Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to visit Townsville to take a look at the proposed course for the 2017 and 2018 Mountain Bike Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) Championship, which is to be held on the last weekend of April this year in conjunction with the Townsville Mtb Festival.
When the venue was announced, I was a little disappointed. While Townsville has one of the biggest mountain bike clubs in Australia, and Northern Queensland is home to many passionate mountain bikers and racers, it does seem at odds with event growth to hold a National Championship so far from Australia’s population base. With two years of travel to Tasmania, some respite for Australia’s elite and competitive Masters athletes with an event somewhere between Melbourne and Sydney, or ideally very close to one of their airports, would have been welcome.
But, the reality is there isn’t a venue within an easy, short drive from either Sydney or Melbourne airport. And while Mt Stromlo was a good venue in 2012, it also requires a club to put their hand up to run the event, and then it needs to be chosen.
MTBA’s President Shane Coppin has revealed that via promises to Cycling Australia, MTBA needed to make sure high level events were held in Queensland in the run up to the 2017 Mountain Bike World Championships in Cairns this September. So at first, it seemed as though moving the XCM Championships to Townsville was ticking a box, as opposed to putting the event in an area that best served Australian marathon racers.
“In 2014, Cycling Australia entered into an agreement with Tourism Events Queensland that encompassed a number of mountain bike events to be held in Queensland, culminating in the 2017 UCI World Championships in Cairns in September.” Shane Coppin
Mt Joyce could have been an option, as it hosted the race in 2011 and 2014. Hidden Vale might have been popular with the new trail developments at the home of the Flight Centre Epic. But it went to Townsville, to be part of the Townsville MTB Festival.
Arriving in Townsville
Back to the visit to the course. It was early January – it was hot and humid. We went straight from the airport to Quest apartments, with the air conditioning cranking. We watched a squall blow in from the ocean, removing the view of Magnetic Island. The rain was pummelling Cape Pallarenda, right where we were meant to be meeting to take a look at the proposed loop.
But after some lunch we went out, and met some of the local riders in the carpark. While there was a puddle or two on the road, as soon as we hit the trails our tyres were on dry dirt and rocks. There was no evidence of the previous downpour, or the ones from the days before. The trails at Pallarenda are about as weatherproof as they come, due to intelligent design and the make up of the ‘soil’ (it’s rock).
The XCM National Championships course
As it stands, the race will be lap-based. It’s expected to be 3 laps for elite women, and 4 laps for elite men. The start has been proposed at The Jezzine Barracks, 9km down the peninsula, but it is hoped that this won’t be the case, with a short start loop at Pallarenda as opposed to a flat burn up the road, bike path or beach, and back again for the finish, as currently proposed.
The lap lacks decisive climbs, and would benefit from a small climb early in the lap. After a very brief section of doubletrack the course is quickly onto singletrack, the start of the Under the Radar trails, and the singletrack is almost completely uninterrupted for 7km. The trails are a lot of fun, without any steep gradients, but plenty of rock. If you’re comfortable at Mt Stromlo, you will be comfortable in Townsville. The gradients and trail surface are very similar.
After a short descent the trails are fast and flowing – but flat, before another short climb and descent back to water level. There may be a couple of passing opportunities on some of the wider sections down low – but you would need to be quick.
At about 8km you move over to Smedleys, with a flat run along doubletrack and a short, steep climb with gradients to 25%, to then do a lap around the hill. This is a reasonably sustained climb, but not steep, for about 2.5km. Again, similarities to the Cockatoo Switchbacks in Canberra are apparent. Except for the uninterrupted view across the Coral Sea.
The descent off the back is probably more technical than the first descent, with slightly larger rocks, and it will be more open and probably the exact place you will come unstuck with fatigue. Whether that’s a flat, a busted wheel, or a crash – there’s a good chance it will be here.
But, once you’re down you cross back over a bridge to the Under the Radar loop. This would be a fantastic place for a second feed zone as you pass it on the way out to the Smedleys loop you have just completed, and it can be accessed by a closed 4WD trail (that we then race on) before the event for a neutral feed – but there is no word yet as to whether this will happen.
The rest of the run home is almost entirely flat, with a short section of singletrack and a 6-7km power finish on 4WD trail, before you’re back at the carpark for Pallarenda. This place has toilets, potable water and parking so should be an ideal event hub for a race circus and support crews. You can see trace of my ride there stopping to check things out with the local crew right here.
Thoughts on the course at Townsville
The trails are fun, and riding by the ocean is a huge novelty. Whats more, the local riders are pumped to have the XCM Champs in town. There’s plenty of other trails, and Douglas MTB Park near James Cook University is the result of blood, sweat, tears and lots of volunteer hours from the Townsville Rockwheelers MTB Club. Those trails wouldn’t suit the XCM Champs, and Pallarenda does, if it had a bit more climbing. For a lap that is 24km at best, 300m of climbing is very flat. There is more of a hill there, but it is unlikely that using it with a climb and then needing to build a connecting trail will be possible for this year – but perhaps for next year. We gave feedback to MTBA about the course, and have heard that many of our suggestions will be taken into account – if time doesn’t allow for this year, for next year. This is a really positive response.
If our National Championships courses need to help prepare riders for World level races – then this misses the mark. And with Elite men needing to do 4 laps it also contravenes the UCI’s rules of a marathon being no more than 3 laps of a course.
But, the XCM discipline, more than XCO and DHI, is about participation, and this should be a very enjoyable course to ride, and a highly challenging course to race. There’s no chance to rest, heat and humidity will make hydration and nutrition management very important, and the chance of causing some damage to you or your bike on the back descent in the tail end of the race is very real. It won’t be a soft win for whoever ends up earning the men’s and women’s elite titles.
The real test will be to see how many people can make the trip to Townsville. There are a whole lot of mountain bikes in Northern Queensland who don’t see a 400-100km trip as too big a deal to support an event. But does that mean the race will pull riders from Bendigo, Canberra, Perth, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, The Sunshine Coast, Albury and other locales who have strong riders who could capitalise on the UCI points on offer? That’s what we will need to wait and see. Sometimes it is about the destination though, and for many down south, a trip a few thousand kilometres north as summer has truly faded might be just what they want!
Townsville, and the Rockwheelers, will host a great event on weatherproof trails. The airport is close, there is plenty of accommodation and places to eat, and it’s a scenic location. The test will be the elite start sheet, and whether the course can have the right start added so a national marathon title isn’t decided on a hole shot. If they get that right, it could end up as a very exciting race. I’ve got my flights booked.
You can find out event specifics on the MTBA website.
If you’re set to enter, entries are open now.
All photos by Dave Acree.