Mick joins three lunatics on a mighty adventure, to ride three iconic disused downhill racetracks before lunch, deep in the extensive trail network around Mt Sugarloaf in the Lower Hunter Valley, NSW.
Watch the mayhem unfold here.
Since moving to Newcastle from Sydney, each ride was a first experience in a new city. Newcastle has a great mountain bike scene, especially with Glenrock MTB Park being so close to the city centre, stacked with beautiful trails, superb coastal views and lovely bushland.
But leaving behind the particularly technical terrain and sandstone slabs of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, satisfying the need for tough and challenging trails, for the increasingly capable modern mountain bikes, was proving a little harder to find around the flatter and faster trails of Newcastle.
Casting my memory back to the mid-nineties, in the awkward teenage years, aboard an old 1997 model Intense M1 DH bike, I recalled many times travelling up the freeway to the hallowed grounds of the Hunter Mountain Bike Club. I remembered three particularly rowdy downhill racetracks; Killingworth, Sugarloaf and Heaton Forest.
During these years, the racing scene was pumping! The tracks were raw, the organisation so very relaxed, and the community was great for a frothing bike geek like myself. The club hosted dozens of club races, a few NSW State Rounds, and even the MTBA National Series stopped off in the Hunter. It was a good time, and between the Hunter Club and the Central Coast club at Ourimbah, there was plenty of racing to be had and talent to be nurtured.
Aside from the fast and wild tracks, one thing stuck in my mind about this place – the long turnaround for shuttles. For some of the races, one run down and back up could take you nearly one hour, by the time you loaded up, drove out of the forest, over the freeway and back up the hill. But that was all we knew, and Thredbo was so far away.
Where am I going with this story? Well, I had to find these tracks again. Many years after the racing moved to the Awaba MTB Park, would the old runs of Killingworth and Heaton still be there, unless they had grown over completely, never to be ridden again…?
Attempt one – Frustratingly unsatisfying…
After the 2018 Port to Port MTB Stage Race, I downloaded the Strava map file of the stage, uploaded it to my phone and set out to retrace my steps at my own pace in an attempt if I could remember anything. It all started well, but after a gruelling climb up the horrifically steep tarmac of Mt Sugarloaf climb, I descended into a complete labyrinth of trails and swiftly lost my way.
Without the course markings of the Port to Port, I was staring with despair at the squiggly line on my phone, as it constantly beeped at me for going the wrong way whenever I got up to speed. So, I turned it off, and just rode around blindly, only to find messy four-wheel-drive tracks and burnt-out cars. I was defeated and overcome by the sheer amount of trails out there.
The four-wheel-drives have hammered that place, digging huge holes, creating massive erosion, but no matter how the landowners try to keep them out, they just barge their way In again. It may not necessarily be the prettiest areas at times, passing through large areas of carnage that is a paradise for their tractor-like wheels.
Attempt two – find a local, find the gold!
Who else to seek help in finding the best trails than Captain Hunter Valley MTB Club himself, Mr Robbie McNaughton. During those mid-nineties races, there was a strong contingent of Newcastle riders who cut their teeth on these trails, often taking their racing to the world stage. Robbie and his sister Emma were big players in the scene, racing on the World Championship teams for Australia. And there were highly successful pros keeping the competition fierce – Tai Lee Muxlow, Brad Kelley, Adam Smithson, to name a few – many had great success in their racing heyday. And it was all so well documented by the Black Phoenix Films crew of Josh Stephenson and Robbie, producing the best MTB films on VHS, keeping us entertained with bike culture antics and crazy riding on film to watch in the safety of our homes.
Robbie always beat me at his home tracks; I never had a chance; he ruled that place. He has impressive bike handling skills, with a light and precise way of shifting his bike to exactly where he wants it to be, nailing the smooth lines and hopping the bike around as if it weighs nothing.
Allegedly Killingworth is the only place Robbie beat Nathan Rennie, quite an achievement! Fast forward to now, Robbie part-owns Newcastle’s biggest bike shop, Drift Bikes, and remains heavily engaged in the scene that defines him.
Upon discussing my previously fruitless solo attempt, Robbie suggested that we combine forces, and threw me a bone. “Join us for a Mega Levo ride this Monday morning!”, he said.
Robbie and his merry band of brothers often gather early on a Monday morning and go blasting about the very trails I had failed to find flow. How? E-bikes, the Specialized Levo was their choice of adventure mobile which could turn a frustrating ride into an absolute cracker experience covering massive ground in less time.
The Merry Band of Brothers.
Joel – The ex-freestyle moto pro rider, wheelies for days, and spends more time on his Levo than the moto nowadays. With a fluid style, his long arms leaning the bike down, so the bars look like they’re going to drag the dirt, he steers his mountain bike like a moto. He’s also notorious around town for leading the e-bike segments on Strava. Joel knows how to keep the power on, making his Levo work hard to keep the speed up, but at the same time can conserve battery power well on long rides, despite thinking he ran his bike in Turbo mode 100% of the time.
Woffa – Super-busy business owner, lives near the trails, loves the Levo. Rides with his headphones in taking work calls, hard to know when he’s talking on the phone or to the voices in his head… Woffa is a total lunatic, unmistakable with an old $30 grey skate helmet riding his S-Works Levo in King Gee shorts. He appears to have minimal regard for what’s on the other side of blind obstacles, hitting send and launching down the trail when I’d be brake-checking and inspecting for a safe landing.
With a background steeped in motorbike racing, the pair of Joel and Woffa had a radically different technique to how Robbie and I would ride that grew up on push-bikes. With impressive control over the power of the bike, paired with a sturdy handle on the steering, they would fly through the chundering trails with a fast-yet-unorthodox style. Riding flat pedals and foot-out through nearly every turn, they would lean back and follow the bike through anything that lay ahead.
The common theme here? A random bunch of guys with similar bikes and an appetite for trails. So, not too much more than that, really!
Fuelling the exploration.
Over a few months, I joined in on a few of these rides, and no doubt they have been some of the most fun I’ve had on a mountain bike in yonks. It was fast, loose, highly entertaining and each one never the same as the last. You could hear the shrieks of laughter and banter all around us; the sounds would have been amusing if heard by a passer-by.
The irresistible urge to make a pass on the inside of the turn, or attempt an overtaking manoeuvre on a harder line with irresponsible levels of commitment was the recurring theme.
Riding the Levo’s meant we kept together the whole time, there was no waiting for the slower riders to catch up on the climbs, and the entire ride was a challenge, not just the descents. The irresistible urge to make a pass on the inside of the turn, or attempt an overtaking manoeuvre on a harder line with irresponsible levels of commitment was the recurring theme.
Like most times when you talk about e-bikes to people, it is hard to explain, so we decided to bring a cameraman and film it. Cheers to our pal, Oli Smith for constructing this edit out of a random bunch of banter and chaotic riding.
Three DH tracks, before lunch.
The aim was to head out and conquer three old DH tracks before lunch, three tracks not exactly next to each other, either. So the challenge of getting to them was one part, the other was finding them.
Up we went, into the foothills of Mt Sugarloaf, clambering up the weathered old tracks, elbows out trying to pass each other as many times as possible. If it weren’t for Robbie’s local knowledge, we’d have been lost in minutes, but we kept on charging ahead towards the summit, sinking our tyres into fresh moto singletrack and sliding around on bare sandstone.
You go first, no, you go, go on…
The traditional order of riders heading into a descent is not to be trusted, whoever goes first is likely to be undercut, chopped off and ran wide into a turn. So it was wise to choose your position amongst the lunatics or simply keep your wits about you.
The descents were so wild; it was a deadly cocktail of deep ruts, hidden lines, overhanging vegetation, and someone behind you yelling to go faster. The Levo’s plough through the chaos about five times better than the downhill bikes we used to ride on the same trails! It’s a hoot.
Whoa, that was a big day out with some four hours spent exploring and discovering old trails that somehow feel new. We roamed all over the place and finished at lunchtime with seriously weary bodies. It’s the type of ride you just wouldn’t consider riding a regular pedal-powered bike, even with a shuttle vehicle available.
After riding these trails over twenty years, we’ve just unlocked a new way to do it, the best yet. Yiew!