Words: Georgina von Marburg

Photos: Amelia Howler

Pre-COVID, the event has attracted some of the biggest international names (cameos from Rae Morrison, Amaury Pierron, and Yoann Barelli spring to mind), and will surely pull them back once borders loosen. More importantly, it’s a proving ground on the national calendar for local heroes to test themselves against the best. From Sian A’Hern to Caroline Buchanan, Troy Brosnan to Connor Fearon – the ‘who’s who’ of Aussie gravity riding will always litter the start lists of Cannonball Festival. 

But this event is more than just a series of races. During Cannonball week, Thredbo hosts what is essentially the annual mountain bikers’ reunion. Thousands of avid riders from around the country, regardless of ability or background, plan and anticipate this festival each year. As soon as entries are announced, dirt cliques everywhere are buzzing with excitement: “Are you entering the Pump Track? Should we wear party shirts? Have you booked accom? Bring spare tyres!” 

After a two year pandemic-induced hiatus, this chaotic chatter was welcome. Traditionally held in early December, Cannonball Festival was postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID restrictions; it was finally announced for early February 2022, just a week out from Downhill nationals. Some competitors were concerned about this timing, but most shrugged their shoulders and entered anyway. After all, it’s Cannonball Festival.

It’s safe to presume many readers will have heard of this event. But if you’re new to the scene (as we all once were), here’s a brief rundown. Cannonball Festival is comprised of four races named after the trails they take place on: the enduro-esque All Mountain, the brake-bumpy Flow, the pumpy and jumpy Pump Track, and the bone-jarring Cannonball Downhill. The downhill race is usually held on the final day of the festival and is considered the peak event, also known as the Australian Open Downhill. 

The beauty of the event – and why it attracts so many riders – is that you can enter as many or as few events as you like. If you just want a good time with mates, you might enter the All Mountain and Flow; you’ll then sit back with a local beverage and cowbell while watching the downhillers tackle the infamous rock chutes on the final day. If you’re strong, fit, and keen, you’d typically enter all the events; this is a physically and mentally draining week of racing but embracing a disciplined routine is key: eat, sleep, race, hydrate, repeat. And finally, if you’re a professional downhiller, you will likely just enter the Downhill race; this will keep your mind, body, and bike fresh and committed. There is significant cash on the line for Pro categories across all the races, but there’s always a little extra for the Downhill ($5,000 for each male and female winner to be precise). 

It was 2018 when I first started turning to the dark side that is gravity racing. I entered Cannonball Festival, riding all events bar the Pump Track on my 130mm Trek Fuel EX (for a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed XC girl, this was a ‘big bike’). Although I was painfully out of my depth, I remembered fellow competitors were nothing but warm, inviting, and encouraging. Canberra downhillers – who I had always been too nervous to ride with – were happy to do a practice lap; industry folk from competing brands would gladly fix my increasingly munted bike; and Troy Brosnan even directed me to the nearest ice-creamery. It’s hard to find another event where the competition is so high, yet the atmosphere so casual. 

Disclaimer: to be fair, I already possessed a respectable level of trail etiquette. If you drop your bike mid-track and tip-toe down blind drops while scoping lines with your gang, you probably won’t receive the same warm welcome. 

Returning to Cannonball Festival in 2022 felt like coming home. I had since changed jobs, towns, and bikes (thank god), but the same unbridled joy as I loaded my bike onto the Kozi Express remained. The chairlift banter was heightened this year, having not seen many personal and industry friends for months due to the pandemic. This Cannonball Festival was a reunion like no other, and one I’ll cherish for years. 

Now a seasoned enduro rider, there were still fresh lines and challenges to be met on the same trails as previous years. There’s a saying amongst road and XC riders: “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.” Well, you can adjust this slightly for gravity riders: “It doesn’t get less scary, you just get faster.” There’s always room to improve at Thredbo, and there’s always old and new friends to help. 

Of course, no race is without suffering. After inevitable crashes and relentless sprinting over five days, a reverberating toll on your bike and body can be felt. This year, the fading smack-talk between myself and roommate Lachie Forbes exemplified this brutal side of Cannonball. On the first morning, we had greeted each other with the classic “SHREDBRO!” salute; by the last day, this maxim had dwindled to a barely audible croak as we dragged our battered bodies and creaky bikes onto the chairlift.  

But now fully recovered, I look back on this year’s Cannonball Festival with fond memories. Returning to reality after a week of riding is always hard, but particularly so with this event. Cannonball is equivalent to Christmas holidays for mountain bikers: a warm and celebratory ambiance permeates the Alpine air during this week, bringing together riders of all ages, levels, and abilities. If you haven’t had a chance to participate in Cannonball Festival, this is a truly unmissable experience. And if you have, I’ll see you again next year. 

Catch up on all the 2022 Cannonball Festival action here