AN old logging road in the foothills of the Watagan Mountains has provided the foundations for a new mountain biking trail, helping riders pedal into the bush and out of the COVID wilderness.
The 2.6-kilometre track is the latest addition to the Awaba Mountain Bike Park, and it will be officially opened on Sunday.
The trail has been taking shape for more than six months, with teams of volunteers working in Olney State Forest.
Dallas Barham, one of the track's construction coordinators, said while it was a "link trail", leading riders down the slope to the mountain bike park's existing network, the course had become much more than that. He described it as "an experience trail".
"It's the most interesting terrain, the diversity, and with the different styles of bush, from dry woodlands to rainforest and into more open-wooded country," Mr Barham, from the Hunter Mountain Bike Association, said.
"So this trail just highlights the beautiful surroundings."
Fellow construction coordinator and mountain bike association member, Rick Kehoe, pointed out the views through the trees to Lake Macquarie and beyond, to the sea.
"And it's a user-friendly trail," Mr Kehoe said.
"We're adapting a historic logging road," added Mr Barham.
While the track once allowed timber-getters to gain access to the bush, many large and old trees remain along the bike trail. The track builders gestured to a towering turpentine with a thick trunk and said forestry workers told them it was between 300 and 400 years old.
Forestry Corporation of NSW has allowed the association to create this trail, along with the other tracks, on its land. Mike Hill, partnership leader for Forestry Corporation, said the arrangement with the mountain bike association had been in place for more than a decade.
"This is an example of giving the public access to these places that have been conserved," said Mr Hill. "And it's an example of multi-use, where we can share this."
But giving the public access has taken a lot of hard work, as volunteers cleared weeds and gradually built the latest trail.
Rick Kehoe was instrumental in building bridges that straddle gullies and ravines. Those trail highlights, he said, posed some of the biggest challenges for the building teams, as they had to carry in materials and tools.
"It took three months to build this bridge," Mr Kehoe said while standing on the 50-metre long structure that hugged the steep, rainforest-covered slope and crossed a deep gully.
Forestry Corporation's Mike Hill praised the work of the trail builders.
"They've captured 'minimal impact'," he said.
The new trail, which was built using part of a $450,000 NSW government grant the association received for the mountain bike park, has come at an ideal time.
The COVID-related restrictions have encouraged many to take up cycling or to return to the pedals.
Dallas Barham noted the numbers of people using the Awaba Mountain Bike Park had soared threefold during the height of the pandemic, with more than 100 riders out on the trails on a weekend.
"On average, most Saturdays and Sundays, the car park was nearly at capacity, so ever increasing numbers of families were spending the morning here," he said.
As the Christmas holiday period approaches, the association members expect to see even more bikes on the trails.
"I'm predicting a bumper year for the park, based on people who can go on holidays but can't go too far," said Mr Barham.
Lake Macquarie Mayor Kay Fraser, who will be attending the trail's official opening, sees the Awaba Mountain Bike Park as not just right for the times but an attraction that will only grow in popularity.
"This is just adding to the vibrancy of the lake, and the diversity, with adventure tourism," Cr Fraser said.
"This is good for tourism, good for Lake Macquarie."
Yet the burst in popularity for mountain biking may not be good for those hoping for a two-wheeled present under the Christmas tree.
"A lot of people will have to expect to put a note under the tree this year, not the bike," Mr Barham said. "Some people are going to have to wait for that particular bike."
And Dallas Barham should know. He operates Breakaway Cycles at Morisset. In his bike shop, Mr Barham has seen demand more than double since COVID-19 took hold in March.
However, the pandemic also meant that for a time no new stock was coming in. Then, when international trade resumed, supply was slower than before COVID-19, Mr Barham explained.
That has led to customers going to great lengths to buy a bike during the pandemic.
Dallas Barham said he had someone fly from Melbourne, before the city's lockdown, to buy a bike from his store. Another customer wanted two particular bikes. Dallas Barham could supply only one.
"She rang every shop and found one in Dubbo and then went out there and bought it," Mr Barham said. "This is just what's been going on."
The owner of Breakaway Cycles said that imbalance between supply and demand was likely to continue beyond Christmas.
"The timeline for production of bikes and accessories is still very uncertain," he said. "From the feedback we get and the stories we hear, we're seeing the back half of 2021 before we get anywhere near caught up."
After months of juggling work on the trail with their day jobs or study, the volunteers are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel - literally.
Near the start of the trail, the teams have constructed a tunnel under the downhill riding track. That tunnel is effectively a safety feature. As Rick Kehoe said, the riders on the new trail wouldn't want to cross the path of the downhill bikers, as they reached speeds of up to 70 kilometres an hour.
The finishing touches are being done to the trail, ready for Sunday's official launch, and the public can use it from Monday.
"We're all a bit relieved that we're at the end of this," said Dallas Barham. "It's been a tough year."
Yet the journey to the destination of the new trail makes Dallas Barham feel "just super proud, because of the team work. This really vindicates what we're about".
In talking about the work of the volunteers, Dallas Barham mentioned four teenage boys who turned up a few weeks ago with shovels. He hoped that on Sunday, those four teenagers would return with their bikes, so they could be among the first to ride what they helped create.
Forestry Corporation's Mike Hill said the association, through all its hard work, is "basically providing a free community asset".
After hauling so many materials into the bush and building bridges, Rick Kehoe is pleased the trail is ready.
"It's been a long, bumpy road, but we got there," Mr Kehoe said.
And now those bumps will just add to the excitement for those pedalling amid the trees, over creeks, and around giant boulders at Awaba Mountain Bike Park.