Bike-packing myths and realities: Touring the Snowies and the Wicked Wombat

With the prospect of mandatory Christmas shutdowns comes the need to take a bit of a holiday.  Last year saw the Tassie Boys Tour de Tasmania – and this year saw the potential of a tour of the Snowy Mountains.

Touring with old riding and uni buddy Callum soon proposed a route winding through the mountains to the Wicked Wombat in Jindabyne, and the prospect of a trip down the coast that didn’t quite eventuate.

Bike Packing Myth 1: It’s not that much harder than riding unloaded – Canberra to Tumut

One of the iconic myths of bikepacking is that, somehow, loading yourself up with bags all over the place doesn’t actually slow you down.  The reality is that it makes mountains of molehills, and himalayan peaks of mountains.

Our route headed out on the dirt towards Wee Jasper on the iconic Doctor’s Flat road.  This road was a silly choice, because it’s anything but flat, and actually rides as a procession of violent climbs.

While on the road, we also encountered the Onya boxing day ride.  A ferocious series of anti-social attacks, the Onya rides are not where one goes for pleasant trail-side chit-chat or gentle rolling turns.

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Pick the odd one out…

Clinging by our coat-tails to the bunch, we were soon encountering the difficulties of riding loaded.  The possibility of accelerating onto climbs evaporates.  Out-of-the-saddle is difficult with the extra weight hanging off the bike.  Disturbing understeering tendencies emerge on the descents, adding an extra degree of sketchiness.

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Clinging by our coat-tails into Wee Jasper, it became apparent that we’d have to slow the pace down.

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Of course, being two shameless racer boys, we didn’t.  And the climb out of Wee Jasper – a 500vm slog quiet pleasant in winter – was roasting in the summer heat.  There is nothing pleasant about the brutal force of the sun in an Australian summer, and we’d soon plowed through almost all our water.  Additionally, being shameless racer boys, a hard slog was accompanied by a complete lack of breaks, and soon turned into a death march.  The kilometres ploughed by, and eventually the stunning descents opened up into Tumut – thoroughly out of food and water, with complete bike-packing noob mistakes.

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Bike Packing Myth 2: It’s always downhill with a tailwind

Day 2 dawned in Tumbarumba with a loop of the fantastic local trail network.  With a proposed rail trail on the way too, Tumbarumba is well positioned to take a Beechworth/Yackandandah approach to tourism.

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Day 2 was one of those iconic bikepacking days.  A net downhill, and a tailwind almost all the way.  Easing, flowing kms – the stuff that dreams were made of.  With an easy route of about 100km planned,we were soon rolling out on the tar.

Of course, net downhills don’t always tell the full story, and you still spend a heap of time climbing.  Such considerations can be redeemed by comical attempts at wheelies, or singing David Brent songs.

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Eventually, the net downhill came through, and with views out to the Snowies, we were soon cruising along.  A gravel re-route soon provided a nice break from the main road, and we were cruising into Khancoban in excellent time.

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After a lunch break by the river with some casual rapids riding on the body, it was time to slog out the remainder of the day in the roasting heat – a climb up to the Geehi walls, and then a descent down to the river to camp out.  Now traversing into the mountains, the progress was slow but rewarding, with a beautiful forest road leading to the top of the walls, and the violent downhill back down to the river for a peaceful campground.

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Day 3: The Hard Realities

Day 3 had been freaking me out, because I like to stress about things, and there was a promise of rain coming through.  With a high alpine pass proposed, this would lead to very cold potential conditions over the top of the pass – a rude variation to the crippling heat of the past few days.

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Day 3 started slowly without coffee or a massive breakfast.  Slogging up the initial climb back out of the Geehi, the reality of a very slow average speed presented itself, with a the prospect of a 1500vm climb looming.

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We turned off and began to head slowly up the Geehi gorge.  Rainforest corner followed rainforest corner in an incessant grinding gradient.  The rain began to fall.  After hours of climbing, the rainforest transitioned to scrabbly, rocky forested terrain, as we followed scrabbly fire-roads and powerline trails around the Geehi dam.  The progress was painfully slow and we were running concerningly low on food supplies.  Each new look-out gave us the opportunity to survey the powerline trail climbing ahead, with small downhill pitches leading to steep climbs again.

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Eventually, we crossed the river, and began the final climb towards Schlinks Pass.  A depressingly slow average speed of about 12km/h was testament to the unyielding difficulty of the climbing.  Gorge transitioned to snow gums, and finally to the tundra of the Australian alpine.

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With a more open landscape to enjoy, we found ourselves in a better mood as we gradually approached the past.  The rain moved swiftly in at the past to limit the enjoyment, and we pushed straight over the top and down to Guthega as quickly as possible to stay warm.

From Guthega, the route options to Jindy were debated, with minimal food remaining.  We could follow the fire-roads down Snowy Adit to Lake Jindabyne, with much more pinch climbing, or take the sealed road climb back up to Rennix Gap and cruise down the other side.  We opted for the sealed road climb in the rain and very slowly slogged our way up the pass.  I’d conveniently forgotten that the Guthega climb is, in fact, about 350vm, and no walk in the park.  Grovelling ensued, but was rewarded by a long flowing tarmac descent down into Jindabyne and a spectacular bakery raid.

Days 4 and 5: Jindabyne Trails and the Wicked Wombat

I’ve never seen the Snowy Mountains so busy in summer – with ski resorts re-orienting for summer months with hiking, water sports, and perhaps most critically – mountain biking.  The reasons for councils to get behind mountain biking are compelling, with the ability to drive a strong influx of hungry and thirsty riders from crowded and trail-less cities.  The icing on the cake? It’s dirt cheap. $250,000 of council money won’t cover much more than about 250m of road construction, a statue or sign here or there, but it will build about 10km of professional trail network.

Jindabyne was heaving with riders and the trails were packed with couples, solos, and families all out for an explore.  After a quick blat around the superb East Jindabyne trails, the focus shifted to the Wicked Wombat – and a reconnaisance revealed a beautiful flowing course with tacky trails, and the occasional terrifying territorial emu to keep riders on their toes.

The Wicked Wombat is a unique participation-oriented 8 hour race held on the trails of the Bungarra alpine centre. With 12km of flowing singletrack, gentle climbs, and A-line / B-line options, it provides a superb race venue with the convenience of well set-up race centre.  Instead of functioning on a relay format, the race allows riders on track at the same time, with the cumulative lap count.  Intended to allow mates / friends / families to ride together, it creates a very relaxed and friendly vibe out on the trail.

With legs duly roasted from the tour, the change to early race pace came as a very rude shock to the legs, with lactic flooding through, and lungs failing to respond.   With trails tacked down beautifully from storms the previous two days, the first lap provided some entertainment with soft surfaces giving away to biting days and leading to big drifts through the mud.

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Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

Backing off slightly to let the legs find their rhythm, the trails soon began to reveal a gentle, slower paced flow and rhythm, hopping the little hardtail carefully through the rocks, and pushing hard through the grippy corners.  The first few hours sped by, and Callum and I, thinking we were riding in a team, rode together and swapped turns at the front, working on smooth lines.

With the touring approach came a revised approach to race nutrition.  Racing on water only, we were also riding on “traditional” food sources – bananas, croissants, muesli bars, and similar sources.  Even in the heat, it worked suprisingly well – with legs free of cramps and energy levels solid throughout.

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James gets a bit wild. Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

Coming into the middle hours of the race, the heat began to rise, but the diesel engine from touring kicked in and began to chug along happily in the warm conditions.  With differing paces, Callum and I soon split apart, and I rolled along with guest laps from the flying Jarrod Hughes and Lewy Cressy.

Over the course of the day, the course began to dry  out significantly, and formerly tacky corners required far more attention and care to avoid massive washouts.   The sun drifted around in the afternoon skies, bits I didn’t even know I had turned a sunburnt shade of scarlet pink, new climbs began to emerge on the course, and the rockgardens got sharper and sharper.  The last lap soon rolled around, and the promise of an easy lap soon gave way to a very speedy hot finish to the lap to bring home what transpired as a solo win after all.

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The chop! Photo by Going Downhill Photography (Flickr Talentspotter)

After one New Year’s eve beer successfully knocked me for six, it was time to ponder the ride home.

Day 6: Jindabyne to Canberra

One salient feature of the tour had been our tendency to overestimate our ability to ride distance, or push too hard in effort.  With bodies distinctly baked from the Wombat, the plan had drastically changed to head straight home instead of touring further down to the coast.

Initially, this was planned as a two day jaunt through Adaminaby.  Rolling out  under overcast skies, we soon made good time on the tarmac.  We even hit a stretch of dream bike-packing – mild downhill with a block tailwind, cruising along with hands off the bars.

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And then, someone got a bit cute with navigation, and trusted Google Maps a little too implicitly.  Sometimes the road less travelled is less travelled for a reason.  The road less travelled turned into the road not travelled.  A poo-loaded creek crossing, and a lot of paddock bashing and fence-hopping later, we were back on main roads, albeit a little bashful and ashamed.

35km of tarmac remained to Adaminaby – but into a block headwind.  The Snowy Mountains highway along this stretch was busy, and afforded almost zero shelter from the punishing headwind.  Progress was slow and painful.

Arriving in Adaminaby and joining up with Mark Simpson, it was time to refuel the tanks and consider the long plod home.  Happily, heading out of Adaminaby brought the wind back in our favour.  With a decent tailwind and quiet roads, we soon made excellent time up through the Boboyan foothills.

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Crossing over the border into Namadgi, we swung off for Old Boboyan road – a dirt gem through frost hollows and native scrub that bypasses the main road.  Here, the riding was beautiful in its own right, and we made excellent time as we approached the final climbs through Namadgi.

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Pushing slowly over the last few climbs, the last remaining hurdles were clear, and what remained was a 40km tarmac slog.  With the wind down and the temperatures mild, this soon turned to a bikepacking time trial, and we were swapped off at 40km/h along the tarmac, bags and all.

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Approaching home, there was no more appropriate way to finish than with some local dirt and a great view out over the mountains, to round out a fantastic little trip.

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About edridesbikes

Ride a singlespeed!
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2 Responses to Bike-packing myths and realities: Touring the Snowies and the Wicked Wombat

  1. alex says:

    great write up. sounds like a monster effort. i think i spotted you guys at the base of mt coree on pabral road on 18 december. i was coming down the mtn after a monster effort up the hill.

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