With an event t-shirt that has a tricycle on it, the Forrest Festival was always going to be about more than just racing flat-tack to a finish line.
We’d heard the rumours: Forrest, a tiny town in the Otway Ranges, 160 kilometres southwest of Melbourne, was reportedly the mountain biker version of heaven. With 60 kilometres of singletrack, its own boutique brewery and the newly-opened bike shop café, Forrest certainly seemed to have everything a singletrack fanatic could want. Nevertheless, we felt it was necessary to dip our toes in the waters, so we packed ourselves off to this year’s Festival Forrest.
With a race format that sees competitors spending as much time at the café as on the bike, the two-day, five-stage Forrest Festival seems handcrafted to send competitors back to that first-bike frame of mind.
At Forrest, innovation is the word: from viking ship-inspired fences to the Forrest Brewery’s Otway Ale, this place is just spilling over with good ideas. Cue the Forrest Festival, now in its second year, which has a race format with a distinctive Forrest edge.
The festival’s stages are shorter and quite varied – there’s a 15km ‘So Fo Sprint,’ a 5km hill climb up Balidjaru Hill, a 5km Super-D down the rightly famous Red Carpet track, and a 5km time trial (raced in pairs, on twisting trails through dense native rainforest), called Caspers Revenge, on the first day, and the Forrest Fiddy, which covers a more conventional race distance (50km), on the second day. The downtime between stages gives riders stacks of time to recover, chill out and, well, to lounge about at coffee shops like a pack of roadies at St Kilda.
‘We want people to feel like rock stars,’ said race director and Forrest local Norm Douglas.
Norm and Jess and the other riders in Forrest put together the cunningly scheduled event line-up, even creating a computer program with a special algorithm to ensure that riders had enough space between their arrival at the top of the Balidjaru Hill climb and their start time for the Red Carpet descent. With the stages being short as well as quite varied, and the breaks between stages being long enough to allow plenty of recovery, every stage felt like a fresh opportunity.
‘It was all part of the plan,’ said Norm. ‘I wanted to make it so everyone would feel like they could go quite hard, knowing they didn’t have a six-hour day ahead of them.’
‘The Elite riders ended up doing less than four hours of actual racing for the whole weekend. So the average rider would do five to six hours of actual riding, and they had those gaps in between, so they could go pretty hard in each effort.’
Those breaks, together with the time-trial format for stages two, three and four, meant there was plenty of jockeying for position during stages as riders at every level rode to their limit, giving us all something to yarn about over those essential recovery coffees.
At the sharp end of the field, this resulted in very close competition, though in the end, the Petas dominated, with Peta Mullens and Peter Kutschera claiming hard-earned top spots on the podium at the end of the weekend. The turn-out for the women’s Elite field was particularly strong: Peta Mullens rode every stage like it was her first, with Jenni King hot on her tail and Jess Douglas, Jaclyn Schapel and Katherine O’Shea close behind.
In the Elite men, Scott Chancellor and Ben Mather kept the pressure on last year’s Forrest Festival winner Peter Kutschera as the three of them traded places from one stage to another. By the end of the weekend less than a minute separated third-place-getter Ben’s final riding time from Peter’s tally.
The competition between these riders would have been inspiring to watch, but just about everyone else in Forrest was out on the trails and involved in close racing of their own.
Going for gold
Most tellingly, Caspers Revenge (the stage four five-kay sprint) was a favourite with the crowds, despite it being the last stage of the first day, when we were all feeling the exertion we’d put into the first three stages of the day.
‘For that one stage, regardless of where they were in the field or in their class, everyone had a shot at winning,’ said Norm.
‘They were lined up against someone with a similar overall race time. For that point in time, on that track, on their bike, they were the winner.
‘I think that was why people loved stage four so much.’
Norm credits Jess with the idea for this recent addition to the festival line-up, and for setting the course that made it such a success – ‘It was gold. I’m rapt with it,’ he said.
At least one member of the Flow team had trouble wiping the grin off her face during that stage, despite the pain of the lactic build-up in her quads. But this was not unique to stage four – thanks to the well-set courses, the superb singletrack and the joyous atmosphere in town and out on the trails throughout the Forrest Festival, we all found ourselves in full beam far too often as the weekend unfolded.
How did we get so lucky?
The Forrest Festival is just one more gift from the riders at Forrest to the wider mountain biking community.
This ten-street town started out as a logging town. Relics from that time are now part of the décor in the Forrest Brewing Company and the Forrest Country Guesthouse (which even has a sawmilling-themed bedroom). When the logging came to an end, in the 90s, the residents discovered a new gold in Forrest’s tree-dense slopes: mountain biking.
Today, Forrest just less than 200 inhabitants. But since the development of singletrack in the area, Forrest has attracted a steadily growing stream of mountain biking visitors, and a few of them – including Norm and Jess Douglas – now call Forrest home. During this year’s festival weekend, Forrest accommodated over 500 people, including 280-odd riders.
The Forrest Mountain Bike and Cycling Club’s membership list includes ‘Forresters’ and out-of-towners from as far as Geelong and Melbourne. The 16 volunteers who helped run the festival hailed from the club (they deserve a huge thumbs-up for choosing to leave their bikes in the shed so everyone else could ride that weekend).
Forrest has a thriving event calendar – standout events include the Forrest Six-Hour, the ‘world famous’ New Year’s Day Red Carpet Repeats and the weekly social ride. Having fun is a serious business here, and the ‘Brew Crew’ social ride (the brainchild of local rider Sandy Maxwell) usually involves singletrack and a catch-up at the Forrest Brewery.
As the festival-goers discovered, Forrest has three cafes – one is also the local boutique brewery, the second is also a quirky guest house and the third is Norm and Jess’s recently-opened café and bike shop, the Corner Shop.
Before this little gem of a local hangout opened, any visiting rider with a mechanical faced a long drive to the nearest bike workshop. Now, riders can chat over a coffee under the verandah or perch on the sofa in the store and watch the Corner Store crew lavish TLC on their two-wheeled steed.
But bike bling and top-notch riding fuel were not the only things we found at the Corner Store. It is rapidly becoming the hub for the local riding scene, and it is the place to get the low-down on trail conditions and find yourself a riding buddy.
‘Friends have said the Corner Store is like an extension of our kitchen,’ laughs Jess.
‘So in that sense, opening up this particular store is like opening up our hearts to the world and saying “Here we are.”’
Judging by the numbers of riders in the store and chilling out under the verandah during the Forrest Festival weekend, Forrest and its local riding scene – and the Corner Store – have hit the radar. You want to cut it up in a mountain biker heaven? Visit Forrest.