On the back of receiving UCI Bike City status, Wollongong is finally delivering legal trails for mountain bikers. Ahead of the UCI Road World Championships rolling into town in September next year, the city is doubling down on everything bike.
In addition to improvements to infrastructure around the city for road riders and commuters alike, the Wollongong City Council has unveiled a brand new 11km trail network and dirt jumps in parks and reserves around town, with something big in the works on the Illawarra Escarpment.
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Cringila Hills Bike Park
Flanking Port Kembla, the suburb of Cringila was built off the steelworks of Wollongong.
“That’s where a lot of that older crowd lived and worked all those years ago. It had all the fallout from the steelworks, the smoke, the smell and all that stuff 20, 30, 40-years ago,” says Giant Factory Off-road rider and Wollongong local Josh Carlson.
The city acquired the Cringila Hills Community Park after locals defeated a proposal by BHP to use the land as a dump for industrial waste. The park has hardly lived a glamorous life through the years though, and has since seen land clearing for agricultural activity, quarrying and then “stockpiling.” There is a baseball field and a playground, but the space was largely abandoned.
“We’ve had this site for a very long time, and it’s been left alone. So years ago we started exploring whether it could be repurposed for a mountain bike trail, in terms of site assessments and what the environmental conditions looked like,” says Kerry Hunt, Director of Community Services at Woolongong City Council.
“It was an existing park, and it was pretty degraded,” continues Dirt Art’s Simon French, who oversaw the design and build of the park. “When we started, the site was pretty overgrown, and bits of it had been utilised as rubbish tips and things like that. It was a bit of wasted space.”
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Sitting on the edge of the urban fringe, Cringila isn’t a sprawling bike park, rising high in the landscape. Instead, it’s a green space in the middle of suburbia and probably a location you would picture for a bike park.
The whole vibe out there is just pumping. There’s been hundreds, towards thousands of people out there riding every day since it opened.
“It’s a great example of what can be done in a space you wouldn’t expect. It’s not that big an area, and it’s not that big a hill,” says Carlson. “There were a couple of different designs and trail building companies who put ideas forward, and when you see the area, it just blew your mind about what was actually possible out there.
Fast forward to now, a couple of years later, and you see the finished product, all our imaginations just got blown out of the window.”
What are the trails like?
The result is 11km of singletrack, with a skills park and pump track still to come, all in the heart of Wollongong — but there is still more to come.
French tells us based on the state of the park during their initial surveys, they were expecting issues with site contamination. But as the trail crew worked its way across the park, it required substantially less cleanup than was expected. This was a double win for Cringila and at the end of the build, budget set aside for this cleanup was leftover, which Dirt Art has been able to put towards adding a few extra kilometres of trail.
Made up of mostly blue and green, there are flow trails, jump trails, and some dropoffs where folks can upskill their riding. It’s not a place you would come to bang out a 4-hour ride, but French says there is enough here to keep you busy for an hour or two, and their focus was to make the trails engaging and fun to ride.
“It’s just a really enjoyable place to ride; to take my kids, who are six years old and four years old, to go out there with some buddies and have some fun, or to go out there and ride my cross country bike — there’s potential there for cross country races,” Carlson says. “I’m a professional mountain bike athlete, and I’d be happy to go over there to ride for a fun training session. At the same time yesterday, I took my six-year-old out there on his 20-inch (Giant) STP, and we did laps, on laps, on laps, on the same trails.”
These aren’t the ‘rumble in the jungle’ trails that Wollongong is known for, but they fill a gap the size of the Kiama Blowhole in the riding on offer. Most of the trails in the area are not beginner-friendly, and being largely unsanctioned are not necessarily mapped either.
“But to now have a legal trail centre which is an epic step, and something that caters towards those entry-level, beginners to intermediate mountain bikers — and the general public — that is huge,” says Carlson.
“The whole vibe out there is just pumping. There’s been hundreds, towards thousands of people out there riding every day since it opened,” he says.
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Dirt jumps and pump tracks around the city
Just like every other LGA, Wollongong has kids on bikes who want jumps. And just like every other LGA, if these kids don’t have somewhere to go and ride, well, they’re going to go out with shovels and make one.
“We have lots of members of the community, particularly children, who are interested in getting a bike and finding air somewhere, and quite often they do that around our creeks and estuaries — we have a lot of them across the city,” says Hunt.
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Most people can’t tell the difference between Australian Saltgrass (which is endangered) and Coolatai grass (an invasive species). Unfortunately, with one scoop of a spade, you can do irreparable damage to a fragile population and be none the wiser.
So to protect these sensitive species and deliver assets that folks are after, Hunt says they partnered with people in the community — including young folks and children — in a co-design process to build sustainable jumps and pump tracks close to existing illegal trails. In a similar fashion to what Ku-ring-gai Council in Sydney has done with the Golden Jubilee Bike Park, Wollongong City Council has engaged Iconic Trails to build bigger, better and more sustainable features than what is being lost.
Now kids have jump tracks in Buli Park, Dimond Bros Reserve in Dapto, and Harry Graham Park in Figtree, in the same areas where they were riding before.
Now that we have the UCI bike city status — to their credit — the city council has really taken that on and they’re running with it.
What does all this mean for the trails on the Escarpment?
When you mention Wollongong to most mountain bikers around Australia, the Illawarra Escapement comes to mind. It’s no secret that there are trails up there, and lots of them — even though they aren’t supposed to be. Over the years, these unsanctioned trails have generated plenty of controversy, and quite a few attempts to formalise these well-worn rides haven’t found their footing.
It’s a complex project, spanning half a dozen land tenures, in addition to ecologically endangered communities and culturally sensitive areas which need to be appropriately managed. Most recently, Parks and Wildlife shut down trails at Mount Keira, and some in the Wollongong Mountain Bike community have mused that the Cringila Bike Park is nothing more than a consolation prize. Fortunately, this could not be further from the truth.
“A lot of people think that Cringila Bike Park is what happened after all that momentum, and all that talk, and all that work, trying to legalise the trails on Mount Keira. Mount Keira got shut down due to a bunch of culturally significant areas, and it just wasn’t going to happen,” Carlson says. “These are two completely different projects, with completely separate goals.”
Hunt confirmed to Flow that the work to formalise the trails on the escarpment is still rumbling ahead. We hear that the plans should go on public display before the end of the year.
“We’ve got really important Aboriginal cultural significance on Mount Keira and Kembla. Again, there are ecologically endangered communities up there that we need to manage. So we’re looking at how we formalised networks that protect that environment, but actually cater to that interest that just continues to grow for mountain biking in the city,” says Hunt.
She tells us the city hopes that riders will see the Cringila Bike Park as something in the interim while they work through the complexities of the trails on the escarpment.
“I think it reflects that we’ve got a commitment to make sure that there are opportunities available,” Hunt continues.
While they are different projects, what has happened at Cringila can only bolster the case for the escarpment project.
“They’ve (the Wollongong City Council) created a space that can be shown to the public. It can be advertised, it can be talked about, it can be in the public eye, and it’s literally shining. This is the best-case scenario,” says Carlson.
“Now that we have the UCI bike city status — to their credit — the city council has really taken that on and they’re running with it. They’re putting their money where their mouth is, and they’re investing in cycling development, and investing in mountain bike parks,” he says.
French believes that the success of Cringila will be a tipping point into future trail development in the Wollongong LGA, and further afield.
“There’s tonnes of potential there, and there is a huge population of mountain bikers in Wollongong. Most of us realise the undersupply of formalised trails in greater Sydney, and I think Wollongong is going to play a big part in addressing that. But there is still some work to do. Cringila solved some of the problems, but certainly not all of them.
For more info on Cringila Hills Bike Park, check out the Wollongong City Council website.
Photos: Wollongong City Council, Flow MTB