Mt Buller - Feb 2014
Story by Robbie Over a decade ago Josh and I made our first ever mountain bike film called “Because We Can”. We dedicated it to Glen Jacobs because he was inspiring us to make a career out of mountain biking and in more ways than simply becoming a pro racer. Back then he was producing films and designing world championship level courses with features that are still current by today’s standard. The reason I mention this is because without Glen Jacobs, Mt Buller would not have become the jewel of Australian Mountain Biking that I believe it to be. So without too much fluff, I want to pay a tribute to the work by Glen and the team at World Trail as well as commend the commitment of places like Mt Buller that have allowed Glen’s creativity to thrive into nothing short of a world class trail network. This riding trip could not have arrived sooner. Having ridden the emerging trails at Mt Buller on the 2012 Drift Bikes Staff Trip, we were all keen to get back there ASAP but 2013 had other plans, meaning by the time we concreted in the date for this tour of duty it had been a long two years that had passed. Having raced in Mt Buller since the late 90’s I have always found the place incredibly alluring due mainly to the terrain and the majesty of its world class, three hundred and sixty degree view of the Victorian high country. Even the harshest critic could not argue that this place is anything short of amazing, I mean, just look at it!
Photo by Dylan Hammond
This year instead of just staff we decided to branch out and make the trip accessible to all, along with some serious perks, including fully guided rides, chef prepared meals and no time behind the wheel for our paying customers. So with the keen and willing culinary skills of our good friend Dylan, the local experience of our full time guide Shannon and the tried and trusted Drift Vans, we had ourselves a chef, a guide and wheels. But before we sampled the latest offering from Mt Buller we decided to break the journey up by slapping some turns at Mt Stromlo, Canberra. With Josh suffering post traumatic stress from a truck stop restroom encounter and time needed to reflect on the friends we had already made on the road it was the perfect remedy to ease into the trip.
Like Mt Buller, Mt Stromlo is also World Trail designed, thus proving an ideal primer for what lays in wait at Mt Buller.
Day 1-Mt Stromlo “Classical Gas”
The signature World Trail components are all there in Mt Stromlo including the uphill hits that wash your speed on the decents, the seemingly trademark width that allows you to swoop turns without fearing that you will connect with a rock that’s too close or tree that doesn’t fit the flow. The trails seem to have this safety to them that allows your speed to be the only enemy, not what sits on the trail. To put it another way, the tracks aren’t that hard to ride, but hard to ride fast. Even the largest of climbs are tamed thanks to the phenomenally built uphill switchbacks that allow you to lock in and maintain your momentum as you swing through each one hundred and eighty degree turn. This gains elevation quickly at the end of each straight and spits you out onto the links between each switchback with some momentum and a chance for a rest before the next one. This was really highlighted in Buller by our guide Shannon, whose advice was simply put, “focus on the turns, recover on the straights”. Watching Freemo smack uphill turns on his SW Epic was something else. Nothing could beat how low that bike is up front with just the right amount of head angle to whip in and out of each turn. Freemo was still beaming by the top of the first climb and talked continuously about how blown away he was over his bikes capability.
This could have something to do with the fact that last time Freemo rode Mt Stromlo he was on an aluminium 26” wheel Yeti Hardtail, a far cry from a complete carbon dual suspension 29’er. By the top though, I was pretty excited to have an extra 20mm of travel and a little more rake on the Camber Evo for the “going down” side of the hill. It has been amazing to watch Stromlo change over the years ever since it was first designed in the aftermath of the devastating 2003 fires. Each year more and more growth has come back to the mountain (well, the hill, compared to Buller the mountain) and this growth is what is gradually turning the once low consequence flowy trails into weaving tree lined singletrack.
After hitting the major climb up twice and riding the two main descents including Rollercoaster and Skyline we decided to call it a day despite a small protest from a super keen Mel, the only girl on our tour. Knowing what was to come though, and looking back on the week it was a good move not to wring another lap out of Stromlo and save what we had for the week to come! And what a week…
Day 2 – The Travelling Wilburys and the Club Med Experience
Rolling out of Canberra the next day we were a little slow off the mark thanks to finding an amazing breakie joint complete with baked eggs over chorizo hotpot and coffee, with love in it. Next stop was a late lunch in Albury to try out a café discovered by Aaron at New Year’s when he was delivering avocados from his aunts farm located in some far out west end town. Aaron has German heritage so discoveries are his thing. The café offered up modern cuisine with a twist of Mediterranean but more so a very fresh bowl of nachos, a solid 9 on the coffee scale and a direct view to the van and trailer with a $150k plus of bikes on the back, ripe for the picking. Not up in here, not up in here.
After Albury we soldiered onto Mansfield for the last of our supplies before boosting up the mountain to catch the infamous Mt Buller sunset. And so began our 4 days of mountain biking in Mt Buller.
Day 3 – Stirling Summit and the Deep Burn
Well rested after a travel day between our Canberra stop off and arriving in Mt Buller, everyone was ready to see what Buller had to offer, especially after reading the brochure… The brochure described Mt Buller as follows: Mt Buller lies 100 yards from the Warwickshire border and 12 miles from the Cotswolds. It has the benefit of Hellidon Lakes Golf Course and Health Spa, The Butchers Arms at Priors Hardwick, and Fawsley Hall are amongst its amenities. The Grand Union Canal is nearby. Warwick Castle, Stratford-upon-Avon, Althorpe and Banbury Cross, are also nearby. Mt Buller its great!”. Shannon our guide pulled no punches when explaining that the brochure was the result of an online marketing company that got it all wrong and proceeded to tell us about the darker side of Buller and why he was our guide. Reason being isolation out on the trail carries serious consequence and the area poses a significant wait time in the event of serious injury. The next warning was more to do with Buller being one of two things and these in Shannon’s words were “forget everything you have ridden at home, because in Buller, you are either climbing or descending” And with that we pedalled off into the clouds, unknowingly making our first mistake of the week, skipping our morning coffee.
We realised the error in our ways the following morning when we had our first coffee on the mountain. We knew right there and then it would become the ritual that all other daily activities would be based around. But I digress… The Stirling Summit has a different vibe to Mt Buller. Undeveloped aside from the rubber matting that beds the path from the fireroad to the summits trig station this landscape leaves you feeling like you are a very tiny little ant on a very large rock…
After some humungous fireroad descents off the back of Stirling that boiled brakes and then burnt calf muscles as we walked out of them, we finally heard Shannon utter the words; it’s all downhill from here. There really is nothing like the feeling of being told that after 4 hours in the wilderness, especially by someone who knows it’s the truth!
From here we descended all the way down to Mirimbah at the base of the mountain where our faithful, professional and punctual Chef arrived with an ice cold can of coke for all in tow along with freshly made tandoori chicken wraps to make sure no one passed out from hunger after 50km of riding that included over 1400 metres of climbing. “Dylan, we salute you!” and this would not be the first time we would say this over the course of the week.
As we cracked the first beer of the afternoon a storm let go across the mountain. As everyone began to fret, Shannon our guide was quick to dismiss the weather as a passing shower, and that tomorrow would be perfect. Now for someone that doesn’t trust weathermen, I particularly don’t trust someone who isn’t a weatherman predicting the weather, but how wrong was I. The next day was perfect.
Day 4 – A warm cup of Joe in the Mist
As Foreigner once sang, I wanna know what love is, that question was answered numerous times on Day Four. The first of which being a Mt Buller morning coffee. This was the only thing missing from Day 3 and man, what a difference it made. Freemo no longer had Glandular Fever, my period pain was gone, Josh no longer needed glasses, Conrad’s facial hair grew back, Dylan thought he was two people, Aaron spoke fluent Spanish as opposed to broken French and Mel who doesn’t drink coffee was uncannily fine.
Given the calf melting first day on the mountain the decision amongst the ranks was to keep day four relatively free of climbing. This was adhered to with only 350m of climbing over 22km. Heading toward Stirling, this time we swung back toward Buller and headed up the medusa switchbacks and across to misty twist. The timing could not have been more perfect with the talk of descending a new trail called misty twist coupled with the rising mist. After climbing back out to another trig point atop of Corn Hill we heard yet again the beautiful words, it’s all downhill from here! Yet another definition of love…
13km later, with maximum speeds in excess of 70kph we arrived at the bottom of Mt Buller with the final section of the descent Kris Crossing the Delatite River more than 10 times. And by cross I don’t mean just pedal through some old creek with burnt out cars in it, I am talking elevated crossings using gargantuan trees felled across crystal clear mountain water.
After Lunch we cancelled all talk of climbing and headed for a Klingsporn run. This trail descends off the alternate side of MT Buller and utilises the original cattle track used to walk beasts to the high ground. The first two thirds of this course is probably the ultimate definition of singletrack in that there is only one line, no “wiggle” room as Mel put it and definitely some consequence in comparison to the immaculately prepared purpose built trail networks that we had been riding. From top to bottom you descend over 8km with an altitude drop of over 900metres with the constant need to check speed and keep on the worn line. The combination of tired riders and the most technical track to date saw 3 crashes and a destroyed derailleur out of a party of six. Pretty hectic odds resulting in everyones desire to get back to the groomed stuff the next day, but not before we had Glen Jacobs over for dinner.
There were many questions thrown around over the meal, including the ability of goannas to scratch english messages into trees but one of the most insightful pieces of information came with regard to the metal bridges that have been installed throughout the Stonefly climb. Approximately 8” high by 24” wide grid mesh girders with a rhino guard like coating to stop slipping are used to bridge over streams and high conservation areas. One would assume that these would have been choppered in and lowered into position, but when Glen revealed that these had been carried in by teams of track builders the penny drops as to how much effort is being poured in to gaining every metre of the trails that we are riding. In hindsight Glen did say that he would have preferred to have used a chopper but the point being that these trails are evolving from serious manpower. A for effort. But the biggest question on everyone’s lips was regarding the epic trail. Unbeknown to us the Epic trail was all but finished. Shannon our guide had already pencilled in a ride incorporating the already completed sections of the trail and to listen to Glen talk about its inception and purpose was amazing background to have leading into the ride. The Epic trail as I understand it, is built to IMBA standards which essentially means that it falls into a category of trail that is recognised worldwide to offer a predetermined predictability of ride safety and trailside guidance. The Epic Trail upon completion will be 42km with the final 14km being a singletrack descent to the bottom of Mt Buller. Glen’s parting gift for the evening was an invitation to ride the final four kilometres of the singletrack. Still under construction and “unsealed” this would in no way be something to judge the trail by, but offered up an amazing chance to take in what the final flow of the Epic Trail would be like. We had no idea how amazing this would be.
Day 5 – Throwback Thursday
Everyone woke up wrecked. The combination of altitude and copious amounts of riding over the last 5 days (also refer to above photos) had everyone slowing down and meandering to the breakfast table with the composure of a floating cork at sea. Conrad simply described himself as a half opened pocketknife and with that we decided to postpone our Epic trail ride to the following day in order for everyone to recuperate. Best idea ever.
After what would prove to be the longest coffee morning yet we all finally got going, shedding items of clothing with every pedal stroke as the sun burnt through the clouds. Everyone’s pack felt heavier and the need for little to no climbing was at the top of everyone’s suggestion box. Smashing about the singletrack close to the lodge the days ride finished with another descent to the bottom of the mountain, again via the delatite river trail and a lazy afternoon helped reset everyone for an “epic” final day.
Day 6 – Epic is as Epic does…
I would be pretty confident that on this morning everyone had their packs filled with as much food and water as they could carry. Due to the Epic trail not being complete, it meant we had to add an additional 8km onto the proposed 42k in order to access the remaining 4km of trail that Glen had granted access to. 50km here we come. Brodie who had been banging out coffee for us all week had asked if she could tag along for the day and it was soon obvious why Shannon our guide had granted her wish. This girl could ride. Not only did we have a very capable bunch, but now two of them were girls who didn’t just hang on, they rode the hell out of it! It was truly awesome to see girls break all predispositions that “chicks can’t hang with dudes” out on the trail and simply ride with the bunch.
The beginning of the Epic trail incorporates the Stonefly Climb, and then heads on to a cross country ski run. Shannon mentioned that the week before there had been a cross country trail run along the same route which after you have ridden it you have to have full respect for someone wanting to run what you have just struggled to have ridden. The shear thought of walking, let alone running that distance had me chanting “robbie don’t run” all the way to the lunch stop. And what a spot to have lunch. As we popped out into a clearing we were met by two large cattleman huts with carved wooden seats, grassy lawns and cool breeze. From lunch we headed on to the state park border where we spied the entry to the final Epic Trail descent. Summoning the willpower of a thousand reformed smokers we continued along the fireroad watching the singetrack disappear into the bush.
The memory of the entry to the Epic trail descent was soon forgotten as we all became acutely aware of Freemo’s overwhelming fear of bush cattle that meandered across the trail as we traversed the mountain range.
Eventually we hit the fireroad decent which saw Josh puncture twice, both times tearing side walls (thank god for tyre boots) as we dropped 800m of vertical in the space of 10km! Here we linked into the final 4km of the Epic trail single track and despite everyone being pretty damn near wrecked, we slinked along the trail as it wound its way upstream toward Mirimbah. Despite how soft the newborn trail was, you easily got a taste for how fast and flowing this section of trail would become once it has been armoured and had a winters worth of snow melt it down to hardpack. November can’t come quick enough!
Finishing a 50km day with swim in the river was the perfect end to a ride that took in over a 1000m of climbing on a soon to be world acclaimed trail. Plus finishing the week with this kind of epic ride made us all appreciate how lucky we are to have this kind of riding at our disposal and to have made the effort to make it happen.
Everyone seemed more than content in not only having conquered the epic day but the entire week itself proved an achievement by everyone’s standards. The van ride back to the top was a little on the quiet side however most people came too as the BBQ pumped out a feast by mid-afternoon. Dylan, you’ve done it again! This was by far one of my best riding experiences to date and knowing that there is even more to come in Buller makes it even more exciting to go back.
Quotes of the tour: Conrad “I’m just one of those coffee wankers” Conrad “I’m like a half opened pocket knife” Conrad “I’m so glad I don’t have to buy two sets of handlebars” Conrad “I feel like a king!” Mel “There’s just no wiggle room” Freemo “Four dollars, please” Freemo “This has been the hardest trimester so far” Shannon “That was fun, now it’s time to turn around” Shannon “It’s all downhill from here” Aaron “Can I drive?” Dylan “I’m a chef” Robbie “Robbie don’t run” Robbie “I had no I idea those guys wanted to fight me” Josh “I’m in the van just ahead of you” Does this sound like your kind of holiday? Keep an eye out for our upcoming Mt Buller Tour coming this November and don't miss out. More info here