Mountain biking after the fires and a pandemic
Words: Rob Gunstone Photos: Matt Rousu, Nick Waygood, Colin Levitch
Is there anything better than gathering your mates together, loading bikes and gear into the car and heading off on a mountain riding adventure?
Unfortunately, the simple pleasure of preparing and heading out for a road trip to your favourite destination was taken away from us at the start of this year.
The best of the early 2020 riding conditions passed us by as we stayed out of Victoria and New South Wales’ premier mountain bike regions during the bushfires, then the floods, and finally as we locked down for the Covid-19 outbreak.
We have been restricted to shredding our local trails and practicing skills in the car park (does everyone have their gutter high bunny hops dialled now?). We have kept trying to ride anything which can be accessed from the front door.
Destinations such as Bright, Falls Creek, Mt Beauty, Thredbo and Jindabyne have all suffered a downturn as a result of the restrictions, but this doesn’t mean they have been sitting and resting while the riders have been kept away.
FALLS CREEK MTB PARK
With over 40 kilometres of alpine trails, 360 degree views and sitting at over 1500 metres of elevation, Falls Creek is one of the countries premier alpine riding destinations.
According to event supervisor Nick Buckley the resort has taken a ‘bit of a knock’ this year. The January bushfires threatened the area coming within 10 kilometres of the resort, although “they did not impact the resort and no trails or infrastructure was damaged” he said.
“We have been working flat out to create as much of a silver lining from the cloud of Covid as possible,” Buckley said. “We have recently taken delivery of a new excavator and the (trail building) team is taking advantage of the down time to prepare the trails.”
Classic Falls Creek lines such as Flowtown, Generator, Big Fella and Wishing Well are all receiving a facelift and some long term projects such as trail realignments, importing dirt and rock work are being completed.
Falls Creek trail builder Steve Tambo said the resort had felt ‘really strange’ without riders. “We are normally doing our best to schedule repair work where we can and generally dodging riders, but this year it is a different story,” he said. “As a rider it is disappointing to see the trails so quiet and empty but we are really proud of what we have achieved and we think riders are going to be blown away when they come back next summer.”
Find out about a $500,000 grant Falls Creek has received for 11km of brand new trail HERE!
Planning for the summer season is well underway and the resort is ready to welcome riders back in November Nick Buckley said. “We saw a significant drop (in visitor numbers) this year which has had a knock on effect for all of the cafe and restaurant owners, accommodation, and shuttle services on the mountain,” Buckley said.
“Regardless, we are excited to welcome riders back and have a packed summer calendar of events including the Ignition MTB Festival kicking off the season on November 20, the Grinduro gravel grind and party, plus hosting rounds of the Vic Enduro Tour and the State XCO champs.”
Team Mount Beauty president Michael Whipps said the town is very fortunate to have the labyrinthine Big Hill trail network at their back door and local riders have been making the most of their opportunity to get out and ride (at an appropriate social distance, of course).
With over 60 kilometres of trails (although an exact figure is elusive) the sheer size of the Big Hill trail network is helping riders to maintain a good social distant. “You can go for a ride and see only two or three other people out there, even when there might be 30 other people riding,” Whipps said. “The riding at Big Hill is a totally different experience, we don’t have machine built trails it’s all old school hand cut trails, riders end up hoping you can fit your 800 millimetre handlebars between the trees.”
Team Mount Beauty received a $200,000 Pick My Project funding grant from the federal government at the end of 2019 to help upgrade the Big Hill MTB Park trail head with volunteers continuing to work on the project through the Covid-19 period.
Local trades were engaged to work on the trail head upgrades which include a revamp of the big shelter area, construction of a new new deck overlooking the valley, installation of new barbecue facilities, installing a bike wash station, and upgrading and relocating the trail map signage.
“We used all local trades to help keep the money local, and the community businesses have done a lot of in-kind work. We have stretched the money pretty well,” Whipps said. “We continued to work as much as we could within the guidelines. Volunteers are out keeping the trails maintained, we are promoting the use of BYO tools for this.
“There are five to 10 trail fairies out there regularly, there is no set schedule of work just a rolling maintenance as things need doing. We are working on drainage lines and clearing through the trails that are not ridden regularly, general maintenance really. Our hope is to come out of the lockdown with all new facilities at the trail head, and a trail network in great condition for riders.”
After a very tough few month, Whipps said Mt Beauty is ready to welcome visitors back to the town as soon as the situation allows. “When people come back they will have an all new trail head area and an improved trail map, the network is a bit of a labyrinth so we are developing four coloured loops so riders should have a look at the signage and choose one of the loops,” he said. “Once riders get a bit of feel for the trails then they can head out, choose their own adventure and explore.”
MYSTIC MTB PARK, BRIGHT
Following the successful staging of the 2020 Australian Mountain Bike Championships in March, it looked like the wheels had turned for Mystic Bike Park in Bright, with maintenance work continuing and a new trail on the horizon.
Alpine Community Plantation executive officer Alia Parker said the Nationals were a great opportunity for Mystic, occurring right between the bushfire crisis and the Covid crisis.
“It was fantastic the event was able to proceed and with such a great atmosphere as well. It has been the only support the mountain bike park has received financially this year, we rely on summer visitation to raise funds to get us through the year and complete our projects. Nationals were a bit of a lifeline for us,” she said. “Currently we are not attracting any visitors, so Bright is extremely quiet and a lot of businesses and the mountain bike park are struggling. The trails around Bright remain open but only for local riders seeking to exercise, in line with all of the government guidelines.”
Parker is looking at the positive impact the reduced rider number is having on the Mystic trail network, especially with the JobKeeper payments allowing the Alpine Community Plantation group to keep trail builders on staff.
“They always get a rest over the winter months when visitor numbers drop, but the trails are getting a bigger rest this year,” she said. “Because we don’t have our normal operations to do we can focus purely on trail maintenance and trail building. Over the next few months we will be out on the trail most days working to improve the trails and the signage, and work on projects we have had on the back burner for a long time. Fingers crossed when the restrictions ease the park will be in peak condition.
“We do expect to build some new trails, we have listed some priorities with the Alpine Mountain Bike club. Maintenance is our first priority, and we want to get some things ticked off the list, and we haven’t decided on which trail to build yet but we will deliver a new trail through this period.”
ACP have been in discussion with Blue Dirt Shuttles to bring extra crews into Mystic to help with trail maintenance. Blue Dirt’s general manager Aaron Kopanica confirmed his team will be working on maintaining trails around the Bright network.
“We will be 100% focussed on maintaining existing trails,” Kopanica said.
Blue Dirt will host the rescheduled Pineapple Express event at Mystic Bike Park on October 10 and 11.
Times have changed since the Jindabyne Trail Stewardship (JTS) president Craig Stonestreet moved to the region to open a bike shop. It was rare to image a ski town having a summer tourism economy when he arrived in Jindabyne in the early 2000s. Now cycling is a major part of the local economy with thousands of riders through the riding season.
“Every second car has a bike on the back or on the roof. It is a key component of the tourism in the region, as long as people are allowed to come here,” Stonestreet said. “When we started JTS in 2014 we could see the value in building and maintaining the trails in good condition as more and more tourists travelled to the region to ride. The local community and businesses have been an amazing support, we get a lot of engagement from kids and families on our trail days.”
“There was no direct impact (of the 2019 bushfires) to our trails. The biggest impact was to summer tourism, we were turning lots of people away, and this continued through the Covid lockdown.”
Stonestreet said the local trails are well established and there are still a few people out there getting their exercise but there is a lot less riders. The JTS have been using the downturn to rebuild some of the trails after a very busy Christmas period, adding it has been a blessing to get some trail work done.
“It has been a good opportunity to build areas for next year, we don’t usually get the opportunity to build something and give it six to nine months to settle, usually it is build it and ride it the next day,” he said.
“Trail days, and trying to get volunteers out, have been hard as a result of the Corona virus, but we have been fortunate to to engage some local contractors to perform some of the mundane maintenance such as brush cutting, corridor clearing and putting up signs, rather then building the more exciting features such as jumps and berms.”
“We have a little bit of money to put into machine work, but we are waiting on some cultural heritage work to be finished then will be able to build one or two new trails. Hopefully they will be ready for the summer.
“Everyone in town is taking the view we have had a chance to hit the reset button and start again, sit back, get ready and move on when everything is open again.”
After putting up the closed sign a month earlier than expected, Thredbo Resort has made the most of their time getting all of their iconic trails ready for riders to return just in time to celebrate their 30th anniversary of mountain biking in the park.
Thredbo MTB assistant manager Tim Windshuttle said the maintenance crew have been working to maintain and improve the current network and have plans for a number of new trails to be built over the next few years.
“Currently the mountain bike park has 25 kilometres of lift-accessed gravity trails, plus 10 kilometres of cross-country trails around the village,” Windshuttle said. “In addition to this riders can take the Thredbo Valley Trail from the top of the Kosciuszko Express chairlift all the way into Jindabyne, following the Thredbo River valley. It is a true bucket list ride.”
“With the early closure, many riders will have missed getting onto our new intermediate flow trail ‘Ricochet’ which was very well received. We will be introducing a number of new trails with the first build to be a 10km beginner trail which will hopefully get underway this summer.”
Thredbo marketing manager Caroline Brauer said the resort is looking forward to a bigger and better summer after all of the challenges this year.
“The 30 year celebration will be our main call to action, we are really excited about celebrating that milestone,” she said. The celebration will mark 30 years since (legal) trail riding commenced on the mountain.
Summer events at Thredbo will include the opening weekend commencing November 14, followed by the 8th running of the Cannonball MTB Festival from December 9-13, with five events over five days and over $100,000 of cash and prizes up for grabs.
So for now the wait continues.
*Photos taken before restrictions