Road Trip: Go West, NSW

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Words by Chris Southwood | Images by Chris Benny, Mick Ross, Chris Southwood

This feature first featured in issue #1 of Flow. Apart from some copies we may find in the back of a toilet somewhere, issue #1 is now unfortunately sold-out.

To avoid the sorrow of missing out on getting your hands on Flow magazine make sure you’re signed up to get your own personal copy. Being a Flow Royalty member also means you can avoid going to the local news agency as it’s delivered right to your door. This means more time on your bike and less time at the shops – win, win situation.


 

On my too frequent visits to the local bistro, I usually default to the $10 rump with pepper sauce. it is a good option – the value is undeniable and you get to cook it yourself, which appeals to the control freak in me. But sometimes I yearn for the crispy crumbiness of a schnitzel, or the barbecue tang of a rack of ribs.

Trail riding is the same. The old favourite trails will always cop a flogging, but occasionally you find yourself craving something new, fresh trails in far away towns, and topped off with nutritious post-ride parmigianas.

One tuesday evening, I was perched at the top of a cleat-marked rock on Manly dam in northern Sydney, a place that I’ve stopped at umpteen times. Squinting up through the evening’s smoggy haze, I could just make out the lumpy horizon of the Blue Mountains, like a grey caterpillar crawling over penrith. as sometimes happens – far too frequently for my wife’s liking – I began singing a village people song: ‘go west… life is peaceful there. go west… lots of open air.’

Hmm… if there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s that you should always listen to the village people. I’d ridden north, I’d ridden south, and east is where the sharks live. It was time to go west. it was time for new bistros and fresh singletrack. Blueys, Lithgow, Orange and Parkes. It already smelled like fun.

Scribblies, Picnic and Hanging Rock and Lockyear’s

Our crew was five strong: Paul Rowney – a man of wizened years (and face), who has an infatuation with chilli and beers. Chris Benny – photographer to the stars. He bunny hops like roo on a trampoline and but has an aversion to hills of the upward variety. Mick Ross – toys with shaving his legs, but usually limits himself to trimming his chest. Greg Chalberg – this guy never crashes, ever. But I have it on good authority that he bears a surprising resemblance to Moby (or a timid Peter Garret). And me – usually excited as a spaniel and, when that’s mixed with singletrack, often bleeding.

It was blowing a wind stiff enough to push your teeth back into your gums when we pulled into Leura and cracked open the predictably red front door of the Red Door café. remarkably, we were on time to meet our guide, the disturbingly fit Chad Gossert. Judging by the absence of body fat on this man, I thought it wise to put honey as well as butter on the banana bread I wolfed down before we followed Chad in convoy out of town to the first stop of the road trip, Scribblies.

Chad wasn’t sure if Scribblies got its name from the preponderance of scribbly gums, or the fact the trails feel a bit like an excited child has drawn them onto a topo map in crayon in those five minutes the adults were out of the room. These popular, whoopy trails twist and turn back on themselves with endless turns and poppy little gaps jumps. Within seconds I was frothing like a puppy on a choker chain, drifting through flat and bermed corners, the sandy quartz flying off my tyres and getting whipped into my eyes in the wind.

This was exactly the kind of singletrack people had told me did not exist in the mountains. The flow was just insane, making the climbs feel so effortless that even Chris Benny was having fun.

I got a little too excited and tried to jump a gap that really required a motor to clear it. Let me tell you now, Scribblies’ dirt is a particularly abrasive variety, just the thing for exfoliating that unwanted skin from your chin. And it’s tasty too.

The Blackheath Sourdough Bakery is a must- do. Not only did the kindly gentleman sell us most of the shop for $17.10, but he didn’t laugh at the bleeding hole in my face. With most of our blood supply now digesting baked goods, we followed Chad out to hanging rock with the promise that the view would make us wet our chamois.

The trail in proved to be almost as awesome as the view itself, a classic fire road descent that had the crew chopping each other up like frustrated cabbies on George Street. The vista was properly stunning; a sheer drop of hundreds of feet, made terrifying by the 80km/ hour wind gusts and Mick’s game of trying to ‘skid’ rocks over the edge into the abyss. A hundred kilometres away, blurry behind its smoggy veil, Sydney could be seen at the end of the Grosse Valley. As Chad pointed out other rides in the area, which we didn’t have time to do, I had one of those surreal moments when you’re sure time has been stretched. It seemed impossible that just a few hours had passed since I was sitting in Sydney traffic. There’s nothing like fresh trails to reset your brain.

As we trundled to our next destination, Rowney lamented that for too many people
the adventure element has disappeared from mountain biking, replaced by clean, easy loops. Little did he know, we were about to get a double helping of adventure. Craig Flynn, president of the Central Tablelands Mountain Bike Club, is 100% Lithgow local. When we met up with Craig at the foot of Mt Victoria, he had lights strapped to his bike and he suggested we do the same; the sun was already dipping low. Cue Indiana Jones music, it was time for something epic.

After a gentle grind to the saddle of Mt York, we joined a ridge-running singletrack that, for me, was a highlight of the whole trip. Lockyear’s is a walking trail that seems handcrafted for mountain bikes. Loose, chundery descents, sandy bermed corners, steep chutes and lumpy sandstone: there’s something far more rewarding about a trail that has evolved perfect flow over time, as opposed to being manufactured that way. It finished with a plummeting descent that we did in the purple half-light of early evening, our pupils almost as wide as our smiles.

The crawl out under lights was a challenge, especially for Chris Benny our photographer, who was on the point of literally crawling. At one stage he asked me to ‘leave me here to die’. I think he actually meant it. The lure of a pub meal pulled us through, though, and by the time we’d descended back to the car the smiles were fixed in place again. This ride was a bit of a game-changer for me, a real wake up call as to the kind of riding I’ve been missing out on lately – an adventure, rather than a pedal.

The Commercial Hotel welcomed us that night. Trivia was played, beers were drunk, though the absence of parmigiana from the bistro menu was a shocking blow. The Commercial’s steak Diane, a superb offering of fat on protein, went some way to easing my pain.

Commercial Hotel, Lithgow: 1 x steak Diane, 4 x James Squire Original Amber Ales

Rydal and Hassans Walls

‘Why is the rain bouncing off my handlebars?’ asked Mick. ‘Oh. it’s frozen.’ clever lad. Things get cold fast on the far side of the great dividing range, as we discovered that morning when a driving wind cut through our warmers and vests. Luckily Rydal warmed us up quick- smart. And no, Rydal is not a man. Rydal is the township that plays host to a recently installed cross-country race track, about fifteen minutes out of downtown Lithgow.

The local crew, as well as folk who travel from further afield, come here to race every Tuesday (except when it gets too cold for the time keepers) and to punish the side knobs of their tyres. If you like going round corners, you’ll be quite happy on Rydal’s 10-kilometre loop. It’d be a tough place to race, with little space for rest and constant accelerations to keep you on the rev limiter.

Speaking of rev limiters, while Chris Benny had been suffering on the trail the previous evening, his car, overwhelmed with empathy for its owner, underwent its own quiet meltdown and had a little under-the-bonnet bonfire. Putting safety first, and adding to the drama, young Greg locked his keys inside his car, where no one could steal them. To free them, we had to join the NRMA, which gave us a new unit of monetary measurement: ‘the Member$hip’. Our accommodation for the whole road trip came to just 1.3 Member$hips. Things were even more affordable for Mick, who’d left his wallet at home and didn’t have to pay for a thing.

With four men, their luggage, bikes and body odour now sandwiched into the one car, we headed back to Hassans Walls. Not, as it may sound, a medieval castle, Hassans Walls is an amazing rocky outcrop that towers above the plains on the southern side of Lithgow. It is littered with fast, punchy rim-pinging rocky descents, in complete contrast to Rydal. Even better, it can be shuttled in just a few minutes on a smooth dirt road. Blindly following our local guides down leaf-littered trails that moved beneath my tyres was unreal. I wasn’t sure if the tears streaming down my face were from joy or from the wind-chill making my eyeballs cry in pain. Craig Flynn reckons there are 15 unique descents from Hassans, all depositing you at different points around town. We’re itching to come back and have a crack at them all.

Less than hour and half down the road, our car doing some impressive wheelies, we pulled into Orange. I was relieved to find that our accommodation conveniently adjoined a drive- thru bottle shop, but disappointed to find that our accommodation budget didn’t stretch to five beds. Despite Mick’s pleas that he was chronic bed-wetter, there was some sharing.

Ophir Tavern, Orange: 1 x parmigiana, 3 x Tooheys Old

Kinross

‘We have a bogan problem,’ said Scott, Orange Mountain Bike Club president. He indicated the burnt-out cars that sat in various orientations (commonly upside-down, to make it easier to steal the gearbox) around the edges of the dirt carpark. ‘But at least they’re cashed up bogans,’ chimed in Steve. Fortunately none of the pine trees around the blackened shells had been caught aflame yet.

The trails of Kinross are a-grade: classic, sinuous pine forest singletrack. They are lovingly maintained, sometimes obsessively, by a core crew in the 50-strong club. ‘They staged an intervention,’ Scott tells me, ‘because I was out here trying to build trails with a broken collar bone and my arm in a sling.’ There’s over 30 kilometres of singletrack gold to be dug out, sometimes literally – with so much trail and so few riders, the pine needles can quickly bury the trail surface.

Flowy, grippy, with enough elevation change to keep you honest, the Kinross trails are the kind of loop that I wish existed in every town. Anyone can ride them, but at speed you’re on the edge, especially if you clip an errant pine cone. There are some real challenges, including a switchback that is so tight I’ll buy you a hamburger if you can ride it. But on the whole it’s pure in-the-groove stuff.

Broadway Hotel, Parkes: 1 x Avondale schnitzel, 1 x cheese platter, 1 x Pizza Hut Plank, 4 x Tooheys Old

Parkes

The Kinross groove is mighty, but it couldn’t match the display of groove that went down later that afternoon in Parkes, when Greg found the jukebox. I don’t think the Parkes farming and mining community quite grasped the funny side of the ABBA, the Bee Gees and at least four other boy bands being blasted out at 4:30pm on a Saturday arvo. I was happy to slink outside to take a pretend phone call.

The town was bristling with mountain bikers, all in Parkes to race the annual Back Yamma Bigfoot, held in the Back Yamma state forest, about twenty minutes south of Parkes. I met riders from as far away as Melbourne and Brisbane, and we ran into Jason English who wanted eating partners for a pre-race, all-you- can-eat assault on Pizza Hut. We opted instead for a bistro famed for it’s plethora of schnitzels, Parkes’s Commercial Hotel, and it did not disappoint.

Parkes has a great vibe and particularly welcoming locals (thank you, random pub youth, for telling Greg he looked like both ‘Moby’ and ‘Peter Garret’ in the same sentence). The Broadway Hotel was the perfect place to bunk down – its guest list seemed to consist mainly of itinerant old men who smoked while crapping in the shared bathroom, and it was well stocked with dairy products that were at least 12 months out of date. At $55 a night for three (or 0.2 Member$hips), that’s entertainment you can’t beat.

The glorious morning that greeted the Back Yamma Bigfoot the following day was a welcome change from the frosts of Lithgow and Orange. Race organiser, Rocket Rod, was clearly happy with how the day was shaping up – the only hiccup was provided by some particularly creative bogans who’d placed a dead roo in a port-a-loo and then dragged it around an empty paddock. Bogans in Orange: you’ve just been upstaged.

Fast, flat, dusty and wildly fun, the trails of Back Yamma were such a contrast from
the rocky descents of Lithgow or the pines of Orange; this road trip had served more
sweet variety than the confectionary aisle in a Blackheath deli. It was sensational riding at Parkes; sweeping bends that were full of hidden lines and ruts to keep you on your toes, slippery quartz-filled corners, dipping gully runs, bursts of yellow canola fields, and some of the straightest, longest fire roads in the universe. All of it covered in a powdery red dust that stuck to our faces, leaving us looking like a pack of manic Oompa-Loompas. Powered by who knows how many pizzas, English won the race (surprise!) As the rest of us crossed the finish line, I was drawn to the prodigious BBQ, where I soaked up the chilled-out vibe, chatted with the big family groups who’d made a camping trip out of the weekend and enjoyed the feeling of warm sun on my tired legs.

Our last stop in the road trip complete, we packed a couple of spare steak sandwiches and began the four-hour jaunt back home to Sydney. A week on the road, complete with dusty bikes, smelly socks and a head full of great times on new trails, can’t be beaten. Heed the Village People and go west – good times await. Disco never lies.

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