This Thursday the Dragon Trail MTB Stage Race begins in Branxholm, in north-east Tasmania. The three day mountain bike stage race has been a long time coming. After a lot of excitement for the inaugural edition in 2020, the event was postponed to 2021. And to be honest, some may not have been sure everything could march forward until just a few months ago!
But right now, many of the riders signed up are already in Tasmania, riding the trails in the Blue Derby network. It’s hard to say they’re ‘pre riding’ as opposed to just riding and enjoying themselves.
The three day event has a point to point nature, starting in Branxholm and finishing in Weldborough on the first day. The second day then travels from Weldborough to Binalong Bay, while the third day is a big loop in the St Helens trails. You can find the details on the stages right here.
Given that the 2021 Australian National MTB Championships were just held in the south of Tasmania at Maydena Bike Park, a number of very handy bike racers are hanging around for the Dragon Trail – and a few more have flown in especially. Our team rider Sam Fox just won the U23 XCO and XCC (short track) National Titles, and he’ll be ready to race!
Casting your eyes over the start list, it’s easy to see that the whole field is pretty lit, with strong and experienced riders from around Australia ready to race.
Who can win the women’s race at the Dragon Trail?
Let’s look at the women’s. With Em Viotto, Izzy Flint, Karen Hill, Kathryn McInerney, Imogen Smith and more all coming in hot off Top 5 performances across Elite and U23 cross country and short track – they all have the legs, and probably a bit of hunger. Briony Mattocks is coming down from Sydney, and Anna Beck will swap the coaching hat and full face from the National Champs tp race bar to bar in the north east.
It’s hard not to look past Samara Sheppard’s arrival in Tasmania – as a New Zealander she didn’t race the National Championships, so will be fresh. Sheppard is all class, and we’ve seen her run a close second to Bec McConnell recently at the Otway Odyssey. McInerney didn’t have the National Champs she wanted (although a Bronze in Short Track is awesome!), but she’s been doing the work. And Hill? Well a bronze at National Champs is a huge result, and I’d say she’s riding a wave of positivity.
Of course, Mattocks and Beck should be fresh from their southern Queensland training camp in February, and Smith feels fresh after barely getting to ride in the quagmire that was the XCO Champs – and the same could be said for Viotto, who showed her form at the Snowies MTB Festival a month ago. With three days of racing it’s all to play for. Race hard, recover better.
And what about all the U23 women? Izzy Flint rode well into the Elite field in the National Champs on her way to silver in U23. But is that enough for 3 days of racing? What could well come into play is the resilience required for a stage race. And in that case, Mattocks, Beck, Smith, Sheppard, Hill, McInerney and Viotto have that in spades. Each one has lead, won and been on the podium at countless races here in Australia and around the world.
What about the men at the Dragon Trail?
Well this is probably just as hard to pick. First up, with no huge bias, let’s put Sam Fox as a favourite. He just won the XCO and XCC National Title in U23. He’s in shape, in form, and his skills are world class. And while he rides for our team, let’s be fair and consider that he also just achieved a major goal when winning a National Title. So does his hunger remain?
This is where we need to look to a rider like Cam Ivory, who has won or lead races on the dirt and road for years. He won the whole National Series in 2014 as an U23 rider, and has only got stronger since then. Then of course there is Kyle Ward – who is never out of shape – who didn’t race Champs but is always race fit.
We can also look to Brent Rees, who has been riding fast for months, but didn’t have the legs on Saturday. He’s hungry, strong and talented – just like his team mate Luke Brame.
Back at the Snowies MTB Festival we saw two riders chasing overall winner Dan McConnell – Jon Odams and Ben Henderson. Both skipped the National Champs, and both have the variety of racing experience to make their presence felt. With Odams singletrack pizzazz, fresh legs and recent form – he’s probably more of an outright favourite than Sam Fox. Sam has good stage race experience – just not as much as Odams.
Then we’ve got the outliers in the mix. That includes riders like Karl Michelin-Beard, who is getting stronger by the day after breaking his wrist on the wrong bike in summer. Rohin Adams is always searching for more silverware, but there’s a good chance that after what looked like 18 events at the National Champs – he may have cooked his goose.
Minter Barnard will be a masters age rider keeping the eventual top 5 in check, and so will his training partner Chris ‘red pants’ Panozzo. Yeah, that’s Chris Panozzo the 2015 and 2016 Enduro National Champion. Chris has eschewed much gravity racing of late, partly as he’s Victorian so there wasn’t any, but also to keep up with his speedy partner. And he’s moving pretty quickly. Pros: can handle a bike and racing is in his blood. Cons: Is here on a trail sort of Enduro bike. Top 5 would be a handy result.
Another outlier is Paul van der Ploeg. As an Eliminator World Champion (2013) everyone knows Paul has the talent to win most races he sets his mind to. Of late he’s been doing a bunch of skylarking for media and promotion. If PVDP does indeed make it to Tasmania, he’ll no doubt be at the front of the race, but maybe not the whole time. Sorry Paul.
Anyone else? Probably. Just about every handy rider is here, save for Bec and Dan McConnell and a few others. But otherwise this race has a better turn out than the National Championships – maybe it’s seen as more fun, more relaxed, or something else. But by this time on Saturday at least we’ll know who won.