I’m mountain biking the new Blue Derby trails, and have experienced almost every iPhone emoji imaginable. Although it seems most riders I pass experience just one: unadulterated glee. As the largest single mountain bike project undertaken in Australia it’s a honey pot for enthusiasts of the sport, offering everything from cruisy greens through to gnarly double blacks. Anyone can pitch up to the trails, bike in tow, ready to test out what this remote and rugged corner has to offer. I spot all kinds of folks gearing up – families with young kids, lone riders with kelpies and big groups of fiftysomethings out on a weekend jaunt. But those who want to get the most out of Blue Derby’s bounty would be wise to enlist the help and guidance of expert local riders and, at a three-hour round-trip back to Launceston, to stay in lodging nearby.
Newcomer Blue Derby Pods Ride promises both, with some incredible Tasmanian produce tossed in for good measure. Dreamed up by young local couple Steve and Tara Howell in 2014, their eco-friendly lodging was finished in April 2017. Here, guests spend three days and two nights exploring the dirt ribbons that thread through the green valley and bedding down in four minimalist, custom-built cabins hidden deep in the forest. In fact, the pods are so well camouflaged among the canopy of gum trees they can’t be spotted from any point on the biking network, which, at 80 kilometres long, is quite a feat.
The trails have been just as sensitively built, with nature’s features considered at every turn. Completed in October 2016, Blue Derby was designed by the company responsible for every single World Championship and Olympic course in all of Australia. So great is its pedigree that stage two of leading mountain bike race the Enduro World Series was hosted at this very spot in 2017 – the first time it had ever graced Australian shores.
While ride leaders Steve and John are both wildly patient and encouraging – coaxing me into doing things I did not think possible on two wheels – it quickly becomes apparent I will not be challenging any pro-racers for their crowns. However, I do seem to excel at one very niche sporting pursuit: falling. In fact, I might just be the most agile and exceptional faller on whom Steve has ever laid eyes. I can fall both while moving and while stationary, and my arsenal of techniques is pretty fierce. There’s the Matrix-style flying eagle that sees me slicing through the air to land crouched on the path below; the prayer position, where in a blink I find myself 90 degrees away from the trail, kneeling amid the ferns over a felled tree; the more vigorous ‘running man’, where I make haste to separate myself from 13 kilos of wheels and alloy; and the ‘come hither’ look, where I land unfurled on a shrubby mound, miraculously still half upright.
Thankfully there’s a lot to admire at Blue Derby, even while you’re eating dirt. The early sun creeps over the valley and streams through the foliage in a way that verges on biblical. Emerald fronds paper the track. Towering eucalypts dip their heads into the morning fog and their feet into lazy creeks. Even the drive here from Launceston is confoundingly beautiful. We cruise past flaxen hills with shadows spilled across them, past lime green paddocks strewn with sheep and speckled cows, past rusted steel water towers and old saw mills and rows of statuesque golden poplar trees.
John says it’s the rich, chocolate soil of Blue Derby that he loves most. For me it’s the chance to get reacquainted with the startling symmetry of nature. And there is no better company to do it in. Most people can easily reel off the top five celebrities they want to get under the sheets with, but John is a man who will joyfully recite the names of his five favourite trees.
Both he and Steve are equally impassioned about Blue Derby, the natural environment and the sport, as well as the meditative moments this holy trinity can bestow. “The thing we've really tried to focus in on is a release from highly strung lives,” Steve explains. “Jumping on a mountain bike and experiencing the ‘flow’ – that moment where you're focused on nothing but the trail.”
With my hands scratched and bloodied, my knees a fetching shade of lilac and an incredibly sore saddle, I am slow to worship at Steve’s church. Uphill sections leave me panting like a portly pug in summer. Cross-country tracks are littered with granite slabs that the mere sight of causes me to topple. And the tight, steep ochre corners known as berms that feature on downhill slopes? Well they are my kryptonite. I fall down and get back up on repeat, gritting my teeth and narrowing my eyes nervously anticipating the next clanger. Naturally, all instruction goes out the window. I am no longer capable of the ‘ready’ and ‘attack’ positions that raise me up above my seat ready to tackle the course – this rider has become solely focused on not flying over the handlebars.