Is the Snowy Mountains – sans snow in summer – the next big destination in Australian cycling?
Words: NICK SQUILLARI
Photography: DAMIAN BREACH
I’m going to lead off by addressing the elephant in the room. There are no two ways about it – Victorians are spoilt when it comes to their alpine regions. Their popularity – with the multitude of events throughout the summer months – means Bright (and surrounds) have become something of a cycling Mecca for riders in search of vert. Moreover, it’s also now the gold standard by which our other alps are judged. Exceptional climbs are no longer enough. You need good roads, great food, prime weather and beautiful surrounds to go with the climbing on offer – all of which the Vic alps deliver.
In a country not blessed with an abundance of mountains, it feels almost ironic that the home of our highest peak isn’t the first name out of most mouths when the legs whisper ‘take me to the hills.’ And while I would never say the riding south of the border is played out, the invite north came at precisely the right time. I had found myself wondering ‘What’s next?’ – the explorer in me needed something fresh. Step up my state of birth: NSW. Step up the Snowy Mountains.
I had found myself wondering ‘What’s next?’ – the explorer in me needed something fresh.
It’s a long way to the top
A two-hour drive from Canberra, getting to the Snowy Mountains from a major city (like Sydney or Melbourne) would be a lot easier if Bronwyn Bishop were happy to loan out her helicopter. Remoteness is meant to be part of the appeal, but the trip to Jindabyne isn’t so much remote as it is tedious. With that in mind, flying to Canberra is a godsend, but you’ll then need to hire a car for the drive to the mountains, making it that little bit harder to throw together a last-minute weekend away (a slight issue, given – let’s be honest – cyclists generally aren’t the most organised of creatures). But for a region that contains the five highest peaks on the mainland, it’s a given to say that it’s worth the extra planning.
I fondly recall my first trip to the Victorian Alps five years ago. There was a rawness to it; a solitude. Sure, I wasn’t the only cyclist up there, but my mate and I barely passed another rider. We could have been anywhere in the world. It sure didn’t feel like Victoria, or even Australia.
Fast forward to today. It’s the afternoon of Australia Day – peak summer on a long weekend – and my first ride in the Snowy Mountains is invoking those same memories. Empty and undulating roads. Mountains in all directions. Unfamiliar. Tiny, random patches of snow still clinging to life on the east-facing slopes. There are people up here – Jindabyne is pumping – but surrounding us today is sun, air, life. It’s that same rawness I felt half a decade ago; not knowing exactly what the roads ahead held and unsure of how much it was going to hurt. It was as foreign as I’ve felt on Australian soil in a long time. And it was exhilarating.
What makes the Victorian Alps the hot spot it is comes in large part from the sheer plethora of events on offer. Kicking off in earnest with the Cycling Victoria Tour of Bright, the region also hosts multiple mountain bike events (nationals and a 24-hour), Audax Australia rides, a Peaks Challenge; and now – a more recent development – it’s an increasingly popular destination for charity bike rides. Gone are the days when summer was the region’s off-season. From Bright to the King Valley to Mansfield, summertime is now heaving with riders. And while my expectation wasn’t that the Snowy Mountains would be the same, the contrast between the two is like witnessing identical houses – one fully constructed, the other still trying to get the framework up. Exactly what I recall Falls Creek being like earlier this decade.
It’s that same rawness I felt half a decade ago; not knowing exactly what the roads ahead held and unsure of how much it was going to hurt. It was as foreign as I’ve felt on Australian soil in a long time. And it was exhilarating.
All that, though, looks set to change. ASO has expanded its L’Etape series to Australia, creating the first major road event in the region. In a similar way to how the Tour of Bright was a forebearer for the Victorian Alps, L’Etape is both a way to showcase the beauty of the Snowies and a way to get the ball rolling in this stunning part of the world. At present, NSW misses out on the big events that roll out during the Australian summer of cycling. For the organisers of the Tour de France to choose this region as the host of their only Oceania event is undoubtedly a major boon.
It’s a decision that makes sense, too. ASO gets ideal routes to recreate a Tour-style mountains stage, while riders of NSW get the honour of a three-time Tour de France winner, Chris Froome, gracing their roads. Admittedly, you may be reading this and think it offers no value add. I get it. Professional racing isn’t for everyone. But there’s a reason the big races take to the high mountains – and it’s the same reason you do. It’s the sheer spectacle of it all. Racing is, first and foremost, theatre, and the mountains are the most stunning of stages for it to be set.
Rise and shine
The first morning at Lake Crackenback (no, it’s not a vividly named waxing spa) dawns like something off a tourism advert. Crisp air – the kind that floats out of your freezer when you open it – is cut through by the early morning rays. Not a breath of wind. The fog over the lake is unmoved. I could take pictures with a disposable camera (remember those?) and they’d still be just as serene. As a guy who lives on the doorstep of the Great Ocean Road, it takes a bit for Mother Nature to impress me. This morning she came out swinging, and my jaw hit the floor repeatedly over breakfast. Thankfully, there’s a loaded buffet to plug the hole left by my gaping jaw.
Civilised departure times always leave me in a mess with clothing choices. Go earlier and I have no choice but to throw on arm warmers. Maybe even a gilet. Go later – pro hours – and the wardrobe chooses itself. With the temperature still fresh, Jack and I roll out with reckless abandon. No arm warmers. Go crazy kids, you only live once.
Alpine Way is about as ideal a start as you could hope for – whether casually riding the L’ETape route or as part of the event. No vicious ramps to tear up legs not yet loose. No half-light 30km descent off a hors categorie mountain (ala Falls Peaks Challenge). Australian bush gives way to open pastures and hugs a road on which we struggle to spot a pothole. Unexpected delights can truly come in all forms.
With the temperature still fresh, Jack and I roll out with reckless abandon. No arm warmers. Go crazy kids, you only live once
Between Jack’s conversation and admiring the surrounds, my left hand unexpectedly sends a moment of panic back to my brain. ‘Where’s the front derailleur shift paddle?!’ SRAM 1x is a breeze to become familiar with – after you remember they flicked the paddle of the left shifter (makes it lighter too, right?). Hand stress allayed, we descend down, in, around and back out of Jindabyne. As civilised as riders might find an 8am start, the town is still sleepy hollow. Anyone not on a bike is moving as fast as the slowly dispersing mist.
A poor man’s eight
The Strava file for this ride looks like an incomplete figure 8, laid out horizontally. Riding out of Jindabyne, you start the lower loop – heading due north then around in a clockwise direction. It’s cow central, and Jack and I are surrounded by herds of them. It was only recently that grazing in the upper highlands was banned, but the farms remain. Expanses of open pastures mean the wind – only an hour ago nonexistent – is suddenly awake, giving us more than a little nudge.
The odd farmer passing is our only real traffic. Pleasingly, we pass other bunches of riders out doing the same route. I want to wax lyrical about the surrounds, but to me farmland is much the same. It’s nice. Quaint. Really, it’s the gems in the distance – the Snowies – that we’ve come for. Like a childhood lolly jar, they’re just out of reach.
We hit Berridale. If we hadn’t already agreed to stop for a caffeination, then the bikes and general ‘cycling love’ the town exudes would have convinced us. Whether it’s a carry-over from L’Etape or simply a town where the locals have embraced bikes, you can’t escape the feel that the residents ‘get it’. A choc-chip biscuit the size of my 44 chainring, some coffee and a smattering of admiration for my Paralane (by some riders who had just pulled up) later, and Jack and I are back on the pedals.
From here, the countryside again starts to undulate. Brown pastures are plentiful, and after being southbound for over 40km, we turn east. We pass through Dalgety, a town nearly 200 years old and seemingly less active now than when it was founded. Over the Snowy River and into the foothills, my left hand has stopped twitching in its search for the front derailleur shifter. Now it’s my whole body with a nervous tic. Somewhere, waiting, ahead, there’s a climb we’ve been told is ‘a little unpleasant’. Oh, joy.
Col de Beloka – in my head – sounds a lot like ‘Beloki’. As in Joseba Beloki, the talented Spanish climber who famously crashed on the descent to Gap (the same scene where Lance Armstrong goes all cyclocross over the field to avoid said crash). And much like Beloki’s crash, the climb out of Beloka truly comes out of nowhere. Even the descent, while not at all stretchy, appears out of the blue. And it’s that – coupled with a tree-laden camouflage – that has Jack gasping ‘just tempo’ after just one of its three kilometres.
Averaging 9%, Beloka feeds it to you early on with ramps close to 20%. The middle levels off briefly and is what makes the average look so tame. My 44/36 combination is enough – just – to see me to the top. By this point, the sun is beating down, and I swear I’ve lost a litre of sweat. Worst of all, the descent is the polar opposite: tame and twice the distance. Our disc brakes and fat tyres boo in disgust.
Trying not to Perish
Rounding out the loop back to Jindabyne, it’s no exaggeration to say there’s never more than a 500-metre stretch of flat road. As fun as Beloka is, it’s not where this ride gets you. Here, it’s at you constantly, like some sadistic under/over ergo session. That goes for hours on end. Outside. With March flies to bite you if you linger for more than a minute to grab a drink or bite to eat (it’s worth knowing that it’s only in the real peak of summer that March flies tend to be a nuisance).
Back through Jindabyne, Jack and I are cooked and salt-encrusted. Our ‘civilised start’ is now looking ill-advised. Hot tip: be riding before 8am. Once the sun hits, it’s as relentless as me at the breakfast buffet. Ironically, though, ascending Kosciuszkio provides some relief, at least on the lower slopes, thanks to the trees. It reminds me of a diet version of Mount Buffalo – scrub on one shoulder, majestic view over the other – and fits perfectly with a gradient not at all harsh (average of 5%), but still close to my present limit. If Jack’s breathing – and our collective silence – is anything to go by, he’s at his limit too.
Next we hit the Kosciuszko staircases, with an initial ‘step’ of 13km, followed by two more main ascents of 2km, and some beautiful descents and alpine plateau riding in between. All you need to do is make it to the base not totally spent, as (thankfully) it’s not so harsh as to be unbearable after a big day in the saddle. And as much as the views while ascending are superb, rolling along the top of the plateau is actually my highlight. Old cattle farmer huts still dot the countryside. Flowing water is everywhere. And the grass is still lush and plentiful. You can see why farmers still want to be allowed to drive their cattle through the region. Hell, I’d become a cowboy for the views alone.
A word of caution, though. I once enjoyed claiming wind was born down on my south coast. Not any more. After a morning that was totally still, the wind approaching Charlotte Pass is incredibly strong. I feel like I could hold the bike by the saddle and handlebars and watch the wind pull at it like washing on a clothesline. You can’t help but appreciate wind like that – in winter, there’s no doubt it would put the ‘perish’ in Perisher. Keep wheel depth on the more shallow side and expect it to be blowy on top.
As we pull into the Perisher area, I’m struck by how stark the contrast is between here and Thredbo Village. For all intents and purposes still closed during the summer, Australia’s largest ski resort is a ghost town without snow. Don’t expect much in the way of food – at least for now. A year or two down the line, however, and we could be looking back at these days and marvelling, ‘Remember when hardly anyone visited the Snowy Mountains? Now it’s packed all summer!’ Because, truly, I see no reason why – with roads this good and riding this stunning – the Snowy Mountains shouldn’t become to Sydney what Bright is to Melbourne. All you need to bring is the bike, some legs yearning for ‘up’, and a desire to go just that little bit further. The Snowies will take care of the rest. ]
Nick Squillari is a cycling writer and is still having nightmares about March flies.
How we did it
Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks.
We rode the 157km L’Etape Australia route, which – even as two guys who had never visited the Snowies before – was easy to navigate. Plotting it on a GPS-enabled cycling computer makes it foolproof, given the lack of other main roads to confuse you. We started at Lake Crackenback, near Thredbo, but due to the (roughly) figure-eight shape of the course, you can start the ride at Jindabyne – meaning you have a few less kilometres after the descent off Kosciuszko.
Riding back to Crackenback after finishing the course would make it close to a 200km day – huge. And the Skitube connection between Perisher and Thredbo (i.e. across the valley) doesn’t currently run through the summer months, so riding back would be your only option (it does switch on for L’Etape on December 2, 2017). As a side note, don’t feel you have to limit yourself to this route – the ride through Thredbo valley to Dead Horse Gap is terrific, and even better if you descend to Khancoban, refuel, and go back up and over. Or fit some gravel tyres and explore the unsealed roads around Perisher!
Strava route: strava.com/routes/10734998
The rider’s ride
Focus Paralane, $4,999, focus-bikes.com/au_en
The Focus Paralane was piloted by both Nick and Jack – Nick on SRAM 1x Apex and Zipp 30 Course wheels, Jack on Shimano 105 and Fulcrum wheels. Both had hydraulic disc brakes, which at their respective price points are exceptional value. Nick’s 1x set up was a 44-tooth front coupled to an 11-36 rear, giving him an effective gear range within a few (gear) inches of the 105 bike (which had a standard double chainset). Tyres were Schwalbe One race, with 30c on Nick’s and 28c on Jack’s. PSI was set around 70 and – hand over heart – neither rider noticed a lack of speed, whether climbing or descending. For the trails, some Maxxis knobbly off-road tyres were swapped in. One word of warning – the Paralane only has the capacity to accommodate up to a 35c (approx.) off-road tyre. Any wider and clearance around the chainstay may become an issue.
Check the scoop around the Focus Paralane.
By the numbers
All the key stats for the L’Etape Australia ride
Metres of vertical gain. Even with just the Col de Kosciuszko, there’s a sneakily large amount of vertical gain over the course.
Miles – or close enough. The full route is 157km in length. It’s a big day.
The number of L’Etape routes around the world. Australia hosts the only route in Oceania. With 12 more worldwide, your bucket list suddenly got a little bigger.
Feed/drink zones along the way. Four for food (and liquid), two for fluids only. You’re well covered for nutrition.
Hours in total for the full route. Anything below this is a very solid time.
‘Tour de France’ jerseys on offer. If you want to race, then L’Etape has a jersey for you.
When you’ve had enough of the tarmac
A side trip through Thredbo village made one thing crystal clear – the Snowy Mountains might still be building its rep for road riding, but the multitude of mountain bikes hanging off the balconies of the apartments spoke volumes as to the regard in which off-road riding is held. Either try and fit your mountain bike or – like we did – have a bike that can do both. Swapping out the slicks for knobby tyres, we hit the trail head of the Thredbo Valley Track (literally next to the main Thredbo car park) and got down and dusty.
I’m a road rider first and foremost; if you want a laugh, watch me on a mountain bike. But even with my lack of single-track skills, the trail was neither too technical, nor beyond the limits of what was essentially now a rigid mountain bike. There were a few unclipped and ‘oh, shi-’ moments sandwiched in between constant hoots and laughter, which my mountain biking mates assure me should come with every ride on the trails. The rest was smooth-flowing trail that, even with my lack of off-road bike handling skills (and road bike shoes), I was able to navigate. I was even able to take a few moments and marvel at the beautiful surrounds (and some rare moments of not being bitten by March flies).
Another great aspect to the trails is that they’re also very kid-friendly. Not only was I slow enough to be passed by children a third of my age (in my defence, some of them can really shred), but there also was a constant flow of parents taking off before us with their kids on a single-track family adventure. I’m not a father (yet), but I can tell you, if I were, I’d be wanting to spend my summer afternoons like that. It’s not often a cycling holiday has the ability to be broadly inclusive of the whole family, so colour me impressed. I won’t be forgetting about this little gem – and nor should you.
How we got there
Virgin to Canberra, Qantas back to Tullamarine. No delays – air travel as it should be. The hire car was a diesel four-wheel drive, which, when it came to exploring unsealed roads, meant no stress about where we could or couldn’t go (some of the tracks were rough enough for me to be apprehensive as to whether I’d take my Skoda over it). Whatever the car choice, it’s certainly the best transport option – getting from Canberra to Jindabyne by coach is possible, but it does limit you once you’re there. Unless, of course, your plan is to do all your exploring by bike.
Jack drove the 4WD to and from Sydney in just under six hours. Carpool with a partner or a mate and it’s a manageable trip – one I can assure you the experience will make up for.
We stayed in a self-contained resort house at Lake Crackenback. It was absolutely perfect – only no air con. These weren’t built with the express purpose of summer use. But it’s a minor note on what was otherwise ideal cycling accommodation.
Main meals were shared between Alpine Larder or Cuisine Restaurant – both within the Lake Crackenback resort. We dropped in for coffees, shakes and cookies in Berridale at Whisk & Cocoa before rolling into lunch courtesy of one of the many bakeries in the Jindabyne plaza. A country town is only as good as its bakeries, and Jindabyne passed the test.
A huge thanks must be extended to Destination NSW for their help. It was a thrill and a sense of homecoming to finally explore the peaks of my state of birth. I look forward to seeing cycling in the region boom.