Tasmania 2 (2019)
Blue Derby and St. Helens, a seismic story about the power of a mountain biking nirvana.
Story & Photos by Carmen Freeman-Rey
Two seismic events hit the small town of Derby located in the north east of Tasmania; the first was a dam bursting in 1929 releasing a torrent of water that rapidly sluiced through the town washing away houses and lives. The second colossal époque was and continues to be mountain biking.
Who would have thought that a small mining town decimated by tragedy, then deserted by big business could have a renaissance of such magnitude. This re-birth did not come about by accident, but rather by progressive thought, planning, determination, sheer dogged mindedness and genius trail builders.
Back in 2016 I visited Derby, along with Tyler McCaul and Hans Rey on the invitation of Tim Watson of Dorset Council, the driving force behind the Blue Derby trails and at the suggestion of Glen Jacobs, the master trail designer, builder and head of World Trail. Why? To photograph Hans and Tyler riding the trails and write about this mountain biking heaven that perhaps can never be replicated anywhere on earth.
Back then the trail system, named Blue Derby was still relatively unknown, not so now. It has been well and truly discovered; experienced by riders from around the globe and even hosting two EWS races, subsequently winning an award for the best EWS track in the 2017 and 2019 event series for Detonate and Kumma-Gutza. This small town is now most definitely on the map as a must go to destination to have the most amazing fun riding a bike.
Now three years later, it was time to return and see first hand how the town has grown and the trail network expanded. Not only those within Blue Derby, because incredibly the trails have extended to flow all the way to the quaint coastal town, St. Helens. A town with a retro vibe, sandwiched between aquamarine sea, with white soft sandy beaches and forest preserve, this place is the perfect counterpart to the temperate rainforests surrounding Derby. St. Helens also lays claim to 84 km of purpose built mountain bike trails within its trail centre close to the town, with an added 42 km connecting the beaches of Bay of Fires (from which it derives its name), to the now legendary Blue Tier at Poimena, which in turn links to Big Chook near Weldborough. Just as with Blue Derby, there is something for everyone here, for all levels and all ages and the network is still growing.
There are multiple factors that have to come together to create the perfect mountain biking destination; a picturesque town not too far from an airport, one with an infrastructure such as four bike shops, shuttles, restaurants, accommodation and public amenities, and of course, a pub, all in close proximity and easily accessible and all within a short riding distance from a choice of stunning trails, set in a beautiful landscape and suitable for all skill levels.
Derby with its Blue Derby trails ticks all the boxes. It is a town that in every sense is about mountain biking and mountain bikers. Whether you are absolute beginner feeling dirt under your tires for the first time, an XC hard tailer or a jump junkie, you will find your inner spirit level soar as you experience some or all of the 123 km of purpose built mountain bike trails.
But that is not all; there is another vital thing that makes Blue Derby extra special; the unique landscape and the dirt. Temperate rainforest thick with lush fauna framed by canopies of Tree Ferns, sunlight dappling through the fronds creating a filigree of shadows reflected on waterfalls and streams. Sticky dirt, smooth dirt, groomed dirt, perfect dirt almost all year round.
This story is about more than superb riding terrain, it is a story about how the quality of the trails have revitalized a former mining town, spawning numerous businesses, providing jobs and reviving a local economy that was pretty much dead, as Hans Rey always says, “build the trails and they will come”.
We drove into Derby passing the Dorset Hotel and pub on our left, situated next door to the free to use campground and linked to the trailhead by a dirt track snaking alongside the river, it gives safe car free access to much of the accommodation, restaurants, shops, public showers and toilets. The Dorset was somewhat dormant in 2016, pretty much empty every evening, now it is thriving, bursting at the seams with customers wanting to eat, drink and sleep. It is here that you will find people seven days a week propping up the bar or outside in the beer garden enjoying live music and swapping their riding stories about which trails they hit. From Friday to Tuesday night, you better make sure you book a table if you want to eat and if you want to rest your weary body, there are 8 newly refurbished guest rooms to lay your head.
Brook and Sean MacDonald are an example of that entrepreneurial spirit which we are seeing quite a bit of in Derby now, thanks to mountain bikes. They didn’t have a background in hospitality; a former miner and a teacher; they wanted a completely different life. Sean had heard about Derby and The Dorset Hotel, he then persuaded his wife Brook and their children that buying the Dorset would be an excellent move for their next stage. They and their children upped sticks in late 2017, leaving the mainland behind and embarked on a 6 months slog to bring The Dorset up to standard. It was a struggle and due to the difficulty in finding trades that had a time slot for their work, they took much of the restoration upon themselves. I am hard pushed to think of other hosts as hospitable and hard working as Sean and Brooke. I was soon to find out that there were many more examples of couples with that entrepreneurial pioneer spirit in this town, those that took a gamble, worked hard, listened to what people wanted and needed and acted on it.
As we progressed along the main street, we saw that the Post Office and Postmaster’s House (where we stayed in 2016) were still there, but painted a different colour and with new owners. It was evident that there was a construction boom underway. On empty sites, new houses have been and are being built and most of what were severely run down cottages are newly renovated, most have become guesthouses to accommodate all of those riders. Across the road from the Post Office the Painted Door café is now the Two Doors Down café and next to this along side one another are two top quality bike shops, Vertigo and Evolution.
We had already met Buck Gibson the owner of Vertigo back in 2016 when he and his wife Jude started out with a bike rental and shuttle service. Those initial two trucks and trailers have now evolved into 11 covering Derby, Weldorough, Poimena and St. Helens and their shop, Vertigo is stocked with top quality bicycle merchandise and numerous rental bikes, both regular mtb and e-mtbs. Both Buck and Jude are the most helpful and friendly people and their staff are as enthusiastic and passionate about what they are doing as they are. Buck and Jude also expanded into hospitality; they own the café Two Doors Down, which is literally two doors down.
Sandwiched between Vertigo and the café is Evolution bike and rental shop. Started by Ben and Anastasia Jones a couple of years previously, they like Sean and Brooke were ready for something different, a challenge, even if risky, that entrepreneurial spirit kicked in and over rode any hindering doubt; Ben persuaded 36 weeks pregnant Anastasia to swap Whistler for Derby. Just like the gold rush pioneers of California once upon a long, long time ago; this pocket full of people saw something, the potential for this dormant town in Tasmania, the “goldmine”, but in this case it wasn’t literal gold, it was the creation of the most exquisitely fluid mountain bike trails.
It is easy to say in retrospect that of course this would be a thing, the perfect mtb destination, and the gold standard that meets every requisite. But that would be a false assumption, some people are just braver than others, they have more foresight and are prepared to take a risk and run with it. Whether already residents of Tasmania, or coming from an ocean away, these people seized an opportunity, rolled up their sleeves, worked extremely hard and seem to love every moment of what they do.
Oh how things have changed in three short years. The trails have been added to, besides a choice of bike shops, stocked with everything you need or desire, accommodation has grown from a few beds to hundreds of beds, property that no one wanted to own is now being snapped up quicker than you can click your fingers and the pub is full, every night. Word has definitely spread, in a short time Derby has gone from hibernating to thriving and it is all down to MTB. In just a few days I met people from Colorado, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium and New Zealand, all super stoked with what they found there, Blue Derby is now on the map international map as a go to destination to ride.
There are no straight lines in nature, there is fluidity and that word quite nicely describes the trails of Blue Derby, including Little Chook, Big Chook and Blue Tier and the new connector trail, Bay of Fires. Although this area has a beauty that evolves and unfolds into something different with every switchback and berm, the process of getting to the point where we riders could enjoy all this, was a little less beautiful. When being tasked to build a mountain bike trail system the pathos would be that nothing is more challenging than dealing with nature and man. Man, because of bureaucracy, which tends to nurture headaches and problems at every level. Nature, because it is wild and untamable and littered with huge obstacles along the way;
This is where the progressive thought, planning, determination and genius trail builders I mentioned earlier comes in. Tim Watson of Dorset Council fought tooth and nail to gain the federal funding which would pay for the trails to be constructed in Derby. He dealt with the red tape with utter determination, never accepting no for an answer, if there was a problem he found a way around it. Tim was determined from the beginning that Worldtrail headed up by Glen Jacobs was the best company to build some of the best trails in the world and put Derby on the map. Tim and his opposite number at Break O Day council John Brown knew that creating magnificent trails would not just benefit the north east, but the whole of Tasmania. Politicians had to be on board, to do this the councilors had to sell a vision, without the funding, nothing would happen.
The numbers are testament to how right they were. Additional revenue from tourism in Tasmania has risen by $30,000.000, in Derby alone, a conservative estimate of $12,000.000. Stats show that visitors spend on average 5 nights in Derby with an additional 5 nights exploring the rest of Tasmania. Derby has seen an added 120 jobs and 200 beds since January 2015. To put it into context, before the trails, there were approximately 170 residents and only a handful of jobs in this forgotten town. Put simply, when mining and the lumber industry left, the biking world arrived.
Some of the best riders in the world have discovered Blue Derby and the best Enduro riders have raced there. The persistence of Ian Harwood paid off when the EWS hosted a race here twice and won the award for the best racetrack in 2017 and again in 2019.
Without a doubt World Trail is a huge factor in why the trails of Blue Derby, St. Helens and all those in between are so incredible. They forge a way that follows the natural path, embraces the granite slabs, created an icon out of the “Big Crack”, that stone monolith seen in so many Instagram posts, they packed down dirt and built up stone walls to transform what was once open cast mining land into one of the most iconic stretches of trails ever; Twisties.
On our first day we explored a few new ones, Trouty, a somewhat more hardcore trail that rolls down huge granite slabs offering up a birds eye view of the lake and town below before dropping into a rock garden for the final stretch. For Hans this was a ton of fun. From there we joined the new green (easy line) trail along Lake Derby, now accessible by a newly constructed suspension bridge serving bikers and walkers alike, this new single-track is perfect for families and someone wanting to test their tires on dirt for the first time, this meanders lazily along to Watch a Upta. A gradual climb up a series of perfectly constructed switchbacks opens up to a jaw dropping view of the lake and the town sprawled along the valley opposite. What goes up must come down and so we did along a series of mildly technical flowy trails with some pump and easy berms to the bottom.
We were joined one day by Miles Smith a young local shredder, who three years ago had never ridden a mountain bike. Now with all of these amazing trails on his doorstep, he not only rides, he races at a top level. Hans describes his riding style as very fast, smooth and stylish and his natural talent and the skills he has accrued in such a short time blew him away.
Along with Miles we experienced some more new trails and revisited some of the originals. Starting with Twisties, we climbed the smooth, groomed switchbacks and headed to Tasty Trout Falls and a perfect photo op to capture Hans and Miles taking a line on a challenging rock drop (which is avoidable for the scaredy cats among us…like me). One of the predictable things about Blue Derby is the unpredictability of the views, just as we are trying to absorb the visual delights of the arbor of foliage above and around us as we are riding through, we are blind sided when our view changes instantly to that of vivid color provided by wild pink Foxgloves and a lawn of Periwinkle in blue that so perfectly frame yet another view of the lake and town below. But wait, there was more; The Pods… rather wonderful huts formed to be embraced by the nature surrounding them and provide a unique shelter for mountain bikers wanting to ride, tour and sleep within this wonderful landscape. Anyone can stay and enjoy this special place as long as you a) ride there and b) are part of the tour and c) respect and love the environment that envelopes you.
We continued on to The Tunnel. Glen Jacobs explained the interesting history behind this most unique of mountain bike experiences. The tunnel has always been there, the entrance obscured by untamed forestry, it was originally blasted out of the rocky hill by an industrious miner wanting to get his tin out from his land out and on to public land. But there was a problem, the land between belonged to someone else and that person forbade him from crossing that which he owned. No problem thought the determined tin miner; he would just dynamite his way through his neighbor’s hill and build a tunnel. The route has been cleared and lights added to illuminate the way, so now with heads down we peddled along half a kilometer of almost darkness waiting to see the pin prick of natural light on the other side. Then from there, a ride down Deadly Bugga (the name intimidated me no end) and then Flickity Sticks, which was as fun as its name implies back to the trailhead.
After a quick bite at Two Doors Down it was time to take a shuttle courtesy of Ben and his Evolution ATV to the top of Air Ya Garn a trail full of big rollers and magnificent berms. This is the sort of trail where Hans and Miles railed those berms at full pelt, inside foot down and got some serious air over the rollers. But if you are not as advanced as they are, you can just roll through, it is seriously fun. Air Ya Garn, which is a black diamond trail carries on from Kumma Gutza which is a double black, this is the one that won the award for best track in the EWS race in 2019. There is something beautiful about watching riders with great skills riding with such style, getting big air and seemingly floating as they ride all the way back to town.
Even back down by the trailhead we discovered that things had changed, another fun feature, a pump track, where Hans took a turn on the heals of some young ones honing their skills with each lap.
The day had been an epic one, but we were exhausted, thus we were very grateful that unlike in 2016, we no longer had to go far to find dinner. With a pedal along the dirt path we arrived at The Dorset in time to enjoy the live band in the beer garden as the sun set and we like so many others swapped our riding stories.
One of the new great wonders of Blue Derby is Big Crack, which is literally a huge crack between giant granite boulders. We asked Ryan one of the head trail builders at World Trail how they ever came upon this monument of nature. He explained that they would bush whack for days, hoping to discover ever more terrain that would work for additional trails, terrain that as is always their philosophy, would be harmonic to the natural surrounds. They discovered Big Crack and thought that they could do something with this and boy did they. A narrow handle bar skimming natural cleave in the rock that with some strategically placed stone slab bedded into the ground to create a transission has become a mecca for those with advanced riding ability. It isn’t for the feint hearted, but if it is too intimidating for anyone, they can take the B line through Big Crack’s baby brother, Little Crack.
Another charming thing about Derby is how the town is proud of its history and the people preserve it. Besides the nod to this with some of the quirky trails names; Dam Busters, Krushka’s, Detonate, Axehead and more, there are plenty of period homes reminiscent of a time when the town was thriving nearly a century ago. There are two museums, one an interactive center explaining the history of the mine and the devastation incurred when the dam burst. The other is the Old School House which hosts a plethora of memorabilia and old photos that take us back in time. It was here one evening at an open house that we met Virginia, a lovely lady full of knowledge about Derby since this is the place where she grew up, this was the school she attended decades before. Virginia left and married an American, living a completely different life; she was sadly widowed, but then after a few years remarried. She and her husband had heard about how Derby was changing and she was intrigued and so paid a visit to the place that was her home for the first eighteen years of her life. She saw that the house she grew up in, Cascade Cottage was for sale, she and her husband decided to buy it so her life has come full circle. They too turned into business people and now visitors can stay at this charming cottage just a roll away from the trailhead.
After several days becoming re-acquainted with Derby and Blue Derby it was time to pack our bags and head towards the coast and become some of the first to ride the new Bay of Fires Trail that connects Blue Tier to St. Helens. But first, on our way we stopped off at Big Chook accessed via Weldborough. Hans, Tyler and I had ridden this in 2016 but had heard that the trail crew had been working on it and that it was better than ever. It was. This trail is immense fun, a series of rollers and big berms, so perfectly constructed that riding it is like gliding, all the while you are trying to take in as much of the stunning surroundings as you are trying to absorb just how much fun you are having. To quote Hans again; “These are the kind of trails that you want to ride twice, first with your eyes and then just ride”, it is sometimes hard to do justice with words as to just how incredibly beautiful this place is to ride or how masterfully the trails have been created.
It was after this, early on a misty morning with the sun teasing us in the distance, that we set off, along with Cassie an avid rider from Cairns, to experience the new Bay of Fires mega trail. Considering the distance and that there would be a fair amount of pedaling, Hans decided that this would be the perfect time to ride e-bikes. It is another plus about Blue Derby and St. Helens that e-bikes are welcome, although not required thanks to the topography, however they are so much fun and make it easier to ride for longer and farther. With so many options to ride, e-bikes can be a real addition to the whoop factor.
As it turned out, it was a good decision, 42 km on dirt is a distance and you feel it, even on an e-bike. What was it like? Honestly, one of the most fun trails we have ever ridden. World Trail have done it again, created a playground for mountain bikers carved out of the natural terrain, with integrity and appreciation of the landscape which ever changed as the kilometers rolled us away from Derby and closer to St. Helens. The Tree Ferns gave way to Iron Barks, the gigantic boulders remained and the waterfalls were exchanged for an ocean view. This trail epitomizes Hans’ definition of a “Flow Country Trail”, never too hard, never too steep and never too dangerous”. Smaller boulders create perfect natural rollers scattered along the long ribbon of dirt with perfect berms railing you into the next line. This was like flying, like being a kid again, being in the moment and feeling absolute joy.
The fun didn’t stop at the dazzlingly gorgeous waters of the Tasman Sea; we continued on thanks to a quick shuttle from Vertigo to the St. Helens Trail Center where we were met by a lot of seriously excited riders of all ages ready to sample the new trails which officially opened that day.
Once again great importance was placed on providing the necessary infrastructure and facilities and to provide trails for all types and abilities of mountain bike riders. From families with young children, hard-core riders and veterans of the sport, there is something perfect for everyone. Even the easier trails can be enjoyed by more advanced riders, they can just go faster and pump it. One family that I couldn’t help notice because one of their young sons was sporting a Union Jack helmet told of how they live near Mt. Buller (about two hours from Melbourne on the mainland), they were enjoying travelling around Tassie and testing the MTB hotspots…. Were they impressed? Oh yes! The young fella told us that his favourite was Air Ya Garn, pretty impressive, remember its is a black diamond and I have no doubt that this little shredder will grow into another Miles Smith, some day not that far away.
The brilliant idea of creating a trail linking one fabulous riding destination to another came from Gerard McHugh, Chief Planning Consultant at World Trail and once again Tim Watson and John Brown worked to make an idea a reality. This massive undertaking means that the north east of Tasmania can now boast 123km at Derby including Blue Tier and 116km in St. Helens including The Bay of Fires. This total of 239km and ever growing really establishes this region as a global go to location for mountain bikers.
As I close this story about a world class riding destination at the world’s end, I have to finish with the renaissance of that small town in Tasmania, Derby. Because a re-birth did occur and the town continues to thrive. This is an example of how mountain biking trails fueled both the local economy and the economy of Tasmania as a whole, breathed life into a community, created jobs, provided hope, inspired industrious ideas and actions and gave us perfect dirt, perfect trails, cradled by perfect nature.
To end on another quote from Hans Rey; “Derby does not merely tolerate mountain bikers; it is all about mountain bikers”. And I say, there are not many if any places on our beautiful planet that can make that claim.
Places to stay.
Bike shops, rentals and shuttles.
www.vertigomtb.co.au (For Derby and St. Helens)
www.ebiketasmania.com.au www.gravityisle.com (St. Helens Shuttle)