“I’m normally in Europe at this time of the year,” laughed stage winner Holly Harris. “But tell me, where would you rather be? In the mud and cold of Germany, or here in a vineyard, in the sun, watching the hot air balloons drift over the Hunter Valley?” Good point, Holly, it doesn’t get better.
For its fifth birthday, Port to Port MTB the best possible present – the kind of drop-dead gorgeous Autumn that mountain bikers dream of. There was a lot to look forward to for the 500 or so riders who rolled out in the golden light at Pokolbin this morning. Port to Port MTB has had a big reshuffle; the former opening stage at Port Stephens has been ditched, with the race now commencing in the Hunter Valley, at Pokolbin. With the change comes a new course too. The 43km opening stage is an out-and-back layout – there’s still that daunting, long climb first up (good morning!) but the pay-off is a generous loop of fresh singletrack, followed by a wild descent back to the valley floor.
The new singletrack was a highlight. Formed by years of motorbike riders, it’s unique to ride: the type of singletrack motos like best is fast, straight and predictable. For us, that means hang on tight and let loose! Undulating alongside the fire road, the narrow singletrack gave the backside some rest as it was time to get out of the saddle and pump through the bone-dry terrain. Place your front wheel in the ruts and rail it like you’re on a moto and you were rewarded with more of the same a couple pf metres later.
On the fire roads the elevation dropped like a hot potato down to the valley below, with a top speed of over 82 km/hr at one point, madness! We can’t recall where we’ve reached speeds like that before. Plummeting down while scanning the road ahead for the best line, the wide fire roads became a lightspeed blur, hurtling you towards the finish as fast as you dared.
Over the final few kays of a warm and sunny day we were treated to iconic Hunter Valley scenes, like something out of a tourism brochure. With a backstage pass for us lucky mountain bikers we meandered along gravel roads through the heart of functioning vineyards, farmers waving from the back of tractors, the whole enchilada.
For most riders out there today, it was all about survival and sunshine, but for the fast mob at the pointy end, it was a real showdown. Cam Ivory, the hometown hero, had a target on his back. He’s the most in-form cross country rider in Australia right now, collecting three National Championship titles this season, and many were predicting an epic battle between himself and defending Port to Port champ Brendan Johnston.
But Michael Potter and Tasman Nankervis were playing for keeps too, lighting up the long climb, and dropping the two favourites before the summit. Remarkably, it was Michael Potter’s first time on a mountain bike since September, after going full time on the road bike. “Ha, I found out today that I can’t ride singletrack anymore,” said Potter. In contrast, Ivory grew up ripping around the raw trails of the region, and he rode the wheels off in the dusty, weaving singletrack, reclaiming the lead. “In the dust, I just wanted to get into the lead, so I could see where I was going,” laughed Ivory.
His break didn’t last long though, with Brendan Johnston bridging back across on the descent, and forming the foursome who’d ultimately sprint it out for the line. Ivory, Potter, Nankervis and Johnston: just six seconds separates these top four places, so things are wide open now, heading into stage two at Killingworth. The pressure will be on Ivory on his home turf. “Killi is where I first started mountain biking, racing clubies in my board shorts and Dunlop volleys. It’s a pretty special place for me.”
Holly Harris, took the win in the women’s racing by a solid six minutes today, and she was clearly buzzing after her first ever taste of Port to Port. “Look at this! It’s so chilled out, like a mountain bike holiday, not a race,” she said while sprawled on the grass of Audrey Wilkinson vineyard. Jess Simpson had a great day out, finishing in second place, “I loved the singletrack, I had a ball.” Defending champ Kathryn McInerney is a further three minutes back, in third.