Explore the forgotten ridgelines of Australia's Alpine backcountry.
Nothing is more iconic than an Australian backdrop of golden beaches or suburban backyards littered with plastic cricket bats. Although as a mountain biker, you might have had different icons as a kid. Most of us had posters of towering ridgelines, the best riders plastered against its backdrop with the mountains seemingly spiralling into the picture itself - the image preserving a moment in time that only something in print can do. There was time to pause and appreciate the effort in how that image came about - and the interaction we had with the photo helped to inspire our next day’s adventure, ride or race.
It is becoming difficult to capture a moment in time like we did previously. Social media, in all it’s wonderful glory, brings with it just as much evil. When was the last time you flicked back through Instagram to see a clip of your favourite rider defying what you thought were the common laws of physics? No longer can we peer back at the progression of the sport, where someone would make an order of magnitude leap into the future, perfect their craft in silence before releasing it to the world via VHS or print - leaving the rest of us picking our jaws up off the floor. Even now I am still able to recount blow-by-blow each scene, rider and location from all the early movies, having rinsed everyone one of them until the player broke. Now, social media ports it to us in live feeds, or short looping videos, interrupting our daily tasks.
The epic locations where these videos and images were shot allowed us to escape for a moment the reality of our day-to-day life. At least, that’s what I would imagine most suburban bike fans would think - unless you won the dream lottery as a kid and had the chance to grow up in the Victorian Alps… like I did.
Home amongst the mountains
Rare for the southern hemisphere, and in particular Australia, winter takes hold of a large chunk of accessible riding here in Victoria. And we’re not talking your typical mud ride, but often two metres of hard packed snow. This land grab by Mother Nature is a good thing - in the age of overreaching entitlement, where everything must be within easy reach of your fingertips, it’s sometimes nice to have an enforced period of contemplation. It’s worth the time to sit down and realise just what is on offer in this special part of the world.
Dedicated bike parks are springing up all over the place, but take a quick look beyond the buzz words of the marketing campaigns and you will find endless hours of backcountry riding that has remained largely hidden, and helped mould some of Australia’s and indeed the world’s best and brightest riders. Iconic townships of Mount Beauty, Bright and Falls Creek all feature so close together they can be accessed in one day for any over-excited individual keen to escape the confines of city life.
Falls Creek is where most of the untouched and still unknown riding really exists. Differing from the purpose-built trails of Mount Buller, the backcountry of Falls Creek is something akin to the posters we had on the wall as children. The backcountry is about as accessible as it is unknown to the wider cycling community. The development of the hydro scheme in the early 1960s laid all the ground work for the trails, which have naturally been settling back into the environment ever since - with only hints as to its origin. Completely open to all mountain bikers, old two up tracks (side by singletrack) cover the vast majority of the high plains, interlinking dozens of aqueducts, access roads and cattlemen’s huts, allowing you to spend anything from one to eight hours in the saddle.
PACK WELL, PACK SMARTLY
If you’re heading off for a big day in the backcountry – you need more than a couple of muesli bars in your pocket.
You need to be thinking about your food for the day, clothing for changeable weather, what you’ll do for drinking water, spares for your bike, plus navigation and communication.
Pack a mix of food ranging from sports bars, to nuts and even salami and cheese. It’s always cooler in the mountains so expect to be burning more energy than during a quick shred at your local trails.
It is easy for weather to change, so always throw in something warm for your head, a spare base layer, and a quality waterproof jacket as a minimum. It sounds kooky, but a set of latex gloves can be very useful as a waterproof layer if it gets cold and wet. Don’t forget the suncream too – the alpine sun can be harsh!
If you’re up around Falls Creek, there’s always water in the aqueducts – but you’ll want to treat it to be safe. Always fill up on high ground, where you know the water is draining from land that is mostly native plants, and where the water is moving. Puritabs are light and easy to pack – and the taste isn’t too terrible.
Take all your regular spares like tubes, a good multi-tool with chain breaker, a spare hanger, quick link, some duct tape, tyre boots, a pump, and maybe some spare brake pads. Don’t forget a small bottle of chain lube.
If you haven’t got a route backed up on your GPS (or even if you do!) take a map and compass and know how to use them. It’s worth checking in with resort management and letting them know where you’re going and when you will likely be back. Take your phone and keep an eye on the battery life. If you’re planning on doing a multi-day trip – look at a Spot Tracker.
And don’t forget a camera! Getting up into our high places is really special – make sure you make the most of it and bank some memories and epic shots.
Company for adventure
Joining up for a group ride out here is one of the best ways to reconnect with that young kid who used to stare up at the poster on the wall. The initial part of most Falls Creek rides begin somewhat mellow; you are already starting near the top of a peak, and the immediate hills in the vicinity are more rolling than steep. The more adventurous you become, the more rewarding the trip, which is not to forget the mix of purpose built trails looping out and around the village from the crew at World Trail – which are often the perfect finish to a big day out on the bike.
The ace that Falls Creek holds up its sleeve is the ride from Falls down to the iconic town of Mount Beauty. Sure, Mount Buller has its bespoke Epic trail, and I hold nothing against it as it is a fantastic piece of trail, but you sometimes get the feeling that the track is trying too hard to impress you. Almost as if it’s calling out: “Love me, love me!” Whereas the ride from Falls, with its 750m of climbing and 1800m of descending, feels more like a natural fit with its mixture of high speed, above-the-treeline descents more reminiscent of the European Alps than Australian, yet much more accessible than the 45 hour commute to France.
The views stretch out down the corridor of the Kiewa valley, overlooking the peak of the Big Hill mountain bike park where you can stop in on the cattlemen’s huts while riding the same piece of trails they used to muster cattle back in the day, finishing up with the option to ride the famous Big Hill DH track from the late 90s all the way into Mount Beauty. This trail is still challenging by today’s standards, but dwarfed by the ride that finishes at its start point. Back then it used to be a measure of fitness and courage over an eight-minute descent, now it’s more of a legacy to show how far the sport has really come.
In the valleys
The two townships of Mount Beauty and Bright, based at the bottom of Falls Creek and only separated by a 30-minute car trip, have long been the destination of seasoned racers, covering the full spectrum of cycling from DH to XC and everything in-between. It’s interesting to watch the development these two communities are going through - similar in their ability to build trails on private land, but unique in the routes they are choosing to follow. There is financial investment going into the Bright mountain bike park, with large man-made tracks not really seen in Australia until now. Yes, the general admissions to the local hospital have seen a sharp increase, but so too has the renewed passion for cycling in the area. With the buzz surrounding the Hero trail becoming more mainstream, further development has seen a secondary trail, Down DJ, built for those not as confident on the larger jumps of the Hero trail. One can’t help but wonder if there might have been fewer broken collarbones of enthusiastic first timers had Down DJ been unveiled before the Hero. Outside the two machine built trails are a plethora of inviting natural singletrack, host to the National Championships for three years. And Bright will again host the Downhill National Championships for 2018, with tracks across the board getting a facelift in light of the renewed interest.
Mount Beauty, on the other hand, has so far resisted any attempt at machine built trails. In a sense it’s a purist’s wet dream, with race tracks from the 1990s all the way through to the present day. It’s the mountain biker’s version of the Monaco Grand Prix for Formula 1 fanatics. It’s not meant for everyone, but a huge sense of satisfaction comes from knowing you’ve conquered the trails. Some of the tracks are still technically demanding on a new long travel 29er which, in comparison to a late 90s mountain bike with its V-brakes and what looked like a dirty sock for suspension, should be a breeze. But it’s not. There are a surprising number of trails on offer once you enter the park - you can’t ride for more than 500 metres without meeting another trail - but there are some true classics in there. As the park is maintained by the local non-for-profit club, the only interest is benefitting its members, and that of the local community. The positives by far outweigh the negatives in this scenario, but if you are looking for a guided tour around the park think again unless you find a local. It’s best you download the Trailforks app and plan your route. There are maps and signs out on course, but there are so many it won’t be long before you’re more confused than when you began. Rest assured, it won’t matter as you will have never had a better time being lost.
Above the plains at Mount Buller
Mount Buller is about a three hour drive from both Mount Beauty and Melbourne (even though it is significantly closer to the former as the crow flies). It’s likely you have already visited Mount Buller, possibly multiple times, and maybe you’ve made up your own mind about the place.
One of the first major races I attended outside of Mount Beauty was in Mount Buller more than 15 years ago, which is perhaps under-appreciated in these modern times of ours. All the tracks developed by World Trail have settled in and become more part of the terrain than the initial first few years after their introduction. Mount Buller have been providing for mountain bikers for years, and their long-term investment in quality trails and appropriate care for them has really paid off.
The layout of the trails takes you far away from the village itself, but as you twist your way back and forth throughout the thick snowgums, only when you reach an outlook do you truly get a sense of scale and magnitude of the high country and what Mount Buller has to offer. Where Falls Creek requires you to be in charge of your own route and destination, Mount Buller’s track layout keeps you in a somewhat controlled environment, taking you through places it wants you to see. That’s ideal for first time visitors, but does it still offer that same sense of freedom and adventure on the third and fourth occasion? If you are living that suburban city life in Melbourne, I’d imagine the answer would be a resounding yes. But if you are travelling from interstate the answer might be a little less clear-cut.
High country living
The opportunity to grow up in the Victorian High Country was probably taken for granted during the early years of my life. Sure, I was outside on my bike nearly every day experiencing it, but I thought that was just a normal thing that everyone did as a child. There was no need to gaze at a poster on the wall, just look out the window. It wasn’t until I started venturing away from home that I came to realise the magnitude of the playground that was in my back yard.
In our modern times of connectivity and media saturation it is becoming increasingly difficult for a destination to set itself apart from the rest. Our opinions are forever changing based on the last post that we spent all of five minutes watching. No longer do we have time to stare up at the one single image on our wall dreaming about the possibilities and how we can make them happen. But if we did, I guarantee you the first stop you’d want to make on your next trip would be the hidden gem that is the Victorian Alps.
Hatch a plan. There are countless alpine adventures out there for you. Whether you tread a common path like riding from Falls Creek down to Mt Beauty via the Fainter route, or maybe you want to make a shorter trip out to Mt Nelse. Have you spied the route from Mt Buller out to Craig’s Hut – or possibly even thought about connecting Mt Buller and Falls Creek on a multi-day self-supported trip?
The sky really is the limit in the backcountry for enjoying some serious adventure rides on your mountain bike. You’ll encounter big views, big climbs, big descents, and the ride of your life. But you don’t want it to be an impromptu, and therefore unrewarding, experience.
Get a map. Spend the time with a quality topographic map and plan your route, or use ride planning software to create a .gpx file for your GPS. And share your route plans with friends. Even if you’re only out for one long day, chances are you won’t be moving at your usual pace due to carrying more gear, and taking on some bigger hills. So plan your route accordingly - allowing for slightly slower average speeds than normal.
Ask a friend. Do you know someone who has done something similar? Ask their advice – they might spot something you have failed to consider. You might have some luck asking on a forum for adventure riding, but be prepared to take advice from strangers with a healthy grain of salt. Don’t forget to contact anyone in the area, such as Mt Buller, Thredbo or Falls Creek resort management, for any local intel before you pack up and set out.
Plan for bailing out. They say failing to plan is planning to fail, so you’ll want to have some options if you need to bail out with mechanical problems, illness, bad weather – or even injury. Use your map so you know a few options that can get you to help (or a sealed road) from a variety of points on your route.
Take a mate. One of the safest things you can do is not travel alone. If you can, ride with a mate who is also comfortable with the single or multi-day route you’re planning. You can also share the load for organising the trip, and for essential gear. Besides, shared experiences can be the best experiences.