Regardless of where you sit in the whole nature vs nurture debate, it's undeniable that at least to some degree we are a product of our environment. That fact certainly helps explain why Cairns mountain bikers are such a mad bunch. If you're going to take to the trails in a jungle that's crawling with snakes, spiders and plants that promise to leave you in agony, you're either a fairly wild kind of character already, or you'll quickly become one!
The colourful Cairns mountain bike crew deserve a lot credit for the fantastic state of Australian mountain biking today. Back in the 1990s, up in the rainforests of the Kuranda range, a wild bunch on mountain bikes began blazing their own trail. They were developing mountain biking in their own sweaty microcosm, not caring a damn about how the sport was shaping up in other parts of the world. This was Cairns mountain biking; raw, slippery, fun and independent.
Soon enough the antics of the Great Cairns Hill Tribe began to capture the attention and the imagination of riders across the country and the world. Word and vision of just how far the Cairns crew were pushing the limits of mountain biking began to trickle out, and along with it an awareness of what an incredible haven of trails this mob had created. Eventually even the UCI caught wind, bringing the World Cup and World Champs to Cairns in 1994 and 1996. Suddenly Cairns was on the mountain bike world map. In this pressure cooker, talented riders blossomed; Kovarik, Hannah, Ronning and many others, all rising to the top of World stage and cementing the status of Cairns as a leading international mountain bike destination.
But then in the early 2000s, things went off the boil, and the Cairns scene went a little quite. It continued to simmer away until quite recently, when a concerted effort by riders, local authorities and mountain bike luminaries thrust Cairns and its surrounds back to the forefront of Australian and international mountain biking once again. In quick succession we saw the revitalisation of the legendary Smithfield trails, huge new trail developments at Atherton (just up the road from Cairns) and the announcement that Cairns had secured a World Cup round AND the World Champs – all our Christmases at once!
What locals are keen to emphasise now, is that Cairns itself is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to riding in the tropical north. In addition to the Smithfield trails, you’ve got Atherton, Mareeba, the Cassowary Coast, Port Douglas and a million different hidden trails in between, all within a couple of hours drive from one another.
Given we’d be in town already for the World Cup, the opportunity to explore the region was simply too good to miss. So we packed the bikes, rustled up some Hawaiian shirts and bug spray and hit the trails. First up on our itinerary, Smithfield! No sooner had the course marshals removed the bunting, than we were delving into the jungle to rip it up on the red clay.
Smithfield is the ultimate place to start any riding trip in the Cairns region. Not only is the closest trail centre to Cairns itself, but the trails are signposted, mapped and graded, so it’s practically impossible to get lost and find yourself a victim of the Minjin (local mythical mountain panther).
Given that Glen Jacobs was the driving force in the revitalisation of these trails, it’s no surprise that you feel like you’re carving through the vines on a hoverboard – these are classic flow trails for the most part, with a mesmerising rhythm, punctuated by the occasional A-line that requires you to really think about where you want to put your wheels.
There’s more than enough riding here for a full day of singletrack; get your fill, then head into town for some people watching by the lagoon – that’s our second favourite activity in Cairns!
Just north of Cairns lies the honeymooner’s paradise of Port Douglas. It’s the kind of place where you could easily spend way too much time; most of the ‘locals’ we met had blown in from some far-flung corner of the globe and found themselves mysteriously stuck seven years later.
For mountain bikers, Port Douglas is home to the brake-cooking Bump Track descent, plus a bunch of rough and raw trails that lead you to some fairly special swimming holes – with the range teetering over the coastline, there are innumerable magic spots where water cascades down cliff faces and into deep, clear pools. The trick is knowing where to find them! We joined up with local guide Tom Dayshe of Bike ‘n’ Hike tours to worm our way through the forest and unearth some of these gems. When you’ve cooked your legs on Smithfield’s trails in the morning, this is absolutely magic.
For more information about all the riding in and around Cairns, check out www.ridecairns.com.