A weekend of cycling in Canberra
In the past few months I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time cycling in Perth and Adelaide and just last weekend I added Canberra to that list.
I’ve been to our nation’s capital a bunch of times, but never with my bike. So when my Dad told me he was heading up to Canberra for a map exhibition at the National Library and that he had room in the car, I was quick to ask if I could come along.
The plan was to head up for a long weekend — Saturday morning to Monday evening — and while Dad was out seeing the sights, I would get some riding in.
I knew there were a bunch of great climbs around Canberra, but I wasn’t sure which ones I should give preference to. So I asked Twitter:
— Matt de Neef (@climbingcyclist) February 20, 2014
The response was fantastic and before long I had a long list of must-do climbs to pack into two or three rides.
Day 1: Mt. Stromlo return
Early on Saturday morning Dad picked me and we started the long drive up to Canberra. It took us roughly eight hours, with a couple stops included, and by late afternoon we were checking in to our motel in Symonston, just south of the city.
Earlier in the week I’d been in touch with a bloke called Paddy who was up at Mt. Stromlo all day on Saturday in an attempt to ‘Everest’ the climb. It was drizzling and overcast by the time I’d unpacked my bags and it was tempting to sit down and do nothing. But the thought that Paddy was going to be out on the climb for as much as 24 hours gave me just enough motivation to get up and out into the rain.
The ride out to Stromlo was easy enough and thankfully the rain wasn’t all that heavy. And when I got to the base I figured I might as well start climbing until I saw Paddy. I’d never met him before but I figured that with the weather being as miserable as it was, there wouldn’t be too many riders on the hill.
A kilometre or so up the hill I saw a couple of riders descending and yelled out. Sure enough, one of them was Paddy and I joined he and his mate on their way down before the three of us turned around headed up the hill.
For a bloke that had already climbed more than 5,000m (he was at Everest’s ‘base camp’ when I saw him) and had been out there for more than 12 hours, Paddy looked and sounded remarkably fresh. The three of us chatted as we made our way up the short gentle climb in light drizzle, pushing past a boomgate to the summit before beginning the descent.
I only had time for the one climb so at the bottom I wished Paddy all the best and made my way back to the hotel. It would take Paddy more than 24 hours and 420km to finish his Everest, but he got there. You can see him in this post — he’s the one with the cake.
Day 2: a selection of Canberran climbs
I began my ride at 6.30am on Sunday knowing that I had a strict time limit. Dad and I had tickets to see the map exhibition at noon and I needed to be back by 11.30am to get ready. My plan was to tackle what is apparently a reasonably well-known local ride — the Canberra Six Peaks — but everything would have to go flawlessly if I was going to get around the whole course in time.
I had uploaded the route map to my Garmin 500 and followed the single black line on the screen as I headed north across the Molongo River (which connects with Lake Burley Griffin). The first climb on the menu was Mt. Pleasant, a short ascent which, I soon realised, was located inside the Australian Defence Force Academy campus.
As I followed my Garmin’s instructions through a maze of roads within the academy I saw the odd “Trespassing Forbidden” sign by the side of the road. I figured the signs referred to the actual grounds of the Academy itself and not the roads, so I pressed on as the sun continued to rise.
The climb itself is only short — 1km at 3% — but it was a nice way to wake up the legs ahead of the more challenging climbs ahead. The views were impressive as the road doubled back on itself and before too long I was at the summit — with two Australian Federal Police who just seemed to be standing there checking out the view. I took a couple quick snaps from the lookout then pressed on. Time was of the essence.
I wasn’t expecting the next climb — Mt. Ainslie — to be so close. I’d ridden barely a kilometre from the base of Mt. Pleasant before the Garmin was telling me to turn right and I could see the road ramping up.
I reckon Mt. Ainslie might have been the toughest climb of the day. The Strava segment suggests it’s 2.9km at 8% but this climb is a perfect example of why average gradient doesn’t tell you the full story about a climb.
The climb starts off easily enough, but it just gets steeper and steeper as you head north and bend around to the west and then the south. Much of the climbing is at over 10% and even though I was warm from Mt. Pleasant, Mt. Ainslie was a kick in the teeth.
One thing I noticed at the top of this climb and many of the short rises around Canberra is the number of runners around. So many people were running up the hills, getting a solid workout. Coming from Melbourne — where the biggest hill near the CBD is Anderson Street — this seemed strange, but also really cool.
Mt. Ainslie might have been the hardest of the climbs but it was also the one with the best view. From the summit you have an interrupted view over the Australian War Memorial, down Anzac Avenue, over Lake Burley Griffin, and through to Old Parliament House and the new Parliament House. It was hard to drag myself away from this view, knowing that I was on a time limit.
Where the transfer from Mt. Pleasant to Mt. Ainslie was short, the one from Mt. Ainslie to Mt. Majura was anything but. Slightly ironic given that both peaks are in the same nature reserve.
My first problem was that the route I’d mapped out for my Garmin had me descending some gravel track to get between climbs. That wasn’t going to happen. Finding my way around the mountain without help from my Garmin took up valuable time and I was starting to feel anxious. And then when I followed my Garmin on to the Federal Highway — which heads north east out of Canberra towards Sydney — and missed the turn-off to Majura Road, things were looking grim.
With no other exits in sight and no indication that there would be any time soon (I think the next exit is about 10km up the road) I had no choice but to find a safe place to turn around.
The Federal Highway is well travelled by cyclists and there are wide bike lanes in each direction, but the speed limit along there is 110km/h and crossing it was slightly nerve-wracking. I found a crossover point, waited for a large gap in the admittedly sparse traffic, and rode across, before repeating the process on the other side. I’d come a few kilometres too far, just across the ACT-NSW border, and had to backtrack to Majura Road.
As I made my way back into the ACT I realised I wasn’t going to finish the route I set out to do. I decided I’d skip the penultimate climb, Mt. Stromlo, which I’d done the night before, and replace it with the shorter climb through the National Arboretum. This meant I didn’t have to do roughly 20km of riding to get out to and back from Stromlo and plus, the Arboretum climb wasn’t far from the route I’d planned out.
With the pressure of the time limit lifted from my shoulders, I made my way to the start of the Mt. Majura summit road and started climbing. At 2.8km and with an average grade of 8%, Mt. Majura is quite a similar climb to Mt. Ainslie on paper. But unlike Ainslie, the climbing on Majura seems far more consistent. The surface is rougher though, which made it seem harder than it might have, but the views and the lack of traffic made it all worth the effort.
One reason for the lack of traffic is a gate roughly 1km into the climb. You have to lift your bike and yourself over the fence to continue on but it’s worth the trouble for the closed road beyond.
As a visitor to Canberra it’s probably the Black Mountain climb that most captures the imagination. For a start, it’s one of the few climbs I’d heard about before researching local climbs properly. And then there’s the fact that the Telstra Tower at the summit is visible from anywhere around Canberra, acting as a real landmark.
The transition from Mt. Majura to Black Mountain was quick, straight down Northbourne Avenue towards the centre of town. I’d been warned about the start of the climb — it ramps up straight away and continues in a series of steep and not-so-steep sections to the summit 2.7km up the road.
Despite it being steeper, on average, than any of the climbs I’d done so far that day, it didn’t feel too tough. Possibly because the road surface was immaculate, unlike the rougher surfaces elsewhere.
I’d like to say I was impressed by the views at the summit but the truth is I couldn’t really see anything. The Telstra Tower seems to have a monopoly on the best vantage point and to get in and check it out you have to pay for the privilege. I would have been happy to do so had I not been salt-encrusted and clad in lycra, but instead I decided to push on, getting some views on the way down.
After descending Black Mountain I skirted around the western edge of Lake Burley Griffin and made my way to the National Arboretum climb. Like Mt. Pleasant this climb wasn’t particularly long or tough — 1.7km at 5% — but it did have a couple of steep ramps throughout, particularly the last section to Dairy Farmers Hill.
The views from the lookout were terrific, looking east towards the city, and with all but the final climb done and plenty of time to spare — thanks to the decision to skip Mt. Stromlo — I took a minute to take it all in.
The final climb of the day was Red Hill, a short rise that I’d ridden past the day before on my way back from Mt. Stromlo.
From bottom to top it was a little more than one kilometre, or 1.7km if you go all the way to the end of the road. Like the National Arboretum climb Red Hill seemed to be a series of ramps rather than a consistent grade and I was starting to struggle.
After taking a few photos at the summit (the views aren’t as good as on earlier climbs) I headed back to the motel, well ahead of schedule. I was so early that I managed to get back before Dad — he was out seeing some other sights — and I had a bit of time to kill. So I went back out and found a short climb that just happened to be out the back of the motel.
All in all a solid day on the bike, and all finished in time to enjoy a great afternoon of sightseeing (the exhibition was amazing for those that are wondering.)
Day 3: Cotter-Uriarra Loop, with extras
Our plan on Monday was to start the drive home just before noon, which meant I’d need to get out early again if I wanted to get another long ride in. A few people had told me on Twitter that I should do the popular Cotter-Uriarra Loop and looking at the list of climbs I was keen to do, I noticed three of them were close to that loop. Perfect.
I left the motel about 6.30am and made my way out along Cotter Road, past a bunch of ugly estate developments, past the Mt. Stromlo turn-off and into the countryside beyond. I was surprised at how quickly I found myself out of the confines of the city. Like in Adelaide it seems you don’t have to go too far in Canberra to be on rural roads, and I wasn’t complaining.
With the sun just barely above the horizon I bombed down the first descent of the day with terrific views to my left and right. Being a Monday morning there was virtually no traffic heading in either direction. In fact I reckon I only saw a dozen cars or so for the whole Cotter-Uriarra Loop.
I followed the windy road down towards the Murrumbidgee River and before long it was time for the first diversion of the day — the 1.1km long Pierces Creek climb. At the time it felt pretty tough, which I chalked up to the fact it was the first proper climb of the day, but later I realised the average gradient was 10%. That would explain it.
The fast descent took me back to ‘the loop’ at which point I took a left and went straight into the second climb of the day: Mt. McDonald. All told it was a touch under 5km of climbing at 3% and I really enjoyed just spinning my way up.
It was on the upper slopes of the climb that the views started to get really impressive. I couldn’t help but crane my neck to the right as I climbed, soaking it all in in the early-morning sunshine.
Roughly 37km into the ride I reached a T-intersection. The Cotter-Uriarra Loop continued to the right, but to the left were a handful of small climbs I was keen to check out before I continued the ride.
Brindabella Road rises and falls as it makes its way south west towards the ACT-NSW border and all while surrounded by the thick bush of the Uriarra State Forest. I don’t remember seeing more than a couple cars on this short diversion and a couple times I felt quite isolated in the remote countryside.
Apparently there’s a race or two that follows Brindabella Road all the way to the end of the sealed road, roughly 9km from the T-intersection. As I climbed the tough rises, some of them quite steep, I kept thinking how hard racing on that road would be. The gradients are always changing, you’re never climbing for more than a few minutes, and its virtually impossible to find a rhythm. Beautiful roads though.
I turned around at the start of the gravel road and made my way back to the T-intersection, rejoining the Cotter-Uriarra Loop. If I thought the views were good on the way into the Uriarra village then what I was about to experience was even better.
With a nice tailwind behind me and a slightly downhill profile working in my favour, I flew down towards Uriarra Crossing — where Uriarra Road crosses the Murrumbidgee River — never taking my eyes off the stunning valley views for more than a few seconds.
Before I headed into the city I had one final diversion to attend to — Fairlight Road. The climb is 2km long at 5% and takes you right to the ACT-NSW border. I took it nice and easy on the way up, took a few photos then descended back to Uriarra Crossing to begin the final stretch back to Canberra.
There’s a series of three short climbs out of Uriarra Crossing known as the Three Sisters. The average grade for the 2.4km stretch is 5% which gives you a sense of how steep the actual ramps are.
I battled my way up each of the ramps and tried to find a rhythm for the last bit back into town. But that last 11km stretch back to the end of Uriarra Road is very lumpy with barely any flat spots and I found it hard to get comfy.
I’d planned to meet Dad by the shores of Lake Burley Griffin about 11am but I’d made better time than expected and I had some time to kill when I got to the rendezvous point. I rode along a bike track beside the lake for a bit before turning back, meeting up with Dad with 103km ridden for the day.
I got changed, we packed the car and then we started the long drive home, to round out a great weekend in the nation’s capital.
One of the most satisfying things to come out of the weekend was the fact I was able to do back-to-back rides of roughly 100km without any knee pain. The tendonitis-like injury I’ve had for the past few months has limited the distance I’ve been able to ride but on the weekend I felt comfortable and didn’t get sore at all.
My ribs were another matter. Having fallen while mountain biking the weekend before I’d been suffering from what I suspect was a broken rib or two. Getting in and out of bed and sleeping generally has been tough, and while riding hasn’t been too painful, getting out of the saddle on climbs isn’t pleasant. But, the ribs are improving every day and I’m looking forward to being able to ride pain-free again soon.
One thing that struck me about Canberra is just how good the cycling infrastructure is. Bike tracks seemed to be everywhere, bike lanes were near constant, and the number of signs warning road users about cyclists speaks to a strong cycling community.
I was particularly impressed with the thought given to intersections where motorists have to cross bike lanes to leave the road they’re on. The bike lanes are clearly marked, as are the danger points, and on many occasions there are two bike lanes on approach to the intersection — one for cyclists heading left, one for those heading straight on.
In all it was a fantastic weekend away. It would be easy to have driven home on Monday feeling like the drive up to Canberra was too recent a memory. But it wasn’t — we made the most of our time in the ACT and had a great time.
That said, I’m definitely keen to come back to Canberra and try out some of the climbs that are a little further afield. Climbs like the one to Corin Dam, Fitz’s Hill and others that were just a little too far out to reach in the short time we had.
I’d like to say a big thank you to everyone that offered ride advice on Twitter. Before you go, be sure to check out the photos below, as presented in the snazzy new gallery format I’ve just finished putting together. Thanks for reading!