The Mountain-Biking Adventure with a Side of Luxury

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Jul 04, 2017

Exhilarating days on a mountain bike that end with a beer and bush luxury… Ben Mckelvey reckons it doesn’t get any better.

On the morning of day three, my last on the Blue Derby bike tracks in Tasmania, I find “flow”. The concept had been introduced by a T-shirt that my guide, Steve Howell, wore on the first day. “Experience the flow,” it blared across his back. I’d been looking for flow for two days, without really understanding what it meant. But I knew it was a mountain-biking thing – and something to strive for.

As we drove to the top of Blue Tier, the longest of the trails, I wondered if I’d already experienced flow. I’d been up and down some of the most beautiful mountain bike tracks I’d ever seen. I had filled my belly with delicious Tasmanian produce and knocked my day’s-end thirst with cold beer and warming whisky, also fashioned nearby.

I’d improved with every run, filled my lungs on ascents, piqued my adrenaline on descents and enjoyed exemplary company. I felt completely content. Was that flow?

It turned out flow was something else altogether. It came to me after cresting a hill of burnt-butter brown, which led to a long, steady descent and into a tight blind corner framed by eucalyptus trees. As the bend rushed towards me, I accelerated. Around the corner, I found myself on an incline – a lush, green corridor not much wider than my shoulders – then ducking into a sharp left-hand turn. I tucked myself into it and was pushed further and further up towards the lip as I went through it. But before I could be spat out, the path straightened and I was hurtling down the mountain again.

In an instant, it all made sense. I was riding without fear or even thought. I was in the hands of the course designer. The bike, the mountain and I were one. This was flow.

Steve owns and operates Blue Derby Pods Ride (BDPR) with his wife, Tara. When the twentysomethings had the idea for their enterprise three years ago, Derby, a prosperous tin-mining centre until the mine shut down in 1956, was little more than a ghost town.

Then, in 2013, two local councils, Dorset and Break O’Day, conceived a way to give the town a point of distinction: $3.1 million was to be invested in a series of single-track mountain bike trails through the hills in which Derby is nestled. The commission to plan and build the tracks was given to Queenslander Glen Jacobs.

A lifelong rider, Launceston-based Steve was ecstatic when he heard the news. Jacobs is a legend in mountain-bike circles and Steve knew that Derby, a place where he’d often ridden on “barely there” trails and fire tracks, could be a world-class destination. He and Tara set out to arrange financing, building and logistics for a business they describe as halfway between glamping and “soft adventure” touring.

Each three-day trip starts in Lalla, near Launceston. After a 90-minute drive, BDPR guide John Braid and I arrive at Derby, a quaint town of fibro shacks clustered around a century-old pub serving Cascade lager.

Derby looks, at first blush, indistinct from the other tiny communities we’ve passed this morning but a cycling theme soon reveals itself. One shop offers brownies, muffins and trail maps; another does coffee, tea and puncture repairs. The uniform around town is fingerless gloves and wraparound sunglasses. The many racks along the main street are stacked with mountain bikes.

The councils built it and people have come. Originally they expected between 5000 and 10,000 riders a year but now Dorset Council estimates up to 50,000 riders will come over the next 18 months, mostly from the mainland. 

BDPR recommends at least a moderate level of off-road ability and offers training for less-skilled riders. I’ve borrowed one of the company’s bikes, a fat-tyred piece of design artistry. I haven’t ridden a mountain bike for 15 years but it’s a lot like riding a road bike. Only better.

As we follow a path called Sawtooth and then onto Krushka’s – a trail named after the Prussian brothers who discovered tin in these parts 140 years ago – I find that the jolts and kinks you would expect when riding overrocks and baked mud are absorbed by the bike’s many points of suspension. The tracks are stunning, carved through vistas that change from minute to minute. Rainforest gives way to gardens of giant ferns, followed by ghostly eucalypts then something that looks like an English garden. All in the space of half an hour.

On day one, after struggling up and warily rolling down the tracks, we pull up at a mid-mountain fire trail and, with theatrical flair, Steve tells us to follow him as he doubles back onto a recently beaten track. We ride through a gap in the fence and into a clearing, where we can see the accommodation pods, which look like oversized mid-century letterboxes. All four of them are suspended about a metre above the forest floor, linked by raised pathways to a separate toilet and shower block and the communal area and kitchen known as “The Habitat”.

I drop my bags in my pod. It’s sparse – there’s nothing more than a large bed, some hanging lights and shelving – but it’s attractive, with a huge bay window looking out onto the bush.

The bike tracks are all around us but they can’t be seen from the pods (nor the pods from the tracks). Apart from the infrequent “yew” of a rider experiencing flow, the only sounds are from the nearby Cascade River and the squark of cockatoos and galahs. The solar-powered compound is stylish but natural. It’s incomparable to anywhere I’ve stayed but I instantly feel at home.

As the scene beyond the windows turns purple and blue in the sunset, The Habitat fills with the aromas of pork and spices and we swap stories of biking and adventure. 

An excellent dish of pan-fried pork belly (sourced from a nearby farm), served with creamy sweet-potato mash and citrus-drizzled broccolini, is placed on the huge Tasmanian-oak table. With respect, the spread seems beyond the talents of a couple of bike-riding guides – and I say as much. “We get some help,” concedes John. 

Beverages and food – including mains and snacks (Tasmanian cheeses, chocolate, local jerky and salami) – are sourced and curated by Alps & Amici, a renowned Launceston provedore. At the start of each trip, perishables are picked up, along with detailed instructions for their assembly. Each meal is a delight: appropriately calorific but surprisingly delicate. The well-stocked fridge is always accessible, be it for tiramisu or another cold Tasmanian lager.

On the second day, Steve and John gently elevate the difficulty of the tracks we traverse. We rest alongside a frigid brook for sandwiches of cold meat, pickled vegetables and soft cheese. After lunch, while munching on a mandarin, I ask Steve about flow. “It’s something you know when it happens,” he replies and I feel like a pre-teen asking about love. 

The following day, Steve loads our bikes into a trailer and we drive through the mist to a spot close to the top of Blue Tier plateau. Before getting in the saddle, we decide to clamber up the path to the peak, where we drink in views of the East Coast some 50 kilometres away, the ocean shimmering in the early-morning sun.

When we hit the trails, I am a little foggy-headed from last night’s Sullivans Cove whisky. The first couple of kilometres are a slog. I point my bike towards a rock shelf but my front wheel hits the first boulder and I lose faith, tapping the brakes and kinking the front wheel. All of a sudden, I am tumbling over the handlebars.

Steve checks my wounds. My calf is bloodied but it’s only superficial and I’m immediately back on the bike. With adrenaline spiking, I resolve to attack the trail. And that’s when flow comes.

It turns out that flow is a little like falling in love. It’s an unexpected, blissful rush that I want to talk about but can’t articulate.

The Blue Tier descent is 25 kilometres and most of it is high-speed bliss – it feels like I’m floating past the giant trees, babbling creeks and sweet-smelling ferns. The mountain bike trail ends in Weldborough, where we stop for a beer at the small town’s 140-year-old pub and I gush to a generous audience.

The van will soon arrive to return us to Launceston. With sun on my skin, the thrill of the ride and an Indian pale ale searing through me, I feel that kind of happiness you only achieve when, many miles from home, you are in equal measure exhausted and gratified – and with a souvenir to boot. I look down at my bloodied leg and smile. 

SEE ALSO: Dive into the Edge of Civilisation off Broome