Go (way) South for the Winter: Riding Down Under

There are many amazing reasons to live in the Alps (or, technically, the pre-Alps here in Annecy). But when someone tells you that they ride all year round, you know they’re either a CX-er, a MTB-er, or very hardy. Me, I went home to Australia for a couple of weeks of pre-dawn sweating.

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I need to work on my selfie skills; Dad needs to work on smiling…

One of the reasons I got into cycling was to be able to ride with my Dad, and father-daughter bike time is a big part of every trip home.

Riding in Australian summers is serious business when you’re facing 30C at 9:00am. Add in 90% humidity and eating breakfast in the dark at 5:00am can be sweaty business in the subtropics. But once you’re on the bike and the sun comes up, you quickly forget how early it is (hell, you went to bed at 9:00pm last night so quit complaining).

And so this post is really just a bit of an ode to cycling in my hometown of Sawtell and a quick roundup of great cafés/loops/group rides if you ever find yourself on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales, a veritable piece of cycling paradise with a seriously impressive bike culture. The village of Sawtell (pop. 1000) has a pumping bike café (Split) with group rides several times a week in collaboration with Rainbow Cycles bike shop in town (Coffs Harbour, pop. 70,000). They also have sweet custom jerseys and sell Maap gear. Because Australia may be the most stylish (and definitely the most trend conscious) cycling nation in the world. Every group ride is a display of the latest kit from Maap, Attaquer, Black Sheep, Bab
icci, La Passione, Pedal Mafia, Ten Speed Hero, and more…Silver shoes, garish socks, and stylish caps topping off the outfits you’d never, ever see in France. My partner likes to say we’re “progressive”, which I think is code for “outlandish” but I’m a fan.

The other big factor I notice is that no matter how big or small the group ride, I’m never the only woman. In fact, there are several strong local women out riding with the blokes, as well as women’s only rides designed to encourage more women to take up the sport (and keep them motivated to stay!).

But enough of my ramblings about cycling kits in Oz – here’s a quick roundup of my favourite places to ride and refuel along the Mid-North Coast, in no particular order but starting with those that head south:

Valla (level – easy):

Ever since the new highway opened, the old highway has become a regular route for fast bunch rides and social sunday-ites alike. The road is smooth and virtually car-free, rolling and flat terrain which makes for perfect coffee cruising. And if the out-and-back nature of the ride isn’t to everyone’s liking, the Beach House café by Valla Beach has exceptional coffee, muffins, and smoothies to please everyone. Tip: head another 200m towards the nature reserve for a beautiful view of the beach and down the coast.

From Sawtell, you head out to the old pacific highway and just follow it south till you hit the turnoff to Valla Beach. Pretty simple really. On the way back you can also take a little loop via Hungry Head but at the time of writing, the old bridge was closed for repairs…

[Note: I’ve heard there’s some great riding just west of Valla – if you head inland – but I’m yet to get there.]

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On this particular day, we did 86km (we added a very short loop at the end but regularly a Sawtell-Valla return would be around 80km) with less than 800m of elevation. The road condition is exceptional, and there are bike lanes along much of the road, though you won’t see many cars, regardless https://www.strava.com/activities/812241007 

Repton/Myelstom (level – easy): 

This is just a little loop of the old pacific highway that can be incorporated into a Valla coffee ride if you’re keen, or if you’re looking for a short (1 – 1.5hour) easy roll, then this is perfect.

img_5398Take the old highway south (being a small town, there’s essentially one road north and one south, from which you start all rides), and after about 15km, take the road to Mylestom on your left. You’ll have passed a sign to Repton about a kilometre earlier, at the top of Perry’s Hill, which is where you can loop back. From here, you follow the Bellinger River for about 5km into the village of Mylestom. To your right, you’ll see the river open into the estuary, with small hills to the south and west. If you keep following the road all the way to the end, winding around to the left when you reach the picnic ground, you’ll arrive at the beach.

No great coffee here so you’ll have to be content to stop in at Split in Sawtell for muffins or second breakfast (the fritters are great!) on the way back.

Bellingen Loop (level – moderate):

The ride to Bello (Bellingen) might be my favourite short loop in the area. It’s 75km out by South Arm Road and back by North Bank, with many coffee shops to choose from in the middle. South Arm is not the most popular local route by virtue of the fact that it’s a bit rough… but if you’re willing to deal with a few potholes, you’ll be rewarded by one of the quietest country roads around.

[Note: there is also the main road to Bellingen but I would never recommend this unless it’s very early in the morning and you’re trying to make up time on your way to Dorrigo (see below) as there can be a lot of cars and the shoulder is minimal. Follow Australian cycling rules and use a rear flashing light if you do.]

As with the other southern rides, you start by taking the old pacific highway and head south until about 20 km (not long after you turn left onto the newly opened old pacific highway) when you take a righimg_5197t onto Short Cut Road. Technically, the South Arm side of the loop starts here but I always think that it really begins once you descend to the Kalang River. From here, you’d be lucky to see two cars over the next 15 – 20km. It’s a rolling, but rough, ride with the south arm of the river on your left and farms and bush along your right. It’s a shaded route with a few little hills but nothing serious. Once you reach a T intersection, you’ll take a right onto Bowraville towards Bellingen (left to Bowraville is a rough gravel ride), and continue along for another 5km or so until you can climb the last little rise and get a view over the Bellinger valley to your right. From here, you’ll head right at the little roundabout and drop down the smoothest three-bend descent around.

Once in Bellingen, you’ll have your pick of cafés. My favourite cake & brekkie is perhaps Hearthfire Bakery in the alleyway, or Fennel Seed just off the main drag (in fact, it’s directly across the intersection when you cycle into town) is also great. If you find yourself here for lunch, 5 Church Street – just next door – is excellent.

After refuelling, you want to take Hammond Street (one block west of Church St) out of town, cross the Bellinger River and turn right at the roundabouimg_8046t for the first little ramp on North Bank Road. From here, you’ve got another three little climbs (all less than 1km) on a gorgeous, rolling cruise through open pastures. Be warned – this side is sunny and can get pretty hot if you’re leaving the return till late morning. There are one or two rough sections but the worst offenders have been fixed. Still, if it’s been wet, be warned that you will get a fairly healthy smattering of cow poo on your bike, shoes, legs, arms… and if you’re me and riding in the back of the pack, you’ll be lucky enough to get a face full… be sure to give everything a good wash afterwards.

[Note: for those really daring – or in possession of gravel bikes/MTB, there are a lot of really rough gravel roads in and around Bellingen. The scenery is gorgeous, particularly out towards the Never Never and Glennifer, the setting for the book Oscar & Lucinda, as a piece of trivia].

https://www.strava.com/activities/820335460 

Dorrigo (level – difficult):

Honestly, the Dorrigo climb itself isn’t particularly difficult. Depending on where you count the start, you’re getting 8km at a consistent 8% or something more like 6.5% average over 10km. However, it’s a good 45km to the base of the climb from Sawtell (and add 10 – 20km if you’re coming from Coffs Harbour or north of town) and that deters most of us from coming here often. Which is a shame because img_5320the winding ascent has gorgeous views, relatively few cars, and streaming waterfalls after rain. About half way up the climb you enter the Dorrigo National Park, part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana reserve and the dense, subtropical rainforest. Of course, rainforests also mean rain, so don’t be surprised if you get a little wet on this route (or any rides in the area) but just take care on the descents as leaves and bark make for slippery roads.

Unlike climbs in the Alps, there are no helpful markers with grade or distance to help motivate you on the way up. However, the town of Dorrigo is approximately 4km from the summit of the mountain so if you keep an eye on the small signs on your left, marked “D” with a number below, you can track your progress. You know once you see the D5 you’re only 1km from the top. From here, you can grab water at the rest area and head back home (as we did last time after being rained on most of the previous 50km), or go into town and get some delicious apple pie and a coffee at the café on your right.

You can also keep going and do the big loop along the back road to Ulong (see below) but that’s a 140km day with a faimg_8268ir amount of gravel.

To get to the climb itself, you follow the road out to Bellingen (see the note above) and keep heading west through town. If it’s early and you want to save your energy, you can take Waterfall Way directly from the old pacific highway into Bellingen (rather than South Arm or North Bank Roads as mentioned in the Bello write up) but I would not recommend this on the return. Once traffic starts, there are a lot of cars and the shoulder is virtually non-existent. I would recommend taking North Bank Road to return, even if your legs are beat.

https://www.strava.com/activities/818198961 

Ulong (level – moderate):

Now if you want to head north of town, there are several good option. Ulong is the closest real climb in the Coffs Harbour area. It’s about 15

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Sadly no views at the top of Ulong but the forest keeps it cool on hot days!

km outside Coffs Harbour (or about 25km from Sawtell) and starts just past the village of Coramba, west of town. It’s a steady 4 – 5% for around 11km, which puts it on par with my local climb, Col de Leschaux. It’s pleasant in most conditions, as it’s shaded and the road surface is exceptional. I find the last couple of kms a little vibrating on the descent but otherwise it’s a great place for training or an easy climb to add some elevation. No view at the top, sadly, but if you keep riding another few kilometers into the village of Ulong, you’ll be rewarded with views out over a lush valley and a great little café on your right that serves homemade cake most days.

You can come out and back, do repeats, or combine with Mt Browne or the Big Block loops (below). I used to come out here to practice my descending skills on the smooth, wide corners but it does mean going up a couple of times…

https://www.strava.com/activities/811334040

Mt Browne (level – moderate): 

Mt Browne is the best loop north of town in my opinion. It’s often shaded, and is quiet, with beautiful views across the valleys. Like much of the rural area along the Mid North Coast of NSW, this is dairy country, with rich, green pastures and rolling hills. As much as I love the mountains, rolling routes like these are perfect for group rides.

You can do the route either way but clockwise is more comfortable – there’s a slightly rough descent if you do the loop anticlockwise.

Most of the serious riders link Mt Browne with the Ulong climb or even Big Block but me, well, I’d had plenty of cycling by this point, it’s off-season, and frankly, it was bloody hot. With 30C predicted for 9am, I was happy to just join the group for a Mt Brown circuit and get home.

fullsizerenderThe circuit itself is pretty easy to find. Heading out on the road towards Coramba (the same direction as Ulong), you’ll see a sign to Mt Browne on your left. Follow Mt Browne Road along for a few km and then to really get to the prettiest part of the loop, take a left onto Island Loop Road. You can simply follow Island Loop Road along until it rejoins Mt Browne Road if you like or take an optional out-and-back to Friday’s creek. There’s a steep descent to begin (take it as fast as you dare, as the road surface is good and it flattens out nicely at the bottom), and then it’s all flat for 7.5km return. Although that steep drop off will have to be re-climbed!

Enjoy the views, stop to take pictures, keep an eye out for kangaroos, and remember one of the best parts of doing the loop and heading straight back home? You get to descend Red Hill. It’s only 2km but you can really pick up speed on this 7% descent as the road is smooth and wide.

At the end, remember to stop in at Cocoa’s in the main part of town (or Artisti) for a coffee and a muffin before heading home.

https://www.strava.com/activities/816117316 

Bruxner Park (level – moderate): 

I’ve labeled this one moderate not because of the climb but because of the descent on the final few kilometers. Warning: it is rough. Like, lose your water bottle, your chain, and the grip on the handlebars kind of rough.

Most of the locals avoid the final 2km up to Sealy’s Lookout after the gentle, 3.5km at 4% climb up to the Bruxner Park turnoff before heading off to do Big Block or another ride. But since they’ve spruced up the lookout and added a skywalk, it’s the closest you can get to real rainforest close to Coffs Harbour. The skywalk may not quite rival Dorrigo National Park but it’s got gorgeous views up and down the coast. Even on the main climb up to the turnoff, be sure to look right as you’ll be granted gorgeous views out over banana plantations and blueberry farms, as well as the Solitary Islands off the coast.

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A cloudy Christmas morning but the views were still worth the climb

From here, you can link up with another ride north of town (Ulong, Big Block, Mt Browne) or be lazy like us on Xmas morning and just head home.

https://www.strava.com/activities/810613744 (my Garmin was on the fritz on Christmas Day so here’s a link to papa Arthur’s route)

Ulong – Dorrigo Loop (level – difficult): 

img_5490Warning: this route is long and it will get hot, and it’s best to do in a group of at least three. There’s plenty of gravel and dirt but it’s passable – indeed, enjoyable – on a road bike.

You can tie the Dorrigo and Ulong climbs together (going up one and down the other) by continuing along Coramba Road at the top of Ulong if climbing up that way. It’s my all-time favourite ride in the Coffs Harbour region. The back road includes about 14km of gravel and is just stunning. Whether riding along the top of the plateau (part of eastern Australia’s Great Dividing Range), or winding through the forest, you’re guaranteed to have this road all to yourself. You’ll see an abundance of wildlife and stunning views. This time, we were unfortunately rained out (do not attempt directly after heavy rain or in rain as the dirt road will become completely impassable on a road bike). In fact, the best conditions are a day after light rain or a couple of days after decent rain fall, which settles all the dirt.

It’s also got two great coffee stops – one at the top of Dorrigo and one at Ulong – to give you two refuelling options on this 140km route. You can also stop and get water at Bellingen and then at the petrol station along the old pacific highway if you’re running out en route home. Be sure to start early in summer as it will get hot.

The time we did it as a group (also recommended as you may well get a couple of flats, plus, safety in numbers in isolated areas) – we stopped short of the full descent at the bottom of Dorrigo and took Somerville Road back to Bellingen. Another great gravel grinder, there was one section where the gravel was too deep and too steep, leaving everyone to walk up the ramp. But otherwise, we all made it through with minimal punctures (only one on the gravel in a group of 5), and I was genuinely disappointed to miss out on this one last time I was in town.

https://www.strava.com/activities/487649870

For those who want more:

Big Block is another local ride that can be combined with Mt Browne or Ulong, or done on its own. It’s not my favourite as I find the scenery on Mt Browne to be prettier, plus it can get really hot. But it’s a good, fast ride with plenty of rollers to keep those quads burning. The turnoff is to the right as you head out towards Coramba (past Mt Browne and before Ulong). There are a few plick-a-plank bridges (on this ride and one in particular follows a fairly fast descent.These are old wooden bridges with nasty big metal bolts sticking up at awkward angles. SLOW DOWN before you hit them as they can do you/your bike a lot of damage if hit at speed. And in the wet, they can be very slippery. Rear derailleurs and a lot of skin have been lost on these bridges so scrub  your speed before rolling onto them.

Check it out as a Ulong/Big Block combo at https://www.strava.com/activities/476119261  I remember this particular day. It was hot. It was humid. It was horrible. Enjoy!

There are also lots of really, really long rides out to Tyringham, Bostobrick, Taylor’s Arm (and the Pub with No Beer). When local racers are training for the Grafton-Inverell (at 240km, the longest one day race on the Aussie calendar), they put in serious miles. You can even ride all the way to Armidale – another 130km from Dorrigo and well out into the New England Tablelands – but I’d recommend having organising a ride back…

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