There’s a cycling playground located less than two hours from Sydney or Canberra, running from the laid-back, rural charm of the Southern Highlands to the salty air of Shoalhaven. Cyclist and Soigneur bite in before the main course is served…
Words: Alex Malone
Photography: Marcus Enno (Beardy McBeard)
Travel partner: Soigneur
A blood-orange glow is emitted from the nearby ridgeline. We stare out of our wooden cabin – creaking as the temperature drops – with anticipation. Down the hill and towards the cattle-proof gate stand a few pairs of anxious llama eyes reflecting in the falling light. We feel their concern. Like us, the llamas are yet to be fed, and the kitchen at Kangaroo Valley’s Friendly Inn closes shortly after dark.
Soigneur’s Daniel Strauss, Cyclist photographer Marcus Enno (Beardy McBeard) and I discuss tomorrow’s route along with others to be included in an upcoming three-day HC-ranked Soigneur trip. Strauss has made the trip from Melbourne to reccy the area and we’re keen to ensure he gets access to as much of the surroundings as possible.
We decide on a loop slicing through the cycling playgrounds of the Southern Highlands with a dip into the seaside towns of the Shoalhaven. There’s a lot to cover in a single day – which is why it’s good that we’re here for two. Mountain-classified climbs, technical descents not to be underestimated, coastal winds, blowholes, a famous bakery, dirt roads, a waterfall and a few rounds of milkshakes. It’s all drawn up and we should, with a bit of luck, cover most by nightfall. The area’s best milkshakes are another story – more on that later.
The phone rings. Double puncture and a ruined tyre. Minutes later, we’re in the support car
We wait. Still no sign of our guide, a born-and-bred Southern Highlander. Dan Bonello is inspecting the condition of an off-piste section through Belmore Falls and should have arrived some time ago. The phone rings. Double puncture and a ruined tyre. Minutes later, we’re in the support car – a Jaguar XE no less – ‘racing’ up the twisting climb through and up from Barrengarry to his location. We’ll be coming down this wide-open mountain tomorrow.
A sharp right turn past Fitzroy Falls and we’ve reached our stranded guide. The reccy is complete. Bonello is given the opportunity to freshen up in the weir crossing at Belmore. But the kitchen back at Kangaroo Valley is now well and truly closed. We move dinner to the Robertson Inn for steaks and a few ales. Make note: late-night eateries are a rarity in these parts.
We’re on the first climb of the day, the vague scent of freshly made doughnuts motivating each pedal stroke.
We awaken to a white-out. The pale-haired llamas are perfectly camouflaged in the mist. It spreads across the valley floor as far as the eye can see – which isn’t very far. Kangaroo Valley is well-known for its blanketing fog. The cooler temperatures come to blows with the warmer Highlands air and often mean it takes a little longer than normal to see the sunrise proper. Sunsets, on the other hand: superb. Early starts are chilly but the rapid rise in temperature signals the beginning of the end for the fog. By the time it’s lifted off the valley floor, we’ve already begun the first climb of the day, up Berry Mountain – via Kangaroo Valley Road – with the vague scent of freshly made doughnuts motivating each pedal stroke.
We have it on good authority that national and international professionals come to the Highlands and surrounding Shoalhaven region for training camps. Pick the right time of year and don’t be shocked to see riders from the Avanti IsoWhey squad or even the likes of Orica-AIS’s Rachel Neylan, a silver medallist at the 2012 UCI Road World Championships. Their coaches no doubt prescribe training rides that avoid the calorie-dense town of Berry. A brisk easterly is blowing across from the Shoalhaven coast and soon enough we’ll get a whiff of sickly-sweet cinnamon melting off the Famous Berry Donut Van’s breakfast of champions.
One thing you’ll learn quite quickly around here is that climbs are a little steeper, on average, compared to the gentle ascents of Sydney’s north and south. Berry Mountain, at a tad over 5km, packs a punch. It seems like we’ve been climbing for only a short while before a near 100-degree view of the valley below opens up. The Valley Road is the quieter of the two main options across to Berry, so if you’re in the mood for a few pics to share with your mates back in the grind, snap away.
The town of Berry comes after just 20km but the descent into town has to be ridden – take it slow on the first attempt – in order to be believed. Do cars actually come up here? Yes, yes they do. A good pair of wheels with fresh pads – carbon, if you’re so inclined – is a good idea before arriving. While you’re at it, throw on a large-range cassette. There are plenty of climbs to be tackled and being ‘stuck’ in the 23 or 25 shouldn’t determine whether you make it or not.
One safely negotiated descent later and Berry appears on the horizon immediately after the road flattens. Take a left turn at the T-intersection and then roll into town. Order your doughnuts – a half-dozen or so should cover the morning. While the deep-fried magic is brewed, we pop next door to The Burrows of Berry for coffees and any other snacks: savoury, sweet, glutenous or gluten-free. A couple of each to throw in the car sees us with enough fuel to reach the next major pit stop.
Before rolling out of town and into the grass flatlands towards the coast, we stop into Berry Mountain Cycles, a sharp fit-out squeezed into a pocket-sized location. If you’re staying in the area Paul and Megan are more than willing to share a few local riding secrets – some of which, according to Paul, are horrendously appealing.
Through the little town of Gerringong and onto the Princes Highway, a canvas-ready view appears
There are a few ways to reach the salty coast of Shoalhaven, but we decide upon one of the quieter options. A few of the roads around here are semi-main arteries from the Highlands to the coast, so you can expect to see some cars. If you’re like us and hail from the Big Smoke, this will be nothing out of the ordinary. Funnily enough, once we meander through the little town of Gerringong and (gasp) onto the Princes Highway, a canvas-ready view of the dramatic cliffs and raging surf below appears. There’s a shoulder to ride on and we only need to be on this built-up section of road for a few kilometres.
Where you control the action
The next exit into Kiama has our name on it and it’s once again into quieter surrounds – though the Blowhole proves an exception. Given the right conditions, it’s worth a trip, – even for the most cynical of cyclo-tourists – out to the point to see the Blowhole do its thing. Kiama is a popular tourist town, so if it’s brunch or an early lunch you’re after, Manning Street Cafe has something for everyone. For the coffee connoisseurs, drop into Bean Roasted on the way towards Jamberoo Mountain – better make it a double.
Point of order: it might not look like much on the profile, but there’s a nasty little climb out of Kiama, along Jamberoo Road, that needs to be digested en route to the main course of Jamberoo Mountain. (And no, kids, we won’t be dropping into the nearby Action Park today.)
For the coffee connoisseurs, try dropping into Bean Roasted on the way towards Jamberoo Mountain
This is the big dog of the day – a deep-breath, suck-it-up kind of climb that screams out of the grasslands towards the Southern Highlands. Of all the climbs along this ridgeline, this is the one to order. It doesn’t matter where you decide to mark the official start line, it’s well over 20 minutes of continual climbing for even the most seasoned of riders. As I said, the National Road Series’ top-ranked squad for the past three years often visits the area for its yearly training camps. Buckle up for the ride, use that 28-tooth we mentioned earlier and get going.
From cattle-grazing pastures to the thick-aired lush forests of Jamberoo and onwards to what seems like the top of the world, the climb may push you to your peak, but the summit and nearby lookout are what trips like this are all about. While we’re flying high above the seaside towns below, Dan lets us in on a little secret about the “top” of the mountain. ‘The lookout is at the top, but we’ve got another 10-odd kilometres of climbing still to go,’ he advises.
His statement seems to make little sense, but we soon realise the seriousness of his words. It really does keep climbing, nearly all the way to the Robertson Pie Shop. After arriving at what seems like, to be brutally honest, a glorified truck stop, we’re unsure whether it’s the pie shop that made Robertson famous or the other way round. But we should give credit where it’s due: there are so many choices of pies on offer, for lunch or dessert, that anyone can come here and leave with a flavour they’ll happily devour. ‘Tomorrow, I’ll take you to a place that would make any truckie or cyclist cry with happiness,’ Bonello says. He’s the local. We don’t argue.
Sink or swim
From Robertson it’s a few twists and turns into the detour route of Belmore Falls. ‘This is just the ticket,’ says an overly excited Strauss as he races along a dead-straight approach onto the unsealed Belmore Falls Road. Unsure of what actually lay ahead, Strauss takes a cobbled-classic approach, ensuring he’s first onto the sector for a clear run towards the weir. Depending on the road condition, this “long-cut” requires your end-of-day skills to be really switched on.
The three of us dart from left to right, seeking the road’s crown, using smooth but firm pedal strokes. Faster – to a certain point – is generally the way to go. Take it too slow and you’ll be fishtailing along the graded road all the way down to the Falls. With Bonello and my off-road roots, and Strauss’s competitive edge thrown into the mix, we’re soon racing each other. A smoky dirt mist follows our path and provides Marcus with the perfect #lighbro.
The climb may push you to your peak, but the summit and nearby lookouts are what trips like this are all about
We cross the weir and tick over close to 100km. Once again, the local is able to show us an even better viewpoint of the Upper Kangaroo Valley as it sprawls below. You’ll have to join us later in the year to be let in on this little secret (see more on page 54). In true Big Ride style – we do tend to take our time – there’s only a smattering of afternoon light left over as we head out the other side, bound for the ride along Fitzroy Falls Lake.
*Tssssss*. In a bizarre repeat of yesterday, I grind to a halt. Double flat – but this time it’s not Bonello. Lucky for us, we’ve come equipped for nearly all occasions and, with spare wheels in the Jag, it proves to be a quick changeover. Fully supported rides – we could definitely get used to this sort of treatment.
A left turn onto Myra Vale Road signals what is close to the highest point in the ride, situated approximately 750m above sea level. Kangaroo Valley is under 100m and the three of us know that even with the falling light, we should click over the remaining 25km in around 40 minutes. Myra Vale drops away steadily as it passes the popular trout fishing and picnic spot, and a few kilometres later we find ourselves at another T-intersection. Left again and it’s onto the free-flowing descent known as Fitzroy Falls, or Barrengarry. Sweeping left and right turns, switchbacks and straight-line, high-speed sections are packed into the 7km descent (or climb, depending on which way you’re going). Like many of the downs around here, it’s advisable to hold back a little until you’ve had at least one clean run. There’s always tomorrow.
Kangaroo Valley sits just beyond the base, and with the Inn already starting to draw a crowd we’re relieved to know that we won’t be missing out tonight. A nod of the head towards some furry neighbours, a quick freshen-up and it’s off to join the locals in the ‘backyard’ of the pub. Like the mornings, the temperature drops once the light disappears and after a few smooth ales quickly on board, it seems tomorrow’s fog might be more of a haze.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a loop that offers such diversity, at least within such close proximity to either Sydney or Canberra. In a little under 130km, we’ve petted llamas, ridden through the mist, eaten delicious doughnuts with over 60 years of frying history, been invigorated by the violent spray of the Tasman Sea, entered the dark and lush canopy of a mountain, stood on top of the world, ridden along a “don’t tell mum” stretch of off-piste road, crossed a river, stood sickeningly close to the edge of a waterfall, raced down one of the most throttle-open descents going around and, in a miraculous feat, managed to make it back before the kitchen closed. The best part? That’s just Day 1. Join us for three days of stunning exploration by bike and we’ll share a few more gems that we discovered along the way.
The Soigneur’s ride
Jaguar XE, from $65,990 jaguar.com.au
Fitted with a trio of Thule bike carriers, initially thought a faux pas on this type of chassis, we soon forget about our 30-odd grand of bikes strapped to the roof as the all-new XE races south towards the Highlands of NSW. Initially available in a range of engines, the sportiest of which is the 250kW, 450Nm 3.0-litre supercharged V6 familiar from the F-type sports car, there’s definitely no concern powering up even the Highlands’ most savage ascents in this thing. For the number-crunchers this is enough go to power the range-topping (for now) XE S to 100kmh in around 5.1 seconds and on to a limited top speed of 250kmh. ‘Darty’ is the first word that springs to mind, though you quickly relax and adjust and begin to marvel at how little effort is required to get the nose arcing towards the apex with great precision as the steering progressively weights up, encouraging you to really dig into the chassis’s ample but beautifully balanced reserves of grip. Clean and functional on the inside and with reliable British-backed construction, this is certainly a Big Ride ride not to be overlooked.
Do it with Cyclist and Soigneur
Inspired by our Big Ride, Soigneur expanded its wings to new grounds – with a little help from Cyclist. The Hors Catégorie trip, held in May 2016, was set amidst the Southern Highlands and Shoalhaven region of NSW and provided guests with three days’ and three nights’ stay, along with three stunning rides.
The trip ventured up, down and across the region, with testing coast-to-plateau climbs, descents through lush rainforest, and rolling hills through charming rural townships. Guests were treated to two longer rides of approximately six to seven hours each, and one shorter three-hour ride. Each ride was at a solid but sustainable tempo.
Based at a private estate near Berry, 90 minutes from Sydney, the estate was set amongst native bush with sweeping views of the coast. Guests arrived Thursday evening, riding Friday, Saturday and Sunday before returning home on Sunday afternoon.
Each day kicked off with a continental breakfast and a catered picnic or cafe stop mid-ride, followed by freshly prepared lunches and dinners. Washed down with local beer and wine, the seasonal menu highlighted the region’s finest produce and catered for any dietary requirements.
Each rides was fully supported by two experienced guides, follow car, mechanic, spares fleet and professional photographer. With pro-style treatment –including remedial massage, guests didn’t have to lift a finger. Each guest also went home with a Soigneur x Cyclist Rider Pack including limited-edition T-shirt, cap, bidons and musette
Dates: Thursday, May 5 to Sunday, May 8, 2017
Maximum group size: 11
Cost: $1,600 per person group share; $1,800 per person twin share; $2,400 per person private room
– Book five spots together and receive $100 off each booking.
For more information or to book your place in a future trip, email firstname.lastname@example.org.