Willo of the People

November 9, 2019 — Leave a comment

By any measure, James Williamson – Willo to his many, many mates – was one of us.

And by many others, he was nothing like us at all. As a fellow member of the mountain bike press corps, I was particularly struck by the news in 2010 that this young, affable, incredibly gifted bloke had died in his sleep of a previously undiagnosed heart defect, contesting the Cape Epic stage race in South Africa.

I’ll never be in the same ballpark of Willo’s riding ability – hell, the same postcode is a stretch – but the fact that he’d managed to leave, at age 26, a legacy of involvement that many twice his age couldn’t hope to achieve really resonated with me. Teacher, student, partner, friend, son… James Williamson is missed by many, in many different ways.

I felt drawn to this race, as if I needed to pay my respects to a fellow journo and rider. Our paths never crossed – unless you count the brief moments where his silken smooth riding style carried him around my bumbling form in the middle of a Canberra 24-hour race, him grinning his thanks and me cursing his genetic good fortune – but, as a fellow magazine hack and a fan of his honest, straightforward writing style, I felt a certain affinity with this cheery young man. Certainly, the immense respect and esteem in which he is still held is remarkable.

Many others felt drawn to the third James Williamson Enduro Challenge, too. Five hundred riders, in fact, converged on Wingello forest, one of Willo’s old stomping grounds. Many of Australia’s top cross country talents made the trek, including close friend Shaun Lewis, Sid Taberlay, Dylan Cooper, Andy Blair and Trent Lowe.

More striking, though, were the large fields of younger riders, the next generation of cross-country and marathon racers decked out in oversized jerseys and hand-me-down sunnies, nervously awaiting starter’s orders. Willo would have been coaching them right up to the starting line – that’s the kind of guy he was.

In fact, that’s one of the reasons we’re all here – our entry fees are supporting an Enduro Fund that will guide some of these young, nervous Turks through the next stages of their careers, via camps and coaching from some of Australia’s brightest talents. It’s a worthy donation, too; the trails of Wingello don’t disappoint on this perfect autumn’s day.

Whipping through the trees, hot on the hammer of a fast young local, it’s hard not to break into a wide grin, and impossible not to spare a thought and offer a small prayer to the life of a guy who should have been out here with us, but wasn’t. Godspeed, Willo. See you next year./Tim Robson

AMB, May 2013

Cleanliness is next to something about religion apparently, but occasionally it turns up something that makes you curse out loud

I always laugh when I see classified ads for mountain bikes where the owner claims it’s been washed “after every ride”.

Look, I’m sure there are folks out there who do it – hi Dan Bowden! – but over my riding career, the only time I worried overly about the state of my bike was if I’d ridden through something that smelt like it would not improve should it be allowed to incubate in a hot garage for a few days.

I’m not a slob – but it’s a mountain bike that’s used hard and put away wet. And I’m flat out finding time to ride at all, let alone break out the Krush gear.

As I rolled back to HQ a couple of weeks ago, though, it occurred to me that it had been a while between tubs for the Optic – though the temptation to park-n-beer was pretty high.

For whatever reason, though, I pitched up, grabbed the bucket and brush and set to work. And I instantly regretted it.

I found a crack.

At first I didn’t know what I was looking at – it was just a black smudge on the topside of the right chainstay that wouldn’t shift.

The more I looked at, though, I knew what it was. I didn’t want to know, but I knew.

Shit.

I sent a pic to a mate who wrenches on Norcos at a World Cup level, and he quickly confirmed my fear.

Double shit.

There is, of course, a flip side – had I succumbed to the urge for hoppy carbs, my next ride may well have resulted in a loud noise and a decent walk home.

A couple of days later, I ferried the Optic back to where I bought it 18 months previously, a warranty claim was logged in the spot and my poor bike was wheeled away to a storeroom to await its fate.

Now it’s just a waiting game. The odds are good that I’ll get the Optic back in full fettle and not be too far out of pocket.

Oh and hey – I get it. I ride the bike off road, I’m a beefy man and shit happens. If you break stuff, you gotta pay the price.

I know, though, that Norco – and my shop, Summit Cycles in Sydney – looks after its people, so my fingers are crossed.

Stay tuned.

Derby Days

October 25, 2019 — Leave a comment

Words and pics: Tim Robson

As we roll up behind two other riders on the winding dirt trail, my guide Tam slow down noticeably. Isn’t that nice, I think. She’s giving them some room so we can ride faster.

Suddenly she slows rapdily and veers left onto a barely marked track in the Tasmanian rainforest, motioning for me to follow. “We can’t let anyone see us,” she loud-whispers, as we ride further into the bush.

In 20 seconds we emerge into a clearing, where it looks for all the world like a benevolent alien race has beamed down a brace of small, curvaceous dwellings for its exclusive use.

We are virtually in the epicentre of a large mountain bike trail network that rivals anything currently in existence in the world… and nobody knows we’re here.

 

Welcome to the Blue Derby Pods Experience, the brainchild of young couple Steve and Tara Howell, who saw an opportunity to add a premium… no, scratch that, a completely unique accommodation experience in the midst of a reboot of Tasmanian tourism.

Derby is perched to the south of Launceston, which is a spirited 90-minute drive away. Once a dilapidated, fading remnant of the long-gone era of tin mining, the town has been reborn, thanks to the addition of a mountain bike trail network that’s bringing riders from all over the world to sample their truly decadent delights.

More than 250km of dedicated trails have been lovingly etched into a stunning variety of terrain around Derby and its surrounds, with trails like Blue Tier immersing rookies and pros alike in surrounds that Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would reject for being too lush and picturesque.

 

In the midst of this impossible beauty lies the pods, four prefabricated structures that were virtually walked onto the site over six months in early 2016 by Steve, Tara and their family.

Their timing was fortuitous – the couple, who have a distinct environmental bent – were deep into planning their premium eco retreat when plans were announced for $4 million of state and federal funding to build the first stage of the Blue Derby trail network.

A second impetous was the impending arrival of the world’s mountain biking media for a round of the Enduro World Series in April. “We told our builders we needed to finish two weeks ahead of schedule… which they weren’t thrilled about,” laughs Steve.

The pods are complemented by a large communal space known as the hub, which houses a long dining table – recovered from a piece of timber stored at Steve’s parent’s house – a lounge area and two walls of sliding glass that brings the Tasmanian wilderness right inside the building.

The area is large and sparsely furnished, but is warm, soft and relaxing, and allows the guests – the pods have a capacity of two people each, in either a single or twin configuration – room to chat or to find their own space.

 The pods themselves are quite unlike anything I’ve ever stayed in. The curved, bare pine-sheeted walls are frame a simply enormous window that makes up the facing wall of the pod, again bringing nature as close as it’s possible to be without a canvas flysheet.

“We had to really fight to get those windows,” says Steve, adding that it took months to find a glazier to work with them. “Even the opening mechanisms are custom-made.”

And there’s evidence of that attention to detail throughout the pods. They are almost confrontingly simple – there’s no air con, for example, and no power points – but the huge bed is the focus of the room, and it’s an amazing place to retreat to after a day of rough-and-tumble playing in the forest.

And play you must; this is a ride retreat, and Steve and his team know every inch of the Blue Derby network. The trails are built around a difficulty grade system of green (easiest) to black (only pros need apply), and the team can cater to both ends of the spectrum on the same trip. 

 

As a lifelong mountain biker, I’ve simply never experienced ANYTHING like Blue Derby. In fact, riding the region’s blue riband 17km-long Blue Tier trail feels like it’s bringing my entire 30-year riding career full circle.

I’m learning new skills, bringing old ones to the fore and revelling in a hand-built ribbon of dark, impossibly grippy dirt that feels like it’s custom-made for my skill set. It’s actually quite an emotional experience.

The pods welcome riders back with showers that – again – back onto nature, before the HUB lures us in with the promise of local gourmet produce that’s prepared by some the region’s best providores. 

Our baby potatoes in salsa verde come from nearby Scottsdale, while the organic greens hail from Yorktown. The confit duck is – or was – a local, and the Devil’s Corner Resolution pinot noir is a standout in a state famed for the light red.

On the surface, it’s easy to be bemused by the seeming lack of facilities within the pods… but really, that’s not the point, and that sense of bemusement about the lack of window blinds and a mini-bar rapidly disappears. 

The pods offers a rare chance to step away from the world, and the ability to focus inwards for a couple of days. You’re sharing time with like-minded people in an amazing environment with incredible food and wine, and you have access to the best mountain bike trails on earth.

Riding a mountain bike around the Blue Derby trails is a money-cannot-buy experience – literally, as they are free for anyone to access. If you’ve ever ridden off road even half-seriously, this is simply a must-do experience from anywhere on the planet, and the Blue Derby Pods Ride isa truly unique way to experience them.

 

Facts

Cost $2150 for three days/two nights (meals, mountain bike shuttles and gear rental included) (high season)

Best time of year – Tasmania has generally mild summers but cold winters, but the trails can be ridden all year. The pods offer bookings all year

How to get there – fly direct to Launceston Airport from most Australian capitals and meet the tour in nearby Launceston.

As it passes through its thirtieth birthday, the team at Marin Bikes strikes the perfect balance between a modern bike company and keeping the dirt faith

“That’s poison ivy,” says my guide. “Don’t touch it, or else in three days you’ll know about it.” Three days? What kind of weird plant is that?

Of course, there’s all sorts of stuff that’ll make you itchy here at home, but the poison ivy in question – a beautifully beguiling mix of orange and red bush  lurks uncomfortably close to the side of these Californian trails.

The trails in question are a true mix of mountain biking’s most fun tests; janky rock chutes, winding, flowing runs on hardpack, softy, blown-out loam skirting long drops and powder-dry wide-open terrain, all winding through countryside that switches between completely desert-sky exposed to Alice-in-Wonderland spooky to the silent, soft and simply awe-inspiring cathedral of California’s magnificent redwood forests.

The Trione-Annadel State Park, about an hour north of San Francisco, was on the fringes of the 2017 Californian wildfires that destroyed a shocking 7500 homes in the north of the state… and some areas hadn’t escaped, as evidenced by the building works around the place. 

Lush green bush contrasts markedly with blackened and scorched timber… I might be 12,000km from home, but nature has a funny way of bonding us all. 

I’m out here today with Chris Holmes, the brand directorfor small but significant US bike company, Marin Bikes, who’s kindly invited me out to sample the park’s trails that are not far from Marin’s new facility in Petaluma (“The birthplace of the chicken incubator!” Chris tells me).

I’d arrived a tad late – those who know me will not be surprised in the least – and even though there are no signs on the building’s exterior, it’s not hard to find. Acollection of biker’s cars outside  Subarus, VW vans with racks and the like – is a giveaway.

A tall bloke by the door is washing down a Wolf Ridge, and he directs me inside. Turns out he’s Steve ‘Gravy’ Gravenites, one of the most well-known mechanics on the 1990s World Cup circuit, and he’s washing the bike I’m using today.

Inside, the building is randomly peppered with bikes; a hybrid style bike here, a dusty evaluation hardtail over there.

Energy bars and gels reside next to the coffee machine in the break room, and the shower room is festooned with bike apparel in various states of age and cleanliness.

Gravy’s workshop is sizable and well equipped, while a visual history of the brand adorns the wall next to the conference hall. There’s a titanium Marin FS frame that uses Manitou 3, for example, along with other signposts of a mountain bike legacy that stretches back to the early 1990s.

Marin doesn’t actually make anything locally in the States  they share factory space with Polygon in a facility in Indonesia – but there are 15 people within the US office that work on product development, sales, marketing and other back-office functions. 

Gravy and I discuss the merits of sizing me up on an XL frame, and I take his advice… only to find that my 110kg is right on the top threshold of the suspension window. So light is the compression tune on the unusual-looking Wolf Ridge, it really brings spring rate to the fore. We set it up at the top of the curve despite Gravy sucking air in through his teeth, I gather my stuff, and we head out in Chris’s VW van.

The company’s old headquarters in nearby Novato served as home for more than a decade, and were made infamous by the fact that seminal 1980s acid rock band The Grateful Dead used to use the space as a rehearsal studio. “We kinda grew out of that place a bit,” said Chris, wrinkling his nose a little. “Our new place has a lot more room.” He adds that they’re now in the same complex as Camelbak and E-Thirteen, so there’s a real industry connection.

En route, Chris tells me that Marin used to use the state park for testing, but they’ve since moved it out to Arizona, under the watchful eye of industry doyen Joe Murray

Annadel isn’t really the best place to do a test of Wolf Ridge suspension, so we did a lot of that testing in Sedona, Arizona,” he says. “They have some pretty amazing trails, the climate was right of the time of year we were testing it, and Joe, who we used as a development consultant, lives in Flagstaff, so it’s pretty easy for him to get to. 

“The amazing thing is, his first job [in the cycling industry] as a product manager was with Marin.

The company is 30 years old, and has been through a few iterations in that time. It’s now owned by an investment group, and it’s run by industry veteran Matt Van Enkevort, who we say a quick hello to on the way through the building.

“Matt’s built up a really good team, and it’s taken a while to rebuild the brand,” says Chris. He thought it was gonna take like three years, but in reality it took five for it to really be back on our feet again, and now we’re finally firing on all cylinders.”

Matt had told me in passing he’d actually done a cycling tour of Australia in his youth, but Chris, grinning, filled in a particularly amusing blank.

“Part of the story that he didn’t mention was about going into a bar in country Queensland,” Chris laughs. He walks in, looked around, and he’s like a scrawny, cycling guy, so he’s like, “Oh shit, I need to make friends.” He walks to the bar and says ‘Hi. My name’s Matt. I’m from Alaska. I’m buying everyone a beer.’”

The Marin brand was reintroduced into Australia last year, and Chris confirmed that even though bikes like the Wolf Ridge and the Polygon XquareOne look identical, there’s a degree of separation between the two.

Our bikes are made in the same factory that Polygon bikes are made in, but we are separate companies,” confirms Chris. “We have no affiliation with them. Polygon is a separate brand altogether.

He says it’s an advantage, though, for both companies to be building the unusually configured Naild-equipped bikes in the same facility, though, when it comes to tooling and final assembly.

By this time, we’ve arrived at our destination, and we’re pedalling up a longish road climb to get to the trail head. While I pant, Chris talks about the company’s 30thanniversary in 2016.

“We brought back some heritage names and some models that have been kind of dormant for a while,” he says. “We brought back these classic names but in a more modern format, like the Pine Mountain as a 27.5-Plus bike. We brought back some very cool heritage inspired colours and graphics with it, colour matchingthe stem and the fork together like something Marin did some 25-30 years ago.

We bomb into the first section of the trail, which is wide open and, in my mind, quite ‘Californian’ in its style; wide, smooth and fast. I’ve tested the Wolf Ridge before, but it’s always cool to ride a bike close to where it was conceived.

It certainly doesn’t feel like a 160mm 29er. Chris mentions that the idea had been kicking around for some years before Marin committed to the notion of a long-travel 29er trail bike; while it feels about right now, it would have sounded like madness even five years ago to suggest such a bike could be viable.

We have ideas of what to do with that platform on down the line,” he says. But we launched with the Wolf Ridge in a 29-inch wheel 160mm travel format knowing that that was the bike that could speak to the need of the market.

He reckons it’s been designed to offer that elusive ‘one bike fits all’ conundrum.

Yeah, I’m guilty of a lot of other bike industry dorks by having a garage full of bikes, but I only have one full-suspension mountain bike and that’s the Wolf Ridge,” he says. “It’s not World Cup XC light, but I did a 35-mile (50km) cross country race on it a few weekends back, and it was awesome.”

The terrain’s been ratcheting up and up, and it’s changed from wide vistas and long turns to wooded bush and rocky, tight sections that really should see the Wolf Ridge on the back foot… but it doesn’t flinch.

Again, like a scene change in a movie, we roll down and through a valley that’s simply dominated by the majesty of old-growth redwood. It’s silent, still and serene, as we flow with ever-increasing pace through the dappled light to the bottom of another climb. Whaka Forest in New Zealand is great, but this… is just next level.

All too soon, we’ve looped back around to the end of the trail, popping back out into Californian plains and negotiating one last rock-strewn double-trail pass on the way back to the car and a well-earned feed at Lepe’sTaqueria in nearby Santa Rosa. 

Chris and I shoot the breeze over sizable chicken burritos, I ask him why Aussue should be looking at Marin as a potential place for their next bike. “First and foremost, we’re setting out to make world-class bikes for riders of all levels and all types, so these world-classbikes can be ridden in places like Australia, or Santa Rosa, or the UK or Israel, whatever. But I mean that the first, the most important thing for us was to get make sure that the product’s right. It makes my job in marketing a lot easier, too – I don’t need to put lipstick on the proverbial pig here.

“It comes to point where we partner with our distributionpartners down under, to get the message out about what the bikes are about, who they’re for, what we bring to the table, and I think once the consumers are aware of it and get the experience we’re in, they‘ll understand what we’re about.”

If the office loop ride and the culture of this small, vibrant company with more than 30 years in the game is anything to go by, then the brand is a good fit already.

Well, hi there! Good excuse as any to ramp this shit back up. Post to follow very shortly.

Cold comfort

May 19, 2018 — Leave a comment

It couldn’t last… Autumn has finally arrived properly, and it’s a real test of my resolve to keep on the path.

My plan to get to The Redback is… not really formalised, if I’m honest. I’m riding, eating okayish… it’s not enough, really, but it’s way better than nothing.

Getting out today felt good. The rain started as I left home and stayed around on and off. I’m a fair weather fairy, that’s for sure, but it was pretty fun.

I even spent some time spinning along with a young, fit local XC racer, who was good company for a few kilometres.

I was just a tad despondant when I realised that not only was he dressed in half the gear I was, he was only in the small chainring most of the way… and he rode an extra 10km before even starting his ride proper!

I’m going away for a solid week of work from Monday, but at least I’ll get some riding in! Monday and Tuesday is with Holden, and we’re riding at Buxton MTB Park on Tuesday, before I head up to cover the Port to Port with my good buddy Bruce Newton, who’s competing in the race.

Not giving up

May 6, 2018 — Leave a comment

Jet lag… you suck. Taken a week to get back on board. Here’s a shout out to a mate who’s not feeling it.

Sometimes the scenery isn’t very nice…

Sometimes it is…