Earlier this month, I packed up my bike and headed over to Margaret River in Western Australia to ride in the 11th Cape to Cape, Australasia’s longest running mountain bike stage race. The four-day race originally ran as a point to point from Cape Leeuwin, the most south-westerly point of Australia, to Cape Naturaliste some 90 kilometres north as the raven flies. The format has evolved into four loop stages, all within an easy drive of Margaret River. This makes the logistics simple for riders and supporters, who can stay in or near town for the entire race. You can bet that there will be another group of friendly mountain-bikers staying in the apartment next door, and the race atmosphere permeates through the town for Cape to Cape week.
Consecutive stages took riders through Boranup Forest, Margaret River and Middle Earth, showcasing the best single-track in the area. The trails were achievable by all levels of rider, with nothing super-technical that could be intimidating, but plenty of fun to be had by anyone riding at their own pace. When I heard that the third stage would finish on some freshly built trails in Margaret River that were being opened specifically for the race, I dubiously pictured some loose-packed bush tracks that might be trashed by the end of the day. Instead, I was delighted to find world-class flowy single track that had riders giggling, whooping and sending it all the way to the finish line.
The Cape to Cape stands out as a very scenic ride. Sections between the single-track rewarded riders with spectacular coastal vistas over world famous surf breaks, providing temporary distraction from burning legs and lungs. I have always thought of Australian bush as rather grey and dull, ideal for camouflaging a koala, but here the bush was vibrant green with colourful flowers peppered all over the place. Springtime in WA does not disappoint!
The four-day stage race could be the perfect format. Long enough to be challenging and to reward consistency and endurance, but short enough that it’s still fun at the end. Stage distances ranged from 45 to 65km, meaning that even riders at the back of the field were back in time for lunch with time to recover before the next day. Speedy riders had time to enjoy some of the local attractions in the afternoons, though a few extra days at either end would have been preferable. I wished I could have stayed longer to enjoy a surf, explore the caves, walk some of the Cape to Cape track, and drink a bit more of the excellent local wine.
Other than day one, which was based at the iconic Cape Leeuwin Lighthouse, all the stages started (and more importantly finished) at centres of alcohol production, proving that the race organisers take seriously their goal to showcase local industry and ensure that riders and their crews were well-rewarded for their efforts on the trails.
The Cape to Cape attracts huge fields, and the word amongst the elite riders is that it tends to be more competitive than nationals because everyone who’s anyone turns up. The elite men’s race was very close run, with only 8 seconds separating second placed Kyle Ward from winner, Brendan Johnston. In the women’s race, Kiwi favourite and defending champion, Samara Sheppard was unlucky to pick up a stomach bug before the race. She managed to pull off a convincing stage win on day one, but the longer stages proved difficult to contest on a diet of rice alone, and rising star Holly Harris went on to win the race. Kiwi grit and determination carried Samara on to complete the race in fourth place.
You don’t have to be at the pointy end of the field to enjoy a bit of friendly competition, as I found out racing for the Women’s Masters 1 jersey. You can read all about my Cape to Cape experience in the Feb/Mar edition of NZMTBR magazine.
Words & Images: Peg Leyland & Tim Bardsley Smith
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