Today, for the third time, Port to Port MTB rolled out of Nelson Bay, with over 500 riders embarking on a full-throttle 33km sprint through the National Park surrounding Port Stephens. It’s a hell of a way to kick off the race – blasting past beaches, ripping into seriously unique trails, the loose go-with-flow sandy style of riding now synonymous with Port to Port.
Conditions were chilly, and little grey, but the brief morning drizzle was actually a bit of a blessing for riders, firming up the sand a touch, making for super fast conditions out on course. And fast it was – the speed of riders jostling for the first climb out the neutral rolling start was insane. Some riders kept that pace a little too enthusiastically, with the first descent claiming a few victims in spectacular style, one of whom got a ride in a Westpac Careflight helicopter – sending you healing vibes, mate!
Numbers are up, with a massive 40% increase on 2015, and the strongest looking elite field we’ve seen since the event’s launch, especially amongst the women. Casting an eye across the front rows of the huge start crowd, it was clearly going to be a great day of racing.
Samara Sheperd wasted no time in forging a strong lead over the other women early. “Samara got a good gap pretty early, but amongst the next six or seven women it was a really good battle,” said Briony Mattocks.”It’s going to make for a really good few days of racing.” Mattocks, a marathon specialist, was happy to admit the intensity of the punchy one and a half hour course really hurt, “I normally don’t warm up until 30 kays into a race, but it was over in 30 today.” The first stage might be the shortest, but it’s definitely the most intense, with the sand making you feel like you’re working twice as hard. The sand also makes the descents a hell of a lot of fun, surfing and carving, keeping a light touch.
Second place was nabbed by Imogen Smith, who is carrying a pretty serious back injury at the moment and wasn’t even sure if she’d be able to race. “It’s pretty painful to ride at the moment normally, but it didn’t hurt today, it must the adrenaline,” said Smith. She managed to hold off Em Parkes, who rolled in just a few seconds behind in third after lots of back and forth battles. “There’ll be some changes in the placings over the next few days, for sure, a lot of very fresh looking women crossed the line after me – Jenni King rolled through the finish with her mouth shut, no sweat or anything!”
The Three Bears might sound like a children’s bed time story, but there’s nothing sweet about them, we promise. In Port to Port, the Three Bears is the name given to a trio of basically impossible climbs mid-way through the race, and today it was the site of some action that blew the men’s race apart.
Former Port to Port champion Andy Blair knew from experience that a race can be very easily decided in a hike-a-bike section (it’s how he opened up his winning lead against Chris Hamilton in Port to Port 2014), and he’d laid plans to launch his attack over the crest of the final Bear. But it didn’t work out. “I just jumped off my bike to run, which was my plan to break the group on the climb, and my foot slipped out on some gravel and over-extended my shoulder,” explained Blair. His shoulder was briefly dislocated, leaving him on the ground trying to calmly get it all back in place, and his race plans in tatters. With Blair out of contention (and unlikely to rejoin the race for the next three stages) the other heavy hitters launched their own attacks.
Paul Van Der Ploeg’s attempt was not a success either. “Over the final of the Three Bears, I tried to open up a gap on the descent, but all I managed to do was attack my rear tyre with a rock, and the rock won,” laughed Van Der Ploeg. “I then tried to do the slowest, most awkward tyre change known to man – I blew up a canister at one point, then debated with myself about putting in a tube or try to get it seal up. With my tyre deflated, my motivation was also deflated, so I just rode in with the cool kids in baggy shorts.”
Tristan Ward waited until the final kilometre to have a crack of his own, sprinting away from the lead bunch of five and making his attack stick, grabbing the win. In the words of Shaun Lewis, who came in second, “Tristan always animates a race – he’ll either animate it and win, or he’ll animate it and blow up, but either way it’s good for the event.” When quizzed about this, Ward told us, “I like racing my bike, not just riding. Riding up hills isn’t fun, you’ve got to race up hills!” It’s a technique that worked today, but it’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out on the longer, slow-burner stages of the Friday and Saturday.
You could have thrown a blanket over the four riders who sprinted in behind Ward; Shaun Lewis, Rohin Adams, Reece Tucknott and Jason English had just a second between all four riders. Adams was clearly stoked to have finished in such a high placing, telling us “It’s a surprise but I’ll take it!” With no clear favourite, it’s very much anyone’s race, but Lewis did have some thoughts that Jason English may be the one to watch, saying, “English is a fox. Don’t listen to people who say he’s only good over 24hrs – he can climb, he can descend, he can race any format.”
As much as we enjoyed watching the battle amongst the elites today, our biggest smiles were for mother and daughter Raynie and Alysha Mcnee from Canberra, who said they “rode through ten years worth of sand in the last two hours” before mum out-sprinted daughter on the finish!
Tomorrow’s stage has a very different style of riding – departing Lindeman’s winery in the Hunter Valley it takes in over 1000m of climbing on a huge loop around Pokolbin, before finishing up for some well earned vinos at Briar Ridge. See you there!
A Rider’s Perspective, with Briony Mattocks
After weeks of prolonged warmth and sunshine in NSW, it was natural that come race day, the weather would turn. Today started with riders cowering in large jackets and taking shelter under the DRIFT Bikes tent (which has its own mobile Parts Bath OMG!) as the sporadic showers passed through. Sitting in my slightly damp knicks on the start line, trying not to think about being cold, we were kept well amused by the event MCs as we waited for the flag.
The neutral zone was reminiscent of a road racing peloton, with riders everywhere fighting for the prized position right behind the car, with the odd touch of wheel and the joyful tickle of a handlebar in your backside (thanks Tristan Ward!). The end of the neutral zone actually crept up on me a bit – I found myself suddenly pedalling like hell wishing I had bigger gears (or faster legs) in an attempt to keep a good position before the first bit of single-track.
Shooting up an inside line (lucky slingshot, but let’s pretend I planned it), we started the first of many loose and sandy climbs. While I was climbing well, my incessant need to sit 3 inches from a wheel on the flatter stuff brought me unstuck twice, as I failed to react quick enough and ended up practically upside down in some of the deeper sandpits (just needed a spade and a bucket).
While Samara Shepherd, Imogen Smith and Em Parkes had streaked ahead, there was a good back and forward fight between the next group of women, with placings going back and forth with every challenging climb and tricky descent. The “3 Bears” (three super steep and loose climbs) very much lived up to their reputation, as we clambered up on foot, doing our best superman impressions at the top to get back on our bikes and hurtle down the other side.
Only 30km, Stage 1 proved to be super quick. After the final 1km on the shoreline (so nice), Shepherd would dominate and take the stage. However with only small time gaps right across the top 10 women riders, we are in for some very exciting racing over the next few days!