It's 5am and today is the last day of my first ever multi-stage mountain bike race. I owe the early start to the fact that today, unlike the previous 3 stages, is a one-way track rather than ending up back where I started. Yes, that means I have to be up at 5am, out of the hostel at 5.30am (as quietly as possible) and on the shuttle bus in Port Douglas at 6am, but it also means that I get to ride down a massive descent, the infamous “bump track”, and finish on the beach. I assume it was quite scenic on the way up the Julatten range, but realistically how would I know, I was asleep.
We get to the start point at Wetherby Station (Mount Malloy) about 7.15am, but unfortunately the truck with our bikes is slightly delayed then unloading has to be put on hold while a helicopter lands, with the MC muttering something about a VIP prize for 3 lucky folks who didn’t have to catch the bus. But I’m not really listening, I want my bike! Thankfully the last of us get our bikes before the race start at 8am, but only just. I roll into the chute at 7.53 and spend 3 minutes stretching, 2min setting up the GoPro and 2min starting the all-important Strava. I hastily shove the phone back down the slot in my CamelBak, put my glove back on, and its go time!
Today’s stage is 55km in length, with only 320m of climb and a massive descent (or possibly drop off) of 400m at the 44km mark. The first section is a nice mix of gravel roads and fast single track, keeping the pace high but getting those legs well and truly warmed up. There is a slight overlap with some of yesterday’s trails out of Mount Malloy, but we’re soon dropping into the rainforest and heading for the allusive “bump track”.
Now is probably a great time to stop and tell you about this “bump track” I keep mentioning. Ever since day 1, they have been warning us, preparing us, for a bat-shit-crazy descent called the “bump track”, supposedly named because if anyone stops on it, the person behind will surely bump into them. This track is known locally for the casualties (victims) it has taken over the years, and I overhear more than one local mention that you know you’ve reached the bottom when you see the Ambulance, because that’s where they will be stationed during a big event assuming that if they are required- that’s where it will be. Personally I don’t think “bump” track does it justice. If I were naming it, I would have gone with the “forward aerial o’brien triple somersault and getting intimate with the person 2 riders in front” track. We’ve been warned it’s steep, with loose gravel, and 90° off-camber turns with next to no warning. BUT we’ve also been told it’s a stick-load of fun and in fact today’s stage is joined by the “Triple R” event riders doing either 35km or 70km, basically just so they can do the bump track without the 3 days of torture beforehand.
Riding through the rainforest is lovely, some nice steep fire trail climbs where others are walking, but I’ve found my legs and I ride every one of them like a pro (which I’m really not). In passing a few riders whom I know to be placing well in their respective categories, they make the comment that Spiderman is really going for it, “must be because spiders have 8 legs”. I tell them it’s great because I can swap them out and have a fresh 2 each day… if only that were actually the case.
I power into the feed station at the top of that climb and I have to say what bloody legends the race helpers who man it are. They can see I’m keeping a good pace and need to keep going ASAP but also that I need to catch my breath and stock up for the last 20km of the final stage. One guy grabs my water bottle, fills it and adds a GU electrolyte tablet, while the other offers me a GU gel and a fistful of lollies. I’ve just had my own gel 10min earlier and I know I’ve got 2 left in my pocket, so I scoff the fistful of lollies, by which point I’m being handed my drink bottle and I’m good to go. I see a couple of riders head off down the bump track and a small pack about to arrive at the feed station. I’m not the fastest on these steep descents so I know that now is my chance to get going and not get “bumped” up the back of. It begins.
I jump straight in with some good momentum and I’m immediately in love. The first third of the bump track is beautifully formed, with wide corners and good visibility. This I can ride! I keep it fast and overtake 2 riders when it’s safe. It is not at all loose or gravelly (yet) and with 175km of practise under my belt I’m in good form and I keep the wheels exactly where I want them on every turn. This first third ends with a creek crossing that is ridable only for the clinically insane. It’s a steep rocky entry into water that is most of your wheel deep. The entry alone is at an angle at which the deceleration of the front wheel hitting the water alone could be enough to flip you over the handlebars. The exit is worse still, with a small rock to help jump you up onto a metal grate boardwalk so steep that I struggle to walk up it. My feet literally slide and I’m using the bike brakes to edge up it moving only one foot (or wheel) at a time, like you’d climb a ladder.
The second third of the bump track is similarly good fun to ride, super flowy and fast, but with some climbing as it undulates. I love this even more, because as I said before I’m one of those sadistic people who enjoys a good technical climb. My slim build lends itself to a reasonable power to weight ratio and when you add SPD cleats, Specialized FastTrak tyres and the right gearing, you’re good to go.
The last third of the bump track is a bit different though. This is where the “triple down arrow” warning signs begin, and every second tree is marked with things like “slow down”, “turn ahead” or “use EXTREME caution”. This is where it becomes loose gravel, non-banked turns and gradients that I wouldn’t even ATTEMPT to climb. Worse still, these gradients are continuous with water bars for gaps. At first I feel like I’m handling it okay, just keeping it fairly slow and in control, riding into (rather than off-of) the water bars, but it just keeps going. It stays this continuously steep for so long that my entire upper body is in agony from the tension of holding myself up off the bike and keeping my weight centred so that I can use both brakes effectively. Thankfully my hydraulic discs are up to the task and don’t noticeably fade over the descent, but I wish I could say the same for my grip strength. By the bottom I don’t think I could have held a bottle if you handed it to me, and I was audibly groaning for at least the last 2 minutes. I’m happy to feel the leg burn of 200km over 4 days, but this was something else entirely. I rejoice in seeing the Ambulance at the bottom of the run, partly because I know this means the end of the descent, but also because it means I’m not being carried away in it.
The last 10km is a mix of road and fire trails, a remarkably flat run past sugar cane fields as I make my way to the beach. I start thinking about the well-deserved swim waiting for me at the end and my legs get a third wind. I maintain a solid pace to the beach and start the ride of 4 mile beach with all the gusto you’d expect from a 29 yr old male (see Stage 1). It has been an incredible 4 days, and this really is the home stretch now. I sit behind a group of 3 riders for a bit, until the friction of the sand gets to them and their pace slows. I overtake them and spend the remainder of the beach in my second top gear, picking my line carefully to stay on the hard sand, dodge the driftwood, and keep well clear of the other beach goers. With 500m to the finish line, I not only see the race arch in full view but I also see Graham, one of the many new friends I made here at the Reef to Reef. I can’t help it, I notch up that last gear and up-down my way to beat him over the line.
My goal today was to come in at 3 hours, but I would have been happy with anything less than 3h30m (which would have given me a total time across the 4 stages of 12 hours). I come in at 2h 54m, with a total time across all 4 stages of 11h27m. To say I’m happy with my result is an understatement. It’s my first ever multi-stage race and I’m so happy just to complete it that I wear the finisher’s medal with a lot more pride than it probably deserved. I’ve come in at 87th overall of 169 starting riders. I stop Strava, run into the surf, and then share a beer (or 6) with a new mate (or 6) that I’ve made over the past 4 days.
After a few beers I admit to myself (and anyone that will listen) that I feel very at home in this crowd of crazy mountain bikers. These are my people. I make it my goal in 2019 to hit the 2 sister events of the Reef to Reef: the Port to Port in Newcastle and the Cape to Cape in Perth. As I turn to go and catch a plane back to “normal life”, one of my new mates from WA says “So we’ll see you at the Cape to Cape, right?” to which I respond “Sure, why not, I’m always Down To Adventure.”