Words: Zoe Binder | Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith


Port to Port celebrated it’s 5th birthday this year, and it brought some fantastic trails to the party. To me, understanding the attraction of mountain biking all begins with the people who you do it with. This is without doubt the reason that Port to Port is such a success. The flow of the trails is equalled by the stream of endless happy faces coming swirling around corners, and through the twists in this Australian bush scape. Not only is this a place where the elite of the sport can hit it out in a world class race, but crowds of mates, mums, dads and people from all walks of life can come together and experience the togetherness that is only felt through sharing a journey. A hunt for adventure. A collective experience.

Racing has, and I think always will be a great way for families to participate in cycling, regardless of different ability levels. Port to Port is another great example of a race that can be taken shaken or stirred. You’re able to compete in either one day of all four of the stages, in a curated experience that is extremely inclusive. If you’re more tentative, or maybe aren't as fit as you’d like to be, we’d suggest competing in one of the weekend stages, (or maybe both!) and simply enjoying the scenery and a more informal approach to racing. For more advanced riders, this race has great scope for being able to dial up the adventure aspect, and challenge yourself. The range of ability levels also means that no one is left riding on their own, and comradely on the trail is a big draw card for this race.

This experience isn’t one that is over in a day, but rather a chance for many of us to explore our own backyards in NSW, and take a break from reality, to submerge into a world of dust and adventure. The race is carefully selected to encompass similar trails year to year, however there is always a new spin. This year the event has put together a master piece that allows the best part of the Mid East Australian coast to shine.

The stages at Port to Port

This year’s trails started at the Audrey Wilkinson Winery in the Hunter Valley, where an early start boasted views of hot air balloons rising in the golden light. There was an eager air of anticipation amongst the crowds competing, with many riding their first ever mountain bike race. A quick hit out and riders encounter an initial 10km climb, before being awarded a great day of single track leading back to the winery to finish. This stage, as with stage two and three, both start and finish in the same location, making logistics a breeze.

Stage two was freshly designed for the 2018 Port to Port, and saw some vintage singletrack favourites make an appearance like old school Killingsworth, that has been ridden on and loved for many years. This 30 kilometres of singletrack had some newer, looser trails mixed in, where you can really let go and have some fun.

Cam Ivory remembers ‘Killy’ from his formative years and “that’s where I got into the sport of mountain biking, but some of those trails are still new to me. There are so many guys building trails in Newcastle which is good to see”. Much of the course is new and it’s a true test to testament to how much mountain biking is growing in the area. Continuing through the stage, spectacular views were abundant after an initial climb up the notorious Sugarloaf, stretching out to the lower Hunter Valley, and Lake Macquarie.

The first three stages are extremely accessible for spectators, with multiple viewing points along the route. It’s was fantastic to see so many locals and spectators out this year, and created a great atmosphere at all the stage finishes, allowing everyone to have a coffee and share their love for cycling. Another great part about the 2018 Port to Port was the elite’s fat tyre crit stage. It’s right on the Newcastle harbour foreshore, making for a great night of food, music and racing. It is composed of a handful of the highest GC ranks riders in both the men’s and women’s, and tight time gaps lead to an electric atmosphere and dynamic racing between the elite field. With time bonuses up for grabs, this stage really shook up the GC standings. There is a kids race also run, which allowed this event to showcase a full spectrum of riding, and inspiring the next generation of riders.

The penultimate stage of the Port to Port started with the smell of coffee ahead of the 59 kilometres and 1200 meters of vertical. There were a number of tired riders, starting to feel the strain of the previous two days of flowing single track and gruelling climbs. It’s at this point in the race that you really do understand the journey of a stage race, and the feeling that despite it being a race, everyone is all in it together. A longer initial climb doesn't take any prisoners and a long string of riders can been seen puffing their way to the top in search of gravity’s reward. Riders certainly do find it, as this Queen stage has a hidden jewel in the form of ‘Awaba'. Singletrack curves in and out of the famously flowing single track and lush foliage, showing off some of the best riding in the area.

The last stage rounds out a long race, incorporating a beach sand segment for added difficulty. A fantastic and action packed four days ended on the iconic shores of Merewether beach in Newcastle, where the crowds could be seen enjoying the beautiful weather and sharing stories at enjoying the Eats, Beats and Bikes festival. Cold beverages kept weary riders fuelled and the afternoon was spent relaxing on the grass, where even the elite riders couldn’t help but indulge in a burger or two. By the beach with a beer in hand, and a bunch of mates, it’s hard to imagine how a weekend could have been any better. One thing is for sure, next year I’m coming back and bringing more friends!

The nuts and bolts 

Rider support has been comprehensively considered, with a bottle and nutrition drops available, keeping riders fed and watered, getting them to the finish line stoked. A comprehensive hotel package is also available, letting you forget about the logistics and focus on the important parts… riding, amazing scenery and an adventure with your mates that you won't forget.

The people 

The Southern Highlands cycling club is well represented with a group of friends, their laughs making the cold morning air ripple with energy. Here we have a bunch of great mates who's lives have collided over a mutual love for riding on two wheels, mostly in the very early hours of the morning, and some of whom are completing their first ever mountain biking event. For them the pilgrimage is a great break from the skinny tires, and a chance to get a weekend away. Today it’s Southern Highlands local Paul Bruce who has been assigned the group’s ugly ‘novelty knit’ and fluro pink cap, because of his faux pas the day before.

Natalie Saunders and Kim Willox are excitedly waiting for the stage to begin, and are both mates and Mums of young families, taking a chance to get four days away from what I’m sure is a busy schedule. The duo had done the sister race ‘Cape to Cape’ and are back to enjoy the “added challenge of stage racing”. They explain to me the atmosphere is different here and “the added comradely" out on the trail as opposed to lap based, one day racing is totally different. “It’s a different atmosphere and it’s definitely not all about racing. By the end of the few days you’ve made new friends out there, and everyone is looking out for each other.” Saunders explains. They are quick to remind me, that “everyone is hurting the same, whether they are up the front or out the back”, which nicely sums up the shard journey of the Port to Port.

At the pointy end of the standings, even the elite riders are able to take some time out to relax.
Cam Ivory says these “stage events are so social, we’re all trying to find a second over each other but as soon as we stop, we all get some food together and get a coffee”. Michael Potter, who this year has made the switch to the skinny tires for ACA, is back to mix it up. “It’s just fun, and that’s why I'm here” he grins, after a stage where he’s just had a mechanical that lost him more than 10 minutes. “The racing is fast, but you can also come with friends and introduce them to mountain biking”, explains Brendan Johnston, who had the fastest accumulative time over the four days. Tasman Nankervis who took the stage victory on the last day said, “I’ve had an unreal week, these are my favourite events by far, with a relaxed atmosphere”. There isn't a word of a lie across his face as he explains to me that this race is “100% enjoyment”.

 

Holly Harris’s dominant Port to Port campaign was accompanied with a lot of giggling and she always has a great time on the bike, and especially at a stage race such as this. Holly explains she had so much fun during the long weekend, “I’ve loved being able to meet new people out on track, and the atmosphere is just amazing and being here with mates is great”. This makes me understand that it’s the scenery and unbelievable riding what draws the crowds, and it’s the social atmosphere that make them come back.

So many of the same faces are at these events, and create this community that is supportive, while still helping you push the limits. “It’s good to see a young crowd as well as the old faithfuls” comments Jayden Ward, someone who has been racing in the cross country scene for more than 10 years since he was a junior. Sarah Tucknott, along with the rest of her family, has been an integral part of the racing scene in Australia for many years, and it’s nice to see how this continual support sets the tone for great racing and a friendly atmosphere. A big mention should go to the volunteer help throughout this race, giving their time to make sure everyone is safe and stays on track.

Entries are already open for Port to Port in 2019, the it runs from 23-26 May - why not grab some mates and come along?