Aussie cyclists are no strangers to the Victorian alps; names like Mansfield and Bright get plenty of love. Cyclist , however, wanted to try something a bit different not too far away. Enter the King Valley…
Words: Tam Allenby
Photography: Marcus Enno
When you think of the King Valley, you probably don’t think of bike riding; if you’re anything like me, words like ‘cellar door’, ‘wine’ and ‘food’ probably spring to mind first. And as it turned out, our trip to the hugely picturesque, deliciously gourmet region kicked off with a little from column A, a little more from column B, and plenty from column C – before any contact was made between tyre and tarmac.
Located around three hours north-east of Melbourne, the King Valley – despite the best efforts of the Sam Miranda NRS race and Gran Fondo – is understandably overshadowed by more famous cycling destinations like Bright, Beechworth and Mansfield in its nearby vicinity. A brief look on Strava revealed fairly low representation on many of the segments we’d be riding, which would make our Big Ride a discovery of sorts – though my riding companion (and route planner) Alex had promised me plenty of climbing and a good chunk of gravel to boot.
After a brief pit stop at the Brown Brothers in Milawa for a quick feed and a glass each of dry rosé, we pulled up at our base in the small town of Whitfield (population: 421) in the late afternoon, and wandered over to the nearby Dal Zotto cellar door. With Aperol spritz in hand – mixed using the winery’s famous prosecco, no less – co-owner Christian Dal Zotto briefly summarised for us the history of the area.
The fertile King Valley, he told us, got its agricultural and wine-producing start following the end of World War II, when a large number of European migrants – mostly Italian – settled in the area, initially establishing tobacco farms. When tobacco production declined in the 70s, many of these producers switched to wine, explaining the mostly Italian grape varietals for which the region is known. Working our way through a selection of these varietals would no doubt have been a fine way to spend an afternoon, but with bikes to set up and local cheese and charcuterie to eat, we bid Christian farewell.
After a parma, and about halfway through my second pint at the pub a little later on, I may have forgotten about our planned 4:50am alarm (‘to catch the golden light,’ as Beardy, our photographer for the trip, argued), and the 130km ride that was on the cards for the following day. Please excuse the oft-used cycling cliché, but I believe the term is ‘carb-loading’…
Up and at ‘em
I’ve often said that setting an alarm that starts with any number smaller than five is crazy, if not borderline inhumane. It’s not morning yet; it’s night time. But in this case, as I soon discover, it’s more than worth it.
Our route would take us on an anticlockwise loop, over the range north-east of Whitfield and along the King Valley roads that stretch out towards Benalla and the Hume, before turning south towards Mansfield where the bulk of the climbing would occur. Coffees consumed – and with breakfast packed for later, my stomach unable to get anything down this early – there’s nothing left to do but saddle up and get rolling.
With a forecasted 35-degree day, we relish the cool morning air as we roll out, our bodies slowly warming up as we begin the gradual climb out of town. After just a kilometre we’re in the forest, and all my grumbling about the early start fades away. It’s gorgeous, the golden light filtering through the trees and casting long shadows across the road as we continue to gain elevation.
I’ve often said that setting an alarm that starts with any number smaller than five is crazy, if not borderline inhumane
After 7.5km of gentle climbing, a fork in the road sees us take the right-hand option, and we hit the first section of gravel for the day. And it’s not just any section of gravel – as Alex informs me, it’s the same piece of ‘Strade Nero’ used in the Sam Miranda NRS race and Gran Fondo. Today, we descend rather than climb it. It’s also one of the only sections of road used in the event that we will ride today, as the race mostly makes use of flatter roads north of Whitfield.
A brief aside: while there’s nothing concrete to speak of just yet, don’t be surprised if you see an Australian version of L’Eroica pop up in the region in the not-too-distant future. All the Italian heritage and wine, not to mention the excellent gravel roads, make the King Valley the perfect candidate for a spin-off of the annual Italian epic. You heard it here first.
The golden light just keeps on shining down as we descend the smooth, flowing gravel road. It’s a good idea to do the loop in the direction we’ve chosen for this Big Ride – it’s safer for drivers if the sun’s out of their eyes, and it makes for better riding too. Our mid-week, early morning start sees a few utes and trucks overtake the two of us, with some of the locals seemingly in a bit of a hurry to get to work. Not that this takes away from the tranquility of the morning – the first 15km are truly champagne cycling.
All the Italian heritage and wine, plus excellent gravel roads, make King Valley the perfect candidate for a L’Eroica spin-off
At the small settlement of Myrrhee, gravel turns to tarmac, and after a short climb, we start to gather speed on the false-flat downhill. From here, the mostly flat farm roads are a good chance to get some kilometres under the belt, and as our distance covered increases so does the temperature. Another recommendation: if you do this ride yourself, make sure you carry a lot of water – from the start in Whitfield, there’s little more than a few farmhouses until the 52km mark at the Tatong Tavern, which we reach well ahead of schedule. Even still, ‘the pub with no town’ – as one publication referred to it – is only open from Wednesday to Sunday, but as it’s a B&B as well, you should be able to fill your bottles if you ask nicely.
From Tatong, the road begins to rise – gently at first, which reawakens the legs after an hour on the flat. Making our way along a beautiful valley road, surrounded on either side by lush farmland, patches of native bush, and glimpses of the slow-moving Holland Creek, we roll past a paddock filled with hundreds of 1940s and 1950s cars, mostly wheelless and in varying degrees of disrepair. It’s an unexpected break from the natural tranquility of this section of road, but quite the sight nonetheless.
Soon enough, we’re surrounded on all sides by forested green hills. A quick glance over at Alex’s Wahoo confirms my suspicions that the road is about to go up, in a big way. A bridge takes us across the creek we’ve been snaking alongside for the last half an hour, and almost instantly, tarmac turns to gravel and the gradient kicks up. It’s time to get to work.
Mirroring the change in surface and gradient is a change in scenery, as the farmland makes way for low-lying ferns and tall native timber. For eight glorious kilometres, we climb at a steady gradient of 5%, carving our way through the switchbacks and, at times, carefully selecting our line through the frequently loose gravel. Alex and I are both happy we’re not riding the loop the opposite way; while the ruts, potholes and sporadic drainage ditches are manageable on the way up, with our 26mm tyres, they’d make for a bone-rattling and extremely sketchy descent. But today, there’s no need to worry about that, and we simply enjoy the gentle sound of the wind through the leaves, the chirping of native birds, and our increasing frequency of breath when the inevitable half-wheeling begins.
For eight glorious kilometres we climb at a steady gradient of 5%, carving our way through switchbacks
After 30 minutes of very enjoyable exertion, the climb levels out as we reach the intersection with Old Tolmie Road, and we briefly descend before it starts dragging up again. It isn’t too long before we pass the turnoff for Stringybark Creek. Readers with a keen sense of Australian history (and fans of the late Heath Ledger, too) will no doubt recognise this as the site of the infamous Kelly Gang shootout, where Australia’s most famous bushranger and his accomplices shot and killed three Victorian Police officers in 1878. If you’ve got the time, the historic reserve – which attracts 20,000 visitors annually – is absolutely worth the short detour. We’ve got a schedule to meet, however, so we decide to press on.
For reasons that remain unclear – part physiology, part psychology, probably – I often find false flat, 2-3% uphill drags more difficult than ‘proper’ climbs. To my dismay, that’s exactly what we face for another eight kilometres after passing the turn-off to Stringybark Creek, my field of vision slowly narrowing as I notice the beginnings of a hunger flat. I just make out the change in scenery, native trees making way for the symmetrical orderliness of a planted pine forest, as we begin descending. Later, I discover that this point marks the highest point of the whole loop, at no less than 953 metres above sea level. Still on the dirt, the sudden increase in speed, combined with my rapidly fading energy, makes for a few hair-raising moments of both single- and double-wheel traction loss – but we soon reach tarmac again, without any unfortunate touchdowns or gravel rash to worry about.
Inspired by the idea of a cold schooner, we deviate from our planned King Valley route for only a hundred metres or so to check out the Tolmie Tavern. Unfortunately – as the man in a blue singlet on the pub verandah somewhat brusquely informs us – it’s closed on Tuesdays (the day we’re there), so we enjoy a couple of pre-packed wraps on the lawn instead, before saddling up again for the remaining 40km.
After all that time on the gravel, it’s nice to be back on the sealed stuff, and Alex and I power over the next couple of uphill rollers. By this point in the ride I’m used to the hemmed-in vibes of the forest, so it’s quite the surprise when the view opens to reveal a stunning vista of Victoria’s high country, framed by powerlines and stretching all the way to Mount Buffalo and beyond. We put the Tarmacs through their paces on a few sweeping switchbacks, and in this more exposed section, the heat of the day and the radiation of the sun reflecting off the road becomes very noticeable. A word of caution: for those wishing to follow in our wheel tracks, pack the sun screen.
If you’ve still got the energy, the 6km out-and-back dirt road to Powers Lookout – which emerges to our right at the 107km mark – is well worth the effort, rewarding you with another spectacular view over Australia’s high country, stretching from the King Valley below all the way to the Snowies. It’s named after another notorious bushranger, Harry Power – who, at one time, had a young Ned Kelly as an accomplice when the latter was still a teenager – and who used the rocky outcrop as a vantage point to evade local authorities in the 1860s. In a single year, Power is said to have carried out a whopping 600 robberies – but by many accounts, he was a gentleman, rarely violent and never murderous, and prone to flattering the ladyfolk even while robbing them.
One of the great pleasures of cycling has to be a ride that finishes with a descent, and that’s exactly what we enjoy on this fine Victorian afternoon. From Powers Lookout it’s pretty much all downhill, and Alex and I open the throttle, putting the Tarmacs through their final test of the day. With the downward slope averaging a steady 6-7%, our bikes chug along at a comfortable 50-60km/h through the beautifully cambered corners – fast enough to enjoy the flow of the road without the need to touch the brakes, but not so fast that we can’t enjoy the view.
Power is said to have carried out a whopping 600 robberies – but by many accounts, he was a gentleman
The regular sense of achievement following a solid ride is heightened by a sense of discovery
Rolling past the Mountain View Hotel, there’s only one thing left to decide: do we extend our ‘shammy time’ and hit the pub in kit, or head back to our digs and shower first? Well, being only 200 metres walk from our accommodation at Lusso KV, the decision is made for us. Within half an hour, we’re back at the pub and raising a glass to a job well done, and another Big Ride conquered. The regular sense of achievement following a solid ride is heightened by a feeling of discovery; that we’ve done something a little different, and discovered some world-class riding within spitting distance of Bright and the well-trodden path of the Victorian Alps. The pint tastes amazing.
Tam Allenby is a cycling journalist who, upon returning home to Sydney, moved with lightning speed to delete the 4:50am alarm from his phone.
The rider’s ride
Specialized Tarmac Disc Expert, $5,500 (specialized.com/au/en)
Both Tam and Alex rode the 2019 Specialized Tarmac Disc Expert. The value-packed build spec on this rig is impressive, featuring Shimano hydraulic disc brakes, Roval C38 Disc carbon fibre wheels, and crisp Shimano Ultegra mechanical shifting. With equal attention paid to both frame weight and stiffness/compliance, the new-gen Specialized Tarmac is a great all-day bike.
For the variable road conditions, the S-Works Turbo 26mm tyres were pumped to around 80psi, a pressure that balanced the need for speed on the smooth(er) sealed roads with the demands of the reasonably well-graded (but at times, rutted) gravel sections. And while both paintjobs looked amazing, we were particularly impressed by the luminescent, glittery finish on the Chameleon Green/Cast Blue/Tarmac Black/Team Yellow option, which appropriately changed its colour depending on the angle and intensity of the light hitting the frame – simply stunning. Under foot? The S-Works 7 shoes.
King Valley numbers
1,959 Metres of vertical gain. While it doesn’t sound like a crazy amount, keep in mind that the bulk of the elevation is on the unsealed, 8km gravel climb up to Stringybark Creek.
132 Kilometres ridden – around 35 of which are on that sweet, sweet gravel.
16 Width (in centimetres) of the epic chicken parma on offer at the Mountain View Hotel in Whitfield.
0 Amount of flat tyres for the ride; despite the rough terrain, the S-Works Turbo 26mm tyres handled it all with aplomb.
The route we took
Follow in Cyclist’s wheeltracks
Starting at the only intersection in sleepy Whitfield, take C521 Mansfield-Whitfield Road south-west out of town. Soon enough you’re climbing, but be sure to keep your wits about you to avoid missing the first turn-off onto Benalla-Whitfield Road, which forks off to the right about 8km in. Almost straight away you hit the famed ‘Strade Nero’ gravel sector. Continue on this road until Myrrhee and turn left at the T-intersection to continue on Benalla-Whitfield Road. Around 18km later, Benalla-Whitfield Road turns into Kilfeera Road; ride along this for about 8km before turning on to Molyullah-Tatong Road, which soon joins C517 Benalla-Tatong Road.
Press on through the small town of Tatong – enjoy a cold schooner or coke if the pub is open – where it becomes C517 Tatong-Tolmie Road. From here, your next challenge is the 8km gravel climb up towards Stringybark Creek; take a quick out-and-back detour here, at the top of the climb, for a quick bite of Australian history. Stay on the unsealed C517 till you hit C521 Mansfield-Whitfield Road; turn right and ride a couple of hundred metres to refill your bottles at the Tolmie Tavern, or turn left if you’re still well supplied. C521 Mansfield-Whitfield Road takes you the remaining 35km back to Whitfield, with some epic views of the Victorian Alps and rip-roaring descents along the way. But, before the final descent back to town, don’t miss the turn off to Power Lookout at 107km – it’s worth the extra effort.
Download the full route at strava.com/routes/16425039.
How we did it
To reach the King Valley, we left Sydney at the crack of dawn and pointed it straight down the Hume. The whole drive took just over seven hours, including a coffee stop at the Coffee Pedaler in Gundagai. There’s no two ways about it: it’s a long drive, but if you can divide the driving duties between a few people (as we did), it needn’t be a painful one. Melbourne-based readers are more conveniently placed; the drive shouldn’t take much longer than three hours.
We stayed at the sleek Lusso KV, a self-contained property in Whitfield that sleeps eight, with three king-size bedrooms and communal areas set over two levels. There’s plenty of room for the bikes, a kitted-out kitchen, air-con in every room, and even a firepit out the back that’s perfect for post-ride beers. Also, our Big Ride started only 100 metres from the front door – an absolutely perfect location, and pretty much the place to stay in Whitfield, unless you fancy setting up camp in the caravan park across the road.