It's been 21 years since we last visited the lush rainforest region on the northeast coast of Australia for a UCI Mountain Biking DH World Championship, although it was only last year we saw the circus stop off at this venue for a World Cup round.
Nestled behind Cairns' James Cook University campus, Smithfield Regional Park plays host to the best-rider-in-the-world-on-any-given-Sunday competition, aka, the World Championships. The victors in the Elite and Junior categories will each take ownership of a prized Rainbow Jersey, signifying their own and their nation's glorious achievement as we hurtle towards 2018.
The area surrounding the World Champ's venue offers two UNESCO World Heritage sites; the Great Barrier Reef and the Daintree Rainforest, the oldest surviving tropical rainforest in the world. It's a stunning location for what will no doubt be an amazing weekend of racing, and the final chapter of one of the most thrilling seasons in competitive downhill mountain biking history.
Venomous creatures and vegetation. But apart from that, the track is pretty sweet.
In all fairness, the trail crew has been working hard to keep the wilderness at bay, ensuring that the well-known features haven't been swallowed up by the encroaching plant life. Long gone is the sharkhead starting gate (although the race organisers were on the lookout for it for this year), but the dirt and rocks are still the same, and the roots just as lethal.
Last year's 1.9km World Cup track started off with some nice looking berms called the Minjin Switchbacks. With some small rock gardens as tasters throughout, riders then have to face a substantial rock garden at speed. Once clear of the rocks the track opens up, although there are a few big roots riders would have to get over—lethal in the wet of course. Next up is a series of fast jumps, followed by that great nemesis of DH, a pedally uphill section, which always proves to be a great test of riders' fitness, especially in the humid conditions. A few turns later, riders drop into Mick's Drop and then straight over the Strutters (an intense motocross-style whoop section).
By this stage, riders are at the 1km point and after a big right-hand bend, they're halfway to the finish line. But here's where the track tightens, with the trees getting closer and closer to the track, exposing more and more roots as the weekend progresses. Riders will no doubt have a hard time finding the fastest line, let alone sticking to it at race speed. Soon up is Brosnan's gap which is a great spot for a cheeky whip, and time to catch your breath because right after, there's the big and relatively flat sprint to the finish, found only a few meters beyond the rainforest treeline.
In the latter half of April last year, Cairns hosted the second race of the 2016 season. The hot, humid air was welcomed by most of the field, particularly after a chilly and muddy Lourdes the race before. Although it was cyclone season, the track on race day was drying up, so much so that those in the know decided to gamble with tire choice.
It was plain sailing for Rachel Atherton in Elite Women, taking the win by seven seconds, ahead of Cairns local Tracey Hannah in second, with Manon Carpenter in third.
In Elite Men it was the traditional nail-biting stuff, with a few wildcards thrown into the top pack for good measure. Privateer Joshua Button (more on him later) was in the hot seat for a while, after a stunning run. Steve Smith was one of the main challengers but suffered a front flat which ruined his race—he still crossed the finish line in style, wheeling across it to a standing ovation.
It was then the turn of the defending World Champion; Rainbow Jersey on display, Frenchman Loïc Bruni aced his run and crossed the finish line ahead of everyone. Could this be his first ever World Cup win?
Three men had other thoughts… Mick Hannah, Aaron Gwin and Troy Brosnan. Gwin didn't have a good run and ended up behind Loïc, whereas the man with the home-advantage, Sik Mik, had an awesome run (for someone who was self-admittedly aiming for 10th that day), ending up between Loïc and Aaron.
The last man down was fellow Australian, Brosnan. He came excruciatingly close to Loïc's time, but the Frenchman had done it; he had won his first ever World Cup race.
Tickets can be purchased online before the event, with daily general admission tickets costing $25.00 (adult), $15.00 (junior 10–14yrs), $20.00 (concession), $20.40 (local resident), $60.00 (family of four), or if you want access from Friday to Sunday, then it's $60.00 (adult), $30.00 (junior 10–14yrs), $45.00 (concession), $140.00 (family of four).
The organisers have made some big changes at the venue, most noticeably for spectator access. The dense rainforest made it hard work for fans to watch the action at last year's World Cup, and it was made doubly worse once the tropical rains came down, turning the red dirt into an ice rink. A lot of time has been spent negotiating with the Queensland government to ensure better access for the Champs, especially when the expected 20,000 fans turn up over the weekend to watch the action. A new spectator access trail now follows alongside the downhill course from the finish area to the rock garden, giving people a more convenient way to see the riders as well as better designed zones to increase safety.
If you fancy a bit of riding while you're out there then North Queensland offers over 500km of trails, from Port Douglas in the north to Mission Beach in the south. Alternatively, if you don't have a fear of man-eating sharks or deadly stinging jellyfish, then you're in luck, as the Great Barrier Reef is on your doorstep. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site because of its ecological importance, it's neighbour is the the world's oldest surviving tropical rainforest which surrounds the city of Cairns. Here you can take guided tours to see all the best spots or go diving, snorkelling or island hopping. There's also hiking and lots of historical and cultural sites to see as well as opportunities to learn about Australia's indigenous people's heritage, including seeing the 15,000–30,000 years old rock art in the Black Mountain (Kalkajaka) National Park.
Cairns always delivers on memorable moments, such as in 2014, when Gee Atherton borrowed a fan's Five Tens because he felt the track's tight and twistiness in the slippery mud required flats over clips. Turns out Gee made the right choice. He took the win.
Then there's that time when Adam Brayton went a bit too gas-to-flat and ended up flying off the track and into a tree. A nine-inch gash on his shin and a raft of YouTube videos were his only prize that weekend.
Neither can we forget that when Brayton crashed, a keen spectator thought he'd do Adam a favour by taking his bike down the track. A real 'hold my beer' moment as the spectator decided to actually ride Brayton's bike down one of the meanest World Cup courses rather than what most people would have done and just walked it down the spectator access trail. The result was a concussion, a broken shoulder, and a broken back for our good Samaritan.
Photo credit: Adam Bowey
As for more positive memories from Cairns, 2016 gave us the Joshua Button story. Having only started training for the World Cup race three weeks before the race weekend (and only doing so before and after work), the Australian Kona rider managed to get the fifth fastest time of race day, having a decent spell in the hot seat whilst we basked in the glory. Nine-to-five man Joshua took everyone by surprise. I guess there's hope for all of us sitting behind a desk right now.
Pinkbike will be providing you with the best daily coverage from our hardworking team of photographers in Cairns this week. There’ll be the usual stunning photo epics from the track walk on Wednesday, practice on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday (as well Junior seeding on Friday), and finals on Sunday (Women Juniors 0930–1000, Men Juniors 1000–1130, Women Elite 1300–1400, Men Elite from 1400—local time/AEST).
For the Elite Women and Elite Men finals, you can watch the action live on TV on Fox Sports Australia or SBS, from 1255 local time. Alternatively you can watch the race online via various means, including the BBC Red Button and online (including iPlayer for the replay) from 03:55 on Sunday, UK time, or via the UCI’s Facebook page
where they’ll also be streaming the race. Red Bull TV will be broadcasting the Elite XC and DH races in most countries—with some exceptions. We'll update this post as more information becomes available.
Here’s a breakdown of what these times mean in these main locations:
• 12:55 – Sunday // Cairns, Australia (AEST)
• 03:55 – Sunday // London, UK (BST)
• 04:55 – Sunday // Berlin, Germany (CEST)
• 19:55 – Saturday // Vancouver, Canada (PDT)
• 22:55 – Saturday // Washington DC, USA (EDT)
• 14:00 – Sunday // Auckland, New Zealand (NZST)Note: Broadcast times are subject to change. Please check with your local provider.
/ @natedh9 / @paulaston