Victoria’s High Country may have many of Australia’s best climbs, but as we discovered on the Gaps Loop, exploring its many hidden valleys can be surprisingly rewarding too
Words JOEL POTTER Photography SIMON ESJAY JAMES
Don’t look up. That seems like a silly thing to say if you’re planning a ride in the Victorian Alps.
It’s a region that boasts the highest concentration of Australia’s great road climbs, flaunting an embarrassment of riches like Falls Creek, Mount Hotham and Mount Baw Baw.
It’s the closest thing we’ve got to those iconic French-style ski resort climbs, mythologised on our screens at two o’clock in the morning every July.
But if you spend all your time cranking your neck skywards, you’ll miss what’s waiting right at your feet, which is exactly what I discovered this time around, sticking to the valley and tackling the well known Gaps Loop with my mates Esjay and Neil.
The timing of our weekend couldn’t have been better, on a couple of fronts. For starters, it began on Friday, as any good weekend really should.
I was freshly no longer employed full-time and very keen to make the most of my newfound freedom.
Even more importantly, the weather in Sydney had become distinctly torrential just as we finished cramming three bikes, ourselves and enough snacks to get us to Perth into Esjay’s tiny hybrid.
Driving south down the all-too-familiar Hume, the three of us agreed that the rapidly improving weather was a sign from above.
We were in for an amazing ride tomorrow, filled with the promise of degree-perfect conditions, some amazing food and the mercy of no hour-long climbs to drag our travel-wearied bodies over.
Arriving at Mount Beauty, to the welcome of a bountiful spread of local wine and charcuterie, was just the first of many reminders over the weekend that our high expectations were justified.
In fact, we could have dared to dream bigger and still not been let down. Not even close.
My alarm is set for the luxurious time of 7am, which is more than enough to sleep off last night’s sampling of the local breweries’ finest.
We’ve worked backwards from our scheduled lunch stop and realised there’s absolutely no need to be hitting the road at the sort of times any city cyclist is used to.
Naturally though, I’m wide awake at 5am thanks to a body clock conditioned by years of pre-dawn starts and the next two hours are spent peacefully drifting in and out.
I’m finally stirred enough to rise by the distinctive click, thunk and brrr of Esjay on the Nespresso machine, no alarm required.
The three of us sip our first coffees of the day on the deck of our aptly named Eagles Nest Hideaway, perched atop the diabolically steep hill that nearly defeated our heavily laden car last night.
We’ve got uninterrupted views across the Kiewa Valley to the morning clouds slowly burning off stunning Mount Bogong, which will become a familiar sight over the day ahead.
If we weren’t here to ride, I’d be perfectly content enjoying the serenity of this scene and the soundtrack of native birdsong all day.
That is until it’s shattered by the squawking of a peloton of cockatoos descending on the huge tree overhanging our hideaway, reminiscent of a dozen freehubs buzzing up to a quiet suburban cafe on any given morning.
Time to kit up and find some breakfast. Rolling down the 25% gradient of our driveway I’m thankful for disc brakes, and can’t help but think about how it’s going to feel riding back up it in a few hours. Anyway, that’s a problem for later.
Right now we need to deal with the eternal breakfast conundrum we’re facing at Lilli Pilli Day Larder in town: sweet or savoury?
My infernal sweet tooth leads me straight to the pancakes and I’m as delighted with my decision as Esjay and Neil are with their savouries.
Attached to the cafe is a day spa, but even with our generous schedule, there’s sadly no time for a pre-ride massage.
Fuelled and with itchy though unpampered feet, we hit the road, turning left onto the Kiewa Valley Highway and start the journey north towards the 12 o’clock of our anti-clockwise loop.
Spinning along the Kiewa River valley, the ever-present Mount Bogong rises over our right shoulders, by now just the very summit draped in silken, white clouds.
It’s a genuine luxury setting off at such an agreeable hour, with no need for a gilet now or for any of the descents ahead of us.
This opening stretch may not be the most notable strip of tarmac I’ve ever ridden along, but there’s plenty of roadside interest – enough to distract me from the doo-wops of ELO’s ‘Telephone Line’ looping in my head thanks to a movie reference from the night before that has spiralled into an in-joke for the weekend.
To our left we pass a curious, to say the least, installation of old bathtubs and eagle statues, followed by a vintage jumble shop that piques Esjay’s interest.
We wisely pedal straight past, reminding him that it’s not worth carrying whatever trinket he’d inevitably buy for the next 90km.
The road meanders onwards, gently hugging the fertile valley walls, spotted with hundreds of contented cattle – mottled black and white Holsteins straight from a Swiss postcard scene.
There’s no question we’re in dairy country here, with the region producing an astounding proportion of Australia’s fresh milk.
It occurs to me as I pedal that the milk I was sipping in my full cream cappuccino not an hour earlier may well have come from one of these very friends.
Can’t go round it, can’t go under it
With an easy, downhill-trending 25km in our legs, the topic of which direction is actually best to ride the Gaps Loop resurfaces.
Plenty of people tackle it anti-clockwise, but we all agree that our first hour has been the perfect warm-up after a hearty breakfast, and this stretch of highway is much better served this way than as the final-hour drag of a big day.
We may be sticking to the valleys today, but that doesn’t mean there’s no proper climbing to be done.
The next section of our ride will take us through adjacent Happy Valley, but there’s only one way to get from this valley to the next: over the imposing hill in between.
This may be the Alps, but there isn’t a Mont Blanc Tunnel in sight. We make our first turn of the day, swinging left onto Running Creek Road, and with it our first elevation gains too.
Thanks to the marvel of modern groupsets, I have a 34-tooth sprocket on the back and easily spin up these first few kilometres of foothills in the big ring.
The pace is still gentle enough that I’m able to comfortably discuss the culinary merits of various pumpkin varieties with Neil, prompted by hundreds of hay bales scattered in the surrounding grassy paddocks, all tightly wrapped in plastic and resembling Queensland Blues.
A big cassette can only get you so far and eventually I join Esjay and Neil in the little ring. Running Creek Road morphs into Happy Valley Road and those foothills become a hill proper.
As we climb, the tree cover becomes more dense, offering some welcome shade from the creeping bite of the morning sun.
Approaching the crest of this 5km climb, I remark that what it lacks in vistas it makes up for with a road surface we can only dream of north of the Victorian border, only to eat my words moments later.
We sweep right around a perfectly cambered bend and to the left a break in the trees opens, revealing a stunningly lush valley, dotted with more cattle contentedly munching on their spring grass.
A short, straight and fast descent down the other side leads us into Happy Valley, and we too are happy with the knowledge we’ve got net elevation loss for the next 20km.
We’re in no rush, still easily ahead of our lunch schedule, but decide to settle into a civilised pace line and chew up our second valley of the day.
Mount Buffalo, a much craggier and more exposed peak than the ever-present Bogong and thankfully not on today’s menu, rises above the horizon in front of us as we roll turns towards the westernmost extremity of the loop.
It feels a bit like a commute towards lunch, but one I would graciously accept any day of the week.
Hop to it
Having made a quick roadside stop to grab a few happy snaps with a particularly special Brumby – a four-wheeled variety of roughly my vintage and an icon of the high country – we make just our second left turn of the day.
We’ve hit the Great Alpine Road and, as if to remind us, there’s a big, green sign detailing the respective distances to Victoria’s ski resorts.
A quick pit stop at the pub in Ovens for water and some bewildered stares later, it’s back in the saddle and tracking southeast down our third valley towards Porepunkah and that carefully scheduled lunch.
Time is still very much on our side, so we make the call to jump off the main road and on to the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail for a scenic stretch. This well-trodden bike path, which runs for over 100km from Milawa all the way to Harrietville, passes through Wangaratta, Beechworth, Myrtleford and Bright along the way, not to mention countless breweries, wineries and distilleries.
Riding responsibly, however, we stick to the water in our bidons and press on, winding along the trail, ducking and weaving through the back of houses and farms without a worry about passing cars.
Not usually one for a bike path, I’m glad about the choice we made now as I soak up our surrounds.
The riding is easygoing, with a barely detectable upward gradient, passing by paddocks of horses and yards full of Australian and Japanese automotive history.
The 75km mark flies by, and although we’ve been saving our legs all day, both for timing’s sake and the knowledge of our final hour on the road, I’m beginning to taste the first cold beer waiting for me at home.
Then again, that could well be the distinctive backdrop of hop farms lining the trail for the last half an hour.
Victoria’s High Country is also hop country, and row after row of trellises stretch into the distance, looking more like empty clotheslines right now but awaiting their summer blossom.
All this careful pacing spits us out into Porepunkah and our lunch venue at two o’clock on the dot, on schedule to the second.
We’re met by Paul at Punkah Pantry, who owns the cafe as well as Service Course, a brand-new bike shop behind.
He gives a whirlwind tour before dashing off to make the start of the local Saturday crits and leaving us to our muchanticipated meal.
The cafe is as well-stocked as the bike shop, brimming with local smallgoods and, most excitingly to Esjay, a full complement of Billson’s sodas and cordials, a Beechworth company with 160 years of history in the region.
I’d approached the counter ready to order a sandwich with my creamy soda, but having heard Esjay order a hot dog before me, I follow suit, without even realising the words are leaving my mouth.
I know the extra mustard is going to revisit me about halfway up Tawonga Gap shortly, but I maintain zero regrets.
Three cyclist walk into a bar
Emerging from lunch sated, we jump back on our bikes and back onto the bike path to tap out the short trip to Bright.
Unfortunately, Neil has picked up slightly more than he bargained for in Porepunkah.
Whatever bright yellow pollen was flying around has set him off sneezing and the itchy feet from this morning have turned into itchy everything, but he doesn’t need any convincing to soldier on.
The whole day has been building towards Tawonga Gap, our final climb out of Bright and back over into the Kiewa Valley to close the loop, so we make a quick splash-and-dash servo stop in Bright for electrolytes and antihistamines and get to it.
Turning left again onto Tawonga Gap Road, our third major navigational milestone, the main event begins.
For the first 8km we ease into the climb, settling into a steady pace up the fairly even gradient.
It’s still easy to maintain conversation along here and the road is quiet and wide enough to mostly ride two abreast.
Our late start and protracted timeline means we’re hitting the steeper section towards the summit right as the temperature also hits its peak.
The flies have descended upon us, attracted to our increasingly sweaty backs like bogong moths to a flame.
None of us are complaining too loudly though, fully aware of the torrential conditions that have dampened our mate’s ride plans back in Sydney.
Each of us settles into our own pace for the last 6km, the gradients closer to double digits and bends much more serpentine than straight.
It’s remarkable how little traffic we’ve seen today and the drivers here are clearly used to seeing people like us grinding up these hills, patiently waiting for safe opportunities to pass and leaving generous space when they do.
At the top of Tawonga Gap we regroup at the lookout, where a metal deck cantilevers out over a steep ledge.
Our old friend Mount Bogong is back on the horizon, the clouds finally lifted from its peak and now hanging above like cotton wool painted on the pristine sky, casting shadows all over the valley below.
A wide grin spreads across my face as I realise how far up we’ve climbed and, more importantly, how far we now get to bomb back down the other side.
It’s a thrilling descent, with sweeping bends, flowing sections and a couple of hairpins for good measure, made even more so by trying to hold Esjay’s wheel.
I may have been in my element up the Bright side but he is well and truly in his down the Mount Beauty side.
Making the final turn of the day, right back onto Kiewa Valley Highway, we have just a short spin back into town, the adrenaline still pumping after that descent.
I’m delighted again with our choice to ride anti-clockwise this morning, meaning it’s just a couple of easy kilometres home.
All that stands between us and that first sip of cold beer we’ve been thinking about since the hop farms is a short 25% pinch back up the Eagles Nest driveway.
The pain (and at times rear traction) is temporary and, before I know it, I’m reclining on that stunning deck again, Kit Kat and beverage in hand.
Of course, a ride like this warrants more than chocolate, and we’ve got Crank Handle Brewery in Mount Beauty in our sights to fill the void Tawonga Gap has burnt in our stomachs.
Three cyclists walk into a bar.
One orders a Hefeweizen, one orders a Trippel and the other a Dunkel.
Sounds like the set-up for a bad joke, but actually it’s just our dinner stop.
We’re at Crank Handle, one of the seven breweries on the High Country Brewery Trail.
The owner, Trevor, treats us to burgers and more loaded fries than even we can put away after a full day’s riding, along with our selection of classic European style beers – the perfect way to end a pretty stunning day.
There may be gold in them thar hills, but there are plenty of gems right here in the valleys too.
The route we took
Navigationally, the Gaps Loop is pretty hard to get wrong.
The ride can be done in either direction, but I can recommend the way we did it, leaving the big climb to the end but rewarded with a brilliant descent and just a short commute home to finish on an absolute high.
Turn left onto Kiewa Valley Highway and follow it north all the way to the first major intersection you see.
Swing left onto Running Creek Road, climbing over the ridge into Happy Valley, where the road becomes Happy Valley Road. This will lead to a T-intersection with Great Alpine Road at Ovens, where you’ll take, you guessed it, another left.
Here you can either jump onto the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, as we did, for a more relaxing ride into Porepunkah, or stay on Great Alpine Road if you’re in a group or are chasing average speed.
In Porepunkah, go left onto Nicholson Street after Porepunkah Oval for lunch at Punkah Pantry.
You can then take Back Porepunkah Road or the rail trail into Bright. Head out of Bright on Great Alpine Road and turn left onto Tawonga Gap Road, which will take you all the way back to Kiewa Valley Highway.
Turn right onto the highway for the last 2km back to Tawonga South or further on to Mount Beauty.
By the numbers
Because everyone love stats
113 kilometres ridden
537 metres climbed up the Bright side of Tawonga Gap
25.7% maximum gradient of our driveway
14 Subaru Brumbies spotted in paddocks
7 breweries on the High Country Brewery Trail
6 delicious pancakes in my stack for breakfast at Lilli Pilli Day Larder
1 song stuck in my head the entire ride
The rider’s gear
For further information visit ekoi.com
For this Big Ride, we were lucky enough to be kitted out, head to toe, by Ekoï.
The French brand may not be immediately familiar to us in Australia, despite dressing some of the biggest names in the WorldTour, including our own Caleb Ewan.
It’s safe to say though, judging by the quality and comfort of what we wore, that this won’t be the case for long.
The Aero14 helmet I wore really impressed with its super adjustable fit and remarkable breathability, especially considering how closed in this aero lid is.
My helmet perfectly matched with the Perso Evo 8 sunglasses, easily stashing in the front vents on long climbs, which is always a huge tick for a helmet in my books.
Neil found exactly the same with his Ottimo sunglasses too and both of us appreciated the added protection from the stylishly oversized lenses.
We were also hugely impressed with how cool and comfortable we felt as the day heated up thanks to the unique thermo-regulating technology used in our Outlast jerseys and the waffle fabrics in the Pro Gel Memory bib shorts.
Most importantly, our delicates were well taken care of for the duration by the super plush chamois the bibs take their name from.
How we did it
We drove to Tawonga South from Sydney straight down the well-serviced Hume Highway, via Albury. It’s a solid but easy drive with plenty of great options for stops.
The drive from Melbourne is a slightly less daunting four hours, also on the Hume.
For the weekend we were generously hosted at Eagles Nest Hideaway, perched high on a hill in Tawonga South, and were lucky enough to have full rein of both the apartment and guest suite.
Both options are self-contained.
The apartment offers a fully equipped kitchen and the breathtaking outlook is worth the trip alone.
The apartment and guest suite can be booked together to sleep eight, so it’s a perfect option if you’re bringing a crew or the family.
FOOD & DRINK
There was never any danger of going hungry this weekend. A spread of local produce and wine awaited us on arrival at Eagles Nest Hideaway.
We enjoyed a superb breakfast and coffee at Lilli Pilli Day Larder on Saturday morning in Tawonga South before we set off.
Grass Valley is another great option, which we confirmed the following morning.
Lunch was had at Punkah Pantry in Porepunkah, with a great range of baked goods, heartier options and more excellent coffee from local roasters Sixpence, as well as heaps of bike parking out the front, making it an easy pre-, mid- or post-ride option.
Our dinner and vital post-ride rehydration was provided by Crank Handle Brewery in Tawonga South, where we enjoyed a dizzying selection of their beers alongside the best loaded fries all three of us had ever eaten.
You’ll want to budget more than one visit to get through the tap list responsibly.
As always when we’re invited to Victoria’s High Country, Tourism North East take great care of us, with special thanks to Christina Harris and Liz Costello for an extraordinary level of organisation.
The weekend was made especially memorable thanks to the hospitality of our host at Eagles Nest Hideaway, Trish.
Finally, a big thank you is also owed to Emma and Rachel from Lilli Pilli Day Larder for breakfast, Paul and Seona at Punkah Pantry for lunch, and Trevor at Crank Handle Brewery for dinner and some world-class beers.