At a time when our friends and family were lamenting the freezing days, relentless rain and general misery related to current weather that we left behind, we were slapping on sunscreen, shaking the glorious red dust off our clothes and cruising around in flip flops trying to stay hydrated. The best part about the Reef to Reef might just be the time of year that it occurs, August. Well, it's also a good event, too, we just loved the winter escape so much the memories are still so vivid now that we're wearing too many layers again with the heater on.
August sucks to be a bike rider in Australia unless you live way up north or you’re into those weird indoor things where you ride around going nowhere, through an artificial landscape in a fake hyper-coloured world with lots of numbers and computer-generated people that look like robotic mannequins from Alex The Kid. Everyone is different, and I know this online place exists because I tried it once.
Reef to Reef is a four-day stage race in lush and lovely Tropical North Queensland, and we were there to wave our cameras around. A part of the well-oiled events Port to Port, Cape to Cape and more recently under the umbrella of the Epic Series which comprises of The Pioneer in Queenstown, NZ, Swiss Epic and the mighty Cape Epic in South Africa. These events are gaining in size and prestige but manage to retain the chill vibes and laid-back atmosphere. From our perspective, as photographers and storytellers, we appreciate how these events are about the destination first, and the competition tends to come second.
There’s a reason they are in iconic tourist destinations – Margaret River, Hunter Valley and Newcastle, Cairns and Port Douglas… It makes for an exciting place to travel to, ride your bike, they’re wonderfully photogenic, and when the day’s events are done, you’re able to soak in what the region has to offer — a nice balance.
We’ve seen a shift away from the traditional Olympic distance cross country races, fewer people at state and national level races and even the massive 24-hour races have seen their heyday. While the multi-day race format, in pairs, in epic locations are so hot right now.
Riding the battleground for the UCI Rainbow Stripes in iconic Cairns.
SMITHFIELD MTB PARK
The most renown trails in Cairns – Smithfield MTB Park – has played host to some of Australia’s biggest races. World Cups and World Champs in the mid-nineties, and two incredible World Cup rounds and the sensational World Champs in 2017. Rolling into the venue brought back strong memories of tramping around the spooky jungle, trapped in vines, searching for shoes in thick mud, star-struck interviews with superstars and long evenings in the media tent surrounded by international media.
The racing this place has seen is terrific, and to ride on the exact trails that World Champs have done is a bit of a treat. Prologue style, riders of the Reef to Reef went off in pairs into the dense jungle with snaking red singletrack and super-challenging technical features with multiple line options. This place is world-class.
Down Jacobs Ladder, whooping along Catterpillers, and up to an entirely new climb and down a thrilling descent called Pipeline – which was clearly blowing peoples minds – the riders would spread out and find their rhythm. The heat was pretty intense, and shade was sparse, but during the presentation, the sun would dip behind the mountain range behind us and riders would pull on the leader’s jerseys as temperatures cooled.
Paul and Neil van der Ploeg and Ready Aim Media bring the moving pictures to your screens right here:
Austere landscapes, giant anthills, river crossings, dust and ancient cycads.
DAVIES CREEK MTB PARK
Up high on the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns is a unique part of the country, the lush and fertile tableland is bustling with fruit farms, cane fields, and classic QLD agricultural scenes. There are great trails, too!
Davies Creek MTB Park is a labyrinth of purpose-built singletrack that winds through an ever-changing landscape and vegetation types. It feels nothing like Cairns, often a few degrees cooler too but not on this day. The sparse canopy and baked dry trails would provide quite a challenge for the riders, with respite from a couple of water crossings to cool the feet.
Slalom through the giant anthills, take A-lines up and over huge granite slabs, pump through dried creek crossings and watch riders snaking the singletrack below you on wonderfully flowing and fast turns. The Davies Creek stage was a good day on the bike for the singletrack fans, and for our cameras too, it was a treat to photograph riders in the unique and austere landscape.
As any photographer would do the same, we were poised for action at a flowing freshwater creek crossing ready to yell “ride it, it’s rideable, I promise” as the leaders came into view. Some rode it, some didn’t and washed most of their chain lube off, but the photos were great and worth it all!
Catch up on more from Stage 2 here:
Endless sugar cane fields, jungle mud bog surprises, and circling eagles overhead.
If you’re from one of the major cities like us, Mount Molloy feels like a movie set from an old Australian film where wide-eyed fruit-picking backpackers from the northern hemisphere find romance with farmers that drive tractors and they lose themselves in tropical heat hysteria and never leave. It’s quite a place to explore, where red dust clings to the work utes, fruit trees hang over the roads, and the old timber pubs are as Australian as they come.
The third day of Reef to Reef saw riders ride past cattle farms, cane fields and dive headfirst into the dense jungle. Before the start, we heard whisperings of sections of the track in the rainforest section that had retained a lot of water from wet weather a few weeks prior. Despite the searing blue skies and dry start location, it was going to be muddy in there!
Ripping about on an e-MTB we were able to scoot ahead of the race and lie in wait for riders to hit the first section of bog. Like spectators baying for blood in a tough segment of cobbles in the Paris Roubaix, we lay in wait for the swamp to swallow un unsuspecting mountain biker.
We would have to wait for carnage just a little longer, as disappointingly the yellow jersey wearers would come into view, spot the danger and swiftly scoot around it safely. Boring… Patience paid off, and boom, the bog of surprises took down an unsuspecting rider in spectacular fashion – landing safely on the soft mud of course – to a roar of laughter from his supportive comrades. Onwards they would go, deeper into the jungle, capturing glimpses of the coast far down below.
This stage allowed riders to ride in packs, drafting each other along the fast and open roads through the farmland and spin the legs out from the tough day of winding endless singletrack the day before.
A bar set up at the finish would play host to many yarns and war stories, as riders readied for the final day ahead.
Reef to Reef with Paul on the microphone #3 here:
Rainforest, Rural, Reef. Down from the Tablelands to the beach, a spot of sunburnt tourist slalom, a finish medal and a beer!
MOUNT MOLLOY TO PORT DOUGLAS, THE TRIPLE-R CLASSIC
Woohoo, down we go! If you’re a mountain biker from the Cairns region, you’re most likely to have done the Triple-R at some stage in the impressively long 29-year history. It’s an icon, centred around the Bump Track and a dash along the sand to Port Douglas Surf Club.
The fourth and final stage of the Reef to Reef combines with the long-serving Triple-R that would leave after the Reef to Reefers. Swelling in size, the amount of riders on Sunday is epic! Following the familiar faces from the first three days on xc race bikes, are a total mixed bag of bikes and bodies, matching tropical outfits and often an apparent detachment from the actual race.
The Bump Track is not a world-class singletrack descent built by the best trail builders with lots of time and money. It is an age-old descent that plummets down from the escarpment to sea level. Originally an Aboriginal track to access the mountains, and also an access track during the mining and logging industry it has some history and more recently some wild moments as riders would hurtle down the graded fire-road descent over dozens of water bars dodging treacherous ‘wait-a-while’ vines on the sidelines. If you don’t go flying over the bars, you’ll make it to the beach for the 5km run to the line on the hardpacked sands of Four Mile Beach.
With a generous tailwind, the final 4km was easy! Finishing on the beach after dodging dozens of sunbathers, yoga classes, frisbees, bikinis and coconuts is pretty amazing, the feeling of elation and accomplishment was written across riders salty faces, and there was so much hugging and kissing from family and friends there to support.
Reef to Reef is complete for the year, as the big team of staff and volunteers packed away the big roadshow and riders lay on the grass to knock back a few celebratory beers we uploaded a few thousand epic photos from a great few days. Flicking back through the images, it was clear to see the diversity of places, people, and bulk backlit beer photos. Ah, yes.
Cheers to the crew, riders and QLD weather, we miss you!
Paul’s wrap from day four and more!
Cheers to the crew, riders and QLD weather, we miss you!