Victoria, Australia, has a great cycling history. And it also has some very impressive ski resorts that are close to the capital, Melbourne. Mt Buller, Hotham, Falls Creek, Lake Mountain – and of course Mt Baw Baw. The ski season is becoming shorter, and the amount of ‘green’ on the slopes is increasing. For years, Mt Buller has invested in mountain bike infrastructure to lure guests to the resort on summer, and shoulder seasons. But the other resorts are catching up.
Late on Friday afternoon, I arrived in Mt Baw Baw with Imogen Smith. We had heard new trails had been built, utilising some of the older walking tracks and cross country ski trails on the mountain to link into some more coherent MTB loops. Craig Stonestreet has been hard at work cutting the required connecting single track, and cleaning up the existing trails. It’s not easy work, he’s been through many chains and bars on his chanson. Of course, the well regarded down hill course is here too, with the new wall ride built in time for summer. The mountain was shrouded in fog, so it was hard to get a picture of the place, save for seeing a glimpse of trail here and there.
Clearing skies on Saturday were late to arrive. As part of the MTB Festival running over the Australia Day Long Weekend, Gippsland MTB Club were running a 3hr XC Enduro. A cold practice lap meant that a sauna and spa were a welcome measure to warm up. Infact, these took us to only a couple of hours before the race start – probably an unconventional warm up routine, but enjoyable anyway.
Visibility increased immensely by the 4pm starting time, and a small but enthusiastic group of mountain bikers crowded the start straight right in the centre of Mt Baw Baw. The number of cross country riders was dwarfed by down hill riders – the round of the Victorian DH Series attracted close to 300 riders up the mountain, and they drifted towards the Air Bag for the Big Air contest that the Enduro course ran right past.
The course went off the village road and onto some fresh switchbacks – a bottleneck, but not atrocious. On the La Trobe XC ski trail it felt like the course was looping around the mountain, with views through the gums to the dark blue green of Eucalpyt forests literally a kilometre below. This climb looped slowly towards the summit, before a long single track descent took you to the ski lifts, the Big Air competition, and through an impromptu game of cricket. Another climb next to a rope tow and then another fresh single track climb, snaking through snow gums with the sunlight glistening off the undergrowth that was still wet due to the humid air. Descending over the back you were then hit with another climb out, finishing on more new single track that wound around rocks, over others and put you back onto a XC ski trail, leading towards the Mueller track, the most testing part of the course. Starting fast and open, with some narrow slots between rocks and trees, the gradient increased as did the technical nature. The alpine rock bore the scars of pedals, chain rings and rear derailleurs as the afternoon wore on. Over the creek at the bottom tired legs then had to ascend the short but steep climb back to the start finish. Quite a difficult 7km lap with close to 300m of climbing!
The course wasn’t busy, and as with many regional MTB events everyone was happy, but competitive. We had been told when signing on that the teams racing here was very competitive, and the two leading teams were separated by a second coming into their last lap, which later ended in a sprint on the same time. Solo men was more clearcut and I was able to stop before 3hrs, with no chance of catching Lucas Sproson ahead, and pretty sure I had enough of a buffer to sit out the last few minutes and not be over taken by those behind. Full results were live thanks to Gippsland MTB Club, and can be viewed online.
Australian and Oceana XC Veteran’s Champion Lucas Sproson won outright. The veteran mountain and road rider pumped out an unbeatable seven laps in 3 hours and 13 minutes, and was never truly threatened by myself or Bryan Maris (6 laps, 3hrs 1min).
The win reinforces Sproson’s recent resurgence in mountain biking having disappeared off the competitive scene many years ago, soon after becoming a junior national mountain bike elite and racing in the Australian junior team. Most recently Sproson won the Australia and Oceania XC Mountain Bike veteran’s championship.
“I missed it (mountain biking): the dirt, the fun, visiting new places like Baw Baw,” said Sproson of his successful return to the sport. It was the first time Sproson had ridden the Baw Baw trails in fifteen years, the changes underwheel not going unnoticed by the winner.
“Back then they were washed-out, rocky, loose trails, but the new trails are excellent. I enjoyed all the climbing and the flow of the descents, too. I like the climb-descent-climb-descent nature of the course and the fast speedy stuff you have out there now.”
“There’s plenty of grip, good cornering, good radius and good rhythm sections; nice and pumpy. I think the course works well for riders all the way from beginners through to those with a lot of skill,” said Sproson, who, with average lap times of 27 minutes, categorically falls into the latter category.
The women’s race came down to start-stop tactics, with Subaru-MarathonMTB rider, Imogen Smith leading the pack from the beginning, enjoying her first experience on Baw Baw trails.
“It was dead competitive at the start,” said Imogen. “Afternoon riding is not usually my thing, so it took me a while to get going. But once I got my rhythm I loved it, although there was a lot of climbing and techy descents, which doesn’t necessarily suit me coming from Brisbane where the trails are a lot drier, gravelly and dustier. The soft wet roots and rocks challenged me a little bit. But I got used to it after a few laps.”
Looking to have a win in the bag and tiring from the constant rhythm shift of the uphill-downhill course, Smith chose to lay her bike down at the finish with four laps done prior to the three hour cut-off. It was a decision that lost her a step on the podium, with Victorian Marlie Hodge, a massage therapist from Dromana, Victoria, grabbing the opportunity to sneak in an extra lap and snatch the win.
“I didn’t have a plan other than to go hard and go until I die!” said a clearly chuffed Hodge at presentations. “When I heard the lead female rider had stopped on four laps, and knowing I could still make the time cut off and head out for a fifth, I just went for it. But I was hurting, so I’m happy to have earned the win.”
The result marks a highpoint for Hodge, who has only been riding for three years, the Baw Baw 3 Hour Twilight Enduro only her third ever race.
“I was a runner, but turned to riding after suffering too many injuries. I still can’t decide if I love riding or running trails best, but today I’m happy to have ridden them and I’ll definitely be back to defend the win at next year’s Twilight Enduro.”
There is more to come at Mt Baw Baw – with Criag Stonestreet working on a flow trail that starts right where the downhill course does. It’s a small mountain, but Mt Baw Baw and the Gippsland area has a lot to offer mountain bikers.
1. Lucas Sproson – 7 laps / 3hrs 13min
2. Mike Blewitt – 6 laps / 2hrs 58min
3. Bryan Maris – 6 laps 3hrs 1min
1. Marlie Hodge – 5 laps / 3 hours 30min
2. Imogen Smith – 4 laps / 2hrs 36min
3. Lauren Fox – 4 laps / 3hrs 42min
1. Malte (pron: ‘Mitre’) Adebahr – 6 laps / 3hrs 40min
2. Troy Taylor – 4 laps / 2hrs 38min
3. Matt Empey – 3 laps / 3hrs 18min
1. Bike Buller (Matt Young & Dave Empey) – 7 laps / 3hrs 27min
2. Jake ’n Jez (Jacob Lamb & Jeremy Evans) – 7 laps / 3hrs 30min
3. Kaos Custom Free (Leih Brret & Chris Fice) – 6 laps / 3 hours 22min