"It's very hard to hurt yourself wearing that," says 20-year-old mountain bike guide Oli Scholey, gesturing at my Robocop-style body armour. I'm also sporting knee pads and a full-face helmet – an ensemble, which, it has to be said, feels a little over the top for the gently undulating terrain of Thredbo's mountain biking training ground. Throw in a $4600 rental bike (a Norco Sight with full suspension and hydraulic disk brakes) and you have the definition of "all the gear and no idea".
As a mountain biking newbie, I've signed up for the resort's two-hour MTB Fundamentals clinic, which starts with a thorough overview of the basics. Scholey explains the importance of keeping your legs straight with your weight over the pedals. "And always be looking ahead," he adds. "When you're driving a car, you don't look at the bonnet. It's the same when you're riding a bike."
We're in a purpose-built practice area at the base of the mountain and the idea is to give people the skills and confidence to tackle Sidewinder, the resort's new 3.2-kilometre beginner's gravity trail. After 30 minutes of patient instruction, Scholey reckons I'm ready, so we load our bikes onto the high-speed, eight-person Merritts Gondola (Australia's only alpine gondola) and soar effortlessly up the hill.
People have been mountain biking in NSW's Snowy Mountains since the early 1990s but the sport has really boomed in the last decade. Scholey says usage has more than doubled in the three years he's been at Thredbo and the resort now hosts world-class events like the annual five-day Cannonball MTB Festival in February, plus specialty workshops, such as a monthly Gravity Girls clinic for female riders.
The mountain has more than 35 kilometres of trails, graded green, blue or black, each of which is classified as "flow" (smooth, sweeping runs designed for beginners) or "technical" (trickier trails with roots, rocks and drops). They're all accessed via the resort's extensive chairlift system, with each lift delivering riders to a different set of runs.
I'm relieved to hear that Sidewinder is a green flow trail but even Scholey admits it's a big step up from the training area. We descend cautiously, regularly pulling over to chat about technique and discuss what's coming next. "Keep your heels dropped and your butt back," he advises after one section. "And don't be afraid of the front brake."
Thanks to his expert tuition, I not only make it down unscathed, but I also enjoy it immensely. I regularly find myself in an almost trance-like state as we snake through dense gum forests, coast over undulating humps and speed around banked earth berms. "It sounds cliched," says Scholey, "but if you're having problems in life, when you go for a ride, everything else just fades away."
He then suggests we try a blue run, so we hop on the Gunbarrel Express chairlift with our bikes (a novelty in itself) and head back up to tackle the resort's most popular trail, Kosciuszko Flow. Given the only other time I've been to Thredbo was during winter, it feels like I'm seeing the mountain for the first time. The groomed, snow-covered runs I skied down on my previous visit are now verdant, boulder-studded slopes fringed by gum trees. As we glide serenely back uphill, I can hear birdsong interspersed with the occasional jubilant cry of a biker landing a jump or exiting a tight bend.
Kosciuszko Flow is faster, narrower and more technical than Sidewinder, so predictably it attracts more experienced riders. Again, we take it slow, frequently pulling over to let people pass, many of whom are youngsters that look barely old enough to be at school, let alone ride a bike.
Near the bottom, Scholey stops by "the wall", a two-metre-high steeply banked turn made of vertical wooden planks. He looks at me and smiles. "I think you're ready."
I watch him gracefully zoom around it in one smooth arc and then attempt to do the same. Unfortunately, I don't build up enough speed, so my front wheel slips and I come clattering down in a Twister-like tangle of bike and limbs. Apparently, I wasn't quite ready, but the tumble gives me an impressive bruise on my hip, which is one of the few parts of my body not covered in protective gear. When I get home, I show it off proudly – a colourful badge of honour from my mountain biking debut.
Thredbo's mountain biking season runs from late-November to late-April. High quality bikes and protective gear can be rented at the resort's retail store and clinics at the Thredbo MTB School start at $49 a person. A one-day MTB lift pass costs from $75 if booked online in advance. See thredbo.com.au
Perfectly positioned in the heart of the village, the Thredbo Alpine Hotel offers convenient, comfortable accommodation with an inviting fireside lounge and an impressive in-house restaurant. Summer packages from $122.25 a person including breakfast, lunch and a scenic lift pass (twin share with a minimum two-night stay). See thredbo.com.au
Rob McFarland was a guest of Thredbo Resort.