The Chain Guide – Exploring the Tasmanian Mountain Bike Scene

The cold, the quiet and the solitude are all things I was warned about when I decided to move to Tasmania. 

On returning to Australia in December 2017 after four years living, working and travelling around Canada, I moved back in with my parents on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where I was hired and subsequently fired from a position managing a brewery.

I decided Queensland wasn’t for me.

Living in Canada had fostered a deep love of mountains and wilderness areas in me, and as the only Australian state I had never visited, Tasmania’s quiet, cold and solitude were all things that I found deeply appealing.

So, with the decisive irrationality that can only come from being fired from a job after only three days with no notice, I moved to Hobart.

I packed my Subaru with some camping gear, a modest collection of accoutrements (the personal value of which had been decided upon on airport security checkpoint floors across the world) and, importantly, my mountain bike.

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My life in a Subaru. At a campsite somewhere in New South Wales en route from Queensland to Tasmania to explore the island state’s world class mountain biking scene.

Despite my passion for the mountains being relatively new-found (I grew up in Noosa; I loved the ocean, sue me), I had been a keen bike rider as a teenager, and while living in Canada I fell head over heels in love with mountain biking and brought a too-expensive-to-talk-about bike back to Australia with me.

Mountain biking is relatively new in terms of sports with international appeal, and has seen a spectacular surge in popularity in recent years.

While driving from Queensland to Tasmania, I was able to experience Australia’s embrace of this surge first hand.

From Garapine in Gympie to the Nerang trails on the Gold Coast which were the site of this year’s Commonwealth Games racing, down to the New South Wales and Victorian ski resorts which have repurposed their chairlifts for mountain bikes in the summer, it is clear that both the public and private sector in Australia have become serious about mountain biking.

And it’s not just Australia’s east coast getting a taste of the action.

Reports of trails in Alice Springs being comparable to the infamous location of the Redbull Rampage in Utah, USA, and the growing popularity of the Cape to Cape race in the south west of Western Australia are adding to the hype around mountain biking nationwide.

But, it’s easy to argue that the popularity and success of Australia’s widespread engagement with the sport started way down in Tasmania, sometime in the last decade.

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A mountain biker stops for a break while exploring Kunanyi’s network of trails to take in the view back over Hobart.

Indeed, academics from the University of Tasmania studied the effects of mountain biking on the physical environment surrounding Hobart’s Wellington Park in 2003.

And mountain biking was first identified as a key opportunity in a Sport and Recreation report presented to the Dorset Council in 2005.

That’s the north-eastern Tasmanian council responsible for the development and implementation of the Blue Derby Mountain Bike Trails, which have become Australia’s must-ride trail network for any dedicated rider. 

When the first stage opened in 2015, the sheer scope of the project and the $3 million price tag made Blue Derby the largest mountain biking project in Australia.

And Buck Gibson, the owner of Derby’s Vertigo Mountain Biking, was there from the beginning.

“We knew that Tassie is a great destination if you had really good quality mountain bike trails,” he told me on a recent visit to the area.

Buck has been involved in mountain biking tourism in the state’s north since starting Vertigo as a tour company in 2009, and recognised the country side between Derby and Weldborough as prime mountain biking terrain.

“We did a lot of lobbying early on. We weren’t pushing Derby as much as we were pushing the north-east as a region,” he recalled, while standing next to his Landcruiser in the trail carpark. He was helping people load their bikes on to the trailer for the 12pm shuttle to top of the ‘Atlas’ descent as he spoke. 

Buck said before the trails were developed, he was specifically thinking about the old mining trail known as the Blue Tier, which has since been abandoned and eroded as the bespoke trail network has gained popularity.

“It was more the rainforest up there… that whole experience you get was exactly what we thought would be perfect for Tassie,” he said.

“And I’m happy to say that’s proven to be the case… the response to that trail has been phenomenal.”

“Blue Tier has become an icon ride, a ‘hero’ trail. It’s the one that people seek out it’s the one that gives the whole region that, sort of, fame interstate and overseas. It’s becoming one of the great rides in the world, now.”

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Blink and you’ll miss it: Derby is one of a handful of towns in the Tasmanian north-east experiencing a renaissance thanks to the Dorset council’s investment in world class mountain biking trails. 

Surprisingly, Buck said that from a private venture perspective, Derby was too issue-ridden to be a viable mountain biking location.

Anyone familiar with the workings of a city council might be surprised to hear that the Dorset Council took those issues in stride.

“In our mind there was too many challenges, but those were the challenges that Dorset Council took  on and they’ve nailed it,” Buck said.

The Council saw the potential in the sport and its proponents, labelling mountain biking the “fastest growing recreational pursuit worldwide” in a recent report.

“It is a travel motivator that provides economic return for the destination of choice,” the report, available on the council’s website, read.

“Generally well educated, affluent and travelling in groups, mountain bikers desire non-crowded natural destinations with good quality base facilities, and are willing to pay for quality experiences; an excellent fit with the offering in Dorset.”

It’s a flattering summary of a demographic who, not too long ago, may have been regarded as hooligans and not too far removed from the stereotypes of skate punks; I guess the times, they are a-changin’.

And according to some in the industry, that change has come quicker than anywhere else in the world.

Ian Harwood is the director for the Enduro World Series (EWS) Derby event, which hosted its inaugural race in 2017 and will return in March 2019.

“You’ve got places like Whistler [in Canada] and the French alps which have changed over a couple of decades… but nowhere have I seen this sort of change on this sort of scale,” Ian said of the region’s response to mountain biking in the last five years.

The Enduro World Series hosts the world’s best enduro-style mountain bikers at races across the globe throughout the year, alternating between South America and the Asia Pacific region for its southern hemisphere event each year. 

Ian spent two years in negotiations with EWS chief Chris Ball before he was able to bring the event to Derby in 2017. 

“We spent the best part of two years looking at different venues [around Tasmania]… they’ve got various requirements for minimum elevation and that sort of thing.”

Another factor was accommodation, which Derby simply didn’t have enough of to cater for all the world class athletes, their teams, the event organisers and the number of spectators which would descend on the town for the event.

So they built their own campsite. And then they got Telstra to fast-track the implementation of better phone and internet infrastructure in the region, as you do.

“Two weeks before the event you could not get a phone signal on a cloudy day. Riders couldn’t get their social media. And if you can’t tell it to social media as it happens – it didn’t happen,” he said, laughing at what his team had achieved for the region and the sport.

“The whole market is now educated [about Tasmanian mountain biking]. The local spectator and the local businesses have now seen the event and understand it, so they’re excited.”

“The pro riders, they’re now educated and they are super excited. [The riders] who travel the world riding and they were still posting the photos [from Derby] six events after the fact.”

And those pro-riders also voted the Derby trail ‘Detonate’, which was built for the event by Queensland based trail building company World Trail, as their favourite trail of the year.

So Ian is, understandably, optimistic about the race’s return to Derby in 2019.

As is Rowan Miller, a 24-year-old who decided to make mountain biking his life at the end of 2017 and is hoping to qualify for the EWS sometime in the next two years.

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24-year-old Rowan Miller has put an outdoor education career on hold to pursue mountain bike racing full-time. He hopes to qualify for the 2020 professional Enduro World Series season. 

Rowan splits his summers between Derby and the recently opened Maydena Bike Park in the state’s south, training and racing with hopes of becoming ‘professional’, whatever that means in mountain biking.

“One must just remember that many “professional” athletes outside of the top 0.1% in any sport, and especially in mountain biking, often work two jobs in the off season,” he told me during a chat at the recently opened Maydena Bike Park.

“And that’s in addition to sponsorships they need to fund their travel and racing.” 

He said the people at the forefront of Tasmania’s mountain biking scene have allowed him to see racing as a serious pursuit.

“I currently don’t have any formal sponsorship arrangements… I have informal relationships within the mountain biking community that support my training time,” he said, and mentioned Vertigo MTB and the Maydena Bike Park.

Outside of racing, Rowan said he’s seen the positive impact places such as these are having on the local scene.

“The anecdotal conversations I’ve had with tourists in a professional capacity suggests an upswing of people travelling to Tasmania over New Zealand and other established biking destinations.”

Buck Gibson agrees, but said he sees the benefits for locals as the major win.

“It’s bringing some life back, some energy to the town! The locals within the region… this is where they come on their weekends! We’ve got a bunch of local kids working for us and they love it!”

“They’re meeting excited people from all around the world who are telling them how lucky they are to live here… that’s something their parents never heard, that’s for sure.”

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Angus McLarty, a mechanic in Derby’s Vertigo MTB, tunes up a bike from their well used hire fleet. Angus is another who has recently made the move to rural Tasmania specifically for the mountain biking. 

And despite only opening in January of this year, the privately owned Maydena Bike Park is already recreating some of that stoke in the state’s south.

Built and owned by the Tasmanian-owned Dirt Art trail design company, the bike park is attracting riders from across the state and the world to the sleepy mountain town.

Canadian Rhys Ellis is one of those who have come across the world for Tasmania’s trails; he assumed the role of Maydena’s Bike Park manager a week before they opened.

“It’s just really passionate people,” he told me during the Park’s recent Gravity Fest event about what was most appealing to him about the role.

“The passion and the commitment to making something awesome and something new in Australia was what hooked me in.”

Rhys has come from a background of teaching mountain biking in Canada, and said the agency Maydena has given him to implement his own ideas has been rewarding.

“If you’ve ever heard of Fat Wednesdays in Whistler… it’s just one of the most fun races I’ve ever done. You’ve got 200 people from nine-year-old girls to 65-year-old men… everyone just out there to race and have fun. It shows people that racing is more than just beating someone. It’s fun to hang out and be a part of it.”

He said that although the Maydena community is small, the passion that people are already bringing  from the town and from wider Tasmania has been inspiring.

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An unknown rider sending it over one of Maydena Bike Park’s machine built dirt jumps. Like many bespoke mountain biking parks, the jump trail is at the bottom of 800 metres worth of vertical descent. Start working out those forearms.

Managing director of Dirt Art and Maydena Bike Park, Simon French, said Tasmania is the only place in Australia equipped to handle the whole gamut of cycling.

Tasmania has the natural assets to do a whole range of things with mountain biking,” he said.

“We’ve got the wilderness and the elevation that none of the other capital cities have.”

Simon’s been involved in mountain biking, whether in the saddle himself or encouraging others to get a little wild, for 25 years, and said the future of the sport across the country is as exciting as it has ever been.

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Riders unload their bikes from Maydena’s custom built shuttle trailers at the summit of the park’s trails.

Hoping to combine the experiences available at Derby, Maydena and other destinations yet to come online is Tasmanian native Vaughan McVilly, the owner of Hobart’s McVilly Velo cycles.

His father Graham McVilly was an Australian cycling champion in the 70s, and Vaughan has ensured the family’s name remained synonymous with cycling by leading a career in the industry all over the world.

His latest venture, a cycle workshop and cafe on the waterfront in Hobart, is aiming to be the first Australian company to offer heli-biking.

“I didn’t think the mountain bike thing was ever going to take off as big as it has in Tasmania,” he told me after I came across McVilly Velo, conveniently located nextdoor to the Hobart Brewing Company, in April.

“When World Trails started getting involved in Derby in 2012 I started getting very excited.

“Heli biking became a huge passion in the last three years – no one has ever been able to do that before in Australia, because of the laws with having bikes on the side of the helicopter.”

Heli-biking, much like heli-skiing, simply involves transporting bikers to the top of a mountain and letting them find their own way back down again.

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Heli-biking, as pictured here from my own experiences in western Canada, has been popular for mountain bikers overseas for a few years, but has yet to take off in Australia. 

However, getting the plans for the first Australian heli-biking venture off the ground has not been that simple.

“The hardest thing for us at the moment is finding the places to land. Getting the landing permits is harder than I expected it to be,” he told me.

“But, literally hundreds of thousands of dollars later, we’re hoping to have regular flights to Derby [by mid winter].”

Vaughan said that a flight to Derby up the east coast, including a scenic pass of Mt Wellington, will take around 45 minutes.

Vaughan’s optimism about the future of mountain biking and cycling in Tasmania was apparent, though he said it won’t be without its challenges.

“There’s an opportunity here that’s ginormous. If everyone here tries to surge forward and do their own thing we’re going to miss out – we’re going to have to work together.”

It’s nearly six months since I decided to put my life in my car and move to Australia’s southernmost state, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say a lot of the motivation to do that had come from mountain biking. 

 

A few times a week I can pedal from my Sandy Bay rental house, and within 30 minutes, be riding around the Wellington Park trails that were the subject of that 2003 University of Tasmania study.

Sometimes I may see a few other riders out there, but as the temperatures drop and the days get shorter there are fewer people, which is only to be expected. 

The warnings from my friends and family about the quiet, the cold and the solitude hold a certain truth to them, but they aren’t negative. 

To have the options for world class mountain biking in several locations throughout the state, despite the weather and embracing the serenity, is something I, and it seems the majority of Tasmania, will whole heartedly encourage.

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A rider searches for a patch of sunshine amongst the trees on an Autumn day at Maydena Bike Park. 

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