When I think of cycling holiday destinations around Victoria I’m immediately drawn to the Victorian Alps. With many of the biggest and best climbs in the state (and country!) in one central location, it’s pretty hard to go past. But I’m starting to realise you can’t write off the Grampians as a cycling holiday destination either.
Sure, Halls Gap might be a smaller town than Bright and sure, the climbs might be shorter and a little easier than the Alps, but the Grampians is slightly closer to Melbourne. And besides, there are few regions in Victoria more scenic than the Grampians.
I’ve only ever cycled in the Grampians once before and with that last visit being a few years ago, I figured it was time for another visit. So, with the help of David Blom I put together a couple of routes, set a date and put the word out via Twitter and Facebook.
I drove up to Halls Gap last Friday afternoon, stopping a few times along the way to document some more climbs for the site (stay posted for those). I’ve always been a fan of the ol’ camping holiday so I decided to throw up a tent at the Halls Gap Caravan Park which, conveniently, is located right in the centre of town.
Our first ride kicked off at the very civilised time of 11am on Saturday, giving people enough time to drive over from Melbourne if they hadn’t come over the night before. Fourteen of us rolled out of Halls Gap and down the valley towards Dunkeld on Saturday morning, beginning a challenging but rewarding day.
It’s always hard to keep things bunched up when the group contains riders of all different abilities, but I think we managed quite well. The pace wasn’t particularly swift for the faster members of the group, but that’s not what it was about. The ride was all about getting out there with others, enjoying the company and the chance to see a part of the world you mightn’t normally visit.
We rode south along the valley floor, riding two abreast most of the way, but singling up when there was a line of cars behind us. There was a great level of chatter within the group and it was terrific seeing people meet each other for the first time, enjoying the experience.
After 35km or so we took a left off Grampians Road and headed straight into the first bump of the day: the Yarram Gap. The plan was to climb one side, descend the other side, then come back up the back side before regrouping at the turn-off.
In hindsight I should have been clearer with my instructions as the group ended up doing another kilometre or so down the other side before wondering whether they’d gone to far. They had — the idea was to turn around as soon as the road flattened off — but I didn’t communicate that properly. Sorry gang!
But eventually we got everyone turned around and we climbed back over the Yarram Gap from the other side. Neither climb was particularly challenging — both were less than 2.5km long at less than 6% — but they served as a nice warm-up for what would come later in the day.
After regrouping back at the main road we took a left and road the extra kilometre to the Victoria Valley Road. This road would take us up and over the Mirranatwa Gap before we’d all turn around and climb it from the other side, just as we’d done with the Yarram Gap.
The Mirranatwa Gap was a little longer than the Yarram Gap (from the backside at least) and this set of climbs also felt slightly more challenging. But the rewards were also greater with some truly stunning views awaiting us near the summit.
After summiting the Gap from both sides we all regrouped back at the main road once more and after a brief stop to grab a bite to eat we bunched up and headed back up the valley towards Halls Gap.
At times on the way south we’d had a strong tailwind and none of us were particularly thrilled about the idea of riding into the wind on the way back. But it probably wasn’t as bad as we were expecting. Then again, I didn’t really do much work out the front (if any) because Cyril and Evan were up front doing such a great job for the group (and seemed happy to do so). Thanks guys!
We were heading north back to Halls Gap but before we got there we had one small obstacle to overcome: Mt. William.
If you’ve done a bit of cycling in Victoria you’ve probably heard of the likes of Mt. Hotham, Falls Creek, Mt. Buffalo and the other Victorian Alps. But you might not have heard of Mt. William (before now). It’s the highest point in the Grampians National Park and if there’s a tougher Victorian climb west of Melbourne I’d be surprised.
From the Grampians Road turn-off to the summit it’s 11.5km and in that time you climb 817 metres. But the average gradient of 7.1% is totally unrepresentative of the climb because it’s really two climbs in one.
The first 9.6km to the carpark are at a largely consistent and manageable 6% but in the final 1.9km from the carpark to the summit (on a barely one-lane track closed to traffic) you climb 231m. That’s an average gradient of 11.9% and with the steepest corner reaching more than 20% it’s far from an easy climb.
The 14 of us regrouped at the bottom of the climb before setting off at our own pace up Mt. William. I’d been expecting to ride the whole way up with Fletch but within a kilometre or so it became clear that I wasn’t going to be able to stay with him. I rode with a few others as Fletch disappeared up the road but when my companions dropped off I decided I should go off in search of Fletch.
I pushed a bit harder until my heartrate was hovering around the 183BPM mark — about 92% of my maximum and what I estimate is my lactate threshold — and held it there for the rest of the climb. As the carpark got closer I started passing a few riders that had started the climb before me, but my real aim was to catch Fletch.
On a brief flatter section a few kilometres out from the carpark I caught sight of him and pushed on, telling myself to reach him steadily rather than with one big effort that would cost me later on. I passed Fletch a kilometre or so before the carpark and continued on — the real challenge was about to start.
When you get to the carpark and pass the gate the road gets noticeably steeper — around 10% to start with — but as you bend gradually around to the left the full horror of the situation becomes apparent. That first section of the post-carpark climb gets steeper and steeper until a sharpish left-hander where it peaks at 20%+.
The only other time I rode up Mt. William I was running standard gearing (39×26) and had to stop at that corner. But on Saturday I was able to push through it — albeit at about 5km/h — and tackle the remaining 1.5km to the summit.
Gone was the relative comfort of a 183BPM heartrate; instead I was gasping for air at closer to 190BPM and everything was starting to hurt. I passed a couple more riders in that final stretch before giving it one final push for the summit. It had hurt a lot, but I’d managed a PB by 9 minutes.
I was quite happy with that effort given we hit the climb with 88km already in the legs. That said, we did have a terrific headwind for part of the climb … and I had improved a lot since my last time up Mt. William.
One by one the group made their way to the top (I was second, 8 minutes behind Evan who put in a 44-minute climb) before rolling back down to the base and back to Halls Gap. While the descent of Mt. William is very sketchy — thanks to a very rough road surface and some strong winds — I really enjoyed taking in the views as we made our way down. There are few climbs in Victoria that deliver views as good as Mt. William — you just have to work bloody hard to earn them.
Day two of the trip was always going to be more leisurely than the first, with less than half the distance and half the climbing planned. But that didn’t make it feel any easier when eight of us hit the first climb of the day, to Reeds Lookout.
A couple of us had gone for a quick warm-up before the meeting time of 9am but even still, the climb straight out of the blocks was a rude awakening for tired legs. Luckily we were all feeling a little fatigued so most of the group stayed together as we made our way to the first lookout of the day.
The climb from Halls Gap up to Reeds Lookout isn’t particularly challenging, with plenty of flatter sections and an average gradient of around 4%. Before too long we were rolling into the carpark and heading up to the lookout.
There’d been a bit of drizzle around and it was quite overcast but that didn’t detract from the amazing views.
We lost Nicole and Rohan at Reeds Lookout after they took a turn towards The Balconies rather than heading up to the lookout. But given it was my fault for not telling them where we’d be, I waited for them to come back to the carpark while the others headed off to the second lookout of the day: Boroka Lookout.
As it turned out, Nicole wasn’t feeling too crash hot so she and Rohan headed back to town while I did my best to catch back on to the others who were a few minutes up the road.
It’s a strange climb up to Boroka Lookout from the main road (Northern Grampians Road). It’s a little more than 5km and in that time you gain about 170m of altitude, but the climbing is hardly consistent. It’s more like up then down then flat then UP then down then flat. The steepest bit of climbing is somewhere between 15-20% very briefly but with so much flatter stuff around it, it’s no Mt. William.
I met the rest of the bunch at the lookout and after some photos and video (more on that in a moment) we descended back to the main road and then back to the valley floor via Silverband Road. When we got back into the valley (after a couple of stops to have a bite to eat and change a flat) we turned left and punched it back to Halls Gap to finish a great weekend of riding.
I feel very fortunate to live in a state where there are so many amazingly picturesque places to ride a bike, and very fortunate that I’ve got the means to do so. As I’ve hinted at in recent posts, I’d quite like to do a bit of exploring in the following months, to see more of this great land and to ride some new roads and new climbs.
Thanks to everyone that came along and turned a weekend of great riding into a weekend of great riding and great company, both on and off the bike. The social aspect really is one of the coolest parts of the sport. I’d like to say a couple more specific thank-yous as well.
Thanks to David Blom for his help in suggesting climbs we should tackle and roads we should take. Thanks to Nigel Welch for filming the eight of us on the Sunday and capturing a pretty snazzy little video (check it out below). Thanks to Nicole van Bergen for pointing out that the route I’d mapped for Saturday didn’t include any water or rest stops (rookie mistake). Which leads me to the biggest “thank you” of all — to Wil Gleeson.
Wil gave up his weekend to follow us around by car, taking some terrific photos (which you can see above and in the gallery below) and, crucially, carrying water and food to the far end of the Grampians valley for us. It was an oversight on my behalf not including a water/food stop on that route and Wil got us out of a real jam by being there. Thanks Wil!
And thanks to you for reading.