It was a standard miserable winter’s day as I sat down for a pie and coffee, seeking some momentary shelter from the driving southerly. Christchurch had just come off the back of its wettest ever July and, working as a drainlayer, the 9 – 5 had been rather moist.

Doom scrolling through my phone as smoko faded away, an email slid into my inbox with the subject line ‘Cairns’. My attention was caught.

Cairns – Reef to Reef MTB Race.
Tropical North Queensland. August 18th – 21st.
Pairs race – bring a mate. You keen?

Without an ounce of real consideration, the reply was simple: “I’m in”. I soon began to wonder: what had I actually signed up for?

But a quick Google had me frothing over tropical rainforest single track, golden sand beaches, blue skies and significantly warmer temperatures. It looked relatively straightforward: a multi-stage four-day race, starting in Cairns and ending on the beach in Port Douglas, covering some of the best singletrack and scenery Tropical North Queensland has to offer.

The stats on the elevation chart were brisked over as I looked down at the steak and cheese in my hand: “It’ll be OK, I’ve got a few weeks….”

The thought of international travel slowly started to get me fizzed up, especially now it’s a straightforward process with no hoops to jump through. The only issue I was facing was the lack of a current passport and, with all the Kiwis clearly eager to see the world right now, processing time was well out — nudging on the six week mark. With me only having three weeks lead in time, the urgent passport service was the way forward.

The other slightly important puzzle to solve was: who would I be pairing up with to race? It had to be someone that could put up with my subpar banter over 170km of riding, not complain about my apparently obnoxious snoring and, most importantly, someone who was keen to have a good time. My buddy Odin was the perfect person; a part time magician behind the lens and the kind of guy who’s always keen for a good time on and off the bike.

Last minute panic training commenced as it began to dawn on me that non-stop racing was a whole new kettle of fish for me. The idea that over the course of a 50-something km day we’d be up against the clock the whole time, was a foreign concept to grasp. I clicked the wind trainer up another notch and decided not to think about it. The Reef-to-Reef slogan was “Let the Good Times Roll” — and I was sure they would.

Bikes boxed, bags over-packed, we even managed a cheeky upgrade to business — this trip was off to a good start! Touching down in Cairns, via Sydney, we proceeded to play rental car Jenga, squeezing bike bags, suitcases and camera gear into the boot. A wise man once told me rental cars are the fastest cars you’ll ever drive, lucky for us this one was even red!

Cruising around the streets of Cairns was bliss, coming from a -4 frost to a 29-degree day was definitely a vibe I could quickly getting used to. In the past, if someone had ever mentioned something about mountain biking in Australia to me, it was usually followed with a yarn about how everything there is trying to bite/sting/eat you and you’d be crazy to get deep into the bush. Well, this thought quickly came to mind as we navigated our way up to the headwaters of what was to be one of many waterfall swims. It was simple for us: roots that don’t move = good; roots that move and bite = bad.

A pre-race reccy/rego was in order, so we headed to Smithfield MTB Park, home of numerous World Cup rounds and even World Champs back in 2017.

Rolling into the carpark it was rad to see preparation underway for Crankworx Cairns, taking place the following month: mountains of red dirt being shifted for the slopestyle course had my inner trail builder grinning ear to ear.

Rego formalities out of the way, we dusted the steads off and meandered our way into the forest for a practice loop — or what we thought was a loop. Turns out we missed the first half of the circuit and nearly half of the climbing. Ah well, better to ease into it, meaning more time in the afternoon for another waterfall swim and a tin or two.
Waterfalls – 2
Wildlife – 0
Beer of the day – Hemingway’s 7th Heaven

Race Day One

Smithfield MTB Park

After an interesting night at the Air BnB, due to a lack of power, we were all set to race. We even had a secret source of energy strapped onboard: the mighty VB. We figured its taste may be enhanced after an hour of undulating trails and warm heat and, should said wildlife jump out at us, we’d be prepared with some bargaining material.

Day one commenced with a mass start and a jostle for position off the line. The pace was quickly set and it was clear we were possibly here to participate rather than race, as the leading bunch of mixed pairs quickly blitzed passed us, aiding one another up the climb with a gentle push on the rear. I shouted out to Odin: “Where’s my helping hand?!” I heard a vague response, hurling abuse and average chat my way, but I was too preoccupied mouth breathing to pay much attention.

Smithfield was a blast. The descent wound its way through the forest then back out to the open and red dirt dust filled my eyes as we simultaneously reached down to crack a warm VB over the finish line. Day one — tick. I’d survived my first XC style race. Day two was primed to be one of the larger days in terms of elevation gained, so suitably another swim stop was found on the way home, to ice the legs and ice the beers.
Waterfalls – 3
Wildlife – 0
Beer of the day – VB

Race Day Two

Davies Creek MTB Park

Day two saw us venture 40 mins out of Cairns into the tablelands, where Davies Creek MTB Park is located. The variety in scenery was amazing. One minute you’re watching farmers burn out the sugar cane paddocks, next thing you know you’re driving deep through the dry tropics. Termite mounds littered the highway as the mercury danced dangerously close to single digits.

Today’s start was more relaxed, with riders taking off in five minute gaps decided by yesterday’s finish times. Finding ourselves sitting mid-pack there wasn’t the mad rush to the first corner we were caught in yesterday. Which was handy, as today’s trails were in complete contrast to the day previous. The tropical forest had been swapped for open bush country where gravel singletrack weaved its way through.

Odin had opted to ride with his camera onboard today, perhaps with a gentler pace in mind and potential for a few scenic photo stops along the way. Clearly the communication was lacking as I proceeded to embody my inner XC racer and attempt to attack up the first real climb.

Team tactics were discussed and lack of XC prowess accepted; and photo opportunities were seized or — more so fumbled — anytime I found myself behind the lens.

We wound our way back through the farm track dust clouds, and eventually popped back over the start finish line. Already slightly soggy from the numerous river crossings we encountered during the day a beeline was made to the river to cleanse the soul of the dust build up and the legs too.
Waterfalls – 2
Wildlife – 0 (do cows count?)
Beer of the day – Better Beer

Race Day Three

Mt Molloy
59 km

We woke in Port Douglas to the sound of the beautiful Curlew, a bird that Odin immediately despised as it had kept him awake from the early hours. This was perfect preparation for what was set to be the longest day of the race. We travelled our way back up onto the tablelands and into the sleepy wee town of Mount Molloy, a town once known for its timber and copper mining. Now, it seemed to be the popular spot to park up with your caravan and watch the world go by. Rigs oiled and legs stretched, I felt I was almost getting the hang of this XC style racing thing. Well, that’s what I thought until I completely missed the bottle drop. The only option left was to skull back my second bottle, containing my midday fuel, albeit at 8am. My eyes darted down to the XXXX strapped to the frame. Well, I guess I still had options.

A relaxed spin saw us head out of Vain‘s Park and down the highway. A neutral start kept the group together right until we hit the gravel road and crossed the timing beam — things then began to get spicy.

Bunch riding at high speeds with flat bars and loose gravel roads was an experience. The battle to hold on to the bunch and a free ride was strong but, alas, the screaming quads won, resulting in the pace returning to a manageable spin. Day three had it all, the wide-open gravel roads, tight techy singletrack river crossings, hike-a-bike sections and kilometres and kilometres of rainforest dank.

We undulated our way through two national parks (Kuranda and Mowbray) and slowly but surely the red dirt singletrack gave way to the gravel farm roads from earlier that morning. The changing factor this time round was the heat. The morning’s mass bunch spin had been full of cool air and giddy excitement, whereas the afternoon’s pedal mash gave into the classic “are we there yet?”, sun dodging and ever-necessary drafting just to drag my soggy legs back over the finish line.

All leg pain was quickly forgotten as the Mount Molloy publican assured us his lager was the best around. His money back guarantee was not at all needed.

In a common theme, we once again found ourselves pulling in for a dip on the way home – this time to Mossman Gorge. The most commercial of all our waterfall chasing, a short bus ride saw us back into the watery heaven my legs were craving.
Waterfalls – 1
Wildlife – the sounds of an excited Curlew
Beer of the day – Mount Molloy Lager

Race Day Four

Mt Molloy to Port Douglas

The penultimate day: the promise of a golden sand finish and cold beers on the beach really aided our motivation as the 4am alarm aggressively woke us from our slumber. The illusive Curlew caused no drama on this morning, or perhaps sleep was just enhanced by a few to many hoppy beverages as we explored Port Douglas the night prior.

Today was a point-to-point stage, starting in the same location as yesterday and finishing in front of the Port Douglas surf lifesaving club some 46km later. This was the reason for such an early rise, as we soon found ourselves loading bikes into the back of a truck and clambering into a bus, doing our best to sneak in an extra hour’s shut eye.

Bottle drop complete, it had taken me till the last day to get my ducks in a row and begin to feel like an organised multi-day racer. We headed out the same way we came into finish on day three, so we knew what to expect: the gravel roads quickly became a blur as we snuck back into the deep rainforest canopy.

The chat amongst the pits over the previous days was all focused around a certain part of the final day’s track, known as “The Bump”. This refers to the sheer drop in elevation from 350m down to near sea level as the trail abruptly descends from the Tablelands down to the sea. A quick look around at fellow competitors’ rigs told me it was safe to say our bikes were definitely more suited to this sudden change in trail, as the only change we’d made from our normal enduro bike setup was the adaptation of XC exo tires. We were quick to notice the benefit of pedalling round a burlier bike over the past three days, as we tilted the wheels down the Bump track.

“On ya left!” “On ya right!” was ringing out through the rainforest as we attempted to straight line our way down the trail, praying our thinner tires could hold up to our poor line choice’s and see us safely down to the sands of Port Douglas.

Soon enough, the dust of The Bump track was a mere memory and we found ourselves eating up the remaining kms on the pavement, the sound of the ocean drawing ever closer. A quick weave through some city cycle trails, and a last dash leg cooker through the palms, and we were finally basking in golden sand glory. This was what I had imagined some three weeks ago on that rainy Christchurch day, steak and cheese pie in hand.

The last 4km along the sand was all but over as we reached down to release the warm dusty XXXX can off our frames, to keep in check with our finish line hydration plan. The vibe of this multi-day race is something I could definitely get behind; good people, good trails and good times definitely rolled freely this week.

Not ones to break post-race tradition we made a beeline into the ocean (inside the stinger nets of course) and took a moment to reflect on some of the awesome scenery we had just sampled, the amazing streak of perfect weather and the fact that maybe you don’t have to be overly paranoid that the bush is full of crawly creatures just waiting to jump out and have a go at you.

Waterfalls – The Coral Sea was an adequate replacement
Wildlife – we actually scanned a crocodile basking in the sun on our way home!
Beer of the day – A few too many to count……

So if you find yourself looking to escape the depths of a chilly Kiwi winter, or maybe you’re just enticed by the thought of that warm, dusty, finish line beer, be sure to check out Reef to Reef 2023. You’ll be glad you did! •

Words: Jordan Phipps
Photography: Odin Woods, Mick Ross and Tim Bardsley-Smith