Chris Panozzo details a High Country adventure made possible with eBikes.
Words: Chris Panozzo
Photos: Nick Waygood
After being exposed to so many uncomfortable things during 2020, it’s no wonder everyone has been reaching in to the old memory bank for something that might have brought them joy in the past, looking for that one thing to re-create that might bring them some joy in 2021.
I’m sure that for anyone reading this, those memories consisted of many hours spent on two wheels, few distractions and far less weight… of responsibility. The only snag, well actually one of probably many snags, is that the passage of time has meant that those memories may be so vivid yet seem so far away from our current reality, not because of a pandemic, but because the ability to spend hours on a bike at one time takes years to develop, not only that it disappears at a rate much crueller than seems fair given the amount of effort required to get that strength in the first place, the thought of building up to that point again is what regularly snaps us back into our present-day reality. However there is a solution. E-bikes.
If you’ve continued to read on then congratulations, you’re not one of the many haters out there already on their way to cancel their subscription because there is more e-bike content. Relax, this isn’t a commentary on the use of e-bikes in the cycling community, this is one way (of many I should point out) of how to re-live those glory days of the past, or create new ones by taking on an adventure that is usually reserved to those who can finish an ultra-marathon. This is about tackling a backcountry all-day adventure in the alpine wilderness.
With international travel restrictions and heightened use of social media, it has been easy to watch the escape from high density living to remote parts of the country side, particularly for Victorians, getting relief from isolation by escaping to the solitude of high mountains after a lockdown is right at the bottom of the strange things to happen in 2020, but where to go? What place has that vast expanse of wilderness where you can look back on the horizon to where you started, above the tree line, having travelled on a mix of singletrack, fire road, and yes, on the first days of summer in Australia, snow. That place is Falls Creek, right at the top of the Victorian High Country.
A typical summers day in Falls Creek:
When we headed to Falls in early December to do this story, I wasn’t surprised by the weather report, the first days of summer were starting off with predicted snow showers. After growing up in the high country, it didn’t surprise me as most years there has been the odd snow flurry in summer, but given a few days prior at the base of the mountain the temperature was reaching 38 degrees, the chance of snow was slim and I didn’t give it much credit. I was wrong. We arrived late afternoon to a very cold Falls Creek and by early morning a blanket of snow covered the ground. Not bad timing to cover a story intended for a summer print issue, but it made the already spectacular scenery even better and reminded us that what makes a good adventure was the unexpected.
First up was to make sure we had all the right gear for the trip. Ensuring our bikes were fully charged is always a good starting point. It’s not uncommon these days for friends of mine visiting the area to book at a campsite at the caravan park across from my home so they can stop in for a visit each afternoon, with a power board and a fleet of e-bikes! For this trip, we stayed in one of the few year-round accommodation providers at Falls Creek, Diana Lodge. They have been catering to the growing demand for “green season” riders since Falls Creek started opening up to mountain bikers. Green season visitors is a nice term to categorise smelly, dusty MTB riders. If you have been to Falls Creek before and stopped by at the Blue Dirt Shuttle Setup in the main carpark, all their food is prepared by Diana Lodge and it normally sells out early, which gives you an idea where to go if and when you’re looking for a good feed, and how well we were looked after on our trip.
On hand for our adventure we had the Orbea Wild FS, the latest Trek Rail 7 and Giant Trance E+ 3 Pro courtesy of Cyclepath, the local bike shop based in Bright, only a stone’s throw from Falls Creek. A good mix of bikes and a good comparison of how our batteries would compare over the journey – with two Bosch-equipped bikes and a Yamaha motor in the Giant.
Always ride prepared:
It was cold first up, let me tell you that. Heading out into the backcountry we had to be prepared, which meant many layers of clothing on and back up layers should the weather get worse. The forecast was for a mostly clear day, but in the alpine it can be a clear sunny day then within 15 minutes a white out and 30 degree temperature swing. Thankfully, we didn’t get either, but I could have done with a 30-degree temperature swing upwards just to get the extremities of my body into some positive territory, above zero is always nice. We weren’t the only ones wishing for a warm up swing, cold weather plays havoc with electronics, especially battery usage and usability. The Giant was the only one to suffer in the cold temperatures, that was the Nick’s main gripe, our resident photographer. When you are carting twenty plus kilos on your back, plus the 20 odd kilos of bike you really would notice the motor suddenly switching off on you, which did seem to happen quite often, but a quick off and on reset and he was always back on his way. Kathryn McInerney, a short course XC National Champion was on hand to test out the Trek and experience e-biking for the first time. I thought the idea of an e-bike to a cross country and marathon racer would be perceived as cheating. I was wrong again.
The amount of territory you can cover in a day and not cross the same path in the Victorian Alps is immense. To give you some perspective, during a few recces for this story we did a trip from Hotham down to the outskirts of Bright, back up to Falls Creek on one side of the valley and then down the other. Then the next month we went from Bright to Falls Creek and back, barely touching the same trails we had ridden previously, and only some of which we ended up using for this story. For this trip we headed out from the village in a similar direction to a trip I’ve previously written about for AMB, the Fainters trail from Falls Creek to Mount Beauty. It's a huge backcountry descent and one worth looking up if you're in the area. This one has a much different flavour even though we are using the same dedicated bike park trails from the village to take us up to the local summit, normally the drop off location used by Blue Dirt for all the shuttle riders. The last piece of the dedicated trail network is more postcard perfect than any other piece of trail, heading along the plateau the trail slowly weaves its way like a snake across the sand, intoxicating as the horizon falls away so that your view is of the valley floor beyond Mount Beauty, 30 kilometres away and 1400m below.
Running on eco-mode for the first hour we were all still showing full batteries, it’s been mostly up or flat to this point, which is a good sign for how our trip might play out towards the end of our journey. There is a tiny amount of fear though, as the that little charge bar showing battery status I found is getting more attention than the trail ahead of me should be. My fasciation is in part from my relative newbie status on an e-bike, whereas a seasoned owner would know the limits and capabilities of their e-bike, this trip reminds me of my childhood watching episodes of Top Gear, where they would see how far they can get on a single tank of fuel, watching the trip computer read zero for what seemed like forever before finally giving up. I start to wonder at this point of the ride whether I’ll be staring at zero on my own trip computer towards the end.
It doesn’t take long past the summit to lose sight of the Village back at Falls Creek, we are above the tree line and have 360 degree views to immerse ourselves in. We’re riding along two up tracks, which are old access roads that have been behind locked gates for decades, re-growth covering everything but two thin strips of dirt. Most of the time is doesn’t require any focus to comfortably cruise between the heath, but every now and then you have to watch out as the trail might dip a little, creating the perfect height for a pedal strike right when you least expect it. We are heading out towards Mount Fainter before diving down towards Bogong Village, a half way town of sorts between Falls Creek and Mount Beauty. Once a town built around the hydro scheme, this picturesque little village is only home to an outdoor education school and power station these days. Previous generations could have ridden motorbikes or driven cars all through the same places we are passing through on this ride. There are stories of VW Beetles getting into all sorts of places, even the top of summits that today would have you thrown behind bars. These golden oldie stories make me wish for times of old, while at the same time help me realise that we could well be living through the next generation's golden years right now, with the relative ease of access we have by bike.
Anything with a motor has been universally rejected by National Parks, the noise pollution of a VW bouncing up the hillside would have played a part of booting it off the mountain, but the footprint left behind is what seems universally accepted as the reason why nothing powered can access the high country. It doesn’t seem like e-bikes face the same fate, but with the rate of development and the changing landscape its hard to know what the future might bring. It makes me grateful for the opportunity we have now, and that hopefully in 20 years’ time people will still be out here enjoying the adventure, no matter the level of fitness, but enough waffling, back to the ride.
Keen for more High Country content? See some more inside scoops from Chris below.
Leaving Bogong Village, we crossed the river and headed along fire roads regularly used by the hydro scheme. Close by is what has to be one of, if not the highest piece of railway in Australia, still in use on occasion by the hydro scheme it is crazy to see it in such an alpine setting. With the batteries finally showing some level of use we begin our ascent back to Falls on the opposite side of the valley. The fire trail runs parallel to Mount Bogong, the highest peak in the state. It makes for equally stunning views, just like what you would get if you were travelling through the Italian Alps, not a 4.5-hour car ride from Melbourne. The bikes, even on eco mode, were taking everything in their stride. To be fair, the motor hadn’t been working for a large chunk of our trip due to the amount of descending we covered, but once we had Falls Creek back in our sights, we were in a bit of shock to see how much battery we still had left, which had us already looking to extend our ride even further.
Ben McIlory was set to join us in the afternoon on his enduro bike, and as we rolled back into Falls Creek to meet up over a warm coffee, we decide to do a run down Flowtown, easily the most popular piece of singletrack in the bike park at over 6 kilometres in length. The idea being that we can tow Ben back to the village along the main road with whatever remaining charge we had left between us.
The bike park trails drain quickly from any rain or snow, and with all the recent snow melted away by late afternoon we had perfect trail conditions the whole way down Flowtown. With excitement levels on a high after the run we decided to take the longer route back to Falls Creek, a fire road that sweeps behind the hill and would lead right to the short but equally fun Big Fella singletrack down from the summit to our accommodation. My trip computer had an estimated 10km distance remaining in the battery, and with the fire road roughly 8km I felt pretty safe, but not capable of towing anyone. That role fell to Kathryn with a 625Wh Bosch battery in her new Trek Rail 7. On full power she managed to tow Ben nearly the whole way back to the top. I say nearly because at roughly 4km from the top, my trip computer went from 4km to zero in the space of a few metres, then the battery shut off completely. Ben happily rode off under his own steam and Kathryn was left towing me home which she did with battery to spare. The alloy Giant hire bike that kept switching off outlasted the Orbea, even with all the camera equipment Nick was carting with him. All in a ripper adventure right in Victoria’s backyard, accessible to anyone with a sense of adventure and an e-bike, or maybe two.
Where to eat?
If you're staying at Diana Lodge you will be well looked after for meals. But there are plenty of options in the village.
The Frying Pan Inn is a gastro pub with great meals and great beverages to accompany them – it's a perfect spot to finish your day. Milch are right in the village, ideal for a big breakfast and caffeine hit before you hit the trails. And if you're after something to clear the dust and take in the sunset views, it is hard to go past Attunga in the late afternoon.
Where to stay?
Staing at Diana Lodge was spot on for us, with meals and accommodation rolled into one. But if you're not sure what works best for you, get in touch with Falls Creek Central Reservations. Let them know the group size and dates, and they'll provide the options!
Where else to ride?
Falls Creek Resort has 40km of purpose built mountain bike trails – but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Jump onto the Falls Creek website, and get a topographic map to find some true alpine adventures.