Take a trip to Blue Derby, Tasmania to find out what happened when the world came to this tiny Aussie town!
Words: Mike Blewitt Photos: Tim Bardsley-Smith
The first time I rode in Derby, Tasmania was March 2015. Mountain Bike Australia (MTBA) had announced that Derby would be hosting the Cross-Country Marathon (XCM) National Championships in Derby for the next two years. I was invited down by Launceston local Ben Mather, who has not just been a driving force on the pedals for over a decade, but a driving force behind the growth of mountain biking in the north east of Tasmania.
We drove out form Launceston for the day, and tackled some of the first trails that were put in, even having to walk sections that were still being built by World Trail teams. From the playful trails along Axe Head to the circuitous switchbacks at Twisties and then the tree fern forests along Krushka's – it was clear this was a mountain bike nirvana.
We climbed to the top via Krushka's and descended fresh trail down Rattler and Howler, stopping for some photos but mostly to exclaim “how good is this!”.
I've since visited Derby 6 other times – and that feeling of elation has never left. So just how good is Blue Derby?
I am often guilty of looking beyond our shores for a trail fix; riding somewhere high, somewhere remote, somewhere new. But any trip to Blue Derby reminds me that we have an international mountain bike destination right here in Tasmania. And as the Enduro World Series (EWS) circus visited for the second time it was clear that our pride in this destination isn't misplaced patriotism. It's just an awesome place to ride wherever you're from!
The World comes to Derby
You often hear it said by riders who get to travel the world, or who have raced in Europe anyway: in Europe you ride hiking trials, in Australia you ride mountain bike trails. And Blue Derby is one of the best examples of that. Just about every metre of trail in Blue Derby has been built with mountain biking in mind. But that's not to say there was no mountain biking here before the trail teams got to work. Riding in the area started with some adventure rides up to the Blue Tier, and there was even an event here called The Blue Dragon, which Ben Mather ran. He and his wife Rowena Fry live in Launceston but have a close connection.
Ben is who took me here the first time in 2015, and standing with him in the event village of the Enduro World Series round almost exactly 4 years later is pretty amazing.
“I don't think anyone could stand back and say they expected it to be what it is now. I had always hoped it would be a place people would come to go mountain biking. I had imagined it might be more adventure riding, back at the start when I was looking at it. The scale that it is now, I can't expect anyone would have imagined it would be such a success – it has been way quicker than anyone might have anticipated.”
Moving around us we have the best gravity enduro riders in the world. People have travelled from around Australia to be here, and there's not a spare bed available in Derby or any of the towns nearby – and the campground is at capacity.
“It gives you tingles,” says Mather. “Tasmanians are pretty proud of their home state, but to see a World Enduro Series round come to Derby, you can't have even imagined that. It's amazing to see it happen and I don't think it will be the end. There's St Helens to come and Maydena is on the tip of people's tongues. And 4.5 million dollars was just announced for Georgetown for another 100km of trail. Then there is Wild Mersey, Pengiun and more. It's not just Derby, the whole state is developing into a mountain bike hub.
Find out how life changed for Derby after the EWS - Life in Derby After the EWS
Rider Feature: Tim Eaton
Tim Eaton put some fast times in on a few stages and was stoked with his ride once he finished, reflecting that visiting for the Shimano Enduro Series in November made a difference.
“I came here in November and it helped a bit. The tracks were a bit different then, nice and tacky. Now it's a bit dusty and blown out. But it's been fun. I'm loving it.” The trails here are one thing, but Eaton said it's just part of what makes Tassie so good right now, and the international riders were really into it.
“Derby and Tasmania have it all going on at the moment. They all come over and are loving it, I'm loving it, I just can't wait to get back to Tassie every time to ride my bike. It's just getting better and better.” And of the racing in the EWS itself Eaton was clear, “Every one needs to get out and do one of these things, it's one of the best races you can do.”
Shimano partner with Blue Derby
Shimano announced a 3- year partnership with Blue Derby while the EWS was taking place.
“We're coming onboard as a platinum partner with Blue Derby, and the goal with that is to continue some of the work we have already done to grow mountain biking,” said Shimano Australia Brand Manager Toby Shingleton. “Derby has a global profile now with the events we have had over the two EWS rounds and the Continental events. We see this as part of a legacy for Shimano, an ongoing representation in the region.”
There is a shift for brands to sponsor places and not just events, and Shingleton said it's about seeing a great connection with their core values and having something for every mountain biker.
“We really see Derby as a good representation on what the Shimano brand is about. It's the premium mountain bike destination and it has a reputation globally as a place to come, for all kinds of riders. It's not just guys riding at the top level. Here you have awesome blue trails, awesome green trails, and you have kids riding. We are about getting people on bikes and we want to see more people riding. It's really close to the core values of our organisation to get people closer to nature.”
At the same time, Shimano aren't opting to back a riding destination instead of backing events or athletes, as Shingleton points out.
“We still want to be involved with events. Competition and racing is really important for us. Part of this agreement is that there will be events here. We have agreed that there will be two mountain bike events here each year, they'll fall under the Shimano umbrella. One will be a festival style event with food and win. And hopefully we will announce the other event next year.”
Six stages of mountain bike master classes
The EWS round in Derby covered six stages, with the longest stage on Saturday afternoon. With riders doing practice in the morning and the EWS 80 taking place, the trails were a hive of activity all day. But after lunch, there was a steady stream of people heading up the hill, finding a place in the forest, and getting set to get their heckle on.
The stage down Kumma Gutza ended up like a downhill race. Sure, there was pedalling, but it was all in for the one stage that afternoon, and the crowds were epic. With a little bit of rain thrown in for some greasy action it meant the racers were on edge. The noise in the Vertigo Heckle zones was unbelievable. We don't always get a big crowd to bike races in Australia – but the crowds in Derby really set a new benchmark. There were superheroes and villains, suits and ties, sumo suits, chainsaws and just about any variety of bike parts being bashed together to make noise. If you wanted to take the temperature on how well the EWS was being received – you just had to be track side.
“That was pretty hectic, a bit spicier than I anticipated,” said Josh Carlson after his run. “Some of those bits in the middle you were just on the edge, just hoping it would work out.” Some racers had slippery runs, others had hero dirt. It's the luck of the draw with racing. Martin Maes impressed everyone with his supremecey. Isabeau Courdurier was the fastest woman down – and like Maes it was no huge surprise. Both riders are on another level. But local Row Fry was in 3rdand Connor Fearon was in 2ndbehind Maes. There was a lot for us all to be excited about and it was a sign of things to come.
Sundays are for racing
Sunday was a bluebird day. As the early morning fog lifted, it was clear that the whole valley was buzzing. This was probably helped by the fact the normal population was expanded about 1000 fold, and that people were here for one reason – for the love of mountain biking!
Stage 2 saw riders tackle Detonate, and it was the start of a long day for everyone. After negotiating the rocks (and crowds!) of Detonate a long liaison back towards the Black Stump and the Snig track followed, before Stage 3 which ran into a liaison straight to Stage 4.
And as Stage 4 was Return to Sender the party moved to the base of the stage, lining the trail 10 deep in places. Beers were served and the crowd was loose. A bomb hole was forming in one of the final corners and in the dust riders were hitting heads on bars, burping tyres and letting it all hang out for the finish of the stage. Rowena Fry won this stage but didn't know it at the time – keeping her phone in the village so she raced free from distractions.
As riders went to the pits before the final two stages, the village was eerily quiet. The wheel destroying stage known as Shear Pin and the crowd favourite of Trouty were the final two stages. If you left it late to get up onto Trouty you had no chance, and spectators were lining the road side for a view across the creek to the trail as it cut across infront of the famous painted trout.
Riders were streaming down, as the EWS 100 riders came first, then the riders in the main EWS event. Standing at the bottom of Trouty, as the calibre of riders moved up towards the top ranked elite, the final stairs moved from being a rough finish to a large step down gap. The final stage was short and intense, and to be finished was clearly a huge relief and buzz.
Anita Gehrig finished the stage, and was heard commenting to a rider nearby how much she loved it. She was really happy that the EWS came back to Derby.
“It was so good to come back and everyone is stoked on bikes. There are so many people here and the Aussies went totally crazy. It's a great atmosphere. I wish I had a bit of a better racing time, but you know... I still had a god time and I feel really lucky to be travelling the world and doing what we do. And Tassie is the stand out, for sure.”
And although the Blue Derby trails are a little more manicured than what they might race in other rounds, Gehrig is certain that is what makes the series what it is. “It makes the EWS. Europe is like chunk and gnarly, and this is just different. Here we have bike park trails and it is fun!”
Rider Feature: Em Parkes
“I had an absolute ball out there, the tracks are so much fun! I actually drove here (on the ferry) and being in your own country, with your own food, it's a pretty lucky experience for all us Australians.”
“I really like the social side of enduro. You get to ride with people the whole day, and then turn it on at the start line. Even so we all encourage each other when we're leaving the start gate. And the jumps. I dig the jumps.”
Rider Feature: Ben Forbes
“That was epic. I thought I was just going to cruise Trouty. But I treated it like a downhill race and went balls out down the big open rock and then you can't really stop once you compress into the crowd. It was a massive crowd- it kinda changes your run a bit. It's a whole new environment. That was epic!”
“I've had a pretty clean day, but my chain did fall off through Shear Pin rock garden. The clutch was flapping around so it came off the bottom. I can confirm it didn't come off the pedal cleat chain guide. I was pretty gutted about that, I think I got 7thin Stage 4, so I'm stoked.”
All hail the King
There was a roar from the crowd any time Sam Hill was on course. And while he was a little off his usual pace in Derby, he was not moving slowly, and rode a wave of noise down Trouty, winning the stage.
But in the end, it was Martin Maes who took the overall, with Connor Fearon in 3rd behind Florian Nicolai in 2nd. In the women Isabeau Courdurier continued to dominate, with Jill Kintner placing 2nd in her first EWS, and Taswegian Rowena Fry scoring 3rd– a huge result in front of a home crowd.
The afternoon ran into the night as the podium presentations took place in the warm Tasmanian sun. The beer garden was heaving, the crowd was hungry for shoeys on the podium – and the winners obliged.
Some people fell into bed, others pushed on into the early hours. But there was no denying that just like in 2017, the EWS in Derby was a roaring success, it was just dry this time. Make no mistake, if you like riding mountain bikes, you'll love riding the trails in Blue Derby. And thanks to the EWS coming again – mountain bikers around the world know that too.
Thanks to Tourism Tasmania for the help with our visit to Blue Derby for the EWS – and our trip to Maydena Bike Park. But more on that in a coming issue!
Things to know:
Can I ride the EWS trails?
All the trails used for the EWS are open to ride. Just like in 2017, the new additions will stay as part of the Blue Derby trail network.
Vertigo MTB have been doing it the longest, but there are a few other people in town like MAD MTB and Premium MTB Transfers. Evolution Biking also have a service coming soon.
There's lots now! Your best bet is to check out the options via the Blue Derby website, or do a search on AirBNB. The Blue Derby Pods Ride is a great option for a luxurious stay!
Rider Feature: Lachlan McKillop
We spotted Lachlan McKillop in the field, who used to do a lot of our bike testing here at AMB. As Lachy loves to race, we weren't surprised to see him racing the EWS.
“I wanted to do the EWS when it first came up and their was the Conti series. I just wanted to tick it off the list really. I did some downhill World Cups, I never went well, so I just wanted to tick this off the list as well. And why not? I just like racing. I think enduro is not all about racing weirdly enough. You hang out with your mates between the stages, and you push it, but it's no different to what you'd do on the weekends on a ride to be honest. You have your Strava segments and go and smash those.
“I think racing is an integral part of all sports and that pushes technology. It's not the be all and end all, but I think enduro is the best race to do if you're going to do a race.”
And was it what he expected?
“It was really hard! I wouldn't say harder than I thought. I could have eaten better and had better nutrition through the day, and a bit more caffeine at the end of the day. Everything else was pretty good. I can't fault my bike or anything.” In fact Lachy really only thought he could have changed his training to suit the enduro format.
“I didn't do any sprint stuff, you have to work on your sprints. So I'd sprint, go lactic and then pretty much die – but it was good!”
The time against the clock was just one part of his day though, it was really about the time on the bike and with other riders.
“Everyone is rad on the liaison stages. In downhill, everyone is head down, no one really chats. But here, everyone chats the whole way up, it's pretty cool. I did a downhill race a couple of weeks ago leading up to this. My ride time for the weekend was 24 minutes. It's fun, downhill is sweet, don't get me wrong. But I just want to ride my bike all day, it's stress relief. I prefer this format. It definitely pushes your limits. A couple of stages I tried to go into survival mode, but then I cut loose and pushed it a bit too much. It's finding that limit. I haven't raced in a long time so finding that edge is hard. I'd go too hard then crash, I had a few moments. One was in the rock garden and I took out a few spectators.”