The brief: design a route that pays homage to Australia’s capital city and relive the glory days of the Canberra Tour – or the “Milk Race”, as it was formerly known. Cyclist follows the roads where many a hard battle has been fought, and learns a couple of history lessons along the way…
Words: Alex Malone
Photography: Damian Breach
Canberra was created for a sole purpose: to represent Australia as its capital city. But while its buildings, housing communities, gardens and ultimately structured layout was built to spec, not even Walter Burley Griffin – the man charged with bringing his competition-winning city designs to life – could have imagined it becoming the cycling-friendly destination it is today. Closely surrounded by a multitude of national parks, hills and mountains – where you’ll find snow during the winter months – Canberra has slowly but surely become a mecca of sorts for both road and off-road cyclists.
We’ve ridden the well-raced roads west of Canberra many times before during the state’s national-level rounds, but never for the simple love of riding one’s bike. You don’t see things quite so clearly in a speeding, nervous and attacking bunch – you’ve got your head near your stem most of the time – so we came up with a plan that would encapsulate the city’s rich, albeit short, history of racing and ultimately open our eyes to some of Canberra’s most challenging roads and significant landmarks along the way.
Like the city’s heritage, the list of those who have conquered both competition and terrain in what is now called the National Capital Tour, part of the Subaru National Road Series, is short but significant. Gary Sutton, Deane Rogers (brother to three-time World TT champion Michael), Ben Johnson (Drapac Professional Cycling) Kathy Watt (1992 Olympic Road Race Champion) and Anna Wilson (Commonwealth Games gold medallist) are just a few to grace the honour roll.
The Australian Institute of Sport has its base in the city and it’s little wonder aspiring professionals choose to live here. The riding is varied, the ‘bunch’ competitive. Trek Bicycle Co chose the cycle-centric city for its Australian HQ due to its close proximity to ideal road and off-road testing grounds like Stromlo Forest Park, host of the 2009 UCI World Mountain Bike Championships. The city also actively encourages cycling with a huge network of designated pathways. However, it’s not just the inner city’s mainly flat landscape that encourages cycling as a means of transport; it also has a plethora of tracks and trails that can be accessed with or without a car. And so we presented our own route designs, packed the car and set off for the three-hour drive from Sydney to our weekend riding base.
Our route would follow familiar Tour landmarks such as Honeysuckle, Tharwa, Mount MacDonald, Cotter Dam, Uriarra Crossing, the Three Sisters and Stromlo. If you were to start in the city and drop a pin on a map in each of those spots you could follow our 150km-odd journey without too much trouble. We had local NRS rider Emma Viotto (Suzuki-Brumby’s) to keep us on track just in case. Behind the lens would be photographer, Stromlo Forest ambassador and local wannabe historian Damien Breach (@Damianbreach). With our riding and shooting partners well-versed in the cycling scene, we were definitely in good hands.
A winning entry
We meet Em at Double Shot cafe in Deakin, the first pin in our map. Just west of Parliament House, the cafe’s large outdoor dining area is an ideal venue to absorb some caffeine and warmth from the morning sun. With coffees consumed we take an easy southbound ride through the suburbs of the Woden Valley and out of Canberra.
It doesn’t take long before the road becomes refreshingly quiet and we soon pass by farmlands filled with golden brush that span across to numerous national parks and nature reserves surrounding the city. It’s a classic Australian country landscape; dry, with rolling hills in the distance littered with native trees. In true sunburnt-land style there’s no hiding from the sun out here – which is why Canberra is also a great place to ride during the colder months, if you can brave the near-zero temperatures of the early mornings.
Our first point of interest comes just under 30km in as we cross over Murrumbidgee River and over the single-lane bridge into Tharwa. Founded in 1862, it’s the oldest settlement in the state. Suffice to say, it hasn’t quite kept up with modern development. A lick of paint on the bridge and a local store is about all that’s on offer. With a 50km out-and-back detour ahead this is, however, a good place to fill up our bidons. We’ve only been riding a little over an hour but with Canberra summers averaging almost 30 degrees we’d be thankful for the extra sips on hand at the top of Honeysuckle Creek – our first real challenge of the day.
Em explains that her more regular loop would be to omit this add-on and turn right onto Tidbinbilla road. We would take this northward turn on the way back after climbing up Apollo Road (Honeysuckle). Embedded
in the scene and adamant of Canberra’s unbeatable location, she says it’s perfect for those wanting to live close to amazing riding. ‘Pretty much any day of the week I can find a good, safe bunch to ride with and there is something to suit my easiest days and my hardest days. I never get bored.’
Up until Tharwa the ride has been relatively flat, with just a few small bumps along the way. However, this one-shop town marks the end of the niceties. The terrain is rarely flat from now until our finish location at Mocan & Green Grout cafe, near the West Basin of man-made Lake Burley Griffin. Thoughts of a lunchtime meal, however, would have to be cast aside as we continued along the quiet roads to the start of the 9km climb up Honeysuckle.
Sweet as Honeysuckle
There’s clearly plenty more rainfall out here. The roadside has turned a near fluourescent green and Em can’t get over just how alive the blanketing hills appear. Just a few kilometres later we spot a couple of Orica-AIS kits in the distance. A number of the men’s and women’s squad riders call Canberra home in summer, so it comes as little surprise when we pass National Road Champion Gracie Elvin along with her dad, also in team kit. Em mentions she would be seeing her later that evening as Gracie was celebrating her engagement with another local rider Stu Shaw. The racing community is certainly a tight-knit bunch around here.
We arrive at the right-hand turn-off from the main valley road of Naas and cross a causeway before heading straight into the major climb of the day. Having ridden the climb on a number of occasions during the city’s NRS tour, it’s refreshing to finally be able to ‘enjoy’ the 500m of vertical ascent. One of my fondest – if you can call it that – memories was having been in a two-man breakaway for around 50km on a stage that finished atop Honeysuckle some years ago. My fearless compatriot and I didn’t care that, in order to survive, we realistically needed a good few minutes by the time we began our ascent. We gave it everything and ensured the bunch didn’t get an easy catch. A 28-tooth cassette would have been nice that day.
Honeysuckle can be broken down into three main sections, but don’t be fooled by the claimed 5% average gradient. The first and last parts are flattish, but the middle 3km will send your Garmin’s gradient reading into double digits frequently. This is one of the toughest climbs in Canberra and it’s not just the length that hurts. The top is never within sight, even when you’re actually there, and the cattle grid along one of the steepest points just adds insult to injury.
The mainly north-facing slope attracts the midday sun to such a degree that local wildlife seems to have scampered to the shade and there’s little to distract us from the unrelenting middle section. Thankfully, the last few kilometres offer time to either recover or speed up. Once at the top there’s a popular camping and hiking location, but with little provisions to handle an overnight stay we wouldn’t be spending long at the peak. I notice the distinct alpine feel of the final stretch, and Em recalls a ride last year where it began to snow. We’re glad there’s none of that today!
Unfortunately, the top provides little in the way of selfie-inspiring views, so we use that as motivation to keep moving. Today is one of those summer days where you could cook an egg on the pavement, but the descent provides a cool breeze down from the 1,000m-above-sea-level peak.
According to numerous locals, including Em, the descent off Honeysuckle is one of the best on offer in Canberra. We’re tempted by her enthusiasm and it only takes a few corners before we’ve relaxed our fingers off the brake levers. If only we knew it a little better we could have gotten seriously wild, but with nearly 100km still to go perhaps it’s a good thing we take it somewhat easy. There’s also a cattle grid to negotiate on a sweeping right-hand bend, but having come upon it some 25 minutes earlier, we know how to take it: with a hopeful bunny-hop. While the view from the top was anticlimactic, the descent gives you a full view of the lush green valley below and also a little heads up on the impending corners.
Back in Tharwa we stop to fill our bottles once again and enjoy a little small talk with some farming contractors – already enjoying beers at 10am – while a couple of us seek to raid the extremely limited goodies from the local shop. With little more than cat food and soap bars on offer, we keep on keeping on towards Paddys River.
Beam me up
It’s at Paddys River, approximately 80km into the ride, where Em wishes us good luck, points toward the Tidbinbilla Range and sends us on our way. The turn onto Point Hutt Road will take her back towards the city for what will still be a solid 100km day out. We would be continuing along in a north-west direction before slowly snaking our way north toward Uriarra – some 45km away.
The evidence of a wet winter and an early spring can be seen in every direction as we progress close to the Tidbinbilla Range and alongside the many springs and creeks that lead into the Murrumbidgee River to our east. The grass in the paddocks is waist-high and bears no resemblance to the scorched brown appearance we saw earlier.
Our other guide, Damian, suggests we take a short diversion a little further up the road to see the Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex (CDSCC). You can’t enter the government site but it’s a nice little 10km add-on nonetheless. It’s most famous for having a tracking role during the Apollo space program. There are only three of these in the world, and this is the only one in Australia. To cap it off the road surface is also buttery smooth, so it’s worth a look even just to remember what it’s like to go fast again. The roads out here can be tough going.
After our trip to CDSCC we continue to push into the wind along Paddys River Road, tackling a few short-but-nasty ascents before plummeting down across the river again and to the base of Mount MacDonald. After crossing the bridge, make sure to turn left onto Brindabella Road for the 4.8km ascent. For the Strava junkies, you’ll need to average well past 30km/h in order to make the front page of the leaderboard. The full “Mt Mac” (strava.com/segments/846944) may only be an average of 3% but that generally makes racing up here even harder. If you start the climb at the back of the bunch, then hold tight and good luck.
From multiple points up the climb you can look directly at the impressive wall of the Cotter Dam. I’d actually never noticed this wall in all my struggles up and down here. It just goes to show how slowing down just a tad can change your perspective.
We reach a T-intersection at the top proper and finally get our promised tailwind for the final stretch to Uriarra. Slightly downhill, this was a place where you could really try and make up for lost time on the ‘Mac’. But with high speeds generally comes nervousness. I can’t help but recall a lesson that a certain rider, now with Budget Forklifts, learned when he lost the Canberra Tour after a touch of wheels brought him down within 15km of the stage finish.
Our last real test of the day, if we weren’t already weary from more than 2,000m of vertical ascent, is what’s known locally as the “Three Sisters.” This triple series of pinches has ended many a rider’s hopes of contesting for a stage victory, with the usual finish inside the purpose-built criterium course at Stromlo coming just 10km from the top. The first two come and go with relative ease, but it’s the final dead-straight ascent that really takes its toll.
The ride over the top doesn’t offer much in the way of respite but there’s an amazing view of the Murrumbidgee River and distant state forest to look at with a turn of the head.
Shortly after passing Stromlo Forest Park we make our diversion to the network of bike paths that continues all the way back into the city via Lake Burley Griffin. We decide to take up another of Damian’s offers for one more detour and soon find ourselves at the National Arboretum, an area devastated by the 2003 bushfires and rebuilt after a national design competition in 2005.
It’s here where you can find some of the best views available of Canberra and its monuments, including Parliament House and the famous, impossible-to-miss Telstra Tower. The whole area has the feel of an exaggerated playground with its many rare trees from around the world, not to mention its memorable “wide brown land” text sculpture. If you can’t face the climb up the Arboretum after such a long day out it is definitely worth making it up there for sunrise – as we did the following day.
It seemed only fitting for our route to come to an end at the cycling-friendly Mocan & Green Grout cafe in New Acton. There’s plenty of outdoor seating for sweaty cyclists; you’ll just have to find somewhere to park amongst the fleet of café-owned Goodspeed bikes. The food is grown in the out-front herb garden and prepared right in front of you. They don’t do milkshakes, but with some of the best coffee going around, a generous splash of the city’s finest dairy and plenty of ice, we were more than content with our final destination.
As we enjoy a few sips after a long day’s riding, we take a look at our original route drawings, satisfied at conquering another impressive Australian landscape – and we start to ponder where our next set of pins might land.
The writer’s ride
Trek Emonda SLR 9 Dura-Ace Di2, $12,999, trekbikes.com.au
Trek Bicycles Australia provided our Big Ride pilots with the full gambit of bikes and related apparel for use during our stay. Having only ridden the Emonda briefly at ‘Trek World’, the company’s 2015 model-year launch, it was somewhat daunting to know we were going to be jumping straight into a ride of significant length and difficulty. While not equipped exactly how Dan and I would have liked – narrower bars and different saddles next time, please – both of us were extremely surprised by just how comfortable this uber-light machine performed over the day. Much of this could be due to the flex (read: compliance) from the Ride-Tuned seatmast. Given we both ride frames on the smaller side, we were also granted additional compliance due to the longer seatmasts being fitted. Tipping the scales at just over 6,100g before pedals, cages, etc., were installed, the Emonda was the perfect companion for Canberra’s undulating terrain. But don’t just take our word for it – check out the review here.
How we got there
From Sydney, driving is the best option. The 3hr drive isn’t the most inspiring, but the Big Merino in Goulburn offers a place to stop, fill up the tank and grab essential goodies from the enormous Bakehouse. It’s only an hour from there. Of course, Canberra has an airport and you can fly direct from most major cities
Food & Drink
We feasted on an America-stye BBQ banquet at Lonsdale Street Roasters, who have a genuine Hickory Pit shipped all the way from the US. The ribs, brisket and pulled pork proved the perfect pre-Big Ride meal. And did we mention it’s all outdoor seating and BYO? The bottle shop is just next door so grab a couple of coldies, some mates and dig in.
Visit Canberra for help with accommodation, Trek Bicycles for arranging Emondas and kit, Em Viotto for being the best on-bike tour guide around, and brilliant local photographer Damian Breach who knows the roads better than anyone.
Check out our Canberra Big Ride route on Strava: