Keeping to a theme, I have been involved in the first editions of a couple of bikepacking events in Australia, these being the Race to the Rock and the Hunt 1000. Even if I didn’t already respect the creator, Lewis Ciddor, his riding prowess and enjoy his friendship, I would still have had a crack at this new event in one of my favourite parts of Australia.
However, when I spoke to Lewis on the phone after his test ride of the route and heard the glee in his voice when he spoke of how great his barely laden, wide gear range, carbon, dual suspension bike went on the route, I should have been alarmed.
Logistics from Canberra were never going to be easy, but it worked out that a quick drive to Albury was the way to go, where I parked the car before jumping on the train with bike and two other riders. My local knowledge of Melbourne bike commuting routes got us to the Terminus Hotel quick smart where we caught up with old friends and what was coincidentally a Race to the Rock 2016 reunion, with five of us present!
Still in darkness, we all rolled off from the Spur, onto the Yarra Trails and started speeding toward whatever fate awaited us.
Day 1: 206km, 5200m climbed
Over indulgence and only four hours sleep wasn’t ideal preparation, it also made stomaching my planned breakfast of 3-4 bacon and egg muffins almost impossible and once I arrived at the start line I quickly found a spot to sit and feel sorry for myself as riders began to appear out of the darkness.
A quick speech by Lewis put us all in the mindset for the coming events and without a word, still in darkness, we all rolled off from the Spur, onto the Yarra Trails and started speeding toward whatever fate awaited us… little did we know that the route would be so challenging that half of the 45 (or so) riders weren’t going to make the finish.
Very familiar sights passed by as we followed the Yarra Trails through my old neighbourhood, such familiarity allowed me to chat to new and old friends on the way without fear of missing a turn. Much like the first day of any bikepacking race, my only motivation was to keep ahead of the bulk of the field, stupidly forsaking any preventative body maintenance, proper nutrition and of course capturing memories with my camera. Unfortunately I also neglected to keep track of the route in detail and in the excitement of a long stretch of singletrack overshot Warrandyte where I’d planned to collect water. The weather wasn’t hot, but it was humid enough to mean two litres of water disappeared pretty quickly – another consequence of the previous night.
Luckily a trail angel had his fold out chair set-up in his driveway, coffee in hand, and was more than happy to let me use his tap. The view from his home atop Yarra Range was astounding and I asked, with slight concern, where the smoke was from, he assured me it was, ‘Just mist,’ and I was on my way for more rugged singletrack and the climb into Toolangi.
The Toolangi Pub knew we were inbound and announced that they would open early for us. A couple of cokes and muffins went down a treat and, as we were winding up, more riders came trickling in.
It felt great to be getting more isolated, but the weather continued to sap moisture from my body and it was a relief to hit town and smash a chocolate milk and a Gatorade before sitting at the bakery for a feed.
Planned distances achieved throughout the day were less than what most of us had envisioned due to the terrain, and there was actually no reason to complete the 110km to Jamieson before opening hours in the morning, otherwise you would resign yourself to 200km and 5000metres of climbing with no resupply; and even then very limited store open hours in Mt Buller. If you weren’t racing for sheep stations, this was actually good news and the campsite located 30km before Jameison was an ideal and reasonable target, with a short ride at sunrise into town for bacon and egg rolls and a general store restock.
Day 2: 180km, 5200m climbed
The considerable climb before Jamieson was bitumen and as such was the easiest so far, a mere warm up. The café was open and numerous items were ordered from the menu including a takeaway bacon and egg roll for second breaky. The general store was relatively sparse but stocked enough to keep me going to Buller and through the 200km to Myrtleford if I missed open hours. The store attendant was over the moon to learn that I too was part of the race, and that I wasn’t wearing ‘that lycra stuff’.
Soon enough we were on the Howqua Feeder Walking Track and the theme of the ride changed. More singletrack but this time, deep scrub singletrack skirting the Howqua River and undulating between ferny gullies and dry fast valley-side trails. Sure that this would be one of the highlights, I made sure I enjoyed the ride, however, little did I know that the best was to come – the Ritchies Hut High Track. No words required, other than the fact that I’m sure we all tried to do one thing on this section – not to fall left…
Perhaps the most daunting section of the route was the big lump in the route profile that signified the 30km, 900vm climb to the top of Mt Buller. While I secretly love climbing and I could do it all day any day, the looseness of the surfaces so far had rendered even less arduous climbs difficult on the singlespeed as I tried to maintain traction and get into a rhythm for extended periods. As fate had it, this climb was a dream and I enjoyed the surrounding mountains slowly coming alongside as I matched them in altitude.
Lewis had ingeniously worked in a considerable section of the Mt Buller singletrack to get us to the top of the village and it was a welcome diversion from the grind… although I still couldn’t figure out if I loved him or hated him for the route so far. I told him so via text and he said that that it sounded about right then… (He had been forced to abandon with 10 fewer spokes so was watching our every moves in detail online). I had well and truly missed store hours and was happy to keep rolling but luckily had a quick chat to some mountain bikers who said the pub was open. Burger time!
After dinner perks were short lived as I enjoyed the first section of the Buller Epic Trail, a trail I had previously ridden on a ‘normal’ mountain bike on a ‘normal’ day. The downhill flow went well, until I reached Stonefly and realised that light was going to be gone soon, the trail was very difficult in the dark and rocky singletrack wasn’t a friend to fatigued legs trying to push a loaded bike. I screamed at the sky. A lot.
The first real test of the stand light on my K-Lite bikepacker lighting system was soon to come with a couple of serious climbs, the second being aptly named, The Staircase. All I wanted to do was clear these in the night so as to get a peaceful night’s sleep without the thought of three climbs before Myrtleford in the morning. Little did I know as I rolled my bivvy out that I was being stalked online and I had a chaser.
Day 3: 180km, 2700m climbed
A rain shower hit at 4:45am and I jumped out of my bivvy to cover my clothes and stuff in a tarp before I got back to bed and the shower stopped. The brief interruption prompted me to press snooze on my alarm because I had lost a few minutes sleep and like to maintain a 5 hr a night sleep regime! I was racing for fourth and that wasn’t a big deal, in reality I’d be happy with any ranking in that region as first, second and third positions were secure after Lewis had abandoned.
I spent the first hour of riding closely analysing the tyre tracks and correlating them to the riders I knew were in front. I counted three sets, but occasionally doubted myself as I saw mtb tracks roll over car tyre tracks; considering I hadn’t seen a car in 8hrs this had to mean that someone had overtaken me in the night… your mind plays tricks and in a fatigued state your imagination goes wild. Figuring I was possibly in 5th or 6th position I relaxed further as there was less and less reason to push.
Water had been easily available on route so far but now we were in proper farmland and I was reticent to drink the water unless I had to, even after purifying. The km flew by though and soon enough I was sitting at the Myrtleford bakery patting the town dog, enjoying pies, custard tarts and chocolate milk.
Great sealed rail trail dropped us at the base of The Flagstaff and I started the slog. Stopping for food, walking more than I needed and of course getting more photos, off hand I thought I’d check to see where I was sitting in the race. I discovered a rider was 7 minutes behind me after virtually riding straight through town with only a short stop at the servo for supplies. Reminiscent of the last day of the Tour Divide, I started riding, properly – all the while wondering why the heck someone would be so keen for fourth position. I didn’t want to give him the chance to tell me face to face!
I rode for a long while at the speed I probably should ride at more often, just faster than comfortable, with no procrastination or stopping.
I knew more singletrack was scheduled but knew it’d be fun and flowing, oh boy it was. There were moments I forgot I was on a bikepacking rig and the 2.8” Maxxis Rekons struggled for grip on the berms. The enjoyment was relatively short lived and about half way through the singletrack I was tired of it. This was the overwhelming feeling of everyone I spoke to after the race. I guess the feeling of going around in circles for an hour when you are trying to get somewhere isn’t what we bikepackers are used to. First world problems I know and well played to Lewis.
The roads were flat and busy, peak hour on a Monday arvo wasn’t a great time to be on the Yak-Wodonga Rd and almost every single car close-passed me even when the road was empty in the other lane. I was no longer thinking about my chaser but my safety.
I rode familiar bike paths into Albury and thought about the finish line of the Tour Divide and the indecision I had as to whether or not I wanted to finish alone or have someone there to greet me. The decision was out of my hands as I spied my mate Brenton who had abandoned with injury. It was great to see him and even greater to see the beer in his hand, for me.
I decided to hang around for my chaser and 40 minutes later he arrived, shattered after the days chase, which he claimed he had embarked on very early that morning with the chance of securing 3rd place. I didn’t register that he had said third place, then I rolled it over in my head again as he made a call on his phone. I butted in and mouthed, ‘Third place?’ To which he nodded. A podium rider had abandoned just after Myrtleford and I hadn’t counted tracks since then…
Having had plenty of sleep, no type 3 fun and feeling like I could keep going; I was pretty damn stoked with third!
Personally I would regard the Vic Divide as a mountain bike route, not necessarily a bikepacking route. By this I mean that I would never personally ride it on a fully loaded bikepacking rig (ie. tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, kitchen sink etc etc etc) due to the amount of walking undertaken by all but the top 4 riders (Luke, Lewis, John and Adam – not me!).
As a credit-card tour with accommodation and meals sorted, or an ultra-lightweight speed-fest, it would be fun.
Of course, as a race none of this matters as the comradery and knowledge that you aren’t the only person out there suffering is worth its weight in gold!
The Vic Divide will certainly endure the test of time and become a staple of the Aussie bikepacking scene for all the right reasons; primarily the sensational variety in terrain, astounding amount of singletrack and ease of transit to or from the big smoke by train.