After eight hard days of racing with the start in tropical Cairns, the 2016 Crocodile Trophy racers crossed the finish line on Four Mile Beach! Urs Huber was the fastest man on the final stage’s time trial course and – for the fourth time – was crowned the overall Elite Men's winner. With a gap of 1:48min ahead of the Belgian Sebastien Carabin he claimed his fourth race title after 2009, 2010 and 2015. The Belgian Alice Pirard successfully defended her hard-fought overall lead on the short but challenging track from Wetherby into Port Douglas and is the Women's Elite winner.
This year marked the 22nd edition of the legendary Crocodile Trophy, which introduced its new eight-day stage plan from Cairns to Port Douglas through its home in Tropical North Queensland. On Saturday, 22 October, the world-renowned event started in Cairns with a lap race at the Smithfield MTB Park and continued onto the Atherton Tablelands on Sunday. It was the climb onto the Atherton Tablelands and the tough undulating course of the second stage was the hardest, the riders all agreed. Three stages were raced in the Atherton MTB Park and also in the Herberton State Forest and surrounds, which proofed to be very technical and demanding on the endurance skills of the riders.
Hard-fought victory number four for Urs Huber
The cross-country specialist Sebastien Carabin from Belgium had picked up the stage win on day one in a tight elite men’s field – the marathon expert and multiple State Champion from Switzerland, Urs Huber, had finished with a gap of a mere minute in second. As the clear race favourite with three victories under his belt, Huber then took back the time and brought home a 3:50 minute gap on the tough second stage. Temperatures in the high thirties felt even hotter due to extreme humidity and a horrendous head wind on the last 20km into the finish took its toll on the entire field.
"The week was really tough, not physically but mentally because the gap [to Sebastien Carabin] was always really small and I had to stay concentrated for the whole week. I couldn't make any mistakes - I could manage that really well and so, the win is here.
He complimented his biggest opponent Sebastien Carabin as being equally as strong. "We both were very strong. He just had one bad day and I didn't. And in the end, that was the difference."
The "bad day" was said stage two from Cairns to Atherton, which pushed most of the riders to their absolute limits. The marathon stage in extreme conditions was so hard that even a world-class rider like Sebastien Carabin suffered, which ultimately cost him too much time.
Of the eight days of racing, Huber said that it was a tough mind game for him, as he clocked in a total of 23h52:51.6. Carabin had been able to claim one more stage win on day three – the lap race in the Atherton MTB Park with its tight corners and flowy berms suited him well.
"The week was really tough, not physically but mentally because the gap was always really small and I had to stay concentrated for the whole week. I couldn't make any mistakes - I could manage that really well and so, the win is here”, said the relieved 2016 Champion Huber in the end.
Overall, only 1:48 minutes separated the top two finishers of the 2016 event. Urs Huber had won before in 2009, 2010 as well as last year. Only one man before him has won this legendary race four times, Jaap Viergever from The Netherlands (1997, 1999, 2001 & 2002).
In the remaining elite men’s field the fight for third place was tough - with an incredible performance in the final time trial the Belgian Michiel van Aelbroeck claimed it with an overall gap of 1h05 to Huber. The 40-year old Dutch racer Bas Peters took out fourth (+1h11:05.4) and the Austrian Matthias Pliem came in fifth (+1h16:29.0).
Sensation on Day Six
From the rainforests in Cairns into the bushlands of the Tablelands and via the so iconic Outback to Skybury Coffee Plantation was next on the stage plan after Atherton. The racers enjoyed two nights in the tropical Skybury estate and raced through the Mareeba Wetlands on Thursday for stage six.
The women’s elite competition was a gripping race in 2016. Three acclaimed local Australian racers competed against the Dutch Olympian road racer Annemiek van Vleuten and the Belgian National Marathon Champion Alice Pirard, who had been named the race favourite from the very start. The Australians included Ruth Corset from Townsville, the National Road Champion of 2010 and runner up of 2016 as well as her fellow Queensland riders with Sarah Kaehler from Cairns and Joanne Koy.
Alice Pirard claimed stage one with a solid lead ahead of Ruth Corset and an amateur racer – the Australian Anita Narula – came in third ahead of Annemiek van Vleuten who said she was taking it very easy on the technical stages, in fact, she was participating in the race for a holiday and not really in race mode. That changed half way through the race, though.
Winning stage two ahead of Pirard, Van Vleuten suddenly caught the racing bug she admitted.
"I surprised myself a little bit this week - at first I came here starting the race for a holiday, but half-way through I suddenly got into the race mode. On the not-so-technical stages I felt really well and I enjoy to race hard and also with the guys here, it's really wonderful to race together”, a gushing van Vleuten exclaimed after a third stage win at Wetherby Station on the second-last day.
"It's been super-difficult to adapt to the conditions here. I'm really not a mountain biker, so I'm also very careful, because I want to start my season in January with the Tour Down Under without injuries on the road, so I'm here to take it easy on the technical and dangerous parts and ride fast on the other parts”, she continued.
In fact, van Vleuten was so in the zone, that on two occasions (stages four and five), she missed a turn and lost a lot of time, which ultimately cost her the race lead.
As a revenge, as she called it, she therefore decided to attack the entire Crocodile Trophy field on day six, the short and punchy stage through the Mareeba Wetlands out of Skybury. Only the young Stef de Louwere from The Netherlands went with her, which resulted in a stage win for de Louwere and van Vleuten finished second outright. A memorable stage by all accounts.
From Skybury, the race stopped over at Wetherby Cattle Station after a marathon stage via open Outback Highways - a fast race in glistening heat. Today the riders were in for a treat - a 30km timetrial down the infamous "Bump Track" from Wetherby Station into the holiday paradise of Port Douglas with the final finish on the beautiful Four Mile Beach.
Alice Pirard in wonderland in Atherton
A solid, consistent performance and her thorough mountain bike racing experience got Alice Pirard the overall Crocodile Trophy title in 2016. Claiming four stage wins an highlight was the cross-country stage three in Atherton she said.
"That was a wonderland - it was a dream! It was singletrack paradise, the whole time technical stuff, berms, roots, rockgardens, exactly what I love. It was real mountain biking! I pushed hard from the beginning, so I had a good rhythm just like in cross-country racing.” On that day her team mate Carabin had taken the win also and she continued, “It's really cool for our team that we both won the stage again and on the same day.”
Overall the women's result had Alice Pirard finishing with 30h34:45.0 ahead of van Vleuten (+44:15) and the Australian road racer Ruth Corset (+1h06:27). The marathon specialist Sarah Kaehler from Cairns came in fourth (+5h39:57).
At the finish on the beach in Port Douglas she couldn’t have been happier, “This is super, so fantastic. This finish is just amazing, just unforgettable here on the beach and on top of it all, to win the event here in this location, is just amazing.”
New comforts at 2016 event
For the 2016 edition of the Crocodile Trophy, which is the oldest mountain bike stage race in the world, additional accommodation packages were offered, which a considerable number of riders took up. Traditionally offering a camping set-up only, for the first time shuttle busses transferred those riders from the finish to partner hotels and motels in the region and bringing them back for dinner and award ceremonies every night.
Entries included provisions at feed stations out on track throughout the event as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner starting in Atherton. Provisions were sourced predominantly locally, with the catering crew taking advantage of the rich produce and groceries resources the tropical region around Cairns and Port Douglas has to offer.
The Crocodile Trophy will return to Tropical North Queensland a month earlier next year – the 23rd edition of the race will be held from 16th – 23rd September 2017.
Photos: Crocodile Trophy/Regina Stanger
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