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4WD and MTB adventure in Marysville State Forest, Victoria

  • By Tim Robson
  • 1 June 2018
  • 12 min read
  • Medium
    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.
  • Medium
    Hard-packed sand, slight to medium hills with minor obstacles in all weather.

I haven’t seen so much fear in a set of faces since… well, ever. Astride their rented mountain bikes, a collective of motoring writers and Holden staff listen with half a nervous ear to our guide, Spin Cycle MTB’s Wendy Snowball, as she describes the twists, turns and (in their minds) imminent doom that awaits us all in the wet, slippery dirt of the Buxton MTB Park in the Marysville State Forest, a couple of hours north-east of Melbourne.

As a lifelong mountain bike rider, I wouldn’t have even gotten out of bed for a ride on a morning like this, usually – from a view that started cold, bleak and sopping wet out of the hotel window, the day has mellowed to a soft grey, misty mid-morning amidst the vivid ghost gums of the bush, and it’s not actually that chilly. 

As well, a number of very good mates have committed to their first ever mountain bike ride despite the weather, and I’m dead keen to see some carnage…. I mean, to help them out where I can. Ahem.

“Are we all set?” grins Wendy, and the pack slithers off into the dripping undergrowth, slipping and sliding on slick clay into two-wheel adventures unknown.

The location of Buxton MTB park, it's a couple of hours north-east of Melbourne. The location of Buxton MTB park, it's a couple of hours north-east of Melbourne.

We’re ostensibly here to get reacquainted with Holden’s Colorado dual-cab ute, 12 months or so after it scored a significant birthday. The MY17 version scored a raft of updated tech and revised underpinnings that has made it into a genuinely nice thing to drive… but it’s languishing in the sales charts below similar rigs like the Ford Ranger and Toyota HiLux, and the Holden guys don’t really understand why.

“We’d like to think it could do better,” admits Ben Stephens, a long-time Holden man and the lead development engineer. “The changes to the MY17 are so much more than skin deep.”

Dual-cab utes and mountain biking go very well together, especially when it comes to actually accessing the best spots. We actually spend our first afternoon on the fire trails and 4x4 tracks at Toolangi, west of Marysville, and it’s a wet, slippery initiation to our trip.

Our headlights of our Z71 have become covered in the goopy muck flinging up from the trail surface. Our headlights of our Z71 have become covered in the goopy muck flinging up from the trail surface.

With bikes hanging out the back and attached to the roof, we inch up rutted, slick trails that are quite tricky to navigate, thanks to a host of blown-down trees – and with the day rapidly drawing to a close, it’s also getting quite dark in here. 

Amazingly, no one gets bogged or even dents a panel, and the bikes have survived as well, so we exit to Marysville via tarmac - but not until we stop to wash off the headlights of our Z71, which have become covered in the goopy muck flinging up from the trail surface.

Dual-cabs aren’t perfect for bikes, though – for a start, the modern mountain bike is too long to easily fit in the bed of a modern ute, so it requires a bit of ingenuity to carry them. 

The tailgate pad is a brilliant solution for four bikes and riders who might be ‘shuttling’ – or taking turns to ride down a trail before driving back up to the top. The tailgate pad is a brilliant solution for four bikes and riders who might be ‘shuttling’ – or taking turns to ride down a trail before driving back up to the top.

On this trip, we’re using something that’s known as a tailgate pad to carry our rigs. It’s a padded PVC cover that fits over and ties onto the tailgate with a number of Velcro tie-downs that allow the lower frame tubes of the bike to be secured to the pad, while the front wheels drape over the tray itself.

The tailgate pad is a brilliant solution for four bikes and riders who might be ‘shuttling’ – or taking turns to ride down a trail before driving back up to the top. Drawbacks? The wheels can cover the rear number plate, which is a no-no in some states, the fabric can rub and wear on the tailgate paint, and bikes can bump together and get scratched if the commute up the hill is a rocky one.

As well, the pad – or even one of the tyres – can obscure the vehicle’s rear view camera, so it’s worth doing your research before buying.

Roof racks provide another solution… but either park next to a curb or have a tall friend to help fit them aboard! If it were my Colorado, I’d be tempted to use a sacrificial hard tonneau cover and bolt a set of fork-mount racks on the upper surface. 

That way, you’ve not only got a secure, low profile way to carry up to three bikes, but the tray is now free for all the junk mountain bikers need to drag along on a ride.

Speaking of which, the 8km ‘blue’ (medium difficulty) Acheron Ridge loop at Buxton is testing the mettle of most of our rookies, who are still learning the finer points of the sport. A few have come from road cycling backgrounds, but the two disciplines are surprisingly far apart when it comes to getting out on the trail. It’s like handing a tennis player a ping-pong paddle – close, but not really.

Muddy and wet. But there are still smiles all round. Muddy and wet. But there are still smiles all round.

For one thing, mountain biking is as much about your upper body as your legs, as you need to continually work the front of the bike to negotiate bumps, logs and ruts in the trail. As well, if you stay in the saddle, you’ll eventually be bucked over the handlebars like a drunk on a mechanical bull, so standing on the pedals held in the ‘nine-and-three o’clock’ position, knees bent, is vital.

Traction, too, is constantly changing. Gravel offers more grip than loose dirt… and wet clay offers exactly none. The crests and valleys of Buxton are perfect for our group, though, with some speedy downhills maxing out front suspension and jangling nerves as the lightly treaded tyres go from grippy hero to scary zero and back again in a manner of milliseconds.

Somewhat disconcertingly, we turn right up a trailhead marked with a distinctive black diamond logo. Anyone who’s been skiing knows the significance of the black diamond, and mountain bike trails in Australia are rated in a similar way from green through blue to black to double black.

“Erm… are we sure we want to go up here?” a few voices say tremulously, as we ascend a set of switchback trails that has everyone gasping for air as we hit the top.

Well-built trails make mountain biking even more fun, and what Buxton lacks in size it makes up for in sheer smiles per mile. Well-built trails make mountain biking even more fun, and what Buxton lacks in size it makes up for in sheer smiles per mile.

Before us lies the final challenge, the Buxton Bom; it’s a medium-to-steep descent to the carpark via a series of berms, jumps and straights that will test everyone’s newfound skills.

We pose for a quick photo, before Wendy points to me and my dual-suspension-equipped Specialized bike, my knee pads and mud-spattered grin and says, “Righto, off you go!” And for once, I don’t have to be asked twice.

Dropping into a set of 180-degree radius banked berms, the wet soil is giving up surprising levels of grip, and the roller coaster jump formations are perfectly space and cambered to drive the tyres hard into the surface. 

I’m crouched low over the bars, the arches of my feet driving into the pedals as I push the bars into the turns, and I’m laughing like a loon.

My glasses are soaked and the rain is teeming down but I just don’t care. The downhill is a fifth as long as the arduous uphill, but it’s total exhilaration the whole way down, with some seriously on-the-edge moments spiking the adrenalin even more. 

The last sequence of sweeping jumps into direction-changing berms, all coated with an increasingly slick layer of clay, is an absolute highlight. Well-built trails make mountain biking even more fun, and what Buxton lacks in size it makes up for in sheer smiles per mile.

We all pop out into the carpark, filthy dirty, laughing and shouting like Year Six kids on excursion. A collection of hotel towels has mysteriously appeared to line the seats of the Colorado for the short road trip back to Marysville for a hot shower. So much mud is subsequently spilled in the hotel’s bathroom, I feel duty bound to leave a ten-dollar tip. And please let me apologise again.

The Colorado brings real-world road manners to a commercial truck platform more effectively than most. The Colorado brings real-world road manners to a commercial truck platform more effectively than most.

It’s on this short hop back on wet, tricky Victorian back roads that the Colorado’s genuinely impressive road manners really crystallise; Ben says a lot of work went into the redesign of the rear leaf springs, and the resultant ride is easily the most comfortable and composed in the modern 4x4 dual cab class, even in an unladen state.

Combined with genuinely feel-some steering – pinched from the last Australian-made Commodore, actually - and the security of a proper limited slip rear diff, the Colorado brings real-world road manners to a commercial truck platform more effectively than most, if not all, of its rivals.

So whether you’re keen on climbing mountains on two wheels or four, combining mountain bikes and a Holden Colorado isn’t a bad idea at all.

Where's your favorite MTB destination? Let us know in the comments below.

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