Have you just realised that the world’s oldest mountain bike stage race is about to start it’s ‘hump day’? With stage 5 about to start, racers are well and truly on the way to Port Douglas and the finish line.
The race so far
Starting on Saturday with a lap based XC race at Smithfield, we got a glimpse of who was on form. Italian Nicholas Pettina won the race in a blistering time, with Urs Huber behind and Brendan Johnston in 3rd.
In the elite women’s race, local lass Sarah White showed Regina Ganser that local knowledge counts, securing the stage win, and leader’s jersey, ahead of the pre-race favourite.
Sunday brought stage 2 and the iconic neutral start through Cairns before the real show starts on the climb to Copperlode dam. With rains that still can’t rival those of 2011, the bunch was slowly thinned until the best were left.
The shortened stage avoided Mt Edith, keeping climbing at 1500m and just 74km long. But that was enough for Huber to show his climbing prowess and move into the lead with a stage win, and Sarah White extended her lead in women’s.
Stage 3 was a stark comparison to Stage 2, and after a 20km neutral transfer from Lake Tinaroo to Atherton, racers tackled two laps of Atherton Mountain Bike Park. Brendan Johnston showed his class, racing wheel to wheel with Urs Huber – who is one of the best marathon racers in the world. Huber couldn’t shake Johnston and only got clear with a massive attack late in the race.
Sarah White continued to show why she’s in the lead, riding away from Genser, whose preparation may not have been adequate, as she claimed she had never ridden so much singletrack before!
Stage 4 brought the most climbing, over the range from Atherton to Herberton, and back again. In about 80km there was 2200m of climbing, and Australian hero Brendan Johnston couldn’t go with the front group, conceding time to Huber and Pettina. Huber won again, destroying Pettina’s hope of working together. White raced into a more solid position in the women’s race.
With rains each day, since the opening stage, the race’s foreign contingent have been gifted a reprieve. There are still five days of hard racing to go, and while the race leader’s gaps may appear unassailable, nothing is secure until Port Douglas.
Today’s 96km, 2500m stage to Irvinebank is completely removed from the built singletrack of stage 3, and far rougher than the trails of stage 4. There’s enough steep, loose terrain to make someone who is chasing time, or just inattentive, become unstuck. The trails are on farmland, and show the transition of the Croc as it moves from a mountain bike park into the outback.
The skilled mountain bikers who are happy picking lines on unknown terrain will start to come to the fore. The next three stages will see riders on some barely used 4WD trails where there’s typically just one rideable line, that they need to pick when racing their adversaries. In 2014, punctures were common if riders weren’t attentive.
Who can win it?
It seems hard to bet against Huber, he is on another level to the other racers. Even if strong riders like Pettina, Johnston and others were to ride together to minimise losses, Huber is unlikely to back off or go down without a fight. He’s got some serious anger when racing.
Sarah White may well look to have the race wrapped up – but she still needs to get to the finish in one piece! That’s five more days of marathon style mountain bike racing, and given growing levels of fatigue through the whole field, the chances for mistakes, illness or injury continue to grow. While she might let Genser get a stage win, it’s unlikely her lead is under threat. For a rider who placed 10th at XCM Worlds in 2014, it seems she’s dropped some form.