Cape to Cape
Talking on a four-day stage race in Western Australia
Words Sam Baker
Images Cape to Cape
Western Australia is about as far removed and in contrast to New Zealand as you can get. It rains never, houses a high percentage of the world’s most poisonous and dangerous animals, and isn’t the first place you’d think of to go mountain biking. But nestled right down the bottom of the state is an anomaly: the fertile and abundant Margaret River region and home of the Cape to Cape. A four-day stage race traversing the area’s best singletrack, knocking out 200km in the process. We were lucky enough to get the callup this year to stretch the pins and see if a couple of Kiwi keyboard warriors had the mettle to take on the Aussies.
First up, I have never done a stage race, my downhill background having drawn me to uplifts at every opportunity. But ageing has a strange effect. Not only are you constantly aching and have next to no time to do the things you want, there’s a shift in how you want to spend your time. Instead of heading to the jumps after work, I’ll likely be riding flat tack into a headwind attempting to better last night’s Strava time—which I never saw in my future.
So when the opportunity to compete in this year’s Cape to Cape pairs division popped up, we jumped on it, and I had a secret weapon up my sleeve in the form of Jeremy Gardner. The local Wanaka man holds more KOMs than you can poke a stick at, and lives for harder rides than you could ever dream up; the perfect companion to drag me through the scorching West Australian wilderness. We managed to cram what should have been a couple of months’ training into a mere two-week block. Some is better than none however, especially with my eyes set firmly on the second stage, a generous 75km of mostly singletrack with a notorious roadie influence, making the pace on those gravel road sections akin to velodrome racing. But we were ready, after a quick stop at Kmart for matching hi-vis shirts and flame socks, we felt fast and looked fast. Little did we know the hi-vis was the uniform of Western Australia, and we slotted right in.
Well, not entirely. Following an 11pm arrival into Perth, and a three-hour drive down to Margaret River, we realised neither of us had booked beds for our first night. With the back seats chocka with bike boxes, and 24 hours of travel under our belts, we opted for the slightly reclined front seats of our Nissan X-trail on a country side street. A few restless hours on our leather loungers were enough, and off we drove bleary-eyed into the morning glow. Something strange for us Kiwis is the lack of daylight saving; 5am arrives with a hiss and roar, the sun beating full noise come 6 o’clock. It was a rude awakening on first arrival, but after a couple of days the crisp, cooler mornings were a welcome relief from the onslaught of heat to come.
The Cape to Cape kicked off fittingly at Cape Leeuwin, the southernmost point of the Cape region, and the meeting point for the Indian and Southern Oceans. It’s a stunning backdrop to begin proceedings. With nearly 1500 entries, the field is a swarm, but it’s the range of riders that makes this event so appealing. From elite pro-level guys, right down to green riders looking to complete their first big ride, it’s inspiring to see. The single and pairs categories mean there’s something for everyone, and the staggered start with waves of equally matched riders makes for a welcoming and motivating atmosphere. Day 1 was a mass rolling start, with the stage results seeding riders in a start time for the remainder of the race. We were eager to get out front on the gravel sections so we could ride at our own pace come the singletrack, but boy was it hard. The initial few kilometres were unreal, with hundreds of riders tearing off down the gravel road, and with the heat of the day on the rise, the tempo was furious. Somehow we managed to hang on for a semi decent result, coming in 21st and setting us up in the second wave for the rest of the trip.
The area is unique. While most of Western Australia is notoriously dry, this southern region is brimming with lush forests and an outstanding wine and food culture. Our sunset tour with local legend Gene enlightened us to how millions of years ago the Indian tectonic plate collided with this area, leaving in its wake a base of porous limestone, the backbone for the flourishing culture the region boasts today. The porous rock absorbs precipitation and releases it slowly back into the ground, allowing plants to absorb water long after rain. This limestone collision also formed a large proportion of the reefs that give the area its rich surfing heritage. One such forest to benefit from this delightful helping hand from mother nature was the Boranup Forest, and home to my maker, the 75km stage.
This is where the real race began. Working as a team has its advantages, especially when your teammate lives for this pain, as you can draft all day long, making a huge difference. The first 10km or so was gravel road, and with perhaps 50 in our bunch, we were absolutely motoring. Roadies know how to spin when they need to—I was spinning out in my biggest gear, willing my legs to hang on to the bunch. The next 30km were all on fun, flowing singletrack. The trails here are immaculate and the local community does a great job keeping them maintained. This is synonymous with the Cape to Cape, the friendliest bunch of competitors you ever could meet. The racers go above and beyond to make your life as easy as possible, crucial when spending hours in each other’s company each day.
It’s not all smooth sailing on these stage races, however. With three to four hours of brutal riding each day, something is sure to go wrong. After a heroic start into the singletrack, my wheel welcomed my chain deep into the cassette, resulting in a frantic tug of war as hundreds of riders we’d passed came flying by, albeit most with a friendly wave. Once operational again, Jez and I really turned on the afterburners, which could be why I hit the mother of all walls at around 56km. That final 20 kilometres were fuelled by Clif Bar energy blocks and drafting, as my legs were doing bugger all to help me on those final straights. With my longest training ride about 40km, this was a step into entirely new territory, and I was cruelly reminded I wasn’t ready for it.
Putting the body through the ringer day after day takes its toll. Fortunately, Margaret River is a brilliant place to spend some downtime, with lazy afternoons spent strolling some of the many vineyards, and sampling the incredible food on offer. And with the entire coast littered with famous breaks, the place is a surf mecca. Both avid surfers, Jez and I dreamed of return trips with boards in tow.
Once the maelstrom of Day 2 was over, I was beginning to feel like I had this thing in the bag. The body was adapting quickly to life in the desert—constantly parched mouths and burnt forearms—and we were ready for more. Day 3 was a largely singletrack affair through ‘Middle Earth’, aptly named as the entire trail was littered with razor sharp volcanic rock. Race tactics in full force, we again split from the group on the gravel ready to put some time in on the singletrack, but again we struck disaster. I felt my sidewall graze a rock in the first rock garden, and the following chute into berm resulted in the biggest clipped in drift I’ve ever held. Already ringed out from the gravel efforts, a near-death save had my poor heart doing ninety to the dozen. A fiddly few minutes with more sealant and C02 cannisters ensured every man and his dog had a chance to pass us, and the next 20 kilometres of unpassable singletrack were bittersweet; I could rest, but all that lost time was a tough pill to swallow.
This was real Australian riding: red dust, rock-strewn, hot as all hell, and a huge contrast to the dark brown tacky dirt of Boranup Forest the previous day. These stages were so close to one another yet so varied in their terrain, with a completely new style of riding to adapt to each day. The course is well marked with feed zones at halfway. It’s a real testament to the organisers who keep this ship afloat—it’s no easy task keeping tabs on 1500 riders, who are often in a state of delirium from the day’s proceedings, but everything runs smooth, with an incredible atmosphere surrounding each stage. It’s a huge event for the area, with spectators frequently appearing in the most bizarre locations, which is a huge boost for tired riders.
Being in the same group throughout the race, you begin to learn each other’s strengths and personalities, and we had one team that we were neck and neck with every day. The camaraderie on the trail is what makes the days so fun—everyone is out for a good time, but there’s enough of a race atmosphere to keep you on your toes and motivated to make sure you stay ahead of that bloody team. You know, the guys that smile with more of a smug grin than a friendly smile when they pass us floundering on the side of the track—those are the ones you want to beat.
By Day 4, we were really finding ourselves at home in Margaret River. The morning routine of rinsing out yesterday’s sweat and dust had become standard, and the odd poisonous snake sliding under the apartment steps really kept us grounded in that Aussie state of mind. I never ventured far from the trails while out in the bush—give me a safe New Zealand bush any day of the week, it’s stressful watching every step you take just to make sure it isn’t your last.
Everyone we talked to who had raced previously mentioned how much they loved the last day, on the purpose-built trails right in the heart of Margaret River, and it lived up to its hype. Gentle switchback climbs and butter-smooth flowy trails were on order, and grins were plastered on our faces all day. We were both on Specialized Epics, making the day’s riding an absolute dream, and with no mechanicals, we could really let rip. The flow trails, littered with well-made tables, rollers and berms, were some of the most fun you could have on an XC bike, and you barely need to touch your brakes as you hoot and holler with the throng of bikes around you. Huge credit to the track builders, as they managed to cram a tonne of fun into a tight network of trees. If you ever find yourself in the area, make sure you pay this spot a visit.
It’s amazing what you can do if you just do it. Having never considered doing an XC stage race, now I’ve had my first taste, I’m eager for more. The competition side of things keeps you motivated and pushing, but the fun and easy-going atmosphere makes it an absolute joy to do so. No longer am I kicking and screaming up any slight incline; as I write I’m pencilling in tonight’s ride up the biggest hill in the neighbourhood. I must be getting old.
A huge thanks to Tourism Western Australia and Cape to Cape for helping us to experience Australasia’s best attended event. It’s no wonder this race gets the entries it does, with its welcoming atmosphere and excellent trails, it gets the masses stoked on riding, fostering a thriving culture in a place not well-known for its mountain biking. I came away from the event more into riding bikes than when I arrived. The camaraderie and feel-good nature of the event and the way it teaches you to push yourself can be applied to your everyday riding, and that can only be a good thing. Go test yourself and see what happens. Chances are you’ll be better for it.