Riding the Blue Derby trails in Tasmania proves to be an enlightening experience for several inexperienced mountain bikers.
I know I’m asking a lot. After spending most of the past two hours climbing some of Blue Derby’s lower mountain biking trails, my two riding companions, Gareth Sutcliffe and Craig Tucker, are itching for some gravity-fuelled hijinks.
And by making them wait while I go on ahead to photograph them in action, I’m keeping them from it. The light is at fault. The winter rays streaming through the stringybarks either side of The Great Race are so gloriously warm and so perfectly crisp that I feel compelled to preserve the moment through my camera lens.
Since driving from Launceston to the former tin mining town of Derby, in Tasmania’s northeast, we’ve spent most of our time sweating and panting up a series of climbs that eventually spit us out at the Black Stump, a once-grand eucalypt anchored at a point where bike trails fan out in all directions.
As one of three busy shuttle points around this fast-expanding trail network, it’s from this junction that two-wheeled troupes disperse across 100km of interlinked trails suiting riders of all levels.
Already, the trails have taken two casualties from our six-strong group. Sydneysiders Don Robertson and Syl Malki have come to Tasmania for the first time to celebrate a milestone birthday for Syl. The idea of thrashing it out on the trails, then flopping down inside Blue Derby Pods Ride’s cosy accommodation sounded like just the kind of pampered bliss her occasion called out for. Then reality set in.
It was while labouring up Axehead and then traversing Long Shadows that Syl, a novice mountain biker, realised that she may have bitten off more than she could chew (perhaps she missed out on a few classic mountain bike hacks).
After reassessing their options over lunch on a rocky creek bed just downriver from the Cascade Dam, the two lovebirds retired to the Blue Derby accommodation pods, having barely ridden downhill. It’s a pattern they fall into the following day as well, exerting themselves early then turning in for hot showers and bottomless glasses of wine while playing board games beside a wood-fired heater.
They haven’t been alone in struggling either. While I’m not exactly a rookie when it comes to mountain biking, it’s also fair to say that I’m a long way off joining the Enduro World Series (EWS) that has staged events here in each of the past two years.
Until now, it’s been more blow than flow for me, though I’d anticipated that – I was hoping that I’d improve steadily over our three days of riding. But even my mate Craig, who routinely racks up mile upon mile on his road bike back in Melbourne, has wrestled with his bike’s bulkier frame and handling.
“It’s like riding the Titanic,” he’d said, immediately after his first climb.
With our head guide, Lauren ‘Loz’ Stranger, escorting Don and Syl back to the pods, that leaves Gareth to guide Craig and I through an afternoon of (mostly) downhill bliss that, right now, I’m delaying them from riding.
ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE
“Just a word of warning,” says Gareth, ahead of setting off again, “this track up ahead is really flowy, so be mindful of your speed until you feel more comfortable riding your bike. Derby has a wonderful way of making you want to keep going, then throwing up unforeseen obstacles that force you to stop suddenly.”
Sure enough, moments later, we brake in front of a menacing, 40-degree rock slab plagued with kinks halfway down. I decide to walk my bike to the bottom, using my cameras as an excuse for my cowardly behaviour.
But hopping off my bike for a moment also gives me the chance to admire the forest surrounding us.
One reason Blue Derby has proven so popular since its first stage opened in February 2015 (apart, of course, from the obvious growth in MTB popularity) is the stunning scenery. The trails pass through state forest reserves with sweeping views across rolling farmlands and the sweeping coastlines of Tasmania’s eastern seaboard. One minute we’re riding over granite tors in blazing sunshine, the next we’re cloaked in darkness beneath towering man ferns and autumnal myrtle trees.
And that’s the beauty of these tracks. When MTB Hall of Famer Glen Jacobs won the tender to build Blue Derby through his company, World Trail, back in November 2013, he deliberately set about incorporating natural features into the trails’ designs.
Both Gareth and Craig make it down the rock slab in one piece, after which the trail indeed adopts that ‘flowy’ trait, describing a track that leverages a slope’s natural contours to avoid braking or pedalling whenever possible.
From The Great Race, Gareth steers us down 23 Stitches then Flickety Sticks and onto Sawtooth – black, blue and green trails graded like ski runs, from advanced to intermediate to beginner.
When we brake beside a monument to a pioneering miner named William Allan, the look of sheer joy on Craig’s face surely mirrors the one on my own. But if we think we’ve peaked early, we’re sorely mistaken.
The following morning, Craig and I tag along behind our leader, Lauren ‘Loz’ Stranger, as she pilots us around Cascade Dam following what many consider Blue Derby’s prettiest trail, Dam Busters.
We pedal through shaded gullies and beneath deciduous fagus trees. Tentacled fungi sprout from the soil and the minty aroma of sassafras perfumes the air. Then it descends, building speed through bermed turns on dirt that grips your tyres like nowhere else, and over punishing rock gardens that our dual-suspension bikes handle with ease.
Each day surpasses the previous one as our technique improves and our confidence rises. “It’s a bit like skiing, isn’t it?” says Craig. “On that first day, you’re finding your feet. Then on the second day, after floundering early, you start to get the hang of it and eventually it just clicks.”
But we save the best 'til last, over on another mountain range...
You can read the full version of this article in the September/October 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today to keep up to date with all the latest outdoor adventures, travel news and inspiration.