About 8 months ago, Will Levy (mtnbike.com.au) contacted me via the Trailflix website, asking if we could meet for coffee to brainstorm a MTB tour opportunity he was exploring and was seeking feedback for. Will’s idea was to take a mini-bus of Sydney riders & their bikes to Canberra for the weekend, ride 3 or 4 trails, feed them up, provide accommodation and transport them all over the place & back. So 8 months later, the tour business was ready to launch & Andy Hrelja and I climbed aboard Will’s first trip on Queens Birthday weekend to see how the concept turned out in reality. Good business ideas are often simple on first hearing but to be successful you really need to invest a heck of a lot of thought and effort to get it right. The fairy tale of a business idea born and then rolled out in a week only happens in the movies or on so-called ‘reality’ shows…

 

 

Will did the right thing in those months in-between our get-together and the launch: - developing a business plan, speaking with MTB industry people, meeting Canberra & ACT tourism authorities, , brainstorming and fine-tuning the details with his mates, getting quotes for everything and even designing his own 20-bike trailer (which he tells me has lead to a tad ‘trailer envy’ amongst some in the MTB community). The fact that after all that, he’s keener than ever speaks to my comment a week or so ago about the benefits of being passionate about what you do for a job. It’s obvious he loves doing this.

 

However, it’s what the market - not you - wants that’s important in business, and you have to admit, Canberra is seen as a pretty boring place by many Sydneysiders. Hell, I’m from Kiwiland and the Sydney locals are more apt to praise NZ’s boring parts…- Hamilton, anyone? I mean ANYONE? - than to give a nod to anything good in Canberra. Until recently, I too would have agreed. I’d never even been riding in Canberra until a couple of years ago, and then it was on some hack track no-one’s ridden before or since! So even before Will came along, I wasn’t all that enamoured with the idea of driving all that way just to ride crappy trails. After all, Sydney’s got some great trails and we certainly haven’t covered them all in Trailflix, even now. It wasn’t until I kept reading and hearing reports on Stromlo, Sparrows Hill & Majura, that I decided I’d better take the plunge, if only to shut the buggers up. But, it turns out they were right all along.

 

 Canberra offers some of the best MTB I’ve ever done, vying for the title of Australia’s ‘capital’ of MTB (Yeah, well, that’s in my mind so maybe worth a debate with a few interstaters over a couple of beers!). But if you’ve never been to Canberra to ride, but like me heard about the great trails, then you owe it to yourself to go do it once. Warning though: you might, like I have, become hooked.
 

However, if you’ve actually done the journey and driven all that way as Grant Byrne & I have now done a few times, then you’ll know it’s a loooong way for a day’s riding., so the idea of having someone ELSE do the driving, feed and put you up was darned appealing…

 

Andy & I arrived at the appointed pick-up place (outside a Bike Barn in Campbelltown - they pick up at 3 locations around the city). It was 8 degrees on a cloudless morning – first one for months! - and we’d been checking the Canberra forecast for 2 weeks and it too looked pretty good.

 

Pretty soon, Will’s (hired) 20-seater minibus and huge canvas-covered trailer arrived. The trailer has been Will’s pet project for several months and it’s really well-built, though he admits the racking system is still being tweaked. It’s apparently harder than it should be to drop the cranks into and get them out of the steel holders so he’s looking at ways of making it faster. Backpacks & helmets in hand, we hopped on the bus to meet the guys (including one girl) on this, the first ‘practice’ tour:

 

Will, Carl, Laurie, Shawn (AKA Burge), Troy, Stacey, Kynan, John, plus Andy & myself. Friends of Will, mostly. Like most people into MTB, all were relaxed and we gelled quickly.Two were, though, first timers to MTB. “On a trip to Stromlo?!”, I grimaced. “Do you know what’s in store…?” Besides that, as I told the group, Andy has only been into MTB for 3-6 months and had never even been on singletrack before… so I figured it might be a more challenging weekend for some than for others. Even so, the newbies seem unfazed by what lay ahead.

 

Well over an hour later, desperate for coffee and a toilet break, we stopped at a large servo outside Goulburn. While parked, I interviewed a few of the crew, starting with Stacey & Kynan, a couple. She’s into MTB in a big way while he’s an experienced kayaker, a possible Olympian. They’ve both done MTB up and down Europe, Canada and ther US and had a great time everywhere, Stacey even breaking a collarbone at Whistlers on a major downhill. Next was Shawn - a passionate roadie. Was certain he would take a tumble in this, his first MTB. (He did have 3 stacks. The last was off the side of Stromlo – when he landed on a ledge below a switchback, on his back with his legs through the frame, like a trapped crab.) Troy on the other hand took up MTB 18 months ago and is equally fearless & crazy. He reckons if you don’t come off, it’s not real MTB. Carl is a fanatical roadie and MTB’er. Like Will, he is as fast as. Thin as a rake and reckons his pending fatherhood won’t make a scrap of difference to his bike training schedule. (Take it from me, Karl: you’ll learn…☺). Karl is another with tales of European riding and his one about the MTB race that goes up and down mountains but also through the backstreets of three cobblestone-paved villages was fascinating. Laurie is another mate of Wills and this was his first time MTB. Like the rest of us, he appreciated the skills training and did very well, but by the end of Stromlo was exhausted not just from the trail but from the tension you get when you try something new over an extended period of time. Says he had a blast though. John was a traveler from the UK, on his way round NZ & Oz, doing 1 & 2-day trips and trying every adventure sport known to man. Mad about MTB and a very good rider.

  

Sprawled comfortably into the bus seats, with coffee and eats in hand, we journeyed on, arriving about an hour later than scheduled at Sparrow Hill, and keen to get out. Will’s admitted the ambitious time-schedule just needs to be tweaked and already he’s worked out where efficiencies can be gained without taking away from the relaxed feeling we all experienced.

 

Will had arranged for us to meet Peter Dowse, Director of Canberra’s Capital Bike Hire for some MTB skills training. His bike hire company will loan riders a mount for the weekend if someone doesn’t have their own or it’s not good enough. He sometimes makes end-of-hire-life bikes avail for purchase and even had a buyer on our trip but had none actually available. He also runs a program with the PCYC, guiding under-privileged kids in MTB riding & maintenance and was in fact in preparation himself for the downhill comp at Majura Pines the next day. Busy dude.

 

After setting up the bikes we all lined up for class. I’m a pretty average rider so always keen to take on board someone else’s insights. And Peter was a great trainer; getting us to ride more tightly round small-spaced cones, lean the correct way on a turn, tips on how to jump a log and tackle downhill more safely and quickly.

 

After about 40 minutes of skills, Will asked the group to divide themselves into the ‘advanced’ (fast/experienced) and the ‘others’ (newbies, slower). I stuck with the learners hoping to get more video & photos. And it was the right choice because about 15 minutes along the track our group stopped to do some sessioning, riding round the tight switchbacks that are common in Sparrow. Peter watched closely as we all made different but common mistakes; leaning to the wrong side, not taking the outer line, putting on a speed burst in the wrong place. The newbies were starting to get it and the rest were honing half-forgotten techniques.

 

Later on, Shawn, riding just behind Pete, stacked it when a huge rock, unseen behind a tree until you came right up to it, became his nemesis. Instead of just riding over it, he focused on it. Pete got us off the bikes, and broke the corner down for us, taking us through it, step-by-step, then got us all to ride the corner a couple more times and it was as easy as – such is the benefit of sessioning. The group rode off feeling that much more confident. Of course that can lead to overconfidence and we had a couple of spectacular stacks after that! ☺

 
More sessioning at a huge log with a ramp. All but one tackled it though, and while I was fine with it, I have this tendency to look down and not ahead and then forget where I’m heading and sail off the best line, so I nearly dropped off the edge of the ramp on the other side. Pete advised me to stop thinking about the challenge and continue to look ahead instead. Good advice.

 

The ‘Bobsled’ downhill near the end of the ride was everyone’s favourite. After lining us up for what was ahead Pete just took off and I suspect barely touched the dirt on the way down. This section rides like the ‘Roller Coaster’ at Ourimbah – still one of the fastest rides we have on film - and I can’t wait to get back to this trail to capture the Bobsled in similar fashion at some stage.

 

We met a couple of packs of mid-afternoon roo’s on the way down but as per usual they were too chicken to race us and fled into the trees. Back at the bus all were satisfied we’d had a fantastic ride, though I quietly felt another hour on the bike to do the full loop wouldn’t have gone amiss for me. That being said, if I’d joined the fast group I wouldn’t have benefited from the extra skills training and I’ve already seen how that‘ll stand me in good stead for a long while. Lunch was massive: a huge filled roll (we picked fillings by email a few days before the trip), yoghurt, juice pack, water, a protein bar and a banana and I’d already had a bar or two so I was stuffed. We weren’t going to go hungry!

 

We sat round on folding stools that Will had had tucked somewhere and enjoyed tales of the ride, discussion about the trailer construction and looking forward to the night ahead and another ride before dusk. Pete talked about his work with underprivileged youth & MTB and I told Will it would make a great short docco if I could get back there and spend some time filming it… Time = my greatest challenge.

 

The 2nd troop arrived back about 20 minutes later with their own tales of glory, having done the entire 30-odd km loop and loving it. About 45 minutes later we were checking in to the Australian Institute of Sport, our overnight accommodation. Check-in’s were well-organised (like the whole weekend); They had all our names and room allocations already listed. Plus they have all sorts of security - cards and guards - to protect the professional athletes, I guess, from yobs entering (mind you, they did let US in…).

 

The halls of residence rooms are spartan but functional, with 4 beds in 2 rooms, a TV room with a couch & table, small kitchen with stove, microwave, fridge, sink and all the dishes, and a large bathroom with shower, toilet and a tub to wash clothes. There are separate laundry facilities but we’d all brought enough for the weekend.

 

We agreed to throw our stuff into the rooms and then those who were keen to go out for the late afternoon ride to head back outside. It had been decided earlier that it was too late to drive all the way to Majura Pines and instead we would ride the local ‘Mystery Ride’. 10 minutes later, most of us turned up. Shawn had injured his ankle on his altercation with the rock so decided discretion was called for and a nap would be a bonus. The riders congregated and while we had been advised riding in the AIS grounds is not allowed, I think we must have forgotten that as we trundled off through the walkways to the next trail, officially known as a ‘mystery trail’ because it’s not a sanctioned ride.

 

That being said it would have to be one of the many highlights of the trip. The trails are:

 
  1. Less than 5 minutes away from AIS
  2. On a well-rounded hill with 2 reservoirs atop and a plethora of trails criss-crossing a 2-3km area.
  3. A place you cannot get lost.. All tracks lead (eventually) to the Mystery Trail starting point just next to a major cycleway.
  4. Unlike any trails I’ve been on in Australia. Tight single-track, ducking under branches and between sparse trees, yet mostly fast-flowing & rolling. Will says it equates to a superb single-track he did in Massachusetts and that’s one of his lifelong favourites. To me it’s like a hill I rode in France with a group of Sales guys while in Cannes on a conference. That one was a magic day with a few spills the only downside.We rode about an hour ’til just after 5 when it was getting too dark to avoid some of the low branches. Carl and a few others were disappointed they didn’t have lights otherwise they said they would have gone for another hour. It was that good.

 

Back at AIS we showered and took a wander round the place trying to spot famous athletes (met at lunch the next day a young woman rider from the Aussie MTB team who was there for the weekend doing some training on Stromlo. They reported they loved it but team members experienced two major injuries – a smashed face and a sprained wrist on the black diamond). On our informal AIS tour we saw the new and old swimming pools, plus the big arena… but I guess we already had built up a reputation, because all the well-known athletes were in hiding. My new autograph collection would have to wait… Then it was buffet dinner – all you can eat & (soft) drink - plenty of food choices and a great dessert. Pasta, bread, salad, rice dishes, curry, chicken something, fish something else – and all healthy. As it was 7pm, I had built up this huge appetite and fair tucked in, though after several return trips to the buffet, I could barely stand up! It was like Xmas dinner back home…

 

That evening we dropped one of the guys off to his friend’s birthday dinner while the rest of us hung out at a city pub, watching rugby while imbibing a few of the local ales. Nothing too extreme in the drinking stakes but the option was there if you wanted to make a night of it. Half the group sat out under the clear sky with the gas heaters taking the chill off the Canberra air and the rest of us inside watching the rugby and chatting. Very relaxing. Met one of the local tourist entrepreneurs who is putting together a website on Canberra MTB and he asked if I could send him some photos and video, so that’s on the list…

 

Day 2 got off to a great start with a crisp pre-breakfast ride at Mystery Hill. I enjoyed it even better this time thru and I told the guys to head off while I took a few shots of the area. Even so I caught up with them when we crossed paths just 10 minutes later. Managed to get a little video but really they & I just wanted to ride. A massive breakfast was enjoyed by all, shortly thereafter. this was becoming a habit I could get used to. I wondered if I was too old to apply for the AIS…Actually I seriously think I put on a kilo or two over that weekend…so don’t think this is your Weight-Watchers, low-fat bike tour – far from it…

 

Andy, meanwhile, ate like a horse and still looked like a hunger-striker victim! At work we think he must have some sort of warped space or black hole inside him because the food goes in while he never appears to gain so much as a gram. Renowned at work as ‘The Food Vacuum’, he finishes off anything left out after someone brings in sandwiches or cakes from a meeting. I’m guessing he’s probably an alien criminal, stuck here on earth to help cause some of the world’s food shortages! AIS were probably very bloody lucky we were late arrivals at the breakfast, because if Andy had gotten in any earlier, there could have been a food riot. After breakfast we left luggage in a couple of rooms and headed to the bus, excited about talk of Stromlo on what looked like a fairly good day weather-wise, though clouds looked a little dangerous over to the west.

 

Over half the group had not experienced Stromlo before so this was another new adventure for them and a chance to re-explore for the rest of us. The car park at 10:00am was mostly empty so maybe the locals were away for Queens Birthday holidays. There were a few guys on the trails but as they say, there are no traffic jams in heaven.

 

The tracks are described in the Stromlo Trail Page so I won’t go into them in depth here, suffice to say I wasn’t up for the Black Diamond again. Up or down, it’s as hard as it sounds but well worth it if you have that level of skill. Being a newbie, Andy was happy to start out easy so we started round the novice track, which is at the base of the hill, all on the flat. Video camera in one hand, steering with the other, I followed he & Will (the rest had taken off already) and got some footage on the flat.

 

Feeling adventurous, Andy spotted a couple of piles of dirt and a trail and sped up them only to find the downside was more or less a straight drop. Spectacularly, he tumbled arse over tit. I was still carrying the video cam but had inadvertently turned the bugger off so it’s etched in memory but nowhere else. Shame. It was pure YouTube gold. He was shaken but not stirred – luckily the dirt was soft - and we carried on up the green track where he decided a tad more care might be in order. That made it easy for me to jump off the bike a few times and convince him to slow down so I could get more video. Nothing to do with hoping for another stack.

 

Overall though, I was really enjoying the riding, plus I didn’t want to interrupt other people’s biking, so I didn’t get as much riding footage as I would have liked. I decided to leave that for another time …We caught up to Will, Laurie & Shawn who were looking for a tool kit to do some minor bike-surgery. Will had loaned his out earlier and not had it returned. Repair done, we rode on, and up and up to the top. It’s a long steady ride with copious rocks and stunning views for miles.

 

By now a degree of fatigue had set in, so more than a few of the group were looking to reap the benefit of all that uphill expenditure. Near the top Shawn had a stack equal in scope to Andy’s tumble. He ended up on his back, crablike, over the ledge with his legs through the frame and seemingly unable to move. I had seen it all and AGAIN didn’t capture it on film (I was riding just ahead) and leapt off to extract the bike from his Cirque de Soleil-like position. He was largely unhurt and carried on but - like Andy - took it somewhat more gingerly thereafter. Having heard the MTB pro from the day before talk about ‘smashed face’ and ‘fractured ankle’ something must have reverberated.

 

At each major junction the lead riders stopped and we all gathered for the next section with Will giving some description of what lay ahead. I’m pleased to say I enjoyed Stromlo more this time because I knew what was coming up plus I had those new switchback and corner-handling skills that we’d acquired the day before so I was a lot faster even while I felt more in control.

 

At the end of the downhill, after some great little jumps, you skirt round the BMX track. A few drops of rain had started to fall but not enough to stop us all heading back up to the BMX start line (me downhill a ways with camera at the ready) to do a BMX trial. Several stacks and one broken bike (Will – I forget what he broke, but it was apparently unrideable afterwards) didn’t take way the immense fun that was had by all. I managed to get Andy stacking – twice! – and will include it in some bloopers at some stage.

 

But by the time the canvas was pulled over the trailer, the raindrops had become a drizzle and we knew we’d seen the best of the day. But apart from wanting to get back to Sydney for a dinner that night, I would easily have been talked into staying the rest of the 3-day weekend…

 

Lunch, showers and AIS checkout followed. And stories galore. I managed to get a few interviews in between the food, and decided then I had missed my calling: not an IT guy/filmmaker but a professional athlete with access to unlimited grub. Hell, I’m salivating just imagining it…!

 

Before we hit the Federal Highway Andy asked Will if it was OK to stop at a fireworks shop and buy a few crackers for his kids, since you can’t buy them anywhere outside Canberra and only on THIS weekend in the year… Unfortunately they have NSWales-ians all worked about and won’t supply unless you flash an ACT license., i.e. YOUR ACT license, not your 3rd cousins… so he missed out showing his Sydney-based kids what home fireworks was all about. (Possibly saving someone’s eyesight, somewhere later in life!)

 

About 20Km out from Canberra I asked Will to stop, and I jumped off the bus, ran ahead along the Federal Highway and stopped to film the bus rolling on by and then ran up to them & jumped on. Anyone watching would have thought I was crazy and they’d have been right. Such is the lot of the filmmaker.

 

All in all, a memorable weekend : the riding – superb; the food – too much; the travel & accommodation – well-organized; the comradeship – typically keen MTB blokes (and token girl who was fantastic fun and a much better rider than many) who were laid back and loving it.

 

On the return journey, sleeping ensued for some but the adrenaline was still flowing for others so it was shared stories. Near Sydney, the dream was over for most of us but for Will it was just beginning. I interviewed him while he drove and I could tell that the stars are definitely still in his eyes. The weekend trial run had been a success and a few of us had already said we’d love to come back and do it again.

 

For Will, he has (at time of writing) 3 more trips already in the calendar and then he’ll see what comes out of the woodwork. A week after my editorial entry about the weekend someone dropped me a mail asking me for his website (mtnbike.com.au), so his adventure is definitely underway… 

Grant S.

Canberra Bike Tour Weekend

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