– words by Robbie McNaughton - photos by Josh Stephenson & Mick Ross (Flow Mountain Bike)
It’s not every day that a major event swings through your home town, or in the case of the Port to Port Mtb, completely envelopes it!
When initially asked to be a part of the Port to Port MTB event we @ Drift Bikes looked at many things when considering whether to come on board as official race support or just support our riders along the way and compete in it ourselves. Logistically the event seemed a big pill to swallow and adding half our workshop and spares to the planning process made the event a big commitment, but Drift Bikes ain’t scared of a little hard work. And man (collectively speaking), was it worth it!
Before we had even made it to the Thursday we were fortunate enough to see Andy Blair and Jenny Fay in store to collect some last minute product for the days ahead including the new Evade Helmet and some fresh rubber. Clever reconnaissance work by Andy had led him to choose Renegade Control tyres of the 29x2.3 variety. This choice came about from the large amount of sand sections scheduled for stages 1 and 4. Andy opted for the control sidewall, which reduces the tpi count for the casing, adding weight (100 grams for the pair) but increasing cut resistance considerably.
But perhaps the sweetest thing about Andy and Jenny rolling into the store was that they brought Andy’s SW Stumpjumper HT 29 with them, complete with the soon to be released RS1 fork from Rock Shox.
Day 1 – Dolphins, sand and the vertical beach
This is one of the best days work I have ever done. Setting up waterside @ Nelson Bay left a fuzzy feeling that continued throughout the entire weekend. The event organisers had done us proud and positioned us at the waters edge with crystal clear sand bottomed water only metres away. We we’re loving it.
There was a massive influx of work from the minute the van opened. People had forgotten things, their “pre race service” had left spray lube all over their rotor and pads and others simply needed a tube. But perhaps the biggest thing we noticed right out of the gate was the lack of preparation that goes towards the bike. Never underestimate how much better your weekend can be if you spend as much time preparing your bike as you do preparing your body for the event. The disappointment on people faces or the stress we witnessed first hand as people scrambled to make a very tired bike into something that was ready to race was enough for me to want to write the following words of warning/wisdom.
No matter how much you think the bike is going ok, get an experienced 3rd party to look over it, then go and ride it and look it over and check that everything is in order. Race preparation for your bike is not about how well it rode on the last training ride, it’s about checking over the potential areas for failure and making a closer inspection of each and every part.
Drift Bikes top checkpoints are:
Wheels – Yo DJ, Spin that wheel. Check to see that your wheels are straight, feel your spoke tension around the entire wheel and keep an eye out for any bent spokes as these have the greatest potential for failure. Rotate your tyres slowly and inspect for any cuts or leaks, especially at the bead where it can quite easily be overlooked. Spin the wheels out of the bike to feel for any rough bearings and wiggle the axle to check for any play.
Derailleur cables – Run your eye over the derailleur cables both inner and outer and inspect for frays or splits. A blown cable can cost you a huge amount of time but is under $10 to replace. Pretty cheap insurance prior to a race should there be any signs of damage.
Derailleur hanger and limits – This is one of the most common areas for failure in all races. It takes 5 seconds to check your derailleur is tight to the frame. Secondly, shift the bike into the easiest gear and insure that you cannot push the derailleur into the spokes. If you can it is likely that your low limit requires adjustment or you may have a bent hanger! Next shift to your hardest gear and check that the derailleur cannot overshift your chain towards the seatstay. Keeping a close eye on your derailleur and shifting will improve chain life and insure you don’t have an unfortunate and expensive mistake 5m out of the start or even worse 25km from home! Loose
Nuts – Go over your whole bike top to bottom, front to back and check that your bolts are tight. This does not mean adding a quarter turn to every bolt! Just fit the allen key apply pressure and feel that it is fixed in position. Common missed items include – chainring bolts, seat clamp bolts, pivots and derailleur pulley wheels.
Now, lets talk about the race. I didn’t actually see any dolphins although the view throughout the entire day made me feel that I was friends with them, wherever they were. Despite heaving a lung to hold onto a bunch as we rounded Fingal bay, I couldn’t help but steal a look at the amazing serenity of Nelson Bay. The place is magic. Sadly, the sand did make me feel like I was dragging an anchor behind my SW Camber. Whilst the SW Camber Evo is not the ultimate in race bikes it does weigh in at a respectable 11 kilo for a 120mm trail bike. My choice to ride it was mainly down to not having an Epic of my own and being completely familiar with it, being my own bike. The biggest thing I noticed with riding the Camber is when the going gets flat or uphill you simply aren’t forward enough to really drive power deep into the bike and maintain the speed as easily as you would on an Epic 29 or better still, a Stumpjumper Hardtail 29. But enough shitcanning my beautiful trail bike! I wasn’t at the pointy end of the field anyway so it was all about getting it done!
Somewhere that the bike mattered not one iota was the vertical beach. Even the man of the hour, Andy Blair walked up this bad boy. Strava puts the Vertical Beach climb at around 30metres in elevation, and as you can probably tell from the name, it goes straight up and is made from sand. As much as this section sucked to go up, the sand descent off the back was serious fun. With your weight off the back of the bike you could swing the front wheel through foot deep sand thanks to some pretty decent vertical fall, and of course, the risk is low if you come off as its only sand after all! 38km later the sand winds out and you are left with a wood chipped singletrack journey through Little Beach before bopping along the cycleway to the finish. An epic first day where the initial shock and challenge of the sand is what turned the event into something a little bit more special. Many of the locals commented that there were better places to ride than what was chosen for the course and this was echoed throughout the entire event. Being early days for the port to port I think we will see improvements to next years course and me being me, I won’t oppose any singletrack that replaces sandy fireroad!
Day 2 – Fresh Mud
Lindeman’s Winery played host to Stage 2 and this is where things began to get heavy in the climbing department. In contrast to the flatter Port Stephens Stage the Lindeman’s loop took you all the way up onto the stunning backdrop of the Pokolbin State Forest. Once atop of the main ridge line the course traversed the back drop via some very slippery singletrack. This for me made stage 2 a real mountain bike race. The singletrack flowed on for a good few km’s before dropping out onto a very muddy, freshly logged firetrail. If it hasn’t been named yet, Bogg Alley would suffice nicely. In some sections the mud was axle deep and every rider I saw walking thru this section had that much mud on their tyres it resembled a fat bike! I remember at one stage thinking that I would carry my bike rather than push it. That didn’t happen as when I went to lift it I couldn’t even break the tyres free from the mud! Good news lay ahead however as Bogg Alley was followed by a descent aptly
named Into the Rabbit Hole.
This decent dropped you all the way off the top of the forest to Cedar Creek Road, a well maintained dirt road that flowed the riders back out towards Millfield where we took a left and began the long winding ascent of Mt View. 4km from the finish the course literally fell out of the sky down a rocky fireroad before flicking through some vineyards back to the finish.
Day 2 proved to be one of the toughest for Drift Bikes as with 50km of mud riding coupled with 2 hours of sand the day before, anyone whose bike was a little out of shape going into the race was now in dire need of some love. Suffice to say we were the last ones to leave minus quite a few chains, brake pads and cables!
Drift Bikes chose to stay at the Crown in the Hunter valley as it was super central to both day 2 and 3. The best part about staying at the Crown is the restaurant and its high level of service. Despite being tired we were still able to carry a solid conversation regarding how much the bone weighed in a 400gram rib eye. Probably the only criticism is that the Villa’s don’t have washing machines although I am sure there is one on site. I was simply too tired to find out, so it was wet gloves for me on day 3!
Day 3 – Tooting
Another picturesque winery start line greeted riders for the Stage 3 start at Briar Ridge. In similar fashion to the previous day, this stage also started with a mental climb, at least this time nowhere near as long at only 5km instead of 10! The climb and the super fast descent skirted the bottom end of the Pokolbin State Forest with the course then heading east toward Abernathy along some rolling hills and old trainlines. Heading north towards Neath the course elevation stayed fairly steady with all of the hills being short, especially in comparison to the start!
Despite being a mountain bike race don’t underestimate what pushing to stay with a group can do to your overall time. There was some definite benefit as we exited the Pokolbin area and took turns along wollombi road, but aside from the obvious wheel sitting that goes on during the faster road sections, a good group will point out obstacles and provide another set of eyes for what lies ahead. That doesn’t mean you trust them with your life however.
The big thing with the port to port race is you are not racing on closed roads, so despite the desire to put your head down and just truck along, you need to be constantly mindful of traffic, even when in the bush. Remember that it isn’t the 99% of people who are aware that collects you unawares, it’s the 1% that don’t read the signs!
I for one was pretty happy with Stage 3 as I really don’t think I could have carried the same pace had the course been more brutal. The other bonus was finally catching up to leg weapon Jake Pattison who I rode the final couple of km’s with. Jake ended up 11th in Masters Men Category 1 with a 52nd placing overall out of the 147 4 Day competitors! The finish of stage 3 was like going back in time as the course meandered through the Richmond Vale Rail Museum. Rusting carriages and tired old workshops overshadowed some tired riders as they pushed to the line with only 1 day left to ride.
Day 4 – Where Dolphins Walk
Stage 4 is where the whole event really hit home for me. This event has the potential to be on the world calendar and it is right here on our doorstep. Setting up the tents on Sunday morning at Nobby’s beach as the drove of backpackers were moved on to make way for Shimano’s massive blue shipping container display of the new XTR, it really sunk in the fact that we are so lucky to live where we live. There are so many trails that are yet to be considered as this event builds momentum and despite the day 4 course having a very heavy road bias, it was still exciting to be gearing up to race on our very own home trails. For the final day I switched the Roval Control Carbon SL wheels from the Camber Evo into a Crave Pro, due mainly to the fact that the course was primarily hardtail territory. I realised halfway up the first climb from the start at Cams Wharf how much easier I could have done the last three days but that insight will have to wait till next years race!
Fun Fact: It was great to see Cams Wharf play host to the start line as Cameron Ivory is doing really well on the world stage and this will only add value to this pocket of land owned by the Ivory family. The wharf is more of a jetty and is quite run down but the lake still offers a great view. From the start the course climbed its way through Murrays Beach before heading across Swansea channel and up to Blacksmiths Surf Club. Here is where it got real nasty as it dropped on to the sand for a near 2km sand ride/walk/grovel to redhead. The lighter weight rider seemed to win out here with 55kilo girls dancing across the sand passed droves of 75 kilo plus guys. Wide tyres and low pressures were what was needed for this and to my detriment the 2.0’s on my bike weren’t helping. The sound of the sand running through the brakes was horrible not to mention the sound they made when used for the first time once the sand section ended and the muddy redhead fireroads took you through to the Fernleigh.
Ah the Fernleigh… So to address the elephant in the room, the only way to host a race that uses a cycleway is to close the cycleway. Irrespective of the directive made to riders at the start to be considerate and to share the cycleway with other users, it was always going to breed an ugly outcome without closing the cycleway. Whilst I am all for this race to continue, a definite plan of awareness for all user groups along with less cycleway in general will help to make this event even greater. The course finally swooped into Glenrock just past the Dudley rd Crossing and made a beeline for the picnic table. Here it wrapped around to Snakes and Ladders incorporating seismic, reload and Kenny’s. It dropped riders back out onto Scenic Drive at the top of Yule Rd in Merewether Heights. From here riders were treated to completely closed roads right through to the finish at Nobby’s.
My only criticism of Glenrock was that there is so much more that could have been used to showcase what we have here in Newcastle. It was a shame that people that had come all the way from South Africa and Western Australia only got to ride the glorified fire trail networks along with some of the singletrack. No doubt this gave them a taste but more could be done to truly showcase Glenrock and the draw card it holds for tourism into Newcastle.
I for one am absolutely stoked on this event and for all of our customers who took the punt and gave it a go whether for a day or four. A massive thanks go to all of the Drift Crew for a huge effort over the 4 days both in the store and to Brad at the race as without your hard work, I wouldn’t have got to race my bike. A huge congrats to Freemo for stomping through the 4 days, jetlagged but getting it done all the same and to Josh for putting together some amazing video coverage of the event. Cant wait til next year. I’ll come prepared.