There are too many cars - that's a given, but there are places cars don't go lest their shiny paint jobs become tarnished. There are often places local riders either don't know about or shy away from but with a little explortion turn out to be some of our canvasses for adventure. Decades of forestry has given the state a network of roads that most people never see. And they're perfect for the two-wheeled adventurer.
The beauty of gravel riding is that there's really no such thing as the right bike - or the wrong bike. Road bike? Works fine. Mountain bike? That will do. Tourer? perfect. Cross bike? Goes well too. Wider tyres work better, although narrow tyres add an element of challenge that some folk like. Find some like-minded mates and head for the hills.
There's nothing new about gravel riding of course. I know it's the latest craze and crazes come and go and sometimes even come back again. But it's a good reminder that roads weren't always smooth and tarred and ridden by skinny men on skinny tyres. The Tour de France was largely on gravel until surprisingly recently. And with rides like the Dirty Kanza attracting more interest and folk like Niner and Surly bringing out gravel frames which double as bomb-proof commuters and tourers and do-just-about anything bikes.
One of the best things about Tasmania is there's just so many unsealed roads. You don't have to be far out of town to find yourself on dirt. And while during the week they might see the odd log truck, on the weekend it's just you and the occasional trail bike rider or wood hooker. There is a complex of forestry roads which can take you from Miena in the central highlands to Dover to Cockle Creek without touching more than a few kilometres of tar in 200km+ of riding. There's rivers and lakes and forests you'd never know were there. And even in a state known for its scenic riding, some of these roads are just as breathtaking as the tourist routes.
Apparently road bikes were once robust enough to handle unsealed roads. Some sweet gravel there.
I can't remember the first time I went out on gravel, but I know I'm now hooked. Here's a some video from a ride up Glover's Bluff in the Tahune. Just a reminder about how much stunning country we have to explore. Aren't we lucky?
Aside from the scenery, the best thing about gravel riding for my money is the sense of remoteness it brings. It's not uncommon to ride all day without seeing more then two or three cars and every driver waves. Any traffic you're going to encounter is firstly going to be audible from a long way off and secondly surprised to see a bunch of mad buggers out riding in the middle of nowhere. "Mountain bikes," said one bloke who pulled up recently to have a chat. "You blokes should all be on mountain bikes."
Being off the beaten track means favouring reliability over light weight. It means having a rough plan what to do if things go wrong. And it means some ingenuity, a sense of humour or mental toughness might be required if things do turn to custard. That goes for navigation as well as mechanicals. My record of five flat tyres in 15km on our Bundle of Styx ride is a case in point. The only way home was stuffing the tyre carcass with the valveless carcasses of dead tubes. Rough as guts but it worked.
Speaking of tyres, this can be a very important choice. Continental Gatorskins go well, as do Schwalbe Marathons in just about any width- no surprises there. I've also found the Challenge Griffo tyres good too although I'm not overly convinced of their grip in the wet. In general 32mm is good, 38mm is probably better, if in doubt go wider and tougher, but just like on the sealed road, a lively set of tyres makes a day out so much more enjoyable.
Gravel riding comes with its own set of unique challenges. Sometimes riding unsealed roads is like a puzzle to be solved in real time. Finding the sweetest line on a rocky logging road brings not only satisfaction, but extra speed. And speed is fun. Avoid the big stones, lest the snake-bite puncture fairy visits, avoid the corrogations where the truck wheels go. Look for the bit where the sparse traffic has smoothed the way a little, or the edge where it's a bit smoother than the rest. And keep an eye out for potholes and bumps that can seem to appear out of nowhere.
Climbing is different. On a dusty dry road or a wet clay road or one with a smattering of loose stones, you're going to want to stay in the saddle because a loss of traction is going to make back your wheel spin and climbing is less fun if you can't get power down on the road. On downhills it's tempting to let go and pick up speed, but watch out for the hazzards that come up faster than you can react: holes, gravel drifts, fallen branches - all make life more interesting.
There's a wide variation in the type of surface you'll encounter even on a single ride. Some sections of road are just sweet as they come. Fresh smooth clay rolls as fast as a wooden velodrome (or at least it seems so) and fine gravel can make for fine going if it's nicely compacted into the road base. Variety, as they say, keeps life interesting.
Google Earth is a massive boon to the rider looking for somewhere quiet to do a loop or an out and back. Huonville to Judbury is mostly dirt, head out to Lonnavale if you're after some more miles. There's several good rides centred on the Tahune Airwalk which are good for starters - try a trip down into the Picton or out to Southwood and back. The forestry road between the Huon and Derwent Valleys is an interesting challenge. The Styx and the Florentine are full of forestry roads. And the Central Highlands has plenty of gravel roads worth exploring if you don't mind weather that even by Tasmanian standards is unpredictable. Al it needs is two wheels and a sense of adventure. If you're looking for some ideas, there's a few on my blog, tagged "gravel grinders".
Some samples for starters:
30km Airwalk loop. Easy. Link.
45km Styx loop. Moderate. Link.
60km Snowy Range loop. Moderate/hard. Link.
70km Glen Huon/Arve loop. Hard. Link.
100km Road/Gravel loop. Moderate. Link.
130km Waddamana Loop. Moderate/hard. Link.
200km Central Highlands Loop. Hard. Link.
Niner RLT: Alloy frame/carbon fork, 32mm tyres, disk brakes, compact crankset. Smooth and solid. A step up from my old Cross Check, which I did many happy miles on, but was sadly damaged in a crash.