Christophe Stevens was born in Belgium, first coming to Australia in 2004 to race the Crocodile Trophy, which he would win in 2006.
“I grew up in the country, and about eight or nine years ago, we moved back to Australia. We ended up in the suburbs, so I started looking for something in the country straight away,” he says.
“I came through Omeo during the Peaks Challenge and thought this place looks interesting. One thing leads to another, and about three years later, I bought a property here with the idea of doing something in cycling. It’s an amazing region, but there isn’t much happening.”
Need to know
- Omeo, Victoria is a little over 400km from Melbourne,
- The small farming town is set to get a 121km trail network built by WA based Common Ground Trails
- There are currently no trails around town, but there is a newly constructed pump track and skills park
- Some approvals are still needed, but if all goes according to plan, stage one will be complete next year
As luck would have it, shortly after Stevens was settled into his new home in rural Victoria, he got wind of a proposed trail network.
“There is no real single track yet because it’s really only farmers in the region, and nobody has a mountain bike. But if you do have a cross country mountain bike and want to go for a two-hour ride, or an 8-hour ride, or a whole weekend, there are endless gravel roads and fire trails in the area,” says Stevens, who has opened a bike shop in town called Velo Grammont, and runs the Cattlemans 100 and Frostbite Gravel races.
“But, if you know where to go, there are some amazing descents already. There is an old disused fire trail that runs down from Splitters range into Bindi that has a 900m (vertical) drop; it’s crazy,” he says.
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Soon enough, riding around Omeo won’t require quite as much local knowledge because the small town is set to be one of Victoria’s next big mountain bike destinations. Slated for 121km of singletrack emanating Livingstone park, which is about 200m from the main street, and the network will traverse the picturesque Mount Sam and Mount Measey, which overlook the town.
“Omeo has a history of the Alpine Stockman and the big adventures they get up to mustering cattle in those hills. That’s the experience you’ll get on the mountain bike,” says Deon Baker, Head Builder at Common Ground, the trail building outfit which has won the tender. “Even just getting there is an adventure; whether you drive from Hotham or the coast, or Falls (Creek) in the summer, it’s a windy drive.”
“It’s really big country up there; it’s the kind of place that you feel small against the landscape. The network is set over a massive project area, and the designers have based it all around longer loops,” he continues. “The idea being that you won’t be sessioning the same pockets of forest, it’s more geared towards taking in as much as you can and going on a big trail ride — I think that will be the defining feature.”
Beyond these longer loops, the trail map will feature shuttleable gravity trails coming off of Mount Sam, which take full advantage of the vertical drop from the summit.
“I’m really looking forward to some of the gravity descents that are planned,” says Jacinta Nelsson, president of the newly formed Mountain Biking East Gippsland. “There is nothing that is going to be too technical or difficult, the highest grading is a black trail, but from what the designers have told us, there are going to be some real hero descents that everyone can ride and enjoy.”
“I don’t think it will be a full-on gravity destination, but we will have some big long descents with 400-500-metres of vertical drop. You’ll be rolling out off the bottom of the gravity descending trails almost directly onto the main street in town,” says David Wilcox, Managing Director of Common Ground.
More than just a town near Hotham
As can sometimes happen with these large scale developments, when there isn’t a pre-existing mountain biking community in the area, sometimes it’s a hard sell to get the locals on board. That’s not the case in Omeo.
“It’s a community of farmers, and not many can imagine what it’s going to be, but they’re all open to it,” says Stevens. “The Omeo region is half the size of Belgium, and only a few hundred people live there. It’s mostly older people, and their kids all moved away to the cities because there is nothing to do apart from farming.
That might all change now; there will be more business opportunities, maybe better schools or better options for kids to stay here after school.”
Omeo has also had a rough few years between the ongoing drought, the 2019 bushfires, and Covid. In search of a tourism boost, the town has already experienced a small taste of what mountain biking can bring, with the skills park and pump track — that spells out Omeo from above.
“The bushfires cut off the town for something like six weeks, as in completely cut off. But, they’re a very resilient community, and even now, with just the pump and skills track, there is a sense of enthusiasm,” says Hayley Hardy, the Marketing Manager for Vist East Gippsland. “Every time we talk to the people in Omeo, they are just so excited and want to see ‘what else can we do next? What merchandise can we get up and running? How can we welcome these bike riders in? What can we do to make them feel welcome?”
Beyond just the economic stimulus the trails are likely to bring, there is also the benefit for the community in general.
“What we’ve seen already with the pump track is just an option for younger people in the community to get into something different instead of the traditional sports; up there, the footy and netball clubs are really the only offering. It’s going to be right on their doorstep, and I think that will be really good,” says Nelsson
The Omeo community saw this from the outset and contributed in any way they could while also bringing some of the town’s western flair into the finished product.
“One of the fellas donated an old horse-drawn cart from the early part of last century, which we made into a little drop. People gave us a bunch of excavator track and drive gear that had been worn out — which would have been worth quite a bit as scrap steel — and timber from old bridges that cross the creeks in the area, which we made into skinnies,” Baker says.
“The whole town, even though they’re not bike riders — though they might be soon enough — they’re all getting right behind it, and it’s pretty cool to see.”
Straight out of a Spaghetti Western
Everyone we spoke to about Omeo mentioned the town itself and the wonderful little community that lives there.
“As a township, it has all of these old buildings; it almost feels like the set of an old western movie,” Wilcox says.
“It feels a bit nostalgic in a way. It’s nice to be in a town where everyone knows one another, ” Baker continues. “The people that live there are so wonderful, and we felt really welcome being there for that three months when we were building the pump track.”
Because the town itself is so small, there is still work to be done regarding tourist infrastructures like restaurants and accommodation. Nelsson tells Flow the as all of this develops, the locals are keen to ensure the history and heritage of the mountain cattleman which the town was built upon does not disappear.
Beyond just the proposed trail network and the spiderweb of backroads, fire roads and four-wheel-drive trails that already exist, the areas that surround Omeo are wall to wall adventure opportunities.
“Pretty much anything goes. We’ve got the Mitta Mitta River that comes near town, so there is kayaking and white water rafting. There is also rocking climbing and hiking,” Stevens tells Flow. “The landscape around Omeo and Benambra is quite unique — make sure you go to Lake Omeo, it’s a dried-out lake about 20km from town, it’s just amazing, it’s like your in Mongolia or something.
The trail network is still a little ways off, and there are still a few bureaucratic hoops that will need to be cleared before construction can start; Wilcox is hopeful that people will be riding the first 55km of the network by 2022.
The local beta
Omeo is situated about 400km from Melbourne or about five hours in the car. Stevens noted that if you’re headed to Hotham this winter, approaching from the Omeo side is quite a bit less treacherous, and the road never closes.
While there aren’t many options for food and drink as it stands, Stevens says both of the pubs in town, the Golden Age Hotel and the Hilltop Hotel have great meals.
Hardy tells us that The Crazy Cow in Omeo is her favourite pie shop and is a must stop, and that coffee from Stevens’ shop is hard to beat.
The official website for updates on the network is set to launch in the coming weeks, but for the time being the best place to find the most up to date info on the trail network is the Omeo Region Facebook page.
Photos: Nicky Cawood @everyday_nicky / Common Ground Trails @commongroundtrails