Thursday, March 5, 2020

The Victoria Divide 550 - Day 1

The Victoria Divide 550 bikepacking route is the brainchild of 2018 Tour Divide winner Lewis Ciddor (Great interview with Lewis HERE by Ross Burrage on his "The Hidden Athlete" podcast) who was the first Aussie to win the iconic Tour Divide Race.
The route basically divides the state of Victoria in two by arcing north east out of Melbourne, carving through the high country before undulating across the rolling countryside of rural northern Victoria.

So, how did I become involved in this crazy endeavour? Well, I watched the inaugural race last year online and read the subsequent blog write ups about it. I sort of know the country down there and I love being in any of the Australian Alps, be they located in NSW or Victoria. So when the race popped up on my radar late last year I tagged it with "Interested" on FaceBook. 

Then I forgot about it.

Finally having my leave approved to attend the Colorado Trail Race in July this year I was focusing on beginning my basic training for that race when all of a sudden I noticed that I had a string of days off work from the Wednesday before the Saturday Vic Divide start date. Despite my lack of fitness, I immediately committed to doing the ride as an ITT (Individual Time Trial).

I had one day to prepare my bike and get my gear sorted before heading off for five days of work. Arriving home on the Tuesday morning, I raced home, threw my bike and gear in a bike box, then raced back to the airport and flew to Melbourne. The flight went pretty quick as I passed out in my seat for most of the trip. When I awoke, we were going around in circles just to the north of Melbourne, waiting for a thunderstorm to move off the airport - adding 30 minutes to our flight time.

I then caught the Skybus into town which was actually surprisingly painless and quick. The wet tarmac had put paid to carrying the bike box as the bottom was literally falling out of it, so I elected to put the bike together at Southern Cross station, dumping the box with a "sorry" note taped to it.

Penned by a friendly V-Line worker! Friendly service - in Australia!!

Then it was out into peak hour Melbourne traffic to find my pub, The Royal Derby, about 6km away. The traffic was mad, as were the number of cycle commuters on the road!
The Royal Derby wasn't the prettiest but the staff were super friendly, it was close to some shops and the food was great, being on Brunswick Street, in the trendy inner northern suburb of Fitzroy.


I eventually got to sleep, with the intention of getting up at 5am. When the alarm went of I must admit, I did consider setting it for 30 minutes later.....but got up and packed the bike. I rolled out for the starting point of Wurundjeri Spur in Kew. But not before stopping at the Clifton Hill Maccas for a couple of sausage muffins and a coffee.

I managed to find the Spur in the dark, if a little late, at 0610. There were heaps of road rider groups passing and they probably thought "who is this clown on the fat bike"? Anyway, I got as best a photo as I could in the dark, with Melbourne city in the background.

Then I was OFF!!

I joined in with some road riders for a while as I found my way along the Yarra Trail cycle path. I actually caught up to a couple of road riders and rode behind them for a while. When they eventually saw me they moved over to let me pass but I was happy to sit behind. This decision was vindicated when the trail went up a short climb and they shot away! Yeah, my bike was heavy....

As the sun rose and it became light enough to see I was pleasantly surprised by the scenery along the trail. Also, pleasingly, it wasn't too cold for this banana bender.

I came to a road crossing and decided to get the light off my helmet mount to stash it away and stretch a bit. (Unfortunately my old Nikon camera doesn't do low light very well so there are a lot of pretty crappy photos in this post)

Before I knew it I was at Warrandyte, where I stopped for a water top up. Being a cool day I wasn't drinking much so I carefully uplifted only about a litre, plus refilled the "Pump" bottle I was carrying in my bar bag. I usually carry too much water so I wanted to be smarter about that today.
Turning left across the river I hit my first steep climb and serious morning traffic. Yuk.

Thankfully (and because Lewis designed it that way) this didn't last long and I was on quiet back roads and soon enough, some gravel. 
I followed an aquaduct for a while, which was rather pleasant.

Being pretty well clueless as to where I was headed (apart from eventually Marysville for the day) I was just following the magenta line on my gps. I had learnt from previous races that you need to be zoomed in on the trail so that you don't miss any turns. (Not that missing a turn is too tragic, it just means more riding to get back to where you 'effed up) I was zoomed into the 80 metre scale and still missed a couple of turns off the road (only by 50m or so though) as they were completely indistinguishable from the surrounding bush.
I love this shit!!

Yes, that is a trailhead.

That almost imperceptible trail turned into this. 


I dunno what these trail were but I was enjoying the distraction but slightly wary of the slow forward progress that tight, narrow singletrack brings on a heavily loaded bike.

It was nice to break out onto quiet roads again. However, soon enough, the least desireable aspect of bikepacking reared it's ugly head.
 The forecast had been for blue skies for the whole week! While aware that Melbourne's weather is a national joke, in that "if you don't like the Melbourne weather, wait 15 minutes" I was a bit miffed. I did have rain gear but the showers looked reasonably light so I hid behind a tree near Kinglake Nature Park and ate some food until it had "mostly" passed, rather than drag it out.

I did get a tad damp but it helped to keep me cool, which made it easier on the hydration for the day. 
A few more twists and turns, some sketchy single track and I was on back roads in the Yarra Valley which is a wine growing area. I got to ride though fields of vines, so stopped at one point to check out De Bortoli's grapes.

Soon after I had to ride a short section of the Melba Highway to reach the next stretch of gravel to Toolangi. Again, this proved what tools Australian drivers are. Why do they seem so threatened by bicycle riders that they do stupid shit?

Onto Old Toolangi Rd the route soon became more and more remote feeling. It also went up and up. Then UP!
The climb was only about 320m(1050ft) but took what felt like forever. When I eventually emerged at the tiny hamlet of Toolangi there was nothing. I was hoping to fill up on water as it had been quite a while since the last fill up at Warrandyte. My plan of popping into the CJ Dennis Tea Rooms for resupply was thwarted when I saw the sign saying "closed". Passing the Department of Environment and Sustainablity office I decided to have a hunt around for a tap. I eventually found one around the far side of the building, hidden in the garden! I filled my 750ml bottle, added some electrolyte and pressed on.

After a section of quiet sealed road I came to the Mt St Leonard rd climb. Located opposite the road is a tap, with some rocks to sit on. I filled up here again and contemplated the climb into the clouds that was before me.

Got to go up that gravel road.

I started pedalling up the climb until I saw a sign saying 3.5km to the top. I was feeling pretty tired, my feet were sore and i just didn't have the energy to pedal.
Shit! I'm only 80km into this 570km ride.
 Eyeballing the gradient I knew I should have been able to ride it but I had to hop off and push up this entire climb as I just had no energy.
The trouble I was finding with these climbs was that they would climb and climb, then there was no flattish section along a ridge line. It simply dropped off, usually steeply, on the other side. That meant all that climbing effort was expended as brake dust on the other side rather than making easy distance out of the elevation!

The road went along, getting rockier and rockier with 80-120mm rock having been dumped on the clay base to make it an all weather road. This would be great in a vehicle but it brought back bad memories of the Happy Jacks section of the Arizona Trail (though thankfully much, much shorter than Happy Jacks) Once the track did level out, it turned sharply right and dropped off the range.
And I mean DROPPED!
I was in deep forest, on a steeply descending, twisting, wet clay trail. My brakes were howling with protest despite my trying to stay off them to maximise forward velocity. There were some BIG trees down across the track, with this one consisting of mostly dirt looking at it's internals as it had exploded on impact with the ground.

I soon came out onto more open track along a pine forest and felt like I was making some distance.

This didn't last long of course! I was soon noodling around on little back trails again, then some forestry road that went up and down, up and down for far too long. When my gps line took me off that road I was pleased but that didn't last long either. I proceeded to push my bike up another (what felt like but was only 130m) huge climb, walking for the whole way. Then the trail took me onto a short bit of the Bicentennial National Trail (BNT) which was quite fun despite being uphill.


Then there was some downhill! Downhill all the way into Marysville!
I had missed the bakery and supermarket open hours by about 20 minutes.
The Duck Inn pub was on a corner and as I rode past two touring bikes were leaning against the fence, with the riders sitting in the beer garden enjoying a refreshing drink. I rode over to say G'day and chatted for a while. They recommended the chicken parmigana so I decided to grab one myself, plus a couple of fake beers , settling in for a chat and to lick my wounds - so to speak.

I had hoped/assumed that I would make Marysville by mid to late afternoon as it was only 128km along the route. I hadn't reckoned on the 3500m(11455ft) of climbing though. It was like having my brakes dragging all day.

I needed to resupply for the 108km to Jamieson tomorrow as I was going to show this route much more respect. There was no way I was going to press on without some decent food, despite the clever thing to do being to press on tonight and try to bag another 20-30km. It was quite cold by now and after a tough day I decided to get a warm hotel room where I could rest up, stretch and recharge while waiting for the supermarket to open at 7am.

A nice. long, hot shower at The Vibe helped wash the day's disappointment away. Tomorrow would be another day and I was going to give this ride a solid shake.



  1. Great stuff Dave - really enjoy your cycling endeavours and the psychology of them. Our daughter has just been recruited to Melbourne so I'm going to be interested in her comments about the weather there :-).

    Looking forward to more!

  2. Some beautiful country in the Vic highlands. You mad bastard, non alcoholic beer. We can't be friends anymore....


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