Around the Lake (a Hells 500 epic)
Route: One clockwise lap of Lake Eildon
Duration: 7 hours 46 minutes
Two days before Around the Lake I still didn’t know if I was going or not. Sure, I’d forked out $110 for a pair of 25mm ‘puncture resistant’ tyres to combat the ride’s 50km of dirt, but that didn’t mean I could get those tyres on to my wheels. In fact, two hours of stretching and straining on Wednesday night yielded nothing but frustration, blood blisters and a burning desire to stay at home come Saturday morning.
It took all of 10 minutes for the local bike shop mechanic to fit the tyres, leaving one amateur cyclist feeling more than a little embarrassed. With the tyres on and the guarantee that a puncture was nigh on impossible, I was ready to go: bring on Around the Lake!
The day started at 4.15am when I woke up, downed a huge bowl of muesli and drove over to pick up the Donvale Demon. We got on the road a little after 5.30am and made our way out east toward Eildon.
As you can imagine, the roads were pretty quiet at that time of day and we made good time, cresting the Black Spur just as the sun was rising. As we neared Eildon a sprinkling of light rain covered the windscreen and it looked as if we could be in for a wet day. Luckily, that light drizzle was one of only three small patches throughout the day — a pretty good result considering the time of year.
We got to Eildon at around 7.40am and after getting ourselves organised, the bunch rolled out at 8.15am. There were seven of us riding — myself, the Demon, Andy van Bergen, Evan Henley, John van Seters, Col Bell (who’d organised the ride) and A-grade rider Dan Abotomey — with photographer Tim Arch joining us to document the day.
Col had originally floated the idea of riding Around the Lake as a pairs race and as we rolled out of Eildon and straight into the first climb of the day — Skyline Road — it was clear exactly which way such a race would go. Dan and Col climbed off the front in no time at all, Evan, John and Andy rode comfortably behind and the Demon and I brought up the rear.
While I had bought new tyres, the Demon had taken his heavy commuting wheels (with 25mm tyres) off his flat-bar roadie and put them on his regular roadie. The setup worked well on the dirt sections later in the day but on the numerous climbs scattered throughout the ride, the Demon was cursing the extra weight and rolling resistance of the fatter tyres.
We must have only seen one or two cars on the way up Skyline Road, making an already amazing climb truly memorable. The road winds its way gently up the hill for around 7km with views on both sides of the road becoming more impressive as you go along. On the right hand side you’ve got sensational views of Lake Eildon in all its glory and on the left there are terrific valley views out towards Alexandra.
When the Demon and I reached the top the others were waiting and taking photos of Lake Eildon. The two of us took a few quick snaps of our own before the seven of us pushed on. The continuation of Skyline Road saw us descend briefly before climbing toward the first unsealed section of the day.
Despite running 25mm tyres with ‘puncture protection’ I was still a little apprehensive about the dirt sectors. I needn’t have been. Even on the loosest gravel and the rockiest roads the tyres held up fine and I felt completely comfortable. The first dirt sector took us north from Skyline Road before heading east toward the lake. At Dennys Pinch, we stopped for a quick photo once more and from there it was into a steep descent toward Bonnie Doon.
In the ride guide he’d send around earlier that week, Col had made it pretty clear what to expect from the descent:
‘This is basically the end of the line for riding on the ridge line. After this, it is a STEEP DIRT DESCENT. TAKE EXTREME CARE. I AM NOT JOKING.’
And sure enough, Col was right.
For a couple of kilometres the road fell away sharply, winding its way toward the lake while hitting gradients as high as -17%. Descending a sealed road at that gradient is scary enough, but when the road is made of loose gravel and is covered in nasty corrugations, it’s worth taking things pretty easy. Fortunately, we all made it down the steepest section in one piece and as we continued to descend with the lake on our right, it was back on to sealed roads.
By this point the group had split once more. Col and Dan were many minutes ahead and the other five of us were bunched up, taking turns at the front on our way to Bonnie Doon. That 7km stretch out to Maroondah Highway was one of the most enjoyable parts of the day. The road was nice and flat, meaning we could generate some decent speed, compared with climbing on dirt anyway!
Col and Dan waited for us a Bonnie Doon where we eschewed the more direct (and more sealed) option of Maroondah Highway for the Goulburn River High Country Rail Trail. Where the dirt road between Skyline Road and Dennys Pinch had been reasonably rough in parts, the rail trail was delightfully smooth. Sure, it was unsealed, but the path was firmly packed and any loose gravel was rare enough to pose no real problem.
Dan and Col went to the front again and opened up a lead of a couple of minutes but as we neared Mansfield (and our turn-off) the five of us remaining riders managed to bridge the gap. As we left the rail trail at Howes Creek Road and headed south, the seven of us were together once more.
But once on the gentle rollers between Mansfield and Howes Creek, it didn’t take long for Col and Dan to break away again, this time taking Andy with them. Evan, John, the Demon and I stuck together as we covered the flattest part of the ride, working our way down the eastern shores of Lake Eildon.
Some time before Goughs Bay the road turned to dirt again. It started off nice enough with a hard-packed surface but after a while the road deteriorated quite a bit. Even with 25s on, my back wheel was jumping around all over the place and at times it felt like I was riding in sand.
The sheer volume of rocks and gravel on the road made it very hard to pick out the line of least resistance and it required a constant effort to avoid the sharp, sometimes-fist-sized rocks sprinkled about the place.
But the roughest part of the day’s ride couldn’t have been more than a few kilometres long and we eventually wound up at Goughs Bay. Dan and Col had waited for us and after the latter dispensed some advice about keeping some energy in reserve for the final 60km of the day, they were off. We wouldn’t see them again until the end of the ride.
Andy, Evan, John the Demon and I headed to the Goughs Bay general store for a quick snack and after getting some free advice from the storekeeper — ‘You should be eating healthy, not these chocolate bars and chips!’ — we got back on the road. 85km down, 90 to go. More importantly, all of the ride’s dirt sectors were now complete.
From Goughs Bay we headed away from Lake Eildon and toward the small township of Piries. Reaching the Mansfield-Woods Point Road we took a right and began the 23km stretch toward Jamieson.
We all knew from looking at the course profile before the ride that the biggest climb of the day — Mt. Terrible — was straight after Jamieson. What we didn’t notice was the climb just out of Piries that looks like a mere bump on the course profile but in reality is a nearly-4km-long climb that took a few of us by surprise.
Andy, John and Evan pushed ahead, leaving the Demon and I to bring up the rear once more. As we neared the top of the climb, rain started to fall and with the sky looking ominously grey, it seemed as if the final 80km of the ride were destined to be damp. But as we descended toward Howqua and tackled another 1km-long climb, the rain eased.
For the next 15km the Demon and I pedalled on, sometimes with Evan, sometimes by as ourselves as Evan made his way up the road. We didn’t push things too hard at all, knowing we’d need to save our energy for the many twists and turns, and ups and downs of the Eildon-Jamieson Road.
At the Eildon turn-off we took a right and rejoined John, Andy and Evan. The five of us pedalled a kilometre up the road before stopping at the Jamieson Brewery for a late lunch. Tim, who’d been leapfrogging us all day taking the amazing photos you see throughout this post, informed us that Col and Dan were more than 20 minutes ahead of us and going strong.
Compared with the cool, moist air outside, the interior of the Jamieson Brewery was nice and cosy. We each grabbed something to eat and drink and had a chat about the ride so far. With bellies full and legs starting to relax in the warmth of the brewery, it was a little hard to get moving again. But eventually the five of us saddled up and took on the biggest climb of the day — Mt. Terrible.
Even with 115km in the legs I don’t reckon Mt. Terrible is really, well, terrible. Sure, it’s reasonably long — about 9km — but if ever there was a climb you could find a good rhythm on, this would be it. The average gradient is a touch under 6% and it really doesn’t deviate from that at all. In fact, I can’t remember riding a more consistent climb. There’s also the fact that it’s a truly stunning piece of road, with some amazing views (see below). To make things even better, we didn’t see a single car for the entirety of the climb.
With his heavy wheels and 25mm tyres the Demon was finding the climbing a little harder than he would have liked. This was made worse by the fact his chain kept slipping off the two easiest gears in his cassette. The night before he had put his road bike cassette on his commuter wheels before swapping them over. While the transplant had gone smoothly, something wasn’t lining up properly in the drivetrain.
To avoid the slipping gears, the Demon had to climb in a much harder gear than he normally would, causing considerably back ache and knee pain. But eventually we got through the climb in one piece and met John, Andy and Evan who’d been waiting at the top for 5-10 minutes.
If the climb was amazing then the descent was doubly so. Were it not for a bit of loose gravel on some of the corners, this would have been the perfect descent. For 13km we twisted left then right, right then left, enjoying the virtually car-free roads and the remarkable scenery.
It’s easy to say that the Eildon-Jamieson Road is stunning but really, no amount of words or number of photos (as good as Tim’s are!) will do it justice — you have to get out there and experience it for yourself. One thing that really stood out for me was the fact that over the final 60km of the day, the road is never really straight for more than 100 metres. The road winds from side to side more than I’ve ever seen a road do and it makes for some truly memorable riding.
With the descent of Mt. Terrible behind us, we only had 40km left to cover. John and Andy had ridden from Jamieson to Eildon before and remembered another sizeable climb before Eildon but they couldn’t say with any certainty how long or steep it was.
As the road tilted upwards after 145km of riding, Evan leapt off the front and started putting some distance between himself and the rest of the bunch. John and Andy followed, the latter putting in a huge effort to try and bridge the gap. Before long the Donvale Demon and I were at the back again with the Demon struggling with his back and knee pain once more.
It’s a strange feeling climbing a hill at the end of a long day and not really knowing how long that climb is. We knew we were owed a fairly sizeable descent before reaching Eildon but I don’t think the Demon or I expected that final climb to be as long as it was. For nearly 10km the road twisted and turned its way up the mountain with every corner feeling like it had to be the last.
After 10km of climbing the road flattened off and it seemed like it was time to descend. We flicked it into the big ring and got down in the drops, ready to enjoy the descent … and then the road tilted up again. After a short climb we were descending again — surely the climbing was all done now?
At least five times between kilometres 153 and 165 I was absolutely certain we’d started the final, 7km descent into Eildon, only for the road to ramp up in front of us again. Looking at the Strava profile from the ride I can see that the penultimate of those rude little ascents actually lasted for more than 2km and the final climb was 1km long.
Finally, after 165km of riding we hit the final crest of the day and plummeted toward Eildon. It had taken us 2 hours and 40 minutes to ride the 50km from Jamieson and with daylight fast receding we were both glad to be into the final 10km of the ride. I flicked on the superbright lights that a work colleague (and 6amers cyclist) Gus Gollings had lent me and bombed down toward the end of the ride with the Demon not far behind.
As we emerged from the Lake Eildon National Park and turned right on to the Goulburn Valley Highway the sign in front of us read ‘Eildon 2km’. It’s amazing how good the body and mind start to feel the moment you realise you’re mere moments from finishing an epic ride. The Demon and I chatted enthusiastically as we rolled through those last 2km, over the bridge and into Eildon.
As we rolled down Riverside Drive toward the finish we could see flashing lights ahead of us and before too long we were greeted by the sound of cowbells and cheering. We’d done it. 175km covered in around 7 hours and 45 minutes of riding. We’d ridden 50km of dirt, climbed nearly 2,700 vertical metres and burned close to 4,000 calories (16,800 kJ).
Andy, Evan and John had beaten us by around 10 minutes while Dan and Col had already been in town for an hour and 45 minutes by the time the Donvale Demon and I arrived — a simply amazing effort.
As I look back on the photos from the ride, I feel like packing the car and heading out there again. The ride really did have it all: sweeping vistas, challenging climbs, long, technical descents, quiet roads, dirt roads and some roads that road bikes clearly weren’t designed for.
I’d like to say a big thank you to the Hells 500 crew for making the ride such an enjoyable one. Thanks especially to Col Bell for all his hard work in organising the ride and providing us with the information we’d need to get through it in one piece.
A big thank you to Tim Arch too for following us around all day and taking the amazing photos you can see in this post. These are just a selection of the many great photos Tim took and you can find many more on Tim’s website.
As I packed the car and psyched myself up for the long drive home, the Donvale Demon paced back and forth, speaking to his three-year-old son on the phone.
‘Daddy’s been on a big bike ride today!’, said the Demon.
A brief pause while his son spoke.
‘Why?’, asked the Demon, seemingly repeating his son’s query for my benefit. ‘That’s a very good question!’
It was a funny moment that reflected just how challenging the day had been. But I suspect he knew the answer. We do long and challenging rides precisely because they are long and challenging. We do them because it gives us a chance to see some of the finest scenery this great land has to offer. And we do them because they test our strength, our endurance and oftentimes our willpower.
For me, the harder the ride, the stronger that feeling of accomplishment at the end. Three days after Around the Lake, I’m still buzzing from a sense of achievement.
I’m already looking forward to the next epic adventure.