Gravel Grinding

In a picturesque valley just a short hop from World Heritage Listed Barrington Tops National Park, lies Gloucester, famous for its gold rush in 1872. More than 150 years on, it was Cyclist’s turn to explore the town and its gravelly surrounds – and we were thrilled to discover gold of the two-wheeled variety.

Words: JACK LYNCH
Photography: TIM BARDSLEY-SMITH

Restlessness sets in as we steer off the A1 and onto The Bucketts Way. ‘Surely,’ I think, ‘Gloucester is close and we’ll be on our bikes soon.’ As my anticipation builds, Alex delivers a blow: ‘The Bucketts Way goes forever,’ he proclaims, as if reading my thoughts. ‘It’ll take us at least an hour to get to town.’

This timeframe means I have no choice but to get comfortable in the middle seat of the van. I forget my aching legs and stiff back as I watch the Upper Hunter’s landscape change from beautiful to unforgettable. If this is Gloucester, I want to know why no one has mentioned it before. It’s a quiet As Jack’s socks fill with water, he becomes immediately envious of Alex’s seasoned raised-leg technique town 220km north of Sydney at the Avon, Gloucester and Barrington river junction. Resting on lush rolling hills, I can’t help but draw comparisons to images of England’s Gloucester in the 19th century – the period when this region was settled.

Combine the fairway-green fields with the cloudless May afternoon and I’m in cycling paradise. This is the sort of place you usually happen upon without a bike handy. Luckily, it was the bike that brought me here, and I’m eager to discover the area on two wheels.

I have one reservation before Alex and I kit up and start our Big Ride, however. There are a lot of bike riders in Gloucester’s main drag wearing leather (not Lycra) parking some big rigs. Will these motorcyclists interrupt our perfect ride? I sure hope not.

Disregarding thoughts of the booming Harley Davidsons rushing past, we have Thunderbolts Way – named after legendary Australian bushranger, Frederick Ward, aka Captain Thunderbolt – all to ourselves before we turn onto Bucketts Road. A few minutes in and I’m struck by an intense calm induced from the solitude and bucolic scenery. The pastures are expertly manicured by herds of sparse yet omnipresent cattle and stretch to the base of Gloucester’s natural borders – tree-covered foothills that lead to Barrington Tops National Park. As the sun traverses the bright clear sky, shadows shift and colours transform as though our surrounds live, breathe and welcome us. Are Gloucester’s hills alive? It may take a few more kilometres to find out, but I’m betting they are!

Soul cycling

Gloucester’s scenery alleviates any stress brought on from travel, finding accommodation and setting up the bike, replacing it with a myopic euphoria focused on seclusion, serenity and cycling. However many thousands of kilometres I ride, this unique sense of discovery never fails to inspire positivity and is sure to leave an indelible impression. Gloucester has justified my cycling passion in fewer than 10km.

It’s tough to imagine this ride improving, but like every cyclist, I’m greedy and want to repeat the soul cleanse. Our loop has only just begun and we forge on, ready to explore secret gems hidden behind back roads, many miles from the nearest traffic light or impatient motorist. As we continue our cruise around Gloucester, I realise that this loop lends itself to more than just existential contentment – it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Soon after blissing out on Bucketts Road, Alex and I come across the route’s first ford (a shallow, paved river crossing). Once upon a time, but not too long ago, this was considered a deal breaker for a successful ‘road’ ride. But now, with disc brakes, thick tyres and an open mind, I dive into the ford without considering any negative consequences because, squelching socks aside, there aren’t any.

This ford crosses the Gloucester River, and is the first of three over the following 6km or so. By the third, I’m copying my ride buddy – to whom fords are old hat – by unclipping my shoes and lifting my feet as high as I can, reducing the risk of getting waterlogged socks. (This method is both effective and easy; just make sure you can judge the ford’s depth, or else you may feel the effects of an uncomfortable bump long after crossing the river.)

Because of the mild afternoon, a splash of water to the legs is welcome, but I can’t help but think of how cold the river runs in winter and that shoe covers are mandatory during those months. Water crossings complete, we move towards the ride’s main attraction: open gravel roads.

Although we’re laid-back, it’s plain these roads aren’t without challenges. If you want to push yourself into oblivion, this place can cater

Heightened senses

When bitumen turns to dusty farm roads, the Gloucester loop deals a heavy endorphin dosage and commences the sensory overload. We stop for a moment to look, listen and feel our surroundings. The rolling greenery is complemented by Gloucester’s rhythms; the sound of distant horses trotting, birds chirping, streams flowing and cows chewing. These sounds are audible thanks to the distinct stillness in the air. I presume this is because we’re riding between mountain ranges almost completely protected from the wind. These conditions must be common around here… not bad!

I don’t know whether it’s a product of our perfect setting or a factor of it, but we roll along at a sociable pace. The kilometres fly past as we gently pedal, chatting freely as we further explore Gloucester’s gravel paradise. That said, although we’re laid-back, it’s plain these roads aren’t without challenges. If you want to push yourself into oblivion, this place can cater for you.

After about an hour and a half of shooting the breeze, I take a glance at our accrued elevation and position on the map and am surprised to see that we’ve been steadily climbing our way towards Gloucester Tops. I suspect the excitement of an unfamiliar setting, mixed with varying road surfaces, obstacles such as fords and cow grates, and a carefree attitude means the usual trudge up the short and relatively steep hills becomes an adventure, not a chore.

The start of the Mud Hut Road hill is marked with a homemade sign that reads ‘Private Property, Stay on Road.’ I wonder where else we could go?

If you were to choose a spot to get the heart rate soaring, the obvious choice is at Mud Hut Road (Strava refers to it as the Mad Dog Road Climb), which occurs about 50km into this loop. The 3.1km climb averages 7% grade and marks a change in landscape. We move from dusty, desolate farm ribbons to the bush as we negotiate the formerly distant range. The start of the Mud Hut Road hill is marked with what appears to be a homemade sign that reads, ‘Private Property, Stay on Road’, and I wonder where else we could go? There are two deviations from the forged path: either straight up into thick scrub, or straight down. Yep, the road seems a good option – thanks for the advice.

A change of scenery often means a change in road condition and the fine gravel of the valley changes to damp, compacted dirt, which, in a shady area like this, turns to bona-fide tyre-slowing mud. While it’s slippery and fun to roll through, I’m pleased the Mud Hut Road surface dries out as we reach the top of the climb and begin the descent. Mud Hut’s descent cannot be described as hair-raising, but I manage to discover some loose gravel sections, causing a momentary flutter and a reactive brake squeeze. Alex gaps me at this point by a few dozen metres, leaving me to negotiate the sweeping bends as I eat his dust.

The importance of equipment

Descent done and bitumen within range, the Gloucester loop throws a slightly more technical gravel section at us for a few kilometres. It’s moments like these that I realise why it’s important to have suitable equipment when entering unfamiliar territory.

When we hit the roughest part of our off-road adventure, my mind is wandering. Without the cushy Canyon seatpost and tireless disc brakes, I’d be in a bad mood at this stage, nursing sore hands and a tight lower back. Being tired and sore often leads to silly mistakes and pointless crashes, which is why the middle third of a ride is often the most dangerous.

Thankfully, the Endurace, fitted with some fresh Schwalbe G-One Speeds, makes negotiating the road’s narrow corrugations and potholes a delight, rather than an imposition. I rest my hands in the drops and accelerate through the rough sections, letting the bike bear the brunt of the unsealed road. It’s true that the faster you go on terrain like this, the more comfortable you feel. Of course, hooning at threshold for more than three hours is impossible, but when you get the urge, it’s foolish to ignore it.

You never know what’s around the corner, and for Alex, the painfully familiar hiss of a pinch flat proves this idiom

You never know what’s around the corner, and for Alex, the painfully familiar hiss of a pinch flat that followed the route’s penultimate cattle grid proved this idiom. Armed with spares, we replace the tube and quickly remount, although our will to push the pace is vanquished by the bad luck. The G-One is tubeless-compatible and would be a consideration for next time.

We see out the remaining stretch of dirt in this section at a comfortable speed and after nearly two hours on gravel, returned to the tar and chip, which felt akin to riding hot mix. ‘How easy is riding road bikes?’ I quip as our cadence increases and speed picks up on the smooth surface.

Just as surfers search for the perfect wave, riders can seek out their favourite journey in unfamiliar locations. The key difference? We don’t have to wait for strong swells or favourable winds!

The return leg

There are a couple of ways to get back to Gloucester, and this loop takes the most interesting, pretty, secluded and enjoyable route. Do yourself a favour and take Bowman Farm Road into town – it concludes the ride with the kind of exhilaration now synonymous with this region, condensing all the positive vibes experienced on the trip into half an hour. There are sweeping views, quick descents, punchy climbs and livestock roaming free in picturesque paddocks. It’s a perfect epilogue to the dirty roads that lay before it and a must-do to round out a memorable day on the bike. Alex and I pedal Bowman’s Farm Road with smiles on our faces and aura surrounding us.

Typically, cyclists want to push their limits, which often leads to exhaustion on an expedition like this, ultimately diminishing the experience. This 89km loop, however, delivers a sense of achievement through mindfulness and wellbeing without a trace of the customary fatigue I frequently succumb to towards the end of a long ride.

As we unclip and dismount, we acknowledge that the ride could be completed much faster than we opted to, but why bother? When I return to Gloucester, I’d be interested to try the route at an elevated intensity to see how the experience differs. Right now, however, I’m happy with the fresh air and chats, and feel I’ve earned a beer or two with my dinner. If experiencing utter contentment doesn’t make you want to get on the bike, I don’t know what does.

We return to the tar and chip, which felt akin to riding hot mix. ‘How easy is riding road bikes?’ I quip as our cadence increases and speed picks up

Gravel grinding has raised eyebrows since its indoctrination into cycling’s vernacular, but the freedom it provides is unparalleled. Just as surfers search for the perfect wave, riders can seek out their favourite journey in unfamiliar locations. The key difference? We don’t have to wait for strong swells and favourable winds – we can ride anytime. Be it fine, wet or a combination, chasing gravel will always offer a great story.

I’m not embarrassed that I had never heard of Gloucester as a cycling destination prior to my Big Ride. I now realise that a sense of adventure and an appropriate bike leads to boundless possibilities. Spend a short while exploring and you’ll probably find your own Gloucester. But if searching for an idyllic place isn’t your thing, spend a few days in this part of the world – it won’t disappoint.

The writer’s ride Canyon Endurace

CF SLX Disc 9.0, $8,299 (2018 model), canyon.com/en-au/.

This ride is basically split evenly between sealed and unsealed roads, so it was a bit tricky to decide what style of bike to take. Canyon’s Endurace CF SLR proved an inspired (and luxurious) choice. Jack was rolling on carbon Mavic Ksyrium Pro Carbon SL Disc wheels and Shimano Dura-Ace Di2, with Alex getting by on DT Swiss wheels and mechanical Shimano Ultegra. The Canyon Endurace is suitable for a ride like this because of its superior tyre clearance (it easily fitted our 30mm Schwalbe tyres and would handle up to a 33mm with ease) and revolutionary leaf sprung seatpost.

Theoretically, these characteristics allow for a smooth and controlled ride and the Endurace did not disappoint. Harsh unsealed roads and rough bitumen were no problem and the 30mm tyres at 60psi balanced comfort and speed. If you’re doing this kind of riding more frequently, it’s worth setting your wheels up tubeless. The bikes are quite tall in the front to enable all-day comfort but are lightweight, meaning they remain nimble and ready to either attack or hang on a wheel when necessary! If slowing down is more a priority, the Shimano hydraulic disc brakes offer total confidence, allowing more time to enjoy the surrounds, rather than worry about brake problems. Versatility is the key with the Endurace, so if you’re on the hunt for rides a little different from the norm, this thing will have your back.

How we got there

TRAVEL

As a passenger in photographer Tim Bardsley Smith’s Ford Transit van, getting to Gloucester from Sydney’s CBD was a cinch. All up, it’s about a three-and-a-half-hour drive and only requires two directions: head north up the Pacific Highway, then turn left onto The Bucketts Way for about 80km before reaching Gloucester. There’s a train to Gloucester on the NSW North Coast railway line that passes through plenty of other potential cycling destinations like Taree, Grafton and Coffs Harbour, but driving seems to be the best option. Routes from all capital cities culminate in travelling up The Bucketts Way and into Gloucester. Those from Newcastle and surrounds could easily day-trip to Gloucester; oh, to be so lucky! For Victorians road tripping north to Byron Bay or Queensland, it serves as a great stopover for a day or two as it’s situated around 12 hours from Melbourne. The two-hour return trip off the freeway is certainly worth it – if not for the cycling, do it for the slow roasted pork roll at local hangout, Roadies Cafe.

FOOD

There is a decent selection of local cafes as well as two pubs on Gloucester’s main drag, Church Street. Our brunch at Roadies Cafe was delicious – the lack of chat when the food arrived was evidence of this. We selected the Roundabout Inn for dinner, which boasted a great selection of local beers and an above-average pub menu. (Note – if you ask for a cider at the Roundabout Inn, the bartender will suggest you drink a beer.)

ACCOMMODATION

There are plenty of accommodation options in and around Gloucester ranging from shoestring Airbnbs to something substantially more upmarket. We stayed in a no-frills cabin a kilometre or two from Church Street. It was bike-friendly, clean and more than appropriate for a couple of nights.

THANKS

Thank you to Canyon, Pearl Izumi and Bont Cycling for providing great equipment, apparel and footwear for the trip. The bikes were flawless and the kit appropriate for chilly mornings and beautiful afternoons. Our heads were kept suitably safe for such an adventure thanks to Kask. A special mention to the Roundabout Inn, Gloucester, whose kitchen whipped up something delicious for us, even though we arrived after service hours.

How we did it

Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks.

When travelling, people often suggest uploading a map to your computer’s GPS device. This makes things straightforward and really reduces your chances of inadvertently going off course. However, Gloucester’s road network is hardly extensive and almost anyone could get by with a printed map – heck, even a hand-drawn rendition of this loop written in crayon should be sufficient. To summarise: you head north on Gloucester’s main street (Church Street), which veers onto Thunderbolts Way. Track this direction for few minutes before turning left onto Bucketts Road. Cross the rivers, bunny hop cow grates and follow the farm roads (bitumen and unsealed) until you scale Mud Hut Road and eventually end up back on Thunderbolts Way – you’ll know which one it is, as it comes at about 72km in and carries some light traffic. It’s crucial to turn left here and ignore the sign to Gloucester. Follow Thunderbolts Way for a short while and take the first right onto Bowmans Farm Road. This is a gorgeous route back to town and is a mix of asphalt and gravel. From here, it’s plain sailing home. The next place you’ll run into is Gloucester – back onto Church Street for some fried takeaway at Blakey’s, a burger at Roadies Cafe, a cake from Perenti, or even a frothy Thunderbolt at the Roundabout Inn.

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