The Thrill of Mountain Biking with a tour de France racer

7 May 2012

The rugged terrain was muddy and formidable.  Sloping downhill through a thicket of trees that obscured its true difficulty and intention.  I tentatively placed my foot on the pedal and pushed off, hoping to keep up with the boys. The ‘boys’ in this case were four guys, comprised of a surfer from New Zealand, our Australian road trip manager, and two Australian brothers who own and operate McGee’s Cycling Store in New South Wales.

On any given day, I would say I was out of my league, but today was different. Today I wasn’t just the only girl trying to keep up with guys who were eager to test their prowess on mountain bikes. I was about to tackle my first trail ride ever, and I was going to do it with the McGee brothers – Craig and Brad.

Kyle and Kelly with the McGee brothers

Synonymous with racing in Australia, Brad McGee is an elite athlete, Olympic medalist in men’s cycling, and inductee into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame, who is probably most famous for being the first Australian to wear the leader’s jersey in all three Grand Tours in Europe – the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and the Vuelta a España. Brad McGee not only won the prologue of the Tour de France, but also led the race for three days.

My mind was spinning with thoughts like, “Is my physical endurance up to the task?””, “What’s the likelihood that I’ll hit a tree or large rock on the trail and lose control of the bike?”and “Why did I just eat three Aussie pies at the pie shop?” I didn’t know what to expect. I was nervous, yet eager to embrace the challenge, and honoured to be learning from the best.

All I knew about the sport of mountain biking was that it consisted of trail riding over rough terrain, adroitly navigating narrow, obstacle-ridden paths, dirt jumping, executing sharp turns and controlling downhill speeds. But how?

It was late afternoon. The air was brisk and the ground was sodden, as I stepped out of the road trip tour bus and introduced myself to Craig and Brad McGee. I smiled, extended my hand, and took a deep breath. Was I really about to tackle an adventure sport I knew nothing about, except that flying over the handlebars was a distinct possibility? To me the trail looked like a rugged obstacle course, with sharp twists and turns requiring endurance and agility that I wasn’t entirely sure I had.

Brad must have sensed my trepidation because he said, “Don’t worry. I’ve taught a lot of people and women always do well. They’re rather determined.” This was true. I knew that trait well.

Kelly's bike

Craig generously offered to ride behind me. Next thing I knew, I was fitted with a well-equipped mountain bike and helmet and headed off to a practice field to learn trail jumping manoeuvres and balance adjustments on sharp turns.

Mountain Biking is a sport that has evolved rapidly since its inception in the early 1970s and has exploded in popularity. It requires core strength, self-reliance, and solid bike handling skills. But it’s also a sport that’s fun! Thrilling, in fact. And it’s an amazing way to see some spectacular landscapes.

We headed down the backwoods trails and through sections of the Morton National Park in northwest Kangaroo Valley.  Its beauty continuing to surprise me at every turn, as I manoeuvred the bike through switchback trails and tried to control my speed. The Southern Highlands of New South Wales afford adventure enthusiasts endless trails and a genuine way to experience nature.

We tackled trails that led downhill, uphill, over fallen trees and through muddy terrain with the goal of reaching a waterfall. I pedalled. I pedalled harder. I tried to clear the obstacles, and at times would succumb to lifting my bike over the impeding object.

I wiped out halfway through a massive 17-foot mud puddle, which if I’m perfectly honest, I had sized up and knew before I even approached it that there was little hope of successfully riding through. But it was all worth it, as the misty rainforest gave way to a scenic river gorge.

Fitzroy Falls

A raging 81-meter waterfall plummeted over an escarpment and into a lush green valley below that seemed to stretch endlessly. We had arrived at Fitzroy Falls, and I was quite simply unprepared. I had no idea that the waterfall we had been biking to would be such a breathtaking display of natural beauty.

The sheer drop of the falls is magnificent. I approached the cliff’s edge and leaned as far as I could. Straining to see the bottom of the plunging waterfall as its tempestuous waters flowed through the eucalyptus forests in the valley below, eventually making its way to the Kangaroo River.

Natural perfection as far as the eye could see. Similar to the feeling I had gotten standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, I stood quietly in awe of my surroundings.

Kelly Harmon