering clarity.

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Brett on the case again. This time setting up a back up kit in case mine didn’t make it in time after I foolishly left my bag behind

The first climb over Clothiers Creek after 10 kilometres was attacked with fury.  Unfortunately, Rups picked a bad moment for bad sensations and his tour ended right there.  Unlike other divisions, there is no backing off after the climb.  The descents string out in single file as riders push to the limit to hold the wheel.

The descents string out in single file as riders push to the limit to hold the wheel.

Once onto the flats, the pace remains frantic to pick up riders who might have escaped off the front over the climb more so then to ensure those that are dropped are never seen again.  Being dropped that early means making time cuts is near impossible.  Rups has raced often enough to be pragmatic about such set backs and dedicated himself to the task of helping the team prepare themselves for the remaining stages.

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Yet another climb

With the climb of Buringbar in site, Kurtis suffered a puncture.  By the time he had made his was way back to the convoy he was spent.  Again, the sticky bidon may have been useful.  He crested the climb and regained the peloton only to be dropped on the frantic descent.  With Hads and Dugald in the main bunch, Kurtis was picked up by the grupetto including Nathan who had also slipped off the back over the climb.  They got to experience another 110 kilometres of masochism at the back of the race.

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End of a long long day in the grupetto for Kurtis and I

Stage 3 ended a lot like stage 2, but with slight differences.  The legs were already peppered from the previous stage and proved less responsive to another session of self harm.  The other 2 riders in the dwindling group also had suffered a lot over the previous days and the mood was more of resignation then optimism.  The time gaps were also larger earlier and pessimism regarding making time cuts appeared earlier and more often.

Kurtis spent 50 kilometres recovering from his exertion and slowly regained some strength right when I began to suffer.  The two of us rolled the majority of turns ensuring we gave ourselves the best chance of survival.  Again, as darkness neared, the finishing time looked ominously distant.  Our support crew were tremendous manning the feed stations until we had passed for the final time.  Without the promise of fresh bidons and food, finishing would have been impossible.  The lone sag wagon riding in support surprisingly carried no bottles or gels so the support crew on the course was crucial.

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Cooked

With 5 kilometres to travel, the consensus was that we would miss the time cut.  We rolled in after sustaining a leg sapping near five hours in the saddle to be greeted again by a deserted finish line and news that we had survived by a mere 2 minutes.  More pain again tomorrow.

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What two days and 230 kilometres in the grupetto looks like

Our mediocrity served as the basis for the lack of people to celebrate our race completion but it was unfortunate to see the men’s winners on the podium greeted by the same sparse show grounds.  With the men’s NRS race finishing long after any other event, no one was on hand to congratulate the worthy winners who no doubt suffer horribly over the course of the stage.

That night, again the legs and bodies felt shattered.  The mood was positive but Kurtis loosing so much time on GC hurt the moral slightly.  Hads and Dugs again rode strongly up the road to finish just off the main the main bunch and consolidate their GC places.  We had lost Rupert but four riders remained for the last two stages on day 4.  This in itself was an achievement as the abandonment rate and those finishing outside time limit was surprisingly high.

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The colour of the NRS peloton

Day 4 and only a short time trial then a punishing criterium left to finish.  The lack of sleep and cumulative effect of multiple stages began to really take its toll.  The body just felt tired and strung out.  Legs ached without exertion and even getting up after the morning espresso felt like climbing a hill.

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Hads looking so fresh on stage 4

The concept of rolling the time trial to stay safe sounded appealing but with hitters amongst the NRS team capable of knocking out 50 kph rides, even staying inside the time cuts was a challenge.  All of our team are capable of riding strong time trials, but none of us had done so after smashing the legs for three days straight.  Once on the course, the lactic in the legs and overwhelming fatigue make it very hard to push to your capacity.

Once on the course, the lactic in the legs and overwhelming fatigue make it very hard to push to your capacity.

By the time the halfway point of the route was reached, it dawned on me that I was in real danger of going too slow and missing the cut. The last few kilometres required a concerted effort to get to the line under the 15 minute mark to stay theoretically safe and in the end it was just enough.  I had survived and so to had the rest of the lads.  We had made it.  The achievement began to sink in and the satisfaction of completing our first tour was sensational.  This was not insignificant as by the commencement of stage 5, thirty five percent of the starters were out.

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Looking fast whilst riding slow

Unfortunately, Kurtis in the end had to abandon the criterium after his back spasms became too much.  After a post race assessment, it was revealed that he had subluxed two ribs over the course of the race through his endeavours.  Dugs and I rode the criterium for long enough suffer a few hot laps prior to pulling the pin.  The heart wasn’t in it and we had already done what we set out to achieve.  Hads punched on and improved over the course of the criterium and would finish safely in the bunch to prove again that he has the minerals to take on the big boys on parcours more to his liking.

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Hads just got stronger and stronger

After a few brews and a warm down, we began to enjoy what for the most part had been an episode in pure suffering.  That is the quixotic nature of cycling.  We love the sport and the culture even though we line up facing certain punishment.  The professionalism of the NRS bunch and the abilities of the riders and support crew are a pure joy too watch in action.  It is awesome to be racing inside that robotic machine that is the NRS peloton and I’m certain we appreciate the small details more then those beaten down by years of hard racing both domestically and internationally.

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Skinsuit Sundays

It would be naive to believe that we are at all competitive as a team in the NRS series as it stands.  Our aim for the week was to compete rather then win.  However, this step fits well with our ongoing goal to take Cobra9 racing forward while not overstepping our abilities and over reaching the logistics of our team support structure.  We learned many valuable lessons that we will use to make the team stronger and allow us to compete in the NRS field going forward.

We learned many valuable lessons that we will use to make the team stronger and allow us to compete in the NRS field going forward.

No doubt part of that process will be to increase our squad incorporating more riders with experience and young riders with potential whilst ensuring we remain focused on maintaining a sense of family and support to all involved in our growing team.  We have commenced this journey together and the attrition rate of Cobra9 team members has always been very low.  The core group taking on the NRS challenge in the past week have been rolling around together for almost 10 years and it has been immensely satisfying to be suffering beside them on the roads of the Tweed Coast.

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The support crew

This journey which we started in 2009 took a huge step forward over the past week.  Our goal will be for a permanent NRS squad in 2016 and this experience has helped us enormously.  It is a little like the tasting the forbidden fruit.  We won’t be looking back.

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Plenty of banter before racing kicks off

This experience also served another purpose.  Whilst we have learned a huge amount, we have also taken the opportunity to give those unfamiliar with the NRS scene an opportunity to look through the keyhole at what lies within.  Along with the superb photography of Jaqui from Wonderbox, we decided to capture the experience inside the team as they took this once in a lifetime step up.  It is difficult to capture the sentiments and rolling emotions that come from stepping out of your comfort zone into the unknown, but Jacqui has done an incredible job of getting in close and painting pictures with her stunning photography.  Some shots are actually a little difficult to digest in the aftermath of the event but serve to colour the story in a manner impossible with written prose.  We can not thank her enough for her selfless attitude over the four days.

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Million dollar smile

We were also fortunate to have a Cobra9 support crew that provided tremendous assistance over the 4 days and in the lead up to the Battle on the Border.  Adrian Duffy our driver and manager worked tirelessly for every moment of the tour and did so without any hint of fatigue or frustration.  Steve Small from Wurkstand was huge for us seamlessly helping the support crew, cleaning bikes and keeping everyone on the level with his mountain of experience.   Brett Ledger from Megabake provided every nutritional need we could ask for as well as helping out waiting on the side of the roads handing out bidons and Megabake Witcheater bars.  Joe from The Spin Doc was on hand to fix wheels and service machines as needed.  The other members of the Cobra9 family also pitched in cooking and getting the guys to the start line every day.

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Joe checking bikes before each stage

We would like to thank everyone involved around our team over the course of this race and over the past few years in the Cobra9 crew.  A huge thanks to our families for letting us indulge in our painful flights of fancy that take a heavy toll on family life whilst they are undertaken.

A shout out to our sponsors for giving us this chance.

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