Update: The project team at the Yarra Ranges Council submitted its 3,500-page EES to the Victorian Minister for Planning on Friday 22 October 2021. This is a big step forward for this project, but there is still a long way to go. We’re resharing this piece to give you an idea of what it took to get here.
Deep in the Beech Myrtle forests of the Yarra Ranges is the last place you would expect to find a crew of sound engineers; however, that is who Warburton Mountain Bike Destination Senior Project manager Matt Harrington was leading out into the bush a few weeks ago.
“We were out with 20 mountain bikers recording and testing noise levels of a train of mountain bikes travelling through the trail network,” Harrington says. “It’s something nobody had ever quantified or measured before, so we had riders going nose to tail on climbing, descending and jump trails.”
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Harrington wasn’t able to tell us exactly how many decibels a group of 20-riders in the woods actually produce, because the raw data is still being analysed, but all of this information will be compiled into the technical reports for the Environmental Effects Study, which was requested by the Victorian Ministery for Planning.
“Typically speaking, beyond about 150m, the sound is virtually inaudible,” Harrington says.
Back in 2019, we brought you a story about what we thought was the most exciting thing in Australian mountain biking at the time. Then last year, when we’d heard rumblings that the trail network might be required to undertake a complete Environmental Effect study, we took a deep dive into what that means, why it was worrying and a bit quite odd.
Now in 2021, Harrington and his project team are up to their eyeballs in technical studies, evaluating everything from how sound from riders will affect the environment around them, to what increases in traffic will do the road and parking infrastructure in town, and even what effect the new trail network will have on the price of rent.
The Warburton Mountain Bike Destination is the only trail network to have ever been required to undertake a full environmental effects statement. This process is typically reserved for projects like mines, roads and pipelines. Since the Victorian State Government started keeping track, 38 projects have been flagged to conduct EES. They include projects the Bunyip Northe Granit Quarry, the North East Link and the Port Phillip Bay Depending Proposal.
A mountain bike trail network sticks out like an XC bike at a downhill race among the list of other EES projects, and many of the technical reports Harrington and his team are compiling have never been done before in this frame of reference. With a mountain of studies already completed and another mountain still to climb, Harrington is undeterred and sees all of this in the context of its value to the next trail network.
“We’re spending an inordinate amount of money on this stuff, and there has got to be a return back to the industry. If we can get through what probably is the most scrutinised process in the country, and come out the other end having been endorsed by the Minister for Planning, DELWP, Parks Victoria, and the agencies that sit on the technical reference group, that is extremely valuable to trail planners and other projects,” he says.
“We will have a more robust, and defendable understanding of the impacts of mountain biking. The ability of future trail projects to be able to pick up our documents and go, ‘here’s the evidence,’ I think that will be really promising,” says Harrington.
From the beginning of the project, Harrington and his team have been committed to transparency with all the information they have collected through these studies. If you head over to the Ride Yarra Ranges website, there is study after study available for you to peruse, and Harrington says they have also been sharing a lot of this information with other projects so they can take full advantage of this work.
What is the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination?
Harrington and his team have been busy worker bees over the last 12 months, and there are updates and exciting new developments galore. But before we dive in, here’ a quick refresher on what the Warburton Mountain Bike Destination is all about.
Warburton is situated about 70km outside of Melbourne. The original plan for the trail network called for 44 trails, covering 186km across three areas on Mt Donna Boang, Mt Little Joe and Mt Tugwell, including the flagship Drop-a-K trail slated to offer 1000-vertical-meters of descending.
The first stage of the build would incorporate 110km of trail and four trailheads. Upon completion, Ride Yarra Ranges will apply for International Mountain Bike Association Gold Level Ride Center status. This would make Warburton only one of three facilities to achieve this certification outside the US, and the only one in Australia.
What’s the update?
The main thing that Harrington and his team have been working on over the past year is compiling the necessary data to satisfy the EES.
“When it says Environmental Effects, it’s really talking about a wide range of matters; everything from transport, through to social impacts and benefits, ecological, water, geotechnical — we are looking across all of these fields. What we’ll end up producing are six detailed technical reports. The main issue we see as having a significant risk is predominantly around biodiversity,” says Harrington.
Some of the proposed trails navigate through sensitive areas around Yarra Ranges National Park, including some cool temperate rain forest, which is home to both the Leadbeater Possum and Wingless Stonefly — both of which are endangered. Unfortunately, the signature Drop-a-K trail is on of the main sticking points.
“The technical reference group has challenged us to look across the entire network and workout its sensitivity from the environmental, heritage and social values standpoint, and look for opportunities to present alternatives,” Harrington says.
The Drop-a-K trail is one such opportunity where an alternative trail alignment has been proposed.
“The original alignment was designed around an easy or intermediate trail and would appeal to a wide tourism market. It wasn’t designed to be overly technical or challenging, but would still provide an amazing wilderness experience.
If the environmental impacts (of that trail alignment) are seen as too great, the alternative we have proposed is still a series of trails leading down from the summit of Mount Donna Buang, but they’re steeper, shorter and more technical, appealing more to the more experienced mountain biker.”
Harrington plans to present both options as part of its EES submission.
The other major update to the network itself comes from an issue with the GIS (Geographic Information System Mapping) platform, which miscalculated the total length of singletrack for the network.
“The trail network was accurately represented (mapped) in the landscape, but the algorithm behind that which calculates the trail length was incorrect, so we had a bit of an overestimation,” Harrington says. “What this has allowed us to do, was to go back and add some additional trail.”
Some of these new trails focus on what Harrington refers to as ‘contemporary opportunities,’ looking towards where mountain biking is headed. By this, he means uber steep and techy climbing trails, designed to challenge the capabilities of eMTBs, or XC whippets with 400-watt FTPs, similar to the eChallenge climbs at the new Wild Mersey network.
“We’ve also added a wilderness trail that goes over the top of Mount Bride, which goes up to about the 900m mark and will be the highest point around the south side of the network,” he says.
“We’ve also added a couple of trails that are a double black standard, which we didn’t have before. One of those, in particular, utilises an existing four-wheel-drive track, which we would turn into a really wide footprint, really fast trail,” Harrington says.
The final addition to the Warburton Destination will be a new trail and improved infrastructure at Wesburn park, including a new pump track, skills park, bike wash bays and more parking.
“We now have trails connecting into Wesburn Park that allow access into the network, and the shuttle route will come through there as well. This provides a secondary trailhead, particularly for day visitors from Melbourne,” he says.
Harrington also tells Flow they are looking at the opportunity to run a ‘ski school type approach to mountain bike education’ from Wesburn, utilising the pump track and skills park.
The most exciting news, however, is we have a clearer picture of when construction will begin.
“We’re still aiming to wrap up our technical work in late June or early July. That will probably put us in public exhibition around July or August, and my hope is that means we will get digging early in the new year,” Harrington says.
There is still quite a lot of work ahead for the team behind the Warburton Mountain Bike destination; for more info or to look at some of the data they are collecting, head over to the Ride Yarra Ranges website.