Mick recounts his epic week at the Reef to Reef
“Who’s that silly guy wearing long pants? He must have juuuust stepped off the plane.”
I arrived in Cairns for the third running of the Reef to Reef MTB, and I was delighted to be there. Leaving a very damp and dreary wintery Newcastle behind me, the weight of winter fatigue was heavy. So, feeling the warm air on my skin and seeing the lush tropical landscapes and friendly faces lining up for registration at the brewery ahead of the evening before the event kicked off felt bloody fantastic and uplifting.
The Reef to Reef is the newest in the Epic Series, following the popular four-day format of the Cape to Cape, WA and the Port to Port, NSW. From Cairns to Port Douglas via the Atherton Tablelands, the R2R is a sensational event. Designed for the intermediate rider, though there is a competitive element at the pointy end, it’s super chilled out, highly organised and a lot of fun. It’s all about the location, location, location; Tropical North QLD at its best.
It was my second time photographing the R2R, but my work at Flow has taken me to the region many times. Initially, it was racing downhill in the early 2000s for a round of the National Series. After my ‘retirement’ from racing, I would return many times with the camera, documenting the colourful region as a mountain bike destination. From Mission Beach down south to Cairns, up and around the Tablelands and north to Port Douglas.
Then came the World Cup and World Championships, a career highlight for an Australian mountain bike journo, seeing Smithfield play host to the most significant race in the world. Standing at the R2R event centre, the memories of the crowds, the electric atmosphere and the international superstar competition was unforgettable.
The nostalgia of being in Cairns and excitement for the week ahead was real; it was time to kick off four days of ripping around the rainforests and bushland to capture the sights, vibe and feel of the 2022 R2R. So let the good times roll!
Stage one – Smithfield MTB Park, Cairns. Riding the famed World Champs race course.
The conditions were perfect. The sight of dust coming off the tyres as riders passed by was glorious; oh, we have missed dry trails!
The first day is a time trial on a short course to group riders for the following days. So if you wanted to be up the front for the singletrack on day two, riders needed to put their best foot forward on day one.
Disappearing into the rainforest, the course is short but punchy, with meandering climbs leading you into epic flowing descents.
My mode of transport was a new Specialized Levo from Pump’ N Pedals (cheers, dudes!), so I felt right at home as I rode around the course. I shot the first few riders off the start, then punched it up the long climb, deeeeeep into the greenery to await the lead riders at the top of the climb. The terrain is mad, dripping with greenery and lushness. I love this place.
Stage two – Davies Creek, an austere landscape with flowing singletrack
Above Cairns is a unique part of Tropical North QLD, the Atherton Tablelands. Generally a few degrees cooler than Cairns and without the humidity, I have enjoyed travelling the Tablelands over the years. The old timber pubs, waterfalls, fresh produce and great trails make it worth visiting, and for many mountain bikers, the opportunity to see the region during an event is exceptional.
The drive between Cairns and Davies Creek is part of the charm; as we set off early before sunrise, we caught a glimpse of the sun peeking over the horizon as we passed the start of the iconic Kuranda DH track overlooking the city of Cairns. It was going to be a long day, but a great one!
A chilly morning greeted riders as they readied for a day out on the trails; the sun broke through the eucalypts and quickly warmed the landscape. The long lines to the loo were added to the pre-race nerves ahead of the start.
With two of us shooting, Tim Bardsley-Smith and myself, we split up to cover the day. Tim waited for the start as I bolted in ‘turbo mode’ to the singletrack descent to catch the elites shredding the excellent stuff. It paid off, and I snapped epic shots of the lead riders tipping into the fast turns and flowing through the glowing green undergrowth.
Making my way further into the course, I came across the most energetic and well-dressed volunteer marshals I’d ever seen! The vibes were pumping from discos to cheerleaders to rainbow-clad 90’s aerobic outfits! Then, in the middle of nowhere, you could hear the loud cheers of support, and they were still at it, giving 100% as I passed by again on my way back to the finish. Thanks for bringing the good cheers, folks!
Riders were moving quickly through the trails; the dry and open fire roads split up sections of fast-rolling singletrack, dotted with creek crossings and perhaps a sighting of a meandering cow. Finally, I found a large dam out the back of the course, a proper oasis in the dry and austere landscape; it was beautiful! With lilies floating on the surface, and the mountains behind, I could have sat there for hours enjoying the contest between the landscapes.
With little phone reception, riders mingled at the finish, trading stories and washing bikes before heading back to the brewery in Smithfield for the presentation and more beer, of course.
Stage three – Mount Molloy, a taste of rural QLD, plus rainforests and ruts.
Mount Molloy is a quirky place and about as QLD as it comes. It feels like stepping back in time in a tiny old rural timber and mining town. So much that the same fellow in a cowboy hat was at the bar, same as last year, priceless.
The longest day of the event takes in a wide variety of terrain; this day is predominantly on farm tracks, moto trails and fire roads, so it was time to form a pack and hunt down the miles while enjoying the scenery.
Another brisk morning warmed up quickly once the sun burst through the mist; riders left Mount Molloy on a tour of the nearby cane fields before turning into a stretch of undulating creek crossings, rut-dodging, wild horse spotting and a rollercoaster of rugged moto trails. I set off early to catch the riders in the further sections of the trails, but I messed up and overshot the moto trails. I thought my day was over, but I took the opportunity to ride amongst the riders one-handed, shooting (spraying and praying) slow-shutter motion shots, and captured the action from within.
The race took us through some remarkably lush and dense rainforest, through national parks, and back out through the cattle and sugar cane country.
Back at the event centre, the sun was beating down, riders hid from the heat under the umbrellas with a cold beer, while others rolled up to the Mount Molloy Hotel for a dose of rural QLD culture and a very salty hamburger.
Stage four – Down the Bump Track and a dash on the sand to finish.
Each day at the Reef to Reef is vastly different; despite the third and fourth days sharing a start line at Mount Mollo, it’s an entirely new day for the riders and our cameras. Day four also means it’s the RRR (Rural, Rainforest, Reef), celebrating its 30th running; the oldest point-to-point MTB race in Australia adds a whole lotta fresh legs to the crowd of riders. The RRR is just one day, and set off after the Reef to Reef, through the cane and cattle country and down the infamous Bump Track.
The words ‘Bump Track’ could be heard whispered around all week, and it felt a little mysterious for those that hadn’t ridden it yet. So what is this track all about? Is it bumpy? Well, it’s not the type of track you’d fly from Melbourne to ride, but throw a few hundred riders into the mix, racing against the clock, and you’ve got yourselves a wild ride down the plateau to the beach that you won’t forget. It’s a brake-burning dash down an old logging road, with water bars to press send for the camera or soak up for safety.
I was on finish line duty for this final day, so I left trusty Tim to head up to the start and to shoot the Bump Track while I headed to the stunning Four Mile Beach for sunrise to wait for the arrival of the winners. It was another perfect day, the sun popped up, and the temps jumped from cool to ‘oh shit, where is the suncream’. I don’t know anywhere that speaks ‘holiday’ more than Port Douglas; it is such a chill vibe. Before the sun had come up, the long stretch of sand was already growing in population, with people making the most of the day. Yoga, walking, running, riding, talking, photographing, swimming. I even saw a lady and her dog paddle out to sea together; the day was done!
Time went fast, and we heard the elite riders were on the beach; we squinted in the distance. The camera was ready! Who would it be? Will Tas and Alex make it four-from-four, or will reigning champs Jon and Trekky stamp some redemption and take the final stage win?
What followed was a seemingly never-ending celebration, with hundreds of satisfied riders crossing the finish line, a steady stream of happiness! The looks on the riders’ faces were so lovely to witness, a genuine sense of achievement and satisfaction, buoyed by their supporters gathered around on the sand to welcome their friends and family to the finish with warm and fuzzy cheers.
Beers were flowing as riders lay around in the grass at Port Douglas Life Saving Club, recounting the day with friends. The presentation was swift, considering the vast amount of prizes to give out amongst the many categories. There was a celebration for the Triple Crown riders, who’d finished all three Epic Series events, Cape to Cape, Port to Port and Reef to Reef, legends.
I loved my time at R2R; getting creative behind the camera with so many subjects and settings was fun; thank you to all the folks that I jumped in their faces to take their pic. Ripping around the trails with the riders was a hoot too.
Other highlights include: the glorious Nth QLD weather in August, catching up with mates, meeting new ones, road tripping with my old mate Tim, gushing for questions with Mitch, going out for dinner with Holly, Paul, Ella, Tim, Toby, Anna, Orlagh, Alex, Karen, Mike and the whole Ironman crew, seeing Smithfield and reminiscing of the World Champs, sunrise on Four Mile Beach, swimming in Davies Creek, the stunning trails and good vibes all round.
Now, Ironman, please make a new music playlist for next year; I’ll be there. So good.
The 2023 Reef to Reef is on the calendar for 17-20 August, and entries are open now! For more info or to grab your spot, head over to the official website.