Australian Mountain Bike - - Contents - WORDS: CHRIS PANOZZO PHO­TOS: DO­MINIC HOOK

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


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.

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