What started in the late 1980s with the Mud Cows, an underground group of guys riding unformalised trails and creating cult films in the process, became host to the world championships, for the first time, in 1996.
This legacy is a large part of the narrative building up to this year’s world championships. For out-of-towners, photos of the World Cup Downhill track, and the more technical features of the cross-country track, like Jacobs Ladder and Croc Slide, dominate the images they see from Smithfield Mountain Bike Park.
Exciting? Yes! But the flipside is that it gives the impression that this is what riding in Cairns is all about: steep, gnarly trails, heroic moves, and a breed of recreational riders that have this history, this legacy, flowing through their veins. In a lot of ways, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The scene has evolved a lot since those early days and the local riding community has expanded with it.
Riders chat about how they head to the world champs downhill track if they want something more gnarly Source: Melissa Popov
Time on the trails builds friendships that extend off the trails. Craig Nissen chats with Cassie Abell (Melissa Popov) Source: Melissa Popov
“General riding wasn’t even a thing then,” Craig Nissen told Cycling Central. “It was downhill or cross-country. There was no real reactional side to MTB.”
A rider who is as much a part of the local community as the trails themselves, Nissen runs Tropic Rides Mountain BIke Shuttles and Tours, providing hire bikes, shuttles, a bike taxi service and clinics. In his spare time, he is the current president of the Cairns Mountain Bike Club.
Taking the quick way to the top of the hill via Tropic Rides (Melissa Popov) Source: Melissa Popov
Rethinking trail building
A couple of years after the 1996 championships, things fell into disarray, Nissen explained. Volunteers were burned out physically and a fire burned through the trails quite literally. Nissen revealed that it was the early 2000s when the club came back together. In formalising an agreement with National Parks for use of the land, things snowballed from there into the far more diverse trail network Smithfield Mountain Bike Park is today.
The Cairns crew needed to build trails in a way that would last, “In their weather, their dirt, their trail conditions and a seasonal three months of rain,” said Nissen. The International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), had drafted guidelines for trail building at this stage but, according to Nissen, these didn’t deal with high water control at all. Glen Jacobs, a Mud Cow and MTB visionary who’s since worked worldwide designing and building trails with World Trail, was instrumental at this point too.
The variety of trails at Smithfield Mountain Bike Park is wider than most people think Source: Wade Lewis
Fast forward to now
In 2017, Smithfield Mountain Bike Park offers a sprawling network of green, blue and black graded trails. Riding there a couple of weeks ago, surrounded by the historic jungle above, and worn lines through the dirt below, it was easy to think it had always been this way.
Some of the best riders in the town shot past making a green run look like a black one the way they connected each section through the air. A sign of skillful trail design at its best. Next came a couple of guys who couldn’t have looked further from the scene as we often promote it: unfancy bikes, unfancy helmets, and chatter as casual as their sporting gear. A few minutes later, a group of beginner men and women cruised past having a go at one obstacle after the next before disappearing up a climb and out of sight.
Mountain biking seems to be growing in several directions at once. Source: Wade Lewis
Turns and berms (Melissa Popov) Source: Melissa Popov
As the trails have become more diverse and accessible, more diverse groups of riders are emerging. One of the places this stood out most was hanging out with a few riders from the girl gang. We were there to shoot a short film on the riding in the region.
You can watch the extended Smithfield edit at the top of this article, or see how it fits in the short film, which also showcases other trails and experiences in the region, below.
A trail for every type of mood
“The beginner standard is quite high here,” said Nissen, while shuttling us to the top of the park. While there are some very ‘beginner’ beginners lower down the hill, the ladies we rode with showed an enviable level of skill and comfort on the bike despite only being involved in the sport for a very short time.They don’t all describe themselves as highly skilled, but having local legend Tracey Hannah (who recently came second in the opening round of the downhill world cup series) as your metre of excellence has a way of raising your baseline.
“When I’m out riding and I see chicks riding for the first time I feel a little a bit scared for them because I know how terrifying it is [at first] but it’s exhilarating at the same time,” said Cassie Abell. “That’s how I met all of my girlfriends. You’ll be at the trail, pedalling, and you’ll just run into someone. You just start chatting and all then of a sudden you see them nearly every day.”
The group casually rode the old national downhill track and into a steep, off camber trail called Happies, simply because it’s a favourite way to get back down the hill.
“I like riding Smithfield for the variety of trails. So you have the gnarlier stuff and you also have more of the flow,” said Jade Robinson (Wade Lewis) Source: Wade Lewis
“If you’ve had a crazy day at work and you want to get all your frustrations out on the trails you can ride something steep and gnarly, or if you’re just out there having fun with your girlfriends and you ride something a little bit less crazy,” said Jade Robinson.
“We have such different trails,’ said Jacinta Pink. “It’s just amazing. There’s only one word for it.”
Jacinta Pink catches the magic light (Wade Lewis) Source: Wade Lewis
The stories that other trails can tell
Returning home from Cairns, I thought once more on what I expected to see, hear, ride and feel while hanging out in the region, and how different this was to the reality. If you head up there for the world champs in September, or any time afterwards, by all means check out the tracks made famous by the racing, but make sure to seek out some of the other trails in Smithfield and beyond as well.
As Jade said later, “There’s a trail for every mood and every day.” And, as I saw again and again, watching the other types of people who were out there enjoying the forest, every type of rider as well.