Alpine Epic, Mt Buller, VIC
A SUMMER SATURDAY morning on Mt Buller, and mountain bikes sprout like antlers from car roofs throughout the village. A pump track undulates through the village square, and mountain-bike magazines are strewn across tables in ski lodges. Buller’s ski season is dead; long live the mountain-biking season.
Mountain biking has long been the biggest summer game on this Victorian mountain, but last summer things went from good to epic. Literally.
In December the 40km Alpine Epic trail was opened, and it’s no ordinary trundle. Running from Mt Buller village to Mirimbah, at the foot of the mountain, it’s the first trail in the southern hemisphere to earn ‘Epic’ status from the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
Within hours of arriving in the village, I’ve heard two refrains on virtual repeat: the Alpine Epic has more climb than riders expect, and it has possibly the finest descent they’ve ridden. Ever.
Riding your bike along trails that take you through majestic snow gums. (Image: Bike Buller)
“It’s great, just stay on the bike… rubber-side down,” one bloke mutters to me as he wanders past with a freshly broken collarbone.
I’ve come to Buller for a weekend to play and, like almost everybody here, I’ve been drawn to the mountain by the presence of the Alpine Epic. But I’m going to ease myself into it.
On my first day I’ve signed up to ride the Downhill Rush, an easy, gravity-is-great, 1100m descent on some of Buller’s original mountain-bike trails. My riding partner is Shannon Rademaker, owner of Mansfield’s All Terrain Cycles and a mountain-biking guide on Buller for more than a decade.
“Even I still love blasting down here,” he says as we plunge towards the Delatite River, where the trail switches from bank to bank, log bridge following log bridge. At times the trail flows as smoothly as the river, and at every bridge there’s vague trepidation about the possibility of going over the edge. But every bridge is wider than most sections of singletrack, and were it not for a couple of abrupt pinches near the end of the trail, it’d be the perfect descent.
Not everybody has had it so easy. The Downhill Rush ends at the Mirimbah Store, which is also the finish for the Alpine Epic. As we sprawl about, waiting for the shuttle bus that’ll take us back up to Buller village, I hear a question asked over and over among those who’ve just finished the Epic: “Are you fried?”
Always the answer is yes. And it will be my turn into the frying pan tomorrow.
Back on the mountain, it’s clear that Buller has grown to become arguably the premier mountain-biking destination in Australia. In summer the village doesn’t run at the high-octane levels of the winter ski season, but it’s continually evolving into a genuine bikers’ base.
Andy’s Fat Tyre Bike Lodge rents out rooms to mountain bikers across eight lodges in the village and, for the last two summers, former world solo 24-hour mountain bike champion Jess Douglas has run a bike-focussed cafe in the village.
“One of the reasons why we’ve got this store is not necessarily so that we sit there and be capitalist bastards making heaps of money, it’s to sustain this mountain so that more people think this is a worthwhile thing,” Jess says. “Private investment might happen and people might start thinking this is a good place to be, so we hope to create that vibe.
“The whole concept of the store is, start your ride here, have a coffee, have some breakfast, get some local knowledge. For the riders who are first time visiting here, I’m going to say, ‘please don’t ride the Epic’. Save that, come back, don’t break your balls over that yet.”
I take some vague consolation from her words. This isn’t my first time on Buller. It’s my second, albeit with a 15-year gap between. I’m ready for the Epic, right?
I’m riding it with a bloke whose middle name is Danger. Well, his nickname is Danger, but you get the idea. Dave McCoombe oversaw the construction of the Alpine Epic, a trail that was five years in the planning and one year in construction. There’s arguably nobody who knows the Epic like Dave.
“I reckon this trail gives all that Buller has to offer in a single day,” Dave says. “You get every view that you can get anywhere else, and the best descent probably anywhere in Australia. It’s pretty special.”
The Epic begins at the village edge and curls out through Gang Gangs, a trail that tunnels through the snow gums that surround the village. The gums arch perfectly over the trail at times, and lichen hangs from the branches in streamers. It’s one of the most beautiful sections of the four hours of riding that lie ahead. I could almost just pedal this bit of trail and be happy, napping the afternoon away in my lodge.
It’s a thought that returns to me partway up Stonefly. One of Buller’s most popular mountain-bike trails in its own right, Stonefly’s first half is a gruelling ascent to near the summit of Mt Stirling, while its second half is a brilliant singletrack descent back to Howqua Gap. Rudely, the Alpine Epic follows only its first half before turning away.
“You won’t find a tougher six-kilometre climb anywhere in Australia, both technically and physically,” Dave tells me as we begin coiling through its switchbacks.
Dave rolls through the tightest of the turns with ease, while I grunt through them like a B-Double trying to U-turn. It’s not long until we pass a group of riders stopped by the track, stretching the pain out of their hands. We’re about a quarter of the way through the climb.
Near its top, a view opens out to Mt Stirling. It’s so near above, but who has the energy to add any more to this climb? Then suddenly it’s done… we’ve crested Bluff Spur. Riders lounge about in the shade of snow gums, celebrating or cursing the climb. We’ve cycled 12km and I’m spent. Only 28km to go.
What follows is a rapid-fire descent into Telephone Box Junction (TBJ). Many I’ve spoken to over the weekend have called this descent – a humming plunge down a fire trail – the Epic’s weak point. For mine, it’s just nice to be rolling downhill. To complain would be ungrateful.
The most welcome sight of the day is the new Epicentre cafe at TBJ. With a great list of burgers, good coffee and bike repairs, it’s the perfect complement to such a long and tiring trail. Less celebratory, it’s also the start of the second big climb on the Alpine Epic. The kindest descriptions I’ve heard around the village about this climb have been “brutal” and “obnoxious”. I look forlornly to Dave for reassurance.
“There’s nothing good to say about this one,” he says, crushing my hope. And so on we climb, bending through the bush, rising, sweating, panting, cursing.
A couple more climbs, and some gorgeous views back to Buller, later and we are poised atop the Epic’s most epic feature: eight kilometres of smooth-rolling descent to Mirimbah. It’s the section Dave described as the finest descent in Australia, an opinion that’s been pretty much universal among riders I’ve spoken to this weekend.
What’s great about the descent – one of the few sections of track built from scratch for the Alpine Epic – is that it just feels natural. The bike, my body, everything just moves with the gravity and the slope.
There are berms that swing so tightly it’s as though the trail is tying itself in knots, but there are also times when it’s like the side-to-side motion of a ship in a gentle sea as I need shift my weight just an inch or two to steer the bike through the trail.
Knowing the difficulties of building this section of trail only adds to my appreciation. Sections of it were cut through thick bush on steep, previously inaccessible slopes – in eight hours of work one particular day, track builders advanced the trail by a single metre.
In a matter of minutes that feel like seconds, I’m in the Delatite valley and pedalling against its flow towards the Mirimbah Store. Am I fried? To a crisp. But that’s a big part of what the Alpine Epic is about, as unofficially outlined by IMBA trail specialist Joey Kline when he visited Mt Buller for the Epic’s launch.
“There’s official criteria (to becoming an Epic) and there’s Joey’s criteria,” Dave says. “One was that when you finish riding an Epic you shouldn’t be able to feel like walking.”
On that measure alone, I can confirm that the Alpine Epic is everything it set out to be.
Getting there: Mt Buller is around three hours’ drive northeast of Melbourne.
Staying there: Andy’s Fat Tyre Bike Lodge operates throughout the summer season. It provides rooms in eight lodges around the village from $50 per person. Each lodge has a bike wash and storage, plus access to tools and spare parts. See www.andysfattyrebikelodge.com.au.
Riding there: Trail information and maps can be found at bike.mtbuller.com.au. All Terrain Cycles operates a summer store in Mt Buller village. It has hire bikes, spare parts, repairs and runs the Downhill Rush trip. See allterraincycles.com.au for details.
Shuttles: What goes down must come up… Mirimbah Store runs a cycling shuttle service up to Buller village from November through to Anzac Day. Bookings can be made by calling (03) 5777 5529 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.