Cyclist escapes the city hustle down south with a diverse ride around Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hot spot, Noosa.

Words: Anna Beck

Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith 

Watch out,’ Jo cries as I come to a stop part way down a long, fast gravel descent. With around 15%pitch, our gravel bikes pick up speed quickly, and the recent rains make for optimal grip on slightly damp gravel roads. I swing back into the middle of the road and let Jo whiz past me on the outside, feathering the brakes and nearly careering into a scrub beside the road before she comes to a halt.

‘Wow, that was hairy!’ she says. ‘What were you stopping fo–’ Jo stops mid-sentence as she sees what I’m staring at: rolling hills benched with manicured, lush steps cut into the mountainside, dotted perfectly with an assortment of cows and horses. The region is a rural utopia.

 

The landscape is divided by the winding red of the dirt road. Jutting out against the green of the landscape are gnarled grey trees – angophora costata, or smooth-barked apple trees – that have seen better days. We’re off the beaten track, yet still so close to Noosa, and barely halfway through our 84km gravel-embellished Big Ride. Merely 20km from Cooroy and 35km from our start in Noosa, we’re in a rural pastureland that could rival a film set in aesthete.

We pause, take photos, ride up and down the hill a few more times and take some more photos. During this 20-minute ogle of the area, just one car passes us. It’s magic – and it’s made for gravel grinders.

Hatching a plan

 

As two riders of both a mountain and road affliction who tend to enjoy the road less travelled, Jo and I both jumped at the opportunity to get off the beaten track; away from beach loops of the coast and river loops of our home town of Brisbane, and onto the quiet back roads of the Noosa Hinterland.

A short two-hour drive from Brisbane, or 40 minutes from Sunshine Coast Airport, Noosa has long held the hearts and imaginations of those after a luxury retreat to the beach in the Australian summer. We’re up here in mid-winter, and with temperatures up to 23 degrees, it’s far from the chilly climes of the southern states and perhaps the optimal time for exploring the region by bike.

Starting at Noosa Marina and markets, we head out towards Cooroy. The day-use area on the left of the road is popular with mountain bikers and is the key to the Tewantin Trail network, but for our gravel ride we pass through the bollards onto the closed road of Gyndier Drive Race Track. The Race track is of historic importance in Tewantin, and has hosted the Noosa Hill Climb for the past 20 years.

While our spin up the gentle 2.5km climb is rather sedate – the 3.5% gradient gradual enough for even a flatlander to enjoy a relaxing start to a ride – the yearly November event captures the hearts and imaginations of petrol-headed classic car enthusiasts from all around Australia. In November each year, drivers flock to race up the 14-turn track.

Today we notice the turns marked on the cement barriers, but the closest we get to racing consists of passing a few mountain bikers climbing to the top of the trail network, commuter-cup style. Each side of the racetrack is flocked with subtropical flora: palm trees, lush green ferns and other rainforest regulars meet the Australian bush in a lush cornucopia of plant life.

Palm trees, lush green ferns and other rainforest regulars meet the Aussie bush in a lush cornucopia of plant life

We crest the climb and turn left onto Sunrise Road, now at around 100 metres above sea level. A rutted single and double track runs parallel and could be considered for the more adventurous graveleur with ample spares to boot, however the road is quiet as we tap along, following our route until we hit Cooroy Mountain Road.

It’s from here that we see Mount Cooroy in the distance, in awe at its prominence. It stands at 438 metres, with the mountain beginning at around 100 metres elevation above sea level. The access to walk on the mountain is available only once a year at the Cooroy Mountain Festival in October. Jo and I plan to come back to hike the mountain on our next adventure.

The road undulates and meanders into Cooroy. So far we haven’t experienced any significant climbs – just a few short, tough, pinches – as the route weaves around the mountain and into Cooroy. A few short sections of gravel mix up the route, which has so far been bitumen. While it’s far from a main road, this is one of the busier roads on the route, so take care around blind corners and over crests.

Coming into Cooroy through a series of small backstreets, we pass over the rail line and head right into the town. ‘Coffee?’ I ask. Jo nods her head in excitement as we prepare to caffeine up. We head to a cafe on Maple Street for a shot of espresso, then back onto Black Mountain Road to reach the most anticipated part of the ride: the gravel.

Rural dreaming

Heading out of Cooroy on Black Mountain Road, the road gradually undulates and climbs for 6km until you reach a T-intersection. Turning left, we embark upon the main loop section of our Big Ride, which weaves through tropical pastureland and into pastureland that is, at times, so pristine it could be out of a movie set. ‘It’s like the Australian version of The Hobbit,’ Jo remarks as we launch into a fast descent after turning right onto Anderson Road, complete with the extensive pause for photographs and the high-speed-stopping near-miss. We experience some sustained gravel riding. The roads are smooth and perfect for a gravel bike.

We weave through pastureland that is, at times, so pristine it could be out of a movie set. ‘It’s like the Australian version of The Hobbit,’ Jo remarks

We head towards the Old Bruce Highway, no longer a main arterial route but still busier than the previous gravel roads, and a short duck back into rural pastureland onto Sankey Road, with the looming Mount Cooroora in the town of Pomona, in the distance. Tim, our bearded photographer-slash-artistic genius, has a great idea of getting an awesome hill shot. We do unplanned one-minute efforts on the hill in search of the perfect shot, slam down a muesli bar, and then continue on the gradually climbing dirt road.

‘Tim! Jo! Check out this donkey!’ I shout, pointing to a long-eared horse-like thing beside the road. ‘We could get a picture with this ass. It would be amazing. Donkey, come here!’ It was futile: the donkey makes it clear he is camera shy and runs away. ‘Perhaps next time don’t yell at it?’ Tim suggests. ‘I can’t be quiet when I’m excited!’ I retort, gesturing to our surroundings.

We give up on the donkey shot and continue riding. The luscious glow and warmth of Queensland winter sun on our arms reminds us why this is the best time of year to ride in Queensland; beautiful weather, no warmers needed and no gratuitous amount of sweating required.

Single-track delights

Weaving around until we’re no longer climbing, we see some forest markings by the Jampot Creek Road. ‘Check it out, Jo – this is single track,’ I remark, again excited, though this time without a donkey to scare away. We dive into the Single-track delights Weaving around until we’re no longer climbing, we see some forest markings by the Jampot Creek Road. ‘Check it out, Jo – this is single track,’ I remark, again excited, though this time without a donkey to scare away. We dive into the mountain bike trail for a taste, the thick, lush rainforest and bush closing in the trail, obscuring the light and delivering us into a dark haven of ferns, dark hero-dirt and mossy trees.

Each of us manages to find a different exit from the trail, which is part of the Noosa Trail in Tuchekoi National Park, but eventually we link back up thanks to the magic of phones. We both decide the trails are decidedly wicked. However, they’re not for the inexperienced gravel rider or anyone without some mountain bike experience. Though they’re easy enough mountain bike tracks, the narrow nature of the trails and multiple log rollovers make them difficult to traverse for the less-experienced rider. Thankfully, they follow the main gravel road, so simply follow the road and you’ll end up in the right spot.

We continue along Kellehers Road, riding past Mount Cooroora; another mountain standing 439 metres above sea level. Mount Coorora hosts the annual ‘King of The Mountain’ race, a crazy running event best described as a scramble up and down the mountain. It’s held yearly in July and has been running since 1979.

Passing the mountain, we head for a short stint on the motorway and a few kilometres on Black Mountain Range Road until we find the turn-off to Black Mountain Road, back down to Cooroy the way we rode up. To get back to Noosa, we retrace our steps, eagerly talking about the amazing views, clear mountain air, and the concepts of adventure riding while discussing what coffee and food we would eat back at Noosa.

Espresso, cake and more

‘You know what I like about this route?’ I ask. We’re at Zabe Espresso, in Tewantin, and I’m trying to simultaneously stuff a veggie brioche and espresso in my mouth to quell my hunger while still talking. ‘The ease of it all – like where can you go for an 80, or 100, or 150km adventure ride, while the significant other enjoys themselves in a holiday destination like this? And you’re not restricted to dodgy milk bars for food, either.’ I point at the selection of treats in front of me as proof – the cafe scene here rivals any in the hipster capitals of Melbourne and Sydney.

‘Then you can swim, go shopping if that’s your thing, bring the kids, bring the mountain bike; there’s something for everyone,’ Jo adds. We decide that we should come up again, leave the partners and kids in Noosa to shop and do beach time, and spend the whole day doing miles. ‘When’s the next adventure?’ I ask.

Over another coffee, the plans begin to take shape, and the thought of what we could achieve with a bit more time takes hold. Longer, more epic gravel rides; road rides with climbs up amazing bergs; some mountain-bike riding at the nearby Tewantin trails. There’s plenty more adventure to be had. ‘What do you want to do now?’ Jo asks, our legs adequately tired and stomachs full of good food.

‘Oh, I don’t know – maybe another espresso, then we can hit the beach. What do you reckon?’ Jo’s on board. We complete our journey with some great coffee and a dive through the waves: a perfect ending to a great weekend.

 

How we got there

TRAVEL

Noosa is just a short two-hour drive from Brisbane, serviced by direct flights from all capital cities in Australia. Alternatively, there are direct flights from major cities to Sunshine Coast Airport, which is a 35-minute drive to Noosa.

ACCOMMODATION

There’s a multitude of accommodation options in Noosa. Our pick this time around was within the Hastings Street precinct, at the Noosa River Retreat in Noosaville. It’s a short walk or ride to Noosaville and a stone’s throw from Hastings, and a short ride to the Tewantin Mountain Bike Trail network (pack your mountain bike if you have room!).

FOOD AND DRINK

For a velo-themed cafe with excellent espresso, you can’t go past Zabe Espresso in Tewantin (located on our ride route on Poinciana Avenue). Their coffee and delectable cabinet of treats are perfect pre or post-ride. For a delicious lunch, Belmondos Organic Market, just out of town on Rene Street, features a myriad of culinary delights, both healthy and not-so. To whet any appetite, grab yourself a brew from Clandestine Roasters (located within the market). For some dinner, check out the Noosa Boathouse, which features modern Australian and some excellent fish options. For a more Mediterranean feel, Sirocco Noosa has you covered. Both are located in Noosaville.

THANKS

Thanks to Visit Noosa for facilitating our journey, Advance Traders Australia for the Norco Search bikes, and Met Strale hemlets and Endura cycling kit for keeping us safe and snazzy. Thanks must also go to the Giant Noosa bike shop for the excellent insider information on the region.

How we did it

Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks

The route we followed roughly imitated the route of the Noosa Strade Bianche “Medio Fondo”, a festival of classic cycling, where entrants are strongly encouraged to use a retro bike: downtube shifters only (noosa-stradebianche.com.au). We started at the Noosa Marina, heading out through Tewantin on Poinciana Avenue and turning left at the Butler Street roundabout, which merges into Conroy-Noosa Road. Follow this road out until Gyndier Drive, and complete all 14 turns of the ascent, before a left onto Sunrise Road.

The undulating roads around Mount Cooroy take you over the Cooroy railway and onto Maple, Cooroy’s main street, before beginning the main loop shortly afterwards. Sample some high-speed gravel descents and creek crossings and soak in the epic views and undulations along Sankeys Road, then jump onto Jampot Creek Road (which surrounds the Tuchekoi National Park) and follow it across Kellehers Road to a T-intersection. Make a right onto Pomona Connection Road until you reach the Old Bruce Highway again. From here, it’s back onto Black Mountain Range Road and Black Mountain road towards Cooroy before the journey back to Noosa – the same way you rode out.

Download our Noosa ride here.

The writer’s ride

Norco Search A Sora, $1,299, norco.com

The Norco Search, dubbed ‘a bike that wants to continue onwards when the asphalt runs out’ is the brand’s response to an increase in riders seeking adventures off the beaten track, for epic gravel grinding and backpacking alike. Despite the no-frills Shimano Sora 9-speed drivetrain and Tektro mechanical brakes, the Search proved incredibly capable.

The Endurance geometry, maintaining comparable reach to a conventional road frame with a slightly larger stack and longer wheelbase, created a solid and planted feel even when hooning at 80km/h down a gravel road. While lacking in bite compared to hydraulic standards, the mechanical discs were a step up from standard road callipers and more than worthy for this type of ride.

Originally stocked with 32c road tyres, we instead swapped out for fast-rolling yet grippy (while cornering) Hutchison Black Mamba CXs. The frame and fork will accommodate up to 35c rubber. The alloy frame acted as expected: unforgiving on longer rides and corrugations, and when paired with alloy forks and cockpit components. However, a few sneaky carbon upgrades would easily have us a little more comfortable. What is undeniable was the amount of fun we had, even on entry-level bikes! Considering the price, it’s a solid performer; as a commuter, cyclo-cross racing machine, or as an introduction into the world of gravel.

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