Written by Ali McGregor
My Gravel partner Nadine and I were prepared for a fight. Our opponent was the Thunderbolts Gravel Ride, a 2 day adventure hosted by the Boys at Graveleur.
Hearing stories of this legendary ride had us anticipating a great challenge. Nadine and I were plastering on war paint from the get go.
Early on we conjured images of exploration through Australian landscapes, and I often thought of Paterson's bush bash tales from The Man from Snowy River ...
"The wild hop scrub grew thickly, and the hidden ground was full of wombat holes, and any slip was death."
B. Paterson, The Man from Snowy River.
The best approach to intensive training, we thought, was to expose ourselves to risk. It seemed to make sense that we smash ourselves and our bikes.
The terrain consisted of MTB trails; they were scrubby (near impenetrable) bush ridden with technical rocky trails, often indistinguishable from the thick surrounding forests.
We later learnt that, compared to a majority of Thunderbolt attendees, our preparation was extreme.
A deep love for these preparation weekends however, was growing inside us both. After all you'll agree, wilderness so close to the City is incredibly appealing.
Lost, and often carrying our bikes through wild environments, became our thing.
Always out of reception, our friends and family pondered on our mental health. I mean, “NO ENTRY” signs on fences in our minds became another challenge for new found skills.
By the time the Thunderbolts came along we were scaling those six foot fences like weather worn commandos. Our bikes were like weapons, flung over fences and if not ridden then carried everywhere we went.
Braving monstrous fines for trespassing was one thing, riding through rough terrains was another. Anyone of you who've stuffed leaves into busted tyres to keep them rolling, or pulled out a meter stick inside your derailleur then jimmied the busted mechanism to work beyond a single speed knows what I'm talking of.
Our outings at times were on the edge, testing our survival skills. It became imperative one of us update our First Aid. The other should read up on Bear Grylls.
We'd come back to Sydney laughing but limping. Nadine's Boa ratchets needed total rejuvenation, the sole of her shoe jammed in her back pocket. Myself? I also lost blood, and two pair of my best Salice glasses to the Mountains.
Our almighty Chainsmith mechanic shook his head after every Weekend that was more thrash fest then gravel saunter.
I tell you, if I'd a video crew out there we'd give Alby Mangel a run for his money.
When the Thunderbolt hit us, we were ready. The boys James and Mike of Graveleur had done well to organise an amazing precarved route through Countryside.
Nadine and I felt our skills, developed from radical exposure to severe conditions, were sharp.
Unfortunately Id not catered my training for endurance. Boy did I suffer for that.
And so the story of the Thunderbolt 2019 unfolds. To liven things up, I’ll start it from the second day…
Crossing another of the dozen streams, I was splattered with dirt and mud and dust. My legs ached and my underarms throbbed.
We'd all spent 2 days climbing and, with an exception to one other rider behind me, I was separated from my pack.
Nadine was miles ahead. She’d fallen down some steep hill with a bevy of boys around her.
Nadine did a great job throwing herself into the gravel and, (as we call it), had to pull herself out of a Pina colada moment. Realising she’d lost some skin, cut through her favourite Velocio kit, and was in need of stitches, Nadine decided to push hard through the next 70km to get some proper Doctor assistance ... But this story shouldn’t be hijacked by a legitimate medical moment. Which is why you only get to see her gruesome photo of blood and glory in small format.
"And he raced them down the Mountain like a torrent down its bed..."
B. Paterson, The Man from Snowy River.
Nadine rode away like some Super Heroine Avenger, her vest cape flapping in the breeze.
In the meantime my own pain became real. I was joyed to later see in photos this pain mimicked in the faces of other riders. Backs arched over bikes whose logos proudly blazoned only days before were now hidden behind thick dust.
Along the course of the days, photography extraordinaire Bob Barrett was intermittently glimpsed behind his lens, capturing our inevitably difficult moments as well as our ecstatic highs.
Bob captured dirty contorted faces with genuine smiles below tired eyes. He caught numerous breathtaking skylines. Bob eternalised the boys jumping creeks and those riding through intrepid sandy corners. And of course, he photographed bikes. Lots of bikes.
In brand and style they varied. There were fatbikes, enduro, MTB, gravel and CX. Like a thoroughbred, my Dedacciai CX with her steadfast frame refused to flat and held up every hill. I'd wanted to test the Wilier Jena Gravel (weeks later we'd review with a blog on the Jena), but I was glad to have my familiar dependable Dedacciai on these tough roads.
Believe me, the beauty of those mountain views was savoured, the vast fields with their bubbling brooks were appreciated. But my body was wrecked.
Corrugated descents hit my arms like meat tenderisers. And the bumps internally pummelled my legs. Ever felt your calf muscles separating themselves from the bone. I recon you can imagine. I was actually there.
Mentally preparing for the last 30km’s, I imagined beer on the horizon. I was vaguely stimulated by this image. But stuck in the now, and not the imaginary, a creek crossing was before me. That crossing was about to be annihilated by my speeding torpedo self.
Cranking up some speed with pedals spinning madly, seconds from entering the water, I saw it ....
"Yikes and WHOLLY SHIT! That’s the biggest black snake I ever saw!!"
This is not the actual snake, but positive this Blue Belly Blacksnake was the breed. (Photo credit to Stephen Mahony)
If you'd been there you'd have heard me yell those words.
Its head arched back. It coiled a foot from my leg. And I shat myself. Not literally, metaphorically of course.
At that crucial moment flooding adrenaline took over my body. Yihhaaa! I was laughing at the world again like a psychotic. I friggin love this! That adrenaline lasted 10k.
Seriously. This is the stuff of which gravel dreams are made of.
So what would you take back from this ride? The landscape. It was ever-changing, dramatic, cruel, romantic, inspirational and breathtaking.
At one moment you’re soaring over mountain ridges, the next you're cutting paths through deep gravel and plummeting into some forest. You pop out into a field somewhere and glide along with the kangaroos, you're coasting over rollercoaster hills and dreaming of icecream.
Then, sand bites and the wheels dig in, and your quads are jamming down at the pedals harder than your beating heart. Meanwhile your upper body is tight and holding you upright.
It takes every limb and muscle for your senses to keep up with the rapidly changing moments.
10km ’s I struggled through headwind. Of course, it started to rain. I boggled a farmers mind when asking him directions. “You rode what!?” Yep, all 220km’s so far. “You’re an idiot”.
Actually, he didn’t say that, but I felt he was thinking it. I was thinking it. I didn’t even put the map into my Garmin. Idiot.
I could no longer judge how far I was from beer. And it hurt. Thank god some boys rode by and offered a wheel, which I ungraciously stole for the 5km it took to get us to the pub.
Afterwards in the haven of the local waterhole, dirt wiped from our faces and chicken hamburgers lining cyclist stomaches, our hands clenched beverages where once had been a handlebar, and the stories began.
One bloke swore he secured a KOM after being chased uphill by a protective cow. Another guy was stared down by a wild Brumby stallion standing in the centre of the road with the mares flanking him. I even heard spottings of wild dogs.
Many riders had fallen, but all had risen to ride the remaining kilometres.
Even Nadine who’d taken herself to get stitched was wearing her contagious smile.
Near 100 people joined the 2019 thunderbolt adventure. 95% were male, and 100% were crazy.
On that note, both Nadine and I'd like to say, there's a surprising lag in female representation getting on the groads. Thats strange, and we wonder that its because gravel riding's relatively fresh for the mainstream market. Maybe women just haven't caught on?
We'd like to highlight, gravel isn't just for the boys... There's so many adventurous soles pent up in Cities. You’re inspired by promises to escape the traffic and driver attitude, the buzz and fumes, the claustrophobic hard man-made surfaces. You burst at the thought of hitting #groadslikethese.
There are wild places for us all to explore. And there are heaps of like-minded grounded people to share the experience. This is what the Graveleur boys bought together - a community of individuals coming from all areas of life, bonded by the love of bikes and the alluring call of adventure outside.
The Chainsmith Team each own gravel bikes, and we're all energised by the thought of getting out each weekend.
So we'd like to ask, What are you waiting for? ...
Ali is a contributor to the Chainsmith Blogs. Co-founder of Chainsmith Bikes, there's nothing Ali prefers more than to share how awesome it is to get out on bikes.
For any further information about upcoming rides with Graveleur, email James and Mike at firstname.lastname@example.org
To chat bikes, what to wear, where to go, and how to get involved, chat to Ali at Chainsmith email@example.com