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Looking Back; Always Rolling Forward - A memoir

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By Tristania - Posted on 04 March 2015

(I wrote this two weeks ago but haven't gotten around to posting it until now. I thought people may enjoy reading the story of how I got to where I am now.)

This is a piece I had planned to write for my 21st birthday, but being in the middle of semester, that never happened, so thought I'd take this opportunity whilst I'm recovering from being separated from my wisdom teeth and not allowed to cycle to reflect on the years gone by and think about the future.

Although turning 21 has no legal significance anymore, it is still seen by Australian society as somehow an important milestone of someone being really and truly an adult. Although there are often surprising twists in one's life that will come up in future years, I am at an age where most parts of my personality have been established and will be simply built upon. Everything someone does throughout their life plays some small part in establishing who the person is, so to try to totally explain who I am would be both impractical and boring, so it led me to think through the things that really define me the most and it came to the following:
- I'm an aspiring electrical engineer
- I'm a Christian
- I am completely obsessed with cycling (well anything outdoors, really).

The engineering thing was always coming. I've been mathematically minded all my life and have always wanted to provide practical solutions to problems. Although I've never had any passion whatsoever for electronics in particular, I was told that electrical engineering has the most maths to it, which was the motivation for my choice. I'm now three years into the degree, with another two to go, so hopefully I'll remain motivated throughout these and get through them alive and more importantly, find and keep a job that I can use these skills to the benefit of mankind.

Despite having almost never been to church in the first 15 years of my life, I became more and more convinced of the authenticity of the truth of Christianity throughout year 10 (through a range of factors), both rationally and in the actions of others professing it, which has led me to take it seriously myself. These days I'm actively involved with my local church, as well as the Christian group at uni, however, taking Christianity seriously is more than just those sort of commitments - it is about how one conducts himself in whatever environment he is it. Although I am far from perfect at this, it is certainly something I am striving for.

As significant as the former two factors are, I suspect that's not why you're reading this and are waiting to get for me to get to the bit about the bike. As you are probably aware, I currently am racing in MTB marathons at the elite level, but it hasn't always been this way. But, looking back, there are many telltale signs that this was coming.

Before I was born, my parents (who met on a guided bush walk in the UK) regularly did hiking and bike tours together all around rural roads in outer Sydney, and Mum in fact did gentle rides up until the day before I was born (!). So is really is little wonder I've inherited the cycling (and hiking) genes. I can never remember a time that I didn't have a bike of some description - I was taken on the back of their bikes when I was only a few months old (a photo of which was appropriately put in the invitation to my 21st). I also had a 3-wheeled ride-on which was soon upgraded to my "big bike" when I was 2 or 3. We regularly went on rides with this "big bike," often only on a path lapping a local oval, but it made cycling something that was far from foreign. The big step on the "big bike" was riding successfully without training wheels; I still remember that day when I was around 5 and riding in a culdesac, only falling off once. Within a couple of months, I was able to swim without a flotation device. I'm sure there's a lot of symbolism to such experiences - symbols of independence, maturity or whatever, that give a 5yo so much confidence in life!

After my dad passed away when I was 6, Mum and I were often invited to do activities with our neighbours, who had 3 kids 4-8 years older than me. These included hikes, camping trips and bike rides. Once I had gotten older and been promoted to an even bigger bike (20" wheels?! No way!), suddenly my neighbour, Martin, and daughter Louise, 4 years my senior, showed me something now: mountain biking! Of course I didn't know it was mountain biking back then, I just knew it as cycling on a local bush track. Now one of the local tracks includes a very steep on-road hill and the two of them could ride up, so I always would have a tremendous drive to make it up myself, something which I always managed, but would arrive at the top puffing and panting, though very satisfied.

I was far from a Cadel Evans though. One time, when I was about 10, Martin took us to the infamous Quarry Road Track, starting out with a nearby firetrail, and before we even reached QRT, we had to turn back because I was completely spent from the much shorter hills on this track! Despite these stories, in these years, the bike played in the background of my life, and although I was given my first 26" "mountain" bike for my 13th birthday (an Avanti Storm, if I remember correctly), I hardly rode it then. I was at the time too obsessed with other things to get on the bike, and for awhile it was something I rode as an exception to my routine, rather than because of it.

A turning point came when I was 14 and preparing for my year 8 exams. Although they seem trivial now, it was then seen as the biggest burden that could rock my world, and I grudgingly agreed to put some effort into it. My study routine was crafted so that I would work for 30 minutes and have a 15 minute break in between. In one of these breaks, I worked out that I could probably ride my bike to the end of our road and back in about 10 minutes. I then tried to do it in under 10 minutes (it hurt), and would spend my subsequent breaks trying to better this time. The bike bug had bitten me! As painful as this routine was, I became obsessed with it, continually wanting to improve this time. One big thing that I noticed was that my concentration and motivation to study took a leap and a bound, so suddenly the bike became more and more of a habit.

I then started timing myself on a 6km loop that involved some bush (to the fear of my mother!) and an extremely steep climb. My fitness skyrocketed during this period, as well as my love of mountain biking. Suddenly, I got into bush running as well and I would spend many afternoons first smashing myself on the bike, followed by run at equally hard intensity. Interestingly, in this period, I spent more time riding the bike recreationally and timing myself on my bush runs, but in the process got very fit.

I came to understand what mountain biking really was when I went to Mt Stromlo for the first time at the end of 2008. Although I'd bashed my Avanti around every fire trail in the local area, I had never been on singletrack. So when we embarked on our first journey of Stromlo, I was thrilled to go down dips, around corners and what not. Of course, I'm sure my skills and confidence were next to nothing back then, but were much better than Mum's (sorry Mum!), as in every 5cm drop I had to stop and wait as she walked the obstacle. Needless to say our average speed would have been in the single digits. Thankfully, later in our trip, I was able to get back on the track on my own, where I could ride Skyline and Luge at my own pace, and it was a thrill, it just gave me that buzz that I wanted to keep coming back again and again.

I upgraded to a $500 Malvern Star XCS in early 2009 after growing out of and flogging the life out of the Avanti, and continued in much the same fashion throughout that year until another turning point came when my school (Barker College) introduced MTB as a summer sport. Although some of the experience was average, as this involved four cross, downhill as well as cross country (all of which I did on a $500 hardtail), this gave me my first headway into racing. My results were not exceptional by any means, but it did introduce me to a completely new dimension of the sport, and they were significantly better than average, and for one of the first times, my ability was somewhat noticed.

After completely flogging up yet another bike, I upgraded to my first dual suspension bike, a Giant Anthem 26er, in Autumn 2010 for $2.4k, and for the first time, was able to truly appreciate the fun of techincal riding such as the Great North Road or the end of the Oaks. I came to love MTB more and more with the Anthem, and it definitely improved my bike handling skills no end.

2010 was the year that I found myself making more contacts in the MTB world. After having read a lot on the NoBMoB ride database, I finally created my own profile (I'd used "Tristania" as a username on a previous occasion for no particular reason other than that it sounded like a username so used it again) on the site after seeing a group ride being organized exactly where I was planning to go by myself, which I joined and had a nice social paced ride with Hamish, Jason and James in Cherrybrook (which involved a humorous stack with great irony to the comment on the description not to "screw up at full speed and go over the handlebars!"). Enjoying meeting more people, I posted a couple of my own so I could showcase some of my own local tracks. Some riders I met on these early rides I still see occasionally and I imagine are reading this, whilst others have (for whatever reason) dropped off the nobmob scene (but we'd love you to return!).

Also that year, I got in contact with Grant, the webmaster of the (now defunct) Sydney MTB portal called TrailFlix, which resulted in me meeting up to be the subject of a video for the recently discovered Coba Ridge track in Marramarra NP, Fiddletown (Haven't ridden there in ages!). This led to me writing several more articles for the site, as well as me being in subsequent videos for the Quarry Road Track, the Great North Road, the Oaks Fire Trail, and Old Man's Valley. As a bonus, Grant and I now consider ourselves good friends and he has provided me an invaluable amount of support in the time he has known me on both a MTB and personal level.

2011 was the year I completed my HSC, and my bike took a different spin in my life. I worked hard in year 12 (and still do), and was determined to do as well as I could (and did). At times, I felt overwhelmed with work, as well as angry about some of my assessment results (I could write an essay about why I hated English essays), so the bike became my break; my Window of Escapism,, as I wrote in an article a year ago. I participated in Barker MTB again, getting a 2nd and then a 1st, early that year, which spurred me on to compete in the Aust Interschools down in Thredbo, despite being a week before my half yearly exams. I trained hard (if not particuarly well) as I prepared for this, and got a huge amount of feedback from other riders when I asked for advice in a forum post in the lead-up to the event, which got me a top 10. Not amazing, but pretty good for someone who actually takes study seriously, which made me think more about racing - Hawkeye seemed to have the gift of prophesy in his comment, "The man's got talent!"

Interestingly, for the bulk of year 12, I spent a lot more time running than cycling. Every morning (well, most!) before school, I'd do a 20 minute run to wake myself up, and every Friday in year 11 and 12 I'd do a 9km bush running loop, which I'd time myself on and aim to continually (and sometimes successfully) set records on it. It was painful, but the routine of it, made me obsessed with the self-competition, as well as helped me escape the trials of the year at school, and became a necessity in my life.

As I got to know more nobmobbers throughout the year, I was aware of the various events that they did and became particularly interested in the Convict 100 (Then Dirtworks Classic), and was determined to give it a go the subsequent year, having developed a soft spot for the Great North Road. Here's the post that I put up just as I was about to enter my own racing scene - little did I know what that would lead to...

Halfway through 2011, I realized I needed something else - a road bike. Not so much for training at that point, but for the option of cruising through suburbia at a faster pace to temporarily forget some stupid poem I'd been memorizing or the like. After getting lots of feedback from another forum post, I finally got myself a Felt F85 on sale for $900, something which I still ride today. (Now THAT'S getting your money's worth!). In these painful few remaining months of the HSC, the Anthem hardly ever came out, but I'd do road rides and runs almost every day. During the three long weeks between the end of classes and my first exams, I did a 45 minute ride every morning, and even went running before every exam I took. It saved me.

HSC done. ATAR received. Offered to study electrical engineering at UTS (with a scholarship!). This was a point that many things in my life changed. Some friendships lost, others strengthened and transformed as our lives diverged. Uni was a really scary place for me at first; so many people in lectures that aren't necessarily in your course, so making friends right at the start wasn't easy. Like most people, I longed for something constant in my life, so as I made my transition, the bike (and running) was it. I continued to spend my weekends on (casual) MTB rides and started each day with a road ride or a run. It helped me adjust immeasurably.

May 5th 2012 was one of the most memorable days of my life. After having done several long rides, I was at St Albans, lined up for my first ever race out of school, the Convict 100. Having no idea what to expect, I told myself to just enjoy the day and not push too hard as I sat at the start line. Yeah, right... After smashing myself for 100km, I made it over the line in 4:44:22, 45 minutes below my target before collapsing on the ground. Judging by the comments on my blog, (such as "Forget about opens next year, Tristan, you will go straight to the Elite" from Dicko) it created a bit of stir from older, wiser riders, who convinced me that I had a real future lined up for me.

I should have heeded the advice then and there, but I didn't. The bike seemed to slip into the background of my life as the year wore on, possibly as my uni demands built up and a shift of interest (though to what, I have no idea). I still was active both on and off road, but didn't seem to have the passion for it I once had. Despite that, I entered both Capital Punishment and Convict for 2013. I spent more time riding that summer as my friend Tanian, who I'd met in school MTB and was once very good but had converted to rugby, decided to enter as well. The two of us had a lot of fun, doing many different tracks in the local area in January. Figuring that he was in pretty good riding shape, we agreed to try to do well, but stay together and ultimately have a great time. I'll let you read my blog to make a judgement on whether that actually happened, but suffice to say that our dear Tanian regretted entering after having had the flu a week ago...

That experience re-sparked my enthusiasm for riding though. Wanting to make up for this dodgy result, I suddenly became a lot more driven to prepare well for the upcoming Convict. I really made an effort to ride regularly and hard (though my training was far from well structured), hoping to improve my previous year's time by a long shot. That year, I managed to chop off 13 minutes from my previous time, just missing a podium finish, and this motivated me to work out how to improve more.

Well, yet another bike had been completely flogged and outgrown. My trusty Anthem was in a desperate need of an upgrade to 29" wheels, so after another popular post with lots of replies (and a defunct statement that I do "plenty of recreational riding"), I finally decided on a $4000 Trek Superfly dual 29er (which remains my current beast). This re-sparked my love of MTB - having suspension and gears that actually worked on a bike that was properly set up for me and 29" wheels made me really enjoy it again (which could be the reason behind the reduced motivation the previous year). In the honeymoon period after getting the machine, I bascially lived on it (well, and still do in fact...).

Once I started racing on the 'fly, my race results skyrocketed. I got my first two podiums in the second half of 2013 in the Kowalski Classic and a very wet Fling. Although my training hadn't been particularly structured then, I had ridden a lot and been enjoying it immensely, which would have led to these results.

There was some talk about the prospect of me entering as an "Elite" from then on - my times were on par with many of them at this stage anyway, but declined. Mentally I wasn't sure if I was ready, and thought it'd be cool to attempt to win the open category for the whole year, because I knew that once I started with them, I couldn't go back!

And thank God that I didn't enter the elite division in 2014. That was the roughest year I can remember, getting absolutely slaughtered in my work load at uni and a whole range of other things made it difficult to remain in control of my emotions. But like in Year 12, it showed me the importance - even necessity - of my bike(s) throughout my day-to-day life. In this case, it was having the drive and motivation to train hard and succeed in races such as Convict and Punishment that helped me survive the poor teaching, lack of resources and brutally structured exam periods. In fact, I wrote an article explaining how the more pressure I am under, the greater need I have to partake in physical activity (despite the paradox that usually that means I have less time to do so!) - and I'm sure I'm anything but alone. My training strategies picked up in the second half of the year, where I would have a weekly routine that really made my all round endurance MTB skills improve. But above all, last year the biggest thing the bike did for me was stop me from facing depression. I mean it; depression is caused by a low amount of endorphin in the brain, and doing vigorous physical activity increases its supply!

So here I am, at the beginning of 2015, just signed up for Capital Punishment as an Elite, and recently gotten a couple of sponsorship offers (TBC - so stay tuned), looking back on where I've come from. It's a unique story, and fascinating to think through the events, the people and the causes of what put me where I am in the MTB scene. I imagine others have their own stories (which I'd love to read) which have all types of origins, but this is my own. I can't stop for too long, though - I have to continue pedaling forward to see what other adventures I face in the coming years. I'm sure my next 21 years will be full of surprises as my first 21 were, and I look forward to sharing these, at least on the bike!

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