As the cliche goes, it ain’t over till you’re towelling off and reaching for the talcum powder. And wasn’t that old adage reinforced today, with the supposedly comfortable lead of Tristan Ward practically dissolving before his eyes in a spray of tubeless sealant! It was brilliant, desperate racing, and we loved every minute of it.
Finally, after two years of recalcitrant weather, the sun beamed down on Port to Port, showing off the coastline in a glorious fashion. A deep blue Autumn sky, pumping surf nearby, and almost 500 riders relishing in that burst of adrenaline you get when the end of a hard race is in sight.
Today’s final stage is spectacular, beginning on the shores of Lake Macquarie, finishing right by the beach, and cramming in plenty of coastal trails in between. The magnificent singletrack on Glenrock features heavily too, the ideal way to cap off 200km of racing. Stage winner Paul Van Der Ploeg summed it up nicely, “you finish up with super sweet trails and then come over the headland to these amazing views of Newcastle, it’s a pretty good feeling!”
The stage has evolved a lot since the race’s inception, and even though much of the stage is on fireroad or tarmac, it’s technical too. “I think just about everyone laid it down at some point,” laughed Kyle Ward. The dusty, loose conditions saw the plenty of skin left out on track, and the Westpac Careflight helicopter was called into action to scrape up a battered Robbie MacNaughton (who thankfully is ok!)
There was plenty of drama amongst the pointy end too. Paul Van Der Ploeg launched a long range solo attack, the kind that only a man who produces 2000 Watts is capable of, and powered through to grab the stage win. “I initially just launched a kind of joke attack, but then later on it wasn’t so funny! I was deep, deep, deep in the box,” said Van Der Ploeg. In his wake, things were coming unstuck for the race leader. Coming into the stage, Tristan Ward had a gap of over two minutes ahead of second place, and as it panned out he must be thankful he had every single one of those seconds up his sleeve!
“Kyle was throwing everything but the kitchen sink at me, the poor guy was on the front all day,” said Tristan Ward. None of the attacks were able to make a real impact though, until the bad luck that hit Kyle Ward on stage one now turned its sights on Tristan Ward, and he tagged something hidden in the grass and tore a gash through his tyre, too big to seal up. He had to choose fast; fix the flat, or wait for team mate and borrow a wheel, all the while watching his overall lead evaporate as Reece Tucknott and Kyle Ward rode away. Eventually team mate Josh Batty arrived, and handed his wheel over to Tristan, sacrificing his own race to keep his team mate’s hopes of victory alive. “I put Josh’s wheel in and went hell for leather till the end – everyone gave me so much support out there, it was great,” said an exhausted, relieved Ward. He done just enough to hang on, keeping Kyle Ward at bay by just 15 seconds!
Coming so close must’ve been hard for Kyle Ward: “All I could do today was just keep on attacking. I had to be a little bit sensible though, Reece was still within striking distance, and if I blew my doors off I could have lost second place. If Tristan had a flat and I still wasn’t able to get him, then full credit to him, he deserves it. It’s good that between this event and its sister event in Cape to Cape we’ve got a new winner in Tristan.”
Reece Tucnknott and Michael Potter, the two young Trek riders, finished together in third and fourth, cementing those same placings in the overall standings too. Mark Williams rounded out the top five, making the men’s podium a Trek dominated affair.
Samara Sheppard continued her unstoppable run. “I’m pretty stoked, four from four. I’m very happy to finish in pink,” she said. “I knew I had around two minutes on the next women by mid-way today, so the pressure was off. It was awesome actually – being able to ride the trails and really enjoy them, and the views too, it’s so nice when the trails look out over the ocean like that.”
For Imogen Smith, sitting in second overall, there was one goal today: keep Em Parkes in sight! “Em made me work for it!” laughed Imogen Smith. “We were both getting so tired, and making some terrible line choices. And it was a very different way to how I normally race, I usually like to get out on my own, keep some space from my competitors. But today I had do something mentally very different, sit on her wheel and just be patient.” Smith was full of praise for Parkes, saying “it was a real pleasure to ride with Em, she’s a real rising star of the future for the sport.”
“It was just like a friendly battle all day with Imogen,” said Parkes. “We had our race heads on, but it was friendly too.” Eventually Parkes would finish in second overall, just three seconds back on Smith! Tight, tight racing! The top five was rounded out by Rebecca Locke and Jessica Simpson.
In its third running, we feel like Port to Port MTB really hit its groove this year. The amazing weather really let the event sing, and gave riders a chance to appreciate just what a great part of the world this really is, plus the courses have evolved to be more fun too. Dates have been announced for 2o17, May 25-28, so put that in the planner and gather a crew. See you next year!
A Rider’s Perspective, with Briony Mattocks
Day four starts with a level of excitement, but also a little bit of depression as we all come to realise this is the last day of awesome bike riding and for most of us, work beckons tomorrow. In the spirit of enjoying it while it lasts, the great lycra sea (which seems to grow in size every day) was unleashed down the road and on to the first of four shorter, sharper climbs taking us from the start at Cam’s Wharf up and over and down towards the coast.
The first part of today’s stage was super techy – there were feet out everywhere with stories that even the elite men found themselves in the bushes, over the bars and/or sliding down loose descents sideways. A bit of rain and probably a bit less speed would have done wonders as we made our way through the dust and the ruts to the awaiting ocean views.
The main logistical challenge for organisers with stage 4 is getting the race from Caves Beach, through Swansea (where a single bridge crosses the opening of Lake Macquarie) and on to the Fernleigh Track. This neutral stage had me confused, little groups started to form big groups and I had no idea what time difference I was when we were let loose on to the bike path superhighway. Maybe in the future a 10min neutral zone could be considered, like what is used at the Highland Fling for negotiating the railway crossing?
That aside, I found myself gasping for air just to hold the wheels of two young road riders who flew down the bike path, across the golf course and through the gravel back roads on the run in to Glenrock Mountain Bike Park. A little bit buckled, I would have looked like a drunken moth trying to negotiate the first few sections of single-track, but I quickly found some rhythm and started to enjoy the superb trails this haven has to offer.
The point at which you appear from under the canopy of the rainforest and out on to the point overlooking the ocean at Glenrock is nothing short of breathtaking (ironic really as I had most of my breath taken from me earlier). Moments like that make you remember how lucky you are to live in Australia and ride bikes in this region. A bit more Glenrock and we finish the race by winding down the hill to the beachfront at Dixons Park. Glory awaits all riders as they cross the line, many having completed 200kms of testing mountain bike riding over the past four days. Also awaiting participants and spectators alike is an array of street food, beverages, live music and tales of bravery, bravado and back wheel washouts.
Well done to Samara Shepherd on her dominant win, but also to Imogen Smith (2nd), Em Parkes (3rd) and all the other elite women who made it a race to remember. Port to Port organisers deserve a big thank you. We can’t wait for both Cape to Cape later this year and Port to Port 2017!