Arriving back in Australia at the end of May this year, I was met with a very last minute offer to go to the Melrose Fat Tyre Festival to cover the event for Enduro Magazine. While the timing was horrific for me, I was still tempted to make the logistics work as I’d heard so many good things about the riding around the area from people who had made the pilgrimage for the festival in years gone by. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, so our Kiwi contributor Caleb Smith went instead. You can read more about the Fat Tyre Festival in Issue #22 of Enduro that is about to hit the shelves, and like me I’m sure you’ll be insanely jealous…
But, it wasn’t the only opportunity to visit Melrose, as the newest event on the Southern Flinders Ranges calendar was only just around the corner in the middle of September; ominously titled ‘The 18 Hours of Melrose’. I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant, but I leapt at the chance to pencil this one in and finally score a break to make our way over the border. I had a rough idea of where this place was, though I do have to admit my internal compass was some ways off when I opened up Google Maps and discovered that the drive from Melbourne to Melrose was longer than the trip to Sydney; 11 hours and over 1000km of driving. Sheesh, how was I going to rope anyone into this??
Having been kindly offered a team entry to come and cover the event, I set out to amass a singletrack army to help me battle the relay challenge. Since there’s nothing more than cyclists love than free stuff, this process was actually a lot easier than I was expecting, and soon we had a 5-strong team of enthusiastic Melrose Virgins all excited for the trip.
2 cars? 1 car? Half flying? Some bussing? We began to deliberate on the best way to make the journey over the border. While we settled on driving to and from, my advice for those considering the trip would be to also have a look at flights to Adelaide, as with a relatively cheap connecting bus to Melrose, you can severely cut the travel time to maximise riding time. In our case, of the 4 days we had taken off, 2 were dedicated purely to bitumen-crawling. Better get good at car-cricket then…
The North Star Hotel at the base of Mt. Remarkable. ‘Ned Kelly’ Parma is to die for BTW
If you haven’t heard much about Melrose, you’re probably thinking “umm, there’s quite a lot of good riding in Victoria, Hell, even Canberra is only 6 hours drive away!”. And you would be correct. However, there’s something about Melrose that I can’t quite put my finger on – a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ that makes this place special in the heart of a mountain biker. For a start, it’s a very small country town of some 200 residents. It’s located about 3 hours North of Adelaide, just inland of Port Augusta and is set at the foot of Mt. Remarkable that forms part of the wider Mt. Remarkable National Park. It is also home to what is quite possibly the coolest mountain bike shop in Australia; Over The Edge Sports, which was a fundamental component in creating the glorious singletrack haven that is now present today. Of course, the riding is phenomenal and the trail network is a glowing example of how to build man-made flow into the natural terrain – your ability to build speed on what appears to be flat singletrack will have you checking your brakes regularly. But I think the biggest lure of Melrose is it’s small and intertwined community that celebrates the mountain bike tourism that is, in a lot of ways, keeping this town going.
Rich, Kerri & Al, the co-owners of OTE Sports Melrose, founded the shop back in 2008 after having started trail building through the area covering the base of Mt. Remarkable. Recognising the potential of mountain bike tourism for their small town, the shop was founded to support this industry with a focus on bike tours, high-end MTB hire and a slick workshop that was ready to address any mechanical emergencies presented by out-of-towners who had arrived for a week of riding. It’s not a traditional bike shop in the sense that there are bikes and wheels hanging off every available hook, instead you’ll find locally made Wool products, personalised Whiskey Flasks, bike-related DVD’s and an array of boutique bikes such as Liteville and Knolly, that are available for hire to shred on the local tracks.
The store is an inviting space that encourages you to while away your time flipping through magazines, enjoying a freshly prepared espresso or chilling out in the retro lounge. With a crackling fireplace in front of the coffee table, it’s almost like you’ve walked into someones living room and I suspect Rich has a hard time getting people to leave at the end of the day when it’s time to close the doors.
After a peaceful night devoid of the constant hum of late night car traffic, we headed out on the morning of race day to explore some of the trails we were going to be racing on. OTE has a comprehensive array of maps of the local area that details both walking, 4WD and MTB tracks within Melrose and Bartagunyah. Joss, the head mechanic at OTE, briefly traced over a map of what he expected would be the race course, and so we set off from the shop ready to explore the network.
Within a short space of time, we were promptly transported to the trails we had lusted after in the slick promotional video Kerri had sent us a couple of weeks prior to the event. Swoopy brown singletrack curves littered the green hillside and provided plenty of opportunity to build up speed, especially due to the hardpack and well-ridden surface.
My favorite section on the Melrose trails; the ruins of an old farmhouse that has made way for a very fun step-down right through the old living room!
It doesn’t take much elevation up Mt. Remarkable to enjoy the view. Driving into Melrose, the landscape is about as flat as a pancake in true Aussie countryside style. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the tail end of the Southern Flinders Ranges bubbles out of the ground, made all the more prominent by the mellow flatness surrounding it. We were definitely here at the right time of year, as the golden fields of canola and lush green paddocks displayed the environmental prosperity of the area thanks to above average rainfall.
So, the race. You might be wondering why you’ve never heard of an 18 hour MTB race before, and that’s because it’s a logistical nightmare. Depending on how much the event organisers want to mess with you, the start and finish times are always going to be a little odd. In the case of the Melrose event, the start time was scheduled for Midnight on Friday, wrapping up 18 hours later at 6pm on Saturday evening. Of course it’s shorter than a 24 hour, but in some ways it messes with your head more – especially when your first race lap is under lights!
As for our merry team of (ahem) men, sure enough their earlier enthusiasm was not enough to guarantee their attendance. And with one day left before we set off on the long road trip, the last of our team members pulled out to leave just Ben and I to face the 18 hours of racing. The positive side of this was that we were going to get in more riding than if we were a 5 person team, and to be frank we had never planned to go out and race competitively. On the flipside however, we now had to share the 1000km of driving between the three of us (including my partner Suzie, who had been a late call in when the last team member pulled out) and we were going to get way less sleep than either of us had anticipated.
The pre-race ‘plan’ involved taking a 3-4 hour snooze in our cabin at about 6pm, in the knowledge that we wouldn’t really get any sleep throughout the event. That plan worked really well for Suzie, who slept soundly and even snored for our amusement, while Ben & I laid down for 3 hours with our eyes and minds wide awake. When the alarm went off, I jumped up out of bed, thankful that I didn’t have to pretend to sleep anymore.
The main street in town had been blocked off to form the transition area for the race, which I think caused some inconvenience for the 4 cars that were planning to drive through town over the weekend. A roaring open fire was a welcome addition to transition due to the brisk Spring evening, along with some very comfy couches that more than a few people had a wee nap on throughout the night. The start of the race was quite the spectacle for us out-of-towners, but I’m sure a pretty standard affair for the locals. To set the tone right from the beginning, each rider that was racing the first lap was provided an egg & spoon to complete a lap of the street. Signalling the start of this running race, Al, dressed in a tweed hunting jacket, was hoisted about 15 feet up into the air in the front bucket of a tractor and proceeded to fire off a shotgun several times into the air. Banjo music kicked into gear over the PA system and a bunch of lycra-clad cyclists waddled down towards the end of the street to complete a lap around 2 burning red flares, before making their way back to dump their egg into a bucket. With drunken locals and rider team mates whooping and hollaring over the top of the music, each rider set off down the road towards the beginning of the race lap. Later I mentioned to Rich that it was in this very moment that I realised I was not in the city anymore.
I think this was taken around 4-5am. Something about Avocado and Tomato sauce on toast made me go crazy. Oh, and the complete lack of sleep.
To encourage as many riders as possible to get involved, Rich & Al decided to include a 6 hour race as part of the event this year for those that didn’t like the idea of sleep deprivation. So at Midday on Saturday, the 6 hour kicked into gear, with the plan of finishing up at the same time as the 18. Lucky for me, I was off-lap at the time of race kickoff, so I got to watch the entire spectacle all over again – this time with Orange flares instead and the banjo music from Deliverance belting out the PA.
The 8km loop took in much of the best that Melrose has to offer, including the excellent ‘Dodging Bullets’ that you simply must ride if you go this way. Even on my last lap, after some 17 hours of racing, I was still smiling ear-to-ear as I boosted off each jump to try and go higher and further than last time. While there was plenty of technical sections, every obstacle was easily rollable for the beginner rider, though the faster you rode the more challenging the trail became. Small white signs with arrows would indicate a jump or a drop, so you had plenty of warning in case you had built up too much speed. Around half way along the lap, a marquee and a 4WD signalled the safety marshall that would be able to take injured riders back down the fireroad. During the night time laps, it was also home to a roaring fire and an enormous disco ball that reflected the beams of helmet lights off into the surrounding bush. Beside the marquee was a makeshift clothesline covered in frilly old ladies garments, which each rider was required to ransack on their way around the lap to prove they had ridden the entire course. The quick and easy way was to wrap the garment around your neck as a scarf, but then many (male) riders appeared to take their time in adorning the garment in its intended style, as you can see in the above picture.
Taking a leaf out of the Singlespeed National Champs book, the organisers had implemented a short-cut for the last 6 hours of the race that was ingeniously titled the “Torq & Tinny Cut”. The track that you were able to cut off was substantial, and not only that, it cut out a very painful climb. I visited the marquee a couple of times on Saturday afternoon, and while the beer went down exceptionally well, that heinous Pineapple & Ginger Torq bar certainly did not!
Throughout the night, Ben & I had decided the move to double-laps made sense, since the night time air was quite cold and it took some time to warm up. We darted our way around the track as the hours ticked by, though by 5am the dark night sky made way for a stunning sunrise from the East that lit up the side of the mountain. The feeling of its warmth was instantaneous and welcome, making us forget about any lost sleep with an immediate change to our spirits. We kept on punching out laps throughout the daylight, just happy to ride those trails as much as possible – they are that much fun! And it seemed we weren’t the only ones enjoying ourselves, with many of the other riders I spoke to also having a blast and soaking up the relaxed festival vibe of the event.
Crossing the finish line for our last lap, the main street was beginning to swell with locals and family members of riders who all came down to check out the spectacle. For a small town like this, a race like the 18 hour must be quite the event while also being a great opportunity to see tourism dollars injected into the local economy. There’s a great relationship between all of the businesses and the majority of town welcomes mountain bikers with open arms, as it represents a huge chunk of their business. For OTE Sports, MTB tourism makes up well over half of their revenue, so it’s important for this place to continue thriving on the visitors that make the journey into town. For me, I think that’s why Melrose is so special.
On behalf of Enduro Magazine, we would like to thank Rich, Kerri & Al for inviting us over for the event, as well as the Melrose Caravan Park for providing a cabin for us to prepare protein drinks and charge our lights in. If you like the sound of this place, check out Issue #22 of Enduro to read up Caleb’s report on the Fat Tyre Festival, and give the guys at Over The Edge Sports a call. Whether you decide on pencilling in the FTF or the 18 hour for next year, or you just want to swing a long weekend to hang out in the Flinders Ranges, these guys will point you in the right direction. I think to soak up the full atmosphere, it would be worth planning to spend a few solid days in town, though if you’re like us you will seriously not want to leave (an 11 hour road trip is also a great way to kill off the buzz you’ve been riding the past 2 days) so make sure you take your time getting there and heading back. We passed many wineries, charming small towns and country markets on our journey, though we just didn’t have the time to stop everywhere. I would highly recommend giving yourself the flexibility to do so in order to check out some of the beautiful spots in our country and support the people who live there.
– Melrose Caravan Park: Cheap & cheerful, and they have a pump track! In fact, the race course almost went past the front door of our cabin, so you can almost touch the trails they’re that close. http://www.about-australia.com/accommodation/melrose-caravan-and-tourist-park/
– North Star Inn: The oldest in town dating back over 150 years. Stunning sandstone building that has some more luxurious sleeping quarters on offer. http://www.northstarhotel.com.au/
– Bluey Blundstones: Right on the main street of town, with cottages available. http://www.blueyblundstones.com.au/
– Mt Remarkable Hotel: One of the oldest in town (circa 1859!) and largely unchanged in its exterior since it opened up over 150 years ago. Never did get to try the steak, but apparently it’s the business. http://publocation.com.au/pubs/sa/melrose/mount-remarkable-hotel
– North Star Inn: These guys do some mean schnitzels and if you’re used to paying city prices, be prepared to pay a lot less for a quality pint of beer!
– Bluey Blundstones make a beautiful cup of coffee, and they serve up some pretty special food too
– OTE: If you’re going to buy something from the shop and if you ask really nicely, Rich might shout you a coffee at ‘Bar OTE’