That long, sweeping descent comes only after you've slogged up to the top of the hill. Push into that gale for a day and it may eventually become a helpful tailwind. For every idiot driver who almost squeezes you off the road, there are many courteous ones who overtake slowly, giving you wobble room and a wave. Cycling the wild East Coast of Tasmania certainly brings its share of both challenges and joys. I confess to being a little apprehensive when Oscar from Tasmanian Expeditions drops me off in Scottsdale, an hour's drive east of Launceston. "The traffic should thin out once you pass Derby," he assures me.
The bike he's brought for me looks sturdy, with knobbly tyres that should grip any road. But riding any unfamiliar bike will be a bit unsteady at first, the wind is gusty and there are too many trucks speeding down the narrow highway for my liking. This is a self-guided trip, so I tell myself I can take my time. It's only (gulp!) 60 kilometres to Weldborough and I have most of the day to do it. I wait until Oscar has driven away before easing myself into the saddle. I'm slow, with bulging panniers and slightly bulging backside. I wonder vaguely whether a logging truck will clean me up from behind. When the first few miss me by several metres, I realise the road is wide enough for both them and me. In most places.
A couple of hours' pedalling over rolling hills brings me into "Trail of the Tin Dragon" territory, where I can take a break. Branxholm and Derby are unprepossessing little villages, making the most of their history. A small museum in Derby tells me an interesting tale of the 19th-century tin rush, when many Chinese miners spilled over from the goldfields of Victoria, briefly turning the area into a minor El Dorado. From Derby the road winds up into a forest of eucalyptus and myrtle. There are indeed fewer vehicles on the road here, so I can concentrate on legs and lungs. It's a stiff, steady climb to the top of Billycock Hill. Tassie's Tour de France rider, Richie Porte, would find it a mere bump; for me, it's an achievement to reach its mighty 394-metre summit. Historic Weldborough Hotel is my first night stop. It serves beer from every one of Tasmania's microbreweries. While I start working my way through the stockpile, friendly host Mark prepares excellent Tasmanian salmon for dinner. My legs are telling me I've earned it.
Next morning I'm off at the crack of dawn. Though my destination, St Helens, is only a few hours' ride away, I want to have time for a 23-kilometre detour to St Columba's Falls. It's a good decision. I can take or leave most waterfalls (I feel the same about firework displays and cathedrals), but the road up through the Pyengana Valley is one of the best of the trip; the creek and forest surrounding the falls are magical, and the return journey is downhill – with a tailwind. From St Helens the highway flattens out as it follows the coast southwards. Unfortunately what's flat and straight for me is also flat and straight for motor traffic. Trucks sometimes flash past at disconcerting speed, leaving me buffeted by the vortex. I'm relieved to arrive in Bicheno, the most attractive town I've visited so far, and my self-contained cabin in Bicheno by the Bay Holiday Park is positively luxurious. With winds reaching gale force overnight, I consider bailing. I could sit out the storm for a day or I could put the bike in the trailer behind a local bus.
Luckily, by morning the wind is gone and I feel fine to ride on. Coles Bay Road branches off from the Tasman Highway; it's less busy, with a wider shoulder for cycling. I have little trouble on the 26-kilometre stretch, and arrive with time and energy for a few hours' walking. Freycinet National Park is as beautiful as any in the country. Wineglass Bay is one of Australia's most photographed beaches, for good reason. Its perfect shape, white sand and dark blue water are brilliant when viewed from the top of the Hazards Range. A local dog-walker engages me in conversation. "Off to Swansea next, eh? Ooh, I ride a bike myself, but I wouldn't trust myself on Devil's Corner ... worst bit of the coast road, that is."
So, with white knuckles, I steel myself for the next stage. It is indeed a tough climb, with many a blind corner. I see no shame in dropping down to the second lowest gear, then the lowest, then ... OK, getting off and wheeling the bike up the steep bit. From Swansea it's a doddle to roll on to Triabunna, gateway to the famed nature reserve and former penal colony of Maria Island. I deserve a couple of quiet nights camping, hiking and occasionally pedalling – with not a logging truck to be seen. Meanwhile, here's a suggestion, dear Tasmanian roads authority people ... You have something very good here that could be truly wonderful.
Some work on the cycling infrastructure could make the East Coast route one of the great rides, to rival New Zealand's famous Otago Rail Trail and Europe's classic routes. It could bring cycle tourists from around the world, just as the Overland Track attracts the world's hikers to Cradle Mountain. What is needed, though, is some improvement to the safety of the road.
Widening the shoulder of the Tasman Highway by even a metre on some stretches would make a huge difference. Widen the shoulder by two metres, clear it of debris now and then and you're entitled to call it a bike lane. Better still, how about developing the old convict road that I've heard runs along the coast into a dedicated cycling/walking route? Already the East Coast route is a great ride for fit, confident cyclists. I've survived it and I've earned some fun. I have 360 kilometres of bragging rights, impressive scenery photos to show family and friends, and I'm entitled to a couple more of those microbrewery beers, possibly in macroglasses.
This article was written by Richard Tulloch for Traveller who joined Tasmanian Expeditions’ East Coast Self Guided Cycle. View the original here
Tasmanian Expeditions' Eight-day East Coast Self-Guided Cycle includes bike hire with helmet and panniers, baggage transfer from Launceston to Hobart, all accommodation, boat trip to camp on Maria Island and bus from Triabunna to Hobart. Shorter and more extended versions of the trip are also offered. Visit out trip page here