Bike riding in Mount Buller, Victoria: Mountain biking not for the faint hearted

As a skier, visiting the Victorian alpine country in the warmer months is like discovering a new album from a band you love – it has a familiar feel but lots of new riffs to enjoy. In the off-ski season, you peel back the layers of snow and find a whole new mountain – paths where orange butterflies scatter in front of you,  and native birds soar overhead as you bike through the gum trees. A walk feels  as if you are surfing the clouds.

First up is mountain biking with my guide Shannon from All Terrain Cycles  in the Village Plaza,  Mount Buller, which also serves as my training ground. Shannon runs  through the basics: pistol grip on both brakes, the state-of-the-art suspension and what he thinks is the greatest single development in mountain biking; a seat that you can slide down and lock into place for descents that then pops back up under your backside at the second touch of a button. Personally, I think there is still room for improvement. Later in the ride, I will wish I had an airbag.

I also get a run around the Pump Track, a snaking plastic track that appears designed to make me fall over. But I'm game, I love the alpine region and it seems ridiculous to leave it up there all summer and not get into it.

On my first section of track, Gang Gangs Trail, a section of single track that is attempting to shudder out my fillings, Shannon pulls to a stop. He's had a rare sighting of the eponymous local birds – a black cockatoo with yellow head markings.  Two of them then sweep overhead, landing just a metre away. We are deep among the gums, a section I usually avoid on the slopes and it is full of butterflies, birds and the odd unidentified rustle in the underbrush. The next time Shannon stops he produces a Buller bug,  an oddly cute and colourful insect that looks like a giant aphid.

After a fairly hairy descent, I arrive in the skills park, where I tackle the seesaw, which is just as it sounds; you ride into the upright piece of wood and only then does it drop, allowing you to ride on. It takes me three goes but I master it and am feeling quite chuffed.

What does pride come before? Oh, that's right.  Ascending the mountain-goat-only trail of Split Rock, I split some skin as I lose it on a turn. "You're mountain biking, now," says Shannon as he takes on this vertiginous track as if he were cycling to the shop for milk.

I make it to the top after a few more spills and a bit of a walk. This is not mountain biking for the faint of heart.

Mount Buller is Australia's first and only track to receive the official nod from the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA). There are no real "beginner" trails but there is the Australian Alpine Epic Trail, the first such trail in this hemisphere – 40 kilometres of knee-bleeding track. It  descends from the top of  Mount Buller 1600 metres into the valley at Mirimbah. From there, the bike shuttle will take you back up  to the village, or ride back if you think you're hard enough.

Mountain biking is a more intimate way to feel the mountain. This is no surface glide – you experience every twist and turn and go places you would never get on skis.

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The next day I rise for a walk in the clouds with Aaron Knight, from Alpine Trail Running. Our destination is the Alpine Summit Walk and while the weather forecast says  we may get a view, the cloud is low, cloaking the surrounding mountains in marshmallow. It reminds me of something Shannon said about mountain biking the day before. He loves it because no day, no path, is ever the same.

Due to a few bumps and scratches from the previous day, we are more alpine walkers than alpine runners, but it gives us time for a chat. Aaron is also a fan of the changing conditions that come with alpine exploration. He could run the mountains for years but bores easily with road running, he also feels that while bikes get  you places skis can't,  your feet get you places that bikes can't.

We  reach the summit as a huge cloud rolls in, surrounding us in white, and the feeling that you could touch the sky is as good as any view.

I am back on the bike again in the afternoon, this time tackling the Copperhead and Delatite trails. 

Like skiing, when things are going well, taking the switchbacks high and confident  at the beginning of Copperhead trail, it's exhilarating. Also, like skiing, the falls can be sudden and brutal – like when I end up kissing the mountain pope-style at the  start of Copperhead trail.

The other thing these sports have in common is the concentration, almost meditation, that it takes to get to the bottom. Take your mind off the trail and the trail will take your butt off the bike. That sort of single-mindedness is a vital aspect of the sport and one of its most rewarding side effects for those who come up here with a head full of work.

The Delatite trail is an old logging track used by bikers, horse riders and walkers. These are wild trails; rock strewn, stick covered and with river crossings where you ride across the trunks of fallen trees. My Bike Buller guide, Ben, and I scare off a copperhead snake, see trout in the river and master all but two of the river crossings without getting off the bikes.

When we emerge at the park entrance, I have crossed 13 rivers, descended 1000 metres and managed to stay (mostly) upright. I also might have found my new favourite alpine sport.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.mtbuller.com.au; www.bike.mtbuller.com.au

GETTING THERE

Mount Buller is a three-hour drive (248 kilometres) from Melbourne. Virgin Australia (www.virginaustralia.com), Qantas (www.Qantas.com), Tigerair (www.tigerair.com.au) and Jetstar (www.jetstar.com) have many flights to Melbourne from Sydney and other destinations.

STAYING THERE

Stay in the heart of Alpine Central at the welcoming Mt Buller Chalet, where you can walk out on  to the trails and have easy access to the village. Breakfast is at the Apres Bar, next to the lobby guarded by a large, stuffed Canadian moose; from $225  a night for a King Bourke room. The Arlberg Hotel is a year-round option for accommodation, good pizza and post-ride Rusty Nails. Small Alpine Rooms from $150 a night.

 SEE AND DO

For your mountain biking needs, visit All Terrain Cycles' seasonal shop open December to April in the Village Plaza,  Mount Buller, or the year-round shops in Mansfield and Bright; allterraincycles.com.au. Fancy exploring on foot with a qualified mountain guide?  Then  contact Alpine Trail Running; www.alpinetrailrunning.com.au

The writer was a guest of Mount Buller Resort.

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