Seeking adventure along gravel tracks and across surroundings rarely explored on two wheels, the crew at Over Yonder know all the tricks for conquering the great outdoors. Cyclist rolled alongside Simon ‘Esjay’ James to pick his brain around how to best tackle a ride like Gravel Grit.
Images: Simon ‘Esjay’ James
In a lot of ways, you can blame Over Yonder for our obsession with gravel. An invite to join a multi-day trip through the border ranges of New South Wales and Queensland had us hooked. With an overloaded saddle bag and frame pack our only vessels for carrying on and off-bike clothing, spares, snacks, essentials and far too many things we didn’t need, it quickly became apparent we had much to learn.
A few trips later, some with too little kit and another with too much, had us peddling in the right direction. A couple of years on and our apprenticeship was complete.
We were ready to go it alone.
Gravel Grit was our first voyage into the world of gravel events and a year on from our inaugural day in Cooranbong and we are still seeking out the knowledge of those who have been doing it longer than most. At the helm of many a Over Yonder adventure is Simon James. ‘Esjay’, as he’s more commonly known, lives and breathes all things with a tyre width over 28mm. From organising cyclocross events and road criteriums through to roller derby events at local watering holes, there isn’t much that comes across his desk that isn’t cycling-related.
A stickler for the dirty details, even when it doesn’t go quite to plan, Esjay has experimented – while enjoying varying levels of success – with a host of suitable options for conquering the gravel. So, Cyclist sat down with the groading pioneer to get his advice on how best to take on an event like Gravel Grit because like many of the wooded lands surrounding Sydney, Esjay knows this area like the tread of his TCX.
Cyclist: Gravel riding has really taken off in the last couple of years but this is something you’ve been at for a long time. What do you find so attractive about this style of riding?
Esjay (Over Yonder): A number of things; fewer cars, it’s far better for photography and those iconic small town pubs. I was initially drawn to gravel via the idea of adventure riding – multi-day pub crawls around rural New South Wales. It started with road bikes but the routes always seemed to come up against a lot of gravel roads. So rather than diverting around the gravel, I moved across to a cyclocross bike and went full steam into any bit of gravel or fire road I could find. The results were almost always great times. Seemingly secret roads and only the rare but inevitable 30% gradient stitch-up on occasion.
C: You seem to really love the whole adventure side of gravel because you run a race-like team that is essentially dedicated to not racing. Tell me how that came about?
OY: It’s true. Over Yonder is certainly a ‘racing team’ at heart. The team aspect is there as part of the cyclocross season, but once that’s done, it’s all about the adventures! The gravel, photos, people and the pubs.
C: Cyclocross is obviously something you’ve focused on a little more of late, what came first, CX or gravel for your team riders?
OY: CX came first, but only just. Our first adventure on the Tasmanian Trail was in the same year as we kicked of the CX team. The current CX ‘team’ guys came from ‘cross first, but the original crew were all road & gravel before they dabbled in CX.
C: You’ve just been told a newbie is coming along to your planned gravel weekender. They need a bike, pronto! What is the ideal setup in your opinion?
OY: Years ago I would have steered them right in the direction of a used CX bike with a few small mods away from a racing setup. Done. Bikes have changed a lot over that time and now my advice would be get their hands on a bike like a Giant ToughRoad SLR GX. This style of machine is relatively inexpensive, bomb-proof and far more versatile. Most of the big manufacturers make something in this category now, and they roll out the shop ready to cop a flogging.
C: Tubeless or tubes?
OY: Tubeless. If you’re coming along with tubes, you’re doing it all wrong.
C: A 70-odd kilometre ride doesn’t sound like much of a challenge but as you well know, distance often has little relevance to road cycling when heading off-piste. What is your advice for someone wanting to survive a 70-odd kilometre gravel ride? How do they best prepare for Gravel Grit You Yangs or Laguna when living in say Melbourne or Sydney?
OY: For Sydneysiders I’d say it’s not that hard to get onto some great local-ish gravel. Head up north to Wisemans Ferry where there are plenty of options and loops that can be made with easily over 80% gravel. Or head south via the Woronora Pipeline, into the Royal National Park or Dharawal National Park. A bit more bitumen along the way, but you can still get around 60% gravel.
Also, make a day of it. None of this ‘smuggling it in before breakfast’ crap.
Most importantly, you need to ride the gravel bike (not just the roadie). Get to know the gearing you require, how much food and water to carry and how to deal with the mechanical issues that arise. Your fitness can come from the roadie, but there’s so much more to gravel riding than just having strong legs.
C: Back pack, saddle and/or frame bag for a long ride?
OY: Only rarely would I want to use a backpack and that’ll be for delicate items like cameras and lenses.
C: Do you eat the same sort of food on the gravel as you do on the road?
OY: Yep, just more of it… and lots more water.
C: Tell us a little bit about your intended bike setup for Gravel Grit.
OY: I’ll be using my Giant TCX race bike, with a few small mods. Gearing changed to a 40t front ring and a 10-42 cassette on the rear, 40mm WTB Nano tyres, and a second bottle cage with 750ml bottles.
C: Where are you and the OYR crew off to next?
OY: At this stage plans are forming around the Atherton Tablelands, through the old tin mining areas and deep into the outback. Again, all formed around nightly stops in top-shelf Aussie pubs.
Get all the details around Gravel Grit You Yangs and Laguna, including entry, via the links below. Use CYCLIST18 in checkout and score an exclusive discount on entry.
Gravel Grit You Yangs: bicyclenetwork.com.au/rides-and-events/gravel-grit-you-yangs/
Gravel Grit Laguna: bicyclenetwork.com.au/rides-and-events/gravel-grit-laguna/