Back in the early days, mountain bikers in Carins were a different breed to riders everywhere else in Australia. Their uniqueness was never more evident than in 1990 when all eight Cairns Mountain Bike Club members packed up the Tarago and set sail for the Australian Mountain Bike Championships in Stromlo.
“We’d been practising for a month or two before we decided to go. We’d been cutting our seat posts down so the seat would sit right on the frame, and we were going down the steepest stuff we could find,” says Glen Jacobs.
We got there, and the downhill was on a dirt road, and we’ve gone oh shit, this is downhill?” he laughs.
The motley crew from Tropical North Queensland were left asking, is this it? Is this what mountain biking is?
“Some locals were saying to us, well, what do you ride? And Glen says, ‘if the trees can grow on it, we’ll ride down it,'” says Peter Blakey, who was also on the trip.
According to Blakey, Glen pointed out a spot in the forest that resembled the terrain they were riding in Cairns, and their bluff was called.
“So we all carried our bikes up and showed them how to ride something steep,” laughs Blakey.
Even now, Cairns is a far away and somewhat isolated place. So when mountain bikes arrived in Tropical North Queensland, nobody was around to tell this crew how to use them, so they forged their own path — if you don’t believe us, type Mud Cows into Google. When it came time for these same riders to plan a cross-country event, it’s no surprise they came up with something a little bit different from the norm.
2022 marks the 30th year of the Triple R Mountain Bike Challenge, or the RRR, which is now the final day of The Reef to Reef. The point-to-point race from Mount Molloy to the Port Douglas Surf Club has gone from an event attended by maybe twenty people, to something riders come out of the woodworks to enter.
The beginning of the RRR
There are differing stories of who first had the idea to ride from Mount Molloy, down The Bump Track and onto the beach at Port Douglas, but by the time the first group from the Cairns Mountain Bike Club hit the sand, they already knew this was going to become something.
“I remember coming off the bottom of The Bump Track with Glen. In those days, Glen never went anywhere without this video camera attached to his fist, and we were riding along talking about starting it as a race and what could we call it,” says Blakey.
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“Well, it starts up in the farms and rural area, and then we go through the rain forest, and we end up at Port Douglas. Over the next few kilometres, we would have come up with the Triple R, which was Rural, Rainforest, Reef,” he says.
So in 1991, the Cairns Mountain Bike Club proudly presented the Triple R Pub to Pup Sprint, which went from the pub in Mount Malloy and finished at the pub in Port Douglas. Jeremy Watts was a teenager back in those days, and he won the first edition of the race.
“It was a Le Mans start across from the pub, where all the boys got a bit towelled up the night before,” Watts laughs. “I remember it was a mad dash for the bikes, and then there was this bridge at the bottom of the road on the main highway, but you didn’t go across that. They sent us across this little cattle causeway that was like 10-metres upstream. So it was like 40-plus riders all trying to bottleneck into a single lane — it was carnage.”
In the early days of the race, the RRR was what you could describe as grassroots.
“The first year, we had to go through properties, but we weren’t allowed to open the gates, so you had to stop and jump over,” laughs Glen Jacobs. “I remember one year we forgot to check the tide times, and by the time we got down to the beach, it was high bloody tide. There was only a few feet of sand between the coconut trees and the water — and the sand was really soft.”
Rural Rainforest Reef
While bits and pieces of the course have changed over the years, the overall route has remained true to form, with The Bump Track serving as the piece de resistance. The route runs straight down the escarpment and was used by the traditional owners to access the tablelands from the coast. It’s been used for mining and timber and was the only road out of Port Douglas until 1933.
During World War II, the Australian Army lined The Bump Track with mines so that if the Japanese invaded the coast, it could be blown up after the evacuation was complete to prevent the foreign Army from following. The area was never invaded, but the mines were detonated anyway.
Parks only graded the road and added water bars fairly recently, and back in the early days of the RRR, The Bump Track was much wilder than it is today— and folks were descending it on GT Zazkars and Klein Rascals.
“Back then, once you went through the creek and got onto the (Bump Track) descent, it was six-foot guinea grass and a little goat trail you could barely see. And it was rough; people were coming off everywhere,” said Michael ‘Normie’ Norman, who first raced the RRR in 1996 and ran the race in the early 2000s.
“My first one, I crashed quite a few times. The brakes stopped working, and you literally had to crash because you were picking up too much speed, and the only way to slow down was to throw yourself into the grass,” he laughs.
In those early days, you were on your own. They would put a marshal at the top of The Bump Track and at the bottom, and that was it. Nobody had radios or GPS; you just had to follow the arrows.
“I remember one year when we came off the bottom of The Bump and into the canefields — some of which had been harvested. You’d be riding along a headland, and you’d look across the field and see someone else on another headland riding in the opposite direction. I remember thinking am I going the wrong way, or is he going the wrong way,” says Blakey.
The race is evolving
In 1993 the RRR was a national round in the Australian Cross Country Championships.
“It was the only point-to-point they’ve ever had. Traditionally cross country they go round and round, but the Australian Mountain Bike Association (which was the governing body at that time), said you know what, why don’t we give it a go? And it was fantastic, a load of people turned up, it was a huge race,” says Jacobs.
From there the RRR continued to grow, and in the mid-90s, when the World Cup and then the World Champs came to town, the race was handed off to a new committee in the Cairns Mountain Bike Club, because the likes of Jacobs and Blakey had their lives taken over trying to organise an event for the UCI.
But every year, the field was getting bigger, and it had passed the threshold where they could get away with running it on the down low.
“We were always making sure that we were doing the right thing. Most of the course is on public areas, but down in Port Douglas, we had to traverse people’s back yards, and as the town grew, we had to find different ways to get to the beach. Some years you were riding on the streets in Port Douglas. One year we ended up on the golf course, and another year we ended up going through the back of a retirement village — the residents were a bit confused about what was going on,” says Norman.
The race continued to grow, so everything had to be above board, but it was still a grassroots event at heart.
“We had to apply for permits based on how many riders we expected, but early on, if we hit that number, we’d still take more on the day if people wanted to ride. But one year, we got pinged because there was someone at the top of The Bump Track with a clicker counting riders.
We got a thing saying that we were over, and I just replied, ‘did every one of those bikes have a number plate? It’s an open road, and people are welcome to ride The Bump whenever they want, but if you’d counted number plates, there would have only been X amount,” he laughs.
According to Blakey, the event came of age around the 20th year, when the field jumped from 200 riders up to over 400. It was this year the race earned enough clout to organise bike giveaways, heli-tours, and thousands of dollars of gear from sponsors. This is also around the time that USM came along and would eventually take over the race, before being sold to Ironman.
“I’m always amazed how many people come back every year. I mean, The Bump is great, and the beach is spectacular, but you can ride the course at pretty much any time. But a lot of people choose just to do it for the Triple R. There are some people, the only mountain bike ride they do for the entire year is the Triple R,” says Norman.
30 years of the Triple R
The RRR is the longest-running point-to-point mountain bike race in Australia, and we could fill an entire book with the tales of races won and lost. From riders orchestrating ties because they couldn’t drop each other on Four Mile Beach; to big crashes and folks getting lost; and even a rowdy group of Ringers making fun of Chris Kovarik’s ute, chanting ‘show pony truck,’ outside the pub until 4 am, the night before the race.
In its 30-year history, there have been a few times it hasn’t run for reasons other than Covid. In 2012, 400m of rain fell the night before the race was supposed to start, making the creek crossing before The Bump Track more than 20ft deep. Another year, the event had to run as a ‘social ride’ instead of a race, but nobody seems to remember why. And then there was the time the pointy end of the field made it to the Port Douglas Surf Club before the race organisers.
There have been a few years there was a DH category, where only The Bump Track was timed, and a big group of folks rode the whole thing on double crown behemoths.
The results sheets are littered with names you’ll recognise, from downhillers like Michael Ronning, to XC marathoners Abby McLennan and David Wood — who won it at least five times.
Regardless of whether you’re at the pointy end of the field or the last one on the sand, the RRR is an adventure, and it’s easily one of the most diverse courses we’ve ever ridden.
“The feeling when you get to the finish, and it’s a beautiful day, you’re sitting in the water, with a beer. You can see where you came from in the mountains, and it was so obscure and so different. It just adds that layer of mountain biking and what bikes allow you to do,” says Jacobs.
“Once you get out on the beach, it’s just amazing. You can see the finish, so you cruise along, and it takes about 20-minutes, and there is always a tailwind,” says Norman.
The Triple R has taken up residence as the finale to the Reef to Reef multi-day stage race, but you can also sign up to just ride the historical event if that takes your fancy.
For more info on The Reef to Reef, check out our race preview. Or, if you’re keen to don a number for the 30th Triple R, head over to The Reef to Reef website.
See you there for the big 30 celebrations!
Photos: Michael ‘Normie’ Norman, Flow MTB