Photos of our riding in Atherton by Robert Conroy – unless stated otherwise.
The beautiful, unique and welcoming town of Atherton lies approximately a 90 minute drive inland and uphill from Cairns in the beautiful Tropical North Queensland region. It was set to be our first port of call on our Tropical Training Camp. The area is known for its fertile agricultural land, growing some of the finest coffee, peanuts, sugar cane, bananas, strawberries and avocados in the country. The town sits at just under 1000m, making it quite a shock for visitors prepared for the heat and humidity of Cairns. By the time we’d finished watching the first round of the XCO World Cup in Cairns we were itching to ride.
A drive up the beautiful range onto the Atherton Tablelands can have you shivering, with brisk night-time temperatures from May-October. We were meant to have team-mate Sebastian Jayne in tow, but a broken hand before the World Cup kept him at home. Our bikes were loaded onto the Subaru Outback and we headed away from the coast, on the twisty drive over the range.
The town has long held a significant role in mountain biking for the region. The annual Crocodile Trophy stage race usually tears through the town and the locals all seem to be in support of the international athletes that accompany it each October. Recently the town has taken this respect for the sport to another level with the construction of a park devoted to mountain biking with over 70kms of marked singletrack suiting all abilities of rider. As part of our team Subaru-MarathonMTB Team training camp we spent two nights in beautiful Atherton and riding the vast swathes of trails in the area.
Having twice ridden through the area previously in the Croc trophy, the roads, trails and views of the dramatic scenery surrounding the town brought back many memories of pain and suffering up climbs, fighting tooth and nail in one of the most difficult races on the international circuit. When I was racing the Croc Trophy, the race was generally typified by long, long stages on dirt roads. However the trails on offer in Atherton were quite the opposite style. We arrived in town eager to ride but not before a quick coffee and scone at one of the many fine local cafes. We set up camp and the incredibly ‘MTB friendly’ Big4 holiday park and headed straight off to get started on the local singletrack trailhead.
The trail head sits at the base of the majestic Mt. Baldy which was once a notorious climb used in the Croc Trophy. Thankfully the singletrack routes up the climb are far more enjoyable, interesting and cruisier than the brutal dirt road climb used in the Croc Trophy.
Into Atherton MTB Park
The singletrack has been designed by World Trail, and Dirt Art as well. a LOT of thought has gone into the construction, routing and location of the trails. What’s even better is that the trail was designed in consultation with local mountain bikers, to deliver the style of trails they wanted.
Even after a few solid days of rain the trails had drained so well we were sure footed on all the trails. We started on the easy grade 2, and climbed up via trail 6.
I was amazed with how well each trail flowed into one another. The volume of rock in the ‘Cloud Mountains’ behind Atherton was also a surprise.
With plenty of obstacles to keep the more advanced rider happy and an always achievable B line to make nearly every trail achievable for all levels of rider, Atherton really has a lot of options. It’s no wonder they can run such a variety of mountain bike events here. From local enduro races, to an 8hr event in August, all the way to a UCI ranked Stage race – The Crocodile Trophy.
We spent a good amount of time on the trail with a friendly local crew who were riding full rigid bikes with pannier racks and having a ball. These guys were not intimidated by any of the trails and seemed to sum up the attitude that this area is famous for. Never say die, keep going! These riders were making a lot of the riders I see in Sydney with $5,000+ bikes look pretty average!
Our loop took us up to the top of Mt Baldy, but by way of a long valley full of grass trees, bench cut trail and creek crossings.
We climbed up Top Deck, and from the top of the climb left Ricochet for later, choosing the flowing lines of Yahoo Wahoo instead.
It was encouraging to see the locals really getting behind the MTB initiative and at the trail head carpark we saw families coming out to enjoy the trails as a group. I will not be surprised to see a few future MTB champions emerging from the Atherton region due in part to this amazing facility.
Back to Mt Baldy
One of the best things about the MTB park is the direct link to town. We had a lunchtime snack at another one of the local eateries – although it would have been just as easy to head back to the Big4, or a few other options in town. It’s all so close.
That afternoon it was back out to the Atherton shredding facility for a go at the more ‘gravity’ style trails on offer. We climbed up Mt Baldy to descend the locally famous ‘Ricochet’ trail. There are lots of ways up – you can shuttle it, as some locals were doing in utes, or ride up the climbing trail Top Deck. The trail got the name as the bottom half is through black dirt, but the top part is in paler dirt. You could also venture out on trail 12, way out the back of the park through the only rainforest sections in the Atherton trails.
Ricochet offers a little more to the freestyle/DH oriented rider, with jumps, well cambered berms and a long, sweeping descent. On the opposite side of the road, Yahoo Wahoo is more flowy, and more suited to bikes with less travel and steeper angles. Both are excellent options, but you do pedal more on Yahoo Wahoo, especially at the bottom. Ricochet is more difficult the faster you go but at slow speed is more than achievable by your less experienced mountain bike shredder. The berms are tight, and the A lines do involve gap jumps. It’s an excellent trail but it does require some more attention!
Exploring the Atherton Tablelands
With so much else to offer in the region, lakes, waterfalls, rainforests, rock climbing; the area makes sense for a visit from anywhere in Australia. With easy access from Cairns airport this would be an amazing mountain bikw themed week/ weekend away. even better, you could base yourself somewhere life the Big4 in a self-catering cabin and train on the trails for three or four days before getting bored. Then you could start to look outside the mountain bike park to the old forestry roads, and some back roads to the other towns.
With cycle tourism becoming more of a thing recently, this area really is an uncovered secret. Not only for mountain bike trails but the roads around here sealed and unsealed are more than worthy of investigation. With climbs going from 0-1400m and one day rides that can traverse coastal regions, rainforest, farming and desert landscapes this truly is one unique part of the country for cycling. I am tempted to come back with the mountain bike AND the road bike for a solid 5-10 days of adventure cycling.
This is an area where you are never too far from civilisation but you can still feel like you are on a frontier! West of Atherton you will not encounter much civilisation until you reach Broome! If you want to find out more about the riding in Atherton, your best bet is to head to the RideCairns website.
Get back on the horse
Some readers may be aware I suffered a bad fall during the review of this trail system. The crash which resulted to three breaks in my pelvis was due entirely to my own misjudgement of a jump and the conditions of the landing. Such is the nature of our sport, I have been in this position many times before and plan to never be in it again. But living a life enjoying a sport which puts a massive smile on my face does have its risks.
The pain of always missing out on the joy, smile and fun that this sport offers far outweighs the pain of spending the next six weeks of my life in a wheelchair. I can also take my hat off to the people of Atherton, plus Mike and Rob who saw to my immediate care after the accident. The paramedics, doctors, nurses and even my fellow patients at the hospital were some of the most caring and down to earth people I have ever encountered. Having visited a number of hospitals all around the world, rural public health in Australia although lacking in funding and resources in many instances has the best patient attention and care I have experienced anywhere. I could rest assured I was in good hands at Atherton Base Hospital.
So now all said and done, back in Sydney playing the healing game for the next few months, I am about to book another ticket to Cairns for a few months time, hire a car and drive to Atherton with my MTB and ride the ‘Ricochet’ trail again, aiming to bounce off less things. If you fall of the horse, get back on!!