The Spirit of Gravel

Words and Images by Scott Mattern

Who could resist a ride called “The Spirit of Gravel?” The idea had me hooked from the moment I was invited to join a small group of riders to scout out a new 4 day backcountry gravel loop in the North East of Tasmania. Spirit is a word with multiple meanings, each of which had its place on this ride: it could be the non-physical aspect of a being, entity or bike ride, its essence, emotions, character or soul. It could be the prevailing mood or attitude of a group or moment; five riders strung out along a climb, hammering along in a frosty morning paceline or bantering away the last kilometer before morning tea. A spirit is also the product of extraction, distillation and concentration, in this case a ride which made something true amazing out of the raw beauty of this region and its culture.

With the many senses of “spirit” in mind I embarked for the winding gravel roads and wilderness of this beautiful corner of the island. This ride, curated by Gareth and Peter from Blue Metal Cycling, is their premier offering. Starting and finishing in the historic Georgian town of Evandale, near Launceston Airport, the ride offers four glorious days, 400 remote kilometers of backcountry gravel roads and over 8000 meters of every flavour of climb and descent imaginable, including the two major peaks of the region. As described

In the four days and three nights it takes to complete this tour you will experience some of North Eastern Tasmania’s very best.

It will mean some solid days in the saddle, however we believe this tour is an amazing, unique experience, and worth every kilometre and metre of climbing.

This ride would be a shakedown cruise, to scout the route, test the support equipment and sample the accommodation and catering prior to this ride being offered to the public as a commercial venture. The test crew were all accomplished riders from the local region — Pete and Gareth joined Ryan De La Rue, Alan Miller and myself with Justin driving the Blue Metal ute and its trailer filled with spares, extra layers of clothing and two enormous ice cream tubs of homemade biscuits. The route had been scouted by Pete nearly a year prior in challenging weather conditions so with four days of sunshine forecast this trip was to be a fresh experience even for him.

This reconnaissance ride had a feeling of refining a fine spirit, a good Tassie whiskey if you will. The key high-quality components of a four day ride through the wilds of North Eastern Tasmania were selected, fermented, distilled, extracted and aged 12 months. We were now sampling the first barrel of “The Spirit of Gravel” as seasoned connoisseurs providing tasting notes that would be used to further refine the final product before bottling. This ride was barrel proof strength; from the smooth strade bianche quartz gravel of coastal St Helens to 20% gradient gravel gnar through Huntsmans Cap, all served up against a backdrop of temperate rain forest, misty highland plains and costal bush with wombats, black cockatoos and sea eagles along for the ride.

Cycling through this region is an immersive experience that not only allows you to experience some of the best riding of your life on remote gravel roads but also to sample some of the region’s best boutique accommodation, fine produce.

Day 1: 125km, 2800m. Temperature inversion. Barrow. Break out the biscuits. Golden hour.

In high spirits and a little bit nervous we commence our adventure on a brisk May morning in Evandale. May in the North East can make a good show of pretending to be winter, so we are lucky to have four days of spectacular weather conditions forecast. Although we have been back and forth via social media messages and email, it is nice to finally meet people in person. Being from the North East of Tassie we know of each other with only the smallest degrees of freedom common here. Any of these days in isolation would be a spectacular ride, let alone strung together, however our focus for today is to make it unscathed to Derby via one of the major climbs waiting for us, Mt Barrow.


Mt Barrow or Pialermeliggener is a Jurassc dolerite-capped plateau about 30km outside Launceston that reaches a maximum elevation of 1,406 metres making it the second highest peak in this area. The climb to the top is a 14km gravel road through temperate old growth rainforest, subalpine and alpine landscapes, with the final switch backs doggedly clinging to the mountain as they top out through imposing scree slopes. As Ben Lomond’s less famous sibling (more on that later) to me it is has the best combination of switchback corners and long gravel ramps, a heart breaker to climb and a joy to descend.

One bitter temperature inversion and many fast rolling kilometres later we roll across the aptly  named Paradise Plains before descending through a golden hour landscape painting into the farming community of Ringarooma. From there we are shuttled to the mountain bike capital of the North East, Derby. Anyone who has recently flicked a dropper post lever or railed a berm in Australia and perhaps the world has likely heard the tale of this town.

The Derby trail network is joint initiative between the local councils of Dorset and Break O’Day and the Australian Federal government to breathe new life into this once thriving tin mining town. The 110km of world class mountain biking trail has put Derby on the map for those who roll on knobby tires. But beyond the singletrack a lattice of gravel and fire roads extends through paddocks and forests in all directions, waiting to be discovered by curious gravel grinders. Just beyond Derby we roll into the beautiful Mutual Valley on of these many roads and our accommodation for the night at the Derby Forest Cabins. We settle in for the night around an open pit fire, tired but content with our day.

Day 2: 80km, 1500m. Fog. Falls. Fish and chips. The world’s shortest swim.

A thick fog covers us like a blanket as we set off. The layers go on and we head off into the early morning. The day’s 80km and 1500m of climbing provides a slight reprieve as we make our way from Ringarooma to the coast through an area I have passed frequently and often wondered about, Mt Victoria and Ralphs Falls. The steady climb out of town in the fog provides an eerie backdrop as we hit Ralph Falls which at over 90m is the highest single drop falls in Tasmania. After a quick stop for a hot beverage we lose all our gain and more on a series of long descents and short climbs as we descend toward the east coast. One good thing about fog is that when it burns off you are promised a great day and as we roll onto the rolling quartz gravel roads of the region we are greeted with stunning blue skies. We decide to push through hard for a late lunch and find ourselves in St Helens in time for fish and chips on the wharf.

From here it is a flat 10km roll on the only sealed road we had seen all day to our destination for the day, the Bay of Fires. Bay of Fires is so named not after the ruddy lichen on its granite rock but because of the fires of the Aboriginals spotted by Tobias Furneaux as he sailed past in 1773. It is mid-May but the white sand and saltwater is too good to resist. We endure the shortest swim in history and then stand and take in the scene as our legs relax in the chilly water.

Our accommodation for the night is with good friends Tom and Anna at the Bay of Fires Bush Retreat. I stay with these guys regularly, but I still never tire of arriving at their place. We settle into the bunk house; beer in hand in the dying light of the day we each wander in our own direction either exploring our accommodation or grabbing a well-deserved hot shower, smiles all around. The “spirit” of this place is not lost on any of us; all agree the accommodation is on point and an experience in its own right. 

That evening we slip into to St Helens to catch up with the World Trail Crew at The Social. The beer is cold, the menu concise and tasty and the company friendly as we discuss the construction of the St Helens trails, the next big development for mountain biking in this region. Imagining the 40km link through from the Derby trails at Blue Tier to the beach at Bay of Fires, my mind wanders dreaming of the possibilities of adventure. 

Day 3: 75km, 1700m. Gnar. Red. Blue. Creaturetarianism.

The morning pre-dawn patrol has us up to greet the sunrise. The rays burst through the clouds, shedding light onto a much-photographed little tree precariously attached to the seaside rocks. We consider day three: 75 km and 1700m. On paper this seems almost a rest day, but numbers can be misleading. For me this was toughest and yet possibly most rewarding day of the ride. The ride from St Helens to Mathinna through the Huntsmans Cap Forest Reserve was by far the most remote riding of the trip. This is off-grid gravel at its best, the only signs of human habitation the thin wisps of smoke from the logging coupes on the horizon. The surface deteriorates as the roads push further into the bush; we and our bikes begin to feel truly beat up. We crest the final hill of the day and are greeted with a view worth all the day’s pain. The road improves rapidly as we bomb our way to The Creech in the fading light of the day.

The fire is roaring in the outdoor lounge, the spirited kelpies Red and Blue and rehomed greyhound sisters Ginny and Lola greet us. This is The Creech, run by Justin and Sharyn as a farm accommodation concept of horses, food and uninterrupted landscapes of forests, rivers and mountains on the doorstep. We follow smoke from behind one of the many inviting buildings to find Justin cooking dinner, a side of lamb racked over an open fire pit — “total food miles 50m paddock to plate.” Later discussions with Sharyn had us considering the sustainability of the meal, which could be considered “creaturetarian.” What do we know about the food we eat? Did the creature live a happy stress-free life? Could we have encountered another “spirit,” the non-physical part of a being or entity, its essences, emotions, character or soul? The evening is whittled away chatting with our hosts by the fire, scratching the ears of the dogs as they share themselves around.

Day 4: 105km, 2200m. Frost. Ben Lomond. Last stop for biscuits.

The morning comes cold, white cold. Frost is removed from the contact points of the bikes. We are rolling early trying to keep any extremities not required covered. Coming home strong is expected on a day that includes Ben Lomond and the iconic gravel switchbacks of Jacob’s Ladder. Getting there takes us through another warren of remote gravel roads, including a descent to our morning tea which can only be described as a dirt roller coaster. It has you battling with yourself — “go faster go faster…shit that’s too fast am I going to make that corner?” The Ben and the Ladder greet us with perfect autumn conditions and sinuous champagne gravel. The 18km climb to the lookout never fails to hurt but for today at least the view from the top back down the Ladder makes It all worthwhile. Spread out before us is the balance of the ride back into Evandale on the smooth rolling gravel of Sawpit road. The final kilometer’s flow by as we reflect four days of riding in near-perfect conditions. We were lucky to have experienced the North East at its very best.

Spirit can mean different things, but I think this ride might well be all of these rolled into one. In the end I cannot say I am closer to a conclusion; I can only suggest that you experience it for yourself — what is the Spirit of Gravel for you? 

This article was published in the August 2019 edition of the Australian Mountain Biking Magazine. For more stories and images from Scott Mattern, please follow the link below: