Gravel & Grit

What: A winter hunt for gravel in Victoria’s High Country.
Where: The mountains and valleys between Mitta Mitta and Beechworth.

Why: An excuse to break from the daily grind with a few mates in tow.

Gravel is hot right now. Grinding, adventure (call it what you will) the pivot to drop-bars-off-road has seen a proliferation of specialist kit. Road geometry stretched for wider rubber, flared drops and compliant frames. For me, gravel is an enabler, an apparatus for my own personal exploration.

Victoria’s North East has long been one of the best cycling destinations in the country. Storied road climbs, epic MTB trails, an endless series of peaks and valleys. Each valley with its river namesake, each riverbend a historic township stocked with warming food and lodgings.

Having been lucky enough to ride its summer peaks many times before, I had been itching to return with eyes set on the ‘groads’. So when the chance finally arose – three days’ escape with friends – a route was struck, a crew assembled and we were off.

Gravel and plans are almost oxymoronic – yet we wanted to ride from Mitta Mitta to Beechworth, with nights spent in Bright and Myrtleford. As departure day loomed, the pending weather crystallised in radio soundbites; “Antarctic storm of the decade”, “frequent blizzards” and “snow down to 400 metres”. Granted, winter cycling is tough at the best of times – and deep-August is at its peak. We were headed into unprecedented territory.

As the snow fell on the nearby ridges, we settled in at Mitta Mitta Brewing Co for pre-ride pizzas and a MiddaBitta or two. Come the morning, in the gravelly local parlance, we’d be ‘going over’. Tackling the fabled Trappers Gap route over the range to Mount Beauty. Pub-bound locals each had a different take: “You’ll make it through, no worries” to “Not a chance! There’ll be 90 centimetres of fresh up top!” Apprehensive, yet excited, we pushed out in the chilly first light.

From lush cattle country we enter the forest. With the mercury struggling past three degrees, we cruised up and over the first saddle, streaming down into Lord’s Creek confident of an early fireside lunch in Beauty.

The climb up to the highest ridgeline of the pass is long and steady, but the eight kilometres up top was where the snow would be. It creeps up on you, a fine dust on the road-side fernery, a silver hue in the canopy – easily mistaken for a trick of the light.

It dawned on us that the consensus of speculation was not far wrong. Above 900 metres the snow was unrideable on anything short of a fat bike. We pushed on past 1100 metres; the snow falls silently up there, like slowly falling plumage piling up ever thicker ahead. Slowly also came the realisation that it wasn’t our time to be ‘going over’ – not via Trappers, anyway. The retreat to Mitta was icy quick. Like a basecamp all to our own, the Mitta Store had us full in no time – hot pies, hot chips and hot coffee. A scenic transfer around the head of the valley down into the Kiewa, eyes set on the next ascent.

Filled with a sense of trepidation we re-laced snow sodden shoes. Once more we’d try ‘going over’ – this time, the lure of a dirty climb out of the Kiewa and into the Ovens offered an alternative to the regular road climb of Tawonga Gap. Up and out of Mount Beauty the tarmac quickly gives way to rock laden clay and the climb begins. Slippery snowy conditions for the last quarter made it a challenging few hours. A grind in every sense of the word.

With daylight fading, we crawled across the snowed out saddle and flung ourselves down the Ovens side in sleeting rain. We roll into Bright Colonial Motel and throw our bikes in the lock up. A hot shower, dinner and a few tasting paddles at the Bright Brewery are a celebration of a huge day one.

The plan for day two was loosely Goldies Spur Track – up the Buckland Valley and around the remote south side of Mount Buffalo. With two snow-laden passes in the bank the previous day, this was one gravel adventure that would have to wait – any other weekend of the year, but not this one.

Over coffee and breakfast at the excellent Ginger Baker, day two plans were redrawn. If day one was about pushing the limits in nature, then day two provided a chance to take a breath. We rolled up the front side of Buffalo. When there was a chance for a beer in the chilly afternoon sunshine, we took it. When a flowing descent was disrupted by an errant calf on the roadside, we shepherded it back through the gate.

Buoyed by a day of being lost and found, we spent an evening at the Happy Valley Hotel – where the beer is cold, the steaks are juicy and the taxi driver waits for you at the bar.

Our final morning brought thick fog and near freezing temperatures – the valley view from Myrtleford’s Saje’s House a memory from the night before. We made our way up and out of the Ovens Valley, bursting into crisp morning sunshine en route to Beechworth. Yet another locale stacked with gravel richness, the takeaway was variety – a weekend smorgasbord rich in Vitamin G.

Before a well-earned date with Bridge Road Brewers – one more ride. A sunshine blessed loop around Voights Road to Newney and Library was followed by a curse-laden ascent of Lady Newton Drive – the brief, sharp and lung-bustlingly steep skip up to Murmungee Lookout. A fitting place to reflect on all that we’d (almost) ‘gone over’, a journey that barely scratched the surface of the High Country’s gravel.

Words & Pictures Stuart Kent

This article originally appeared in issue 25 of Treadlie Magazine.