MarathonMTB.com flew into Townsville early this year to get the low-down on the new course at Mt Douglas MTB park. National Champs had been planned to take place at the Pallarenda trails closer to town, but A LOT of summer rain left the course in need of considerable maintenance, so the Rockwheelers MTB club made the call to move XCM Nationals to their prized 35-kilometres of singletrack on the slopes of Mt Douglas, which overlooks James Cook University, and the rest of Townsville and half the Coral Sea too, for that matter.
In many ways, it’s a welcome change. Pallarenda had some access issues and was, well, flat. Nobody complained after four hours on the rocky, physical terrain last year, but there’s something about an XCM race with only 900m of climbing that leaves us feeling a little cold. Mt Douglas, being a mountain, offers a lot more excitement in the elevation department, even if it’s a little disappointing to see another Aussie XCM Champs relying on laps of singletrack bike park.
With a mere 17-kilometre loop, our biggest Marathon of the year is again going to fall short in the ’emotional experience’ category that (we think, at least), makes XCM so special. While our European counterparts recently raced Euro Champs on an epic, single-loop course through singletrack, old Roman roads, fast gravel, and ridiculously steep climbs, our course will be a little repetitious by comparison. (Although we’d also like to acknowledge the tremendous work and enthusiasm of the club, and the technical, access, and budget issues that MTB in Australia has to contend with, all of which conspire to make lap-based XCMs the smartest choice).
There’s still plenty to keep racers interested at Mt Douglas, even if passing might be an issue. Racers start with a brief stretch of bitumen before a brief fireroad climb ejects them into near ceaseless singletrack for the next four to five hours.
The first few kilometres of the track present some of the more challenging climbing. Although the overall gradient is fairly leg-friendly, there are a bunch of rocky step-ups and ramps, and some brief descents are punctuated with drop-offs and jumps to keep things interesting in those nervous, aggressive first few minutes.
Things settle down pretty soon into some rhythmic climbing sections punctuated by brief descents. The trails are reminiscent of World Trail builds, but while World Trail have collaborated on some sections of Mt Douglas’s singletrack, most of the trails the XCM course traverses are made with the hands of talented home-grown club members.
There’s plenty of reverse gradient, rocks, and pea gravel, and the overall feel is reminiscent of Atherton MTB park near Cairns, or Hidden Vale Adventure Park and Mt Joyce MTB trails west of Brisbane: Hot, rocky, sharp, and loose, but flowy nonetheless.
After 10 kilometres or so of this, riders reach a summit lookout point, but that’s not all. Even the descents on Mt Douglas have climbs! This track certainly doesn’t favour one type of rider over another, switching constantly between ups and downs, demanding concentration, technical skill, and physical stamina in equal measure.
With about five kilometres to go the track turns onto some tricky, slow, techy hand-built trails that aren’t commonly ridden by the locals, but have been included in the event to mix things up and make the most of the network without backtracking. These include sharp, loose switchbacks and timber bridges, off-camber descents and plenty of moving rock and loose dirt over bumpy ground.
There’s a brief respite with a 3 metre stretch of bitumen with 3 kilometres to go, followed by a short stretch of road where riders would be crazy not to have a drink and a gel – there are very few opportunities to drink and eat properly on course.
The flat road section turns onto a very steep sealed climb to a water tower, which we think may well prove decisive in the men’s race if things come down to the wire, before flowy, jumpy, bermed trails the last kilometre to transition.
17km per lap | 395m (as recorded)
Somehow the folks from Townsville Rockwheelers MTB club have managed to design a lap course that feels like it goes up more than it goes down. The weather here hasn’t yet broken out of summery hot days, and while race distances are short (68km for the women and 85 for the men), we don’t hear any complaints. Sunday is set to provide some fascinating racing for the honour of wearing the green and gold in 2018.