THE 3RD #WNTRSLSTC: PRESENTED BY RIDE HIGH COUNTRY

 

It was December 2014. The website you find yourself on right at this very moment was nothing but a pipe dream, an eventual goal for when we would have the time, the resources and the funds. Up until a few months prior, we were nothing more than a bunch of delinquent ~teenagers~ riding our bikes around the place, yet somehow we were on the verge of our first project.

Partnering up with Tourism North East, we set off to ride and photograph our way through Victoria's High Country, setting our sights on chalking up 1000km during the 2014 running of the Festive 500. In the end, we'd fall 100km short, opting to spend the final day – New Year's Eve, swimming in our hotel pool and playing a game of Wizard Staff, but it was a week that signified the start of something special.

 
 
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Fast forward to the present day: winter 2018, where a lot has changed since. That project in 2014 helped jumpstart our website, and Tourism North East has gone great guns, developing kick-ass brand Ride High Country and continually growing 7 Peaks. Like 2 long lost lovers who can't forget that magical summer fling they had years ago, we reunite for the third running of the Soup Boys #wntrslstc. A celebration of the region, and a chance to pay our deepest respects and gratitude to the Mitta, Kiewa and Alpine Valleys, 3 pockets of the country that we are going to go on record in saying they are by and large: the best.

 
 
 
 

I: POST WORK DRINKS

 
 

#wntrslstc 2018 kicked off with a game of Landcruiser Tetris, the squad managing to fit a few bikes and 5 humans inside with relative ease. The latest A$AP Rocky drop would guide us out of Melbourne's peak hour traffic from Haymarket onto the Hume Highway for all of 10 minutes until we sprung out of the car at Wallan for some desperately needed leg stretching and McDonalds post-mix coke.

 
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The rest of the journey would showcase the evolving and worsening weather conditions. Light rain, into sheet rain, into unapologetically heavy rain that supposedly would be giving us a taste of what was to come tomorrow, only clearing as we entered Wodonga to pick up some dinner supplies for the night.

 
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II: FARMHOUSE HQ

 

Our lodgings for the weekend would come courtesy of a close family friend of Adrian's. Secretly positioned down a laneway primarily used as Kiewa Valley Primary School's Cross Country course, it was expansive enough to provide lodgings for the whole crew, plus a few guests for dinner. A carb-laden dinner would lead us towards sleep, the several fireplaces throughout the farmhouse offering premium ambience and warmth. For once the entire crew would arrive, eat, get briefed and doze off before midnight – a new record from our previous attempts.

 
 
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By 5.30 the next morning (mostly) everybody was up and about. Jenny, the matriarch who ran the farmhouse had ensured breakfast supplies were well stocked – options of cereals, toasts and fruits were in bountiful supply. Anybody else wanting to take a more extreme, sugar-filled approach was encouraged to dig into the container of Jenny's fresh, homemade YoYo biscuits.

 
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III: CLASS OF 2018

 

Accepting their fate was our biggest crew yet. Three were to take up creative support roles through the day, while the rest were on two wheels, taking on a route developed by Adrian, Benno, and an absent third party. A 251km loop that would contain a total of 5 climbs, 50km of gravel, a very real possibility of snow, and barely 9 hours of daylight, give or take a few minutes.

 
 
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Taking charge of support duties was experienced and fearless DS; Harry, armed with more film cameras than he had arms. Alongside him would be Don, drone pilot for the day, also in possession of more cameras than he had arms. Finally, some hired help – our man Josh Thomas. He was with us for the very first project, shooting imagery that occupied the homepage of our website up until April this year. He was also our photographer of choice when we put together #roadtrippingcanberra in 2017.

On two wheels were experienced members of the #wntrslstc, some having participated in the maiden edition, while others were finally making the step into the cold and dark unknown.

 
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(Back Row L-R): Dean, Charlie, Henry. (Centre L-R): Harry, Don, Ron. (Front Row L-R): Okky, Adrian, Kip. (Behind camera): Josh.

 
 

IV: PRE-DAWN

 

The previous weekend the region was treated to arguably perfect conditions. We raced cyclocross in Mount Beauty amidst temperatures in the low to mid-teens, clear skies and minimal wind. Any hopes of similar fortunes 6 days later were dashed by Monday afternoon. The papers were calling it the big freeze, low temperatures, storms, winds and probable, low lying snow all forecast for both Saturday and Sunday. Weather radars, snow cams and Adrian's parents were consulted in an attempt to gauge the exact conditions in the region. Were things as grim as they were being made out to be? Or was this "Freezing Barrage" nothing more than news.com.au hyperbole.

 
 
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FORECAST
0ºC Min – 12ºC Max
10 to 15 mm – Possible Rainfall
90% – Chance of any rain
 

Cloudy. Very high (90%) chance of heavy rain. Possible hail in the early afternoon. Snow falling above 700 metres. Wind northwesterly 20 to 30 km/h. Overnight temperatures falling to between -1 and 2 with daytime temperatures reaching between 5 and 12.

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Having arrived after sunset, and having woken up to the very same darkness, we were yet to get a feel for the conditions outside of our very comfortable and warm farmhouse. The only person with real-world experience of the week's weather was Charlie – arriving in the region mid-week to explore Victoria's High Country for the very first time. His sole recommendation: layer the hell up, we would need it.

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Very light rain began to blanket the yard of the farmhouse as we jumped aboard our bikes, turned out of the driveway and down towards the exit of the laneway. If all went to plan we would be rolling along the same stretch of gravel with plenty of time for dinner before the Socceroos kicked off their World Cup campaign against France.
    

The light rain, of which there was very little, subsided by the time we reached the end of the laneway, not even a single kilometre ticked off. As with previous years, we would make a b-line for Lockhart's Gap, the traditional "first climb" of the #wntrslstc. The difference would be that this time we would have 8 kilometres worth of warming up instead of starting from the very bottom as with previous editions.

 
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As far as climbs go, Lockhart's Gap is fairly tame, at least from the western side. With the knowledge of what was ahead of us, the pace wasn't red hot, simply fast enough to keep warm, occasionally dropping the tempo to allow Charlie to catch up after he suffered the first mechanical of the day – a small shard of glass puncturing his front tyre on the lower slopes of the climb. Skies had cleared a little as dawn formally arrived halfway up the climb, patches of light and pale blue sky soon replaced by a thick fog that followed you to the top.


    Meeting you at the top were 2 options: the first, a rapid tarmac descent that took you down into the Mitta Valley, mega fun even in the foggy conditions. The second option: a 55-kilometre gravel shortcut that would meet with the crest of the day's major climb. The only drawback – we'd have to climb 3500 metres along the way. 

 
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V: THE MITTA VALLEY

 

Head's screwed on straight we took the first option and weren't we justly rewarded for doing so. As the descent flattened out between luscious farmland, the low lying cloud opened up to reveal a burst of pure gold that like a Nonna's hug warmly welcomed us to the Mitta Valley.

 
 
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MITTA VALLEY PROFILE

TOWNS (pop.):
Mitta Mitta (151)
Eskdale (242)
Dartmouth (40)

ADMINISTRATION:
Towong Shire
Electoral District of Benambra
Federal Division of Indi

TRIBUTARIES:
Mitta Mitta River
Bullhead Creek
Callaghan Creek
Scrubby Creek
Snowy Creek

LAKES:
Dartmouth Dam
Lake Hume

NOTABLE CLIMBS:
Lockharts Gap (tarmac)
Bullhead Gap (gravel)
Dartmouth Dam Wall (tarmac)
Mt Benambra (gravel)
Trappers Gap (gravel)
Mt Wills (tarmac)

The Mitta Valley follows the Mitta Mitta River, the catchment of which stretches from the upper reaches of Victoria's High Country right down to Lake Hume. A beautiful and mostly narrow valley takes in a number of bioregions and landscapes, with elevations between 200m and near 2000m creating a very #euro vibe.

Mixed farming dominates the valley floor – crops, dairying and beef cattle the traditional uses of the land while hazelnuts and hops have emerged as recent alternative enterprises. 

Pushed into leafy pockets surrounded by rapidly rising mountains you'll find the 2 major villages of the valley – Eskdale and Mitta Mitta, the turnoff to scenic Dartmouth halfway in between. Both take immense pride in their respective pubs, general stores and cafés, but both pale in comparison to their collective efforts on the football field. The Mighty Mountain Men are one of the powerhouses of the local football league.

What connects both with the rest of the valley is the Omeo Highway – the major road cuts through the valley, connecting the Murray Valley Highway near Tallangatta to Omeo and further still to South Gippsland.

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While its role as a highway is an awfully quiet and rather traffic free one, we'd be staying well clear, following the golden rays of the sun, and taking a back road over to the eastern side of the valley.

From there we would watch the morning burst into life, frosty grasses waking up, sun beaming around corners and through small-scale pine plantations, and our legs finally coming to the fore. It wouldn't be too long until we were back on gravel – an innocent enough looking laneway the apparent pathway towards Mitta Mitta.

 
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Not that we could be in any position to complain, but the midweek farm work meant our going was a little tougher than it looked, and than it was expected. The caramel-like surface of the laneway weaved its way around poplar trees and farm sheds before it turned into the slowest roller coaster ride of our lives. The combination of rain and midweek tractor use softening the ground asking us to be careful with our line choices or risk having to get off and push our bikes up each little uphill pinch.

To add just a little more excitement we had arrived at the final boss level of this laneway game: the farmyard dog. A tiny Chihuahua ran out from its bed on a front verandah to briefly chase us, only pausing its vicious outburst to demand pats from Dean. Once granted its permission, we proceeded along the laneway, opening up into expansive paddocks, across 2 cattle grids, then into dense bushland where the road began to firm up and head skyward.

 
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In the middle of the bush, with little more than our own chatter and clicking of gears, we made our way to the top of climb #2 – a near gravel replica of Lockhart's Gap, descent and all. Thanks to the softer ground there was near no need to brake as the gravel road took us back down towards the floor of the Mitta Valley, Mount Bogong looming in the background behind patches of clouds.

 
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VI: FEED ZONE #1

 
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We rolled into our first feed zone in Mitta ahead of schedule, no mean feat for the Soup Boys, the most punctual bike crew of all time. A quick shower of heavy raindrops added a chill factor as we rolled past the "Welcome to Mitta" sign, but the fireplace of the Mitta General store restored things. Coupled with hot pastries and freshly baked muffins, we warmed our cockles before it was time to jump back on the bike.

 
 
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About to head up the major climb of the day, some took a moment to reflect on what was ahead of them: more gravel, 25km worth. This time though the gravel was tougher, more unrelenting, way more unforgiving. We would rise to 1150 metres above sea level, and with snow forecast to 700 metres, there was the very real possibility we would be encountering some adverse, or to take a leaf from Rapha's glossary of terms: Epic – conditions.


    Suspicions of the unknown we were about to head into were somewhat informed by a short, simple, yet wildly informative exchange Ron had with a local by the counter of the Mitta General Store.

 

"Where are you guys headed next?"
The local asked Ron.

"Heading over to Tawonga"
Ron excitedly pointed in the general direction of Mount Bogong.

"Oh, you'll definitely be finding some snow up the top there!"

 
Yessssss! Sick!
— Ron fist-pumped. Famous last words.
 
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VII: SNOW DAWGS

 

Having travelled 40km down the Mitta Valley without so much as touching the Omeo Highway, we briefly turned onto it for a few kilometres, turning off onto Scrubby Creek Rd. Smooth, flowy tarmac took us towards a junction – tarmac to the right, a cattle grid and one long straight section of uphill gravel to the left.

 
 
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The gravel of Trappers Gap was unlike the gravel we had come across earlier in the morning. Memories of soft, muddy laneways where tyres sank and clogged up brake callipers were soon replaced with the torment of climbing this hard packed but rather slippy road.

As we climbed, the road got progressively rougher, Adrian and Aaron sitting up front playing a game of follow-the-leader as they weaved their magic towards the first crest, a short descent their respite. They stopped for a quick drink at a sharp corner as soon as the road turned skywards once more. With rain starting to fall, and no sign of the rest of the crew, Aaron and Adrian made the decision to push on ahead in the name of staying warm.

 
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Five minutes later the rest of the crew would come across the support car on that same steep corner, again quickly stopping for a drink break, bidons filling up with hot tea sat in the back of the support car #smart.

Okky and Dean were slowly but surely dealing with some minor knee pains, the gradually dropping temperatures making them more pronounced. The clay that afflicted Henry up the previous gravel climb was no issue, but the aero road bike he was atop was far from the ideal steed to tackle a climb of this kind. Ron and Kip in a proper nod to #euro vibes briefly ditched the helmets for beanies, ensuring ears and heads were nice and toasty. As for Ron? We'll get to him in a little bit.

 
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After ten minutes the rain disappeared, only to be followed by a brief appearance from the sun. We would only wave goodbye to our gentle and warm friend due to climbing up into the clouds, the air becoming denser as we ascended. At the next major junction, Adrian pulled up to the team car to wait for Aaron a minute or two behind. Bidons filled with ice-cold water were thrown out and replaced with hot tea, and a few pieces of team-issue fairy bread consumed to help with sugar and carb levels. As Aaron emerged around the corner, Adrian flicked over his Garmin screen to view the elevation profile. A hundred metres of climbing was all that was left until things maxed out at 1153 metres above sea level, so as Aaron pulled up to the car, Adrian asked the question:

"Want to push on?"

A quick mouthful of fairy bread later and they were back on their way, adhering to the rule set the night before of only regrouping at the bottom of each climb. A few hundred metres later though, the rulebook would be thrown out the window as the skies opened up.

 
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VIII: HYPOTHERMIA.CC

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It wasn't much longer before Adrian and Aaron hit the very top of the Trappers Gap climb as snow began to sprinkle itself over the surrounding forest.

Once you crested the climb, you would find yourself on a plateau of a few kilometres, the official top marked by powerlines that cross over the single lane gravel road. While there was no KOM sign present, there were signs of life – a Nissan Patrol cautiously coming around the corner to greet Adrian and Aaron riding bikes in the middle of a snowstorm increasing in strength. As the descent welcomed them with open arms, they paused by the roadside a moment to see if the others would soon catch up. They would have no idea of the shitstorm going on just a few kilometres back up the road.

 
 
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It was a gap of only a few minutes, but the gentle and magical snowfall that Aaron and Adrian had experienced was slowly progressing into a full-blown blizzard for the rest of the crew. Hot tea after hot tea was slammed down to stay warm, extra layers were added or replaced with dry options from the car, and gloves options were experimented with. For some, this was the first time experiencing snow on a bike – while magical it may have been, the fact that it all came after 2 hours of climbing meant freshly cracked smiles were few and far between.

 
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The completely visible gravel road Aaron and Adrian had experienced was now blanketed in white, making appropriate lines and rocks harder to navigate. Forced into the car with Don, Harry and Josh was Okky, the cruiser following the crew down the mountain, the falling snow ushering them down to just below 700 metres as the forecast predicted.

Beyond that, it was a drizzly and fast descent. Brake pads barely holding on long enough to reach the Mountain Creek Camping Ground where tarmac appeared as a messiah. All that was left was to roll a few turns down into the Kiewa Valley and grind up the hill to the Tawonga General Store.

 
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The two tales of the mountain couldn't have been better encapsulated in the exchange between Adrian and Kip that greeted the latter upon his arrival to the Tawonga General Store.

 

 

Adrian: "How magical was tha–"

Kip: "I fucking hate you. That was by far the worst thing I've ever done.

 

 

The next 2 hours were spent huddled around the fireplace in the middle of the store. While we had hit the climb half an hour ahead of schedule, the difficulty and sheer brutality of the mountain climb we had just completed had beyond knocked the wind out of our sails.

 
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Adrian and Aaron's legs had fallen asleep by the fire, Kip still plotting ways to kill Adrian later that evening. Ron, who had screamed with such delight at the prospect of snow was slowly coming back to life, having just taken on a snow storm with little more than a long sleeve jersey, two pairs of socks and knee warmers. Okky was out for the count, while Charlie, Dean and Henry were onto their third round of Kransky's and hot chocolates. 

At 2:45 pm from the Tawonga General Store, it was time to call curtains on #wntrslstc 2018.

 
 

IX: MEANWHILE...

 

1:00pm AEST

Over in Mytleford, having just put on a #cornerlikecaseystoner clinic down the soaked and freshly tarmac’d Buckland Valley Rd, a near parallel narrative was going down. Outside a café with a steaming hot coffee resting in peace on the pavement (courtesy of Chris’ elbow) sat Benno, beloved leader of the Soup Boys High Country HQ. Opposite him sat Ben Kraus of Bridge Rd Brewers and Chris of Woolshed Cabins. While not warm, the weather was nice enough to justify the sartorial choices of short-sleeved jerseys and gilets as they sat and enjoyed lunch. They eagerly awaited a follow-up message from Adrian regarding their current whereabouts, the last of which came at 9:30 am that morning as the group was parked up at the Mitta General Store. Since then there hadn't been as much as a peep.

 
 
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The plan was to tack on to the group as the rolled down into Myrtleford, 167km into the day, guiding them up into Beechworth for the final feed zone of the day at Bridge Rd Brewery. However as lunch progressed, so did the weather conditions – low lying cloud from the Kiewa Valley had travelled over the ridge and towards the Alpine Valley

Soon the two Ben's had to call it as well, though minutes late. Following the proposed loop, they rode up into Stanley where they were greeted by a fresh blizzard front – both outdoing Ron for poor dress sense, but outgunning him in the sense that they successfully outrun the snow, only just. The warm refuge of Soup Boys High Country HQ offering solace, the whereabouts of the Solstice Crew still yet to be determined.

 
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X: SUNSET

 

There was no more sign of rain, in fact, the sun had cleared a little to the north as we jumped back on the bikes and climbed up the gradual slope out of Tawonga. The full #wntrslstc loop would be beyond us this winter, the call had been made to head straight back up the Kiewa Valley to the farmhouse.

 
 
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KIEWA VALLEY PROFILE

TOWNS (pop.):
Mount Beauty (1200)
Tawonga (588)
Dederang (422)
Gundowring (214)
Kergunyah (188)
Kiewa (474)

ADMINISTRATION:
Alpine & Indigo Shires
Electoral District of Benambra
Federal Division of Indi

TRIBUTARIES:
Kiewa River
Mountain Creek
Bay Creek
Running Creek
Hellhole Creek

NOTABLE CLIMBS:
Falls Creek (tarmac)
Mountain Creek Rd (gravel)
Tawonga Gap (tarmac)
Rosewhite Gap (tarmac)

The Kiewa Valley follows the river of the same name, a tributary that emerges from the lower slopes of the Bogong High Plains, and extends itself north right up to where it meets Lake Hume on the Victoria/New South Wales border.

It's a valley that hosts some of the countries best-known climbs, the Jayco Herald Sun Tour climbed from Mount Beauty up to the Falls Creek Alpine Resort during the 2017 running of the race, while the same Alpine Resort hosts the start and finish of what is probably the nations toughest single day event – 3 Peaks Challenge Falls Creek.

Sandwiched between the Mitta and Alpine Valley's, the Kiewa Valley is a little broader than its neighbours, with several expansive pockets and valleys branching off the edges of the river plains. While that may be a key difference, it still retains a similar topographic make up – the mountains on both sides of the Kiewa Valley Highway consistently sit above 1000 metres, maxing out at Victoria's highest peak Mt Bogong just near Mt Beauty, and a stones throw from where we had just endured the snowstorm.

Down on the valley floor is a mix of pastoral farmland, especially through central and northern pockets of the valley. That area of the valley is possibly best known for Kiewa Country milk – a product in 4 different flavs that becomes a hallmark recovery drink for many during the summer months.

The closer you get to Mount Beauty, the more wineries and orchards you will come across. Wines made from cool climate grapes, banging chestnuts and the famous Gundowring Ice Cream takes advantage of the varying temperatures and late afternoon sun of the road we were about to turn onto to ace the local produce game.

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The support car followed for a handful of undulating kilometres along the Kiewa Valley Highway before we all turned off onto Redbank Rd, no more turns to make until pulling up to the same laneway we began on.

The farmhouse still some 50km away, lights on and single headphones in we rolled turns along the backroad of the Kiewa Valley, the snow line following us the whole way home on our right, the sun setting beautifully on our left. We passed through Gundowring in all its forms, became acquainted with the Kiewa River on a number of occasions, and to Japanese Ambient music as our soundtrack reflected on one hell of a day of riding in Victoria's High Country.

 
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XI: JOIN US

 

Our arrival at the farmhouse brought us enough time to shower, re-feed and ponder the day's events. Even Kip, baying for Adrian's blood as he stepped through the front door of the Tawonga General Store had now curbed his thirst. Victoria's High Country is much more than a cycling wonderland, something we've known for quite a while now. Yet even with 2 past editions of the #wntrslstc we had yet to experience the region in the full flight of winter. Watching the sunrise through the Mitta Valley, hearing cows "moo" in unison as we gravel-grinded past them, taking on a snow storm and losing. Comprehensively. To be able to achieve and experience so much on a day we didn't even properly finish, on a day in the very literal dark heart of the "off-season" is a true testament to the beauty of the area. Maybe you'll be convinced to join us for a summer re-run.

 
 
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