Port to Port is back and bigger than ever. Now in its third year, and now boasting a field of about 600, riders set off on the traditional sandblasting stage one today from the gorgeous marina in Nelsons Bay, dolphins playing in the water beside us.
The first stage of Port to Port is always fast and furious, a sandy, hilly course designed to blow the cobwebs out of the legs and set up rivalries that will play out in the days to come. Today’s course started with a neutral roll down to Shoal Bay, followed by some sharp climbs and descents, before settling into fast fire roads and sand traps. At about the half-way mark, the ‘three bears’, a series of (you guessed it) three incredibly sharp, loose, rocky pinches, proved by far the most challenging feature and decided many placings in the elite field.
Stage One of Port to Port
I’ve come into Port to Port pretty underdone. I’ve had an injury that’s kept me in ‘light spinning only’ mode for a couple of weeks and I’ve been otherwise subjected to various Life Stresses that have gobbled up most of my focus and some of my enthusiasm. Still, with the all-clear from my doctor yesterday afternoon, I’m finally in a position to push myself again – right in time for a stage race.
Today’s weather looked a little miserable at first, but although it rained a bit, by the time we started the sky was clearing, though the air was chilly and the road, well, puddly. The neutral start was a little stressful. With the lead car keeping things pretty tight at about 10km/hour, producing a few scenes reminiscent of my time stage-racing in Italy. I tried to breathe and relax but with the random cascade of road furniture, tyre buzzing, handlebar gouges and chopping the best I could do was pretend to relax. At last the car rolled off and we jumped into an all-out sprint, spinning my 30/10 out completely. We hit the first climb, which quickly became the second, then the third, then the fourth. I hadn’t been thinking much about positioning. I hadn’t been thinking much about racing, to be honest. But I was pretty happy to be there. I settled in behind Em Parkes, with no clue as to which women were in front except that Samara Sheppard had easily ridden away. For the next 10 or so kilometres we stuck with a group of men. I think both of us tried to get away at different points, but nothing stuck. At a particularly decisive moment, chasing onto a group of fast-moving blokes with Em, my chain came off. I stopped. Em sped by asking if I was okay. ‘Fine!’ I shouted back, then subjected the offending chain to a tirade of expletives. I got it back on (something I’ve got quite good at). But they were gone, and I was alone.
So I was glad when the fast, flat stuff was over and I hit these much-discussed Three Bears, which I enjoyed immensely. Sure, I had to get off and walk two of them, but by riding up the middle bear (which was not too steep, and not too long, but just right) I caught back up to my trudging group, and to Em.
After that came lots of bombing descents, sandy corners, sandy fireroads, and sandy sandtraps. I put in a little surge on a climb and tried to stick with the boys at the front of the group. A bit later someone crashed on a corner and I managed to sneak through clean. I’m not sure exactly where but I got a little gap on Em.
Glancing at my GPS I knew I had about 20 minutes to go. I slammed down a caffeine gel like the Solo Man and time trialled up to one of the masters men who’d been in my original group and who I’d made crash early on in a particularly beach-like corner. Suddenly we were on bitumen, then the last singletrack climb. I could see a flash of orange through the trees and went mad. Em and I had a close tussle two years ago in this very spot and she came out on top to get second. Now, two years later, the same thing, but in reverse! I didn’t know I came second to the stomping Samara until Tony Tucknott announced it as I crossed the line. I fist pumped, kind of shocked. It felt like I’d won!
The shock wore off when several very fresh looking elite women crossed the finish line soon after me. I wasn’t sure how I’d pull up with the injury, so I’d decided before the race to go as hard as possible to get some intensity in and see what happened. Some cleverer ladies are definitely pacing themselves carefully, and I suspect may have plenty up their sleeves for the days to come.
The men’s race was FAST with road tactics flung out over the sand. In the end Torq-Merida’s Tristan Ward broke away on the very last climb and made his gap stick to the finish line. The other men finished in a group, with Swell-Specialized’s Shaun Lewis sprinting Rohan Adams for second, Trek’s Reece Tucknott in fourth and Jason English in fifth. Very little separates these guys and that’s how it should be – close and exciting racing is in store tomorrow, as we head to the Hunter Valley, but not for wine! The race booklet instructs us to ‘strap the climbing legs on’ for a 48 kilometre spin between Lindeman’s winery and Briar Ridge Vineyard. I’m looking forward to some country scenery, a sunny day, and the 10km climb.