Three years ago I was tempted north to the Mackay Mountain Marathon by Evan Corry, who I had met at the 2012 Crocodile Trophy. With the local club, and plenty of community support, he and many others had set up a marathon race on the range behind Mackay – based out of the tiny town of Eungella.
That time, it was all new, and the race was a blast. I was really impressed with how the community got behind the event, and the event gave back to the community. It was also one of the first races Imogen Smith raced the Subaru-MarathonMTB.com colours, and her first race back in Australia after two big events in Europe. She was reminded what it is like to ride and race in Australia, especially in regional areas.
This time, I came up a little earlier and had a bit of a look around town. From the mountain bike park, the breakwater at the Marina, and along the coast. This was made a little easier being helped out with a Subaru XV from the local dealer, North Jacklin, in Mackay. I even did a full Wheels mag photo.
But on Saturday it was time to head up the range to Eungella. Out the west of town, and through the cane fields. Mackay has been hurting with the mining boom diminished, but it does look like sporting events are bringing people in. There are a few mountain bike races up here now, and the Mackay and District MTB club is growing. They are a very active club and will host the Queensland State XCO Championships up here on October 2nd.
Part way out we stopped for lunch at the Pinnacle Hotel, the kick off and finish point for the Zach Mach adventure race. The stories from the publican should match what we all know about how well athletes party when they’re given the chance…
A town called Eungella
If ever there is case for a bike race being a reason to visit somewhere, I reckon the Mackay Mountain Marathon and Eungella is it. I wouldn’t know this town if I hadn’t come up in 2013. Eungella sits on the Clarke Range, and is almost surrounded by National Park – and lots of platypus.
With kids activities on the Saturday afternoon, and meals on in the community hall in the evening, most people retired on the chilly night fairly early. After the regular kit faffing of course.
Much of the Eungella oval was covered with tents, or camper trailers, or some other sort of set up for the people who had come up for the event. Northern Queensland is a pretty spread out place, and riders had come from Gladstone, Rockhampton and Townsville – plus of course Mackay.
Race day for the Mackay Mountain Marathon
While Saturday had a bit of a dump of rain around lunch time, there was no more moisture overnight, save for a really heavy dew. Cloud hung in the air as the sun rose, and people started to stir.
It’s an Olympic year, and we woke up to the news from the Olympic men’s road race, while eating Weetbix and getting the Aeropress going. It wasn’t cold outside, but not warm either. By about 7:15, I rolled out with Peter Lister for a bit of a warm up, and bumped into Jeff Rubach on the way.
We climbed higher above town on the road, as Pete told us how this road turns to dirt, and goes on along the ridgeline for another 40km, with small trails dropping off back down the valley. Northern Queensland really has a lot of terrain to get out and explore. I think anyone from further south might just struggle with the concept of how much space there is up here.
7:45am had us under the race arch, with Evan Corry delivering the race briefing. The last time I stood here, I was back home about a fortnight after finishing the 2013 Transalp in 3rd place in Mixed Pairs with Imogen Smith. Now, I was standing there having finished a few marathons this year – but not really having done a whole lot of much.
Michael England had made the trip up from Gladstone and I was pretty sure he would be the one to watch on the day, although the Rubach brothers did go 1 -2 last year. Ruth Corset came down from Townsville, and her climbing ability and strength meant she was outright favourite for the women’s race.
The gun went and we had our police escort up the road climb. It was steady, but Michael England progressively wound it up. He said he’d been training, not racing, for 7 months, and just was happy to be here to check out the races he wanted to do, not the National XCM Series. Jeff Rubach sat on Michael’s wheel, and Daniel on his. I looked on from sheltering on Peter Lister’s wheel.
The front three edged away and I was set with Pete and Dylan Coppo. Not too bad. Turning off onto dirt Daniel had dropped back, and Dylan was off too. Pete, Daniel and I were more or less together until the long river crossing, and then Daniel and I briefly went the wrong way until Pete gave us a shout.
Michael and Jeff were out of sight. Pete was climbing ok, and descending well. I was climbing better but descending he fast and loose 4WD tracks poorly. Daniel was climbing ok and bombing the descents. And so after Pete and I got a small gap on Daniel on a climb, he bombed back and got in front as we turned right to go through some scrub and down a rutted trail. He was gone.
But at the bottom, he was stopped with a flat. Pete and I pushed on, and rode together for a while, until after the cattle grid, where we headed further south and into the new loop of the course, going up about 3 climbs, all essentially called ‘The Bastard” or a version of that. That summed them up well.
I had kept the 34t chain ring on and could have happily had a 32t. Knowing that, I knew I had to ride the hills pretty strongly. They were dry with loose rock, so going slowly wasn’t going to help traction. This wasn’t ideal for Pete, so I was alone. I could smell camp fire, so figured I must be close to the top, and eventually crested another steep pinch to see the SES course marshalls with their fire. The expansive views from the forest, out further west were sublime. A lot of this land was rainforest, and they say what is around now is about half of what was here before European settlement.
From then on, it was up and down on ridgelines, crossing through valleys, and pushing hard on flatter sections. The route went from farm trails, to rough 4WD track, to freshly graded dirt road. I came across a wild cow, which was huge, and did my best to keep charging bull stories out of my head.
I climbed, seemingly slowly, and kept on looking over my shoulder. I didn’t know if I would see the black and red jersey of Pete, or the green one of Daniel.
I came past the saw mill, and onto the dirt road, for more undulations. Eventually I hit the tarred road, which was just a short descent to the singletrack.
The beauty of the Mackay Mountain Marathon singletrack
This singletrack wasn’t open for the race last time I was up. And that’s the only time it is open for mountain bikers. The walking track traverses along the edge of the range for about 10km, from Broken River (full of platypus) all the way to Eungella. On no other day is it open for riders.
The trail goes up and down, twisting in and out of small gullies, plus following creeks along benches cut just above them. hand built stone walls are inches from the end of your handlebar, and there’s little beyond the edge of the trail if your front wheel pushes wide on a corner.
Rocks and roots were slippery, the light was low, and concentration was essential. I’ve ridden a lot of rainforest singletrack, and a lot of cool hand made singletrack. What is unique here is that this only gets ridden once a year. So there is no well worn line making corners wider, or even to give you an idea of what is around the corner. You really had to be ready to react, and do your best to minimise mistakes.
It was some of the better trails I’ve ridden in a race in Australia, purely as it kept you on your game in the crucial last 10km.
I popped out next to the road, and down into the finish at Eungella Chalet, overlooking the valley. Michael England had won, with Jeff Rubach flatting in the final kilometres. Those two were on another level to me, and were changed and cleaned up ordering lunch when I came in! Daniel was back from me, then Peter just behind. Ruth Corset crossed for first woman – and 7th overall.
Riders amassed on the grass in front of the chalet, sharing stories. Just as many were seated or ordering food from the bar. Club t-shirts were on, be they from Mackay, Townsville, Gladstone… people were proud of where they had come from for the race. As an outsider, it seemed like everyone knew everyone. But I suspect, it was more a case that everyone was happy to speak to everyone else. They’re a friendly bunch up this way, and if you’re looking for a reason to visit, maybe line it up with early August.