Finest Mountain Biking… Traveller Story
It’s mountain biking, but probably not as you know it. A warming fire crackles in a wood stove inside a spacious hut, beanbags lie strewn about, and the kitchen emits the intoxicating scent of roasting pork belly and new potatoes. A few steps away, the most inviting of beds awaits me inside a wooden pod nestled in the bush. Mountain biking has come a long way, at least here in Derby.
Three years ago, this former tin-mining centre in north-east Tasmania was just another faded and forlorn country town. Then in 2015, a network of mountain-bike trails known as Blue Derby opened. It was immediately lauded as one of the finest trail networks in Australia.
On weekends and holidays in Derby, bikes are now almost as common a sight as cars. Gun mountain bikers, novices and families all whirl about its trails, with even toddlers bumping along its green (easy) trails. It’s the town that mountain biking rebuilt.
When Blue Derby opened in February 2015, there were plans for 80 kilometres of mountain-bike trails. Two years on, there’s 110 kilometres of trails and scope for more. Even in a year between my own visits to Derby, new trails have grown like branches from a tree, but they aren’t all that’s new here.
Hidden within the network, just metres from the trails but invisible to the cyclists who whirr past, is this hut where I’m now easing into the evening in uncustomary mountain-biking style as the trails around us fall silent for the day.
The hut is the hub for the Blue Derby Pods Ride, a three-day guided tour that began operations last April, bringing fine food and wine and a touch of luxury to mountain biking. In effect, what the likes of the Cradle Mountain Huts Walk and the Freycinet Experience Walk introduced to Tasmanian hiking, the Pods Ride is aiming to bring to Tasmanian mountain biking. It’s a concept almost unheard of in mountain biking – spokes with style.
“I’d been interested in mountain biking for quite a while and worked in a bike shop a few years ago,” says owner and guide Steve Howell. “That gave me an idea of how many people had good bikes and liked to do things comfortably. It all kind of melded together into this idea.
“We’re very lucky here. The trails are really well suited to people getting back into mountain biking or trying it for the very first time. On the green loops, most people can just jump on and ride and see the beautiful things that more experienced riders see very easily.”
I’ve come on one of the Blue Derby Pods Ride’s maiden trips. With two guides on board, agendas are unfixed and options are plentiful. We can all ride together, split into two groups, or simply lounge about in the hub if lethargy trumps energy. It’s unusual freedom for a guided group adventure.
On the first morning, I head with guide John to the start of Atlas, one of Blue Derby’s signature trails, while another rider new to mountain biking will tootle around the green trails that loop out from Derby.
“It’s not often when I mountain bike that I look at the trees, but you do that here,” John says. “It’s such a beautiful place to ride.”
Atlas, an 11-kilometre descent from near Weldborough into Derby, is the perfect example, descending through layers of Tasmanian bush: high clearings, myrtle rainforest and, finally, dry sclerophyll bush. Stopping to admire the bush is great cover for needing a breather.
Atlas is also an introduction to the nature of the trails at Blue Derby. The word that reverberates in descriptions of Blue Derby is “flow”, with trails here running as naturally as rivers. “Trust the trail builders,” John had instructed me at the start, and quickly it’s easy to let the terrain do the work. Leaning into bends and corners, it feels uncannily at times like skiing on soil.
Almost all of Blue Derby’s trails converge at Devil Wolf, a section of the Cascade Valley above Derby that was scoured bare by massive floods in 1929 when a dam burst, killing 14 people in the town. On the still-exposed granite slabs we lunch and swim before making the short ride to the pods.
Perched atop a small cliff overlooking the Cascade Valley, the pods are a welcome retreat, even after just a couple of hours of riding. In some ways the hub building is reminiscent of the huts strung along the Overland Track for the Cradle Mountain Huts Walk, but it also has its own features and quirks.
Bar stools line the bench of the open kitchen, providing a chance to chat with the guides as they prepare the meals designed by Dan Alps of Launceston’s famed Alps & Amici gourmet grocery store (and former restaurateur at Strathlynn). There’s an open bar stocked with Tassie wines and beers from nearby craft brewery Little Rivers (including a “Dam Busters” ale named after one of Blue Derby’s trails), and a pantry for the picking. Yoga mats provide the chance to stretch out any muscle soreness, and hidden behind what appears to be a cupboard door is a cosy library and reading nook – a pocket of peace within the peace.
The showers, which look through a glass wall onto a 40-metre-high white gum, are fed by rainwater trapped on site, and 14 solar panels keep the Pods Ride entirely off the electricity grid.
Connected to the hub by wooden walkways are the four small sleeping pods. Perched on stilts, the pods are like angular cocoons, or wooden bubbles framed around a large bed. From the pillows, I look up through a wide window into the canopy of the trees, and each morning I’m woken by a silent alarm – the rising sun.
My second day opens with mist strung like elastic bands through the valley. Flame robins bounce between trees just outside the hub’s wall-length windows, and after breakfast we simply pedal out the few metres to begin another riding day on Blue Derby’s scrawling, scribbling lines through the bush.
Each trail here has its own distinct character, be it gravity-propelled descents or cross-country journeys across hillsides covered in stringybark gums and deep, shaded pockets of myrtle-beech rainforest. There are trails short enough to last just minutes, and by lunchtime I’ve pedalled another three of them.
We lunch in the hub – a feast of ingredients served on a giant Huon pine platter – and then wrestle with the temptation to simply linger here through the afternoon. Beanbags and beer on the sun-warmed deck, or bike through the bush again? I’m almost reluctant to ride.
It’s on our final morning that we come to the literal pinnacle of Blue Derby’s trails. From the summit ridge of the Blue Tier mountain range, more than 600 metres above sea level, the Blue Tier is one of Derby’s newest trails, plunging for 20 kilometres to the door of the Weldborough Hotel.
Mountain-biking website Flow has called it one of the “most hyped-up, talked-about and photographed trails in Australia”. Steve goes a step further.
“The Blue Tier is the best trail I’ve ridden in the world,” he says, citing the verdant rainforest, the way the trail incorporates the abundance of natural features, and that recurring Derby plaudit: flow.
At the start of the trail, there’s a real feeling of being in the mountains. Fog blurs the world and a chill wind blows across the top of the Blue Tiers.
In true Tasmanian style, the changes in the landscape are as instantaneous as they are astounding. From a scenic roll across subalpine clearings, the trail suddenly enters a stunningly green expanse of rainforest – brittle grasses straining against the elements one moment; towering trees, moss and trickling streams the next. If I’d ever thought about just hurtling down the track in pursuit of speed alone, it’s a scene that stops me in my own wheel tracks.
This rainforest is a rare piece of mountain-biking beauty that rolls out almost all the way into Weldborough. At times the trail is tight, twisty, rocky and veined with tree roots, but mostly it’s winding and wonderful.
Soon we’re cruising towards Weldborough, skiing on soil again as our bikes squeeze between ferns and splash through streams that are no longer the only things that flow here.