If there’s a mountain and you’ve got a mountain bike… Well, it’s obvious, really. Mark Eveleigh scoots around Tasmania’s best pedalling patches
Picture four cyclists reclining under the shade of shimmering, silver-leafed eucalypts. All four are meditating on the remoteness of these backwood mountain trails – not a hamlet or lonely homestead within 20km – and on the spirit of adventure that brought them here.
Somewhere on the hillside a kookaburra cackles out a mocking laugh and one of the riders – taking it as a personal insult – groans loudly and turns to glance uphill at his companions.
The scene is not quite as idyllic as it might, at first glance, appear. The four riders are strewn 50m apart up the rocky slope – and all of them are writhing in the dust, trying to massage painful cramps out of their thighs.
My pedalling pals and I were about 40km into a gruelling 65km off-road mountain-bike ride through Snow Hill Forest Reserve on Tasmania’s east coast. With its rugged landscapes and tough pioneering tradition, the state is a Mecca to the world’s outdoor fanatics – and I was beginning to regret the rash decision to measure myself by their standards. In Tasmania the annual back-breaking, butt-bashing mountain-bike marathon to which I was subjecting myself goes by the unassuming name of the Quiet Little Ride. Little, it ain’t – and quiet? Well, if you ignore the groans…
Tasmania boasts some of the best professional mountain bikers in the world; the QLR front runners were already sipping isotonic fluids and tucking into energy bars at the finish line as we struggled to force ourselves back on our bikes. I took a small measure of consolation from the fact that the rider rolling around under the ghost gum farther up was an experienced Canadian cyclist who’d completed a 75km uphill Mount Whistler challenge touted as the toughest race in the world. To add insult to injury we’d both, for the first time in our lives, been forced to enter in the ‘Veteran’ category.
Happily, cycling in Tasmania doesn’t always have to hurt. Whether you want to enjoy a leisurely two-hour descent of Hobart’s Mount Wellington, a three- to four-week circumnavigation of the entire island, or a Quiet Little Ride, Australia’s island state offers almost unparalleled opportunities for cycling. Just peruse a map of Tassie and you can link together a tour through a chain of intriguingly named communities: from the Bay of Fires to Bagdad, or from Swampland through Paradise to Promised Land. Take a peaceful pedal around Doo Town and check out the house names – Gunadoo, Doodle Doo, Love Me Doo, Wee-Do, Xanadu – or, for the real bon vivant, sip while you cycle on a wine tour.
Tasmania is just a little smaller than Ireland,yet its whole area harbours a population less than half that of Dublin. Much of the island is virtually uninhabited; in the isolated south-west are vast areas yet to be fully explored.
Roads are in good condition and totally stress-free; thanks to relatively short distances, cycling is one of the most popular ways to get around. As far as the cyclist is concerned the state is conveniently divided into three sections. They could be labelled easy,medium and hard, but are officially known as the Historical Route (up the centre), the fairly hilly East Coast Route and the man-eating West Coast Route.
If you’re keen to get off-road and see some of the less-accessible parts of the wilderness, the whole country is riddled with mountain biking trails. There are no fewer than 441 reserves, and almost a fifth of the entire state has World Heritage status. The horizons are almost limitless for anyone who likes a lot of room to play in.
Since bike travel is virtually silent and, for the most part, allows plenty of time to look around,it’s an unbeatable way of enjoying the landscapes and wildlife. Mainland Aussies sometimes refer to Tasmania as the ‘Roadkill State’ and it can shock visitors to see many animals flattened on the tarmac. Paradoxically, this can be seen as good news: in many parts of the state naturalists gauge the healthy population densities of certain species by the prevalence of roadkill.
Wallabies are almost ubiquitous along the roadsides at dusk,and possums barely deign to give up their comfortable seat on the warm tarmac. Cuddly wombats give you the merest sideways glance as you cycle past and if you come across a Tasmanian devil chewing on a carcass he is more than likely to hold his ground and give you an angry snarl. These cuddly bundles of fluff are said to have the strongest jaws of any animal relative to their size; tall tales are told of mountain-bikers who were unwise enough to briefly abandon their vehicles in the woods, returning to find that their bikes had been eaten.
Cycling has been a Tassie tradition almost since two wheeled fun was first dreamed up. The Northern Tasmania Cycle Club was founded in 1884 and the village of Evandale is the home of the Velocipede Society of Australia. No, a velocipede is not some sort of killer insect – rather, the vehicle of choice in Australia’s National Penny Farthing Championships. Every February, scores of Penny Farthing enthusiasts from all over the world gather in Evandale for the Century Ride – 160km in a single day on what these delightful lunatics fondly refer to as ‘boneshakers’ or ‘highwheelers’.
Almost a century ago a pair of cycling journalists by the names of Hogan and Gye wrote about their experiences of a tour through Tasmania in The Tight Little Island: ‘We became acquainted with the ‘Tasmanian Boy’ as we cycled along the coast,’they wrote. ‘He is the same tough, cheeky and carefree young terror as his species on the mainland. The traveller is fair game to this young imp. Seeing us toiling slowly uphill, he would jeer “Aw, it’s the pace wot kills, ain’t it, mister?”
And once, on a terrifying downhill run, a young Tasmanian of twelve summers of so, liberally festooned with dead rabbits, popped up over a stone fence and yelled “Hey mister, got the time on yer?”’
Some things may never change. As the struggling Canadian and I finally puffed our way down the home straight a similar youngster (having swapped rabbits for a draping of baggy Paul Smith threads) cycled heartily up to us: “C’mon ya bludgers – is that the best you can do?”