With all the intrepid spirit of an 1850s gold prospector, Cyclist heads to the Victorian town of Beechworth to see what nuggets it has on offer – and strike gold we did.
Words: Tam Allenby
Photography: Marcus Enno
It’s hot. Really hot. And I’m zigzagging all over the road, in a world of hurt.
To make matters worse, both of my bottles are empty, and there’s still five kilometres’ worth of climbing left to go. My unzipped jersey is doing little to negate the heat radiating off the sheer rock wall to my left and the shimmering tarmac below. Sweat drips into my eyes, and the power in my legs is fading fast.
In short, I’m suffering.
My riding companion, Alex – who, by inviting me on this trip to Victoria’s High Country, is really to blame for my present state – has long since dropped me and disappeared up the road. What I wouldn’t give to be back in town, enjoying the air-conditioned comfort of our motel room.
Where am I, you ask? The back of Falls? Mount Buffalo? Hotham? Nope. You might not have heard of the Myrtleford-Stanley Road climb – and, admittedly, the elevation gain pales in comparison to those three beasts – but here, in the depths of the pain cave, I find myself thinking that it really does deserve a similarly fearsome reputation.
When we tackled the same climb only hours earlier – with fresher legs, and in the much cooler early-morning temperatures – it didn’t seem quite as bad. But that was more than 90 kilometres ago, and I’ve certainly accumulated some fatigue since then. There’s nothing for me to do but press on, with the promise of food, bed and cold beer back at our base of Beechworth my only motivation. I keep turning the pedals.
Outside, it’s still pitch black, but I can already hear Alex and Beardy downstairs, as well as the familiar whirr of the coffee machine
Chasing the light
It’s 3:50 in the morning when my alarm goes off – a truly ungodly hour.
Outside, it’s still pitch black, but I can already hear Alex and Beardy downstairs, as well as the familiar whirr of the coffee machine. They’ve opted for an even earlier alarm, but at this hour, even 15 minutes of extra sleep is a blessing.
Of course, there’s a good reason we’re up before 4am – with a packed schedule, time is of the essence. Beechworth is an hour’s drive away from our current location in the King Valley (featured in Cyclist #37), and our photographer for the trip, Marcus ‘Beardy’ Enno, is quick to remind us that the morning’s all-important golden hour is a photographic necessity. I’ve heard this line before. By 4:05am, we’re in the car; by 5am, we’re passing through the still-asleep town of Beechworth, and by 5:30am, we’re kitted up and rolling out, the sun just starting to break through on the horizon.
While the route for today’s Big Ride – referred to by locals, as well as the marketing board at Ride High Country, as the Tour of Beechworth – technically starts and finishes in the historical gold rush-era town, we decide to start our day in the Ovens Valley, at the base of Mount Stanley. Just like the prospectors of the mid-1800s, we’re searching for gold, but of a different kind: cycling gold.
Before we hit the climb proper, we enjoy five kays of beautiful early-morning riding
And, of course, the no-less-valuable photo / Instagram gold.
What this means for Alex and I is that 78 kilometres have expanded to 110, and more importantly, that we’ll be tackling the 5% average, 10.7-kilometre-long Myrtleford-Stanley Road climb not once, but twice. We’ll be doing so both at the beginning of the ride (to take advantage of the golden hour) and at the end.
However, before we hit the climb proper, we enjoy five kays of beautiful early-morning riding – and even though it’s well into summer, both of us opt for a gilet to start. But as soon as we make the right-hand turn off the main road, the gradient increases – only gradually at first – and we stow our gilets away.
For the first four kilometres, the climb is very manageable, hovering at around 3-4% average gradient. However, the rhythm both of us have settled into is soon interrupted when, rounding a bend, we’re presented with a 12% wall. It’s time to get to work.
Offsetting the difficulty of the climb is its beauty. The early-morning light filters through the alpine-looking gumtrees, acting as a very nice distraction from the hurt. Alex and I climb wheel-to-wheel, and although we avoid giving it a real nudge – we’re well aware of the 100+ kilometres left to go – we both settle into a manageable but still uncomfortably difficult rhythm. Having scoped out the climb on Strava on the drive in, we know we’ll be way off the pace – the Sun Tour used this climb in its 2017 edition, and the top-25 lists many a famous name. (For the record, EvoPro Racing rider Cyrus Monk holds the KOM with a smoking time of 22:48 – a blistering 28.2km/h average speed).
Getting it done
After three kilometres of double-digit gradients, the slope levels out, and we churn through the last section of the Stanley climb at a more gentlemanly pace. At the top, it’s interesting to see a marked change in scenery. For the last half an hour, it had really felt like we’d been transported over to the higher mountains of the Snowies – but here, the tall grey gums give way to lush, green farmland. We pass orchards, strawberry farms, and a few deluxe-looking cabins, and eventually reach the small town of Stanley, where – apart from a welcoming little pub, not surprisingly shut at this early hour – there doesn’t seem to be all that much going on.
The rhythm both of us have settled into is soon interrupted when, rounding a bend, we’re presented with a 12% wall
Leaving Stanley, there’s one last false-flat drag before the road starts to point downwards. Back in the big ring, Alex and I make the most of the descent, punching over a few small rises and rolling out the 11-tooth before settling into an aero tuck. Before we know it, we pass the sign for Beechworth, the downhill run taking us most of the way to the centre of town.
As a lifelong resident of New South Wales, the stateliness of Victorian country towns always impresses me, and Beechworth, with its perfectly preserved gold rush-era architecture, must be one of the best. After hanging a right at the town’s main roundabout, we roll past the old Town Hall, the Historic Courthouse and the Old Beechworth Gaol – which operated from 1864 right up until 2004 and held the likes of Ned Kelly as prisoner in its ‘heyday’ – all in a single 500-metre stretch.
Just as quickly as we arrive in Beechworth, so too do we leave it. If you decide to retrace our route outside of the summer months, then we suggest rugging up – the long downhill section leaving Beechworth that we face next is quite chilly, despite the 30-degree temperatures forecasted for later in the day. Even still, after all the climbing that kicked off our ride, it’s nice to accumulate a few more ‘free’ kilometres – though the high speeds don’t last very long, as the road soon flattens out as it bends to the east.
We punch over a few small rises and roll out the 11-tooth before settling into an aero tuck
From here, we toil through a 10-kilometre section of draggy, false-flat uphill. I sit on Alex’s wheel for much of it, regretting the fact that I didn’t make myself a coffee earlier in the morning. It’s not the most picturesque section so far, but it would be perfect for rolling turns in a larger group. Indeed, as Alex flicks his elbow to indicate it’s my turn to do some work in the wind, I’m left ruing the fact that it’s just the two of us, with no extra opportunities for lazy wheel sucking.
I’m starting to feel the effects of two decent efforts as we roll over one last major crest, but soon enough we’re heading downhill again, then hard on the brakes as we reach a major roundabout – the left exit stretching off to Wodonga, the right to Yackandandah. We take the second option, and enjoy another fast, straight descent that eventually lands us in the picturesque town affectionately known to locals as ‘Yack’.
The rider’s shades
Both Tam and Alex wore 100% eyewear with the ‘Sagan special’ Speedcraft in Acidulous and the S2 in Matte White/Geo Print getting a solid workout during the multi-day trip. Both the Speedcraft and S2 feature a high-impact resistant and polycarbonate lens with Ultra-grip temple tips and replaceable rubber nose bridge. Given the high levels of UV during the summer months – when this ride took place –the Purple Multilayer Mirror Lens fitted to the Speedcraft was great for the early mornings when the 24% light transmission allowed plenty of vision. During the main part of the day, however, the Hiper Blue Multilayer Mirror Lens fitted to the S2 was the winner with light transmission levels at 15%. Recently announced across both models are Photochromic Lens models ($349) that automatically adjust to the lighting conditions and allow between 16% and 77% light transmission.
Yack and beyond
Another former hub for gold mining in the mid-1800s, Yack is nowhere near as big as Beechworth, but it’s no less pretty. And given our extremely early start, by the time we’re rolling down the tree-lined main street, both Alex and I are in dire need of a coffee. Luckily, Saint Monday cafe on the leafy main street is the perfect pit stop, so we unclip and park the bikes for a pick-me-up.
We scan the handwritten blackboard above the steaming espresso machine and the dreadlocked barista. It seems that kale, asparagus, garlic, smoked trout and goat’s feta are particularly good at the moment. As the owner explains to us, the menu focuses on produce grown in the local area, ensuring everything is seasonal, fresh and delicious. However, with a couple more sweaty hours in the saddle to tackle, we don’t risk overloading our stomachs with unnecessary baggage; besides, who needs gourmet local produce when the homemade doughnut and cappuccino are this good?
Back on the bikes and leaving Yackandandah, the scenery becomes a little more interesting – and the road a little more tough-going, with a couple of decent rollers to deal with – than it was for the first section from Beechworth. Rather than hugging the shoulder as we were on the C315, we now enjoy the peace of a tranquil country lane, surrounded by that classic Aussie scenery of sunburnt yellowy-brown bush, half-full dams and grazing sheep. It’s here that the heat of the day starts to become quite noticeable, and soon my vision distorts as the lenses of my sunglasses accumulate sweat. I’m glad Alex reminded me to reapply some sunscreen back at Saint Monday, and even gladder we refilled our bottles.
After 20-ish minutes of enjoyable pedalling, we dogleg back onto the main road for less than a kilometre, singling up on the shoulder as campervans and holidaymakers zoom past before returning to another gorgeous back road. ‘Bit of climbing now mate,’ Alex tells me, and we settle into a nice sub-threshold pace on the 3% incline, rolling past farmhouses and paddocks filled with rusting farm equipment, our chatter reduced to a few sporadic comments between breaths.
Summiting the small climb, we take a right onto Tunnel Gap Road. After a short downhill quickly followed by an uphill pinch, the trees open up to reveal a gigantic view of the valley below, stretching all the way to the granite cliffs of Mount Buffalo on the horizon. It’s awe-inspiring, and the downhill run allows us to take it all in with only the noise of our freewheels and the wind in our ears for company.
Tunnel Gap Road soon reaches a T-intersection with the more major C527, and for less than 10km, we’re back in single file, rolling turns while also allowing the odd car and caravan to pass safely. We soon pass the spot where we pulled up in the Skoda to begin our adventure all those hours ago, and I nervously remember the vicious gradient of the Myrtleford-Stanley climb that we’d tackled that morning. Even with fresh legs it was a beast of a climb, and now we’re about to tackle it in 30-degree heat with more than 90 kilometres in the bank.
My trepidation turns out to be well-placed – it really is a brute. In the heat, the steep section feels even steeper, and Alex rubs it in by clicking down a gear and showing me a clean set of wheels. Even the view that had impressed me in the morning isn’t enough to distract me from the suffering – but the only way to make it stop is to keep pedalling, and thanks in part to a few tactical zigzags, I eventually reach the top.
Who needs gourmet local produce when the homemade doughnut and cappuccino are this good?
The section from Stanley back to Beechworth passes in an effort-induced blur, and in what feels like a few minutes, we’re parked up at the bakery ‘recovering’ – i.e. taking advantage of the bottomless coffee while stuffing our faces with copious pies and pastries. A few hours after that – following a well-earned nap – I’m sitting with Alex and Beardy at Bridge Road Brewers ‘rehydrating’.
A tasting paddle of some of Australia’s best craft beers, a salty pretzel, and the satisfaction of a big day’s riding: right now, it’s hard to think of a better combination. We came to Beechworth in search of gold, and we certainly found it.
Tam Allenby is a cycling journalist who hasn’t become any fonder of early starts since he last wrote for Cyclist.
The route we took
Here’s how to do what we call the Tour of Beechworth
Download this route at strava.com/routes/16430757. Beechworth Bakery is the logical starting point. From there, take C315 Sydney Road north-east. Just before the 17km mark turn right onto C532 Yackandandah Road and begin a fast descent. Leaving town, turn right onto C527 Myrtleford-Yackandandah Road; then, turn right onto Back Creek Road. Enjoy 10km of backroads before the busier C527. Turn right at Dederang Road, and 6km later make a right onto Tunnel Gap Road before rejoining the C527. Turn right on to Stanley-Myrtleford Road as you hit the foothills of the major climb of the day. Just over 10km of sweaty work later, you’ll descend slightly to the town of Stanley. Turn left onto C525 Stanley Road, and after one more brief rise, it’s downhill all the way back to Beechworth.
By the numbers
The year gold was discovered at Spring Creek in Beechworth.
Metres of vertical gain on the Tour of Beechworth loop. It’s lumpy, this one.
Kilometres ridden. The official loop is only 78, but we’re suckers for punishment.
The number of craft beers pouring at Bridge Road Brewers on the day we visited10How many of those beers we actually tried (on a tasting paddle, with tasting-sized glasses, promise!).
The cost of a bottomless (fill your own) cup of coffee or tea at Beechworth Bakery.
HOW WE DID IT
From Sydney, it’s a six-and-a-half-hour drive down the Hume to Beechworth. We recommend stopping at the Long Track Pantry in Jugiong and The Coffee Pedaler in Gundagai. For Melburnians, the drive shouldn’t take much more than three hours.
We stayed at the Golden Heritage in Beechworth, close to the centre of town. The rooms are comfy and well-furnished and there are free coffee pods to get you going. Our rooms opened onto a long, connected balcony with views across leafy Beechworth. They’re also more than happy to store bikes in the secure on-site garage.
The famous Beechworth Bakery is a must with scones, scrolls and steak pies galore. Nearby, checkout The Squid, while Peddlar might just serve the best coffee in town. For dinner, drop into Bridge Road Brewers for pizzas, burgers and ribs, or for something slightly fancier, the Empire Hotel (only 100 metres from Bridge Road) puts out a delicious tapas-style menu of small sharing plates. Think Korean fried chicken, pulled pork tostadas and baked chorizo with manchego and olives – and all of it really, really delicious.
A massive thanks to Tourism North East, which is doing an excellent job promoting the world-class cycling on offer in Victoria’s High Country, We’re also hugely grateful for the Tarmacs (plus helmet and shoes) supplied to us by Specialized, the eyewear from 100%, and the kit we received from MAAP.