PORT TO PORT

AUSSIE STAGE RAC­ING COMES OF AGE

Australian Mountain Bike - - Contents - BY IMO­GEN SMITH PHO­TOS TIM BARDSLEY-SMITH

Start your plan­ning for the 2018 edi­tion of this four-stage grin-fest and whet your ap­petite with a look back at what made this year’s event such a huge suc­cess for all rid­ers.

Port to Port is the lit­tle sis­ter of WA’s 10-yearold Cape to Cape stage race. To­gether, th­ese two events have made Aussie moun­tain bike stage rac­ing cheap enough, sim­ple enough, ex­cit­ing enough and (we think) achiev­able enough to draw crowds of rac­ers from over­seas and across the coun­try.

Port to Port is held at the end of May in the New­cas­tle and Hunter Val­ley re­gions of NSW - about two hours’ drive north of Sydney - and th­ese hol­i­day lo­ca­tions set the vibe of the race. Port to Port usu­ally soaks in late-au­tumn sun­shine, pro­vid­ing a good chance to kick back, visit a beach or a win­ery, and en­joy some great coun­try and beach scenery. Plus you can take part in a bike race with­out freez­ing your - um - toes off. While Port to Port at­tracts a huge crowd of elite rac­ers, we get the sense that rid­ers at the pointy end of the field aren’t the most im­por­tant par­tic­i­pants. In­stead of fo­cus­ing on the place-get­ters, Port to Port of­fers ev­ery­day moun­tain bik­ers the op­por­tu­nity to make what­ever they want of their event - be that a shi­raz-fu­elled hol­i­day on two wheels, a do­geat-dog slog-fest, or some­thing in be­tween. Af­ter rid­ers like us, the lo­ca­tions take cen­tre stage. First up there’s Nel­son Bay, where the race kicks off, with its tow­er­ing green hills, aquamarine wa­ters, and laid-back vibe. Then there’s the leg­endary Hunter Val­ley, with rolling coun­try­side, au­tumn colours, and of course, winer­ies. Lastly the course takes weary trav­ellers to the beach, fin­ish­ing up with a fes­ti­val of Eats, Beats and Bikes in Dixon Park’s nat­u­ral am­phithe­atre. New South Wales’ big­gest moun­tain bike stage race (and one of few on of­fer in Aus­tralia), Port to Port launched as re­cently as 2014. Over that time the team be­hind the event have im­proved the cour­ses year on year, lis­ten­ing to rider feed­back to keep the best el­e­ments of the race and chuck out the bits that didn’t work. And hav­ing trun­dled through 2017’s edi­tion, we reckon P2P has well and truly come of age. Here’s why. Sweet de­scents, sin­gle­track and stun­ning views (but not be­fore you earn ‘em) The first key to Port to Port’s suc­cess is that there’s an un­spo­ken un­der­stand­ing that if you want dessert, you gotta eat your peas. Moun­tain bik­ers know that it’s the grit that makes the pearl, and Port to Porters rel­ish the phys­i­cal chal­lenges as much as the re­ward: sweet, fast, flow­ing de­scents. Num­ber two, Port to Port route-mak­ers know that an awe­some moun­tain bike race doesn’t have to be 100 per cent sin­gle­track. Or even 80 per cent. In fact, rid­ing noth­ing but sin­gle­track will even­tu­ally drive even the frothingest moun­tain biker in­sane. Port to Port mixes up the chal­lenges and keeps com­peti­tors guess­ing - sneaky sand traps, monster hills, rut­ted four-wheel drive tracks, tun­nelling de­scents, moto trails, groomed flowy sin­gle­track, and yes, the beach. With this kind of va­ri­ety, it takes a well-rounded, proper moun­tain biker to beat the chal­lenges to the fin­ish line. Ev­ery. Sin­gle. Day. Let’s run you through the event’s four stages so you get the feel for it... First there’s the de­but out of Nel­son Bay Ma­rina. The of­fi­cial ve­hi­cle leads the race out to Shoal Bay, then it’s a fu­ri­ous gal­lop up a tech­ni­cal, sandy fire road, where ev­ery­one from week­end war­riors to elite rid­ers kick up the dust and clear out the cob­webs. While most of this stage is on fire roads, it’s not with­out its chal­lenges - from sand to wa­ter­bars - but the in­fa­mous Three Bears climbs take the cake. Clean­ing them with­out a dab is the key phys­i­cal chal­lenge of the day.

The sec­ond stage is a lit­tle dif­fer­ent, and proves our the­ory that to put on a great event, you should never be in­tim­i­dated by the ter­rain, and never un­der­es­ti­mate your par­tic­i­pants. Af­ter a brief, but sweet, morn­ing en­joy­ing per­fect Hunter Val­ley scenery, rid­ers at­tack a course that im­me­di­ately turns straight up and car­ries on that way for about 10 kilo­me­tres. Af­ter bulk climb­ing through im­pres­sive nat­u­ral scenery of the Polkobin State For­est, Port to Porters fi­nally duck into a war­ren of sin­gle­track and only emerge at the grand fi­nale - The Rab­bit Hole. This is an over­grown tun­nel of trail that just. goes. down… ex­cept when rid­ers are boosted sky­wards by wa­ter­bars, or spun side­ways by drifty hair­pin turns. Rid­ers emerge blink­ing into the sun­light on the pic­ture-post­card back­roads of the re­gion’s wine coun­try, sum­mit­ing one fi­nal heart­breaker be­fore the fin­ish line at Briar Ridge Vine­yard. Port to Port’s im­pres­sive 62-kilo­me­tre queen stage starts from Cooran­bong Park near Port Mac­quarie and fea­tures some of the most bliss­ful trails of the whole event, in­clud­ing the fa­mous Awaba Moun­tain Bike Park and in­cred­i­ble se­cret moto trails high in the Wate­gans. Awaba sets the mood, with rid­ers flow­ing through end­less rib­bons of sin­gle­track among tree ferns and through nat­u­ral gul­lies. There’s a behemoth climb up Mount Faulk at the end, but it’s not so long that the smiles fade be­fore the fast un­du­la­tions along the ridge­line. At about the 40-kilo­me­tre mark there’s barely any up­hill left and Port to Porters start to weave in and out of the moto trails be­fore plum­met­ing back down to the road for a short time trial back to Cooran­bong Park where the sun-drenched lawn awaits. The fi­nal stage needs to go out with a bang, and with fab­u­lous new trails and just enough beach time to get a bit of sand in your teeth, the event seems to have set­tled on the per­fect fi­nale. For 40 kilo­me­tres rid­ers duck in and out of rough, hand-built trails, up ex­cru­ci­at­ing climbs and down thump­ing de­scents. The new Red Head/White Bridge trails cre­ated by lo­cal leg­end Liam McGuire are a wel­come ad­di­tion, as well as the 500m stretch of Dud­ley Beach that tests ev­ery­one’s bal­ance and skill. At last, the twisty sin­gle­track de­liv­ers ev­ery­one grin­ning to the fin­ish line at Dixon Park, right on the beach.

“MOUN­TAIN BIK­ING MIGHT BE AN IN­DI­VID­UAL EVENT, BUT IT’S A SO­CIAL SPORT. IT’S A SPORT THAT GOES HAND-IN-HAND WITH A CRAFT BEER OR PINOT”

TOP COM­PE­TI­TION

One of the best things about moun­tain bik­ing has al­ways been its egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. If you were a swim­mer, or a crick­eter, or a ten­nis player, there’s very lit­tle chance you’d be able to meet and talk (we mean re­ally talk) to your he­roes. In moun­tain bik­ing it’s as easy as rolling up to them at the start or fin­ish line and hav­ing a chat. Port to Port (like Cape to Cape) has al­ways had a knack for draw­ing huge com­pet­i­tive elite crowds, mean­ing a bunch of na­tional cham­pi­ons and in­ter­na­tional-level rac­ers have reg­u­larly graced the podium. Not only can you get up close to th­ese stars for a chat, but be­cause ev­ery­one starts at once there’s the chance to com­pare your times to the very best. Wade Mor­gan, a com­peti­tor from New­cas­tle in this year’s Port to Port, ad­mits that was one of his per­sonal high­lights. “One of the great things about the Port to Port is the abil­ity for any rider to have the chance to race against the pro­fes­sional moun­tain bik­ers and Aus­tralia’s elite,” he ex­plains. “There aren›t too many sports that am­a­teurs can ac­tu­ally en­ter a com­pe­ti­tion against the pros.” If this isn’t enough for you, the Sun­down Shootout gives ev­ery­one a rare chance to see their skills on show as rid­ers com­pete in a quick blast around a tech­ni­cal time trial course on a golf course at the Crowne Plaza Hunter Val­ley. Mitch Wheat­ley, from Sydney, is an­other racer who was at­tracted by the level of com­pe­ti­tion on of­fer. Hav­ing com­peted in Cape to Cape in 2015, Mitch was keen to get among the ac­tion, and trained specif­i­cally for Port to Port. “I en­gaged a coach to help give struc­ture to my train­ing,” he says. “This im­proved my fit­ness level, and abil­ity to re­cover from ef­forts dur­ing the race.” He came equipped with some spe­cific goals, at­tracted by the ca­pac­ity to bench­mark his per­for­mance against the coun­try’s best. “I was hop­ing to achieve a top 50 over­all and just wanted to do my best in the Elite cat­e­gory. Ul­ti­mately, I wanted to push and chal­lenge my­self as hard as I could with­out blow­ing up over the four days.”

SO­CIAL SCENE

For Wade, a Novo­cas­trian, the event has a spe­cial lo­cal el­e­ment that flows into its friendly at­mos­phere. “It’s amaz­ing to see the lo­cals get right be­hind the event,” he says. “On ev­ery stage you had lo­cals mar­shalling and be­ing in­volved and dish­ing out the en­cour­age­ment.” There are also

loads of sup­port­ers (in­clud­ing an en­tire schools-worth of kids) out on the back roads and lin­ing the trails. “It’s great to see so many peo­ple out there cheer­ing ev­ery­one on,” adds Wade. The stages are epic, sure, but each day isn’t so long that you don’t have time for other things. You could wash your kit, or pol­ish your bike, or do some time on the foam roller, but why would you re­ally when you’ve got beau­ti­ful day to kick back, share a few bev­er­ages, and re­live the bat­tle stories of the day. While Port to Port is per­fect shared with fam­ily or mates, it is pos­si­ble to do it solo, though there are some tricky lo­gis­tics for trans­fers from fin­ish lines back to start lines, and from stage to stage. Lone-wolf Mitch, who has done both Port to Port and Cape to Cape with­out sup­port, says there’s no need to feel in­tim­i­dated. “You can go solo,” he ex­plains. “You just need a lit­tle ex­tra plan­ning for travel.” Moun­tain bik­ing might be an in­di­vid­ual event, but it’s a so­cial sport. It’s a sport that goes handin-hand with a craft beer or a pinot. It’s a sport that re­wards its par­tic­i­pants with a vo­ra­cious and guilt­less ap­petite for burg­ers and twice-cooked chips, wood-fired pizza and cheesy na­chos, all of which are on-hand af­ter the races and at the venues that part­ner with Port to Port. There are a bunch of so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties planned, from the Sun­down Shootout at the Hunter Val­ley Crowne Plaza (great with din­ner and drinks), to the Eats, Beats and Bikes Fes­ti­val at the fin­ish line.

“TRAIN UP FOR IT AND JUST EN­TER - EVEN IF IT’S JUST FOR ONE DAY”

Port to Port of­fers rid­ers an op­tion to do any num­ber of days, for those whose work and fam­ily com­mit­ments pre­clude the full event, but Mitch Wheat­ley says that, like Cape to Cape, there’s a lot to be said for rac­ing the full four days. “I love the for­mat,” he ex­plains. “It’s a mix of su­per-fast shorter stages, along with longer en­durance stages over a wide range of trails in beau­ti­ful lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing pri­vate land - trails that you can’t ride at other times. Th­ese races re­ally bring to­gether rid­ers of all lev­els; from the elites all the way to the week­end war­riors, which is why our sport is so great.” Wade Mor­gan agrees that the va­ri­ety is part of what pulls him to the event. “Four dif­fer­ent days; four su­perb types of moun­tain bike tracks, from soft sand and tech­ni­cal sin­gle­track to the sweet­est flow down­hill, the race has it all.”

WHAT’S NEXT…?

Port to Port is done for 2017, but its big sis­ter Cape to Cape is fast ap­proach­ing. Then there’s a bit of news on the or­gan­i­sa­tional front: both Port to Port and Cape to Cape were ac­quired by global event behemoth Iron­man early this year. This is the team who own South Africa’s Cape Epic, New Zealand’s Pi­o­neer, Cairns’ RRR, plus a raft of ad­ven­ture and mul­ti­sport races - they are fast build­ing a huge em­pire of moun­tain bike stage races around the world. The new own­ers have promised to keep the ex­ist­ing for­mat for the two events, but it will be interesting to see what changes, what stays the same, and the im­pact this has on the event’s at­mos­phere. As it stands, this year’s Port to Porters praised the event pretty much uni­ver­sally (al­though we reckon the feed zones need some work). “It’s one of the best or­gan­ised moun­tain bike races that I have ever en­tered,” says Wade Mor­gan. And Mitch Wheat­ley, de­spite crash­ing out just be­fore the fi­nal stage, is still happy with how it all went. “I still en­joyed ev­ery minute of the week­end with a good crew of friends,” he says. So what to do if you’re think­ing P2P or C2C might be your call­ing? Mitch’s says that prepa­ra­tion is key, but sug­gests look­ing for an edge out­side your train­ing. “If you know some­one or can find some­one who has com­pleted the race be­fore, try and get some in­side knowl­edge,” he ad­vises. “Also, find a group of rid­ers which are of the same abil­ity and pace your­selves. This one helps you share your love of this sport with oth­ers.” Wade fo­cuses on phys­i­cal prepa­ra­tion, say­ing: “The ad­vice I would give to any­one think­ing of do­ing the event is to train up for it and just en­ter - even if it’s for just one day. The more you ride the fit­ter you will be and the more fun you will have.” Even if your prep is in­ter­rupted or less than ideal, Wade sug­gests tak­ing the plunge. “If you think you want to do it, just do it and give it a go. This race caters for ev­ery­one,” he says. “There is al­ways some­one to help, from a rider be­hind you to a mar­shall up the road. Ev­ery­one that comes over the fin­ish line has that amaz­ing feel­ing and a huge smile on their face.”

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