Stage 3 of Cape to Cape is the one to hang out for. And it truly delivered.
Cape to Cape leaders Holly Harris and Brendan Johnston have won the 3rd, sinuous singletrack stage through Margaret River's best trails to reinforce their race leads.
Day 3 dawned and the wind was blowing off the ocean, under a threatening sky. Save for the rain squalls on day one, we've been pretty lucky with the weather at Cape to Cape. The trails have drained really well and the traction is incredible - if you're not on the odd wet root.
Today's stage is unique as the whole race leaves under escort, rolling down through the main street of Margaret River. It's not a big town, and when big events come it really swells the population. So while over 1300 riders have a number plate on and are racing and riding on the trails, there are even more family members, friends and support crew lining the streets.
Sure, it's a little tense further back as riders take thei hands off the bars to wave to little Timmy or to their partner. But in general it's a Good Thing.
You can break this stage into two parts. Positioning, and railing singletrack. And when the group turns off Carters Road, it's on like Donkey Kong. Rolling double track follows, where there's really only one good line. Jayden Ward said he was a little bit concerned at the start.
"It was pretty scary at the start. The start of this stage last year when it was the final stage didn't end too well for me. I ended up in hospital with a busted up chin, so it didn't go to well. I was pretty nervous going into the first few kilometres. I knew it was going to be important to be up the front, as it always is, but with a little bit more pressure from myself."
"Obviously everyone else had the same idea but it was pretty smooth through there. The trails were great this year, everything was nice and clear."
Things got under way pretty quickly, as the race so so damn tight up the front.
"Kyle whacked it pretty early on on the short and sharp climbs, and then we headed over into The Pines and the race blew to pieces. I was riding with Andrin, and to be honest without him it would be pretty lonely out there. To have someone to ride with out there today was awesome, it made it even better. But it was pretty bloody awesome out there today."
At the front though, the race was being fought out by Brendan Johnston, Cam Ivory and Kyle Ward.
"It was a really close race today, and really hard, I got everything thrown at me," said race leader and stage winner Brendan Johnston as he hung out in the Giant Australia tent. "I just had to be in full defence mode really. Cam almost rode away with the whole race in the middle, with Kyle and I just hanging on. But I was proud of myself that I hung on, and got a couple more seconds at the finish."
Reece Tucknott said he just didn't have the legs he needed today, finishing 4th and losing a couple of minutes to Johnston. This puts Tucknott in 4th, while Cam Ivory has moved into 3rd overall with Kyle Ward in 2nd overall.
"Normally we have fun on the singletrack, but today was business all the way," said Johnston. "It was all about the overall. There was plenty of grip out there save for the token roots and pea gravel. It wasn;t so much as previous years as it was very fast, and I was on the back foot plenty of times."
We have just one stage left to race, and Johnston has a slim 9 second lead on Kyle Ward, and about 1 minute and 10 seconds on Cam Ivory. There's a lot at stake on tomorrow's 57km that includes the infamous Middle Earth trails. Johnston predicts another close battle.
"I think it will be similar to today, there are some sandy drags on the way over to Middle Earth, and I think Kyle will try what he can. I'm pretty confident I can follow. I did it today, and I did it yesterday."
But the question is, can Johnston keep the lead? Will an attack from Ivory or Ward stick?
"Days like today, where I'm just getting attacked the whole day, it does take it out of you. The surges take it out of me, and those guys want what I've got, which is the lead. There's not much in it and they have to do all they can - and they will."
Holly Harris rode a blazingly fast race again today, winning the women's race with about a minute gained on Renata Bucher, who is 2nd overall. Samara Sheppard was resurgent - of sorts - after illness yesterday to finish 3rd in Open women.
"It was so fun out there today, I rode with Lee Scurlock - he's a local. I've ridden these trails before a long time ago when I was really slow and struggling. So it was fun to actually go a bit faster and try to hang on to Lee was really hard!
"Renata had a really strong ride and was always there so she did awesome today. I think I gained a minute on her today so have about a 6 minute lead - hopefully that will do for tomorrow. Fingers crossed!"
Samara Sheppard is then 3rd behind Renata, with Jess Simpson in 4th and Sarah Tucknott in 5th. Peg Leyland is 7th overall and leads Master's Women - it looks like Cape to Cape is proving to be an excellent training ground for The Pioneer next month for this New Zealand local.
In Master's Men, Jon Gregg won but was on the same time as leader Brad Clarke - so there is no change in the lead. Andrew Low was 3rd, having a good day on the trails.
The 2018 Cape to Cape is turning into a bit of a close race. And that's the case all the way through the field. Thanks to the size of the event you never really feel like you're out of the action. You can find your own race if that's your thing. Maybe it's with your mates, your arch-rival, someone who you've met in the start chute - it doesn't really matter. It's fun to get out and have a go, and let your talent shine on whatever type of trail suits the most. And tomorrow with Middle Earth will suit those who like tight and twisty hand-built trails.