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Crossing the Acheron: cycling Australia's Seven Peaks Ride

The Guardian logo The Guardian 1/11/2016 Alan Evans

Over seven days of cycling, conquering some of the country’s highest and steepest alpine ascents, Alan Evans puts his body and cycling skills to the test.

“Sounds like hell,” said my friend when I told her my plan.

These words ring around my head as I drive past a sign telling me I’m about to cross the Acheron – in Greek mythology, the river of pain which dead souls had to cross to reach the underworld. Its namesake in rural Victoria is merely the river you must cross to reach the Australian Alps, but it still makes me wonder what I’ve let myself in for.

I’ve decided to take part in the 7 Peaks Ride – seven climbs up some of Australia’s highest and steepest mountains spread across the Alpine national park. The challenge is open from October to March each year, and riders can complete the climbs in any order over that period. Once you’ve climbed four or more, you’re eligible to buy a commemorative jersey. Of course, the real reward – and the reason I’m doing this – is the warm glow of achievement. A few tough people each year also cycle between the climbs, but I am nowhere near brave enough for that, so I have a hire car.

I’ve decided to do it over seven days in February, in what happens to be the hottest week of the year. By the time I start, I can’t really remember what motivated me to sign up. I’ve enjoyed riding up mountains in the past while touring, but always with the motivation of reaching whatever’s on the other side – never just for the sake of it. I’m pretty unfit, have a heavy bike and have done no training whatsoever, so am rather daunted by what lies ahead.

Marysville, my first destination, is a two-hour drive from Melbourne airport. As I approach the town, a craggy mountain looms out at me through tall, ghostly eucalyptus trees. When I arrive at my motel and put my bike back together, I realise I’ve forgotten to bring a bike pump. Neither of the two bars in town have one to lend me, so I go to bed and cross my fingers, hoping to have more luck in the morning.

My alarm wakes me at 7am. I’ve been advised to start the rides early as the temperatures in the middle of summer can quickly become overwhelming. Still needing a pump, I visit every shop and cafe I can find as soon as they open, but have no luck until the tourist office opens at 9am and lends me one.

Already, my planned schedule is looking wildly optimistic. I ride out of town and start climbing Lake Mountain. On paper, it seems like the easiest ascent of the seven. If I struggle with this one, it’s going to be a very long week.

At first, unencumbered by the usual locks or panniers, I feel as though I’m flying up the hill, but the wind is taken out of my sails a bit when a purple-clad man at least 20 years my senior sails past effortlessly. The first four kilometres are the hardest grind, averaging about 8% gradient, but after that the slope becomes more manageable and I can admire the views.

Five years ago to the day the area was ravaged by the Black Saturday bushfires, some of the worst in Australia’s history. Vast swaths of forest have yet to recover and the silver skeletons of the trees cover whole hilltops. Skinks scurry across my path on the lower slopes, replaced by butterflies from around the 1,000-metre altitude mark. I make my way through the forest and emerge at the ski resort at the top.

The wind is taken out of my sails a bit when a purple-clad man at least 20 years my senior sails past effortlessly

I’d forgotten to bring a water bottle, but luckily there’s a cafe at the top of the mountain (though disappointingly, no lake). Reinvigorated by a ham sandwich, I coast back down the mountain, relieved not to have fallen at the first hurdle.

I drive to Mount Buller, where I get an early start the next day. I’m not the only one – there seem to be quite a few local cyclists out for their Sunday rides. I try not to be jealous of their triple chainsets as they glide past me.

Fewer of Buller’s trees have fallen to bushfires, so there’s a relatively thick canopy of foliage protecting me from the sun. A series of switchbacks means I find myself looking back on the ground I’ve covered, and it’s satisfying to see how quickly I’m gaining altitude. The gradient is steady, and only becomes difficult in the final kilometres when I reach a short, sharp 13% turn, appropriately named Hell Corner. They seem to have a thing about the underworld in these parts.

It’s a little chilly at the top, but by the time I return to the valley after a coffee at the ski resort, it’s incredibly humid and I’m relieved to get back into the air-conditioned car. I drive on. The easiest two climbs are over, and as I head towards my next motel in Bright, I pass the intimidating sheer face of tomorrow’s climb, Mount Buffalo. From the road, it just looks like a wall of rock. I can’t imagine how the road will take me to the top, but I’m pretty sure it’ll be painful. Time for a real test.

Even though it’s early on a Monday morning when I start, there are plenty of local cyclists about, most of them much older than I am – but that doesn’t stop them passing me. After a consistent grind for 10km, the road flattens for a bit. Suddenly, the sedimentary rock is replaced by granite and the tall, healthy-looking eucalypts replaced by gnarled snow gums. The climate changes swiftly as well – I turn a corner and within seconds the dry heat on the sunny north face has been replaced by rainforest humidity on the south face.

As I grind towards the top the road twists and turns up a ridge before suddenly appearing in a mossy, marshy clearing on a plateau. One fork goes left, signposted “to the chalet”, another right to the official finish at Dingo Dell. I head right. Just over a small hill, I find the enormous Lake Catani. Unsure what lurks within, I only dare enter the water as far as my knees, but I am later assured by a park ranger that nothing nasty would have bitten me if I’d taken the plunge.

Dingo Dell turns out to be an unremarkable marshland, so I turn around and return to the beautiful Swiss-style chalet. Closed since 2006, it’s in the process of being renovated. Just in front of it is a gorge with several vantage points offering spectacular views across the valley, including of Mount Bogong, Victoria’s highest peak, and in the distance the summit of Mount Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest.

The Ovens river, which runs through Bright, has several natural swimming holes, so I spend the afternoon cooling off in one under the blazing sun before spending a few hours in the town’s microbrewery. The residents of Bright are a mixture of older people who have lived there for years and a younger generation who have moved to be close to the winter sports resorts in the area, which creates a strange atmosphere. A chintzy tea shop sits next to an internet cafe. The brewery seems to attract both types of resident for the performance of a folk band, and several locals see me examining my map and come over to offer advice.

The next morning, after a short but scenic drive to Mount Beauty, I begin the climb to Falls Creek. It’s relatively gentle, at an average gradient of 4%, but at 30km it’s still a daunting proposition in the summer heat. At first, I wind upwards through the gum trees before they suddenly lead out into an area badly burned by bushfire. The bare, grey trees look like an old man’s stubble. There are some signs that the area is beginning to recover, but the living plants won’t cover the dead for many years.

It’s the hottest day yet, about 36C, and as I reach the exposed slopes near the ski resort, I begin to flag. Fortunately, I stumble upon a mountain stream. I splash myself with the water and drink as much as I can, and it gives me enough energy to carry on to the village – and beyond.

It’s worth continuing on. Three kilometres past the resort the terrain becomes flat as you reach the Bogong high plains and the road skirts an enormous artificial reservoir. I go in as far as my knees, but only for a few seconds. The water is so cold that I lose the feeling in my toes all the way down the descent to Mount Beauty.

The climb to Mount Hotham on day five is brutal. With a total elevation gain of 1,347 metres over its 32.4km and a maximum gradient of 18%, it’s a terrifying prospect, but I’m far enough in that I can’t turn back. 

The first 10km are a tough grind through narrow, winding rainforest roads. The glimpses of scenery are rare, but suddenly I reach a false flat and the valley opens up in front of me, with Mount Hotham itself looming in the distance. The middle third of the ride is easy, with a mild gradient on open, exposed roads giving me plenty of time to admire the spectacular peaks and valleys on every side. But the final third of the climb is one of the toughest rides I’ve ever done.

There are three summits, each tougher than the last and with minimal respite between them. All three provide breathtaking views in every direction, and I’m more than happy to pause for a few seconds to take them in and regain my breath. Once I pass about 1,700 metre altitude, the flora changes completely and becomes reminiscent of the European Alps, with scrubby grass and small flowers. Birds of prey hover nearby, their eyes trained on the valley below.

Motorists coming the other way give me looks of pity or bafflement

I slowly grind my way to the summit. Motorists coming the other way give me looks of pity or bafflement. My tongue hangs from my mouth like a dog’s, my lungs desperate for every breath of oxygen. Even at this altitude, the sun is uncomfortably hot. But suddenly, I turn a corner and see the village ahead of me. Fortunately, the resort also contains Australia’s highest pub, where I devour an enormous pie and a large plate of garlic bread before an incredibly enjoyable descent back to Harrietville.

It’s almost a relief that the next day’s ride to Dinner Plain is overcast. I begin in Omeo, and struggle up the steep first five kilometres, which are bordered by pastoral farmland. After that the gradient is mild, but the road surface is heavy and the scenery monotonous. I eventually make my way up into clouds so thick I can only see about 30 metres ahead of me. I keep my ears pricked for the sound of cars, but mostly hear cows.

A few kilometres from the summit, I emerge from the cloud line into clear blue skies. The scenery is still not very exciting, though, and I’m relieved when I reach the resort at the top and can turn around. Several sections of the descent are being resurfaced and as a result are covered in loose stones, meaning I have to ride extremely cautiously – but I get safely back to Omeo and into my car to drive to Mount Baw Baw, my final challenge.

And what a challenge! Baw Baw is apparently the steepest paved road in the southern hemisphere, and Australia’s only hors catégorie (“beyond categorisation”) climb. It’s only 6.5km long, but at an average gradient of 11.3% and a maximum of 20.6%, it’s hard to imagine how I will haul my body up it.

It’s also extremely remote. After a night in Traralgon, I spend two-and-a-half hours driving through narrow roads in lush rainforest, when suddenly I crawl around yet another blind corner – and there it is in front of me, like a wall. I park the car, get the bike out, take a deep breath and try not to think too hard about what’s about to happen.

From the outset, I employ a technique I later learn Australians call “delivering the mail”. I zigzag from side to side up the road to reduce the gradient – one short tack against the camber, then one long one up the easier side of the road. It’s like sailing upwind.

Before too long, I see someone has spray-painted the number 6 on the road. Half a kilometre down. My postman routine works well, and it’s not too long before I hit a painted 5.

The gradient is unrelenting, I fight my bike all the way up

A brief flatter stretch gives me a moment to breathe, but only a moment as it’s back to steep gradients again after a couple of hundred metres. As I gain altitude, the views get better and more rays of sun pierce the gum trees. A car passes me and gives me a thumbs up.

I continue to grind, tacking uphill all the way. How much further can it be? Where the numbers spray-painted on to the road earlier offered comfort, here some joker has painted a question mark to taunt me. The gradient is unrelenting, and I have to fight my bike all the way up.

A series of punishing switchbacks, and I can see daylight on both sides. It can’t be too much further. The gradient gradually gets easier, and then suddenly I look up and find that it’s almost flat. I glide into the village, both exhausted and exhilarated.

As I drink bottle after bottle of ice-cold water at the summit cafe, I look out across Victoria. A tough week in the saddle has left my body aching, but my mind feels clear and sharp. All week, while suffering up the mountains, I’d been wondering how I’d feel if I made it to the end. Relieved? Tired? Proud? Hungry?

All of them, as it turned out.

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