2019 was the 3rd year the Gravel Grit NSW event was run by the Victoria-based Bicycle Network organisation. It is a course that goes through Watagan and Olney State Forests beginning from Laguna on Old Northern Road. I did put it down on my calendar for the past 2 years but some how family commitments and travel consistently derailed my plan. This year, all the stars aligned and I submitted my entry early once Bicycle Network confirmed the Gravel Grit date.
In the week leading up to 27th October, I was nervously checking the Bureau of Meteorology forecast multiple times a day. And true enough, the Saturday before the event turned out to be very hot, dry and windy. A number of bush fires broke out throughout NSW including one near Wollombi (bear in mind this was before the start of the bush fire season). The conditions were far from ideal for gravel cycling in the national park. Miraculously the winds died down within 24 hours and Sunday morning arrived with perfect spring morning conditions – dry, cool and sunny with no winds!
After a quick breakfast and dog-walk, it was an uneventful 90-minute drive up Pennant Hills, F3 and then onto Old Northern Road before arriving at Laguna at 8, with ample time to spare. I brought my old-faithful cyclo-cross-cum-commuter converted to 1x gravel bike. I used the widest gravel tyres I could fit on the bike and ended up with 700C 40mm in the front and 35mm in the rear.
The event must have grown in size since the 200 participants that showed up in the first year. I would hazard to guess but there must have been at least 600 riders this year. A split of perhaps 60:40 gravel dropbar bikes to MTB.
At the riders briefing, the organisers announced that the longer extended 76km route was closed because there were still many RFS personnel and vehicles on that section of the route cleaning up after fires from Saturday. Only the shorter 67km option was available. We left the Starting line promptly at 8.30. Police were on hand to control traffic as the large peloton left the Laguna Trading Post together. One lane of the the Old Northern Road was closed. It was an easy 9km ride on the tarmac before we took a sharp left onto Murrays Run Road, the start of the gravel section. It was another cruisy 10km ride on smooth gravel. It was my first ever group gravel ride therefore I adopted a conservative approach and watched my Bryton numbers closely, forsaking the temptation to go “all-out” reminding myselg that it is not a race. It was not too long before we hit the first climb of the day at around the 20km mark, hitting 15% at the sharpest pinch. I did my homework before I left home and knew that it was a long 8km climb and again, paced myself up the climb without burning too many matches too early. The climb was on tarmac surface, which made it a lot easier. It reminded me of the climb out of Akuna Bay (counter-clockwise).
At the top of the climb was the first food & drink stop. I was feeling good and continued without stopping. Soon, we veered off Brush Creek road to follow Walkers Ridge Forest Road. It was a sheltered, tree-lined lumpy ride for the next 20kms (think Wheelbarrow Ridge Road at Colo). I had to switch to my MTB-mode – closely monitoring the surface of the fire trail for the next 20kms – lots of sand-filled patches (that bog you down and abruptly rob you of your momentum if unprepared), water bars, eroded surfaces, pot holes of varying sizes and dreaded corrugated surface. On a sunny day, it is always a lot more comfortable to ride under the canopy of trees, however, the shade offered by the trees and the sudden contrast of light and shadows some times play tricks with the eyes and camouflage wheel-buckling potholes waiting for unsuspecting cyclists. Most of the time I was riding by myself so I had to pick my own line around the potential traps. On the occasions when I was riding with or close to other riders, I tried to follow their lines as much as possible. However, given the mix of bikes, some times it did not make sense for a dropbar bike to follow the line of an e-MTB!
My first and only stop was the second water-food station at around the 40km. Had some lovely sweet and fresh slices of oranges and watermelons. Spoke to the wonderful volunteers about the remaining trail, and decided to continue without too much delay, skipping the chocolates and other sweets. It was not too long before we started the rough and sketchy 7km descent down Watagan Creek Road. It was also the roughest and technically most challenging part of the ride. Some seasoned riders bombed down the descent but again, I preferred to pick and choose my lines carefully over the stones, rocks, water bars, erosion, pot holes, sands, not to mention the debris of leaves and branches from the Saturday’s winds. Besides, I have had one too many tumbles during my many MTB rides (being a late MTB convert) and was very keen to stay the right side up on the descent. The descent actually reminded me of the Blue Mountain’s Andersons Fire Trail – i.e. sharp descent with debris strewn across the trail and no visible cycling line to pick (unlike the Oaks Trail which had a lot more bicycle and car traffic that you can easily establish the best riding lines to follow). Gradually I found that the most consistent line available was the 1-metre gap on the edge – between the fire trail and the valley next to it!
I emerged at the bottom of the descent half an hour later, after taking a sharp right turn onto a narrow temporary wooden bridge, and Watagan Creek Road opened up to one of the most scenic picturesque valleys in the National Park, with rich lush greenery in the horizon and a big herd of cows grazing on the grass in the foreground. A few kms down the road, riders even had to get off their bikes to open and shut a heavy gate that secured the cows in the paddock. It was also a timely reminder that many sections of the route were on private properties that were typically not open to members of the public.
I was now on the home stretch and it was another easy 18kms on gravel before hitting Old Northern Road and a short ride back to the Laguna Trading Post.
All-in-all, for me, it was a very good introduction to an official gravel group event. The things I liked about the event: – well-run, no glitches – lots of motorbike marshalls riding up and down the route ensuring everyone stayed safe and had no mechanicals – food and drink stations had ample supply of refreshments – minimal road traffic throughout the 3+ hours of riding – all riders were courteous and conscious of others around them, i.e. no sudden change of lines or directions (certainly a much more pleasant experience than the MSGong ride a week later) – close to Sydney metropolitan area – plenty of post-ride amenities (mechanic, BBQ, pub, etc …) – a route through some of the most scenic National Parks that I would otherwise not have visited
Downsides … – perhaps a Plan B or multiple options for longer ride(s) if resources are available – more sign-posting during the ride. On more than one occasion, I found myself riding alone with no riders in front or behind me as far as my eyes could see. The only way I knew I was heading the right direction was following the bicycle tyre tracks on the ground! – not close to any railway station or public transport. Therefore, you had to drive to the start of the ride, i.e. ride is limited to riders with cars, or riders with friends who drive!
Yung Lik Wang