Return to the Reefton Spur (of climbs, cold and KOMs)

Route: Warburton to Lake Mountain, return
Distance: 121km
Duration: 5 hours 1 minute

There are worse places to ride, that's for sure.

I’ve only ridden the Reefton Spur twice but I can comfortably say it’s one of my favourite cycling roads. Amazing scenery, great views, a long, sustained and rewarding climb and, for the most part, a nice quiet road. So when Andy and Evan of Hells 500 fame said they were planning on heading out there last Sunday, I had no hesitation in agreeing to come along.

But even before I met the others at Warburton at 10am my day was off to a bad start. As I put my bike in the car I realised my back tyre was completely flat – luckily I had enough time at Warburton to change the tube before the others got there.

After struggling significantly to get the stubborn tyre back on I got dressed and ready to ride. Just as the others started to arrive I checked to see if my back tyre had stayed inflated and to my great frustration, I noticed it was virtually flat again. I’d checked carefully for sharp bits inside the tyre, I’d been careful not to pinch the tube while putting the tyre back on … plus it was a brand new tube. Not great.

After fixing my second puncture of the day, we started riding. The group consisted of myself, Evan, Andy, Andy’s wife Tam, Andy’s sister Nicole, and another Hells 500/Ride Hard to Breathe Easy regular John van Seters.

The six of us rolled out gently, single file, passing the Mt. Donna Buang turn-off and enjoying the scenery as we ticked off the kilometres toward Reefton. It certainly wasn’t warm but compared to the temperatures we’d face later in the day, it was far from unbearable.

After around 10km, Andy burst past us all and pulled off to the side of the road a few hundred metres later. He was having difficulties with his front wheel hub which was make a worringly unhealthy sound. After a minute’s discussion Andy decided to ride back to the bike shop in Warburton while the rest of us continued on. He would either push hard to catch up to us later on or, if his bike wasn’t rideable, he would grab his car and follow us.

Enjoying the views from the Reefton Spur climb.

Our now-five-strong group pushed on, getting to McMahons Creek with little trouble and pushing through to the turn-off at Reefton. For this early stretch — and for most of the day really — there wasn’t much traffic around and it was nice to be able to enjoy the great scenery in peace and quiet.

At Reefton we shed some of our outer layers and decided to push on. John had managed to get some phone reception and spoke to Andy — the latter was in the car heading our way after the guy at the bike shop suggested Andy not ride on his damaged hub.

The Reefton Spur climb starts almost immediately after you cross the Yarra River and from there it’s virtually all uphill to Lake Mountain. The five of us started climbing together and stayed together for probably the first 5-10km. By that time Andy had caught us up in the car and was leap-frogging us, taking photos and offering chocolates as we rode past. If he’d found a couple of sticky bidons to hand over as well, he would have made for the perfect directeur sportif. I could certainly get used to having a team car while riding, that’s for sure!

After a while Evan, John and I found ourselves with a bit of a gap over Tam and Nicole. With Andy hanging back to make sure they were OK the three of us pushed on, heading ever upward, the temperature doing the opposite.

It’s 40km from Reefton to the top of Lake Mountain and I reckon at least 30km of that is uphill. It’s certainly a climb I’ll look at adding to the site but there’s an issue here that I’ve been trying to get my head around for a while: how much descending can you have in a climb before it doesn’t count as a single climb?

As mentioned, this climb has nearly 10km of flat or downhill and a sustained 2km downhill stretch. Does it still count as one climb? What about Omeo to Dinner Plain which has a number of longer descents in its 40km length? I’d be keen to know what you reckon — feel free to leave your thoughts below.

John (left) and Evan (right) climb the upper slopes of Lake Mountain.

Evan, John and I pushed on together, climbing ever closer to Lake Mountain, enjoying the scenery and the good views along the way. There are two great lookout spots on the way up the Reefton Spur which offer particularly good views of the valley below. While we didn’t stop to take photos, we did enjoy the views as we rolled past.

At Warburton-Woods Point Road we took a left and rolled through Cambarville. As the road started ramping up again after a flat section I casually remarked to Evan and John: ‘I’m pretty sure this is a Strava segment.’ And with that, it was game on.

John leapt off the front with an impressive turn of speed, Evan followed and I had a chuckle to myself and joined in the fun. After a little while, I found myself at the front with a gap of a few seconds over the others guys but I was reluctant to push too hard: I knew the climb was about 2km long but I wasn’t sure exactly where it ended.

About halfway through I must have gone into the red momentarily and had to slow down as a result. As I did Evan flew past and it looked as if I’d shown my hand too early. But Evan fell back and I managed to recover, getting to the front again. As we crested the climb — at the Mt. Arnold Saddle sign — I found myself still at the front, but not by much. We’d all finished within 10 seconds of one another — a great little contest!

With that silliness out of the way we descended the other side of the saddle before turning right to join the final 10km up to Lake Mountain. For those of you that have climbed Lake Mountain from Marysville, you’ll know this intersection as the place you turn left about halfway through the climb.

A few years ago my brother Brendan and I had planned a Lake Mountain snow ride only to discover, the night before, that Lake Mountain charges cyclists to climb to the resort in snow season. We ended up scrapping that trip, not wanting to pay $10 each. So when John, Evan and I approached the tollbooth we half expected to get stopped and asked to pay but it didn’t happen. A quick check of the Lake Mountain website later that night showed they’d scrapped the entry fee for cyclists.

They hadn’t, however, scrapped the entry fee for cars and it was going to cost Andy $50 just to meet us at the resort. Pretty steep considering there was virtually no snow to speak of! We figured that Andy wouldn’t want to pay $50 and so our plan was to climb to the summit, grab something to eat quickly and descend to the tollbooth where Andy would be waiting.

View from the upper slopes of Lake Mountain.

As we got closer to the summit the temperature continued to drop but, surprisingly, it never really got below 5 degrees (it was colder at Donna Buang a few weeks ago). As we got into the final kilometre of the climb, John must have got a sniff of the coffee and doughnuts in the resort building as he leapt off the front once more. Evan and I offered a half-interested reply and instead of racing to the top we just rode it quicker than we might otherwise have.

At the top we congratulated each other on a job well done and headed inside for something to eat and drink. After a few failed attempts, I got through to Andy: Tam and Nicole had turned around at the Cambarville T-intersection and Andy had had to turn back after the petrol light in his car came on. It meant Evan, John and I would be riding the 60km back to Warburton unsupported but on the plus side, it meant we didn’t have to rush down the mountain to meet Andy at the tollbooth.

After eating and drinking our fill and rugging up as best we could, we began the descent of Lake Mountain. Both Evan and John said later on they’d expected it to be much colder than it was, but I was definitely feeling it! I could barely feel my toes and the only saving grace was that the beanie I’d packed especially for the descent was keeping my head and neck toasty warm.

But there was a downside. With the combination of beanie and sunglasses on (the latter to keep my beanie falling over my eyes!) the world seem dark and warm and without needing to pedal thanks to the descent, I felt myself starting to drift off to sleep. It was a truly bizarre feeling to have on the bike and one that I was pretty keen to snap out of, lest I find a quicker way down the mountain than the road engineers originally intended.

Evan (left) and John (right) descend toward Reefton.

As we neared the Mt. Arnold Saddle from the other side the pace lifted slightly and there was a half-hearted attempt at a race to the top. I think we were all pretty tired from the long climb to Lake Mountain and so it wasn’t the most inspired bit of racing you’ll ever see. In fact, I’m not sure the others were racing but I’ll certainly take the KOM points for getting to the top first in another close one!

The rest of the ride from that point on was, to be honest, a bit of a blur. I got tired really quickly, given that I’ve lost most of my 3 Peaks endurance,  and sleepiness turned to fatigue. Frustratingly, my right ITB, which has been so good for so long now, started to give me a bit of grief on the way back. It certainly wasn’t as bad as it has been in the past, but I could definitely notice it.

Even more frustrating was the increasing discomfort being caused by the Specialized Romin saddle I’m still testing. I’d ridden 100km+ on it before but as Sunday’s ride went on the saddle just got more and more annoying. By the end I’d vowed to get a different one. Worringly, I’ve ordered one from Beasley Cycles in Footscray (to replace the test saddle) but it hasn’t arrived and now I’m thinking I should cancel the order and try some other saddles. Very frustrating.

When I got back to the car I was honestly pretty glad the ride was over. While the Strava Suffer Score doesn’t make it look like the hardest ride ever, it felt like one of the most challenging rides I’ve done since 3 Peaks. That said, any day you get to ride the Reefton Spur and climb all the way to Lake Mountain is a good day, so I shouldn’t really complain.

Thanks to Evan and John for the company over the full 121km and to Tam, Nicole and Andy for the company earlier on. I heard afterwards that Tam and Nicole had a really enjoyable ride which was great to hear. As for Andy, well, he spent most of the day driving when he really wanted to be riding with us. Unlucky.

So that was Sunday and now it’s Friday and the weekend is upon us once more. If I thought last weekend’s ride was tough then I’m in for something truly shocking tomorrow: a 180km ride around Lake Eildon in the state’s north east, including 50km of dirt.

It’s a ride being put on by Col Bell, another of the Hells 500 crew, and it’s sure to be an epic adventure. I’ve spent the last two days trying to wrestle a pair of Schwalbe Marathon 25mm winter tyres on to my bike but now, finally, they’re on and I’m ready to go … I think.

We’re meeting at 8am at Eildon which means a super-early get up and, if we drive home that night, a pretty late night too. Needless to say I won’t be doing much on Sunday. Needless to say too, I’ll also be putting together a full write-up of Around the Lake, hopefully about how we all made it safe and sound and without any major hassles.

And looking longer term, it’s about two weeks until I head over to the US of A for a five-week holiday. I’ll be doing some blogging while I’m over there, including, hopefully, blog posts about climbing in California and upstate New York. Stay posted for that and if you’ve got any tips on great rides to try, give me a yell.

And while I’m on the subject of getting in touch, please feel free to do so via Twitter, Facebook or by leaving a comment below. It’s always great to hear how you guys think the site’s going.

And finally, on a related note, thanks to everyone that completed the survey I’ve been running for the past month or so. I’ve had 230+ responses and there’s some really interesting data there. Once I’ve crunched the numbers and made sense of it all I’ll share some interesting tidbits.

Thanks very much for reading and, as always, please stay safe on the roads.

6 Replies to “Return to the Reefton Spur (of climbs, cold and KOMs)”

  1. After finding out Baw Baw was closed this weekend due to a car rally, I rerouted my Saturday ride and this juicy little article made my mind up on a Warburton to Lake Mountain return ride. Personally, I’d consider Reefton to Lake Mountain deserving of a write up. Sure, there are some downhills/flats, but along the way the majority of the 40km is eaten up on a gradient easily steep enough to be considered climbing. I found it much tougher than tackling Lake Mountain from the Marysville side. It is also along a breathtaking route with minimal traffic. Thanks for the write up brother.

  2. Props to Matt for yet another great writeup of one of the lesser known routes, thanks!

    There is an extended variant of this ride, you go up the spur to Marysville or even Buxton, then turn around and up to Lake Mountain, then down to Warburton and finish off with Donna Buang. It’s been called the “Two Peaks Challenge”. Don’t try it in winter, you’ll run out of daylight.

    In general I feel that a climb with a descent in the middle is two climbs, and so on.

    However we do make exception for long climbs. There are brief descents at the top of Hotham, too (I call them the “insults”). The alternative is to either split the route into separately named segments, which is silly, or pretend you haven’t just tackled 727m of vertical, which sells the effort short.

    So by the “principle of least astonishment” I concur that the Reefton Spur is deserving of being written up as a single climb. It definitely does end at Cambarville, there’s enough rest/flat before the Lake Mountain turnoff to distinguish the climbs.

    Personally I think the descent of Reefton is harder than the climb, being both long and technical. It isn’t fully signposted, has some oddly cambered corners and there’s often debris and moisture. This demands your full concentration continuously for a good half hour.

    NB: you know, one can turn right at Cambarville and take the dirt via Woods Point to Jamieson instead 🙂

  3. Great write up Matt. I envy tomorrow’s ride. Should be a ripper. The Eildon-Jamieson Rd is sealed now. Maybe throw on some 25mm tyres just in case? And not sure of your saddle history but I rate the Fizik Aliante. It’s a couch.

  4. Awesome post once again Matt. I can’t wait for a full write up of this climb. Yes it is probably a climb in 4 segments, but once you cross the Yarra River at Reefton, you are climbing for the vast majority of the next 39.1km.

    I think both this and the ascent to Dinner Plain/Hotham from Omeo should be added to the site.

    For anybody thinking of riding around here, I can also recommend the climb up to the Upper Yarra Reservoir Dam Wall from Reefton (it’s an extra 5km each way) and is well worth the effort.
    Currently you can do a loop starting in Warburton taking in Panton Gap, the Black Spur, Lake Mountain, down the Reefton Spur, do the dam and culminate in Mt Donna Buang. It’s an epic 200km ride. If we ever get the 9.9km on the back of Mt Donna sealed, the Mt Donna/Lake Mountain Double loop ride would be more common.

    Alternatively you can do the Lake Mountain (Reefton Side) + Mt Donna for about a total of 150km.

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