Now that the Downhill calendar in Australia is winding down with the 1st World Cup only few days away, the Australian Enduro race season is just getting started. With 5 rounds scheduled over the next 5 months the Australian Gravity Enduro series kicked off in the Victorian alpine village of Falls Creek, 21-23 April.
Falls Creek is a booming alpine ski resort with a rich history dating back the 1850s when the alpine region surrounding the area was used for summer cattle grazing. Winter skiing activities date back 60 years with the construction of Australia's first chairlift in 1957. The resort has developed an impressive summer tourism scheme over the last 5 years, central to that has been the construction of 42km machine crafted mountain bike trails thanks to the world famous World Trail crew.
The alpine terrain is rugged, rocky and spectacular. Bush fires have ripped through the area over the last 15 years resulting in an eerie post-apocalyptic landscape that is utterly unique to the altitude of 1600-1800m (5250-6000ft). Gnarly limbed Snow Gum and giant Mountain Ash are the dominant species, both of which survive the harsh winter snow but suffer fatally from summer bushfires, regeneration is slow.
The trails themselves are generally flowy and fast with intermittent natural rock features, its a spider web of trails in all directions with the central hub being right in the village, indeed there are almost more kilometers of mountain bike trails than ski runs!
Friday and Saturday were scheduled practice days and the weather was atrocious, cold, windy and a visibility of about 15m. Only a few brave souls ventured out on Friday before much of the same weather on Saturday. The big difference being the addition of Blue Dirt Shuttles, who have been operating an awesome shuttle service at Falls Creek all summer. Most riders purchased a shuttle pass and drove up through the fog to the summit multiple times to practice the 4 timed stages. It was still a miserable day but everyone was smiling and enjoying the trails by the end of each run. It wasn't so much finding the best lines but staying upright over the slick rocks and not sliding out around the muddy corners.
Blue Dirt shuttles ran smoothly all day.
Dave Ludenia and Harrison Dobrowolski stay warm by the fire pit.
The Blue Dirt Shuttle rig is impressive.
Shannon Hewetson's Intense and Ben Forbes' Trek.
Ben Cory rides up the short climb from the shuttle to the summit.
The top of stage 3 was super fast before this left-hand corner which had filled up with slick mud.
Ben Forbes was flying during Practice, a sure contender for the win.
Jamie Armitage shows his daughter Ayla the line.
Under 15 year old Ayla nails it.
A picture that best describes the day, zero visibility but heaps of fun with friends.
Snow Gum leaves are masters of collecting water.
Juniors having fun lower down the mountain.
Stage 2 took riders lower down the mountains into the taller trees.
It was definitely the slickest of the trails.
Foot out, not so flat out down here.
Precarious life up here on the high plains.
Ebony Tanzen navigates stage 4.
Ebony drove down from Canberra for the event at her old stomping grounds.
The battle was real, lucky Falls Creek mountain bike hub has a pressure washer.
Organisers built a road gap at the very end of stage 4 which many riders found a little daunting.
After being out in the rain all day shooting my lens decided to start fogging up on the inside, and this was the only rider I saw for an hour, everyone was calling it an early day.
Matt Molijn stoked on the day.
Chris Panozzo and Dave Ludenia chat with race organisers about Stage 1.
Room with a view (kind of).
By the end of the day officials had decided to shorten stage 1 as the first segment had turned into an XC slog through mud and up slippery rock pinch climbs, it was well received by almost every rider and all went to bed dreaming of nicer weather.
Sunday dawned clear skies, mild alpine temperatures, and a much happier vibe. The village was abuzz with spectators and athletes mingling together to chat about what lay ahead, everyone was keen to get out on the now drying trails. All up the athletes would tackle 15.1km and 875m descent of timed racing with 15.5km and about 1000m ascent of liaison riding.
The event village was in an awesome location right in the heart of town.
Paul Van Der Ploeg and Ben Cory talking tactics.
Chilling just moments before setting out for a long day.
Ben Forbes travelled to Falls Creek with his Mum Alison. He was "Very proud to be racing with her and see how many people also see her as an inspiration to get out there and be adventurous."
The climb up to Stage 1 was a precursor of the long day ahead for most riders. A 4km climb with about 250m of climbing took riders to the Summit and out to Frying Pan Spur, the panorama view a welcome sight after 2 days of zero visibility. As stage 1 was shortened the warm up included the first part of the stage and at around 9am the first rider was off and racing.
Paul Van Der Ploeg and Alistair Farley enjoying the first liaison.
The view out at Frying Pan Spur is all time.
Stage 1 was rocky yet wide open trail called High Voltage followed by a narrower yet more flowy Wishing Well. It would be the usual suspects at the top of the leader board after the stage, Chris Panozzo, Ben Forbes, Dave Ludenia, Ben Cory and Paul Van Der Ploeg. Ebony Tanzen would snatch the stage from Julia 'Indi' Boer and Kira Deschaux.
The transition from stage 1 to stage 2 was only 100m but riders needed a short break before tackling the longest and most demanding stage of the day. Ben Forbes spoke about the brutally pedally stage;
"I was the first rider to set off down the 11 minute 'Flow Town' stage, after 10 minutes of smashing myself up and down the fast paced track I came across a tree laying over the track! It was handlebar height and as thick as a didgeridoo. I must have been going about 35km/hr and at the last second I decided to try and jump it. My front wheel made it but my old mate out the back decided to smash the tree and eject me high and sideways into the forrest. Thankfully my hydration pack took most of the hit and I quickly recovered to sprint another minute to the finish line." Incredibly Ben still managed to finish 2nd on the stage only 1.45 seconds behind Chris Panozzo. Indi would dominate the stage by 25 seconds over Kira and Ebony.
There was a sweep rider who had only moments before ridden the track and declared it clear so the tree must have come down in between him and Ben. Many of the riders behind Ben also ran into the tree before one racer sacrificed his run to move it off the track. Riders were offered re runs, some accepted but others deemed it unwise to re-race a 12 minute stage with so much still ahead. Unfortunately, there was also an accident on Stage 2 which required a rider to be evacuated, this put a long delay on the race but the safety of the athlete is paramount and the situation was handled really well, thanks to the people involved the rider is recovering.
Ebony Tanzen won Stage 1 before losing time to Indi and Kira on Stage 2.
Dave Ludenia on his way to 3rd on stage 1.
Chris Panozzo opens the day with a convincing win on Stage 1.
Paul Van Der Ploeg rode into 5th on Stage 1 before ending his day to help with the evacuation on Stage 2, A true gentleman of our sport.
It was all smiles for Justin Hams who flatted on Stage 1. He would fix it and go on to get 3 5th places in the remaining stages.
Ben Cory was 3rd on the long Stage 2.
Kira Deschaux rode a solid time on Stage 2 to take 2nd.
Ella Gould was the only Junior Woman to compete, although there were a handful of U17 and U15 women who raced and they all killed it.
This was Julia 'Indi' Boer's first race back after recovering from a fractured shoulder, she received clearance from her physio just 4 days before the event.
The liaison climb back up to the summit is a paralysing 8.8km and close to 600m of altitude gain. Julia 'Indi' Boer would sum it up best "My 22 years of elite gravity racing experience got me through the day. I knew the liaison stages would hurt me so I started at the front of the first 2 stages to make sure I'd make the cut off time for stage 3. I did not put pressure on myself to perform but also wanted to do the best I could. I ate, drank and dictated my own tempo, I think there were only 5 riders behind me on the last stage."
The evacuation caused a huge split in the field. 14 riders had finished stage 2 and had begun the long climb back up to the summit. These 14 would finish the next 2 stages before any of the 100 riders made it back up to start stage 3.
The lead pack on the upper slopes of the liaison climb.
The view towards Mackay and the top of the climb. At the end of Winter, Falls Creek runs an epic mountain bike race from the Summit of Mackay down though the village and Stage 2 all the way to Bogong Village, Paul Van Der Ploeg took the win last year.
Jordan Powell and Travis Dawkins complete the long climb back up to the summit.
The 14 riders who made it through stage 2 before the accident. Relaxing on the summit before Stage 3 is opened.
Shannon Hewetson and Ben Forbes talk about the fallen tree on Stage 2.
Stage 3 was one of the older more gravity fed trails that runs down iconic Summit ski runs, a narrower and rock strewn trail that weaves in and out of Snow Gums which most riders favoured over the previous stages. Chris Panozzo would again take stage honours and extend his lead over Ben Forbes with Junior rider Harrison Dobrowolski riding impressively to be 2nd fastest on the stage. Indi would extend her lead over Ebony and Kira.
The view of the Summit and Stage 3 from the monument of Eagle Rock, a place to remember the legends of Falls Creek.
Shannon Hewetson would have his best result of the day on Stage 3 with a 4th place.
Darcy Wilkinson also had a fast Stage 3, placing in 3rd.
Ben Forbes on his way to another 2nd place on Stage 3.
But it was Chris Panozzo who took a convincing win on Stage 3. Over 7 seconds faster on a 4 minute stage.
Harrison Dobrowolski with the 2nd fastest time on Stage 3. He would win every stage in the Junior Category and would have place 5th overall in Elite Men.
Another Junior rider Ben Mcilroy (Fresh off a Junior EWS win from Derby, Tasmania and current EWS points leader) chose to race in Elite, he was suffering from a bad cold but still rode to 11th place in his first elite race.
Another lung busting Liaison climb which traversed up to the other side of the resort greeted the riders before the final stage.
Stage 4 would again combine 2 trails to create a top to bottom 3.4km lung buster. The newer Generator trail which began above the tree line is fast and flowy before descending to the older Vortex trail which also maintains flow but has a few more tricky exposed rock sections. Both trails weave in and out of ski runs and Snow Gums before a spectacular finish jump right into the heart of the alpine village. A sensational way to finish an epic day on the bike. Chris Panozzo won the stage giving him a clean sweep of all 4 stages taking the overall win by 13 seconds over Ben Forbes. Ebony Tanzen would win stage 4 but it wasn't enough to pull back the lead from Indi who won the day by an impressive 37 seconds.
Remy Meier-Smith took 3rd in U15.
Jake Grayson took 2nd in U15.
Ollie Davis would dominate the U15 category winning every stage of the day.
3rd place in U15 Women was Bridie White.
Ayla Armitage into 2nd place with one stage win in U15 Women.
Elise Empey won a hard fought race in U15 Women. Elise's Dad rode alongside her for the race.
3rd place in U17 Men Jack Hewish.
Jono Fudge with 2nd in U17 Men.
Jonah Cosgriff won 3 stages and took the win in the U17 Men.
U17 Women victor Kate Braithwaite.
Hucking into the finish arena.
Ben Cory races through the Snow Gums on his way to 3rd overall.
Ben Forbes, 2nd on every stage to take 2nd overall.
Chris Panozzo takes the clean sweep and the Win.
Back in the event village. Chris Panozzo celebrates the win with family.
Elite Women Podium. 1st Julia 'Indi' Boer, 2nd Ebony Tanzen, 3rd Kira Deschaux.
Elite Men Podium, 1st Chris Panozzo, 2nd Ben Forbes, 3rd Ben Cory.
Chris drops an MB in celebration representing Mount Beauty.
Both Forbes and Panozzo will be training hard in preparation for the upcoming EWS races in Europe, both have had a great start to the season with Forbes taking a stage win in Tasmania and Panozzo currently ranked 25th overall after the first 2 rounds.
The highlight for me over the weekend was seeing the young athletes complete one of the toughest Enduro races we've seen in Australia, the Under 15s and U17s riding over 31km and 1000m of climbing with full face helmets, food and spares. These are the next Jared Graves', Sam Hill's, Tracey Mosely's and Anne-Caroline Chausson's and I can't wait to see them race in the future.
So the sun sets on the first round of the Aus Enduro Series. A tough and worthy start to the series. Round 2 takes place in Canberra at Stromlo Mountain Bike Park on May 20-21. I hope to see you there!
Photographs and Words by Matt Rousu.