The final day of the 2018 Reef to Reef brought riders back to the ocean - via the infamous Bump Track.
The final day dawned for Reef to Reef, and Port Douglas was a hive of activity before 6am today as riders amassed, loading their bikes onto trucks and joining the shuttle buses to carry us all up the range again to Wetherby Station, where the final day of racing would start at 8am.
Today was also the running of the RRR (Rural, Rainforest, Reef) which is Australia's longest continually running mountain bike event. While the Reef to Reef would tread a slightly similar route to the RRR, the 55km course would fall between the RRR Classic of 35km and the RRR Endurance of 70km. The Reef to Reef event organisers don't want to diminish the standing of the classic RRR.
Wetherby Station was alive with mountain bikers when we arrived, as while we had stayed down in Port Douglas (as had many others) plenty of other riders stayed up on the range after the stages at Mt Molloy and Davies Creek on days 3 and 2 respectively. The fog was lifting as our mini bus of riders arrived, and the air was thick with camaraderie - a something that seems more common at this end of Australia.
While the coffee and toilet lines grew and then diminished, the race chute started to fill. Backs were slapped, groans about sore legs, backs and other parts exchanged... and then the bell was rung and it was time to go.
It was extremely unlikely that any of the categories would be changing in the final stage, but that didn't mean it would be too cruisey. The pace lifted throughout the first few kilometres, with the small undulations of the farm tracks causing splits in the teams race, which starts 3 minutes ahead of the solo race.
The trails became rougher, and we were riding trails that could alternately be called cattle trails, moto trails, farm tracks, double track and quad bike trails. Sometimes it was open and fast, other times it was steep and loose, and one fun section was narrow and off-camber. Staying with your team mate can be a real challenge on such varied terrain, and adds an extra dimension to pairs racing.
These country trails took us back to Wetherby Station, where we pretty much had the 35km RRR Classic route ahead of us. Note - this route has a big downhill, but isn't all downhill.
At the front, OCS Cycling were together with the leaders Giant Shimano and Total Rush - Mornington Cycles, but as John Groves of OCS Cycling, he did struggle when things went uphill.
At the finish line it was race leaders Jon Odams and Brendan Johnston who were victorious, with Rohin Adams and Brad Clarke securing 2nd overall and the Masters teams win. 4th over the line after OCS Cycling was Sam and Co, the team of Kyle Ward and Samara Sheppard, who won every stage in Mixed and the overall. Giant Wollongong secured 2nd overall with a 2nd on the stage in Mixed, while a little behind Anna Beck and Briony Mattocks lead the women's teams and classification home.
Mattocks has completed a few Port to Port and Cape to Cape events - and now the first Reef to Reef. And she thinks it fits into what is being called the Australian triple-crown of mountain biking perfectly.
"It's hard to compare all three, but there are so many similarities. What I think was really good about Reef to Reef was the variety of the stages. That's what made it fun, it really tested all your skills. It was just as hard as Port to Port and Cape to Cape. You never really take it easy if you're racing and there was good racing every day."
And that's exactly what today delivered, another hard day on the pedals.
"Today's stage was hard. I liked the first loop, and the Bump Track was fun. I did have flashbacks of the Cape Epic with sunscreen in my eyes and the dust and not being able to see anything. The top bit was really fun."
Of course, the Bump Track does leave you down on the coast - but you're not at the finish. You need to negotiate towards the coast via a country road, cane fields, and what feels like an urban mountain bike race through the suburbs, before popping out onto the beach - and it was high tide!
"There was quite a lot of work to do when you get to the bottom of the Bump Track, that took me by surprise a bit. But I'll come back. You can never so no to a mountain bike holiday in Tropical North Queensland. Jumping in the ocean at the end of the stage was a real highlight."
Mike Cameron came up from Sydney, racing with Anthony Shippard in the Masters category. They had a couple of mechanicals, but as Mike said - that didn't really take the shine off what was a great trip to Tropical North Queensland.
"This is my first of the triple-crown events. The destination was the big appeal for me, being able to come up from Sydney to somewhere new, and ride the trails and try to make it into a little bit of a holiday.
"We had the experience we were after. We ended up about where I expected, but you know, we had a couple of mechanicals and some toils. But we got there in the end and minimised our losses. I'd definitely come up again."
Congratulations to Sarah White and Nathan Sandford for winning the solo race overall - wonder if they'll grab a team mate each next year?
And so now we're left packing bikes up, ordering drinks, chips, wedges and milkshakes at the Port Douglas Surf Club, and swapping tales from the trails and events through the week. Australia has just gained another premier mountain bike event - and I'll be back for sure next year.