Riders taking stretch limousines to the top of deadly downhill tracks, mixing it up with mountain devils, enduring excruciating initiation rites, car surfing, parties, punk rock, spilt blood, fractured bikes and broken bones – Australian mountain biking grew up rough, tough and wild in Cairns.
Mountain biking may not have been born in Cairns, but once its tyres gained purchase in the fertile dirt and steamy greenhouse temperatures of Australia’s loosest state, it grew like a cane toad on steroids into something radical, magical and downright dangerous.
Not many realised it at the time, caught as they were amid the lairy hair, big air and audacious attitudes being styled by some of the chief protagonists, but even before the tropical town shocked the pedal-pushing planet by scoring a World Cup in 1994 and then the UCI MTB World Championships in 1996, the history of Australian mountain biking was being scrawled in the Queensland mud and a vision of the future of downhill mountain biking was being scarified into the flanks of the Tablelands.
The leader of the pack was a bloke whose name is now synonymous with worldclass trails all over the planet: Glenn Jacobs. Long before he became an internationally renowned trail architect, businessman and Mountain Bike Hall of Famer, however, Jacobs was a signwriter who had one of the first mountain bikes in Australia and some big ideas about ball-tearing descents bouncing around in his brain.
‘Nothing existed, so we were writing the rules as we went along. We explored and tried everything and anything. We were racing quad eliminators back in 1992, essentially a precursor to 4X. We got dropped off by a chopper at the top of the Pyramid for the world’s first ever helibiking expedition. Nothing was too steep to try riding down. We used to say that if a tree could grow on it, we could ride down it. I remember GT wouldn’t warranty its bikes on anything north of Townsville.’
At the suggestion of a visitor from UCI, Cairns chucked its name in the hat to host the 1996 World Championships, and to everyone’s utter shock, including their own, they won it. Then the trail building really went into overdrive.
‘No one had seen anything like the course we built for the Worlds. It was steep, technical, nasty. The word ‘rockgarden’ didn’t appear in the mountain bike vocabulary until after the 1996 World Champs. We were building timber features here years before Canada’s North Shore.’
‘We had no idea what was going on elsewhere. We just went out and bought bikes and rode them down the steepest, roughest hills we could find. The RRR race only came about because we were searching for new downhill trails and someone a led us to the Bump Track.
‘When we went down to our first nationals in Canberra in 1990 we got a real shock. These guys were riding down tracks you could drive a Commodore down and calling it downhill.’
These trail-blazing, bike-breaking days were all caught on film, with Jacobs shooting some of the first – and definitely the maddest – mountain biking movies ever made. Ice Cream Heads from Outer Space was filmed in 1990–1991, followed by the Mudcows series, and these videos had an impact on the way people looked at mountain biking way beyond Australian shores.
‘Cairns is at the edge of civilization,’ observes Mick Hannah. ‘When you head outdoors from Cairns, you’re really out there, so the locals grow up with no real concept of a limit about what they can do or achieve. There were a few wild boys in that crew, but you also had Michael Ronning and Sean McCarroll, who showed they could knuckle down and ride consistently in the top 10 in the world at the races.’
The arrival of the UCI World Championships in the tropical town in 1996 was both a coup and a catalytic moment for the Cairns mountain biking community.
‘It put Australia on the mountain biking map,’ says photographer and mountain biker Peter Blakeman, who shot the event for Inside Sport. ‘To this day, after covering hundreds of events, I reckon the Cairns World Champs was the best thing that has ever hit the Australian mountain bike scene – over and above the Stromlo Championships and the Olympics in Sydney.’
It was an extraordinary testimonial to the quality of the tracks that Jacobs and the club had constructed, and to the respect and reputation the local riders had earned, but the enormity of the event and the pressure it put on the people involved took its toll.
For Glenn Jacobs, there’s no doubt that his hometown will write a new chapter in the history book of mountain biking. ‘I’m proud of where Cairns has come from and the place it has carved out in the sport,’ he says. ‘The Worlds will return to Cairns in 2016, and a World Cup in April, 2014. It’s a better place to come to than Canberra – Cairns is a place the world needs to see, with jungle, coral reefs, cassowaries and crocodiles.
‘And the world is a different place now. In 1996 there was no such thing as an event manager, there was no IT, there were no professional track builders. We were feeling our way in the dark. This time around we’ll be building things out of stone. This time it will last forever.’
** This article originally appeared in Flow Mountain Bike Magazine, Issue #1. Our magazines are still available for sale on our online store here.