Andrew Bain sits behind a Tour de France veteran on the hairpins of the high country.
On Mount Buller the ski season has melted away but the mountain challenge remains. From the road near Mansfield, it looks distant and high, its sharp summit rising beyond a road sign that warns of cyclists ahead. With warmth back in the air, riders are a common sight and on this sunny spring afternoon I am one of them.
In the next two hours the road will ascend hundreds of metres to Buller's summit. To make such a climb on a bike, I expect rewards and this year they are in abundance, going far beyond the usual latte and lactic acid. Victoria's seven ski resorts have combined to create the Alpine Ascent Challenge, where, by riding to any four of the resorts, cyclists can enter a draw to win a trip to next year's Tour de France with Phil Anderson, the first Australian (and first non-European) to wear the tour leader's yellow jersey.
On this particular afternoon, there are two reasons to ride quickly out of Mansfield: the swooping magpies that keep clattering into our helmets and the fact that Anderson is one of my cycling companions. We are both veterans of Tours de France. Anderson raced in 13 Tours, cycling 3500 kilometres in three weeks each July. I once pedalled 3500 kilometres through France, taking about four months longer.
Leaving Mansfield, the road undulates through fields turned yellow this year by flowers rather than drought. The pace is mild and the mountain seems far away.
With me I carry an Alpine Ascent Challenge passport, my possible ticket to France. Its pages describe the climbs to Falls Creek, Mount Baw Baw, Mount Buffalo, Dinner Plain, Mount Hotham, Lake Mountain and Mount Buller. Beside every description and gradient profile is space for a challenge passport stamp, which can be received only at the summit of each climb. To earn my first stamp towards the Col de la Madeleine and the Col du Tourmalet next July, I must climb the 1300 metres into Mount Buller village.
The passport assures me the Mount Buller road averages a manageable 4 per cent gradient, but that is deceptive. The first 32 kilometres of the 48-kilometre ride from Mansfield to Buller's summit contain little grunt, even as the road funnels in tight against the Delatite River over the final few kilometres. But from the gate at Mirimbah, at the foot of the mountain, the climb truly begins, averaging about 6 per cent as it ascends about 900 metres over 16 kilometres.
It is here that riders usually stop, roll off their arm warmers and reset their trip meters to zero. On hot days some have even been known to strip off and swim in the stream-fed pool beside the gate. This day, thankfully, it is not so hot.
The steepest sections of the climb come at the start and the end, though at the foot of the mountain I'm still feeling invincible and easily handle the gradient. Even here, though, Anderson has an advantage. Having once lived and farmed in nearby Jamieson, he's been up this mountain a few times before.
"It's a good, solid climb," Anderson says. "It could be compared to some of the Alpine or Pyrenean climbs they do in the Tour de France, except that in the tour you might have two or three climbs like this in a day."
It is the kind of additional test strong riders in the Alpine Ascent Challenge can attempt out of Bright, perhaps climbing Falls Creek, Dinner Plain, Mount Hotham and Mount Buffalo in a day. But, right now, I am not thinking beyond Mount Buller.
Blue roadside markers, placed here especially for cyclists, inform us of our progress as we ascend from the valley, counting down the distance to the summit and counting up our hard-earned altitude. The signs tick over more slowly than I would like but Anderson assures me they are not as mocking as similar markers that line Alpine and Pyrenean climbs.
"Some of the ones in Europe give you the severity of the grade for the next kilometre," he says. "It may seem a cruel thing at the time but, in hindsight, you certainly get to learn what 7 or 10 or 12 per cent gradients are like."
For 10 kilometres the Mount Buller road ribbons across the mountain slopes, offering a fleeting glimpse of the village, looking far closer than it really is. Six kilometres from the top the road suddenly coils up a spur, hair-pinning through the oddly named Unnamed Corner and Dump Inn Corner.
I am flagging but I'm momentarily pleased to note that Anderson, too, has slowed. I am holding my own, I think, against a man who placed in the top 10 at the Tour de France five times. Then I realise I'm the only person here breathing hard and shovelling down energy bars. Anderson is being benevolent. After 12 years of leading cycling tours in France, the consummate guide knows how to accommodate mortal abilities.
By Hell Corner, two kilometres from the summit, I'm starting to believe there's a message in the road signs - after almost 50 kilometres and more than 1000 metres of climbing, hell is indeed a 13 per cent gradient, the road saving its steepest and cruellest moment for its very end. My resolve is faltering but I can't stop for, at the summit ahead, my passport will be stamped with a circle of ink that will take me one step towards entering the draw to travel to France on one of Anderson's three tours next July. They are trips that now have bones after the mid-October release of next year's Tour de France route.
The first tour will follow the opening days of the Tour, from Rotterdam, through Belgium, into the north of France. The second trip continues through central France to the heights of the Alps. The final trip crosses the Pyrenees and tracks the race through to its Champs-Elysees finish on July 25.
"They're really different tours and it looks like being a wonderful race again with Lance [Armstrong] going back to try to knock [Alberto] Contador off his shelf," Anderson says. "And of course we'll have Cadel Evans there riding in his world championship jersey trying to knock everybody off.
"On the tours we try to ride most days but we don't do a huge amount of kilometres. We don't ride the course but we might ride from where we're staying to go and watch the race. The emphasis is on seeing the event and enjoying France in summer, having the Tour de France as a backdrop."
The Alpine Ascent Challenge has been held during the past three summers but this year there are some enticing changes to its structure. For the first time, the prize is a trip for two people, not just one. Riders who fall short of four passport stamps still qualify to go into a draw for prizes donated by each of the resorts. Those few cyclists who go beyond the requisite four mountains will be rewarded with an extra entry for each additional summit they complete.
Finally, on Mount Buller, at the entrance to the village, the last of the blue distance markers becomes visible ahead of me. It is the most welcome sign of all, announcing, "You're Here".
On the mountain top it is 7 degrees and I have three more peaks yet to climb - but first I have a descent to enjoy.
Andrew Bain travelled courtesy of North East Victoria Tourism.
Albury-Wodonga is the best entry point into Victoria's high country and the majority of the Alpine Ascent peaks. Virgin Blue flies from Sydney to Albury from $80 one way.
The Alpine Ascent Challenge is staged from November to March. Cyclists can register for a challenge passport at alpineascentchallenge.com.au; the prize is drawn on April 12. Bikes can be hired at Mansfield from All Terrain Cycles; phone (03) 5775 2724 or see allterraincycles.com.au. For details about Phil Anderson's tours see www.philanderson.com.au.
Summer accommodation around Mount Buller includes the Mount Buller Chalet in the ski village, phone (03) 5777 6566; and Alpine Country Cottages, phone (03) 5775 1694.