Ever the fan of the island state, Alex Malone heads to Hobart to brave its lofty guardian, Mount Wellington

We’re in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania, with the objective of conquering a route of truly demanding proportions. Hobart is well known for its abundance of natural terrain that can break even the most seasoned rider; it’s the kind of place where young, aspiring cyclists are bred to become top-level professionals. There are flat roads, hills, mountains, wind, rain, and heavy bitumen to contend with – and that’s usually in the space of a single day.

Today is no exception. Our mission is to reach the peak of Mount Wellington, the city’s ever-vigilant guardian. It’s a challenge we’ve been looking forward to for some time.

Mount Wellington sits high above the city and is impossible to miss from air or ground. Its peak, 1,270m above sea level, serves to protect Hobart from the Indian Ocean’s westerlies and the Southern Ocean’s Antarctic winds. Conditions here are milder than those experienced on the sparsely inhabited western side of the island. Hobart is tucked away in the south-east of Tasmania, fed by the River Derwent and surrounded by a number of bays that create a plethora of water-view housing.

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The mountain may provide shelter to the river-side residents below, but it doesn’t mind dishing out the hurt to the unprepared mountain visitor. Once on Mount Wellington – and especially nearing the peak – the weather can change quickly and violently. It’s something we’d experience during the recon portion of our trip. Luckily, we managed to avoid it when we took on the route the following day.

The mountain is an imposing feature, and its dramatic landscape is put to work regularly as it plays host to a number of events each year across various sporting disciplines. The Subaru National Road Series’ (NRS) queen race, the Tour of Tasmania – along with “The world’s toughest half marathon,” the Point to Pinnacle – employs the mountain to expose those who are not truly worthy of conquering its gradients. And if there’s one thing runners and cyclists have in common during their respective races, it’s the challenge to simply reach the top. After 827m of vertical ascent from the Pinnacle Road turnoff, going as fast as possible, you’ll be breath-taken in every sense of the word once you reach the summit.

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Our own ride was a round-about journey that would finish atop the mighty peak, but there was plenty of the island’s south-east to explore first. Guided by Former Cinelli-Down Under rider Dan Furmston – who raced with the late Frank Vandenbroucke – we prepare to set out on the route the locals like to call “the Big Boy” or, alternatively, “Commando”. After talking to various Hobart locals it seems the specifics of each loop vary, but one thing is common: it’s no cakewalk. Having ridden the route countless times alongside the likes of local-born neo-professional Nathan Earle, Dan says he’s seen many a rider on hands and knees searching for a drink in Huonville, 100km in – and that’s before the big climbs of the day. We’re in for a treat.

Enter the Big Boy

On recommendation, we pick out Pilgrim Coffee in town for the ceremonial start before making our way south along the Channel Highway. Pilgrim serves up a selection of foodstuffs made using local free-range produce, along with hearty wood-fired breads from local baker Pigeon Hole. After downing a few coffees, and abstaining from the popular Crab burger – it’s better for lunch, we’re told – we set off.

While NRS racers took on Mount Wellington on Day 1 of ‘Tour of Tas’ in late September, for the time being we’re more concerned with the preceding 120km before encountering the mountain. Dan has plugged in a route that cuts in and out along the coast, passing through Bonnet Hill, Blackmans Bay, Margate, Woodbridge, Cygnet and Huonville before the final push to Fern Tree and Mount Wellington. Disappointingly, we learn Huon salmon, the once-headline sponsor of the country’s top NRS squad Avanti Racing, doesn’t come from its namesake town or river after all. But enough of the local trivia.

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While Dan and Nathan are attending hydro dam work and Team Sky duties respectively, we have avid mountain biker-cum-casual roadie Peter Harmsen with us. He commits to joining us for part of the way. According to Peter, the Big Boy  demands a certain level of respect around these parts. He isn’t confident of a full loop today. ‘Have we gone in too deep?’ I ask. Our photographer Marcus Enno knows the area all too well and graciously offers to sub in for Peter later in the day. It means a bit more of a stop-start to get the shots we need, but there’s too much suffering – at least on paper – to get through alone.

We begin by following the coast down the Channel Highway and, for the moment, we don’t need any directions, following the flattish coastline for the first 15km. The first main attraction, fittingly situated atop our first little climb, is Shot Tower; a lead shot manufacturing plant built back in 1870. It’s not in operation these days, but you can venture to the top for an amazing view of the surrounding city and waters below. Our “click-clack” shoes are not the ideal footwear for this type of activity, so we press on.

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Down the twisting descent off Bonnet Hill we turn left at the intersection and head for Kingston Beach. Protected by much of Storm Bay it’s more of a bather’s beach than a surfer’s paradise, but on a day like today it offers a pretty nice spot if you wanted to take on a lighter spin. The beach is just a 40-minute ride from Hobart and can be done as a quick out-and-back before the work day would normally begin.

We follow the short beachside road onto Roslyn Avenue, then take a slight right onto Brightwater Road and then Howden Road. There’s a short climb and then a descent that send us back towards the water’s edge. The road briefly heads north (we’ve been heading south-west) as we loop around the top section of North West Bay. Back on the Channel Highway the traffic picks up a tad, but this isn’t a busy road by the standards of anyone who resides on the mainland.

Weather warning

One of the nice things about this ride is that navigation is quite straightforward – even though we’ve got it plugged into our Garmin Edge 800 just in case. Marcus knows the area well having ridden around Margate for many years, and he gives us the odd prompts as we meander south through Kettering and Woodridge. It’s here we say farewell to Peter and Marcus steps in. The weather is already starting to warm up, so I decide to ditch much of the warm stuff. ‘Things can change real quickly around here,’ says our photographer turned riding partner. ‘I’d keep your spray jacket with you just in case’. It’s good advice. Having ventured well beyond the shelter of Wellington, the clouds racing above have little standing in their way. ‘Anything could blow in,’ he warns.

His warning proves prophetic. Soon after starting up the near-5km Woodridge Hill, with an average gradient of 9%, the wind picks up and the clouds begin to spit. One minute ago the sun was shining; now it’s sideways sleet. Luckily, the pocket soon passes, so it doesn’t cause much concern. The sun shines again and the harsh road surface glistens. Like most of the roads in Tassie, the climb is heavily asphalted and I’m grateful for the mid-compact crankset and 11-25 range cassette. If living in these parts, a compact or 29T cassette would surely be a must. But considering the number of professionals that ship out from this island, we’re thinking that most of them go without.

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The climb offers expansive views of the lush land below, and in an instant – well, not quite – we’ve traversed up and over the hill and into Port Cygnet. There are many spots along the way to extend the loop, but as it’s already called the Big Boy, we don’t dare venture off-piste.

After 65km we reach Cygnet. It’s here that you have a couple of options, depending on how you’re feeling. With the day close to the half-way mark in terms of kilometres, we think it’s a good time to stop and freshen up. The Red Velvet Lounge offers a warm locale and homely, albeit well-worn, couches to slouch into. Given the state of our bibs from numerous downpours, it’s probably a good thing. I order a piece of the apple cake and to my gluttonous delight it arrives with a scoop of cream… and ice cream. We better get moving before sugar-overload comatose sets in.

We depart Cygnet and select the scenic loop over the top of Wattle Grove, but you could jump onto the Channel Highway again and cut straight across to Cradoc if you so choose. We’re keen to check out the stretch along the Huon River, and to do so involves another 4.5km climb. This one is a little more subdued compared to Woodridge and, with our fuel intake still sitting heavy, we’re grateful. It still has a few nasty pinches, but the remoteness of this area is enough to send all your worries away. There’s a friendly Mr Ed who’s more than willing to share my apple, but he doesn’t offer much in return. That said, this city slicker doesn’t get chances like this too often. It’s a far cry from our usual traffic-light-burdened bunch rides.

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Huonwards and upwards

The first section of the Huon, shortly after descending down from Wattle, before it gets narrow and heads inland, is highlighted by views of the marsh-covered Egg Islands. Reportedly the nesting home to nearly 90 species of birds, it’s clear that Tassie really is a bountiful place for those interested in more than just cycling and coffee. It’s a conservation area, so you won’t be able to visit, but a stop along the water’s edge is just as good.

After Huonville we decide to stay off the main road for another few kilometres before hitting the Huon Highway for the 6km ascent to Lower Longley. The traffic is a little heavier along here, but there’s plenty of shoulder to use. The good thing is that we get to take a left turn onto Huon Road for the descent and remainder of kilometres to the base of the climb. The Longley Hotel, established in 1861, tempts us with her beer garden, but we’ve still got some pedalling to do before any of that.

By this stage any uphill is getting pretty tough, but the other good news is there’s just one more blip to conquer before reaching the base of Wellington. The roadside here is lush and plentiful and the final suburb is aptly named Fern Tree. It’s here we take the first strokes up the 11km ascent with an average of 7%.

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It’s on the slopes of Mount Wellington that NRS teams have tried and historically failed in their combined test against the clock, the team time trial, to overcome the strength of Tassie-based Avanti Racing Team. The squad’s pre-selection process to make the cut for this race means Avanti know the climb all too well. Nathan, who’s in his debut season with Team Sky and currently holds the Strava KOM at 31:44, was part of the winning Avanti (then Huon Salmon-Genesys) outfit on two occasions, says that the mountain offered the perfect place for training and testing himself ahead of big NRS events.

It’s now his off-season base.

‘Wellington is really good, especially for 20-minute, half-hour climbing efforts, or even if you want to do a solid hour. It’s very controlled as the gradient is pretty consistent and there’s nothing that will hold you up. It’s a safe area to do your efforts. The only thing is coming back down again as the road is a little bit bumpy, and also the weather, which can change dramatically and quickly throughout a normal day,’ Nathan says.

‘You can look up and go, “It’s beautiful,” get up there and see a lot of people riding up in a jersey. Then the clouds roll over or it starts raining and hailing. The amount of times I’ve ridden up there and the weather closes in – even if it’s sunny you normally take arm warmers, gloves and rain jacket. It’s always pretty chilly on the way down.’

Final destination

On our first-day recon we were greeted with rain, fog and ice-cold winds at the bottom. It continued until we got nearer to the top and suddenly shed ourselves of the blanketing clouds to uncover a view spanning as far as the eye could see. Today, conditions are much better than yesterday down below. We get to Fern Tree and make our final major decision for the day: to continue straight on Huon Road, heading downward towards town and past the Cascade Brewery (Australia’s oldest) for a coldie, or to take a left up Pinnacle Road and take on Wellington. After around five hours of riding – you can do the calculation for yourself – it’s a tough decision to make, but we’re here to get it done. So up we go.

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Mount Wellington may not be overly steep, but it offers very few moments to recover. As Nathan mentioned, the gradient is very even all the way up. There’s a couple of hairpin corners but otherwise it’s more or less straight. The first 5km feel harder than the day before, but once you’re into a rhythm – and using every bit of that 25-tooth cog – things only get better. The final kilometres open up with expansive views of the city to our right. At the final left-hander, painted with local NRS names, the city then reaches out across our left shoulder. It’s a perfect sight after such a challenging day.

Once at the top we take in just how far we have travelled and gaze thirstily at the quiet town below. The wind is crisp, and we know that rugging up for the descent is a good idea. Remembering Nathan’s advice, we take it easy, and recall something he told us earlier that summed up our time on the mountain: ‘From the city centre to the top of Wellington is only a little over 20km, and you do 1,300 metres of climbing. It’s a pretty special thing to have so close, and to be able to ride up,’ he said. ‘Hobart is only a small city, but it’s got everything you need and it’s perfect for riding. We complain about the traffic – but that’s if we get held up for a couple of minutes. It’s a great place.’ We aren’t about to argue with that.

The Writer’s Ride

Lapierre Xelius EFi 600, $5,999, lapierrebikes.com.au

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The Xelius may have been overthrown as the weapon of choice by the FDJ squad, but with 34 wins in 2013, the French manufacturer is certainly not giving up what is a proven good thing. The Xelius has been pushed down the range with the introduction of the Pulsium, but there’s still three models to choose. Now you get a WorldTour winning formula that is more affordable – sounds like a bargain to us. We tested the Xelius EFi600 in Cyclist #9, and you can read the full review on our website at cyclist.com.au. For those interested in the latest and greatest, take a look at the fleet of bikes currently being used by the French WorldTour outfit. The Aircode, ridden by sprint star Nacer Bouhanni this season, was good enough to notch up two stage wins at the Giro d’Italia and three at the Vuelta a España. What makes it so good? It has been tested in the wind tunnel and has been refined using computation fluid dynamics (CFD). Don’t forget the FDJ squad has also been integral in providing feedback. It’s now even more race hungry and ready for anything us average cyclists can throw at it. The Aircode and coming Pulsium (think classics) will be available in Australia later this year.

How we got there

Travel

We flew Virgin Airlines from Sydney to Hobart and picked up our hire vehicle from Europcar. At this stage Europcar Hobart don’t have Thule-equipped vehicles available but we’d expect it shouldn’t be too long before a few are shipped that way. (virginaustralia.com.au; europcar.com.au)

Hotel

Cyclist stayed at the Old Woolstore Apartment Hotel right in the heart of Hobart. As the name suggests it was formerly a wool storage and treatment plant before being converted into a 124-apartment complex in 2001. It has everything a tired cyclist could need, including a substantial breakfast buffet. Its prime location on Macquarie Street is perfect for the stroll down to Salamanca. (oldwoolstore.com.au)   

Food and Drink

We drank coffee at Pilgrim cafe on Holden Street and consumed local ales at the New Sydney Hotel on Bathurst Street. Our recommendation
is to try something from the handpump. Delicious. There’s also plenty on offer down at Salamanca. Try the Squire’s Bounty for a refreshing coldie or head to any number of local eateries.

Thanks

A huge thanks to Tourism Tasmania and Simon Stubbs for his tireless efforts across numerous bleary-eyed mornings and travels that went late into the night.

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