3 Days Riding Australia's Original Mountain Bike Trails in Victoria's High Country
Words: Martin Young. Photography: Jerun TerlaakIn each of the Victorian High Country’s ride destinations, at any time of year and on almost any given day, the buzz of coasting freewheels is ever-present as riders of all shapes and sizes spin past you. Slick kit and shiny bikes? That’s the roadies doing their best to Look Fantastic on their way to one of the epic alpine road climbs. Polo shirts, sunnies and runners? A family heading along a rail trail to the café with the kids. Drop bars and a steel frame? Adventure-seekers wanting some solitude on the backcountry gravel. Whether you’re in Beechworth, Mt Beauty, Falls Creek, Mt Buller, Bright, Dinner Plain or Yackandandah, that familiar sound is there.And, outnumbering them all in their dusty shorts, kneepads and old t-shirts, are countless mountain bikers. Among them on a warm Friday afternoon in Spring, the three of us – dry and thirsty after four hours slingshotting ourselves down the local hillsides and berms. Hungry because we hadn’t eaten much since our early lunch. And one of us nursing sore ribs from an unexpected and slightly embarrassing sojourn into the undergrowth halfway down the rooty and aptly-named Flat Strap.
DAY 1: BRIGHTWe were in iconic Bright on day 1 of a long weekend in Victoria’s High Country, aka North East Victoria in Australia, where the trails start and finish 50m from a pizza-serving brewery that looks out onto the Ovens River. Close your eyes for a moment and imagine three riders with three large, hops-based sports drinks in front of them, sitting in the late afternoon sun reliving the day’s berms, climbs, hits and misses. A waiter sets down two monster pizzas and a huge burger. The calming sounds of an acoustic duo waft over from the terrace. There’s nowhere to be, no rush to get home. Well, that was us: Ian, a friend from Beechworth with a penchant for running back up trail sections to ride them again; Luke, an old riding buddy who’d made the short drive up from Melbourne to see if all my raving about the region’s mountain biking was on point; and me, recently moved with my family to Beechworth and still marvelling at the lifestyle and riding terrain on offer in the High Country. I needed every restorative liquid ounce of that beer, as I’d spent the afternoon trying to keep pace with the two of them. Trying to keep up was what I put down as the reason for my temporary loss of uprightness and consequent close inspection of Flat Strap’s fauna on the last run of the day. On the plus side, my fatigue-induced mistake had provided Ian with good enough reason to shout the first beer. Earlier, while Ian and Luke swept majestically around berms, launched off features and floated up switchbacks as if being pulled along by an invisible rope tow, it felt like I’d pedal struck and rattled my bike over just about every loose rock and tree root on the hill. Despite this, I was buzzing. The Bright trails were just so good. We’d ridden four hours that afternoon for just under 40km, having decided not to shuttle despite this being an easy way to notch up the negative metres at Bright (the stats say that if you were to ride the whole of the 100+km network you’d descend more than 10,000m).
Each trail we rode offered something different to the last. Playground is a green-rated, er... playground that you can ride with your kids, but if you’re feeling spicy and keep your speed up you can hit the well-marked A-lines to turn it into a feature-fest. Tombstone climbs tightly up a series of switchbacks and then, just when you’ve had enough up, you’re sent down a fast descent with more swoops than a cranky magpie. The Eiger is technical and includes man made features. The creekside trails undulate their way along Morses’s Creek all the way back to town. Want some XC? The lower trails are used each year in big 6-hour and 24-hour races. And if downhill is your go, check where the National and State champs have run for the last 20 years. Bright features heavily, including in 2018. What’s more, many of the trails have been linked together by the trail managers into a convenient set of loops, perfect for newbies to follow.
And then there’s Hero. The Dirt Art-built Hero needs little introduction, having garnered plenty of publicity since it opened in 2016, but it does demand respect. It’s smooth, fast and full of launch points, and you find yourself wanting to push harder, stay off the brakes, lay it over in the 6ft berms ... right up until that little voice in your head says “Woah there tiger. You sure?”. No voice like that in your head? You’ll love Hero. Luke is a gravity nut, so no prizes for guessing his Trail of the Day. He couldn’t stop frothing about the way it builds and builds, blending speed and uncertainty, forcing fast decisions and asking you question after question. Shred Kelly’s Last Stand, a new trail to replace the last section of Hero, opened in November 2018 promising more of the same.But in a 2-1 decision the post-ride-beer favourite today was the Up DJ and Down DJ loop. Up DJ is a series of tight uphill switchbacks on smooth, pine needle-laden trail through the forest. Not used your granny gear recently? You’ll probably need to dust it off. As you work your way up the hillside you get the feeling that the trail-builders wanted to create a sense of anticipation, and, just as your lungs are ready to burst and you start to feel the burn, the trail ejects you onto the road next to a convenient bench, made of skis. It’s a slightly random but very welcome sight, I can tell you. But don’t sit down for too long. You just earned your turns, and Down DJ has them in spades. Ride this loop once and you’ll want to ride it again.
As we watched the sun set and smashed down our outsized pizzas and beers, talk turned to tomorrow’s Yackandandah session. An easy hour’s drive from Bright, Yack Tracks offers more of an old school riding experience that’ll be familiar to anyone who rode mountain bikes back when we had just one wheel size and Boost was a chocolate bar. Ian was talking about how combining the three main Yack loops (yellow, red, purple) into a single ride gets you 50km of classic XC ascent and descent riding where the singletrack just goes on, and on, and on. Throw in the sneaky black arrow technical trail off the green loop that sends you down crevices, through deep channels and gullies and along precarious cliff-edge sections and we’d have earned our end-of-day cold one at The Star Hotel.So at my request, possibly influenced by beer 4 and the highs of the day in Bright, we agreed to attempt to do just that. Better not have beer 5.
DAY 2: YACKANDANDAHIf you love crowds, traffic and bustle then rolling into Yackandandah at 9am might make you jumpy. The early-morning vibe can be decidedly quiet, even on a Saturday, and with its random trash ‘n treasure shops, country pubs and rickety old verandahs you’d be forgiven for thinking the tree-lined main street was an old movie set, where the film’s already in the can and the set dressers decided it was easier to leave the set up than pack it down. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find an energetic community. In 2002 the town bought the petrol station so that it wouldn’t close down. Right now their focus is on renewable energy and going off the grid by 2022 (that’s the whole town off the grid, not just a few homes). Many of the old shops under those aging verandahs are now eclectic cafes or galleries. People say hello when you walk past them. And in the hills and forests surrounding the town, the local mountain bikers (the YOBBOS, Yackandandah Old Blokes Biking On Sundays) built their own network of trails. This is what all country towns should be like. This is a cool town. The peace and quiet was right up Luke’s alley. Escaping the traffic lights and congestion of his city life to ride his bike in towns like this was his idea of heaven. He looked up the street then down it, then settled back into his café chair with a big grin on his face and, with a flick of his head, sent me inside to order the coffee and pies. Cheeky.The trailhead on Service Basin Road is just a short 4km drive from the main street, sited in a wooded gully adjacent to Yackandandah Creek. Luke’s first remark upon exiting the car was that we should have packed the car fridge and brought a portable BBQ. Ten minutes ago he was eating a beef and Guinness pie, so it seemed a little soon to be pondering more food and drink, but I could see his line of thinking.
All loops at Yack Tracks except Yellow use the same initial section of trail to kick things off - the kid-friendly Green loop, which rises up moderately around a series of switchbacks before you’re sign-posted off onto either Purple, Red or the shorter but technical Carcass Canyon, marked with bones. The mostly smooth, singletrack loops are all roughly 15km long and make full use of the topography’s natural features as they snake off into the bush. Partly in deference to the region’s gold-mining heritage, many corners and trail sections are deliberately left in their natural state, and we quickly learnt how to judge the contour lines in order to negotiate the off-camber, loose corners and natural features without losing speed. At times I couldn’t keep up with the others but I didn’t care. And anyway the long Yack trails seem to encourage solo riding - the old “just me and my bike” cliché. Two of the loops have Long and Short options but aside from that there are no side trails, so there are no trail decisions to make. There aren’t any rock gardens, huge drop-offs or doubles, so no confidence-sapping surprises to catch you out. Just singletrack that moves through tight forest and open glades, swoops up and down natural gullies, tests your balance along narrow man-made water races, and gives you time to take in the old mining excavations.
With around 90mins of riding on each loop before you’re delivered back to the trailhead, Luke’s car fridge and portable BBQ idea went from an offhand remark to a total no-brainer. A day here riding each loop with a beer and BBQ break in between is quite possibly the ideal way to experience these trails. But you’ll need some kms in your legs, a granny gear that works, and some good old-fashioned bike handling skills.
And so day 2 ended. A longer and cruisier day than Bright, yet no less fun. The riding contrasts well with the “designed” berms and jumps at other parks that are purpose-built to whip you around or send you skywards with minimal effort on your part (other than hanging onto your bars). The origin of Yack’s “old school riding” tagline becomes clear as soon as you’ve completed a loop, and later we all agreed that this analogue approach to trail-building is part of what makes Yack, Yack. It’s awesome that mountain biking has room for both, and hats off to the Yack crew for having the conviction to build the type of trails they love riding. Over the obligatory pint of amber at Yackandandah’s Star Hotel talk turned to day 3, a shuttles and gravity session at the Ignition MTB Festival at Falls Creek, with Luke and another mate from Beechworth. It promised to be an epic day out, and, partly because Ian couldn’t come and partly because Luke hadn’t ridden Falls Creek before, Ian took it upon himself to spin some yarns about previous trips up there. Trails, crashes, views, weather and equipment failures all got a look-in before suddenly Luke’s phone rang, and a minute or so later his face dropped. He’d been called back to Melbourne for work, on a Sunday no less. He was devastated, but it was unavoidable. For him, Falls would have to wait until another day. Naturally Ian and I did the only thing we could: we bought him another beer ... and talked up Falls Creek even more.
DAY 3: FALLS CREEKRide the Victorian High Country’s MTB parks and you’ll be surprised at how much they ramp up the terrain compared to what’s on offer around Sydney and Melbourne. At the You Yangs you can ride every trail in a morning - try that at Mt Beauty and you’ll still be there the next day. Manly Dam offers some cool riding, but it’s a kiddies playground compared to the rocks and twists of Beechworth or the flow of the new Dinner Plain trails. Simply put, the High Country’s trails are longer, steeper and more technical than anything you’ll find within around the city. But Falls Creek and Mt Buller go up a level again. The two destinations are ski resorts in winter, and in green season they offer MTB terrain and landscape that you’ll remember for a long time. Mt Buller’s IMBA-rated, 40km+ Epic trail, in particular, is a 5 hour ride on its own, with a real sense of remoteness and a 10km gravity descent to finish. Falls Creek Mountain Bike Park doesn’t have a monster trail like Epic, but from the top of Summit chairlift link together Frying Pan Spur, High Voltage, Wishing Well and Flowtown and you have a 10km, 800m loss descent (including 280m of climbing) that you can ride all day long. Only thing is, it’s another 520m of climbing to get back up to the top of Summit and do it again. If you love your XC this is great: you can ride Packhorse, Jump Start, Generator and others to wind your way back up, but this approach doesn’t cut it when all you want is down. Luckily, Blue Dirt Mountain Biking run shuttles up the access roads every weekend during green season and every day over the Christmas period. Loooooove shuttles.Which brings me to Ignition. This festival celebrating everything that’s cool about mountain biking is run by Blue Dirt and Falls Creek in mid-November to mark the opening of the Falls Creek trails. Before this the trails are still mostly snowbound – unofficially you could probably ride them but, like putting out of turn at golf or baking up air biscuits at a dinner party, it’s bad form. I was at the first Ignition in 2016, with around 200 other riders. The vibe was relaxed and happy. In 2017 Ignition 2 had maybe 400 riders. The atmosphere was even better, particularly in the Ride Village around the firepits after 3pm, despite two solid hours of freak rain shower that threatened to wash the whole thing out. This year when we rocked up at 10am on the Sunday (day 2) it was clear that Ignition 3 was bigger again, yet the organisers were all over it. I chatted with Blue Dirt’s main man Aaron at one point and he said that they’d learned from years 1 and 2, and at the busiest times around 30% of this year’s 600+ riders would be in transit on shuttles, 60% on the trails (including some on Backcountry loops), and the remainder in the ride village drinking coffee and eating burgers or, after 5pm, drinking local craft beer and every mountain biker’s favourite, espresso martinis. After a quick coffee we headed straight for the shuttle queue, found there wasn’t one, loaded up the bikes and hopped in. A few minutes later (not a figure of speech, our driver was channelling Colin McRae) we unloaded at the top of Summit and rode up to The Trig for our first crack at the top to bottom descent. The 360 degree views from The Trig are magnificent, especially with blue skies, short-sleeve temperatures and not a breath of wind. It was so good that for at least 10 minutes we simply stood and looked around. To the north, craggy Mt Bogong and the Kiewa Valley. To the west, the peaks of Mt McKay and Mt Feathertop. To the east, the smooth, treeless mound of Spion Kopje. To the south east the rooftops of the Falls Creek village, and to the south, the ski resort’s southern slopes and Rocky Valley Dam. And in all directions, peak after peak of blue-grey alpine mass. On a clear, calm day like this, I don’t think there’s anywhere else in Australia that I’d rather have been.
But we had some riding to get on with, so we swung the legs over and started off down High Voltage. This run (I like to call them runs not trails up here, it’s a ski resort after all) begins with a long cobbled descent before the dirt kicks in and you’re sent left and right through ghostly, bushfire-damaged snowgums, over granite outcrops and drop-offs until you reach the treeline and Wishing Well, which offers more of the same plus some creek crossings and switchbacks thrown in. Then, abruptly, you hit the aquaduct trail at the drop-in lefthander of Flowtown’s first bank. Flowtown is Falls Creek’s best-known trail and delivers 8km of flow and features until you burst out onto Road 24 at Howmans Gap. Everyone has their favourite Flowtown section, mine is the last third with its pump track-like undulations, open glades and banked switchbacks. I once crashed about halfway down, jamming my chain in the rear derailleur. Unable to pedal, I decided to freewheel as far as I could back to the shuttle pick-up, and promptly set my 3rd best time for that segment. Who needs pedals anyway? After a moment or two to catch our breath at the bottom, we skipped the XC climb up Packhorse in favour of the shuttle and spent the rest of the morning on repeat laps until the call of the burger was impossible to ignore. Last Hoot Bar had a gourmet BBQ stand going in the Ride Village, and the cheeseburger was an absolute ripsnorter. Luckily the beer tent didn’t open until later, or we probably wouldn’t have moved from our firepit-side deck chairs. The XC riding at Falls is just as good as the gravity trails, and that’s where we headed after lunch. Located mostly on the south-east side of the hill overlooking Rocky Valley Dam, you’ll be reminded you’re at 1,600m altitude when your heart rate hits 150 about 200m into Jump Start, and your body starts craving that chair you just left. When I first rode these trails in 2016 with my city mates I arrogantly underestimated what it takes to ride them. I remember us debriefing afterwards and coming up with a bunch of reasons why our legs and lungs hurt so much: bike weight, bike type, 2x drivetrain vs 1x, tyre pressures, altitude, that crash on Vortex, and so on. Then, after I moved to Beechworth last year, I rode them with locals and woke up to the fact that it was my city boy fitness, endurance and skills that needed work, not my bike. Humbled. We sessioned Generator and Vortex a few times and then called it a day just after 4pm, seeking out another firepit in the now-bustling Ride Village. With a setting sun, hundreds of bikes to ogle, hundreds of dusty, tired but grinning riders to share a beer with, a big feed in the beer tent to look forward to, and some live music to help the vibes along, it was the perfect end to our long weekend. I’d ridden with mates three days in a row at three very different locations, pushed myself on favourite segments, been part of a cool riding festival, avoided injury and only suffered one flat. What are you doing this weekend?
For more info on the area visit www.ridehighcountry.com.au