Roadtripping Tasmania

Exploring the Apple Isle's rugged north east

It's no secret that the Australian state of Tasmania has plenty to offer cyclists. From long, challenging climbs with breathtaking vistas as their reward, to rolling ribbons of tarmac that thread their way through the seemingly untouched wilderness, Tassie has it all.

A recent trip to Tasmania's north east gave Andy van Bergen, Dan Bonello and Paul Cullen the chance to explore the Apple Isle, both by road bike and by mountain bike. And as you'll see, a visit to the infamous, serpentine Jacobs Ladder in Ben Lemond National Park (as pictured above) was only the beginning ...

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

I’d drawn the short straw, and had the task of ferrying six bikes across Bass Strait on the Spirit of Tasmania — a road bike and mountain bike each for the three of us riders. With heavy rain lashing much of the southern states, the swell between Tassie and the mainland was building to as much as 3-5 metres. It may have been fear that initially put me into the foetal position, but the rocking of the boat kept me there for the night, lulled to sleep. In the morning I woke to clear skies as we pulled into Devonport.

After a short and easy drive across to Launceston, Dan, Paul and myself assembled at the James Boags Brewery with our photographers Tim and Sean to map out the trip over a frosty ale. We’d been given a VF Sportswagon from Holden for the week, and we needed every inch of it as we racked and packed bikes, parts, tools, camera gear, and kit.

We had a quiver of Trek carbon bikes at our disposal: two disc-equipped Domanes and a featherwright Emonda, plus three Superfly 9.0’s MTBs, all itching to show what they were capable of.

With all the hesitation of a cyclist on a new set of wheels, we clipped in and heading out through the quiet CBD of Launceston under blue skies. A rolling road took us out through dairy paddocks towards the imposing, craggy massif of Ben Lomond and, high above us, the much-photographed Jacobs Ladder (see image above). The casual catching up we had been doing on the roll-out quickly disappeared as the gravel road snaked upward through the eucalypts.

The rutted corners would later shake our bones on the descent, but for now they bounced us from one cambered corner to the next. Soon enough we had reached the small boulder field that marks the unmistakable switchbacks of Jacobs Ladder. The difficulty of the climb was easily surpassed by the wonderment of being in such an incredible and yet inhospitable environment.

Organ pipe-like rock structures towered hundreds of metres above us, first reflecting the heat of the setting sun on one switch, before sucking the warmth from us on the next. As the shadows chased us we rounded the final bends to be greeted with the remnants of snowfall only days earlier.

Click here to see a Strava route from day one.

Day 2Meeting Mt. Barrow 

Day 2: Meeting Mt. Barrow 

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 2.29.57 PM

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith


“Honestly, it’s [Richie] Porte’s favourite ride,” we were told — and not for the last time — as we threw on every scrap of clothing we had and rolled out of the warm comfort of the hotel and into the dark.

We were heading out on the infamous ‘Fish Shop Ride’, so named for a fishmonger long since departed from the banks of the Tamar River. An easy few warm up kilometres on the highway took us to the turnoff, and from there we rolled metres from the engorged West Tamar river.

As the sun hit the water the mist instantly rose, providing a wispy backdrop for our gold-lit morning. Small fishing boats became silhouettes as we wound our way slowly along the banks.

We took the road a little further than the traditional Fish Shop Ride, interested in checking out the picturesque cable-stayed Batman Bridge, as recommended by Buck Rogers from Vertigo Mountain Biking. It was a stunning start to the day.

Click here to for the Strava route from this ride.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

After a lazy breakfast, and a bit of discussion about routes, we took the highway out of Launceston in the direction of Lilydale. We were headed to the small town of Scottsdale, and had been given varying suggestions on the best roads to take.

About 20km into the ride we decided to switch back to our original plan, and a quick consult of Google Maps helped us pick up a smaller road running perpendicular to our two other options.

Starting out paved, the surface quickly turned to the most magnificent hard-packed and billiard-smooth clay. Winding up the speed, and buoyed by Dan’s enthusiasm for non-Sydney strada bianche, the alarm bells should have been ringing.

We would need legs for the Sideling climb later in the day, but for the moment we were all caught in the present and hammered out a path to the Tasman Highway.

In the distance to the east we could see the glowing face of a large, rocky outcrop poking above the trees. We were running far ahead of time, so when we came across the lichen-covered and slightly inconspicuous sign pointing out the dusty path to Mt. Barrow we figured we should have a look.

Immediately upon exiting the highway the road kicked up, and would stay that way for the following, brutal 14 kilometres. Passing through farmland we entered the forest, which soon pressed in closer, eventually forming a canopy that would envelop us for the majority of the climb. Pitch, respite, pitch, respite. The pattern repeated itself again and again on the loose gravel surface.

Eventually the road popped out into a giant boulder field, the scale of which was difficult to comprehend. We were seeing evidence of a force much greater than we could imagine. Each boulder was as big as a person and the field of rubble stretched for a few hundred metres in every direction.

Picking its way through this barren rockfield was the barely made road, with only a sagging rusty cable hinting at the need for safety.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

We agreed breathlessly at the top of the final switchback that this was Ben Lomond’s slightly more evil cousin. As we took in the views and gathered our breath, a couple (the only other people we had seen in the past few hours) came across and got chatting. They pointed out their property 7km below us and invited us over for a cuppa. It was going to be touch-and-go with the light, but we all agreed as we stuffed our hands into our armpits that some hot tea was exactly what we needed.

We rolled down to Mira and Sophie’s cosy property, and the five of us sat elbow to elbow around the family dinner table with our hosts and their friends “over from Adelaide for the week”. The fireplace made us dozy as hot cups of coffee and tea, sweetened with homemade honey, were thrust into our hands. Freshly baked cakes, chocolate, and nuts were passed around again and again.

“Everything around here has been chipped,” explained Mira. “We own the last little section of rainforest”. As custodians of this land, Mira and Sophie are intent on preserving it for future generations. Given they’re now past being able to tend to the property (“busted my hip a few years back”) these custodians of the rainforest have engaged transient backpackers to assist with chores in exchange for rent. If the hospitality we had experienced was reflective of the board, then there were some pretty lucky travellers getting around.

We reluctantly swung a leg back over the bike to continue on to Scottsdale. The Sideling climb a dozen kilometres out of town was beautiful, but the fading light and an untimely flat tyre saw us finish up the ride a little earlier and drive into town where a hot meal at the Lord Hotel was waiting.

Click here to see the Strava route for this ride.

Day 3:Hitting the Derby trails 

Day 3: Hitting the Derby trails 

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Part of our decision to ride in the north east of Tasmania was the network of mountain bike trails that had been cut into the former tin-mining town of Derby. The handful of photos we had seen looked incredible, and we were keen to check them out for ourselves.

Clapping hands together to get the circulation going in the crisp and misty morning air, we were soon off, warming up on the gently winding ‘Axehead’ trail. From a roundabout junction we rode across to a deep valley, scrubbed clean of all vegetation.

In a quest to improve the efficiency of extracting tin from one of the biggest deposits in the world, the miners of the early 1900s had built an enormous dam high above the town of Derby. Nearing completion, the region was hit by monsoonal rainfall, so much so that the gauges overflowed.

The dam burst its banks in a catastrophic explosion, a wall of water 20-30m high shooting down the river and wiping away everything in its path. Such was the force that the rush took its own course down the valley and eventually surged upriver for a further seven kilometres. Standing in the high-sided granite valley, wiped baby-smooth after the flood surge, it was possible to get a sense of the scale of the forces involved.

Heading up the tightly twisting climb we soon settled into a rhythm. The care and attention that World Trail had put into this course was immediately apparent — from rock-wall switchbacks, to groomed berms and regularly swept trails.

“Basically when we are building a new trail we will drop a bunch of pins on the map indicating any key features we want to include – there could be up to 70 of these,” explained course designer Glen Jacobs. “We will then essentially join the dots, using the natural flow of the terrain, and looking for interesting features to link the dots, whether it’s a rock, old tree, or a viewpoint”.

There were no shortage of incredible things to see along the way. MTB photographer Tim Bardsley-Smith called them “the most scenic trails in Australia” and we certainly weren’t willing to refute that claim.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

The Krushkers climb eventually rolled out into an exhilarating descent through the forest. There were enough features on the descent to kept adrenaline levels high, including a variety of optional small rock drops, deep berms, and pump sections. A couple of the sections were so good that we snuck back up the trail to hit them more than once.

Returning to the central roundabout we took a few twisting and descending options to return us to the trail head (Sawtooth’s lush green setting was a favourite). We were all utterly smashed, so a trip to The Corner Store was well overdue. If that name sounds familiar it’s because owners Norm and Jess Douglas also own The Corner Store at Mt. Buller and Forest in Victoria and both are well familiar with the bottomless pit that is a trail-earned hunger.

We met Glenn Jacobs back at the trail head. He wanted us to check out his latest masterpiece, ‘Dambusters’, which was due to open the following week. With the offer of a shuttle up to the dam we were in no position to refuse the opportunity to christen a new World Trail path.

The meandering trail wound its way among the giant eucalyptus trees lining the dam. Heading up from there we were faced with roughly 20 minutes of sustained climbing. This is where the clever trail design comes into play — The level of variety in the trail’s twists and turns, coupled with the change in topography and flora meant we were sufficiently distracted from the effort.

As soon as we crested the climb we were immediately thrust into berm after berm, many of which included a drop of a couple of metres. Weaving in and out of the trees, this was mountain biking at its best, a feast of incredible, flowing lines. The technical features were replaced with a fast pump descent.

That single descent, still soft and waiting to be packed in, had us all whoop-ing our way down the valley. It would have been worth a trip across Bass Strait for this line alone.

Day 4: To the sea

Day 4: To the sea

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

Checking out the profile for today’s ride, we knew we were in for a lumpy one. Thankfully we had a handful of highway k’s straight out of Scottsdale as a brief warm-up, and then it was straight into the Sideling climb. We all reminded each other multiple times that this was a warm-up, and that we needed to keep our powder dry for a day of climbing.

It was a good idea in theory.

A cruising descent brought us back through the town of Derby, and from there we chatted through a dozen k’s on roads with wide shoulders before the twisting and climbing took over, and the road narrowed. There had only been minimal (and very friendly) traffic to this point, but with the narrowing of the road it all but disappeared for the day.

After a couple of rollers we finally started one of a few sustained climbs for the day, winding past large granite boulders, and under a thick canopy of temperate rainforest. As we were climbing the soft mist started to finally form into a light rain. After a week of dry weather we took a cautious descent down the twisting and greasy road. As Dan stated, “this is perfect collarbone conditions”.

We couldn’t help but make multiple stops to take photos, as each corner revealed an even more stunning fern-filled backdrop. As we rolled into the small town of Weldborough we all had one thing on our minds – a cleansing ale and a big meal at the local hotel.

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith

(c) Tim Bardsley-Smith


Full from lunch and slightly wobbly after perhaps a little too much ale we rolled out of the town and straight into the final significant climb for the day. The gentle gradient gave way to a bit of a kick through a lush myrtle forest featuring ancient trees with giant sagging, dripping beards of moss and ferns.

It was a stunningly beautiful end to the day’s climbing, because from here it was (more or less) all downhill until we hit St. Helens and Binalong Bay.

With the smell of saltwater in the air a swinging rusty sign was all the motivation we needed to make a quick final pit stop for a dozen, briny freshly shucked oysters. We rolled into Gardens, and Bay of Fires, content after the past few days’ riding.

All of the terrain we encountered, from the popular West Tamar routes through to the temperate rainforests and incredible mountain biking, had convinced us that if this is what one small corner of the state can offer, we would all need to make a trip back to Tassie soon.

Click here to view the Strava route for this ride.

Photo gallery

Where we stayed

Peppers Seaport
Anabels of Scottsdale
Bay of Fires Seascape

Where we ate

Anabels of Scottsdale
Weldborough Hotel
The Corner Store

With thanks to …

Trek for providing us with the Domane, Emonda, and Superfly bikes to ride
Holden for supplying the spacious VF Sportswagon
Tourism North Tasmania
Vertigo Mountain Biking