Tropical Trails: Smithfield, Cairns

Minutes from the airport, you’re into the jungle. The Smithfield trail head had riders galore on a Wednesday afternoon. Ryan pulls his S-Works from the ute.

Know where to look for final approach, and you can see the trails, including the famous downhill start gate with its views out to the reef. The sun strikes the window. I’d left the concrete of Sydney in the dark, and now I’m about to touchdown in a paradise seemingly never touched by cold.

If there’s a better place in Australia to be in July, I’ve not found it.

Jeans off, shorts on. The quick car park change is liberating, it’s the middle of winter, but the temps are pushing high into the twenties. If there’s a better place in Australia to be in July, I’ve not found it. Smithfield is a just few minutes’ drive from the airport, and on the way I pass mangroves, palm trees, cane fields and sweating backpackers, lumping their lives about. It’s like a montage of tropical clichés, just missing the croc.

Pulling into the trailhead carpark, I recognise a familiar face. It takes a moment to place her – Jade is one of the crew from the Like a Local vid I’d watched recently, a cool film that followed some of the region’s awesome female riders. It turns out she’s coming for a pedal today too, and she chuckles at me when I tell her the forecast had been for four days of rain. “Never trust the weather forecasts in Cairns,” she laughs, “it’s completely random up here. You’ve just got to go with it.” That’s a pretty good mantra for life generally up in the tropical north I think.

Jade tips into a fast-rolling clay bowl.

Ryan and Berend soon pull up too. Berend is born and bred Cairns – a local ripper, his jersey announces he’s sponsored by The Woolshed, one of the town’s most notorious party spots. It doesn’t get more local than that. Ryan’s a Cairns convert, like so many folks around here. As one of the World Trail crew, he’s spent a good chunk of his years travelling Australia building trails. Earlier this year he decided to call Cairns home, buying a house literally three minute’s ride from Smithy. That’s quite the endorsement of Cairns if you ask me.

Smithfield isn’t stuck way out in the sticks – you’re only minutes from shops, the airport and snake anti-venom.

The two fellas met in Whistler, but you’d swear they’re related. Both tall and lanky, the similarities continue to the trails too, and watching them ride their styles are so well matched, you can tell they’ve spent plenty of time following each others’ wheels.

We’re soon into the jungle, the wild tangle of green a contrast to the perfectly manicured berms and jumps.

We’re soon into the jungle, the wild tangle of green contrast to the perfectly manicured berms and jumps. Bizarrely, strung up between the vines are a series of full-blown street lights. At first, I thought it must be a joke, but Ryan tells me they were installed for night time racing during Gravitate, an annual week-long festival/party celebrating the Cairns mountain bike lifestyle. It’s that kind of place; let’s string up some lights in the jungle so we can shred at night! Why the hell not?!

Black Snake, a serious piece of trail building genius was required to get a trail up here.

Next, we’re on to Black Snake, and I get a full appreciation of what a masterful display of trail building has been employed here. With the vegetation pushing in so hard, it’s sometimes tricky to actually get a feel for the terrain around you, but on Black Snake, it’s clear – this narrow, shale ridge, sandwiched between a waterfall and a deep gully is a trail builder’s nightmare. “They told Glen (Jacobs, of World Trail) he’d never get a trail up here,” says Ryan. That must’ve been like a red rag to a bull, and a series of painstakingly stacked switchbacks, all built by hand, were woven into the ridgeline, gaining elevation for one of the coolest descents in the park.

The red clay has been reworked into an insane, multi-line, slot-car racing kind of experience.

The freshly re-worked Caterpillars is like some kind of amazing computer game.

For more info on the mountain biking in Tropical North Queensland, check out the Ride Cairns site right here.


With the World Champs returning to Cairns for the first time in 20 years, there’s been a rash of building to freshen things up, and one of the trails that has benefitted most is Caterpillars. The red clay has been reworked into an insane, multi-line, slot-car racing kind of experience. There are berms and kickers all over the place, just begging you to get creative and find new lines. Berend is up for the challenge, hunting out new gaps to huck, as he looks “to unlock the secret level,” as he laughingly puts it. We session the trail again and again.

Getting creative. Berend, always on the look out for a new way to play with the trail.
Berend tries to “unlock the secret level.”

“Watch yourself,” cautions Jade, as Berend starts eyeing up new challenges – a nose bonk off a rock here, a transfer gap there – “I don’t want to be marrying man covered in scabs!” It turns out they’re getting married the following week! A big crew is flying in from interstate too, with a bunch of group rides planned in the lead up to the big day. These two totally embody what the Cairns mountain biker lifestyle is about – they’ve both started their own businesses, so they’ve got the flexibility to ride more – and it’s hard not to love the pair of them.

“I don’t want to be marrying a man covered in scabs.” Jade and Berend.

His tyres just barely kiss the dirt, leaving long sliding scrapes across the clay

As I clamber up into the vines to find an angle, Ryan warns me to “keep an eye out for a light green, heart-shaped leaf.” That’s the sign of the infamous stinging tree, a nettle so painful it’s said to burn for years. But it’s not me that’s in peril, it’s Ryan, who has decided he wants to set a land speed record over one of the rollers and tries to scrub it low. His tyres just barely kiss the dirt, leaving long sliding scrapes across the clay, and soon he’s travelling sideways down the trail, his eyes wide. Somehow he rides it out, and the jungle rings with the hoots of a man who has dodged a bullet.

How Ryan rode this out, we don’t think even he knows.
Fat, tropical drops.
In fading light, Ryan flies into the Pines.

As the jungle begins to darken, a few fat rain drops start to bounce their way through the canopy to the trails below. It’s tropical rain, pleasant, the water warm, not like the icy drizzle down south. Before long the red clay of the trail is splattered everywhere, and the surface gets a fun slickness to it. The trails are too dark for shooting now, so we head back to the carpark where the rain has flushed out a surprising number of riders for a weekday arvo, and the banter flows as people line up to give their bike a hose off.

A quick wash off. You don’t want this clay in your car!

Our plans to head to Trinity Beach for a sunset drink are washed away as the deluge starts to beat down more heavily, and we call it a day. As a notorious control freak and phone flicker, I go to check the radar, just in case a window of clear weather is on the way, but then realise I’m bringing the wrong attitude to the party here. We’re in the tropics now – stress less, all you can do is go with the flow!


Berend launches into a tricky piece of trail, in one of the lesser ridden corners of Smithfield.
Jungle pop.

Must-Ride: Cairns, Smithfield

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This berm alone is worth the trip to Cairns.

The colourful Cairns mountain bike crew deserve a lot credit for the fantastic state of Australian mountain biking today. Back in the 1990s, up in the rainforests of the Kuranda range, a wild bunch on mountain bikes began blazing their own trail. They were developing mountain biking in their own sweaty microcosm, not caring a damn about how the sport was shaping up in other parts of the world. This was Cairns mountain biking; raw, slippery, fun and independent.

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Exceptional trail building on Black Snake.

Soon enough the antics of the Great Cairns Hill Tribe began to capture the attention and the imagination of riders across the country and the world. Word and vision of just how far the Cairns crew were pushing the limits of mountain biking began to trickle out, and along with it an awareness of what an incredible haven of trails this mob had created. Eventually even the UCI caught wind, bringing the World Cup and World Champs to Cairns in 1994 and 1996. Suddenly Cairns was on the mountain bike world map. In this pressure cooker, talented riders blossomed; Kovarik, Hannah, Ronning and many others, all rising to the top of World stage and cementing the status of Cairns as a leading international mountain bike destination.

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But then in the early 2000s, things went off the boil, and the Cairns scene went a little quite. It continued to simmer away until quite recently, when a concerted effort by riders, local authorities and mountain bike luminaries thrust Cairns and its surrounds back to the forefront of Australian and international mountain biking once again. In quick succession we saw the revitalisation of the legendary Smithfield trails, huge new trail developments at Atherton (just up the road from Cairns) and the announcement that Cairns had secured a World Cup round AND the World Champs – all our Christmases at once!

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What locals are keen to emphasise now, is that Cairns itself is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to riding in the tropical north. In addition to the Smithfield trails, you’ve got Atherton, Mareeba, the Cassowary Coast, Port Douglas and a million different hidden trails in between, all within a couple of hours drive from one another.

Given we’d be in town already for the World Cup, the opportunity to explore the region was simply too good to miss. So we packed the bikes, rustled up some Hawaiian shirts and bug spray and hit the trails. First up on our itinerary, Smithfield! No sooner had the course marshals removed the bunting, than we were delving into the jungle to rip it up on the red clay.

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With graded, signposted, mapped trails, Smithfield is hassle-free riding of the finest quality. It’s the perfect place to get your tropical northern mountain bike adventure underway.

Smithfield is the ultimate place to start any riding trip in the Cairns region. Not only is the closest trail centre to Cairns itself, but the trails are signposted, mapped and graded, so it’s practically impossible to get lost and find yourself a victim of the Minjin (local mythical mountain panther).

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Flowing through the sea of green. Everything is alive and growing in the forest.

Given that Glen Jacobs was the driving force in the revitalisation of these trails, it’s no surprise that you feel like you’re carving through the vines on a hoverboard – these are classic flow trails for the most part, with a mesmerising rhythm, punctuated by the occasional A-line that requires you to really think about where you want to put your wheels.

There’s more than enough riding here for a full day of singletrack; get your fill, then head into town for some people watching by the lagoon – that’s our second favourite activity in Cairns!

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Terrible place. Just awful.
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The drive north to Port Douglas is stunning. You can see just how the mountain range plummets straight into the sea.

Just north of Cairns lies the honeymooner’s paradise of Port Douglas. It’s the kind of place where you could easily spend way too much time; most of the ‘locals’ we met had blown in from some far-flung corner of the globe and found themselves mysteriously stuck seven years later.

For mountain bikers, Port Douglas is home to the brake-cooking Bump Track descent, plus a bunch of rough and raw trails that lead you to some fairly special swimming holes – with the range teetering over the coastline, there are innumerable magic spots where water cascades down cliff faces and into deep, clear pools. The trick is knowing where to find them! We joined up with local guide Tom Dayshe of Bike ‘n’ Hike tours to worm our way through the forest and unearth some of these gems. When you’ve cooked your legs on Smithfield’s trails in the morning, this is absolutely magic.

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Bike n Hike Adventure tours, ready for action.

Flow Nation Cairns 9

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Get back to work, Mick!
Get back to work, Mick!

 

For more information about all the riding in and around Cairns, check out www.ridecairns.com. 

 

Cairns 2014: Downhill track walk

Most of the world’s best downhill riders got their first look at what the Cairns jungle has in store for them this afternoon. We don’t think riders were expecting something quite so savage – this track had a lot of faces looking pretty concerned, with amazing slick mud, roots and rocks interspersed with sections that require serious guts. We joined the riders for the official track walk, now join us to see what they’re up against.

There's no chairlift or gondola here at Smithfield, just V8 Troopies doing the uplift duties on the steepest shuttle road you can imagine.
There’s no chairlift or gondola here at Smithfield, just V8 Troopies doing the uplift duties on the steepest shuttle road you can imagine.
Decision point number one. After 11 bermed corners right out of the start gate, do you go high up the bank, or hug the tree?
Decision point number one. After 11 bermed corners right out of the start gate, do you go high up the bank, or hug the tree?
Riders swarm all over the rock garden… mossy rocks and chunks of quartz, getting progressively more covered in red clay. It’s a nightmarish piece of work.
Riders swarm all over the rock garden… mossy rocks and chunks of quartz, getting progressively more covered in red clay. It’s a nightmarish piece of work.
Mick and Tracey Hannah have spent more time on this track than any of the other big hitters. “We got five runs in before South Africa,” says Mick, “but we haven’t ridden it since.” Nonetheless, Mick already has the lines down that others are still trying to visualise. “Mick has been jumping off the point of the rock here into the rock garden” says Tracey. “I wanted to try it, but that was before it got wet.”
Mick and Tracey Hannah have spent more time on this track than any of the other big hitters. “We got five runs in before South Africa,” says Mick, “but we haven’t ridden it since.” Nonetheless, Mick already has the lines down that others are still trying to visualise. “Mick has been jumping off the point of the rock here into the rock garden” says Tracey. “I wanted to try it, but that was before it got wet.”
"Watch out for drop bears" - Troy's only advise to his Euro rivals.
“Watch out for drop bears” – Troy’s only advise to his Euro rivals.
Gee spent a long, long time staring down this rock garden, assessing line after line.
Gee spent a long, long time staring down this rock garden, assessing line after line.
"You must flow, like water." Rachel Atherton chucks her water bottle down the rocks to find the best line.
“You must flow, like water.” Rachel Atherton chucks her water bottle down the rocks to find the best line.
After Gee, Sam was the rider who spent longest looking at the rock garden. It's an interesting track - will the flatter sections nullify the advantage of pinning the technical sections?
After Gee, Sam was the rider who spent longest looking at the rock garden. It’s an interesting track – will the flatter sections nullify the advantage of pinning the technical sections?

 

Marcello Gutierrez: "There's nowhere like this on the World Cup circuit. Maybe Columbia… but nowhere has this humidity."
Marcello Gutierrez: “There’s nowhere like this on the World Cup circuit. Maybe Columbia… but nowhere has this humidity.”
Jungle baby. No matter what happens with the weather, it ain't drying out in there!
Jungle baby. No matter what happens with the weather, it ain’t drying out in there!
Holy. Shit. Get set for explosions…
Holy. Shit. Get set for explosions…
No explanation needed.
No explanation needed.
Eric Carter is the new team manager for Specialized, here he offers his two cents to Gwin and Brosnan. We asked him about Gwin’s opinions that the whoops section should be taken out for saftey’s sake. “Man, it just takes one rider to be able to ride them fast, and then there’s no way they’re getting removed. If one rider can do it fast, and then you complain, the UCI are just gonna tell you to ride them slower. That’s racing! I remember back racing at Big Bear again Dave Cullinan – there’d be some huge gap that we’d want taken out and then Dave would just send it. You’d just have to accept then that you were racing for second place! This is just the same.”
Eric Carter is the new team manager for Specialized, here he offers his two cents to Gwin and Brosnan. We asked him about Gwin’s opinions that the whoops section should be taken out for saftey’s sake. “Man, it just takes one rider to be able to ride them fast, and then there’s no way they’re getting removed. If one rider can do it fast, and then you complain, the UCI are just gonna tell you to ride them slower. That’s racing! I remember back racing at Big Bear again Dave Cullinan – there’d be some huge gap that we’d want taken out and then Dave would just send it. You’d just have to accept then that you were racing for second place! This is just the same.”
Tracey Hannah eyes up the exit of the cork screw. The only fast line involves riding the bank on the right hand side and launching to the down ramp, otherwise you have to pick your way down the chute and take the long way around. She hasn’t hit the line yet, but she’s confident she will.
Tracey Hannah eyes up the exit of the cork screw. The only fast line involves riding the bank on the right hand side and launching to the down ramp, otherwise you have to pick your way down the chute and take the long way around. She hasn’t hit the line yet, but she’s confident she will.

 

Pick a huck, any huck.
Pick a huck, any huck.
The final gap to wall ride thingo from a rider's perspective. Landing is on the left apparently.
The final gap to wall ride thingo from a rider’s perspective. Landing is on the left apparently.
The final Ronning's Ramp triple jump has needed a lot of love in the wet. This is the third time the patient trail crew have rebuilt the bottom of the kicker.
The final Ronning’s Ramp triple jump has needed a lot of love in the wet. This is the third time the patient trail crew have rebuilt the bottom of the kicker.
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Pedal! The finish only 100 metres away.
Got your transitions lenses handy? Bursting out of the jungle into the finish.
Got your transitions lenses handy? Bursting out of the jungle into the finish.

Long, hard, hot. The Croc Trophy is back.

The most adventurous mountain bike stage race in the world will return to its home in Tropical Far North Queensland on 20th October with the largest field of participants ever.

The Croc Trophy is more than a race. It’s an adventure through parts of Australia that most people wouldn’t even think to venture into.

This year the number of participants has almost doubled and more than 150 riders have already signed up. Also the biggest ever field of Australian Crocodile Trophy racers is expected to participate. Australian riders include Jason English, 24hr Solo World Champion and Justin Morris, best Elite Australian finisher at the Crocodile Trophy 2011.

It’s a sufferfest. An absolutely blocking.

Organisers are also excited about the largest ever female field at a Crocodile Trophy – seven female athletes will be at the start line in Cairns, including Australian triathlete and Ironman racer Kate Major.

In a first for the Croc, it will kick off on 20 October with two public race stages as part of the Crocodile Trophy MTB Festival hosted by the local Cairns MTB Club. The first stage will be a 32 km lap race at Smithfield and the second stage will be a 92 km marathon race from Cairns to Lake Tinaroo on the Atherton Tablelands. Riders are invited to sign up via links on the Crocodile Trophy or the Cairns MTB Club websites.

After the Smithfield stage, the following eight days will challenge the technical skills of participants more than ever before. Generally, the stages will be shorter, but they will include considerably more mountain bike tracks this year. Overall, the participants will ride for almost 1000 km with the longest stage covering 136 km.