What makes a bike ride memorable? Is it the route, the conditions, the difficulty, the weather, the people you ride with, the obstacles or challenges you face along the way, the experience matching the anticipation??
It is probably all of these. I know at this point I should say “it’s the people”, because I’m just back at the computer after three days of superb mountain bike touring with four absolutely delightful friends.
But I think as well, the company you are with yourself is vital to getting the maximum out of these opportunities.
Some basics. It was a three-day tour, largely on gravel roads. We started & finished in the Brisbane Valley town of Toogoolawah.
The team was: Emma (founder and CEO of the internet-famous Bike Bestie, and possibly mentioned on this site before), Brad (a.k.a. Mr Cyclocross), John (“J.D.”, author, tourer, once co-worker with Emma at Epic Cycles) and Susie B (South Bank Bunch’s bubbliest, always up for a new adventure). And me.
Emma and Brad and I have toured together before. JD has toured all over, but this was my first multi-day ride with him. And Susie, although a very experienced roadie and former triathlete, is new to mtb touring.
And the set-ups illustrate this spread of both experience and depth of involvement in mtb bike-packing.
Emma has the most pro bike-packing set-up. Of anyone anywhere on this planet. She rides a Gellie Custom steel-framed bike that is start to finish purpose-built for this type of riding. It has 650B wheels with nice big tyres, a rigid steel fork upfront, high-efficiency hub dynamo lights, 14-speed Rohloff internal geared rear hub, Gates belt drive, and she has fitted it out with a full Bike Bag Dude kit, including front bags, frame bags, chaff bags x 2, and rear seat bag.
And the gear she carries is likewise always fully researched and there are solid reasons for every choice, so there are names like Hennessy Hammocks, and Trangia, and Sea To Summit, and Patagonia and Ground Effect. Emma likes quality kit.
My set-up (the ‘Black Hornet’) I’ve described before, but the best adjective for it is idiosyncratic. The addition since last time is that I bought an equivalent to the Bike Bag Dude chaff bag, mounted on the handlebars. Mine was an eBay purchase, as I was looking for something larger (& cheaper) than standard, so that it would provide a place for my Jetboil stove, which until now had been taking up a good chunk of room in my seat-bag.
So I got a “small nylon waterproof military MOLLE pouch”. Does the job and it cost $12.80, which is less than $60. It worked so well mounted on the right hand side of the Black Hornet’s handlebars, that I will get another, smaller one to mount on the left. There’s less room there, however, because of my Cannondale Lefty fork.
Brad has a combo of DIY and bought bike-packing kit on a vintage red GT Zaskar (complete with weird dual-control Shimano XTR brakes/shifters from about 10-12 years ago). He made his own frame bag, and mounting points for his front dry-bag, and bought a Revelate Designs holster thing for his seat-post mounted rear dry-bag, and chaff bags. It all worked super well, but he didn’t find room for a stove. Plenty of room for snacks. Brad brought lotsa snacks.
JD was all dirt-road touring ready with his sweet Soma Groove and a rear rack and panniers set-up, and a spacious handlebar bag. He is pretty much ready for any road, anywhere. Perhaps not for single-track, but this trip wouldn’t have any single-track anyway.
And Susie had bags strapped all over her Giant hard-tail mtb, mostly to a seat-post mounted rack. And a new tent. New sleeping mat. Etc.
So after a bit of car-pooling and fussing around putting bags on the bikes, we were all ready to go on a Saturday morning, mid-winter in SEQ.
Here’s the happy crew, ready to roll.
Our first day was advertised (by me) as an easy warm-up to the more challenging ride on the second day. We rolled out of Toogoolawah past the showgrounds, which hosts the sky-diving fraternity most weekends. There were parachutistas floating gently to the ground as we trundled past.
The road surface soon enough turned from bitumen to gravel, and the ride proper was under way. There was plenty of light-hearted chat as we got used to the way our bikes handled with all the gear on-board, and how each of our touring companions rode. It was a solid couple of hours before we made it to Moore, via Colinton and a little bit of the D’Aguilar Highway.
Eventually we had to get back on the bikes, and start riding again. It was bitumen to Linville, and the scenic surrounds of the start of the best bit of the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail, the Linville to Blackbutt section. The pictures tell some of the story, but it is the best, most gradual way to gain 300 metres in elevation. The trail just slowly rises, and you rise with it.
A couple of us were feeling the effort though. It seems possible in retrospect that none of us had done very much specific training for this event. Emma in particular had been super-busy with her work (which, ironically, is all about getting other people on bikes!) and had barely ridden for quite a few months.
So it was pretty late in the day that we made it the Blackbutt showgrounds, which are just off the trail as it reaches the township. We reccied the site, as you do on your bike, by riding slowly around, picking out our potential camping sites.
As the rain clouds rolled in, Brad and I chose to set up in the covered entertainment area.
Blackbutt showgrounds has great hot showers available to the camping set, who are of course mostly grey nomads.
We availed ourselves of the showers as well, and then waited out the passing rain showers before walking to the Radnor Hotel for dinner.
Brad had been served lamb shanks at a previous visit to the Radnor. JD had been building up the idea all day. It was a letdown to get there and find that the menu had changed as a result of new owners.
Undeterred, in typical JD fashion he asked the bar staff person what they would get. ‘The porterhouse steak’ was the response. So JD and Emma ordered up what turned out to be substantial chunks of deceased cow.
The rest of us made our choices as well, but it was the porterhouse steaks which got the oohs and aaahs and the oh-my-goodness what-have-I-dones when they arrived at our the table.
Nobody ordered dessert.
A steady walk ‘home’ to the showgrounds, and everyone had retired to bed by 8.30pm.
I slept quite well, but some of the others didn’t have such a great night. Susie in particular claimed to have barely slept. Claims made around other people’s snoring are always best left ‘on tour’, especially because I’m often named as the culprit. But on this occasion at least I didn’t keep anyone else awake (because I was nowhere near Susie’s tent).
So it was a slow start on a cool morning in Blackbutt.
Brad was buying breakfast in town, so after he was packed up he went to find the popular wood-fired bakery to make him some breakfast AND lunch. I had to buy some more batteries, after looking at battery meter levels on my camera and GPS, so I also went up town before Susie and JD and Emma had got their stuff together.
By the time everyone was finally packed and ready to head off, Brad was on his second coffee, and I had munched through a breakfast muffin and slurped a coffee, and Emma was teasing me about my lack of patience.
Straight out of town, we head south on Blackbutt-Crows Nest Road, which makes sense because we’re going to Crows Nest. But I knew that wasn’t the road we would be following for most of the day.
So we got to the first possible intersection to find the way to Nukinenda and Anduramba, and I got my Garmin eTrex out of my jersey pocket.
The thing is, although I had planned the route super carefully, it was along roads I have never been on (to be fair to myself, these are roads that very few people have been along).
By contrast to the first day, which both Brad and Emma had ridden the whole route before. But from hereon out on the second and third days of our ride, nobody knew the route first-hand.
So we were relying on the route I had planned and downloaded to the eTrex.
Which is fine if I was totally in command of what I was doing with the eTrex.
Which I wasn’t.
I’ve only had this unit for a little while … it used to be Emma’s. I used it for the first time on the ride to Spicers Gap, where it disgraced itself by running out of battery. So I knew that I needed to have spare batteries with me this time. Sorted.
But reading and interpreting the pointer triangle and purple and blue lines on the maps on a Garmin, on the side of the road, in various light levels, while four people wait for me? Tricky.
What made it even more of the tricky was the fact that I really had not properly understood how to follow along a pre-planned route. I had the Garmin eTrex in my pocket, because I had run out of room to mount it on the handlebars.
In theory it operates just fine in a jersey pocket. In practice, the unit can get just a little confused by being turned upside down as you get it out of your pocket, and it can take a few seconds to work out whether it is Arthur or Martha.
So I would hold the eTrex the right way up, and look at it. And it would confuse me because the map wouldn’t represent anything like what I was seeing before me. It would say that we were heading East, or North, when we were heading south, or south-west. And the road which was going to the left would be off to the right.
Eventually (it took me most of the day) I worked out a method of getting the eTrex out of the pocket nice and early, holding it as still as possible, and trying to wait maybe 15 seconds before looking at it. I think for future tours, I will have to find the device a spot on the handlebars. Then the only problem is reading the screen with my ageing presbyopic eyes.
So after a few minutes I chose the road which I thought would take us down a massive hill to Emu Creek. Which it did. The road sign just said ‘The Valley’.
We would be finishing our ride on this day at a slightly higher elevation than we started. So 300 vertical metres of descent in 6 km was fun. But it meant that we were now at the low point of the day as we crossed Emu Creek, with boulders and trees. It was pretty! But it meant that what happened next was pretty … hard.
The climb out of Emu Creek gorge was about 1.8km, and gained back about 200 metres of elevation. I don’t know what the average gradient was, but it was a bloody steep dirt road.
We paused at the top (we paused about three times on the hill as well) and got our breath back. “I’m sure that was the hardest bit of today’s ride,” I said, blithely unaware of absolutely all of the roads ahead of us.
But what followed was some of the best riding that I have done anywhere, ever. Big skies, rolling hills, grazing beasts, a smooth gravel road, and four cool friends to share it with. We rolled along, drinking in the scenes as though we were mountain-biking through the Baz Luhrmann film Australia. A few of our photos attempt to capture it.
As the ride and the day wore on, legs began to fade, and bodies started to weary. We were starting to pay the price for the effort of climbing out of Emu Creek gorge. “How far till our lunch stop?” was a persistent query.
We stood by our bikes at the intersection of Nukinenda Rd and McGreavey Rd. For more than a few minutes I was unsure which was the correct turn. Eventually we picked the right road, and soon after we pulled into the front yard of the Anduramba Community Hall, with just 37 hard-won yet spectacular kilometres under our wheels.
In the shade at the side of the hall, Susie lay down beside her bike. It seemed possible that she was preparing to spend the night at Anduramba. Only a strategic offer from Emma of some Vegemite to go on her crackers sparked Susie up again.
We ate our lunches, Brad took a selfie in the mirror in the toilets, and off we went.
The road we left on was ominously named: Anduramba Range Road.
And then further ominousity — a sign ROAD CLOSED in 3.5km. Well, we didn’t have many alternatives.
We had not expected any road closures. We hadn’t researched any alternate routes. I wasn’t skilled enough with the Garmin eTrex to map out a different route on the fly.
So, as foreshadowed, Anduramba Range Road was indeed quite closed. We battled past a barbed wire fence, and got to where the damage was from the 2013 floods.
The road had been partially repaired, and was no challenge to navigate on a bike. What was a challenge was the gradient, but fortunately it was semi-paved, with a hard-packed road base. At almost the top of the hill was the other side of the road closure.Another chance to get snagged on the barbed wire, until I noted a gate into the adjacent paddock. Brad could see another gate out of the paddock on the other side of the road closure.
So we added trespass to our list of sins for the day. And went on our way rejoicing.
There were only a couple of small rolling hills left, and we were quickly onto a road which descended from The Bluff into Crows Nest. Not a moment too soon, as I think all of us were feeling fatigued by the climb up from Anduramba.
We rolled into Crows Nest about 3.30pm, and once again we saw a couple of different ways of managing the bike-packing experience. Brad ‘no stove’ Norman sought out the pizza shop while the rest of us went to the IGA to grab supplies that we could cook or snack on (or drink!).
So we come out of IGA with our pathetic snacks, and find that Brad has negotiated that the pizza shop will deliver out to the National Park, 5km out of town. So much pizza and garlic bread was ordered!
Along with their helpfulness on matters pizza-related, the staff there also had information about the weather (it was going to be cold, but stick around cos in a week it’s going to be freezing), and the likelihood of dingoes looking for food at our campsite (possibly just a ruse to ensure that city folks didn’t leave food scraps lying around the place).
We finally made it to the campsite around 4.30, and were set up before dark. Brad and Emma were building a fire as the pizza delivery guy showed up.
Now don’t think that just because pizza and garlic bread had been ordered that all other cooking had ceased. Not at all. Susie’s got half a chook and noodles. Emma and I are both making pasta, and JD’s prevaricating about his Moroccan cous cous.
But with the arrival of the pizza, we managed to eat ourselves into a stupor. There was enough left over to offer a substantial amount to our neighbours in campsite 7. With much discussion of dingoes, we all drifted off to bed, away from the glorious warm fire.
And as the fire slowly subsided through the night, so did the temperature continue to drop. The apparent temperature in Toowoomba that evening got down to 1.8 degrees C at 5.30 am.
I can’t find any online observations for Crows Nest, but I suspect it would be quite similar. I had gone to bed originally with my down jacket (from Aldi!) on as well as baselayers top and bottom.
But I quickly removed the down jacket, and went to sleep. The second time I got up for the loo, the down jacket stayed as I zipped myself back into the sleeping bag. I was warm enough in the bag, except I couldn’t find a way to close the hood enough to keep my nose warm. So my nose was freezing.
But in the morning, I discovered that a cold nose was the least possible thing to complain about. Both the hammock dwellers had been uncomfortably cold in the night. John froze all night, said he had never been colder. Susie, with a 3/4 length sleeping mat, also said her feet were very cold.
So Brad re-stoked the fire, and we warmed our delicate extremities once more over tea and porridge and coffee.
The last day’s ride seemed on paper to be by far the easiest. Much more descent than ascent. The thing about that is that even when there’s lots of descending, which takes very little effort, whatever climbing there is still requires the same amount of effort that it always does.
So there were quite a few sharp hills, mixed in among the good times of the downhills, as we surfed the ridgeline down from Crows Nest towards the back end of Lake Perseverance.
The road turned north after a while, and after a beautiful picnic spot at Ivory Creek, we climbed up a bit and met up with The Bluff Road.
The closer to Toogoolawah the fewer downhills we got. And the more bitumen. And even some traffic. After three days of absolutely no traffic, it was necessary finally to keep left and stay tighter together.
With about five km to go, JD launched a surprise attack off the front. In some story-telling session earlier in the trip, I had mentioned the long-running tradition that Bruce and I have, that if you nominate the name of the town first, you are allowed to sprint for the town sign.
Well it seemed JD was making a pre-emptive burst. So I sat about 50-100 metres behind him, towing Susie along. Eventually Emma came past us both, and put in a strong effort to bridge across to JD.
By that time all of us had realised that in between us and Toogoolawah, there was one last stinking hill.
I was the only one with the energy or stupidity to sprint up the last hill, although it would be a charitable interpretation to use that term if you had seen the speed at which the ‘sprint’ occurred.
We regrouped for one last time just over the crest, and rolled triumphantly into Toogoolawah. It was an awesome three days. There was not a cross word spoken amongst any of us the whole time.
Friendships were formed and deepened, the roads were kind, and the sun was shining. Bikepacking is one activity that gives great reward for the effort put in. As I said on Emma’s Instagram post a few hours after we had all made it to our respective homes: A++. 5 stars. Would bikepack with again.