Stage racing at the Reef to Reef
Brisbane is pretty cold in winter. Sometimes we crack single digits. I am pretty lucky to live up high, where it rarely happens, but if I am to whizz the 200m vertical down our driveway and road into the valley, it gets close to zero on the reg, and that is pretty much unacceptable for me, a professed warm-weather loving lizard-type. If I need arm warmers, it’s unacceptably cold.
So when Bri-Dog (aka: B-Dizzle, Brio, B-Mat or Briony Mattocks, depending on how I am feeling) asked me if i wanted to head up to FNQ for the inaugural Reef to Reef pairs stage race I was pretty keen.
Something about the cold has my body squeaking and squealing like it needs an oil change, I often can’t seem to feel warmed up or put out power, so a four day holiday (errr…I mean bike race) was just the ticket to warm both the heart and body.
Arriving in Cairns, we found our accommodation, to be shared with the Cyclist Australia Magazine team (Moderate and Shippy). B-Dizzle had left her phone in Sydney airport (situation usual for the walking Mrs Mess, but we love her anyway) but had somehow commandeered a paper map and found her way to the accommodation. A short ride to James Cook University, home of the Smithfield Mountain Bike trails, we found our way around the stage one trails for a little pre-ride.
Gee whiz, if this set the bar for the rest of the race, the bar was pretty damn high! Weaving small sections of the 2017 World Champs course into its design, the 20km course featured around 800m vertical, and there were no free metres gained. Each and every one was a stem chewing berg. The course featured some of the best of Smithfield’s red dirt trails’ fast, loose and flowy, married with some flat fast grassy areas, and of course, killer climbs.
When we all got back to the accommodation we were all feeling the nervous anticipation of the looming stage 1. Conducted as a time trial, pairs would head off around Smithfield in 30 second intervals, aiming to seed themselves well for the remaining stages.
We started in the top ten teams, and were the first female team to hit the course. We had a team 30sec ahead who we thought would be a good carrot to chase. They provided the first of the team fishes to lure in throughout the course, as we managed the catch in the early stages of the race. The next challenge was to try and figure out how best to ride with each other, as in any teams racing, each rider has their strengths, and without riding with Brio in the leadup to the race it was up to us to figure that shit out on the racetrack.
Pootling along we managed to catch another two teams and were hauling along nicely without incident until the last kilometre of the race, where Bri-Dawg had a little nap down Jacob’s Ladder. I was waiting for about a minute, like ‘oh shit what’s gone on? Hope it’s not her collarbone?’ (Brio had not long ago broken her collarbone in a super unlucky incident in a stage race in South Africa). I began to sweat (more than I already was). But alas, after a few more moments she burst out of the jungle, crumbed like a schnitzel but otherwise unbroken and we finished the stage. She’s one tough cookie that girl. One down three to go. Thank god!
Stage two was advertised as 50km with 600m climbing but ended up being 50km with closer to 1000m! Despite stage 3 being longer in distance, stage 2 was definitely the queen stage of the event. Brizzzly and I were feeling pretty good today, and we started strong before finding a group on the early road section. The course soon turned into steep, undulating 4wd track with several creek crossings. The trial was rocky and at times difficult to ride due to the loose rock and sand. Coming back from the first loop through the start area, mixed pair Em Viotto and partner caught us, using their supreme road skills, and we stayed with them through the next section of single track. From there we rode as a four for a while until a few descents and climbs later I realised that they weren’t with us anymore. Back to being lonely teamies.
We soon found ourselves riding up an awesome single track climb, littered with rocks and amongst the gum, it was a real standout as it twisted back and forth to the peak through the dry terrain. Our efforts were rewarded with a fast and flowy descent, loose and squally but grin inducing as we whooped and hollered through the trees. After this we came to a feed zone, and the great grovel. This was another loop similar to the start, but with more loose, red-rock descents and little baby heads littering the trail. Through it was really a fireroad, there often wasn’t more than one line through the rough stuff. We climbed some more, and descended again and again with the leg-sapping climbs. Somewhere Bizzlemangle’s chain came off, we regrouped. Took a feed, then were in the final stages of the race.
We were pretty lonely, and Brian managed to find a stick in her drivetrain, which I realised as she yelled loudly for help in the last 15km of single track. No help was needed (we don’t need no man, after all!) and we were back in business. The final single track featured ant-mounds, scree, rough dirt and rocks. It was fast and flowy and skatey as fuck, but a real treat after the toiling of the previous kilometres. My heart soared as I snaked my way between trees and earth.
In the closing moments of the race I let go, I was flowing through the trails in my own world when I realised Biscuit wasn’t behind me. Sheeeit! I sop and another rider comes up to me and speaks very loudly in french. Pour Quais? I had no idea what was going on. Oh heck. That collarbone SHEEEIT! I wait for a bit and contemplate backtracking when she pops out of the bush, but something was wrong. She is pedalling with one leg. Oh fuck.
She’s broken her fucking leg. This is it. We are fucked. End of race. WTF.
She gets a bit closer and I see a pedal attached to her foot. “FUCK Bitmap! How the hell did that happen!?” the seemingly impossible had happened and Brownie’s pedal had unscrewed itself (probability of this ever happening is damn near 0%). We weren’t far from the end, we had fucked around already. I was like “Benjamin, just fucking ride as hard as you can with one leg”. We got onto the fireroad and I pushed her the last couple of kms. Apparently riding one-legged really hurts that quad!
The faces of riders look noticeably fatigued by day three of any stage race, and the Reef to Reef was no exception. Riders wearily mounted their bikes knowing that a warm up was a good idea, but clenching their teeth as the sore legs were forced into action again.
Today's stage was the longest in distance, but would be similar in duration to Stage 2 due to long, with fast sections of road and less single track. A fast start saw us turn into different sections of undulating dirt road. I felt pretty stoked that it was a more conservative start, but perhaps the legs just felt good, as others looked less impressed with the bunch pace? Partner in crime Buzzman tried to shake things up early as she was bored with the road racing, but nothing stuck. Shortly after, about 15km in, we were met with a turn onto single track style cow path. I don’t even know if a cow path is a thing...but that’s what I am calling it; it’s definitely one good line and a lot of shockers with giant death-holes in them.
I felt in my element and led the bunch down the faux-cow singletrack, until I got to a large open area, looked around and only saw daylight. After they came through Bri explained there was a lot of misadventure behind me; absolute bunch carnage. ARGH! I felt pretty lucky to have a clear view of the trails in front!
We faced a few more water crossings, and delved deep into the rainforest. This course was mainly an out and back with a loop at the end (shaped like a chupa-chup) and the loop was deep in dark tranquil rainforest. At this point, Bri and I got sick of just riding and drove the bunch for some substantial time. Sometimes this prods some (mainly male, TBH) egos into doing some work on the front, but not today. Coming out onto a road section one of the local teams came and lead the way for a bit, until a short 1-2min road climb loomed ahead. Aha! I thought, I’ll stretch this out. By merely winding it up, we had singled out on the entrance to the next bit: single track. It was a move that paid off well as I snaked through the sandy moto tracks with just one other rider.
Briony wasn’t in sight behind at this point, but I knew how well she was riding and I knew she could read a move, so I kept going and decided to head to the feed zone for a snappy bottle change. As I had pulled up, changed my bodies and gotten Briony’s ready, she quickly powered through alone: success! Plus our super organised feeding techniques were pretty steezy. Bulk points for steeze,
We trundled on and were swamped by a fast group of guys and we rode out along the undulating, cow-holed singletrack on their wheel. The efforts of earlier in the day were catching up, and Briony led all through the section and it was awesome to have a reliable wheel to follow, and someone to call the potentially race-ending holes out for me!
We lost contact with the group at the road, and by god did we try and time-trial back on. We were so close, but the bunch wouldn’t let up, and so in the end the elastic band broke and we swapped off for the last, brutal 15km. It was very hard, just the way stage racing should be. We were stoked crossing the line, we had done some awesome team work, ridden some sweet single track and seen some epic rainforest. All was good!
This is it! The end! It is such a feeling of accomplishment finishing a stage race, no matter where you are in the field. We wound our way up to Weatherby station, a huge cattle station near the start of Stage 3, where our last day would finish. Unlike the rest of the stages, this one was a point to point race, and we would do a loop of the rural area (rocky bergs, ponies and moo-cows) followed by a section of gravel road before turning down the mystical Bump Track. From the end of this steep chute, we headed through the back of cane country to finish on the shores of beautiful Port Douglas beach.
Well the gun went, and I wasn’t sure if I regretted the choice of having a coffee instead of a warm up before this stage. Both would have been optimal but beggars can’t be choosers, and with a hefty dose of stage race insomnia, I chose the former. A moderate rollout saw us stick with the front bunch for a few km before splintering off into the dirt roads with a smaller group. There were audible groans as the toll of three days racing made itself known amongst competitors. There was pushing and towing ahoy; both Bri and I wished at this point we had someone to push us! (we don't need no man...but a little push would have been welcomed...).
A few km into the race some ambiguous signage broke up the group as we stopped and pondered the way, and we found ourselves hans solo. No big deal, this happens, and we ended up swapping off through the rough double track. We rode back up to a lot of the people we were with, as many riders chose to push up a steep incline that Bianca and I rode, then I promptly fell down an incline after making a mistake on some very off camber trail, and we were back off the group again. My bad. #tired #hubbard #myfault
Riding back through the properties, Brita-filter was a lifesaver as my legs didn’t want a bar of it. We managed to regroup after passing through Weatherby again, and we hot the dreaded dirt road. Where is this elusive Bump track?
With another couple of riders dangling in front, we managed to ride a consistent race just behind them. When we got down the first part of the Bump, we were in a group again, then slow running out of a difficult creek meant we were off the back. This was the way it was to be for today, work hard, catch up, fuck up again, out the back; repeat ad finitum.
Oh well, tired legs have that effect, and once we had pinned it down the steep but fun track of Bumps and popped out onto the road, the group was just there. Engaging some oft discussed not often used crown of fork TT position, we caught them with gusto and unlike the stage prior, the ego’s flared up and I found myself not having to do much more work, instead sitting on the group. #winning A few twists and turns through deep cane country, and some interesting bike path riding, we finally turned onto the beach! The joyous ending was in sight!
But where was it? Was it that speck so far away?
Indeed it was, it was probably 5km away at the other end of the beach. Trying to engage TT mode was difficult at this stage of the race, and the obstacles that required dodging en route to the finish included people walking along the beach on their phones, and kids digging holes. But that’s what beach is all about. Crossing that line we felt awesome, and immediately vowed to come back on a tropical holiday again, as we ripped off our shoes and jersey’s and plunged into the cool sea water. Bliss!
So all in all a great success. We had an amazing time, good racing, great mates and the best part was it was all in a tropical wonderland! It was great to get to know team Cyclist Australia, and Sam & Co a bit better and enjoy the delights of a tropical holiday with a smattering of solid days on the bike!