Mountain bike Tasmania’s trails
I’m mountain biking the new Blue Derby trails, and have experienced almost every iPhone emoji imaginable. Although it seems most riders I pass experience just one: unadulterated glee. As the largest single mountain bike project undertaken in Australia it’s a honey pot for enthusiasts of the sport, offering everything from cruisy greens through to gnarly double blacks. Anyone can pitch up to the trails, bike in tow, ready to test out what this remote and rugged corner has to offer. I spot all kinds of folks gearing up – families with young kids, lone riders with kelpies and big groups of fiftysomethings out on a weekend jaunt. But those who want to get the most out of Blue Derby’s bounty would be wise to enlist the help and guidance of expert local riders and, at a three-hour round-trip back to Launceston, to stay in lodging nearby.
Newcomer Blue Derby Pods Ride promises both, with some incredible Tasmanian produce tossed in for good measure. Dreamed up by young local couple Steve and Tara Howell in 2014, their eco-friendly lodging was finished in April 2017. Here, guests spend three days and two nights exploring the dirt ribbons that thread through the green valley and bedding down in four minimalist, custom-built cabins hidden deep in the forest. In fact, the pods are so well camouflaged among the canopy of gum trees they can’t be spotted from any point on the biking network, which, at 80 kilometres long, is quite a feat.
The trails have been just as sensitively built, with nature’s features considered at every turn. Completed in October 2016, Blue Derby was designed by the company responsible for every single World Championship and Olympic course in all of Australia. So great is its pedigree that stage two of leading mountain bike race the Enduro World Series was hosted at this very spot in 2017 – the first time it had ever graced Australian shores.
While ride leaders Steve and John are both wildly patient and encouraging – coaxing me into doing things I did not think possible on two wheels – it quickly becomes apparent I will not be challenging any pro-racers for their crowns. However, I do seem to excel at one very niche sporting pursuit: falling. In fact, I might just be the most agile and exceptional faller on whom Steve has ever laid eyes. I can fall both while moving and while stationary, and my arsenal of techniques is pretty fierce. There’s the Matrix-style flying eagle that sees me slicing through the air to land crouched on the path below; the prayer position, where in a blink I find myself 90 degrees away from the trail, kneeling amid the ferns over a felled tree; the more vigorous ‘running man’, where I make haste to separate myself from 13 kilos of wheels and alloy; and the ‘come hither’ look, where I land unfurled on a shrubby mound, miraculously still half upright.
Thankfully there’s a lot to admire at Blue Derby, even while you’re eating dirt. The early sun creeps over the valley and streams through the foliage in a way that verges on biblical. Emerald fronds paper the track. Towering eucalypts dip their heads into the morning fog and their feet into lazy creeks. Even the drive here from Launceston is confoundingly beautiful. We cruise past flaxen hills with shadows spilled across them, past lime green paddocks strewn with sheep and speckled cows, past rusted steel water towers and old saw mills and rows of statuesque golden poplar trees.
John says it’s the rich, chocolate soil of Blue Derby that he loves most. For me it’s the chance to get reacquainted with the startling symmetry of nature. And there is no better company to do it in. Most people can easily reel off the top five celebrities they want to get under the sheets with, but John is a man who will joyfully recite the names of his five favourite trees.
Both he and Steve are equally impassioned about Blue Derby, the natural environment and the sport, as well as the meditative moments this holy trinity can bestow. “The thing we've really tried to focus in on is a release from highly strung lives,” Steve explains. “Jumping on a mountain bike and experiencing the ‘flow’ – that moment where you're focused on nothing but the trail.”
With my hands scratched and bloodied, my knees a fetching shade of lilac and an incredibly sore saddle, I am slow to worship at Steve’s church. Uphill sections leave me panting like a portly pug in summer. Cross-country tracks are littered with granite slabs that the mere sight of causes me to topple. And the tight, steep ochre corners known as berms that feature on downhill slopes? Well they are my kryptonite. I fall down and get back up on repeat, gritting my teeth and narrowing my eyes nervously anticipating the next clanger. Naturally, all instruction goes out the window. I am no longer capable of the ‘ready’ and ‘attack’ positions that raise me up above my seat ready to tackle the course – this rider has become solely focused on not flying over the handlebars.
Working through my relationship issues with Bruce (the ferocious moniker I’ve given my $4,000 dual-suspension mountain bike) is the first step towards conquering these rocky trails, advises Steve. “Bruce’s wheels will eat that up for breakfast,” he says as we talk about day two of snaking through the temperate rainforest. It’s a statement I am reluctant to believe, having been separated from Bruce with moderate force twice in the first 10 minutes of day one. But after a morning spent learning that falling doesn’t hurt all that much my confidence builds.
Slowly, slowly, my ride becomes laced with fleeting epiphanies. Moments where I ‘get it’. Moments where it is just me and Bruce moving to the beat of the track, carving through the undergrowth, the trail unfurling bit by bit in front of us, only my hands to guide and my feet to push. We sail over ground that ripples like waves and cruise down steep slopes only to roll back up hooked earthen walls. And in those moments I forget about my bruised, aching limbs and my scratched palms, and I get lost in the sanctity of the flow.
By lunch on day one there is no doubt Bruce and I have become better friends than anticipated, but after the flurry of adrenaline (and exertion) I am only too happy to adjourn for snacks. We picnic on smooth cheeks of rock as a stream trickles by, knocking back freshly brewed Aeropress coffee and exchanging stories of run-ins with granite.
Despite full bellies, some are still itching to rewind up switchbacks and cruise down tacky terrain. I have other ideas. Fortunately at Blue Derby Pods Ride the motto is ‘choose your own adventure’. For me, drowsy with food on a hot afternoon, that involves whittling away the remaining hours of daylight back on the dining room deck. I laze like a Roman emperor on a colossal beanbag throne with a pot of mint tea at my disposal. I peruse the book collection in the cosy, cushioned nook hidden behind a cupboard door. I tuck into an afternoon tea of hot, buttered popcorn and cold local honey porter.
As the sun sinks everyone regroups over an antipasto board. Silken triple cream brie, ruby red discs of cacciatore sausage and bowls laden with delicately flaked salmon rillettes sate appetites sharpened by fresh mountain air. And later, when the log fire is ablaze, and it’s beyond all doubt that I’ve consumed far more than I can possibly have exerted, I still manage to make space. Creamy Scottsdale potatoes are tempered with a tangy caper olive dressing, while crisp slabs of pork belly and a rocket and parmesan salad make for excellent bedfellows. With a menu designed by lauded Tassie chef Daniel Alps, plus a bounty of local, seasonal, paddock-to-plate ingredients, it’s hard to say no.
By 9pm it’s also increasingly hard to stay awake and the thick doona that graces my small, wooden pod looks more and more tempting. I fall asleep to the sound of wallabies stamping their feet, and with the constellations in the wide window above my pillow as a nightlight.
In a blink we reach day three and our final ascent (and descent). The Blue Tier trailhead sits nearly 600 metres above sea level. It’s 20 kilometres long, meandering from barren subalpine plateaus down to rich, moss-drenched rainforest. Out of all the trails across the globe Steve has ever run, this one is his favourite.
The start line is rocky in more ways than one, and amid the wild mushrooms and lichen-freckled grass I suffer a crisis of confidence and stand snivelling on the mountaintop, convinced I am about to meet my death. Or at least a rather unpleasant accident that requires reconstructive surgery. John gives me a pep talk but the girl in me that’s more comfortable at Gelato Messina than up a mountain says it’s all a big ruse. Yet somehow, my confidence builds.
In an instant the landscape changes and so does my mood. From stony, stark and sunbleached we pedal into emerald green. The Goblin Forest is a dreamlike world straight out of Lord of the Rings, where a toffee confetti of myrtle leaves dusts the track, and a maze of twisted branches provides a cool, dark corridor. We swoop through streams and over bony wooden fingers extending from tree trunks, and I eventually concede to John my audible whoops as we gather pace and fly round corners.
When we finally reach the end several hours later my cheeks feel flush with satisfaction and I almost can’t believe it’s all over. I feel proud of the small blister forming on my left palm, my violet knees and my tired legs. And somehow I feel the gnawing urge to throw myself down a mountainside at 30 kilometres an hour all over again.
Fly direct from Sydney, Brisbane or Melbourne to Launceston with Jetstar.
Peppers Seaport Hotel in Launceston is a great base pre- and post-ride, offering spacious, modern, light-filled rooms right on the waterfront. Rooms on the third floor offer the best views and the Luxury River View Suite is the choice pick, with two whole balconies from where to soak up the scenery. Best of all, downstairs restaurant Mudbar is one of the city’s highest-rated restaurants, so you can order room service and watch one of the numerous free movies from the comfort of your couch. Rooms from about AU$195 a night.
Blue Derby Pods Ride accommodates up to eight guests at a time in its four cabins. The three-day soft adventure starts from US$1750, including all food and drink, accommodation and transfers from Launceston. Guests can bring their own mountain bikes or borrow them for free. The website lists recommended gear, but for newbies activewear will suffice. For those who haven’t mountain biked before a training session is available – and advisable – near Launceston on the day before departure.