There is a place with two wonderfully serious hills, one after the other. Two Hors Categorie peaks. Each is seven km or so in length, and about 10 per cent plus to climb and about the same to descend. They are located in a remote river valley with views to remember. Both hills wind in a most alpine kind of way via a series of bends all the way up (and down again). Both are set within an uninhabited wilderness: just trees, steep precipices and wildlife; no people and best of all, no cars. There’s one of the world’s most spectacular camping sites (and serious Australian Bass fishing spot) on the approach side and there’s a great little village at the other end.
These twin hills sit half way along a 250km route from the alpine New England Tablelands town of Armidale to the beach holiday town of South West Rocks.
I ride this route once a year, as part of the local Tour de Rocks ride along with around 250 other cyclists, 248 of whom seem to insist on overweight mountain bikes as their peculiar weapon of choice.
You’d think that this ride would be busy with cyclists, every other day of the year.. But there are fewer cyclists than cars on this road. Other than on the day the Tour de Rocks passes through.
Because the first hill in the middle and the 100km to get to it is all gravel road, The second is sealed as is most of the rest of the 100km to the coast (unless you take a few interesting gravel road diversions along the way).
It’s as though the gravel/sealed road junction at the trough between the two peaks is something of a locked gate, a chasm or a wall. Almost no road cyclists will pass beyond the tar and most mountain bikers start to feel like they’re riding a tractor on the road once the gravel runs out.
These hills represent something of a double dimension; the combination is a serious challenge to road cyclists on the one hand or the mountain bikers on the other. Neither is at home from one end to the other. The roadies ride the sealed side and return the way they came. The mountain bikers climb the gravel and suffer the tar. The hills are like a junction between two different gauge railway lines. The journey breaks in the middle.
But the two hills and the two halves of this 250km journey the hills divide add up to a total trip that’s much greater than the sum of its two parts. They become a total journey of transition from rural tablelands, World Heritage Area country to sub tropical coast. One half without the other is less than half the total deal. One part is black and the other is white (or gravel brown). Black without white would be too much black. Gravel and gravel would just become one long slug in the dirt. To ride from either end and return from the middle would be a totally different ride: one all remote and wild and the other all coastal and tropical.
To ride the whole route is an adventure. To ride just one half there and back again is just a ride.
I’ve ridden the whole thing on a mountain bike. Once on a hard tail XX1 KTM and another on a dual suspension XC Scott Spark 900 premium. Both very special bikes and each a chore on the tar. Especially on the long, long head wind-blighted blast of a last leg to the beach. Short of driving a 4WD tractor on the road, I can’t imagine anything worse than riding a mountain bike on the tar. Sit up and beg, all out in the wind with no place but one to rest your hands on the bars. Misery. I’d rather stick gatorskins on my road bike and hope for the best in the dirt. And probably break both my wrists over the bumps, washouts and a death defying 22km scream down the Big Hill Black Diamond dirt road sliding decent that dumps you 900 metres via a goat track embellished with 500 metre unguarded cliffs off to one side. Fun on a dual suspension bike, hell on a road machine.
I’ve also ridden the same ride twice on a cyclocross bike (A Giant TCX Advanced SL 0) and twice on two exotically magnificent gravel bikes (a 3T Exploro LTD and most recently, an Open UPPER).
Which brings me to the point of this story.
These twin peaks are two versions of bliss on the right bike or a wall of no return on the wrong bike. Everything is about compromise here. The mountain bike can get you from one end to the other, if you must. The road bike is not going to work unless you are followed by a team support car with ten spare wheels on its roof and a physio bench in the back.
The right bike is a gravel bike.
A gravel bike stitches the two halves of the ride together into the one seamless adventure ride. The twin peaks in the middle become an exclamation point of purposeful bliss. One peak in dirt and the other in tar become a thrill of transition rather than an agonised wall.
A cyclocross bike is a bit more of a compromise on both halves with nothing particularly comfortable in the middle. A cyclocross bike is a bit like a hack that works ok on the dirt (though is a pain in the wrists and sobering on the Great Descent if you don’t want to be pot holed off the side of a cliff) and works on the tar (but you’ll be dreaming of your road bike once your too upright position starts to hurt). A cyclocross bike is WAY better for this kind of trip than any mountain bike, hard tail or full suss.
These twin peaks define the purpose of a gravel bike. And that purpose is adventure via astounding versatility. My Open UPPER with it’s sweet compliance and pedal stomping stiffness seems to transcend compromise on either the gravel or the tar. Yes a road bike might be faster when the road is well sealed, but you’d only really notice if you were in a race. And once you get to the dirt, your biggest challenge is to weave your way around all those mountain bikers wallowing all over the road like hippos dancing a waltz.
That’s what gravel road biking is all about. You need to ride a ride like this to know that gravel bikes are not a fad or a marketing ploy. They are more like a wormhole star drive of transcendence between the gravel and the tar. One bike to rule them all. And yes, that KOM over the twin peaks is mine!