PEAK TO VALLEY AT FALLS CREEK
ALL DAY ADVENTURES IN THE HIGH COUNTRY YIELD THE GREATEST REWARDS.
Some alpine resorts keep you within the boundaries, but yet again we’re looking at the adventurous rides that you can kickstart from Falls Creek’s resort trails.
Trail destinations are becoming big business these days, trail infrastructure and marketing are getting substantial investment all around the country, communities are looking to cash in on the cycling boom and entice active holiday makers to spend their money with them. But what happens if we want to be in control of the narrative, where do we go if we don’t want a one size fits all package, where do we go if we want an adventure?
It’s early October and large chunks of snow still scatter the horizon, winter can sometimes hang around until early December but today we are greeted by blue skies and warm temperatures. A once steadfast ski village built on the back of a 1930s hydro scheme sits quietly into the hill side, only a skeleton crew of workers remain in the village from winter. This will be Falls Creek’s 5th year of attracting destination mountain bikers to its resort during the summer months and we are here early to see if Falls can offer a peak to valley floor experience similar to adventures only found outside Australia’s shores.
The trip we are undertaking begins in the resort itself, heading out on commercially built climbing trails kicks off mixed emotions, these are the first tracks that were put in the resort, and now having had a few years to settle in, they don’t feel as unique as they might once have been. Having been lucky enough to ride many locations around Australia that have had commercially built trails, there is often a feeling that the formula that has made them so successful has been repeated too
exactly in each location. Remove peripheral vision and you might be at any one of a dozen sites across the country. A sound business model for investment maybe, attractive to all stake holders is what councils and companies like to hear, but I’d compare that thought process to buying a new car, if you’re the end consumer and looking for a bit of excitement in your life are you going to go to your local Toyota dealer and pick up a new Camry, or try find something with a bit more character? That’s exactly the experience we were heading out to look for – something unique and wholly engrained in riding at Falls Creek and the Victorian High Country.
The disclaimer here I would like to point out is that I’m a case study of being a product of the environment I grew up in. If you’ve ever ridden in Mount Beauty you will quickly realise where my love of natural terrain comes from. Mount Beauty is one the historic race venues in Australia and to see a machine inside the trail network would be like the chances of you catching up with the Queen down at your local RSL. Just like a generation of children growing up having no idea what a Walkman is, we aren’t too far away from a generation not realising that mountain bikes used to be ridden on tracks that started out as raw terrain between some race tape.
The climbing trail is only short, taking us from the village and out onto existing fire roads, it’s not long and we find ourselves descending to the lesser known of the two dams at Falls Creek, Pretty Valley. Nice name, it’s also the start of the second of four climbs you will have to complete on your way out to Fainter, the peak before descending into the Big Hill Bike Park. At this point we have been freed from designer mountain bike trails for the remainder of the trip, the rest of the 45km is a makeup of fire road and reclaimed singletrack. To some riding on a fire road ride doesn’t deliver the same sensation as riding singletrack, but you do get a sense of purpose riding out here, fire roads out in the alpine terrain, above the tree line, aren’t your normal Aussie bush bash fire road, it’s more like dual lane singletrack, with thick grass in-between. You don’t derive the sense of purpose from the blades of grass, it’s the fact these trails had a purpose before we came along. They haven’t been made for our enjoyment alone and therefore have a character all their own, something unique to the area, the novelty of it creating a lasting memory.
As we climb out of the valley and onto the high plains, you start to picture the scale of the ride you are undertaking, you can see the valley floor out in the distance, 1500 vertical metres
A SENSE OF ADVENTURE OFTEN COMES FROM THE DIFFICULTY IN ACHIEVING IT AND THE MORE TERRAIN YOU COVER HERE THE MORE IT DRIVES YOU FORW ARD.
below you, the layers of sunlight reflecting between the ridgelines tells you there are 2 more mini summits you have to crest before reaching the final peak. A short descent brings you into Tawonga huts, once a bustling stockyard used by high country cattlemen, it now remains a reminder to the areas past, catering as a campsite or refuge should the weather take a turn for the worse. There is no chance of that today though, we only pause to refill drink bottles, so clear is the water that only the movement of the water itself gives it away, otherwise you would be forgiven for thinking that you were looking at a dry creek bed.
The remainder of our route takes us North, plotted on GPS data, the squiggly line takes a more direct approach back to our final destination in Mount Beauty. As we are traversing on what could be considering semi-singletrack where all
but a strip of dirt and rocks has now been taken back by mother nature from where thousands of cattle once walked through, our long travel enduro bikes seem like overkill for the terrain we are covering. It’s an appropriate time to think about the rate of bike development, as we spend the next hour traversing the hillside with ample amounts of suspension, the rate of bike development has meant the market is becoming so segmented that we need multiple bikes to feel like we can enjoy what was once such a simple exercise. Not that I would need any excuse to own more bikes, but trail riding has been changing direction a lot lately. What was once a simple cross-country ride has turned into enduro, where bikes have been designed into can-do anything machines and cross-country rigs have come full circle back to dirt ready road bikes with flat bars, but is that such a bad thing? Designing a bike with characteristics that make it excel in a particular set of circumstances doesn’t make it any less fun when taken out of its comfort zone. If I’m trying to ride a short travel bike as fast as my enduro bike down a steep trail, I’m having just as much fun hanging on for dear life as I would be going a few clicks faster on my race bike. Just look at cyclocross for example, they have rules preventing technology being used to make it easier or faster, and they are riding road bikes in the mud and snow for fun…
At this time of year we too get to experience snow, at times it comes a surprise, at speed as you round a blind a corner, other times we venture off track in search of that last bit of winter fun before we get reminded that we live in Australia, and we won’t see much of this until late June, if at all. Our traverse and climb brings us to the penultimate summit, which is more
a false flat than anything, we have been on the bikes now for 2.5 hours and have a much clearer line of sight to the valley floor below, it still seems an age away. You become all too aware the space the alpine area takes up and a sudden sense of isolation begins to creep in, but not in a bad way. A sense of adventure often comes from the difficulty in achieving it and the more terrain you cover here the more it drives you forward.
As we reach the final peak, after the mandatory celebration photo, you are practically on top of Australia, at 1850m above sea level you have near on 360 degree view of the surroundings. You feel an almost immediate instinct to reflect on the trip so far, because you can see your start point, albeit just hidden from view by a ridgeline, and at the same time the excitement to push on, as you look down onto the famous Big Hill Downhill start point, 1000m below. For those too young, or who haven’t been a part of the racing scene, the course starting just below Big Hill is the notorious 5.3km DH track, raced occasionally since the early 90s. An average descent time takes roughly 15min without stopping, the actual course record is somewhere in the 7-minute region. The top half of the track is a mix of singletrack, big rock gardens and high-speed fire roads. If you are confident, speeds above 80km/h are easily achievable, but by the time you get there, it’s much more enjoyable to remember this is an adventure ride and use your brakes accordingly. The lower half of the DH track is well into the bike park in Mount Beauty, so if you are familiar with the area there are a multitude of options to get you to the bottom and a straight into a Kiewa Choccy Milk. Some tracks are easier (or harder) than others, but all that is still 1000m below us.
Once we have regathered our thoughts at the top and refuelled, the descent begins to take off at a sedate pace, traversing the hillside we only seconds ago were gazing upon, our sense of distance and speed needs to be recalibrated, what seemed like a track criss-crossing the hillside is actually long high speed straights, you could nearly get away with calling this singletrack, but not quite, we are still well above the tree line and are riding down an old road, with a single line of dirt jumping from side to side avoiding ruts and rocks. It’s fun, and by no means do you feel like you are riding in a straight line. Natural erosion and required access have dictated where this track heads, it’s readable terrain with nothing too unpredictable jumping out at you. This then leads out onto more established fire roads, a lot of fun when riding in a group as the water bars make for great senders and gravity is easily providing the power to hit them at speed.
You arrive into an old cattle yard half way station, an eerie location back into the tree line, a flat piece of land surrounded by steep mountains provides a good a place as any to let the arms and wrists recover for a moment. A short and unexpected climb greets you as you leave the yards, nothing to steep and it isn’t too long before you are heading down again, drifting turns and attempting to send every water bar and bump you can find all the way to the start of the Big Hill DH track (not exactly the start but a short flat pedal and you are there). This is a lot of fun if you are sharing this experience with others, riding close to each is rare in mountain biking, you are always directly following or leading other riders, so the chance to be passing each other, letting gravity do the work for you makes it a memorable time that doesn’t happen on a regular ride.
This is where I find trail riding destinations can sometimes be their own worst enemy, so many stakeholders are involved in decision making before a shovel has even touched ground that trail builders are so hamstrung, catering for the needs of first timers, enthusiasts and diehards all in the one trail that they can’t do anything but produce a flawed design. Designed by committee, rarely if ever these days produces long lasting success, which is why our ride today is such a breath of fresh air. This trail doesn’t attempt to cater for any one specific rider or bike, its purpose was set long before mountain biking was even invented, and because of that we get to experience something uniquely individual to its location. You are never going to please everybody, and by no means does this trail set out to do that, nor is it an everyday ride. But for an adventure ride, in Australia, among some very big mountains, it delivers where all others fail.