In 2019 most of Australia was on fire, and Fox Creek Bike Park in the Adelaide Hills was at the epicentre of the Cudlee Creek Fire, which would consume nearly 25,000-hectares. The bike park is on Forestry SA land in the midst of a pine plantation, and just as the landscape around it was reduced to ashes, so were the trails.
A few years on, Fox Creek has been afforded a unique opportunity out of the devastation that swept through and is using the legacy it was built upon as the foundation to build back bigger and better than before.
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Before the fire
From the beginning, Fox Creek was blessed with a pair of car parks, one at the top of the hill and one at the bottom. This meant the trail builders had a target, and so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Fox Creek became gravity central — though there were some XC trails too.
“The land manager (Forestry SA) either turned a blind eye, or didn’t really understand that they could play a role for support in the development of the trails. So they just didn’t bother and left people to it, and that’s from the late 80s,” says Joe Mullan, who runs the Australian Museum of MTB and is a Director at Rocky Trail Destination.
“Fox was always the place where you could go, and you could do shuttles, and you could build trails, and everybody would leave you alone — which meant that you could build stuff that was sketchy AF, and push it,” says Mullan.
Because the folks were left to largely do as they pleased, there was never anything that looked like a plan for Fox Creek. All of the trails that were built there were constructed by locals, and mountain bike clubs who wanted somewhere to ride and race. Considering these are the trails that produced riders like Troy Brosnan, Connor Fearon, Shelly Flood and Cam Ivory, it’s hard to argue with pedigree, even if it is a bit disorganised.
After the fire
Forestry SA’s in-house fire crews responded on the morning of the blaze, but by the time they reached Fox Creek, it was already engulfed in a firestorm.
Rather than going into the reserve, these firefighters chose to protect neighbouring properties and houses and there wasn’t much they could do in the plantation itself. According to Forestry SA, about 100 hectares of the plantation was lost, and another 400 hectares of native vegetation was charred over the whole site.
“We went backwards,” says Mullan. “So we talk about a blank canvas, sometimes at Fox that gives the impression that you can start from ground level. (After the fire,) The hazardous nature of the area has meant that we’ve had to remove burned trees, we’ve had to remove scorched earth, and we’ve had to close trails for an undetermined period of time into the future.”
Fox Creek is divided into three management areas, pine plantation, native plantation and transition zones. The plantation areas are harvested at set intervals, with the transition zones largely left alone.
“When we went in, the pine plantation was harvested entirely, so it looks like a moonscape, devastation that just looks awful. The native plantation was burnt to a crisp but left standing, and the transition area was badly burned,” says Mullan.
With the landscape changed so dramatically, this meant there were three areas with three different problems to solve to revive the network.
“Because of the lack of vegetation and because all the trees were so incinerated, they’re all hazards that can come down on the trail and they can come down on riders. There’s no vegetation (left), which means (after rain) the water is just flowing down hillsides where it didn’t have a problem before because there were trees and vegetation there to soak it up,” says Mullan.
“You can put in 100 volunteer hours or 100-grand in trail building to open some of these trails, and within three months, we’ll have lost it,” says Mullan.
Out of the devastation, however, the green shoots of life began to emerge for the blackened ground. While the Cudlee Creek Fire left Fox Creek utterly devastated, it woke up the land manager to the importance of the trails to the riding and business community and offered a unique second chance at the network.
During this period, Monique Blason was appointed as the General Manager for Community Services at Forestry SA. In her words, her role entails everything that doesn’t involve planting, growing or harvesting pine trees, and is about all of the fun stuff, like recreational access. Blason is also a mountain biker, and had been riding at Fox Creek for nearly two decades.
One of her first jobs was to get involved with the bushfire recovery committee and to have Fox Creek included as a priority for the Commonwealth and State Disaster Fund.
“I think early on there was some concern about it being a bit too difficult, and that perhaps we should be waiting four or five years to be able to look at reopening. But it was fairly clear that we needed to get onto things really quickly in order to be able to leverage that economic recovery program funding,” says Blason.
According to modelling done by TRC Tourism, for every dollar invested in Fox Creek, it would return in excess of five dollars. Few infrastructure projects have the potential to offer such a sizeable return, and Blason made a compelling case that brought $2.5-million as part of the Community Resilience and Redevelopment Fund, which was set up to help the local community bounce back. Forestry SA secured an additional grant as part of the post-fire recovery effort.
And with that, Fox Creek 2.0 became a reality.
Rebuilding with a blank slate
Fox Creek stayed closed for about 12-months after the fire because it simply wasn’t safe to have people there while Forestry SA was cleaning up the remains of the burn. But this time allowed the trail network a unique opportunity of a blank slate.
“We were able to reset from the point of the fires and address previous decisions around where the trail network was and to plan and improve the future sustainability,” says Blason.
This holistic relationship starts at the foundation of the trails, and Mullan tells Flow as part of the management plan Forestry SA started by planting around the trail alignments.
From the outset, Rocky Trail Destination wanted to use a range of trail builders on Fox Creek 2.0, and so far, Next Level MTB, Ausdig, ETS and Destination Trail have contributed to the network. Mullan also says this probably won’t be the entire list of trail builders contracted on this project.
“I think that there is a benefit to having multiple trail builders on the same site,” says Mullan. “Every trail builder is an artist, and certain trail builders just have certain things nailed. They know how to do specific types of trail really, really well — whether it’s a white (circle) trail (eds note: very easy) or a double black, certain builders have their thing.”
Fox Creek has quite a legacy in Adelaide, and Marcelo Cardona from Next Level MTB tells Flow he could feel the pressure to create something that lived up to what was lost. However, he also knew this was an opportunity to progress Fox into a more well rounded bike park.
“The blank slate that comes out of that fire recovery was a really good opportunity to revamp and evolve those old trails. They’ve been digging here for many years, but there hasn’t been too much planning, but it’s a lot of love from the community — everything has been a grassroots evolution,” says Cardona.
Fox Creek earned its reputation because of mountain bike clubs like the Human Projectiles and the Foxy Creekers putting in countless hours out in the woods with handtools building trails. And this heritage has not been forgotten, nor are these communities being pushed out.
“They continue to be an integral part of Fox’s rebuild and are very much open to what we’re trying to achieve with the future Fox, which is a tourism product,” says Mullan. “They want to know, almost on a weekly basis, how else they can help and what’s coming next. On the Saturday just past, they were out there trail slashing, clearing, and all the rest.”
A well-rounded Fox
A trail network is only as good as the site it’s built on, and the beauty of Fox Creek is in the variety of terrain on offer. In addition to going in with a plan for the layout of the network, Cardona says there is plenty of contrast on the site, with areas perfect for big flowy descents, and rocky janky technical riding, and the soil ain’t half bad either.
“The soil on the gravity area is unbelievable, it’s the kind of stuff you would fly in with a helicopter to use for a build, and the whole mountain is made of this stuff,” he says.
“Everything will be more progressive and three dimensional. That comes in part because if it is a community built bike park, all of the trails are built using hand tools, and the capacity to move volumes of soil is very small. You can build great features, but they will be straightforward and follow the terrain. But having this really high quality soil and access to excavators, this is (going to be) an international size bike park,” he continues.
They are also working on a skills park which Cardona says is the biggest he has ever built, with everything from skills features to a jump park, coaching area, drops, step-ups, step-downs, hips, wall rides, and more.
“But the defining feature will be the integration. It will be inclusive, so you’ve got adaptive trails; there are big trick jumps, and trails for riders across the spectrum with the opportunity to progress,” says Cardona.
“We can cater for higher-level competition both in cross country as well as the gravity space. I actually think we have a scope at Fox for more marathon endurance type of rides and events,” says Mullan.
With it’s location in the Adelaide Hills, the Mawson Trail — super popular with bike packers — and the Heysen Trail — a walk following the Hans Heysen Trail across South Australia, both pass through the bike park. Mullan says using the access roads through the entirety of the 900-hectare plot, you can also put together about a 70km gravel ride.
“The bike park element is more about taking the ‘mountain bike’ part out of it. We have a skills park, we have a coaching area, we have a groms area. So whether you’re on a balance bike, a dirt jump bike, a gravel bike, a mountain bike or an adaptive bike — we’re a bike park,” says Mullan. “You might think that we are bastardising the term a little bit, but we have wider opportunities than just mountain biking.
Home to South Australia’s first adaptive trail
Grant Allen is one of Australia’s few Freeride athletes that made his way to the top of the sport. Unfortunately, his career changed course following a crash that left him paralysed from the waist down. The Adelaide local still rides, albeit a bit differently nowadays, and represented Australia at the 2020 Paralympics
“Grant’s here, he’s such a name in mountain biking, (we thought) why the hell do we not have a track for Grant — so that was the idea for Allen’s Orange Whip. It’s great to be the first (in SA) to have an adaptive mountain bike trail, but also to show that it’s possible and it wasn’t that hard to build,” say Mullan.
Being an adaptive trail, the footprint is a little wider, the radius of the corners is designed for handcycles, and there is infrastructure at the start, and various places down the trail to help get adaptive riders situated on their bikes.
“Grant has ridden it and he loves it, we’ve had people go down it on tandems, but you also get a kid on a 160mm slacked out enduro bike and he has a big grin on his face at the bottom too,” he says.
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Fox Creek 2.0
The build of Fox Creek 2.0 is already well under way, with about 50km of single-track open now, with another 40km projected by February 2023. But it’s not just the trails, the upper parking lot will have a trail hub with toilets, showers, e-Bike charging and more. There will also be space for pop-up vendors, and a visitor centre that will have info about the forestry operations and artefacts from the burn.
Fox 2.0 is also the first time shuttle operators will have access to internal fire roads, speeding uplifts and opening new routes, and the network is being set up in such a way that the trails and the plantation operations can operate in a holistic manner.
“The overall integration of what we’re trying to do in the local community and the sustainability of Fox as a bike destination outside of big government grant funding is so small. It’ll be here in 20 years, and even if nobody gives us another bucket of money, and all we’re doing is sustaining it from natural sources, it’ll still be a really cool place to ride,” says Mullan.
Photos: Rocky Trail Destination, Kaneophoto / @kaneophoto, Fletcher Media / @fletcher_media