Marathon MTB racing in the Australian context has experienced many peaks and troughs over its relatively young history. From a competitive national mountain bike marathon (XCM) series with healthy prize purses and very deep elite fields to a more independent approach with events dispersed across the calendar and country from a variety of private race promoters. With the news in 2023 of the demise of one of the longest running mountain bike stage races in the world and the race that forged the discipline in many regards (The Crocodile Trophy) it was an apt time to reflect on some of the most memorable events that have come and gone over the years.
5. Tour de Timor:
Started not long after the UN Peacekeeping operation had secured one of the world’s newest countries in 2009 , the Tour de Timor took riders on a 5 day journey of approximately 500km around the mountainous terrain of the nation. Only a short flight from Darwin, Australia this race really offered a unique experience to those who made the journey. A nation in the process of development and healing from a troubled past was an eye opening experience for myself and I know many of the other Australian participants. The race itself offered a big injection to the local economy and attracted huge support from the locals. With crowds of thousands clambering for view of the racers on many of the climbs and roads through villages, the race gave amateur and pro mountain bike riders alike a feel for racing in front of Tour de France like crowds.
Not one for fans of singletrack, the Tour de Timor was on 100% sealed & unsealed roads, farm tracks and rudimentary bike paths.
The race offered huge prize money initially with a prize purse nearing $100 000USD attracting many high profile winners like Australian Peta Mullens and Portugese rider David Vaz. Rumors of corruption among some stakeholders and some seeds of discontent from some racers left unpaid after the last event and then the onslaught of the Covid pandemic has left the 2018 edition as currently the last of the editions of this really stunning event. An amazing cause and through some remarkable terrain, I know I treasured my experience here as did many others.
4. The Bendigo Golden Triangle
One of the true grassroots races on the Australian calendar. Club run and club promoted, which became one of the premier events on the XCM calendar. The race focussed on the Spring Gully MTB trails outside the Victorian regional centre of Bendigo. The course itself lacked any big climbs or descents and subsequently favoured an honestly strong athlete who could stay on the pedals for the full 100km of dirt, stones and dust. This event was an exemplification of the huge work being done in the area to develop world class cyclists. Professionals like Chris Hamilton, the late Jason Lowndes, Peta Mullens, Darren Lapthorne and current Lifetime GP athlete Tasman Nankervis all grew from the work of the Bendigo cycling community. The Golden Triangle always was an opportunity for the region to showcase its amazing talent.
Some issues with the land rights surrounding the trails at Spring Gully and again the emergence of the covid pandemic has halted the delivery of the Golden Triangle since 2019.
3. The Pioneer
From the organisers of the Cape Epic, came Oceania’s opportunity to experience the spectacle of a well drilled big name organisation stage race. Based in the likely one of the worlds most spectacular locations for a bike race- The Southern Alps of New Zealand, the race attracted mountain bike athletes from across the globe. Starting in the city of Christchurch and traversing its way to the famous tourist mecca of Queenstown the 7 day race was one of the most challenging I have participated in.
A pairs format race that offered direct qualification for the prestigious Cape Epic, the race attracted some big names yet was also the ire of weekend warriors who wanted a BIG challenge in their cycling life. The HUGE amount of climbing each stage set this apart from most other races in the southern hemisphere and really had a european vibe to the whole experience. Racers all stayed together and great bonds were formed not just between team partners but also among all participants.
Issues with land access through the swathes of private property the race traversed forced the organisation to shift the delivery of the Pioneer to Rotorua in New Zealand’s north island before the Covid pandemic forced the cancellation of the race in 2020/ 2021 with no hints of its return (yet).
2. The Highland Fling
An absolute classic among Sydney based MTB riders, this race had such a drawcard that many in Sydneys cycling public would base an entire season of training/ preparation around this race. One of the pioneers in the XCM discipline in Australia, the Highland Fling was first held in 2005 hosted by Southern Highlands, NSW based promotions company Wild Horizons. The race was situated in the quaint highland village of Bundanoon about 2 hours south of Sydney. The event grew to become a weekend event with a 1-2km shootout style event on the Saturday before the big dance of 112km on the Sunday. Arguably one of the most competitive and difficult XCMs on the calendar the race was unofficially labelled the ‘XCM National Championship’ with a special tartan jersey presented to the winner before the national cycling federation recognised XCM as a discipline.
The race combined some of New South Wales’ best regarded singletrack with a huge chunk of elevation gain and some fast fire road sections rewarding an honest, strong rider with a huge engine. Host and owner of Wild Horizons Huw Kingston would always be a presence at the race village leaning in to the Highlander vibe. Undeniably some of the nation’s best ever MTB athletes are on the winners list for this race. 2017 was the ‘final fling’, in race organiser Huw Kingston’s own words “The Highland Fling. It’s always been more than just a race. It’s been a journey”.
1. The Crocodile Trophy Mountain Bike Race
Perhaps one of the most iconic MTB races to have ever existed. The brainchild of former Austrian Tour de France rider Gerhard Schonbacher, who had the vision of creating a Tour de France on mountain bikes. The first edition was held in 1994 which ran from Darwin to Cairns, thousands of kilometres across some of the most arduous & remote terrain on the planet. Stories from that edition are written into Croc Trophy folklore. Over subsequent years the race became famous around the world as became one of the few MTB events outside the World Cup series to be featured on television. Distribution of the television highlights package lead to a very global, predominantly European vibe of a race in the Australian outback.
Many cycling careers were forged and some crushed in this stage race. Notably current record holder of the most amount of grand tours ever ridden Adam Hansen more or less started his career with back to back victories at the Croc in 2004 and 2005. Other notable names to compete in The Croc over the years; Bart Brentjens, Kevin Hulsmanns, Haley Smith, Annemieke Van Vleuten, Urs Huber, Jess Douglas, Erik Dekker, Trekky Johnston, Rene Hasselbacher, Craig Gordon and our own Imogen Smith (2014) among many other road and mountain bike luminairies.
In recent years the race moved away from its stereotype of long, hot days on dirt roads and began to incorporate more singletrack and mountain bike specific terrain it also has become focussed on the area surrounding Cairns making logistics more achievable and offering the best terrain for a challenging stage race.
After close to 30 years the race organisation recently announced that 2023 would be its final edition. With further news lately that this edition has also been cancelled but will still be operating as a ride rather than race. The covid era restrictions of course placed huge challenges on such an event, it is sad to see it has not resurrected. We will be publishing an ode to The Croc in the coming months.
There are many more races from our past which have neglected to be mentioned, with the recent rise in cycling popularity across the developed has come an accompanied drop in participation in the competition side of the sport. Making race organisation/ promotion an even tougher game. So next time you are on the fence about participating in a race, park the excuses and pin the number on. No matter what your fitness level, you won’t regret the feeling of accomplishment and camaraderie that comes with finishing a mountain bike stage race or XCM race!
Let us know the races you miss the most in the comments. JM