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The Chain Gang

By Justin Jenvey

Posted 20 Aug 2019

Hotham is one of a handful of ski resorts worldwide perched on the top of a mountain. With a few steep twists and turns before you reach the resort on the Harrietville approach, drivers regularly have to use snow chains.

Fortunately, we have Hoys, a fourth-generation family-run business that has been operating its roadside chain fitting service since the 1990s.

 Long hours are often spent out in poor weather and by the end of the day the hands of those on the road are dirty and bloodied from fitting and removing sometimes hundreds of sets of chains. 

 Despite this, they continue to staff the Great Alpine Road to ensure that thousands of people arrive and leave Hotham safely each winter.

The service is not a profitable operation and not subsidised in any way but it highlights the level of service Hoys dedicates to their customers and others they assist.

Hoys history

The origins of this family business go back as far as 1934 when Eric and Edith Hoy ran a passenger service between Wangaratta and Harrietville as well as transporting people up the Hotham road.

Later the Hoys moved into accommodation both on Hotham and in Harrietville, as well as continuing to operate passenger services to the mountain and at one point those at Dinner Plain.

 Ski and board equipment and snow chain hire is what they specialise in now, employing 65 people during winter across five stores located in Harrietville, Mt Hotham (Corral Car Park and Davenport Village), Dinner Plain and Omeo.

Hoys chain fitting service is one that many people have come to rely on so much that some regular snow goers still don’t know how to fit chains to their car.

Some customers even ring the Hoys team before departing Hotham to check conditions and ask for assistance to put on or take off their chains.

Paddy Hoy is a long-time local and a well-known face in the Hotham community. His experience in the family business and first working as a roadside chain fitter from 1991, has given him a wealth of knowledge to pass on to people travelling to Hotham, especially where snow chains are concerned.

“I worked on the road with my dad Tom for many years and my nephew Tom Jr. is now our number one guy along with his lively girlfriend Gayle who joins him on weekends,” Paddy says.

“Hoys have been assisting travellers to Hotham for over 80 years and there have been many tough men and women who have worked here over the years.

“You endure varying weather from unbearable wind with horizontal hail to bluebird days of immense beauty. Since we’ve been doing this, degrees have been finished, musical instruments mastered, igloos built and poetry written, all on the side of that road.”

What are Paddy’s top tips for a successful trip up the mountain?

The correct chains

“If you are purchasing or renting chains make sure they are of high quality, are diamond pattern, and have been fitted by an expert who can assess their compatibility with your vehicle and tyres,” he emphasises.

“They cannot be relied upon without being assessed if they fit and your vehicle can use them. This means you can't buy them online, the charts used are not accurate enough to predict compatibility, and different brands of tyres vary in their volumes despite claiming to be the same size. Similarly, variations in tread patterns, and wear, can affect chain/tyre compatibility so when you change your tyres your chains may no longer fit.

“There are dozens of different sizes so you can't just borrow your mates while some vehicles sadly cannot fit chains.”

Paddy stresses that there are a few things you need to find out before throwing your skis or boards in the car and heading up:

  • can my car use chains?

  • which wheels should I put them on (front or back)?

  • do my chains fit?

  • how do I get them on and off?

  • am I better off taking the bus?

There is specific information which Paddy says people need to know about their cars, especially recent model vehicles that tend to have less clearance between wheels and the car body and that have low-profile tyres.

“In a nutshell, a two-wheel drive (2WD) car will fit chains to drive wheels, an all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle will fit chains to the axle recommended in the car manual, while a four wheel drive (4WD) fits to the front wheels if possible,” Paddy explains.

“Quite often a car manual will suggest chains can be fitted to a vehicle but the diameter of the wheel and width of tyres have been increased by an aftermarket change, rendering the vehicle incompatible. A standard wheel in Europe and Asia is usually replaced by a larger one in Australia. Sadly we hear of many instances where car dealers are not knowledgeable on this issue.

 “Generally speaking, you'll need a minimum of 30mm clearance between your tyre and any panel, strut, shocker, brake line, etc. A specialty thin chain may reduce this to 25mm. But still problems can occur with tight steering or when shockers engage (e.g. bumping over snowdrifts). A heavily loaded car can make chains impossible to fit.”

It’s law that chains must be fitted and removed as directed, which is determined by VicRoads; keep an eye out for the 'Fit chains here' and 'Chains may be removed' signs along the road. Hoys’ mobile chainfitters can be found in the designated chainbay everyday from 8am when fitting is required and until midnight on Fridays.

Additionally, removing your chains when directed is just as important as fitting them when directed.

“It is dangerous to drive with chains on when not necessary as your vehicle can understeer and skid unpredictably, potentially into incoming traffic. Not to mention the risks associated with driving much slower than other traffic on mountain roads,” stresses Paddy.

“Also your chains will break if you continue to drive with them on unnecessarily, which will destroy them and likely damage your vehicle. We’re not joking when we say people get to Harrietville and Bright with chains still on.”

Why do chains break?

  • • Wrong size

  • • Poorly fitted

  • • Used unnecessarily or driven on too fast (maximum speed 40kmph)

  • • Wheel spin on steep sections, on thick snow, or when exiting and entering carparks. Do not spin wheels

Hoys operate the roadside fitting service on the Harrietville approach, fitting and removing chains rented from their Harrietville store for no charge. They will fit other chains at a cost of $20 and remove them for $10.

For those people with vehicles that cannot fit chains Hoys have a security carpark in Harrietville and are the transport hub for buses and taxis.

“We stock the largest range of speciality chains and our ambition is to fit and remove as many of the chains we rent as possible. We are experts and will save people time, effort and risk of failure,” Paddy says proudly.

“Lastly we often encourage our clients to have their chains fitted (free) before parking if they were not required on the way up and we expect them to be needed when departing. It is very difficult and time-consuming to fit chains to a snowed in vehicle. And they very often are broken in this circumstance.”

Paddy’s top tips

  •  • Contact us to book chains and discuss vehicle compatibility, and possibly book alternative transport if required

  • • Rent or purchase chains from Hoys Harrietville as we are the experts

  • • Watch our in-store demonstrations (and film) and practice

  • • Use our complimentary chain fitting/removal services, roadside and our shops at Hotham carpark and Dinner Plain

  • • Carry a shovel, dig your car out if snowed in

  • • Use Alpine Diesel and/or additive

  • • If snow is predicted during your visit, park in the larger carparks that are not on the roadside

  • • Contact us in store for advice as to current conditions and requirements (there is parking out front of our Dinner Plain and Hotham stores)

  • • Remove chains where directed

  • • Be patient and leave plenty of time for your journeys

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If you are purchasing or renting chains make sure they are of high quality, are diamond pattern, and have been fitted by an expert who can assess their compatibility with your vehicle and tyres

Paddy Hoy