It has produced some of the most successful riders on the world stage, so what’s Tasmania’s secret? Cyclist hops across Bass Strait and, with Launceston as a base, finds out exactly what the island state has to offer
Words: Alex Malone
Photography: Beardy McBeard
It’s no longer a secret that the Tasmanian wilderness produces world-class cyclists. Richie Porte is partly to blame for exposing the talent of the area after he became only the fifth Australian in history – and the sole Tasmanian – to wear the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia. He did this in his neo-pro season back in 2010 and has since become one of the small island state’s biggest exports. But while Porte helped put Tassie on the world map, it’d be unfair to focus on his exploits alone. Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss and Sky debutant Nathan Earle along with Drapac’s Will Clarke, Jai Crawford and the Sulzberger brothers are just a few from ProTeam and Professional Continental outfits who proudly call Tasmania home.
With so many making the jump to the top echelon of the sport it remains surprising so few ‘mainlanders’ are yet to make a trip to
sample some of the most diverse and seemingly untouched terrain Australia has to offer. The intention of our trip, then, was to unearth exactly how and why the likes of Porte, Goss et al came to be such a force on the domestic and international scene.
Basing ourselves in Launceston – Porte’s home town – we initially planned a single route from the town of Sheffield to the iconic Cradle Mountain, but shortly after landing in the delightful city realised there was so much more to cover than could be achieved with a single Big Ride.While the first part of our trip was accounted for, we decided to also make time for a very special journey east of Launceston to Ben Lomond National Park – the location of Jacobs Ladder, one of the most spectacular and breathtaking climbs we’ve ever encountered.
Rocking the Cradle
A nervous Big Ride debutant, the idea of jumping straight into the ‘bat suit’ strikes me as seriously attractive, but the anxiety of not getting everything just right kills any hope of pedalling on our first day. Our guide Simon Stubbs, for whom we quickly adopt the nickname ‘Stubbsy’, informs us that the weather at our cover location isn’t ideal anyway. With howling wind, sub-freezing conditions and a mountain I’m yet to even see, we’re not exactly presented with the ideal conditions for getting what we need. Instead, we decide to check out the route from the comfort of the car, scouting out shooting ‘opps’ and anything else of interest.
Day two, however, is ride day and barely out of Launceston it’s already time for a pitstop at the Christmas Hill Raspberry Farm for a punnet of chocolate-coated delights. The raspberries are fresh out of the fridge and biting into the rock-hard chocolate quickly results in a contrasting juicy mess on my shirt. The flavour, however, outweighs the pain of a stain not even my mum could get out. We quickly ensure they don’t go to waste.
Back on our way and Sheffield is upon us soon enough. After an obligatory shot in front of one of the 60-odd murals (Sheffield is commonly known as the Town of Murals), we decide to roll out for what we’ve deemed the scenic route to Cradle. Stubbsy encouragingly calls the route ‘lumpy’, and being significantly longer than the standard out-and-back along Claude Road, today’s ride is a one-way journey.If you do have the legs to ride back after this one all credit to you, because with 3,500m of climbing in a little over 110km you’ll be burning by the end.
With the sun just creeping above the neighbouring Mount Roland, it’s not long until the ‘lumps’ of which Stubbsy spoke are upon us. Rest assured though, this ride isn’t all about the ups. The descent over the top of Union Bridge Road barely 10km in – known to locals as Heartbreak Hill – deserves respect, but our recon the day prior ensured we know what to expect. We’re also coming down it and thankfully not back up. ‘I’ve ridden all around there, up through the Gog [Forest],’ Porte tells Cyclist. ‘I’ve done all the climbs, including Heartbreak Hill, which might not be that long, but it’s really steep.’
Towards the top
The luscious green fields and flowing streams help pass the time before we hit the major challenge of the day up Echo Valley. It has a real Aussie alpine feel to it, the nearing of the end signalled by hardened shrubs and rocky outcrops. The chilling wind at the top serves as a reminder why a lightweight rain cape or wind vest is a must around these parts. ‘I usually take arm warmers, rain jacket
and gloves, even if it’s sunny,’ says neo-pro team-mate to Porte and Hobart local Nathan Earle, who made his debut at the Tour Down Under in January.
The wickedly fast descent soon joins Claude Road – the one used if you were to take the direct route to Cradle. If you’re familiar with the Subaru National Road Series Mersey Valley tour, you’ll know what’s to come: a lush rainforest-covered drop close to Cethana Dam with a demanding climb on the other side. Just when you think it’s finished, the turn onto Cradle Mountain Road soon makes you realise you’re only about halfway from reaching the crest proper.
A little over an hour away from our destination and the tall-tree blanketed roads are replaced by sparse terrain where only the toughest of fauna can survive – seemingly due to the rapid changes in weather that can be experienced as you get closer to Cradle. This is real alpine country. You’ll quickly find yourself counting the number of wombats grazing along the roadside, or the echidnas who seem unwilling to allow anyone too close before digging into the ground, leaving nothing but a thorny body to photograph.
St Clair National Park is spectacular, and it’s here the elder of the Sulzbergers, Bernard, got his first taste of Cradle riding with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport (TIS). ‘I’ve done a number of rides around that area in the past with the TIS,’ he says. ‘We actually stayed for a week – I can’t remember what year it was – at Cradle Mountain, and it’s really tough terrain around there. It’s great for training.’
The buttongrass landscape contrasted with vivid rainforest pockets and trickling streams are reason enough to keep this area well-protected. Visitors are advised to travel the final 10-odd kilometres via shuttle bus, such is the narrow road to Dove Lake. There’s also no intention to widen the road to allow more traffic through – all the better for us as tired legs churn through the final few minutes. When the road finally ends there isn’t really much on offer –
just a carpark and somewhere to freshen up. What lays directly ahead with clouds cleared, however, is a remarkable sight even for weary eyes. We wash our faces in the icy lake – as still as glass thanks to the lack of wind – before
taking a moment to sit by the small ‘beach’ at the end of the sealed path.
If you pack a pair of walking shoes you can take a brisk two-hour stroll around the lake, but instead we decide to fill up and make our way to the warmth of Peppers Tavern Bar, where our trusty guide awaits with clean clothes, before stepping in for a lager and hearty meal with everything from burgers to grilled salmon, steaks and green curry. With one of Tassie’s highlights ticked off, we jump in the car and make our way back to Launceston.
Next stop: Jacobs Ladder
After a hearty meal washed down with cold ale we begin thinking about how quickly we can make it back to Launceston and over to Ben Lomond National Park for a quick recon of the switchback ascent so prominent it has its own name: Jacobs Ladder. It’s a bit of a drive from Sheffield, but after recalling the spectacle in a certain Rapha video I knew I wouldn’t be leaving here without at least taking a look. After all, Jacobs Ladder is simply one of those ‘must ride’ locations that every cyclist would want to include on their bucket list.
It should be said the main portion of this ride is on unsealed roads, but that’s what makes these trips so exciting. After all, there’s no reason why you can’t take a road bike off-piste. The professionals do it during the spring classics, thrashing themselves over the white gravel of Strade Bianche or across the cobbles of Ronde van Vlaanderen and the historic stones of Paris-Roubaix. A little bit of fire road shouldn’t be enough to scare you away! It’s within riding distance from Launceston, the ride out there is almost car-free and, above all: why not?
One of the fantastic things about Tasmania during the summer months is the amount of daylight on offer for those who want to use it. With first light at 6am and a sunset closer to 9pm, there’s much to do when on a tight Big Ride schedule. This is a crucial factor in being able to venture out to Jacobs Ladder, as even when exhausted from our ride to Cradle there is still an entire afternoon left for activities. Combined with a willing local pilot, we get some shut-eye while venturing east toward Jacobs, a little over an hour from the centre of Launceston by car.
Soon enough we arrive at the base of Jacobs, put on some fresh kit, take a few test shots, and after a couple of ascents the light starts to fade. Our photographer Marcus Enno – probably better known for his Instagram handle @beardmcbeardy – gives instructions to look a little more lively or ‘put some sunnies on.’ The day has clearly taken its toll. A couple more and we’re done for now. Tomorrow is once again game day.
Starting from our base camp in Launceston, there’s a plentiful array of cafes and eateries to satisfy the pre-ride caffeine fix. After sampling the carrot cake at Aroma’s we decided to take some advice from Porte, whose favourite spot is Pantry Espresso. During the off-season you can often find the Launie local fuelling up there before heading out for a loop to Scottsdale.
‘The Pantry is owned by one of my mates who is a bit of a crazy mountain biker, and that’s usually where we meet now. We do the one loop around Scottsdale quite a lot. With over 2,000m of climbing it’s up and down all day and then you come back over the Siding, which is a really good climb.’
With the Scottsdale loop already firmly on the map, we’re instead interested in taking on something not often done on road bikes. Ben Mather, who runs the Avanti store where Porte takes his Pinarello machine when in need, holds the Strava record for Jacobs Ladder, but that time was completed on a mountain bike. Porte, on the other hand, has Jacobs on his to-do list. ‘When I was in Colorado [last year] we got into the bus and the biggest picture was of Jacobs Ladder. I said to the guys, “That’s right where I live!” I’ve driven up it, but I really want to ride it,’ says the Sky rider. Perhaps it’ll have to wait until a time when he’s not building for a tilt at the Giro d’Italia.
While Porte is yet to ride the exposed switchback climb, the older of the two
Sulzberger brothers, Bernard, was most recently up there during his time with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport. Like Porte, Sulzberger’s commitments to the
Professional Continental squad Drapac mean he’s more inclined to also set off on a Scottsdale loop. However, the demanding climb still sits firmly in his memory. ‘I’ve done Ben Lomond and Jacobs Ladder during another one of the TIS camps. We went to the top and back down again. It’s pretty solid on the road bike as it’s all gravel.’
Though it remains one of Launceston’s hidden gems, ‘The Ladder’ is easy to find for those who dare to cross over from the bitumen to the roughly maintained gravel road. We awake early and shoot eastward to Blessington Road on the 401, which will take us all the way to a right-hand turn onto Ben Lomond Road. There’s little hiding from the hills in Launceston and we quickly warm up, stripping off layers as we pass the numerous poppy fields with signs that read ‘danger’ and ‘death’. After the obligatory shot with the poppies in the background it seems clear that we’ll need to lose the warmers at some
point. We eventually reach the turn onto Ben Lomond Road, which seemed further than initially anticipated. We’ve already accumulated a few hundred vertical metres before any real climbing, and while the temperature will no doubt be significantly cooler nearing the top, we decide to stash the non-essentials at the bottom.
After getting rid of anything we don’t need we’re greeted with a sign offering a blow-by-blow of what’s in store once we start pedalling up the initial 9% gradient. The only relevant bit, however, is the bottom of the sign, which reads ‘18km’. It’s a little less to the top of Jacobs, but it means a little under an hour and a half of non-stop riding in which every bit of the 28-tooth cassette will be needed. A compact crankset is even more suitable if available. Once a few kilometres up the road, fuel is unavailable for both human and vehicle. We really are out there on our own.
Snaking up the ladder
Soon enough the tree line fades and the sides of the road are replaced with cliff walls and giant boulder gardens that flow down the face of the mountain. Wild weather and high-speed winds manage to shave off huge sections of rock, but thankfully the relatively short section of Jacobs is reinforced with netting to prevent us being crushed from falling debris.
The climb itself isn’t all that tough on its own, but after 16km of grinding in our lowest gears, negotiating the loose switchback turns of Jacobs Ladder becomes much more difficult. When we reach the top we look down as a big gust of wind hits our chests. The feeling of vertigo sees us step back a little from the edge of the rocky outcrop.
With the air temperature in single digits and the alpine wind ripping across the ridge line its time to put on the shell jacket and pedal softly towards the ski village. At the top no one is home, and so refuelling consists of mountain spring water, a muesli bar and a banana – hopefully enough to get us back to Launceston. Compared with the mild weather of the previous day, the descent of Jacobs Ladder is a little more treacherous, but eventually we reach the bottom and make our way back onto the protected fire road without too much fuss. The road is actually in quite good condition and it’s not too demanding on the body.
After a quick breather back at our ‘stash’ site we take a right turn onto Camden Road for what looks to be a shortish section of again-unsealed roads. It becomes apparent that we should have gone back to Launceston the same way we came, but we’re now committed to the point of no return. Besides, what’s another 30-odd kilometres of off-road after conquering the Ladder? I refrain from thinking about ‘how far to go’ as we tip over 3,000m total elevation for the 100km covered.
At last we make it to the Tasman Highway for the cola-fuelled and blisteringly fast final hour into Launceston. It may be a little late for lunch, but there’s plenty of spots still open as the Stan Siejka Cycling Classic warms up, drawing a huge crowd around town. We stuff our faces as our worried guide Stubbsy makes his way back from Ben Lomond, fearing the worst after we’d told him we’d be back around noon – it’s closer to 5pm. He’s relieved to see that we’re safe, and after ordering a coffee he pulls up a stool. There isn’t much else to do
but eagerly peruse the images of the day and think about our spent in and around this cyclists’ dream town. It’s no surprise Tasmania keeps churning out champions.
How we got there
Travelling to Launceston is quick and hassle-free with just a little over an hour-and-a-half flying time from Sydney. The crew from Cyclist were delivered to the International airport via Virgin Airlines, with Jetstar stepping in for the return leg. We stayed at the Hotel Grand Chancellor Launceston where the stomach-busting breakfast buffet left us squeezing in a second Big Ride just to burn off the plentiful meal consumed shortly after sunrise. There’s an abundance of cycling-friendly cafes in town, but Aromas on Charles Street is one of the most popular pre- and post-ride locales for a wide selection of baked goods and coffee. It’s also not a bad spot if you’re in need of something a little more substantial.