It’s 3 o’clock on a relatively hot Wednesday afternoon in Melbourne. I’ve just moved over from Perth and I’m staring at my fairly sparse apartment that’s still littered with packing boxes. Of course I have my priorities right, unpacking and setting up my apartment…but I can’t help gazing at my freshly assembled, but neglected downhill bike, sitting on the balcony.
I’m jonesing to get out for a ride but don’t know anyone to go shuttling with. Back home in Perth we have neither mountains nor ski lifts, but on the east coast you have the option of Mount Buller or Thredbo. By comparison, downhill trails in the west are around 1 to 1.5 kilometres long but at Buller most are at double to triple that length. With Thredbo’s cannonball run at 4.5km and over 6 times the vertical drop of anything in Perth, it makes a compelling argument to make a journey.
A quick search on the Buller website enhanced the argument. It says there will be a Summer Gravity Camp being hosted on the weekend. So I call the number and speak to a guy named Shannon, who turns out to be the owner of both the Mansfield and Mt. Buller bike shops and chief instructor for the weekend. He gives me a brief outline on the skills they’ll cover but to be honest I was thinking it was expensive. Their 1-on-1 training sessions are a bargain at $70 for 2 hours in comparison to the $795 for the three day camp, but it does include food and accommodations. By the end of the weekend though I found it a worthy investment.
I’m hesitant to put my name down since I’ve been downhilling for 15 years and slightly skeptical as to what they can teach me. I ask who their target market is while hoping he doesn’t say something generic like they ‘cater to everyone.’
Sure enough, I could have scripted his answer.
‘We’ve got a couple of cross country riders, some up-and-coming downhillers, a 55 year old doctor who rides quite a bit and can patch you up if you fall off and a BMXer,’ explained Shannon.
His sales pitch didn’t instil confidence in me but faced with the choice of unpacking the rest of my apartment or shirking responsibility and going riding for three days the choice was clear. So I was on my way to Mt. Buller. Fortunately, as I would later discover, this little overview was just Shannon’s usual understated style.
“The BMXer” turns out to be 22 year old Caroline Buchanan, 3 time World Champion and Olympic Games finalist, who was out to brush up on her skills ahead of her return to downhill racing. Also, one of the “cross country riders” would be World Cup rider Katherine O’Shea.
Both Caroline and Katherine went to the Gravity Oz Camp as students. Caroline went on to finish 1st in the women’s downhill a weekend later and Katherine won the XC eliminator. Both of the girls acknowledged that the Summer Gravity Camp improved their skills to help them win.
As for Shannon, I learned his last name was Rademaker, a former pro BMXer who would be teaching the camp along with Australian World Championship team mechanic Tim Chadd and top Elite downhill racer Rhys Atkinson. It quickly became the who’s who of the Aussie riding scene.
On Friday morning the group assembled in the second floor lounge of the lodge to be given the rundown of events for the next few days. There were 18 of us in total and we were split up into three groups of six with one instructor per group. That morning started with a free ride session to get us warmed up and to blow out the cobwebs followed by a cornering class in the afternoon.
Before we head out though, there was a massive continental breakfast waiting for us in the kitchen that’s wafting through to the lounge while we do the introductions. The first breakfast also gave the group the opportunity to meet and greet and I met my roommate Paul, who’s another Doctor in his mid 30’s. Paul explains that he’s got two young kids at home and his wife has let him out of the house to come riding. We put in our best effort to devour all the food in front of us but come out well short. Catering 1, Team 0. We gear up and hit the hill.
My first run was good but the altitude was killing me. It was either that or I had more cobwebs to shake than I thought after not having a proper downhill session in 4 months. Either way that combination was doing me no favours. That afternoon we break up into our groups with Shannon as my first instructor discussing lines through berms, entry, exit, apex and clipping points. His main technical critique of my riding was to “get my arms out”.
‘What?’ I asked puzzled.
‘Like a chicken,’ he explained.
With my freshly opened stance and new positioning more over the bike a few clumsy berms later I could get the bike low enough to scrape pedals. Maybe he was onto something. We finished up that afternoon when the ski lifts closed at 4pm and headed back to the lodge. Our chef cooked up a feast so large that no one touched dessert… Catering 2, Team 0.
That evening, while everyone sat in the lounge retelling war stories of hitting gaps that earlier in the day were only 5 feet and have now become 50, I was putting ice and anti-inflammatories on my swelling fingers to keep them at bay.
While trying to minimise movement I talked with Shannon for a while. Turns out he studied outdoor education at the university and is a lecturer at TAFE for MTB instructor and guide course. He also instructs at the Gravity Oz camps and tells me that his favourite thing is running into ex students from the camp and seeing their improvements. Clearly what he says holds some merit.
Shannon bids us all goodnight and pretty soon everyone clears out leaving the lounge vacant at a mere 9:30pm. Everyone was exhausted, happy and sound asleep by 10pm. The only downside I can see was the lack of an in house masseuse – I was hurting!
Day Two, Saturday
A huge continental breakfast started the day again and was now convinced that catering would win on all counts. Next Tim gave a talk on bike maintenance and setup. Then we were on the ski lifts for first runs. We had free ride for the first few runs then get into hitting jumps – setting up, bike control and landing.
For the Saturday afternoon activities we piled into a shuttle bus and headed down to Mansfield to a private property owned by one of Shannon’s friends. On arrival we grabed our bikes for a big air session followed by a pump track course, which inevitably turned into a competition.
Graham (the 55 year old doctor) had lent Paul a GT hardtail for the afternoon, which he had nicknamed ‘Chucker’. I asked how the name came about and he explained that it’s the bike they use as a dam jumper, which is something I’ve always wanted to try. Graham extended me an invitation but I felt like I couldn’t leave the group. Then he extended an invite to everyone – none of us realising he lives on the property right next door.
What a fun afternoon it was.
After Chucker got a good workout and we all got a chance to cool off we headed back up the mountain to the lodge in the same spirits as the afternoon before, equally exhausted. After another spectacular meal prepared by the chef, Paul and I climbing into our bunks. He mentions that he found some cheap dirt jumpers online and now is tempted to pick one up. Paul had that much fun on the pump track and dam jumper.
We switch out the lights and a few minutes later his phone rings – it’s his wife.
‘You can’t buy another bike!’ she expressed.
Confused, we had no idea how she knew we were just talking about it. No she wasn’t hiding in the closet, as it turns out they share an eBay account and she had just seen his search history. Caught!
The Final Day (Sunday)
After one last continental breakfast, it was off to the ski lifts for the final day. We started off with a free ride for the first few warm up runs again. Sunday’s session was on rock gardens and picking lines to link it in with our previous sessions on berms and jumps. Rhys shows us a line that made me think he’s ADD and been given a bottle of red creaming soda to wash down the bag of sugar he just ate. He did a demonstration run that showed why he’s a top Elite male in Australia, it was spectacular.
After lunch we were given the last couple of hours to practice and work with the instructors 1-on-1 for any extra help we needed. Before heading back to the lodge everyone got a bag of goodies, a free tyre from Specialized, and the guys picked winners for a pile of extra high ticket giveaways.
They say you should never acknowledge it’s your last run of the day because it’s the one you always crash. Sure enough my one and only fall for the weekend was on my last run. I was actually in better spirits after the crash because I’ve figured out just how fast I could hit that corner – only 150 more offs and I would have that whole run dialled.
Would I recommend the camp? For sure. They have a high rate of satisfied riders as evidenced by the fact that more than 70% of their business is referrals from previous customers and because many people come back two or three times.
I might be one of them.