When the snow melts away, the roads linking the towns of Victoria’s Alps become the ultimate playground for those on two wheels. Cyclist gets a hit of that alpine goodness…
Words: Bob Barrett
Photography: Marcus Enno (Beardy McBeard) and Bob Barrett
It’s Day 1, and my watch reads well past 0600. The breakfast room is abuzz with activity, very little of it orderly. Riders mill about with plates of scrambled eggs as they sip on their third or fourth cup of coffee. I’m gunning for five. Like breakfast – and despite some 140km on the itinerary – today’s ride will contain little in the way of structure. Ride with a buddy, pedal solo or find a happy middle ground as the route takes us up and over Tawonga Gap and Falls Creek en route to our evening’s resting pad in Omeo. Roll out when you feel ready, take lunch when you feel hungry and at no point target any KOMs.
We’ve joined Wide Open Road for its four-day Vic Alps Tour and, despite our caffeine-infused bodies willing us to get going, we’re feeling awfully relaxed. By the time this trip has made its way through the Victorian High Country, we’ll have departed only once as a cohesive group.
On top of that, Marcus Enno will be my one and only lunch partner. I’ve now heard all the tales from last year’s epic ride through Spain while chasing La Vuelta, been fully educated on the benefits of tubeless, and heard why I must come visit him in his newly adopted island home of Tasmania. The guy can talk.
This tour was very much designed for every participant to ride at the pace they deem appropriate. Some push on, but most soak up the brilliant weather, memorable roads and thrilling descents in equal parts fast and slow.
It’s a Thursday afternoon when Beardy (Marcus) and I arrive in Porepunkah. Clare, Pepe, and Rob from Wide Open Road (WOR) are ready and waiting with all the pre-ride essentials: beer, wine, and the BBQ just getting fired up.
The hotel backs onto a jagged mountainous backdrop and proves quite the contrast to the calmly trickling creek out back. The relentless climbs awaits – it’ll be conquered in the coming days – but for now, all I’m concerned about is a coldie. The relaxed environment is the perfect way to get to know the other cyclists while we watch the sky change colour and the sun sets over those imposing hills.
The relaxed environment is the perfect way to get to know other cyclists
A number of the riders in attendance know this trip well, having returned again after thoroughly enjoying themselves a year ago. More than a couple are clearly hooked, having taken advantage of WOR’s European trips. One rider, who goes by the somewhat intimidating nickname of Rocket Rod, is particularly well acquainted with the tour. His stories flow faster than the hopped beverage can leave his glass. We’d discover the origin of his nickname over the coming days – ‘rocket’ is no understatement when it comes to his riding style. This man does not disappoint.
Having only ridden this part of Victoria during the Peaks Challenge, I’m excited to see more of the countryside and intent on making a concerted effort to spend less time looking at my stem and more time immersing myself in the scenic surroundings. Like Rocket, the Victorian Alps would not disappoint.
Tips from the top
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And we’re off…
After a slow roll out from our cosy Porepunkah accommodation, we face the Tawonga climb. At 145km, today is the longest and hardest day of the long weekend, so I try not to let youthful exuberance get the better of me. At 13.8km and 3.9% average, Tawonga is a pretty serious ascent, but compared to what’s to come it’s not much more than a nice warm-up. Shortly after we commence heading uphill, Rocket overtakes, leaving me for dead. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d watch him head up the road.
The morning is quiet, and as we climb mostly under the treeline, I catch the odd glimpse of the summit. It seems to loom in the distance for an awfully long time. When we finally arrive, the view from the top is the perfect payoff. With almost 180-degree views looking over Tawonga and Mount Beauty towards Mount Bogong, the lookout is truly breathtaking.
As always, the best part of a long climb is the long descent. With such little traffic, it feels incredible to let it all go. Chasing Beardy and Rocket downhill is much easier than chasing them up, and we blast by Sullivans Lookout all the way to Mount Beauty. What a hoot – the tight, steep corners beg us to tip it in all the way down.
In a real contrast to previous tours I’ve been on, management of the riders by WOR on the road is truly relaxed. Today, tomorrow and the day after, we’re given free rein. A single support car floats around throughout the day, but it’s by no means a sag wagon. The approach is working well given the spread of abilities out on the road. Riders have the freedom to set their own pace without the pressure of a bunch.
From the bottom of Tawonga it’s merely a stroll through Mount Beauty (the town – there’s no climbing here) before we start the huge 30km ascent to Falls Creek. The first half of the climb is steady with a few descents providing slight relief for the legs, but with 1,160 metres of climbing before the summit, this is one of the best-known and toughest peaks in Victoria. The long road forms part of the Peaks Challenge sportive route, which usually heads down from Falls Creek in March each year. This, however, isn’t March, so instead we’re riding up to the ski resort.
In a real contrast to previous tours I’ve been on, management of the riders by WOR is truly relaxed
Halfway up the climb we enter a leafy, forest-like area where the road snakes and winds around the contours of the landscape. This is by far my favourite part of the climb. It’s beautiful but steep enough to really switch the legs into another gear.At around 10km we begin to break through the lush treeline into what would have to be considered quintessential Australian alpine country. Bare, stark trees are squeezed between gigantic boulders, and while very much unnecessary at this time of year, the red-orange poles encourage us to keep to the right of the road edge. These last few kilometres feel steep, but perhaps that’s because my body knows the top isn’t far away.
‘400m to Falls Creek’ reads the sign ahead, and my spirits lift momentarily. Elation turns to devastation, however (okay, maybe that’s a bit dramatic) as we arrive at the National Park gates into Falls. The resort, which I can spot in the distance, is still 5km away. My stomach is starting to churn with hunger, but that turns out to be the least of my concerns.
‘Your brake is rubbing,’ says Beardy as he puts the power down. My rear quick release is loose and my tyre is very much rubbing. It has probably done since we rolled out. Oh well – a bit of resistance training never hurt anyone.
I catch up to Beardy just before the lunch spot and we find Rocket hydrating after his efforts. A few Coronas deep, Rocket takes a final swig and rolls out. After years of riding, I really should have learned my lesson, but whenever we stop at a pub for lunch, I can’t help but have a beer. I’m not about to break tradition. After riding in an upward trajectory for some 40km in the finest warm weather Australia has to offer, however, I regret it very quickly.
My rear quick release is loose and my tyre is very much rubbing. Oh well – a bit of resistance training never hurts
My regret only intensifies when I find out there’s still a fair amount of climbing to go. Luckily, the weather is perfect – no wind, just clear blue skies as we loop around the south side and begin the descent down the notorious side of Falls Creek. This is more commonly known as the last climb during Peaks, but for us it means a 30km descent, and the rough surface dreaded by sportive riders only ups the excitement for us. By the time we hit the bottom, my hands and arms have hit their threshold, but it’s over in a flash.
With just a flattish run into Omeo left, I allow myself a little time to stretch and rest the arms. Beardy has other plans though, and his patience is running thin after slowing for me over the course of the day. After a quick shandy at the Blue Duck Inn near Anglers Rest and a good 30km on Beardy’s wheel, I’m absolutely toast when we arrive at the Golden Age Motel. I couldn’t be happier to see the rest of the team as I collapse at a table. Refreshments are set out and ready to go. Delightful.
Climb, climb, climb
The final days of riding focus on one main climb each day. On Saturday, we climb the long road up Mount Hotham to Dinner Plain for lunch before rolling down my favourite descent of the trip: Mount Hotham to Harrietville. With sweeping turns and spectacular views, we’re lucky enough to do this twice over the weekend. It’s not all fast and smooth sailing though; there’s a deceptive false flat that we really have to pedal through for a few kilometres in order to maintain a bit of speed.
Although this route makes for a relatively short day, you can easily ramp up some extra length and height by adding on a little trip into Bright and back or, like us, just settle in for the afternoon at the Harrietville Snowline Hotel – our accommodation for the evening. This cute little motel with a gravel driveway is attached to a small-town pub, home to a resident dog and an eclectic bunch of local characters: truckers talking horsepower and leather trims, cyclists talking vertical meters and heat stroke.
Sunday brings with it a simple ride up Mount Hotham. With greenery thinning towards the summit and expansive views of the ridgelines, this has to be one of the most scenic climbs in Australia. In the final part of the climb you’re vulnerable to the elements, but today it’s truly amazing. Any other day you can be blown off your bike and the temperature can drop rapidly, summer or winter. Luckily for us, wearing enough sunscreen is our only concern, although with my complexion no amount of sunscreen is ever enough.
Bright Brewery is the last stop for the day, and after swapping off with Beardy the drill sergeant, I’m feeling thirsty!
Get on the Horn
On Monday morning, the plan is to conquer Mount Buffalo, which will be a first for me. Breakfast is at 7:30am, but Beardy and I decide to roll out a little earlier and ride to Th e Horn, which is another 11km past our scheduled lunch stop. What a beautiful climb! In complete contrast to the barren Hotham summit, The Horn is lush with greenery and wildlife along the narrow, winding roads. It’s absolutely worth the earlier roll out. The morning sun is spectacular, lighting up the steep face of the mountain as we climb it.
As Beardy and I push past the planned lunch stop, we both have instant regret about skipping breakfast. We lose a bit of steam but push on toward The Horn. Only five minutes after commenting on how good my legs feel after the previous days of riding, they now stop dead.
Pushing your legs to The Horn is well worth it though. The final stretch is on gravel with tight switchbacks and some pretty rough roads. It certainly makes us feel like we’re exploring new territory. The views from the lookout are absolutely spectacular; it feels like you’re at the highest point in the area, and as you look down over the mountain ranges you can’t help but feel inspired to explore new roads, more gravel, and new adventures.
On the last night we all eat dinner together at Feathertop Winery. We begin with some wine tastings before devouring a first-class three-course meal. Feathertop is a quaint little vineyard set in the hills of Porepunkah. It’s the perfect spot to end the trip as we enjoy a drink together, watching the sun set over the garden and regaling each other with tales of the weekend’s riding.
All in all, this was a weekend to remember. There’s so much to see in the area, and blasting through on a one-day event simply doesn’t do it justice. I’m very thankful to have had the extra days to immerse myself in the sights and take it all in. Being able to set your own pace and roll out when you’re ready make for a very enjoyable and relaxed experience.
Having said that, it’s always good to ride with folks who are going to push you a little bit from time to time. Thanks, Beardy and Rocket.
Bob Barrett is a cycling photographer and writer who’d very much like the nickname ‘Rocket Bob’.
How we did it
Like with any worthwhile weekend of riding, we started our journey by getting out of the city. Unfortunately, that involved Sydney’s afternoon traffic and its notorious M5 parking lot. There’s no doubt the weekend of riding is going to be worth it, but until you make it out of town, traffic always makes it a little painful.
It’s a seven-hour drive from Sydney to Porepunkah and a much more manageable three-and-a-half-hour drive from Melbourne, so Beardy had plenty of time to show me all the fancy trimmings of his new Skoda Kodiaq.
Once we hit High Country, excitement began to creep in. The green rolling hills grew into more serious mountains the closer we got to Porepunkah. The scenery in this part of Australia reminds me of scenes from Lord of the Rings, with open grasslands, rocky outcrops and the mountainous backdrop.
The towns in the area have a peculiar vibe in the middle of summer. As most of the businesses are seasonal and geared toward snow tourism, many places are still closed. The ones that are open are often very quiet, catering to motor enthusiasts enjoying the same roads as us, small groups of cyclists, and the occasional hiker.
Our accommodation over the weekend was made up of quaint, homely motel-style stays. Always very neat and tidy, the Buffalo Motel and High Country Retreat Porepunkah has a very English countryside vibe, while the Harrietville has a very similar vibe with a gravel driveway and the addition of a fantastic pub, perfect for post-ride refreshments or pre-ride coffee before hitting the road. The Golden Age Hotel in Omeo had a great range of beers on tap and the dining area and main pub heaved with energy in the evening.
The great wide open
Follow in Wide Open Road’s tracks
I love riding a big loop as opposed to riding to one particular spot, sleeping overnight and returning the next day via the same route. There’s a greater sense of achievement when reaching new towns before sundown. Saying that, this tour offers the best of both worlds. Two of my favourite days were riding up and down Mount Hotham and Mount Buffalo. This trip starts and finishes in Porepunkah, where you can park the car until your return. For full tour details head to wideopenroad.net.au/vic-alps or follow the route via Strava.
It’s high time…
What: Vic Alps Cycle Tour
Where: Porepunkah (start and finish)
Distance: 400km (over four days)
Elevation: 1,500m – 3,000m per day
Next one: November 14-18, 2019
Price: From $1,350pp, twin share