A crisp, clear Autumn morning is a pretty amazing thing, and today the Hunter Valley delivered an absolute stunner for 500 stoked Port to Port’ers. Day 2 of Port to Port has been a tough slog in previous years, wet weather making the long climbs fast descents a real test of grit and guts, but this year was glorious. Sure, the 1000-plus metres of climbing still burned, but riders came across the line dusty and grinning, not grimacing with eyes full of mud.
Stage two is is definitely a ride where you want to get into a rhythm, the frenetic madness of stage one has passed, and with two serious climbs to contend with a steady approach is needed. Find a crew of riders, work with them for a common goal. That’s not to say the stage is without its technical challenges too; the wild, raw moto singletrack is a far cry from the groomed trails that most people frequent, and the flat-out Down the Rabbit Hole descent is enough to cook your brakes. You can’t fail to mention that the stage also does happen to finish up at a winery too, and after 48km of tough riding that’s a pretty good carrot to get tired legs up the final savagely steep pinch and across the line.
The racing was once again sensational today, aggressive attacks right from the gun. Reece Tucknott lit the fuse first, stomping out a savage pace on the long opening climbing, and taking his teammate Michael Potter with him. “I was pretty happy with how strong I rode up the first part of the climb, we established a pretty good gap,” said Tucknott. His move was almost a solo effort – “It was spur of the moment stuff, we hadn’t discussed it,” admitted Potter, “he towed me the whole way up the climb.”
The yellow jersey of Tristan Ward wasn’t far behind, along with Kyle Ward and Mark Williamson, and when the race hit the ragged and tough moto singletrack high on the ridge lines above the valley, the five riders came back together. “I’m not the leanest bean pole out there,” said Ward, “so I was happy that we could keep them in sight on the climb.” Williamson came unstuck though, in the powdery conditions. “We heard some screams, someone yelling something about a tree, and then we lost Markie!” laughed Tristan Ward.
The huge chasing group stomped through the singletrack, with some experienced hammerheads driving the pace, “I love that really raw singletrack!” said Shaun Lewis, “dusty, loose, lots of different lines to pick, it’s great!”
“This is the first time I’ve ridden Port to Port, and riding singletrack blind is probably my favourite thing in mountain biking, so I was loving the moto singletrack, just trying to follow the wheels of Shaun Lewis and Dylan Cooper,” said Paul Van Der Ploeg, who then jumped on the front of the bunch to take riders down the mammoth Down the Rabbit Hole descent. “We were boosting through there!” cackled Van Der Ploeg.
At the bottom of the descent, Potter, the two Wards and Tucknott worked together, but the yellow jersey wearer was in a strong position. “I was really in the perfect position,” said Ward, “Kyle was working to get to the podium, Reece there with a team mate, I didn’t really have to do anything expect stay with the bunch. I did roll turns, but they were measured turns.”
Eventually Potter inched out a gap, on the final climb, somehow finding the legs to pick up pace. “The plan wasn’t to attack – honestly, I was sitting on the front and I just looked back and no one was on my wheel!” said Potter. His advantage was extinguished by some wild riding from Tristan Ward, who went all out on the final descent. “I was full kamikaze down the descent, foot out Valentino Rossi style, I nearly dropped it too, had the old slip ‘n’ grip!” All his candles burnt, Potter could only watch as Ward carried the momentum into the final pinch climb, and took his second stage win. It was an explosive display, Kyle Ward watched it from a few hundred metres back, saying “over that last climb Tristan just really lit it up, I think it’s the power of having the leader’s jersey, it just helps you find those few more watts! He’s going to be a hard man to beat.”
Samara Sheppard rode her own race in the Elite women’s for the second day in a row, getting into a quick bunch on the climb, but playing it safe on the descent, given her comfortable lead. “The descent was quite wild, I didn’t want to take any risks and they were just hauling down there! The rocks were pretty loose, there were a lot of punctures,” she said. Her second stage win gives Sheppard a solid lead, but it’s a long race yet, and anything can happen.
For Imogen Smith and Em Parkes, the battle continued! ” When the final climb came, Smith slipped away though. “Imogen got away on the last climb, I just had nothing,” shrugged Parkes. “The Rabbit Hole was gnarly! I could smell my brakes,” laughed Parkes, “I’m glad I put new pads in them.”
“I had a few low points today,” admitted Smith, who took another second place, “basically whenever I turned around and saw that Em Parkes was still on my wheel – there she was, a little smiling orange person! But I’m happy to take second, against Samara I’ll count second as a win,” said a philosophical Smith. “You’ve just got to respect what you can and can’t do. You’ve just got to do your best everyday, recover as well as you can, be patient and be comfortable with what you’re capable of, and hope it all comes together.”
For the top five women, and top twenty men, the racing wasn’t over – there was cash and time bonuses up for grabs at the Crowne Plaza Sundown Shootout. A flat out four-minute-ish course had been stung together around the golf course and grounds of the Hunter Valley Crowne Plaza, for an all-out individual time trial. With big time bonuses up for grabs, the potential was there to see a reshuffle at the top end – if Tucknott grabbed the win, Tristan Ward’s lead would suddenly be very slim! In the wash up, the yellow jersey’s lead stayed safe, with Kyle Ward taking the win and collecting the one-minute time bonus (and $500). Em Parkes hammered to the win in the women’s shootout, her one-minute time bonus putting her within striking distance of Imogen Smith.
Tomorrow the race heads to the Awaba Mountain Bike Park and the steep slopes of the Watagans, for the longest stage of the race, at 62km. There’s a stack on new trails awaiting riders there, so we’re looking forward to seeing what the course throws up. Join us tomorrow, same bat place, same bat channel.
A Rider’s Perspective, with Briony Mattocks
Rolling in to Lindeman’s Winery this morning, I was welcomed by clear skies, a rather cold chill in the air and a look of anxiety on the faces of those who did this stage last year. Another eventful neutral zone escorted us quickly to the base of what would be one of the highlights of the stage – a brutal 11km climb. From the base of the berg the attacks were many and frequent, meaning the race quickly spread out.
Like yesterday, positions amongst the top 10 women switched around a bit on the climb, with some girls finding good rhythm, some finding good wheels and a few hitting the wall. Some also seemingly appeared from nowhere to power past 2/3 of the way up (I’m looking at you Jenni King)! After endlessly telling myself “this must be the last corner”, we FINALLY hit a loose and dusty section of motocross trail, which served to give the legs a bit of a break. You certainly couldn’t switch off however, with some tricky ruts in places ready to claim anyone not paying enough attention (guilty).
What goes up must come down – this certainly rings true with the climb followed by a 10km descent known as the “Rabbit Hole”. While I did not spot any rabbits, there were apparently some alpacas just chilling out and I did witness some spectacular aerial gymnastics (rider was OK!). After somehow not destroying my wheel through a creek bed (thanks XTR wheels for putting up with my suspect line choice), I found myself in a group of 6 for the final road section. Working well together, the end was near. I certainly wasn’t expecting the final climb, but in a mix of anger and a desperate want to finish the stage, I attacked it out of the saddle (an extended leg press set) and crossed a moment behind Jenni King and a moment in front of Em Viotto. Samara Shepherd was once again the stage winner, extending her overall lead on GC, just ahead of Imogen Smith and Em Parkes.
The late afternoon played host to the Crown Plaza shootout – a 4min circuit completed around the golf course area of the Crown Plaza Hotel. Some open sections across the fairway were complimented by some wooded singletrack and a very unique rock garden, where the only real tactic was to go in fast and hold the hell on! I was pleased to get through without axing myself in front of the crowd OR throwing up my lunch on Tony Tucknott at the end. XCE Champ Em Parkes was simply too good and took the Women’s honours (and time bonus, which makes things quite interesting!). Kyle Ward took the Men’s title, even after sailing through the rock garden on one leg. Shout out to Paul Van Der Ploeg who, in crossing the finish line, was going quicker than any person I have ever seen on a mountain bike. I actually think he can sprint faster than most small cars can drive (and probably does more damage if he runs into something).
Crowne Plaza Sundown Shootout