THE hand-painted sign beside the mountain bike track indicates this section is known as "Necessary Evil", but being out here riding on Dungog Common is sheer pleasure for Chloe Chick.
"I'm not an expert mountain biker by any means, but I certainly enjoy the feeling of freedom," Ms Chick says.
"For me, it's become a very meditative practice to concentrate on being present, being outside and being free."
The 22 kilometres of mountain bike trails threading the 263-hectare reserve on the fringe of town mean more than freedom on two wheels to Ms Chick.
They also represent a stack of hard work by a community that has helped create a cycle-led resurgence for Dungog.
Ms Chick and her fellow members of a volunteer group called Ride Dungog, along with the common's managers, arranged for the construction of two mountain biking flow tracks. In the process, they have created a phenomenon.
Riders are coming from far and wide. By receiving a burst of adrenaline on the tracks, the mountain bikers are, in turn, injecting a whole lot of money and optimism into the town at a time when both are sorely needed.
As local bistro owner Craig Stephenson says, Dungog is experiencing a "mountain biking revolution".
The revolution began in the most bucolic of settings.
The community reserve is studded with bushland and offers beautiful views of the surrounding countryside, all the way to the distant Barrington Tops. For many years, people have ventured to the common to relax and exercise.
Ride Dungog and the common's managers decided to create a new attraction, commissioning a Hunter firm, Eastcoast Mountain Trails, to design and construct the two flow tracks. As well as riding the cross-country tracks, mountain bikers could now challenge themselves on these shorter trails.
On the surface, the timing could not have been worse. The trails came into being as COVID-19 restrictions took hold.
Yet, as it turned out, the timing could not have been better. As the world was shutting down and travel was curtailed, Dungog offered accessible adventure and escape.
Craig Stephenson, himself a mountain bike rider, says the common has been suddenly populated with bikes, especially on weekends.
"It gets very busy," he explains.
"You could be out there with hundreds of other people. But there's a genuine sense of community and a sense of well-being. And from the earliest of beginners, little kids on their little BMX bikes, to old fellas and mums and e-bikes, you name it."
Along Dowling Street, the main thoroughfare in the heart of Dungog, business owners have noticed the new arrivals.
"Every second car has an accessory of mountain bikes on the back of it," says David "Jimmy" Cox, the co-owner of the Tinshed Brewery. "It's just amazing."
Even during the week, the common attracts visitors. On a Friday afternoon, Mal and Sonja Whitaker turn up from the Sutherland Shire, in Sydney's south, to ride the tracks for the first time.
"We're keen mountain bikers in and around the Royal National Park, which is just south of Sydney, so we thought we'd come and check it out," says Sonja Whitaker.
"I think regional areas have a lot to offer our city people, in terms of farm holidaying in various ways," adds her husband.
Chloe Chick, who moved with her family to Dungog from Singapore after many years living overseas, believes the common has offered an antidote to those feeling confined by COVID.
"I think what we've experienced during the COVID-19 lockdown is that craving for connection, and for community," she says.
"And mountain biking, you can social distance, you can be outside, but you can also interact and see each other and feel like you're part of something bigger than yourself."
In Dungog, mountain biking is becoming something bigger than a sport on the edge of town. The community says the benefits are flowing into the commercial centre.
Stella Bistro's Craig Stephenson and wife Stephanie "Stevie" Parker say in the past six months, their business has been trading "well beyond anything we could have imagined", and they estimate up to 65 per cent of their customer numbers are from the mountain biking community.
"We've probably seen more of the mountain bikers this time around opening up from COVID than our normal motorcycle, as in motor bikes or road cycling; it's been a very definite switch," says Ms Parker.
Up the road at the Tinshed Brewery, Jimmy and Haley Cox can barely keep up with demand. The previous week, they sold nearly 1000 litres of beer in just four days. So the Coxes are doubling the vats for fermenting beer on site to hold 6000 litres.
"I'm completely surprised," says Jimmy Cox. "At the start of the year, we thought we were shut, and then to go from that to busier than we've ever been, we're astounded by it."
His wife says the boost has been good for not just the coffers but the mood of the town.
"It's like we've finally caught a break, after a drought and bushfires," Haley Cox says.
For years, Dungog has been trying to bolster its future as a tourist destination. Part of the town's attraction for visitors is its past.
The main street is like a time tunnel, its historic buildings transporting visitors back to when this was a rich agricultural hub, with thriving industries such as dairy farming.
Yet as those industries shrank, so did local business prospects. "For Lease" signs were placed in the windows of some of the historic buildings.
But those empty shops are being occupied once more. According to Councillor John Connors, the Mayor of Dungog Shire, new businesses have arrived, and with them have come more jobs.
"I think the mountain bike riding has brought about an air of confidence in the community," Cr Connors says.
Whereas there were three or four vacant shops in the main part of town about a year ago, the Mayor says, as of mid-September there was only one premises for rent.
"I think one could say that's probably directly attributable to the advent of the mountain bike riding," he says.
Indeed, one of those new businesses is a bike shop. On the first day of spring, Rob Benson opened Tempest Bicycles in a former hardware shop in Dowling Street.
A passionate collector of bicycles - he has 132 bikes - Mr Benson was so impressed by the Dungog Common tracks that he decided to open his business, which is believed to be the first bike shop in the town's history. But he has no doubt that mountain bikes will be part of the future, both his and Dungog's.
"The tracks up there, they really are something else, they're world class," Mr Benson says.
"The guys put a lot of work into them. They're always there maintaining and grooming them. They're fantastic. I don't think there's really anything locally just quite like it."
Ride Dungog president Chloe Chick is thrilled to see a bike shop in the town's main street.
"It's not so much the biking or the mountain bike tracks, it's what it represents," she said.
"And for our youth, it represents employment, engagement, outdoor activity, mental health, well being. And to have that represented in a commercial sense, in terms of a business on our main street, it represents a lot. It really clearly brings our vision to life."
Just as the bike trails are contributing to the businesses and community life of Dungog, the locals are giving back to the tracks.
Ride Dungog recently set up an appeal for $65,000 to help fund the design and construction of two more tracks, as part of its push to make the town a world-class mountain biking destination. Within a week, $70,000 had been raised, with local businesses donating about $50,000.
To do their bit, Haley and Jimmy Cox at the Tinshed Brewery are putting their money where drinkers' mouths are.
The brewers donate 50 cents from each glass of their XTRA Trail Ale sold to help pay for the common's maintenance. Jimmy Cox says more than $2000 has been raised.
"A lot of local people were using their own fuel and their own mowers to maintain the tracks, before the boom, so hopefully that will now chip a bit of fuel into their tanks as well," he explains.
As regional communities around Australia search for their own path ahead, Chloe Chick hopes Dungog's mountain biking revolution may hold some clues on how to ride the peaks and valleys towards revitalisation.
"It will be very important for Dungog to become the pilot model, to do things properly, to have the support of state and federal governments, and other stakeholders," she says, "so that we can create the blueprint that can be shared, not just in Australia but globally for the way forward in a sustainable, tourism-generated future."
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You can hear the audio version of Scott Bevan's Dungog story on the Voice of Real Australia podcast.