Mountain Biking in Hollybank and Derby Tasmania

In the world of singletrack, investigative journalism is a wonderful thing. Late last year this role took me past the barriers and red tape to ride Tasmania’s then yet-to-be opened Hollybank Mountain Bike Park as well as the trails of Derby, which were still a work in progress at the time. 

I flew into Launceston and was met at the airport by the crew from Dirt Art; the trail building company behind the Hollybank MTB Park. My ride guides included local lads Rob Potter, who designed Hollybank’s tracks, and trail builders Kozi (Antony Kostiuk) and Jarrod Samson plus mainlander Nathan Rennie. Yep, that’s Rennie as in the World Cup winning downhiller – woohoo! 

I was a tad nervous about meeting Nathan—as I was about to see firsthand, Rennie rides like he’s cutting the track with his tyres as he goes. When he’s not cutting lines on his bike, Rennie can cut a pretty fine line with a digger too, which is how he became part of the Hollybank build-team. Aside from being a tower of talent, Nathan is also a proud father and quite the teddy bear, as I discovered when we caught up for brekkie at the hotel that first morning. 

HOLLYBANK

Nowhere in Launceston is very far. When Rennie and I went in search of pre-ride coffee, we all but fell over a bike shop, practically on the hotel’s doorstep. Still looking for coffee, we continued on a stone’s throw further to find a farmers’ market full of good things to eat. Tasmania is a veritable pantry of bike-fuel—we only made it past the stalls of baked goodies, cheese, fruit, seafood, salamis, craft beers and ciders, and local wines because our caffeine levels were dropping dangerously low. 

Back at the hotel with takeaway coffees safely in hand, Nathan and I met Rob and our shuttle driver and logistics extraordinaire Buck Gibson from VertigoMTB. Local photographer Heath Holden and regular Strait-hopper Adam Fernyhough completed the line-up. We loaded the bikes and headed out to Hollybank; three-quarters of a flat white later, we were at the trailhead. 

Word had spread about the track development behind the ticker tape and barriers at  Hollybank, and Buck and Rob had invited a handful of local riders to join us on this pre-launch expose. Assuming that the locals would have slipped past the barriers for a few sneaky rides, I asked around, hoping to glean a preview of the riding ahead. But chitchat revealed that the locals had respected the hypothetical red curtain draped over this project. 

Even Dirt Art builders Kozi and Jarrod had yet to ride beyond the sections they’d worked on and Rennie was looking forward to seeing the sections that he’d cut in their finished form. Everyone else had that star-struck look of a first-division Lotto winner. Rob and Rennie led the way to the trailhead proper, as the rest of us formed a train behind. 

NO SWEAT

The car park to Hollybank Mountain Bike Park is at the base of a huge wooded hillside. The forest has ash, pine, larch, douglas fir and redwood, as well as native bush, with bracken claiming the space below. Hollybank forest has long been a resource for sport and  recreational interests, originally supplying England with ash wood for cricket bats and tennis racquets. The trees in this part of the forest share a distinctive slim, tall profile, but they close in around the car park, hiding all but the first few metres of trail. 

On that first ride, the trail had the same untouched feel of a lawn tipped with earlymorning dew. The shingle trail surface crunched under our wheels but showed no mark of our passing. As the first trail from the car park, ‘No Sweat’ is designed to be a friendly introduction for beginners and a low-key warm-up for more experienced riders. Even so, this trail struts its stuff, winding between the trees and swirling in beautiful rounded arcs though Hollybank’s distinctive petanque-like boulders. 

Our little train came to a halt at a hairpin that had a wall ride built onto the corner. The posse divided in two, with one group spectating and the other zooming back up the trail to ride the wall. Kozi built this wall – he’s a builder by trade – but this was the first time he’d actually ridden it. A solitary breach of No Sweat’s ‘green’ rating, Kozi’s wall offers an opportunity to play and defy gravity, but it’s entirely optional and less confident riders can trundle past without it interrupting the flow of the main trail. 

There are no wall rides on my home trails, so I’d yet to go vertical. But with the designer, the builder and a gravity guru to consult, plus photographer Heath snapping our every move, it seemed as good a time as any time to give it a try. Besides, we were still close to the car park and emergency services if required! 

My first attempt was not stunning, so I asked Kozi for some pointers. “Get on early, and get off early,” he told me. His mate Jarrod nodded and added: “And build as much speed as you can.” We watched Rennie fly down the straight, hit the wall and ride within inches of the top edge. He pulled up next to me and gave me a wicked grin. Right, got it. 

I rode back up the track and joined the queue. All too soon, it was my turn; I ploughed down the straight leading in to the turn and hit the wall at full noise. Then I was up on the wall, with the ground whizzing past out to my right and the end of my wooden path approaching fast. Uhoh! But somehow the world righted itself and my front wheel touched down on the track proper just as I was about to run out of wall—what a high! Now I had a grin to match those the lads were sporting, and I was revving to see what other features Rob had seasoned this network with. 

TALL TIMBERS

With the posse reunited, we continued on to the twisting turns and velvety natural dirt surface of Tall Timbers. A step-up from No Sweat, Tall Timbers curls and unfurls over those Tassie contours. It took us through the trees, around more big boulders and through gaps chain-sawed through the trunks of sleeping giants. Then, gaining momentum and mischief, the lower section coils up in a series of luscious round berms. Up ahead, Nathan and Rob put a different spin on these lines, swooping through the corners and launching the curves as the notion took them. 

Back at the car park we piled into the shuttle for the five-minute drive to Lilydale for lunch—situation urgent. Though Lilydale Larder looked kind of posh, owner Mark was completely unfazed by his verandah-load of grimy, smelly diners. He was a good sport too, helping us choose the quickest and biggest dishes on the lunch menu—the morning’s riding had whetted appetites and we were in a hurry for more. And when the lads nipped over to the bar to buy a beer, they each returned with a beer in one hand and a bottle of Leaning Church wine in the other, to take home ‘for the missus’. 

JUGGERNAUT

This was the trail we’d been waiting for. The noise-level in the van increased as Buck drove us through the maze of fire-roads up the hill. Between the trees I caught glimpses of plains falling away—it was going to be a long, steep descent all right. Rob filled me in on the intricacies of forging a track through this rock-strewn terrain. “Designing this trail has been more about providing people with the opportunities to experience the terrain and interpret it in ways that reflect their abilities and preferences. I like giving riders opportunities to interpret the terrain in ways that are not necessarily the most obvious. As a designer I like being able to include multiple lines and multiple options within a slightly wider single trail. Juggernaut definitely reflects this philosophy.” 

Juggernaut is six kilometres of solid descent, with another four of slightly gentler gradient to cool your heels on, but it starts with a climb. As we pedalled off, Rob gave me a sheepish look; “I wanted to bring the track right up to the ridge,” he explained. Familiarity with the tight turns and stonecobbled pinch gave the Dirt Arties the upper hand, and it was a few minutes before I caught up to them at the ridge-top. Juggernaut had quite a different vibe to the loops lower down. Things felt steeper, narrower, more varied. It seemed full of possibility and gravity was calling. Adam and Nathan set off, with Kozi and Jarrod close behind. 

I tucked in behind Rob, hoping to get the inside line on Juggernaut’s inside lines. The first thing I learnt is that Rob Potter rides with a calm, powerful intensity. The second thing I learnt is that he can float over anything. And the third? He’s quick. Rob’s red-shirted outline shrank to a dot in my peripheral. I could have tried chasing him down – hah! – but I was busy getting acquainted with Juggernaut. 

The challenges Rob had described on the way up are clear in the Juggernaut’s design.

It rolls down natural rock slabs, crosses rock-armoured watercourses and weaves through more mature forest, complete with fallen tree debris. I don’t know how they found a path through, but these features provide lots of scope to play. I crouched low over the bike and sank in to the rhythm of the track. Gravity fell away as I swooped and sailed, leaning left, leaning right, the trail writhed under my wheels. 

When I caught up with the lads at the shuttle pick-up point, we all had that same Juggernaut grin. They’d been flushing out sneaky lines. Nathan’s discoveries included “gap lines going from turn to turn,” and “rocky insiders leading onto straight sections that let you carry more speed.” Juggernaut then dropped down into darker, damper forest for a couple of kilometres more, giving us lots to play with as it rippled through the trees. 

From there an undulating connector track led us to the car park. This was the section Nathan had cut; no easy task in this tangled bushland. I paused to admire a neatly cobbled section of armouring. Turning to Rob, I asked if this workmanship was his or Rennie’s, “This was Jon Sidney.” Apparently Jon’s even more modest than Rob or Nathan, but if you meet Jon, buy him a beer immediately. 

Nathan and Jon’s connector put us back onto Tall Timbers, just in time for a steady climb up to the car park. By the time we reached the van, we were tired, dirty and well ready to explore Launceston’s restaurant scene. Two shakes of the van tail-light and a hot shower later, and I was back out the door. After a quick hydration stop at the Red Brick Road Ciderhouse, Rennie, Adam and I caught up with Buck, Heath and the Dirt Maestros at the Black Cow Bistro for Hollybank’s christening feast. 

HOLLYBANK’S REVERB & TREVALLYN

We’d planned to hit the Trevallyn trails next, but Hollybank called us back. This time we headed straight to the top of Juggernaut for some serious shuttle time. On one trip down, Rob pointed out an alternative route; ‘Reverb’ is a real diamond in the rough—a black diamond that is. It takes the game and the well travelled down the near-vertical flanks of a series of mossy rock slabs. 

A quick peek from the top reminded me I was feeling pretty tired, and it’s not often you get to watch a world class downhiller and a track’s designer duke it out, so I settled in to watch the show. Like its bigger sibling, Juggernaut, Reverb is full of options. Nathan, Adam and Rob explored as many of those flight paths as they could. 

Once Rennie the Eveready Bunny called it quits, we clambered into the van and scuttled back to town for a couple of laps at Trevallyn. Rob’s pretty quiet, so if Adam hadn’t spilt the beans I’d never have found out that Rob is the mastermind behind Trevallyn too.

Built several years ago, and being a two-way, shared-use network on very different terrain to Hollybank, Trevallyn’s trails have a completely different personality. 

The trails ride smoother and wind through mostly open country, though the region’s  smattering of rocks and boulders still keep you honest—especially on the rocky descent line down to Cataract Gorge. By now my blood sugars were doing an excellent impression of Rennie on Reverb, and I shuddered at the thought of the climb back up to the van at the trailhead. But Buck and Rob were two steps ahead, and they’d concocted a brilliant plan. Rob led us on a shortcut down Cataract Gorge – walking our bikes down the bankside pathway – to our last fuel stop, the Blue Cafe at Inveresk. Just in the nick of time! 

BLUE DERBY

Like I said, in Tassie, nowhere is ever very far away. Derby (pronounced ‘derrbee’) is a tiny two-pub town, way up in the top right corner of the Apple Isle – but it’s still only an hour and a half’s drive from Launceston. Plenty of time for Nick Bowman to fill me in on the recent splurge of development in Derby.

As Dirt Art was preparing Hollybank for its official opening, the work at Derby was just beginning. Glen Jacobs and World Trail has been shaping their trademark curvy tracks into the landscape since April 2014. Blue Derby was a closed site when I visited at the end of the year, so I was stoked to see this future hub in its infancy and observe World Trail’s artisans at work. 

The first thing I noticed when Nick pulled up at the trailhead was the vegetation; the north-eastern Tassie rainforest is noticeably denser and damper than in other parts. Tree ferns and their smaller siblings grow in gnarled-up clumps, and the long leaves of the tree ferns catch and filter the light overhead; as a Kiwi it was a strangely familiar environment. To me, Derby felt like Rotorua rolled up in a ball with the South Island’s West Coast. 

Derby township is about to boom again, thanks to this Blue Derby mountain bike  development. But before World Trail descended, Derby was a relic town. Though currently

light on population, Derby is full of heritagelisted wooden houses—relics of the town’s tin mining origins. “Those miners cleared and stripped the place. They smashed it to death,” Nick told me. “Our teams are still finding mining artefacts and stonework.” 

We scrambled out of the ute and geared up to ride. A recent recruit to World Trail, hand-picked by Glen, Nick explained how his new team-mates work together. But even without Nick’s generous praise it was clear these guys fit like many pieces of a dry wall—the track we were riding up was a work of art. The stonework supporting this climb would bring a Roman road-engineer to his knees. Full of curves, it winds a gentle way up what should have been a horribly steep climb. Corners wheel playfully around tree ferns, and the ‘straights’ – well, there are no actual straight lines in a World Trail trail, but you know what I mean – slip between huge pale boulders of granite and basalt that glow in the tree-fern light. 

The next morning Nick and I put on our orange vests and walked out to the sharp ends to observe the crews in action. Machine operator Ryan de la Rue gives the trail its wiggles. “Yeah, a fair part of the trail design comes down to my interpretation of the terrain,” Ryan says. “It’s all about sustainability, drainage and predictability for the rider – and fun.” 

Rhys Atkinson, World Trail’s other senior trail designer, was operating a digger at a second trail end. Though absorbed in the work at hand, Rhys stopped the machine to show me round. We chatted about Derby’s more distinctive characteristics, “Working with all the dead matter and all the different types of soil is quite challenging. You have to adjust your gradients to work with the soil types. It’s very rocky around here too, with lots of boulders. I quite like that—the boulders are a natural feature of the track and I like using them. Getting to all the boulders you can and linking them is pretty challenging, but at the end of the day, once it’s all cleaned up it’s going to be amazing.” 

When I asked about Blue Derby’s stonework, I was directed to Steve Tambovsoff. As we walked back along the track, Steve told me about the types of construction we were walking over, their function and how he’d laid the stones  down—stuff I’ve been mulling over since that first turn on No Sweat. “It’s all about flow,” Steve said. “We want to keep the rider on the track for as long as possible, and to get the water off of it.” 

I don’t think they’ll have any trouble doing that. With track design and construction of this calibre, the riding scene in Northeast Tassie is poised to go off. 

The first 20 kilometres of trail at Blue Derby will be open by the time you read this and the remaining 30-40km will be ready in June 2016. 

Hollybank is open right now and the Juggernaut is riding like it’s on rails!

Amazing climbing switch-backs at Blue Derby.

In addition to Hollybank Mountain Bike Park and Trevallyn Nature Reserve, you’ll also find trails at Kate Reed Reserve and Mount Stronach.

DERBY

The Blue Derby trail network will link back to the Blue Tier alpine descent, creating 50-60km of singletrack between the Derby and Weldborough townships. You can also take a look at Cascade Dam and Rattlers Hill.

For more information check out the Tassie Trails site: www.tassietrails.org

GENERAL INFORMATION

WHEN TO VISIT

By all accounts Tasmania is cold and wet in winter, but no matter when you visit, bring some warm layers and a jacket just in case.

GETTING THERE

Launceston is 15km from the airport. Grab a rental car at the airport or catch a shuttle ($18 one way) or taxi ($30-$35) to get into town. From Launceston it’s a 20-minute drive to Hollybank Reserve and about 90 minutes to Derby. Trevallyn is in Launceston, within riding distance from town. We stayed at the mountain bike-friendly Best Western Plus on Earl Street in Launceston and found it a convenient base for our adventures. VertigoMTB (www.vertigomtb.com.au ) offers shuttle services, and driver Buck Gibson specialises in travel logistics-taming.

BIKE SHOPS & RENTAL

VertigoMTB does bike hire and guided rides. Launceston has a tonne of bike shops, but for an urgent, mountain bike-specific retail hit, try Cycle Torque and Coffee (Brisbane St) or Avantiplus Launceston (St John St). In Derby, Norm and Jess Douglas have opened ‘The Corner Store at the Tin Centre’ on Main Street. This cafe will include a bike shop as well as hire, accommodation and some secret squirrel innovations, all a few pedal turns from Derby Council’s eco public toilets and clean-up facilities for bikes and riders. www.ridebluederby.com.au

FUELLING UP IN LAUNCESTON

Get your caffeine hit and stock up on bike fuel at Launceston’s Saturday morning Harvest Market on Cimitere Street. Five minutes from Hollybank, Lilydale Larder (in Lilydale) is an obvious midday lunch stop, and it has Leaning Church Vineyard wine-tastings for non-riders.

Black Cow Bistro on George Street has locally-bred protein and carbs for post-ride fuel-ups along with a wine list and desert menu to pass for a romantic dinner destination.

Rehydrate at the Red Brick Road Ciderhouse (Brisbane Street) or at St John Craft Beer on St John Street.

Great food and beer can also be found at the Blue Cafe in Inveresk.

Nick Bowman from World Trail gave us an early look at the Derby trails. This small town is set to become a real hive of MTB activity.

Rob Potter on 'No Sweat'. This is an easy 'green' rated trail but this optional wall ride lets you spice things up if you want.

Trail builder Kozi tackles the rocks of Reverb - an optional track near the Juggernaut.

Nathan Rennie - ex-World Cup racer turned track builder - shows his style.

Nick Learmonth pursues her story on the Hollybank singletrack.

Bicycling Australia

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A counter on a popular Brisbane bikeway clicked past the one million mark on Friday afternoon, more than a million trips registering on the Council-funded counter this year.