The plane wheels in from the north, filling the windows with green, the muted khaki of the sea, and the intensity of the jungle’s glossy emerald. The whole place looks alive, and as one, all the passengers lucky enough to be in seat F press their phones to the glass to snap a first glimpse of the tropical north. If they were mountain bikers, they might have craned their necks to hunt for Smithfield, home of the World Champs for 2017, and one of the most legendary destinations in Australian mountain biking.
Know where to look for final approach, and you can see the trails, including the famous downhill start gate with its views out to the reef. The sun strikes the window. I’d left the concrete of Sydney in the dark, and now I’m about to touchdown in a paradise seemingly never touched by cold.
If there’s a better place in Australia to be in July, I’ve not found it.
Jeans off, shorts on. The quick car park change is liberating, it’s the middle of winter, but the temps are pushing high into the twenties. If there’s a better place in Australia to be in July, I’ve not found it. Smithfield is a just few minutes’ drive from the airport, and on the way I pass mangroves, palm trees, cane fields and sweating backpackers, lumping their lives about. It’s like a montage of tropical clichés, just missing the croc.
Pulling into the trailhead carpark, I recognise a familiar face. It takes a moment to place her – Jade is one of the crew from the Like a Local vid I’d watched recently, a cool film that followed some of the region’s awesome female riders. It turns out she’s coming for a pedal today too, and she chuckles at me when I tell her the forecast had been for four days of rain. “Never trust the weather forecasts in Cairns,” she laughs, “it’s completely random up here. You’ve just got to go with it.” That’s a pretty good mantra for life generally up in the tropical north I think.
Ryan and Berend soon pull up too. Berend is born and bred Cairns – a local ripper, his jersey announces he’s sponsored by The Woolshed, one of the town’s most notorious party spots. It doesn’t get more local than that. Ryan’s a Cairns convert, like so many folks around here. As one of the World Trail crew, he’s spent a good chunk of his years travelling Australia building trails. Earlier this year he decided to call Cairns home, buying a house literally three minute’s ride from Smithy. That’s quite the endorsement of Cairns if you ask me.
The two fellas met in Whistler, but you’d swear they’re related. Both tall and lanky, the similarities continue to the trails too, and watching them ride their styles are so well matched, you can tell they’ve spent plenty of time following each others’ wheels.
We’re soon into the jungle, the wild tangle of green a contrast to the perfectly manicured berms and jumps.
We’re soon into the jungle, the wild tangle of green contrast to the perfectly manicured berms and jumps. Bizarrely, strung up between the vines are a series of full-blown street lights. At first, I thought it must be a joke, but Ryan tells me they were installed for night time racing during Gravitate, an annual week-long festival/party celebrating the Cairns mountain bike lifestyle. It’s that kind of place; let’s string up some lights in the jungle so we can shred at night! Why the hell not?!
Next, we’re on to Black Snake, and I get a full appreciation of what a masterful display of trail building has been employed here. With the vegetation pushing in so hard, it’s sometimes tricky to actually get a feel for the terrain around you, but on Black Snake, it’s clear – this narrow, shale ridge, sandwiched between a waterfall and a deep gully is a trail builder’s nightmare. “They told Glen (Jacobs, of World Trail) he’d never get a trail up here,” says Ryan. That must’ve been like a red rag to a bull, and a series of painstakingly stacked switchbacks, all built by hand, were woven into the ridgeline, gaining elevation for one of the coolest descents in the park.
The red clay has been reworked into an insane, multi-line, slot-car racing kind of experience.
For more info on the mountain biking in Tropical North Queensland, check out the Ride Cairns site right here.
With the World Champs returning to Cairns for the first time in 20 years, there’s been a rash of building to freshen things up, and one of the trails that has benefitted most is Caterpillars. The red clay has been reworked into an insane, multi-line, slot-car racing kind of experience. There are berms and kickers all over the place, just begging you to get creative and find new lines. Berend is up for the challenge, hunting out new gaps to huck, as he looks “to unlock the secret level,” as he laughingly puts it. We session the trail again and again.
“Watch yourself,” cautions Jade, as Berend starts eyeing up new challenges – a nose bonk off a rock here, a transfer gap there – “I don’t want to be marrying man covered in scabs!” It turns out they’re getting married the following week! A big crew is flying in from interstate too, with a bunch of group rides planned in the lead up to the big day. These two totally embody what the Cairns mountain biker lifestyle is about – they’ve both started their own businesses, so they’ve got the flexibility to ride more – and it’s hard not to love the pair of them.
His tyres just barely kiss the dirt, leaving long sliding scrapes across the clay
As I clamber up into the vines to find an angle, Ryan warns me to “keep an eye out for a light green, heart-shaped leaf.” That’s the sign of the infamous stinging tree, a nettle so painful it’s said to burn for years. But it’s not me that’s in peril, it’s Ryan, who has decided he wants to set a land speed record over one of the rollers and tries to scrub it low. His tyres just barely kiss the dirt, leaving long sliding scrapes across the clay, and soon he’s travelling sideways down the trail, his eyes wide. Somehow he rides it out, and the jungle rings with the hoots of a man who has dodged a bullet.
As the jungle begins to darken, a few fat rain drops start to bounce their way through the canopy to the trails below. It’s tropical rain, pleasant, the water warm, not like the icy drizzle down south. Before long the red clay of the trail is splattered everywhere, and the surface gets a fun slickness to it. The trails are too dark for shooting now, so we head back to the carpark where the rain has flushed out a surprising number of riders for a weekday arvo, and the banter flows as people line up to give their bike a hose off.
Our plans to head to Trinity Beach for a sunset drink are washed away as the deluge starts to beat down more heavily, and we call it a day. As a notorious control freak and phone flicker, I go to check the radar, just in case a window of clear weather is on the way, but then realise I’m bringing the wrong attitude to the party here. We’re in the tropics now – stress less, all you can do is go with the flow!