“You can get real fast real quick on this descent,” said Kyle. There was a graveness to his voice that I wasn’t expecting, like he knew something that I didn’t. “And there are no straight bits to brake properly. I’ve seen some good riders go down on it.”
I would be doing well to listen to this advice. Before he became a Velo Cycles mechanic, Kyle had raced mountain bikes for a number of years, and had worked for the trail building company World Trail. In fact he built the trail we were currently on. We were riding the Australian Alpine Epic Trail on Mount Buller, north-east Victoria with a group of about 13 riders. For 7 hours we had slogged up tight switchbacks and skitted along stony firetrails and plunged down loamy singletrack. Now all that was left was reputedly one of the best descents in the country, 10km of flow-nirvana to the Delatite Valley far below.
“Control your speed.” Kyle added. “And stay loose.”
Weeks earlier, when our general manager Stu mentioned that he, Kyle, and a bunch of others were going up to Buller for the day, I got rather excited. I love mountain biking, but I don’t get out to do it that often. I pretty much invited myself: there’s room in the car? Great, I’m coming. What’s more, we had recently received a delivery of new mountain bikes – Rocky Mountain bikes from Canada – and this was a good chance to get some off-road experience, so we could talk to customers with a bit more authority.
We left at 6 o’clock on a Sunday morning, Stu and I in the front, Kyle in the back with two bikes next to him and a derailleur hanging in his face. It felt great to be out early, with the sun coming in at an angle and the roads deserted. We cracked jokes and laughed heartily as we went buzzed past the warehouses on the outskirts of Melbourne, and climbed into the hills around Kinglake. We got to Mirimbah, at the bottom of Mount Buller, at 8:30am, where we parked and got on the first shuttle-bus up the mountain at 9.
At the top of the mountain we stood around in a big group, introducing each other, clicking helmets on and making last minute tweaks to suspension settings and tyre pressures. I noted, with some consternation, that almost everyone had fancy bikes – carbon bikes with dual suspension, wide tyres, dropper seat posts and long, slack geometry. Most of them were Rocky Mountain bikes as well, due to the presence of Leonard, who works for the importers of Rocky Mountain in Australia. In short, they were bikes that were more capable – way more capable – on steep, rough terrain than my trusty old steel hard tail. Only one person, Kate, also had a hard tail, but even that was a lot more ‘trail-oriented’ than my cross-country machine. Some had full-face helmets too, including Stu. His had pink trim, which clashed with the big orange beard that poked out from underneath his face guard. But I came here to ride trails, not think about bikes. I’d taken my hard tail on all sorts of stuff it wasn’t really made for. I just wanted to spend a Sunday tooling around on a mountain, have a bit of fun.
We started on some easy stuff near the ski-village, before descending on a fire trail to the junction with the Stonefly loop, which takes you over to Mount Sterling. Stonefly begins with a long climb through lush eucalypt forest. It was steep and technical, and I had to put my foot down often in the switchbacks. After a while I was breathing hard, and sweat was making my t-shirt cling to me. As we climbed, the forest took on the telltales of high altitude. Instead of brushy undergrowth there was a covering of grasses, lush and delicate. The trees were shorter too – stunted snow gums with streaky bark that writhed around the trunks. It was a faultlessly clear day, and through my polarised sunglasses the colours were that bit more vivid – the deep-cobalt sky and the pea-green grass and the shiny-grey of the trees. The air was bright and minty, and when I stopped it was silent but for the chittering of some birds.
The descent back to the junction was steep and tight, with some spectacular views over the mountains. There were also some rocky drops that tested the limits of me and my bike. I went a bit faster than was sensible, rolling over some of the more technical obstacles before I had a chance to really register they were there – before I could hesitate. The momentum I carried probably helped.
The day wore on, and my confidence grew until one fast downhill section where I overcooked a corner and careened straight towards a fallen tree by the side of the track. I leant back, held the bike straight and somehow – I have no idea by what means other than dumb luck – ku-lumfed over it without crashing, and rolled back onto the trail. It was soon after that I caught up with Kyle, who was filling up a water bottle from a stream, and he shared his words of wisdom for the final downhill of the day: control your speed, stay loose. Perhaps he sensed that I was getting a bit wild. After ploughing over that tree just before, I was shaking just a little.
As we rolled into the final descent there was a lightness in my stomach. I was worried I might get carried away, too reckless. How would I get down this, knowing my temperament, and not end up lying upside-down in the bushes somewhere? I took a few deep breaths. Control your speed, stay loose. The first part of the descent switched back and forth across the mountain side. I’d pick up speed on rolling, twisting trail before slowing for a tight 180-degree turn. I’d lean in, judge the line, release the breaks halfway through and, when I got it right, zing into the next bit of trail. Control your speed, stay loose. I kept doing just that, repeating it like a mantra, until I was flowing smoothly again.
Further down, the trail opened out. It got faster and less technical, and swooped back and forth, up and down, twisting like a cut snake. It was a pure moment. Pure motor-control and spacial judgement. I loved feathering the brakes and positioning my hips just so, finding where my weight needed to be for the tyres to bite, and they would fling me through that corner and over a hump and into the next. There’s something primitive and immediate about it. It’s total physicality.
And I made it down safely. Now all that was left was some more descending on a fire trail. Nothing too technical. Nevertheless, it was pretty fast, and right near the bottom, Kate, who was in front of me, went down hard. I squeezed the brakes and skidded to a halt, right in front of a log with a drop-off behind it. The log was grey, and blended in with the track. The dust kicked up by the riders ahead of us made yet harder to see. Kate had hit it, gone over the bars and slammed into the dirt at some speed. She picked herself up and sat on the side of the trail, winded and shocked. Luckily, that’s all it was, and nothing was broken. After a while she got back in the saddle and gutsed the last few kilometres. I wondered if I would have seen the log had she not crashed, and if it could have been me on the deck.
The trail ended at a grassy bank next to the Delatite River. I rolled to a stop and collapsed sideways onto the soft ground, where I stayed for some minutes just breathing and staring into the sky. We’d only done about 55km, but it had taken us 8 hours. I’ve done a lot of big rides over the years, and this one was up there. Mountain biking is hard work. Some of the others rode straight into the river and flopped into the water. I took my shirt off and waded in. It was shockingly cold. After a bit of working up to it I ducked under and my skin tightened at its touch. I came up quickly and let out a triumphant yell. My everyday life seemed a long way away right then, dripping and refreshed in the afternoon sun.