Port to Port MTB, Stage 2: Down the Rabbit Hole

“I normally find the second day a lot easier,” Pete Hatton told us yesterday after bagging second place in Stage 1 of Port to Port MTB.. Well, sorry Hatto… in the case of Port to Port, day two is a whole lot harder! 

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One of the neat things about this stage race is the diversity of the places and terrain, that you take in over just a few days. No more keenly are these contrasts shown, than in the difference between stages 1 and 2. Leaving the beaches behind, stage 2 takes riders to the middle of the famous Hunter Valley. Vineyards, horse yards, towering sandstone escarpments and densely wooded forests, it’s all a far cry from the sand dunes and ice cream parlours of stage 1.

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Today’s stage had seen some tweaks in response to feedback from year one, and while the final stinging climb had been tamed, it was still a tough, but rewarding, day in the office for most. Starting right outside the cellar door at Lindeman’s, riders had to dig deep straight out of the gate, with a 12km climb up onto the ridge lines overlooking Pokolbin. Unsurprisingly, the sharp end wasted no time in sounding each other out, with the Torq team using their numerical advantage to set the pace high and test the legs of the Pete Hatton and his Trek teammates and Andy Blair.

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Through the saddle, a brief respite between the pinches of climb one and two.
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Through the moto singletrack high up above Pokolbin.

Before long, the incredible form of Mark Tupalski came to the fore, when he and teammate Tasman Nankervis established an early break and worked together perfectly, playing the chase group like a fish on the line. “We learnt last year that we can’t wait, we have to make a break early – it’s that old stereotype, you know, offense is the best defence,” said Torq’s Dean Clarke.

Recent grading of the fireroad climb might have filled in some of the most savage ruts, but it had left the top inch of soil a perfect energy-sapping consistency. Grimly set jaws, bobbing heads, grinding gears and just a bit of swearing characterised the appearance of a large chunk of the field. The pay off for the climb came with the Down the Rabbit Hole descent, a plummeting drop, churned up, wild and loose thanks to the recent rains, that had riders cooking brakes and eating fat chunks of flying mud, before hitting the valley floor.

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Reece, the face of the chase.

Surprisingly, for such strong climbers, the Down the Rabbit Hole descent played a key part in team Torq’s strategy, with Nankervis and Tupalski using the downhill to back the intensity off. Dean Clarke explains: “They were just cruising down, knowing that Blairy would have to work hard and potentially make a mistake, while they could save energy and not take too many risks. The worst thing that can happen is to have the lead and throw it away.”

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Through Cedar Creek, at the bottom of Down the Rabbit Hole.

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“We were flat out like a lizard drinking on the descent,” said Tristen Ward, one of the chase group, “Blairy was just trying to kill us!” Reece Tucknott was one of the chasers too, and thought the chase could have succeeded with a bit more cohesion. “We had a chase group of about six, and it was all working well together. Then when we started to close the gap and got close, it seemed that everyone started to attack each other, like they thought they could get across, and the chase kind of broke down. And of course the Torq guys in the chase weren’t going to do any work with their teammates out in front.”

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Spot the bunch.

“Our overall goal at the start of the day was get Tasman into second place, and managed to do that, by about 18 seconds over Hatto,” said Tupalski. “Even if the time bonuses after the shootout come into play, we should still have a few seconds, which puts the pressure on Blair and Hatto to make it happen. But Blairy’s a wiley bugger, and he’ll get stronger and stronger as the race goes on.”

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Tasman Nankervis and Mark Tupalski worked together like clockwork today.

“The difference between Blairy and these young guys, is that the youngsters can redline earlier and recover, whereas Blairy is a little older and it takes him longer to recover. But if he can get into a rhythm, then he’s very strong and that’s the risk,” said Dean Clarke.

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Mind the gap.

4Shaw rider rider Rebecca Locke, in second overall, stated yesterday that the ability to back up day after day could be the deciding factor in a race like this, and by her own admission Stage 1 took a toll. “I struggled a lot today, so it was good to have Naomi, she really got me through,” said Rebecca. “I tried to nurse Bec as much as I could,” said Naomi Williams, “she’s got a bit of a diesel engine, so I hoped she might come back, but she had tired legs.”

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Jenny Blair, head down, on the final pinch.

For Jenny Blair, today was much more suited to her style. “It was my kind of course, that type of riding is my gravy,” said Jenny. “Because I knew the course and knew that the start in particular suited my style, I pushed as hard as I could to maximise the time gap.” The strategy worked, and Jenny Blair now holds a commanding lead of around eight minutes.

The day was capped off with the Crowne Plaza Shootout, an individual time trial around the golf course at Crowne Plaza, with big time bonuses up for grabs. Pete Hatton continued his out-of-nowhere form, taking the win, and scoring a minute time bonus that scooted him back into second place. Mark Tupalski further cemented his lead, with his third place giving him an additional 40 seconds. Meanwhile, Blair had the worst possible outcome, snapping his chain and having to scoot across the line with any hopes of scraping back a big chunk of time dashed.

Tomorrow’s stage is completely new, taking in the famed flow of the Awaba Mountain Bike park, and some unseen descents through the lower slopes of the Watagans. We’ve been promised by course-setter Rex Dubois that it’s a killer stage. Excellent stuff, come back tomorrow for all action.

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Briar Ridge Winery put on live music and a full-blown farmers’ market at the finish, it was a great vibe.

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The final event of the day was the Crowne Plaza Shootout, a 1.5km time trial around the golf course with time bonuses up for grabs.
Hatto. Can turn a pedal! Peter Hatton moves into second place, after a healthy time bonus at the Crowne Plaza Shootout.
Hatto. Can turn a pedal! Peter Hatton moves into second place, after a healthy time bonus at the Crowne Plaza Shootout.

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