Cyclist discovers the hidden gems of the world famous Blue Mountains – with a ride through the incredible Jenolan Caves for good measure.

Words: Hans Schmidt
Photography: Trent van der Jagt

I’d forgotten the feeling of riding in a winter like this; the bite in the air, that
cold sting through the nose, the rush into the lungs. The crisp, refreshing atmosphere brings back memories of skiing, camping or riding in alpine regions. Only a few hours away, in Sydney, the winters are generally so mild that we’ve become almost strangers to such a feeling (though, admittedly, this winter has tried its very hardest to remedy that). From up here, we can see the Sydney basin in the distance. We turn our backs and keep riding.

It’s easy to see why the Blue Mountains is world famous. Venture just an hour further west of the usual tourist hotspot of Katoomba, however, and you’ll watch the landscape change entirely as the road winds through terrain more reminiscent of the Australian alps than that iconic blue range that looms over Sydney. Our mission for this Big Ride is simple: to set out on a 90km loop that reveals the Blue Mountains’ true diversity.

Oberon is the perfect place to begin our exploration. A familiar name but an unknown location to many, it sits 77km west of Katoomba and acts as a hub to a sprawling network of country roads. Heading east, the loop rolls through the hills of surrounding farmlands along Duckmaloi Road, to the junction rest stop of Tea Tree Ridge, and then into the forest for the descent to Jenolan Caves. After riding through the caves, an intimidating but rewarding path takes you out of the canyon and returns to Oberon along Edith Road – with a few detours of course, and hopefully before the cafés close.

Ours is a route that takes in the greater Blue Mountains landscape while keeping away from the usual tourist spots and traffic along the Great Western Highway. That said, Jenolan Caves is a major attraction in itself, and in planning this Big Ride we just couldn’t resist the opportunity to ride through one of Australia’s natural wonders before testing our legs on the other side.

Despite the fact that during the 90km ride we would gain 2,000m of altitude, the road west of Jenolan stood as the only major climb on our agenda. With a lightweight BMC granfondo and compact gearing, we knew it would be a welcome challenge and a good way to warm up from that mountain chill.

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Ready, set, go

It’s a weekday, and we’re city cyclists, so our natural instinct is to depart Oberon at dawn to beat the traffic and get an early start on the day. We’ve forgotten, however, that alpine country and altitude equals cold temperatures – and quiet roads like these don’t quite suffer from a peak-hour rush – so we hit the snooze button and enjoy an extra hour’s sleep before rising at 7:30am. It’s lucky, too, as it turns out the local cafes don’t open until then anyway. After topping off our sleep-in with a hotel coffee and donning some extra layers, we’re ready to go.

Oberon is the highest town in the Blue Mountains and a gateway to Jenolan Caves and the surrounding wilderness. Originally founded as Bullock Flats on the Fish River – its trout fishing heritage is still very much alive – the town was renamed Oberon, just like the character from A Mid-summer Night’s Dream. Indeed, it’s easy to picture Oberon here in summer, nestled amongst the poplars and rolling hills by the lake.

However, Oberon also makes for a perfect winter getaway with its unique, historic countrytown charm and the occasional surprise snowfall. The town provides a great base for mountain bike trips into Kanangra-Boyd National Park, and with the development of the Oberon Tarana Rail Trail there are other cycling options too. It’s a wonder these roads, so close to Sydney, remain relatively unknown to road cyclists.

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Our ride begins where any good ride should: at a cafe. After our second coffee for the day, we leave the Long Arm Farm and roll east along Oberon Street, out of town and past the Big Trout, until it becomes Duckmaloi Road, the main thoroughfare linking Oberon to Katoomba. Even on a weekday the cars are few and far between – one of the few we did see was a friendly local in a ute who pulled over to check if we were okay as we stopped to take a few snaps.

Duckmaloi Road meanders through farmland, full of short pinches and gentle descents down the rolling valleys. The crest of each climb offers glimpses of the mountains and the Sydney basin on the right-hand side, yet the road keeps on the plateau for another 10km before a flowing 5km drop towards the town of Duckmaloi. The descent is smooth, wide and open but definitely exposed, with wind chill and the odd gust to watch out for. No sooner does it end than another gradual climb begins, up and over small ridgelines. The bewildered stares from the resident sheep and cattle suggest not too many cyclists visit these parts.

Travelling east along the plateau with Megalong Valley ahead, it becomes obvious where the Blue Mountains meets the Central Tablelands. It would have looked very different before agriculture dominated and the Indigenous Darug, Wiradjuri and Gundungurra Nations still inhabited the lands. These days the landscape is reminiscent of the iconic Australian ‘high country’ vista. The cleared hills are also evidence of the local timber industry, established in the earlier half of the 20th century.

Bypassing Duckmaloi, the route traverses south-east to north-east, maintaining a rolling profile with moderate-gradient climbs. It’s the perfect way to warm up the legs in the early stages of the ridge, especially in the early morning chill. Even though the forest begins to thicken along this stretch, it still doesn’t offer much protection from the wind-swept coarse grass plains and occasional drop of rain.

It’s only a little further, at 25km, that we reach our first rest stop, the junction of Duckmaloi and Jenolan Caves Roads. Barely a dozen cars have passed us, but we figure it must prove a popular spot on the weekends as there’s a large car park and picnic area. A quick detour beckons; Tea Tree Ridge Road, a dirt logging path leading out of the car park, takes us up and over the hill to an incredible view of Megalong Valley – just as a few oncoming squalls hit.

With the wind picking up we decide it’s best to keep moving, and we take a right at the junction onto Jenolan Caves Road. Sheltered on the left by the forests, the tall pines providing protection from the elements, it’s easy to make up any time that was lost enjoying the views.

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The writer’s ride

BMC Granfondo GF01 Ultegra Di2, $7,599, bmc-switzerland.com

The writer’s ride

You’re in the drops and peering around a long, blind corner, fingers anxiously feathering the brakes for an obstacle to pop out at any moment. Something’s wrong; there’s no road buzz from the rough bitumen, no squeal in the brakes. The bike almost beckons to be leaned over further.

Lateral stiffness and vertical compliance: every manufacturer claims their new model ticks these boxes, but BMC really have emphasised comfort and performance. The frame bears the trademark tubing and design for which these Swiss racers are known. Even with the relaxed geometry and longer wheelbase, the carbon in these frames is responsive. It’s possibly something to do with the mysterious symbols and abbreviations around the frame.

Having never ridden road disc brakes I had some skepticism, but the Shimano hydraulic discs were a surprise and not once did they fault or flex under hard braking on bumpy country roads. All of a sudden braking could be taken later, the frame responsive enough to rail the corners, making descents a dream. Obviously on the heavier side, the weight was noticeable climbing steep gradients, but I wouldn’t trade the stability for a few grams. For the weight weenies the wheels could eventually be upgraded as road disc technology progresses. For the moment, the DT Swiss rims are sturdy, and with 28mm tyres offer amazing grip and feel. After a full day in the saddle the Granfondo is true to its name.

Cave riding

Once on Jenolan Caves Road this route really comes into its own. The gradients flatten out, the bitumen smoothens and the pines of the Jenolan State Forest slowly make way for the more common eucalypts of the region. This stretch allows us to lift our pace and open up our legs a little with the long descent into the caves ahead. It seems the wildlife has already discovered the joys of this road too – although a little alarming to begin with, you’ll soon become accustomed to the sight of wallabies, kangaroos and wombats spectating by the roadside.

The real fun begins at the halfway mark, 42km. There’s a clearing on the left – the Katoomba View Lookout, a perfect place to stop and ensure the jerseys are zipped up before the road narrows for the 8km run into the caves. The descent is perfect with long, sweeping corners, and although it can be windy it’s never too steep or technical to heat the brakes – unless you encounter some more of the friendly local fauna. It hugs the ridge tightly, the cliffside dropping away on the left, disappearing into the Jenolan River below.

The river may not be visible, but occasional clearings in the trees offer some breathtaking moments of the valley stretching out to the east, featuring plenty of mist and rain shafts. Although the corners don’t require much slowing down, the views through here most certainly do.

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We round a few more corners and daunting, exposed sandstone formations. Moss has now become a regular sight on the roadside, and the air is slightly thicker and sweeter with the smell of dense moisture. It must mean the bottom of the canyon is close. We turn a final corner and are rewarded with an unbelievable aquamarine pond, Blue Lake. I imagine Indigenous Australians and past explorers alike would have been as astounded by its beauty as we are today. We’re so taken by its beauty, in fact, that before we realise it we’re engulfed by the enormous mouth of Binoomea – “dark places”, as the caves are known to the Gundungurra people. The cavern towers over our minuscule bikes and our necks crane upwards, staring into the darkness.

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Although Jenolan – “high mountain” – is an Indigenous Australian word, it was not adopted as a name for the caves until 1884. The caves’ history as an attraction dates back to the early 1800s when European settlers explored them by candlelight, but it’s estimated the limestone in the caves dates as far back as 340 million years.

Today there are 11 show caves open featuring underground rivers and mineral formations, while tours, snacks and refreshments are available at the main office. The historic Caves House, a European-style chalet set amidst mossy rocks, stonewalls and fog, is an ideal spot to refuel at the halfway point. Unfortunately, Bont shoes don’t lend themselves too well to caving, but riding through is an experience not to be missed with the caves providing shelter from the elements. Just remember to refill bidons before entering – there aren’t too many opportunities until Oberon, and it’s thirsty work.

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Photographer’s ride

Subaru Outback 2.5i Premium, $41,490, subaru.com.au

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There are some similarities with the Subaru Outback and the BMC Granfondo – it seems Subaru are striving for the all-purpose performance model just like BMC. And like the Swiss, the Japanese are well known for their engineering.

Our drive was the 2.5L petrol model, with premium features and CVT (more of these strange abbreviations). Controlled Variable Transmission did not skip a beat with gear changes almost unnoticeable. This, along with the EyeSight feature, made the car effortless to drive. EyeSight uses in-built cameras assisting in cruise control, maintaining safe distances to cars ahead. Automatic braking and warnings for lane departure, along with the 5-star safety rating and seven airbags, also kept us secure. The lane departure beep can get too enthusiastic on narrow roads, but there were plenty of other features to distract us on the long country journey.

Once inside, the huge touchscreen offers plenty of navigation and audio tools to keep passengers occupied; with 12 speakers there was no shortage of volume. Below the screen are the climate control options, the heated seats proving great with 3°C temperatures outside. Look up and there’s also a sunroof – very handy to check the bikes were still there. The Thule roof racks also proved easy to use; even when it was blowing a gale we could quickly secure the bikes and get back to the warmth of the car in no time. We just wish we had more time to really test it on the dirt roads.

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The climb

Almost immediately after leaving the cave and tourist offices, the road steepens sharply. As our gaze follows the mountainside the gradient becomes apparent from the glistening guardrails snaking their way upwards. We’ve been warned about this climb earlier and have been told horror stories of burnt clutches and overheated brakes – yet not a single story of anyone attempting it on a bicycle. Well, only one way to find out.

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The Jenolan Caves Road climb, heading west towards Edith Road, is 6.5km with an average gradient of 8.5%. It’s steep, but with suitable gearing definitely not impossible, and it certainly makes up for the shallow, smooth descent into the caves earlier. We’re lucky enough to have an Ultegra Di2 compact crankset, and the geometry of our BMC granfondos mean we can tackle the climb in a relatively relaxed state. The colder weather may even work in our favour as the climb heats up.

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The first 3km are the steepest with enough pitches and switchbacks to keep the road alive and offer opportunities to get out of the saddle, shift gears and change cadence. It’s easy to forget to look around, concentrating more on the gradient ahead, but at each switchback you’ll find a safe area in which to pull over. It’s a perfect excuse for some respite, a chance to take a drink, observe more of the incredible rock formations and appreciate how rapidly the road rises out of the canyon.

At 60km there’s a right turn onto Edith Road, but the climb isn’t over yet – 1km remains until the summit of Mount Trickett. At 1,362m it’s the third highest point in the tablelands and another reminder of the history of explorers in the region, named after one of the area’s earliest surveyors and cave superintendents, Oliver Trickett. The altitude becomes apparent as we begin to roll through light cloud and fog – with wearying legs, we push on towards the summit.

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Dirty work

Another 1km past the summit, an irresistible opportunity awaits. It comes in the form of a left turn down a dirt forestry road, marked by a sign to Goulburn. The faint-hearted – or those who simply like to keep their rims clean – can continue on along Edith Road, as the detour rejoins it later. For us, however, the dirt provides another unique opportunity to experience this countryside and offer a tranquility like no other.

After 4km of loamy clay and gravel bliss on a slight decline, we rejoin the tarmac with a right turn onto Edith Ginkin Road. A gentle roll northwards follows, linking back to Edith Road somewhere near the 74km mark. The dirt roads add an extra element to riding amongst this terrain, so steeped in history of European exploration, leaving a yearning for more unpaved paths and trails.

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It isn’t long before yet another detour, this time in the form of a left turn down Butter Factory Lane. Almost the entire length of the road heads upwards, and at a slight 3% amongst rural fields and intermittent pine forests it’s a welcome addition to the route. At 80km the climb ends at the junction with Shooters Hill Road. We turn right and from there it’s a relatively flat to downhill run all the way back to Oberon, eucalypts and gums densely flanking the shoulder and offering glimpses of sunlit fields behind. By late morning there’s less wildlife, but the flora creates a very sheltered and intimate ride. Although the path is bitumen once again, there’s a silence similar to that which we discovered on the trails.

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Even if you do take a wrong turn or end up off the beaten track at any point during the journey, you might just stumble upon a perfect patch of rolling dirt. There’s much to be said for these quiet roads; they add something to the cycling experience that’s difficult to find anywhere else. Sure, they’re not on a majestic Alpe, but that may be in these unassuming paths’ favour – nothing grand to distract the rider. It’s just you and the road.

You could really turn off the speedo and take these roads as fast or as slow as you want. Either way, before you know it you’ll find yourself back in Oberon. We take a left turn and make a final visit to Edith Road, skirting the boundaries of Lake Oberon – still a popular fishing spot – until the last push into the southern end of town. We cross what remains of the Fish River beneath rows of tall bare poplars, another subtle reminder of winter in a country town and an unmistakable and welcome sight from across the plateau.

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How we got there – Follow in our wheeltracks

TRAVEL
Oberon lies on the boundary of the Blue Mountains and Central Tablelands, 193km west of Sydney, 147km north of Goulburn and 244km north of Canberra. Driving is definitely recommended. Subaru provided us with a vehicle from Sydney for a drive that took approximately 2.5hrs. Following the Great Western Highway west and turning onto Jenolan Caves Road just after the little village of Hartley, the route offers opportunities to visit all the famous sights of the Blue Mountains.

ACCOMMODATION
Oberon offers plenty of country motel or pub-style options. We recommend Titania Motel or Highlands Motor Inn. Just a short stroll from the main street, Highlands has reasonable prices and neat, spacious rooms with all the usual facilities, including Wi-Fi and a self-service laundry – very handy on a cycling getaway. If it were slightly warmer we might have got to use the BBQ too.

FOOD & DRINK
There are the usual pubs and restaurants, but we couldn’t go past the Long Arm Farm cafe for a quick morning coffee. It was so good that we came back for lunch. All their produce is locally sourced, with vegetarian and gluten-free options, and there were plenty of homemade treats to stash in our jersey pockets for later too. Unfortunately it closes at 5pm, so for dinner the Cave Wood Fired Pizza Bar and the Grand Indian restaurant, within Titania Motel, stood out amongst the usual fare.

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By the numbers – Because everyone loves stats

1,362
Official elevation in metres above sea level of Mount Trickett, the highest point on the ride.
37
Marsupials spotted on the evening drive to Jenolan Caves, including but not limited to: kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and possums. It might be best to avoid driving during dawn or dusk around these parts.
11.2
Average gradient percentage for the climb out of Jenolan Caves over 4.2km – but the climb doesn’t really end until you reach Mount Trickett. Does 6.5km at 8.4% sound easier? 9 The maximum temperature, in degrees Celsius, reached during the ride. This was in May, so we really recommend you don’t try this route in winter.
7:30
Opening time for cafes in Oberon – a great excuse to set the alarm a little later.
1
Trout spotted during the entire stay in Oberon. Keep a lookout for it along Duckmaloi Road.

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Jenolan Caves route

Begin in Oberon on the main street – aptly named Oberon Street. Head east out of Oberon and the street becomes Duckmaloi Road. This stretch may seem familiar if you’ve ever driven from Sydney via Katoomba. It meets Jenolan Caves Road at a large rest stop. The hill above is an excellent vantage point and accessible by a dirt trail named Tea Tree Ridge Road.

From the rest stop, turn right down Jenolan Caves Road. The forest thickens and begins to descend to Jenolan Caves. The steep climb out the other side of the caves brings you to Edith Road and the highest point in the ride, Mount Trickett. Edith Road leads back to Oberon, but there are some detours worth checking out. Just after Mount Trickett, take a left for some dirt fire trails. Then, a right turn onto Edith Ginkin Road takes you back to Edith Road. A few kilometres later another left down Butter Factory Lane offers a gentle climb to the junction of Shooters Hill Road. Take a right here. Heading north, the road skirts Lake Oberon before rejoining Edith Road a few kilometres out of town for the final run in.

See the full route on Strava: strava.com/routes/2201284

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