Three merry old cycling souls headed just beyond Sydney’s north-west outskirts for a gravelly adventure around the Hawkesbury and Colo River. Here’s what they found…

Words: Jack Lynch

Photography: Marcus Enno (Beardy McBeard)

Only an hour and a half from Sydney’s CBD, it feels like we are many miles from the nearest traffic light or train station, and full-bar phone reception seems a distant luxury. Alex, Marcus and I set off from Tractor 828, a restaurant and general store in Ebenezer, on a chilly morning accompanied by threatening skies.

I have no idea what to expect on the 96.5km loop in this undulating, bushy part of the country, and I’m feeling a little apprehensive. The nerves grow stronger when I notice my riding companions are wearing mountain bike shoes, their bikes fitted with SPD pedals – and they’d ridden around here before! I’m using road shoes. I hope I’ve made the right choice. Is this going to be classified as a road or gravel ride? If the latter, how technical would the dusty trails be – and will my Specialized Diverge be suitable?

It only takes 9km for me to realise that this Big Ride is going to be predominantly off-road. As we work our way around Tizzana Road and glimpse the Hawkesbury River (a stone’s throw from a previous Big Ride) for the first time, the chip sealed beneath us turns to manicured gravel, Shetland ponies replace yapping dogs and the bush scrub momentarily gives way to an open field and blossoming trees.

The sun almost forces its way through the clouds at this stage, and we pedal leisurely towards some more sealed roads and classic Australiana scenery – the sort of images you’d put on a billboard promoting a land where the bush meets the river and seclusion is compulsory.

This area north-west of Sydney is known for its freezing winters and scorching summers, so appropriate clothing and plenty of food and water is recommended. We’re a little underdressed in the early stages of the ride, but as the sun rises and burns off the morning fog, it becomes a comfortable temperature. Deciding what to call this Big Ride route is tricky. It passes through multiple towns (Ebenezer, Sackville, Cumberland Reach, Lower Portland, Ward Park and East Kurrajong), each without a definitive landmark for us to gravitate towards. We do, however, cross the Colo River twice on this journey, making it a suitable reference point.

The first crossing is opposite the Lower Portland Ferry on Greens Road. Here, the 86km Colo River joins with the Hawkesbury River, so there is water everywhere. Thick bushland complements the picturesque setting with hills plunging dramatically into endless waterways.

Colo is derived from an Indigenous word for koala, and although we’re yet to spot the marsupial, a couple of wallabies meet us on the other side of the Greens Road bridge to show us what’s next. We take a left onto Wheelbarrow Ridge Road, a long gravel section that begins with a kilometre climb and double-figure gradient. The steep start as we enter the Comleroy State Forrest is typical of the area and explains the texture and density of the bush I admired a few moments earlier.

20km of up

This ride’s profile shows that during the next 20km we climb nearly 300 metres and then coast along Wheelbarrow Ridge, without any respite or fun descents. For experienced cyclists, this terrain causes few difficulties and, riding leisurely, I barely notice the upward grind. Like most gravel roads and fire trails, this road is somewhat unpredictable. It’s not uncommon to turn a corner and have sweeping views of the Hawkesbury River and the Aussie bush, then turn back to the road and see a 13% wall ahead. After pushing up one hill, there’s often a quick and straight downhill, providing a small yet precious reward for the minute or two of preceding punishment.

Such variety is entertaining and the kilometres whizz by. For those whose teenage self is never far away, there’s a small motorbike jump near the top of the ridge that’s capable of giving some cycling adventurers air (Alex proved it) and is worth a brief stop.

Wheelbarrow Ridge Road is a lot of fun and offers riders a plethora of experiences. For those wanting to push themselves, the steep pinches can sting the legs, and with no relief in the form of a long and flowy descent, it’s tough to maintain a high intensity on this road. If you’re looking for an off-piste adventure and are more interested in gazing at the landscape than power data, it’s a pleasant spin. There are challenging sections, but nothing insurmountable, particularly with modern gearing favouring leisurely rolls. A 34/32 gear ratio smooths out the hills and tests a rider’s endurance and patience, not strength.

How we did it

Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks

Download the Big Ride Colo route:

Our Colo Big Ride is a loop and, without any major towns or attractions, can start and finish wherever convenient. We chose a cafe called Tractor 828 on Sackville Road in Ebenezer. After parking and prepping your bike, set out east and turn left onto Tizzana Road, which loops around to West Portland Road. Spend about 15km on this route until you hit the Colo River, then take the first left up the steep gravel road. This is Wheelbarrow Ridge Road and it makes up the next 20km of the ride. A right on Putty Road and a quick left down Colo Heights Road sees you descend for a few kilometres until crossing the Colo again. From here, make your way onto Comleroy Road and then Blaxland Ridge Road before turning right on Roberts Creek Road, which is a fun dip with a bitey gradient for a kilometre or so. This takes you to East Kurrajong Road which will eventually lead you back to Tractor 828. A longer alternative home is to hang a right on Old East Kurrajong Road and loop back to your starting point on Kurmond/Sackville Road, skirting the Wilberforce township.

The gravel is well compacted and the Diverge is an excellent bike choice. Disc brakes are always preferable, but a cantilever-braked cross bike or even road callipers with 28mm tyres could get the job done along the route. Slimmer rubber could create uneasy moments that distract you from the scenery and the fun parts of the ride, but it is possible if you bring along a bunch of spare tubes and wear plenty of chamois cream.

Back to the Colo

We proceed from Wheelbarrow Ridge Road onto Colo Heights Road and descend rapidly. Here’s where a stable bike with reliable brakes comes into its own. There’s nothing overly hairy as we reach some eight and nine per cent sections, meaning I can loosen my grip and let the bike go. It’s easy to maintain control during this section as frequent gentle bends encourage brake feathering. We didn’t get much above 50km/h, which is comfortable without opening the Diverge’s throttle or white-knuckling the brakes.

The run-in to the bottom of the hill requires some concentration, however. After a well-signposted hairpin, you can quickly gain speed into a muddy left turn, which could bring a weary rider undone. The moment is complicated by the second Colo River crossing, which is on a bridge that, aside from a few repairs, is in its original condition. The structure has a track of rotting timber on either side for car tyres, and a cyclist needs to make a quick decision to choose left or right. It’s not a big deal and turns into a fun skill tester; stay in the middle of one of the six-inch planks and look forward, making sure you don’t deviate and end up on the bumpy bridge.

This section of the Colo is more enclosed than the other area we’d encountered. A recent dry spell has the river running low and its floor exposed in some areas. It gently flows east and could be used as a natural place to fill up your bidons – although regular visitors have mixed views on whether or not the water is safe to drink. I’m glad my bottle is full and I don’t have to run the gauntlet on this occasion.

The writer’s ride

Specialized Diverge Comp, $4,000,

The Diverge range has been overhauled to suit road cyclists’ growing appetite for adventure. Its Future Shock steerer tube spring and Cobble Gobbler seatpost are the two most obvious departures from traditional bike design and stand out at first glance. Each of these elements are taken from the company’s popular road bike, the Roubaix, and add superior comfort to standard configurations. The aesthetic may take some time to get used to, but there’s no doubting the effectiveness of these features when the road gets rough. Drop-bar bikes aren’t known for their stability, but the Diverge purrs its way through gravel and unexpected holes like few other bikes. The low bottom bracket, relaxed seat tube and head tube angles, thick tyres, and the aforementioned headset and seat post make it perfect for those looking to enjoy their time on the bike in diverse conditions. This is the Comp model, which is fitted with Shimano’s 105 disc components and Specialized’s in-house Axis wheels. These performed faultlessly and, although it’s neither the fastest nor lightest bike on the market, the Diverge can take riders places they would have never previously considered.

River to the hills

With the Colo successfully crossed, it’s on to what is, arguably, the biggest challenge for the day. Comleroy Road has two climbs of about 2km each, which could see tired legs cramp, replacing the day’s positive memories with painful ones. In addition to the steep ramps that get well into the ‘teens, this part of the ride is relatively exposed to wind and sun.

The medium tree canopy of Wheelbarrow Ridge Road is not replicated on Comleroy Road. Climbs are flanked by sparse bush scrub and steep drop-offs, and the gravel is a touch looser and more difficult to grip when compared with the roads we’ve already cycled.

To inflame the situation, the second short climb (dubbed B Comleroy Road Climb on Strava), occurs after a ford across Wheeny Creek. Wheeny Creek is an apt description of this stream, but it’s prone to flooding – heavily. Alex tells me his last ride on this road saw him and half a dozen mates swim across a torrent of water gripping their bikes. Although a great story, it’s a dangerous situation that’s ill-advised for cyclists (especially those with electronic shifting!).

As with every section of this ride, the challenges on Comleroy Road can be greeted with either a grimace or a grin, depending on your mindset. I love the diverse landscape and chance to test my cycling skills and fitness in different scenarios.

Not all roads lead to the finish of this loop, but there are a few options to get back to the starting point. Taking East Kurrajong and Bull Ridge Road to the end cuts about six kilometres of the ride and is all bitumen. It’s technically a ‘main road’, but there’s space for bikes and cars and traffic is light. On the eve of swooping season, I’m more worried about the local magpies than motor vehicles as we turn up the pace towards the finish.

If you’re up for an extra 15 minutes or so, Old East Kurrajong Road is a fun little add-on that makes its way past some mushroom farms and other small leafy vegetables. It also heads past plenty of hen houses operated by Ingham’s chicken, which is a little sobering after a fun few hours in the saddle. This section doesn’t make or break the day, but it assists with a gentle integration back to civilisation after being in the wilderness, giving you a chance to reflect on all that you’ve seen and done during the ride.

Why do it?

Colo has something for everyone. At a shade under 100km, the route we took is a great hit-out for those with training on their mind, and long enough for people looking for a fitness challenge while switching their brain off from the rigours of daily life. It may seem off the beaten track, but Colo is on the outskirts of Sydney, so help is never far away should there be a ride-ceasing mechanical problem or big crash. The sense of seclusion is no illusion, but this isn’t a hardcore adventure, so you can leave your safety beacons and satellite phone at home.

This route also suits a range of equipment. The gravel isn’t overly technical and can be negotiated with drop bars. Cross-country mountain bike riders would appreciate the high-intensity training possible on these wide and open roads. Meanwhile, a touch over 1,300 metres elevation gain tests the legs but doesn’t kill them, so if you’re planning a weekend away, this ride is a great springboard for further exploration during your next visit to the area.We arrived in crisp, cool weather, which was a little too refreshing, but the sun thawed us, making the temperature perfect for a longish day out. There’s ample tree cover, so it should be a good route all year round, barring the hottest periods of summer and the days following torrential rain.

So what are you waiting for? Start planning your trip to this region just past the urban sprawl and discover how remote you can be when you’re on the other side of the motorway. If you’re a fierce racer or casual adventurer, whether you prefer mountain bike or road cleats, or if you just like to ride somewhere different, this Colo River route will suit you and there’s no doubt you’ll finish the ride smiling, already planning your next ride here.

By the numbers

Kilometre loop

Metres elevation gained

Small motocross jump parks along the route – a different type of challenge on the pushie.

Tractor 828 is the name of the bike-friendly cafe where we suggest you start and finish the ride. Coincidentally, 828 was also our accommodation’s street number!

Our 700×32 tyres were perfect for this course

Flat tyres – win

How we got there

The best option to get to Tractor 828 in Ebenezer is by car. It’ll take around an hour and a half from Sydney city and there are a few route options depending on traffic. Parking is plentiful and the food and coffee is great for both a pre- and post-ride treat. If you don’t have access to a car, there’s still a viable way to get to these great dirt roads. Catch a train from Central Station to Windsor (they run every half an hour) and ride across to the route. The train takes an hour and a half and it’s less than 10km to the start from Windsor station. Windsor is a reasonably large town with plenty of shops (including a supermarket) to help satisfy any craving you may have for the train ride home.

Accommodation is relatively scarce in this area. We stayed at a nice, quiet place in Kurrajong which came highly recommended on Airbnb. Delivery from nearby Glossodia Pizza hit the spot after a long day in the saddle – especially so as the heavens opened up shortly after completion. The pizza was just as good for breakfast the next morning before we headed out again.

Specialized provided its brand new Diverge Comp bikes and were a super selection for us given the varied terrain experienced along the Colo course. Thanks also to Velo Vita for providing the Giordana kit, Oakley for the sunnies and to Fizik and Bont Cycling who provided shoes for us to use during the shoot. As always, the best thing about exploring new territory is sharing the moment with others, so I want to give a special mention to Alex Malone and Marcus Enno for a great couple of days’ riding and banter.