No matter how much you think you’re used to it, getting woken up by an alarm clock is always a bit horrible. The sudden shock as it bursts rudely into your slumber is never pleasant, reminding you that you’ve got somewhere to be, something to do. As much as we’d all love to sleep until our body has had its fill, it ain’t going to happen – that’s the reality of the world we live in.
Mountain bike stage racing can be a little bit similar; one minute, you’re in heaven, the next, you’re slapped in the face by the reality of the challenge ahead.
Stage 3 of the Port to Port MTB played that scenario out perfectly. The day got underway amongst the beautiful rolling slopes of Mt Bright, at Briar Ridge Vineyard. With morning mist clumped in the nooks of the gullies, it was an idyllic setting and we’re sure that many a rider would’ve been happy to park up until the cellar door opened. But the rude awakening was coming up fast, in the shape of a four kilometre-long, granny gear grind to the ridgeline high above. Good morning, it’s time to get to work!
The silver lining? With the shock of the initial climb out of the way, the rest of the stage trended downwards, including one section of the Great North Walk that was particularly cheese grater-esque. After yesterday’s roll in the mud, the course director had decided some reprieve was needed, and the call was made to chop 10km of particularly squishy jeep trail out of the stage.
What remained was 53km of rolling, sometimes rutted, super-fast single and double-track, with a trail surface that constantly morphed underneath your treads. One moment you were humming along on hardpack, the next you were surfing the bike as the wheels shimmied in a patch of greasy clay.
Much like stage one, where last-minute line choice in the sand was critical, today’s stage kept you second-guessing – do you risk riding through the puddle (some of which could swallow a 29” wheel whole), or skirt around it? Do you commit to railing that rut in the knowledge it might disappear into a gully, or try to ride the crown of the trail?
The Elite field didn’t seem to be troubled by those kinds of questions, maintaining an incredible average speed that saw the men hammer through the stage in well under two hours, before flying into the dramatic, eclectic and slightly eerie Richmondvale Rail Museum.
Once more, Jenny Fay rode away from the other Elite women and wasn’t to be seen again, leaving Em Parkes and Imogen Smith to duke it out in her wake. This time it was Imogen who had the upper hand, capitalising on her recent climbing form to turn the screws early in the stage and stay away from the young Parkes.
In the men’s field, a youthful train of Torq riders drove the pace, but race leader Andy Blair wasn’t about to be broken by their efforts. Still, as they say, it ain’t over until the heavily-set lady sings; within the final kilometre, the claggy clay got the better of Andy Blair’s drivetrain. With his derailleur locked up, Blair was forced to run, carry and scoot, in full-blown harm minimisation mode, after the Torq trio of Chris Hamilton, Tasman Nankervis and Benny Forbes and who painted all three podium spots bright orange.
For Blair, it was a very tough break. Andy has been racing mountain bikes for longer than many of the Torq riders have been alive (yes, literally), but all that experience can count for nought when Lady Luck flips you the bird. But that’s racing, and now suddenly the whole game has shifted dramatically.
Blair’s lead has been savagely chopped to 28 seconds, an amount that would be a healthy buffer in most circumstances, but not when you’re short on teammates. With Shaun Lewis by his side as a fellow Swell/Specialized rider, Blair will need to rally some other riders to his corner to help him ward off combined firepower of the huge Torq contingent eager to deliver Chris Hamilton (or as Blair called him, “the motor bike with legs”) the win in the inaugural Port to Port MTB.
Stage 4, Super Sunday, will roll out from Cams Wharf at beautiful Lake Macquarie tomorrow, before threading through the singletrack of Glenrock and into Newcastle. See you at Nobbys Beach, where the first king and queen of Port to Port will be crowned.