PORT TO PORT
AUSSIE STAGE RACING COMES OF AGE
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”
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.”
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.”
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.”