Tour of Bright: a legend two decades in the making

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Hundreds of cyclists will descend on the Victorian alpine town of Bright this weekend for the 20th edition of the Tour of Bright. Compared to races like the Melbourne to Warrnambool or Grafton to Inverell the Tour of Bright is still relatively young but for amateur cyclists in Victoria (and indeed around Australia) the Tour of Bright has established itself as one of the highlights of the annual racing calendar. Craig Fry delves into the history of this famous three-day tour.

The early years

The Tour of Bright is hosted each year by the Alpine Cycling Club. The club itself began life as the Myrtleford Cycling Club, based on a Myrtleford High School Year 12 project by Damien Ferarro and Ross Walker. The club’s first meeting was at the Railway Hotel in Myrtleford on 24th March 1992.

The first running of the Tour of Bright was in 1993. There were only two grades back then (A and B), and two stages — a criterium around the town and a road race to the Buffalo river dam. Long-time Alpine shire resident and Tour volunteer Garry Meyland (Cycling Victoria Volunteer of the year in 2009, and lifetime member of the Alpine Cycling Club) was involved from the beginning:

My wife Olga and I have been associated with the Tour since its inception. Local businessman Bruce Reid, who owned an accommodation place, the Coach House Inn, wanted to have an event happening during a quiet time in Bright. The first few Tours were held in May. Bruce needed a lead car at the last minute, so rang us and that was that. We have been involved ever since. I have held various roles, including that of race director.

Race pamphlet for the 1994 Tour of Bright.
Race program for the 1994 Tour of Bright.

In 1994 the Tour of Bright was held on May 14-15, by which time the start list included 224 riders across A, B and C grade (C grade included women that year). The race eventually ended up in the first week of December (or late in November) due to weather problems experienced in the early years.

Total prize money in 1994 was $5,100 and the riders certainly earned it. Back then it was a two-day race with Stage 1 (an 8km time trial) and 2 (a 125km Mt Hotham road race) on the first day, and Stage 3 (a 110km road race) and 4 (a criterium in Bright) on the second.

The 1994 race program (see above) shows that Stage 2 for A grade involved starting on top of Mt Hotham, descending to Harrietville, heading to Bright and Porepunkah before returning to climb Mt Hotham for a ski village finish line. B and C grade were ‘gifted’ that year with a 20km shorter Stage 2, turning around at Germantown.

A stepping-stone for future success

One of the significant things about the Tour of Bright is the role the race has played in rider development. From the Tour’s earliest years the big names and talent have come to race.

The Tour’s first Perpetual Trophy shows that the 1993 edition was won by Wangaratta Olympic medalist Dean Woods OAM. Woods also won A grade in the 1994 Tour in a field that included the likes of Jamie Drew, Al Iacuone, Glen Clarke, and Matthew Keenan. Racing in B grade that year was a guy called Cadel Evans, while Commonwealth Games medalist Anna Wilson raced in C grade.

Start list for the 1994 edition of the Tour of Bright, including Cadel Evans in B Grade.
Start list for the 1994 edition of the Tour of Bright, including Cadel Evans in B Grade. Click for a larger version.

Early in his career, Richie Porte won the 2007 Tour of Bright wearing number 11, after winning Stages 1 and 2, and coming eighth on Stage 3. The same year Olympian Katie Mactier won everything – the GC, sprint and KOM jerseys.

Garry Meyland is particularly proud of the role the Tour of Bright has had in the careers of some of Australia’s most successful riders:

A very favourite memory associated with the Tour is being on holidays in Italy, watching a pro race, and noticing that all the Australians racing had raced the Tour of Bright, as a stepping stone in their pro careers.

It is also very pleasing to see the growth in numbers of women competitors, allowing us to offer three grades for them now. In the early years, women like Kathy Watt and Anna Wilson had to race in B Grade with the men.

Tour of Bright winners jerseys, 2001 on the left, 2013 on the right.
Tour of Bright winner’s jerseys, 2001 on the left, 2013 on the right.

One of the current Aussie pros to have raced the Tour of Bright is Garmin-Sharp’s Steele Von Hoff who competed at least three times (2007-09). He had this to say about the 2007 race:

I was still just a mountain biker at that stage but the Tour of Bright is renowned for mountain bikers dabbling in some road racing, as the huge hills make it a lot more of a level playing field. It was my first road race that was more than one day long, and my first race up real hills too.

I had no idea who any of the other road riders were who I was racing against, all I knew was there was one mountain biker who I had a strong rivalry with — Murray Spink was there, and all I wanted to do was beat him.

I remember in Stage 1 after Murray had just done a huge attack and was looking tired I countered straight over the top of him with a few people such as Richie Porte, Michael Gallagher and Andy Blair. I was so motivated to get to the line before Murray, I told these other riders I would ride to the finish as long as they would let me stay. I rode the front unassisted for about 5km thinking it’s going to be great, the bunch isn’t anywhere near and I’m going to get top 4 of a proper road race!

Little did I realise that I’d I checked the profile of B grade before the race, not realising that A grade did an extra hill up to Falls Creek. After doing what I thought was the last mountain, we took a little turn in to the bottom of Tawonga. After about 500m, off Ritchie and Michael went, and I looked to Andy and said this wasn’t in the profile, and he laughed at me. I didn’t do too badly, ending up 8th on the stage and I think 12 on GC.

Young-gun Alex Morgan has been a dominant force in the Tour of Bright TT in recent years.
Young-gun Alex Morgan has been a dominant force in the Tour of Bright TT in recent years.

Also in the 2007 Tour of Bright was Michael Matthews who now rides with Orica-GreenEDGE. CyclingTips founder and publisher Wade Wallace has clear memories of Matthews’ strong showing that year:

I’ve kept a keen eye on Michael Matthews ever since the 2007 Tour of Bright when a bunch of us A-graders were riding full-gas up Mt Hotham and he passed us like we were standing still. We all thought it was an attack from within A-Grade until we all looked at each other and realised he was wearing a B-Grade number. Michael went on to win B-Grade which was just the start of what will be a tremendously successful career.

Mt Hotham

Bright and the surrounding Alpine region is certainly no stranger to the bicycle. The first recreational touring cyclists started coming to the area to conquer Mt Hotham and surrounding peaks as early as the 1890s.

In 1894 George Burston was the first to cycle over Mt Hotham, starting in Omeo and finishing in Bright. He was a well-known cyclist of that era (especially on the high wheeler or ‘penny farthing’ as it is more widely known), and had helped to establish the Melbourne Bicycle Club in 1878 and the League of Victorian Wheelmen in 1893.

Riders in the 1949 Tour of Victoria take on a Mt. Hotham climb that's decidedly rougher than it is today.
Riders in the 1949 Tour of Victoria take on a Mt. Hotham climb that’s decidedly rougher than it is today.

Two years later in 1896, J Railton was the second over Mt Hotham from the other direction. To quote from Jim Fitzpatrick’s 2013 book Wheeling Matilda:

Encountering a heat wave of up to 40.5c in Harrietville, he rode some of the journey at night. Many roads were badly cut up by bullock teams.

Towards the end of the 19th century a number of alpine touring guides had been published, providing information for the cyclists that would follow Burston and Railton’s example. The Austral Wheel Guide to the Victorian Alps was published in Melbourne in December 1897 – it contained photographs, descriptions of the key alpine towns and touring routes, and information about road conditions, accommodation, hotels and guesthouses.

In The Bicycle and the Bush cycling historian Jim Fitzpatrick provides an interesting assessment of the importance of those early years of alpine cycling for promoting wider interest in Australia’s high country.

The cumulative effect was an increasing awareness of Australia’s mountains. Well before the motor vehicle, the paths had been ridden and described (often in great detail) by cyclists. As in so many ways in rural Australia, the human-engined device had opened up new opportunities and vistas for many.

Much later, the connection between cycling and the Victorian Alps came to include organised road races. The famous Sun Tour road race, which started in 1952, included Mt Hotham and surrounds as feature mountain stages over the years. Stage 6 of the 1954 Sun Tour, for example, went from Beechworth to Omeo, a distance of roughly 160km. The photographs from the early days show clearly what the conditions were like.

Two covers of Australian Cyclist showing Mt. Hotham being used in the 1959 (left) and 1960 (right) Sun Tour.
Two covers of Australian Cyclist showing Mt. Hotham being used in the 1959 (left) and 1960 (right) Sun Tour.

Today road surfaces are much better on Mt. Hotham and the race timing ensures there is no snow. But Mt Hotham is clearly still a big factor in the race, as Steele Von Hoff remembers:

The hardest part would definitely be the last little kicker up to the line at Mt Hotham, the last few kilometers when you can see the people in front of you along the side of the mountain. In 2009 I really went to new levels of pain just trying to hang on to the little group of four I was in that included Pat Shaw.

The Victorian Alps — an area made for cycling

These days of course, Bright and the Victorian Alpine region plays host to all manner of cycling events, festivals and cyclists of all varieties. The Audax Alpine Classic, 3 Peaks Challenge, the Bright 24 Hour, and the Cycle Salute festival are all held in the area, to name just a few.

Bright and the nearby towns of Porepunkah, Myrtleford, Harrietville, and Mt Beauty are all excellent bases for exploring the area. In the lead up to the Tour of Bright each year, groups of riders can be found getting some good hill miles into the legs – the climbs of Mt Buffalo, Mt Hotham, Falls Creek, and the Tawonga Gap are all in the vicinity.

Garry Meyland is pretty clear about why the Tour of Bright is so popular:

It caters not only for the elite riders, but anyone who wants to race and test themselves on some of the beautiful terrain in and around Bright. Another reason for its popularity is that Bright is a great training base, with varied terrain, great accommodation and lots of eateries.

Aaron Smith, now in his fourth year as race director, agrees with Garry’s assessment. For Aaron, the Tour’s popularity comes down to three factors:

First, its a stage race, including a TT. The closest thing a club racer can have to a TdF experience. Second, Bright, the mountains and the course — the best place in Australia to ride your bike. Finally, the Alpine Cycling Club members who are friendly and have a real sense of community.

The 2013 sprint, KOM and QOM jerseys.
The 2013 sprint, KOM and QOM jerseys.

There is little doubt that a big part of the attraction of the Tour of Bright is the location. Situated in the Alpine region in the North East of Victoria, this race traverses some of the most spectacular countryside in this state. The town of Bright and the surrounding areas also offer plenty of interest – good food, wine, coffee, shopping and books, fishing, bike paths and so on.

Of special note is the Bright Velo business owned and operated by ex-professional cyclist and New Zealand expatriate Wayne Hildred. Hildred’s long and impressive career includes Australian road championship wins in 1982 and 1986, multiple Sun Tour stage wins, and fastest time in the 1980 Melbourne to Warrnambool from scratch (5:37:10) – a record which stood for 10 years until being broken by Dean Woods in 1990 (5:12:26).

Wayne Hildred has also been a formidable Masters grade rider in recent years, including a Stage 3 (Mt Hotham) Masters 6 win in the 2012 Tour of Bright and fourth in the Masters GC. He lines up again in the Tour this year, along with his son Jy Hildred (who starts in Elite C grade).

By riders for riders

One thing you will often hear said about the Tour of Bright is that it’s a race organised by riders, for riders. Its clear from speaking with members of the race committee that the Tour of Bright works because of the energy and commitment of the community that has formed around it. The race fixtures of amateur cycling clubs have always depended critically on members and other volunteers giving back individual time and effort for the greater good of the group.

Aaron Smith explains:

I volunteered for a few years, then was a stage director for one or two years, and now this will be my fourth year as race director. We have built up a core team of really good guys who work together well and put in heaps of time.

It’s just great to see people enjoying the race and putting in the effort. If I had to pick one memory, it would be Matt Clarke winning last year. He and his family are great people, put in lots of effort and are part of the Alpine Cycling Club.

Shane Miller, the 2012 Masters 1/2/3 GC winner, has written this about the Tour:

Wade Wallace summed up perfectly what the ToB means to club level cyclists – “It’s Australia’s amateur Tour de France.” It is a race that cyclists of any calibre can live out their dreams of being in a stage race with feed zones, timing systems, online results, and those epic mountains!

It is the first stage race I heard about when I took up the sport. It doesn’t have any UCI points, it isn’t NRS, it isn’t a championship, it is simply the Tour of Bright, or just “Bright” to most of us. It is the event on the road racing calendar that stands apart from the rest.

Good luck and safe riding to everyone pinning on a number in the 20th Tour of Bright. Riders and spectators alike, take the time to watch some of the younger riders this year. Somewhere in the 2013 bunches may well be the next Australian cyclist(s) to end up racing overseas in the years ahead.

Craig Fry is a Melbourne-based researcher, writer and amateur cyclist. His cycling articles can be seen here at CyclingTips, at The Conversation and The Age. You can follow him on Instagram at Pushbikewriter and Strava.

Special thanks go to Aaron Smith (President, Alpine Cycling Club and Tour of Bright Race Director) for generously providing historical photographs and background, and Garry Meyland for telling us about his long association with the Tour of Bright. And thanks also to Steele Von Hoff for taking the time to share his race memories.

For more information about the 2013 Tour of Bright and the format of this year’s race, including information about the recreational Tour Fondo options, click here. The feature image shows the upper slopes of Mt Hotham.

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