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Big Ride: Tasmania

Alex Malone
13 Apr 2016

On the other side of the world, Cyclist discovers riding that could explain why Tasmania has produced more than its fair share of pros

It’s no longer a secret that the Tasmanian wilderness spawns top cyclists. BMC’s Richie Porte is partly responsible for exposing the talent of the area after he became only the fifth Australian in history – and the sole Tasmanian – to wear the maglia rosa at the Giro d’Italia. He did this in his neo-pro season back in 2010 and has since become one of the small island state’s biggest exports. But while Porte helped put ‘Tassie’ (as the Australians call it) on the world cycling map, it would be unfair to focus on his exploits alone. Milan-San Remo winner Matt Goss and former Team Sky rider Nathan Earle can also call Tasmania home.

Covering an area 90% the size of Scotland but with just over half a million inhabitants, the island punches above its weight on the global stage of cycling. So what is it about the Tasmanian terrain that moulds world-class riders? Cyclist decided it was time to find out.

Basing ourselves in Launceston, Porte’s home town in the north of the island, we opted to tackle two less well-known routes – one point-to-point ride from Sheffield to the iconic Cradle Mountain followed by a very special journey east of Launceston to Ben Lomond National Park, home of Jacob’s Ladder, one of the most spectacular and breathtaking climbs on the continent.

Day 1: Rocking the Cradle

We start in Sheffield, 90km from Launceston and named after the home town of Yorkshireman Edward Curr who settled there in 1859. We roll out to begin our scenic route to Cradle Mountain. Our guide Simon Stubbs, who we quickly give the nickname ‘Stubbsy’, has encouragingly described the route as ‘lumpy’, but this is something of an understatement. If you have the legs for the return journey all credit to you, because with 3,500m of climbing in a little over 110km you’ll be burning by the end.

With the sun just creeping above the neighbouring Mount Roland, it’s not long until the ‘lumps’ Stubbsy spoke of are upon us. Rest assured though, this ride isn’t all about the ups. The descent over the top of Union Bridge Road barely 10km in, known to locals as Heartbreak Hill, deserves respect. We’re thankful we’re coming down it rather than climbing it. 

‘I’ve ridden all around there, up through the Gog [Forest],’ Richie Porte tells Cyclist when we tap him up for information about his stamping ground before our trip. ‘I’ve done all the climbs, including Heartbreak Hill, which might not be that long, but it’s really steep.’

The luscious green fields and flowing streams help pass the time before we hit the major challenge of the day up Echo Valley. It has a real Aussie alpine feel to it, the nearing of the summit signalled by hardened shrubs and rocky outcrops. The chilling wind at the top serves as a reminder why a lightweight rain cape or wind vest is a must around these parts. 

‘I usually take arm warmers, a rain jacket and gloves, even if it’s sunny,’ says Nathan Earle, former team-mate to Porte at Sky and Hobart local (Cyclist contacted every Tassie pro we could think of before heading there).

The wickedly fast descent soon joins Claude Road and leads us to a lush rainforest-covered downhill section close to Cethana Dam, with a demanding climb on the other side. Just when you think the hard work is done, the turn onto Cradle Mountain Road makes you realise you’re only about halfway to reaching the crest proper.

A little over an hour away from our destination and the tall tree lined roads are replaced by sparse terrain where only the toughest of fauna can survive due to the rapid changes in weather as you get closer to Cradle Mountain. This is nothing like riding in Europe or America. Where else can you find yourself counting the wombats grazing along the roadside, or the echidnas, unwilling to allow anyone too close before digging into the ground?

St Clair National Park is spectacular, and it’s here the elder of the Sulzberger brothers, Bernard, got his first taste of Cradle riding with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport (TIS). ‘I’ve done a number of rides around that area in the past with the TIS,’ he says. ‘We stayed for a week at Cradle Mountain, and it’s really tough terrain around there. It’s great for training.’

The buttongrass landscape contrasted with vivid rainforest pockets and trickling streams is reason enough to keep this area well protected. Visitors are advised to travel the final 10km to the summit by shuttle bus, such is the narrow road to Dove Lake. There’s also no intention to widen the road for more traffic – all the better for us as tired legs churn through the final few minutes. When the road finally ends there isn’t much on offer, just a car park and somewhere
to freshen up. What lies directly ahead with clouds cleared, however, is a remarkable sight even for weary eyes. We wash our faces in the icy lake – as still as glass due to the lack of wind – before taking a moment to sit by the small ‘beach’ at the end of the sealed path.

If you pack walking shoes you can take a brisk two-hour stroll around the lake, but instead we decide to fill up and make our way to Peppers Tavern Bar, where Stubbsy awaits, stepping in for a lager and hearty meal with everything from burgers to grilled salmon, steaks and green curry. With one of Tassie’s highlights ticked off, we jump in the car back to Launceston.

Day 2: Jacob’s Ladder

It should be said the main portion of this ride is on unsealed roads, but that’s what makes these trips so exciting. After all, there’s no reason not to take a road bike off-piste. The professionals do it during the Spring Classics, thrashing over the white gravel of Strade Bianche or across the cobbles of Flanders and Roubaix.

One of the fantastic things about Tasmania during the summer is the amount of daylight on offer for those who want to make the most of it, with first light at 6am and a sunset closer to 9pm. We’ll need nearly every minute.

Starting from our base in Launceston, there’s an array of cafes to satisfy the pre-ride caffeine fix. We decide to take some advice from Porte, whose favourite spot is Pantry Espresso. During the off-season you can often find the Launie local fuelling up there before heading out for a training ride towards the town of Scottsdale.

‘The Pantry’s owned by a mate who’s a bit of a crazy mountain biker. That’s usually where we meet now. We do the one loop around Scottsdale a lot. With over 2,000m of climbing it’s up and down all day and then you come back over the Siding, which is a really good climb.’

Ben Mather, who runs the Avanti store where Porte takes his BMC machine when in need, holds the Strava record for Jacob’s Ladder, but that time was achieved on a mountain bike. Porte, on the other hand, still has Jacob’s on his to-do list. ‘When I was in Colorado [in 2013] the guys on the bus were looking at pictures of climbs and the biggest was Jacob’s Ladder. I said, “That’s right where I live!” I’ve driven up it, but I really want to ride it,’ he says. Perhaps it’ll have to wait until a time when he’s not building for a tilt at a Grand Tour. 

While Porte is yet to ride the exposed switchback climb, Bernard Sulzberger was most recently up there during his time with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport. Like Porte, Sulzberger’s commitments to the Professional Continental squad Drapac mean he’s more inclined to set off on a Scottsdale loop. However, the demanding climb sits firmly in his memory. ‘I’ve done Ben Lomond and Jacob’s Ladder during another one of the TIS camps. We went to the top and back down again. It’s pretty solid on the road bike as it’s all gravel.’

Though it remains one of Launceston’s hidden gems, ‘The Ladder’ is easy to find for those who dare to cross over from the bitumen to the rough gravel road. We shoot eastward to Blessington Road on the 401, which will take us all the way to a right-hand turn onto Ben Lomond Road. There’s little hiding from the hills in Launceston and we quickly warm up, stripping off layers as we pass poppy fields with signs reading: ‘Keep Out. Illegal Use of Crop May Cause DEATH.’

We’ve already accumulated a few hundred vertical metres but it’s after we join the Ben Lomond Road that the real climbing starts, and while the temperature will be significantly cooler at the summit, we decide to stash our non-essentials at the bottom next to a sign offering a blow-by-blow account of what’s in store once we start up the initial 9% gradient. The only relevant bit, however, is the bottom of the sign, which reads ‘18km’. That means it’s a little under an hour and a half of non-stop riding in which every bit of my 28-tooth cassette will be needed.

Soon enough the tree line fades and the sides of the road are replaced with cliff walls and giant boulder gardens that flow down the face of the mountain. Wild weather and high-speed winds have shaved off huge sections of rock, but thankfully the more overhung sections of Jacob’s are reinforced with netting to prevent us being crushed by falling debris.

Snaking up the ladder

The climb itself isn’t all that steep, but after 16km of grinding in our lowest gears, negotiating the loose switchback turns of Jacob’s Ladder becomes much more difficult. When we reach the top we look down as a big gust of wind hits us. The feeling of vertigo sees us step back a little from the edge of the rocky outcrop.

With the air temperature in single digits and the wind ripping across the ridge line, it's time to put on a shell jacket and pedal softly towards the ski village. No one’s home, so refuelling consists of mountain spring water, a muesli bar and a banana – hopefully enough to get us back to Launceston.

The descent of Jacob’s Ladder feels mildly treacherous thanks to the loose surface and the wind, but eventually we reach the bottom and make our way back onto the protected fire road without too much fuss. Thankfully the road is actually in quite good condition and it’s not too demanding on the body.

After a quick breather back at our ‘stash’ site we take a right turn onto Camden Road for what looks to be a shortish section of again-unsealed roads. It becomes apparent that we should have gone back to Launceston the same way we came, but we’re now committed to the point of no return. Besides, what’s another 30-odd kilometres of off-road after conquering the Ladder? We refrain from thinking about how far we still have to go as we tip over 3,000m total elevation for the 100km covered so far.

At last we make it to the Tasman Highway for the cola-fuelled and blisteringly fast final hour into Launceston. We’re a little late for lunch – Stubbsy has been worried after we’d told him we’d be back around noon. It’s now closer to 5pm. He’s relieved to see that we’re safe, and after ordering a coffee he pulls up a stool. There isn’t much else to do but eagerly peruse the images of the day and think about our time spent in and around this cyclists’ dream town. Judging by the riding we’ve sampled, it’s no surprise Tasmania keeps churning out champions. 

How we got there

Travel

Clearly you’re unlikely to fly to the southern hemisphere solely for a couple of days riding in Tasmania, but if you do find yourself in Australia, then travelling to Launceston is quick and hassle-free with a flying time of just over 90 minutes from Sydney. 

The crew from Cyclist was delivered to the International airport via Virgin Airlines (virgin-atlantic.com), with Jetstar (jetstar.com) stepping in for the return leg. 

Accommodation

We stayed at the Hotel Grand Chancellor Launceston (grandchancellorhotels.com) where the stomach-busting breakfast buffet left us needing to do a second enormous ride just to burn off the plentiful meal consumed shortly after sunrise.

There’s an abundance of cycling-friendly cafes in town, but Aromas on Charles Street is one of the most popular pre- and post-ride locales for a wide selection of baked goods and coffee. It’s also not a bad spot if you’re in need of something more substantial.

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