For those who have ridden the Paluma Push, or heard friends talk about it, you’ll understand that the vibe of the award-winning event is not an easy one to recreate: It’s that spirit of adventure, punching through country rarely travelled; it’s the 40 people who ask if you’re OK when your chain comes off; it’s the father-and-daughter who are offering each other encouragement as they ride the ups and downs of the hilly dam road; and it’s those dirt-speckled faces plastered with wide grins as legs pump their last effort over that finish line.
Arguably Queensland’s biggest mountain bike race outside of south-east Queensland, this point-to-point race that starts at Paluma village and transverses World Heritage rainforests, big timber and open cattle country, is a sell-out for the fifth year in a row.
Conceived by Rockwheelers Mountain Bike Club’s original members and run each year by volunteers, this challenging must-do event started with 65 riders in 2002 and has ballooned to 770 in 2015. This year also marks the introduction of a new intermediate level 53km course, which joins the traditional 42km recreational and 70km competition options.
We caught up with some of the key players – Peter McLean (Mozzy), Hayden Tilley and Peter Gibson – to find out how this event has evolved, why it’s so popular, some defining moments, and what’s in store for Pushers this year.
“We never wanted it to be just another MTB race, rather a personal challenge for everyday folks, and we always said we would measure its success by how many people finished with a smile” – Haydn Tilley
How did the idea of the Paluma Push come about?
Mozzy: Warwick Hamilton [long-term Rockwheelers member] said to me one day that riding from Paluma to Hidden Valley would be a good event. Somehow Haydn and I ran with it and turned it in to the Paluma Push. I can remember the day Haydn rang me as he was driving home from Ingham and he said: “I’ve got it: I’m just driving past the Paluma turnoff and it’s come to me… we’ll call it the Paluma Push!”
Haydn: Mozzy and I had both ridden the RRR in Cairns and were looking to do a similar point-to-point ride here. The Paluma and Hidden Valley areas were some of our favourite ‘epic ride’ country. We often stayed at the cabins when doing rides. It was just a matter of putting together our favourite trails, and as time progressed we scouted out new bits of single track, always with a view to making it more fun, interesting and challenging, while gradually adding more length. We never wanted it to be just another MTB race, rather a personal challenge for everyday folks, and we always said we would measure its success by how many people finished with a smile.
When did you first ride the Push?
Peter: In 2007 on a second-hand fully rigid bike that cost me $80. Unfortunately for me, my chain broke and I had to run 8km pushing the bike. I’d never heard of a chain breaker tool back then.
Haydn: Mine was in 2006 when I chaperoned Pricey and he brought along a satellite phone so he could do live crosses to the studio. I realised then that there were more hills to climb than I had thought, as I had to keep saying: “Just one more hill!” Also, I recall my 72-year-old father-in-law doing his first Push and taking the time to remove his shoes and socks before crossing the last creek.
Did you ever expect the Push to reach this proportion?
Mozzy: We were staggered with 65. Then as it doubled each year we realised we were onto something. But the year it jumped from 200 to 400 we shit ourselves. Then the next year when it was 400 again, and we realised that 200 of the riders had never done it before, that’s when we knew we were really creating something special. Peter Gibson took control in 2011 for three years and that is when the big changes came. When the event sold out each year before sponsors or any prizes were announced, that’s when we realised we had created a monster.
“When the Push sold out in three days at 650 in 2014, even though I was no longer the coordinator anymore, I felt very satisfied” – Peter Gibson
Peter, what was your vision when you took over the event from 2011-2013?
Peter: It was simply to keep the event fun and as a must-do event for Townsville. I must admit I didn’t quite ‘get’ the Push at first. As someone who likes to race, my vision could have been quite easily been turning it into a National Marathon Series race, but fortunately I didn’t get too ambitious in the first year and I quickly learnt that the Paluma Push is not about racing. There only about 10 blokes that are in it to win it and the rest are out to enjoy the day.
My measures of success were to ultimately sell the event out in one day and to win the North Queensland Tourism awards in my third year [the Paluma Push won the Festival and Events category in the 2012 North Queensland Tourism Awards]. I knew, to do this, we had to build the event’s stature in many ways. This included a focus on women participating in the event and that’s why I involved [elite-level mountain biker and National Champion] Jenni King in 2011 and 2012. She was a great ambassador and the growth in female numbers over those few years was great, and is probably continuing.
We also grew the stature of the event across Australia through advertising, MTB Magazine stories, sponsoring similar club run events in south-east Queensland and Victoria with a major prize of travel and accommodation to ride in the Push, support from Tourism and Events Queensland and Townsville Enterprise, plus Jenni King and [multiple World 24 Hour Champion] Jason English blogs and stories. We started more of a targeted marketing campaign locally here too. When the Push sold out in three days at 650 in 2014, even though I was no longer the coordinator anymore, I felt very satisfied.
Why do you think the event is so popular?
Haydn: Because it is an adventure from the minute you turn off the highway: The diversity of the trail, rainforest, big timber country, and then finishing in the cow country of Hidden Valley. Riding through fresh cowpats is always a memorable experience. It also caters for everyone: It doesn’t really matter that you’ve never ridden a bike for the recreational course and, if you’re in it for sheep stations, you’ve got a pretty sizeable challenge in the comp course. The other big thing is that it’s a race put on by mountain bikers who understand the needs and wants of riders.
It’s so successful because Mozzy and Pete have continually improved it every year from an organisational perspective, but also they have never lost sight of the original concept of a personal challenge for everyone to have a go.
What are the major things that have changed?
Mozzy: It was a big change when we went from cash on the day to online registrations. The last year before online entries, I had $38,000 in cash in my pocket on race day.
Why was an extra distance option added this year? Has it proved popular?
Peter: A survey of riders in 2013 asked whether an intermediate course would be a good idea. The survey results showed there would be good support, but interestingly most requested that it be kept as a recreational course, so uncompetitive.
Mozzy: There are about 250 riders spread across each category so it was a good move.
Mozzy and Peter – you’ve taken it in turns as event coordinators – how bigger job is it to organise?
Peter: A bloody big job. But also very rewarding in lots of ways. The support we get from the local Rural Fire Brigades of Paluma and Waterfall Creek was one of the rewarding things for me when I did it.
Mozzy: Planning starts December/January. Without the assistance of the Rural Fire Brigade (RFB) and SES on race day the event would simply not happen. It takes about 50 volunteers to man the six checkpoints and radio headquarters at Paluma. The Rollingstone Police, Ambulance and St John’s First Aid are all involved. Race day operations are co-ordinated by the RFB: We give them 750 riders at Paluma and they give them back to us at Hidden Valley.
What’s the best part of the race in your opinion?
Haydn: There are many favourite sections and lots of variety which is certainly a large part of it’s success, but my personal favourites are the dam loop, the first ridgeline single track descent, ‘As good as it Gets’ – a 2km ridgeline descent in the comp course, and dropping into the Valley and then having the 5km of single track back to Hidden Valley Cabins. There are so many great memories, views, and milestones as you approach the finish.
“Remember: Smile on face, helmet on head, bum on seat, smile still on face, and ride” – Mozzy
Who are the riders to watch?
Peter: Oliver Gibson in the Junior category of the rec course. No bias shown here (laughs).
Mozzy: The first-timers who bust a gut to complete the race and come across the line absolutely smashed with a big grin on their face. Or the super fast comp rider who stops to help someone; then pulls out all stops to catch up.
Last words or tips?
Peter: After spending a recent weekend preparing the course, I can say that this year’s course will be full of surprises – the comp course will have more single track than ever before, cross more diverse terrain than ever before, toss up a few more challenges than ever before, include sections never raced before, and some of the old favourites are back (sections of single track previously trashed and lost due to Cyclone Yasi). I can’t wait to get up there and ride it. Some riders will also be glad to hear there is no Grave Yard Loop.
Mozzy: Remember: Smile on face, helmet on head, bum on seat, smile still on face, and ride. All riders are equal on the course. Play nice, push yourself a bit, and enjoy the ride.
Haydn: Thanks to sponsors Mike Carney Toyota and Top Brand Cycles, who have been behind the event since the early days. Both Mike Carney and Mike Prentice [Top Brand] have ridden the Push a few times too, which is always very satisfying for the club and volunteers.
The Paluma Push sold out this year in two weeks. However there is still an opportunity to get involved, as there is a Golden Ticket. This ticket will allow you to do any of the courses (42km, 53km and 70km) on Sunday, July 19.
All you need to do is go into Top Brand Cycles at 200 Charters Towers Road before 5pm on Saturday, June 20 and purchase a raffle ticket for $2. All proceeds will go to the Rural Fire Brigades of Paluma and Waterfall Creek. The more tickets you buy, the more you help these crucial volunteers and the better chance you have of Pushing.
If that fails, you can cheer the riders on at Hidden Valley as they cross the finish line or volunteer – see how here.
Mountain Bike Australia Development Coach Jodie Willett will be running juniors clinics on the Friday and Saturday before race day: More information to come soon.
Finally, become a member of Rockwheelers Mountain Bike Club to continue to support the great work of the organisation: rockwheelers.com.au.