Day 3 of Cape to Cape was a race to (and from) Colonial Brewery. And three riders were keen to get there as soon as possible.
Day 3 of Cape to Cape was always going to be a cracker. Even though everyone is on holidays to be here anyway, it's still Saturday. And riding your mountain bike on a Saturday with mates is always something to look forward to.
Best of all, like much of the 2017 edition we're getting the good bits of Cape to Cape a bit earlier. So the natural flow that the Middle Earth singletrack was on the cards today, instead of stage 4. Plus there was a whole lot more of it.
With a start at Colonial Brewery, we all were due to set off in wave starts again. Along with the change to a clover leaf format of racing (unlike the point-to-point nature of previous years) this has made the starts, and finishes, of each day a breeze. There is no traffic jam of cars arriving for one start time, and the event centre stays buzzing all day.
No sooner had we negotiatd the first opening stretch of road once off the property, and it was clear some riders had shot off the front of the race in a breakaway. And some riders it was, too. Olympian and World Cup winner Dan McConnell, Eliminator World Champ Paul van der Ploeg, and World Tour racer Chris Hamilton. There are a lot of classy riders here at Cape to Cape, but if you had to select 3 of the most talented to put in a breakaway, this is a pretty solid collection.
Much of the front group were happy with the selection, and the pace was settled. Further back that allowed for opportunists to move up the field. Not safely, or intelligently, and although the start of the race was on open roads many people chose to ride up the wrong side of the road and push into the group when it was clear they were faced with oncoming traffic. More than a few people took the smart option of sitting up to avoid what seemed inevitable - an accident.
In time we were on fast and sandy double-track, which allowed the field to spread out. Those with the skills to ride fast and smooth in sand moved ahead. Those who used the easy rolling road to move up and ride beyond their skills and fitness shot backwards.
Middle Earth was approaching, and save for the breakaway, there was about 30 riders, lead by race leader Brendan Johnston, streaking across the paddock into the forest entrance, with a drone buzzing along to capture the moment (Johnston has informed us that it later crashed into a tree).
If you haven't ridden MIddle Earth, it's a bit different to the trails in the big developed trail centres around Australia. It's skinny. It's twisty. It keeps you guessing. Some of the built up dirt over logs kick, others don't. Sometimes you end up on a log ride, or you exit a berm into pea gravel, or you almost catch a foot on a piece of limestone. MIddle Earth has so many gifts to give but they don't come for free.
There's a trap though, and it comes from the terrain making it pretty hard to pass. It's not impossible, but it depends who is in front as to whether you can get by. It's easy for riders to let a wheel go if they are under pressure. So although a big group went in, smaller groups came out. Eventually. It was a super long section and it took a few victims. Russ Nankervis lost his rear mech, others were stopped with flats or other mechanicals too.
As the forest opened up, the passing began and the fast racing continued. By now it was only McConnell and van der Ploeg off the front, and by all accounts the chase group weren't really chasing, but chatting as they followed.
The finishing stretch combined farm trails, fast country roads and some epic creek crossings.
Into Colonial Brewery it was McConnell who took the stage, as van der Ploeg was 2nd and Cam Ivory came in for 3rd. There weren't too many shake ups on general classification, and Brendan Johnston remains in the lead, with Tasman Nankervis in 2nd. Cam Ivory is 3rd, Andrew Blair is 4th and Rohin Adams is 5th. Blair and Adams have been super consistent this race and it has earnt them a good place on GC. But can they improve on the final day?
Samara Sheppard was in a class of her own today, finishing with another stage win. Renata Bucher was 2nd and Briony Mattocks had a strong ride for 3rd. Peta Mullens was further back but remains 2nd overall. Samara has a great lead, but really anything can happen on the final stage.