Deep into my off-season in November, a time when the word ‘guilt’ belongs not in a cyclist’s diction, I ran into Tiffany Cromwell. “Great news, we’ve started a gravel race in Australia,” she proclaimed. “In fact, it’s around the corner [from] your family house in Adelaide.”
When is the race, I responded. “Oh, you know, mid-January,” came the reply. Then down goes my cake and my last swallow of perfectly milky coffee – my last moment of innocence. My season is now about to start two months earlier than expected, and I’m now panicking. Thanks, Tiff. And thanks Valtteri [Bottas].
But off-season emotions aside, it is time for Australia to have more, high-profile gravel events, because quite simply put, the entire country is gravel. It’s such untapped gold!
RADL GRVL is under the umbrella of the established GRVL organisation, which will hold the second edition of the FNLD GRVL race in Finland on June 15 and will put on a fifth SBT GRVL in Colorado on August 18. RADL GRVL has further partnered with the Tour Down Under, with a new format to add to the WorldTour fortnight of cycling events. There is a strong, established record of gravel race production and organisation behind it and I love a good collaboration. Right on.
Here I am six weeks later, in Adelaide, and I’ve just ridden the RADL GRVL course in training with a whole new perspective.
A suspiciously hot morning in the McLaren Vale region, standing in front of Oliver’s Taranga Vineyards, the start and finish location for the event. I joined local gravel legends James Raison and Matt Bird, and event founder/partner Valtteri Bottas, for a lap of the course. Bottas is also a professional F1 driver and avid cyclist.
With the course uploaded to our navigation systems, bidons full, we set off. Within an instant, we turned left off the groomed vineyard lands into a deep, green Eucalyptus forest. As strongly as the smell hit our noses, my Garmin immediately started beeping aggressively at me to warn me of the climb we had just started.
I must say, I’m a big fan of having a climb at the start of gravel races to make the groups on the road more spread out. But there are climbs, and then there is Thomas Hill Road.
I ran a less than 1-1 gear ratio (48 front-52 rear) and I was at my threshold and above just to get up this thing! There’s no pacing strategy, or attacking, it’s just what you’ve got. It is unashamedly, and dare I say, purposely, one of the hardest starts to a gravel race I’ve ever seen.
But the good news, once this climb is done, there’s only 108km to go! A race to start the season at only 110km is a very welcomed distance, we all agreed.
Thomas Hill Road connects to the second climb of the day, Brookman Connor Road, which is a lesser-known crossing point of the well-known Willunga ranges. At this point in the race, after 10km, the race has completed 500 metres of climbing, progressing on top of this hilly range with short kickers and rollers that felt like riding a magic gravel carpet.
The roller coaster of wide fire roads, more similar to the larger, open gravel roads in the USA, are largely covered by overhanging, ancient Gum trees. The intertwined sections of Australian wilderness bushland, classic rural properties and grape vines stretching the lengths of hills, felt somewhat like Tuscany, but with different trees, and gravel with a reddish hue. Please don’t scorn me for thinking this, I wasn’t the only one to make this connection.
The first 40 kilometres of the route took on the majority of the climbing for the day, 1200 of the total 2000 metres. After looping south-west, circling Mt Magnificent, it dropped into a quintessentially Australian one-pub town (maybe two) called Meadows on one of the rare sections of tarmac. A serious shout out to ‘PIK A PIE’ bakery, a very worthy stop if you’re looking for a refuel.
After a tasty Australian bakery feed (I’m too embarrassed to share what we ate, but find the victuals on @rideadelaide Instagram), we were instantly back into gravel. I was really amazed at this point in the ride how much of it had been off-road. Your body really notices the extra fatigue of being on gravel all day here, and it’s just brilliant.
Tyre choices and hydration
By now we were educated enough to debate tyre choice. The surface is extremely hard but has this constant sprinkling of fine, stony pebbles which in the corners can send you from hero mode to full out-of-control, drift king vibes. We entertained the idea of using a slick, or a very skinny CX tyre, but when we went to accelerate on the steep climbs it was challenging to keep traction.
We rode an average of 30 kph in training, so in the race, this is going to be crazy fast, and we all felt that having a wider tyre for the safety of grip whilst climbing and descending would be your best bet. But go on, prove us wrong – just know there isn’t anything too rocky, it’s 99% fire road.
Rolling onward to the pristine Rocky Creek forest, eventually, we came to the feed station, fitted out with a quintessentially Australian long drop toilet. If you know you know. The feed station sat moments after this landmark, which is going to be important in the heat that is expected for next week’s race.
It is an unsupported race, with no outside assistance, so the big debate will be whether or not to bring a hydration pack and take advantage of not stopping, or to stay as light on the first climb as possible. Akin to its bigger brother, SBT GRVL, feed zone tactics will invariably dominate the pre-race related gossip.
Either way, we know these hills, I’ve suffered here before and all I’ll say is that even the best-laid plans of mice and men will most likely see everybody stopping here regardless of tactics. There are few places where bikes are raced that are as arid and hot as the Adelaide hills. But thankfully, whatever the outcome, we finished at a winery in a race with a beer sponsor to revive us.
The last portion of the route said goodbye to the steeper climbs and threw us headfirst into some technical sections. There was a long, and extremely steep downhill (I hit 85 kph in training), which will test what’s left of anybody’s brake pads. If you haven’t pre-ridden, do take care here, it’s not one you can brake late for, so be warned!
The last few kilometres went into MTB-style single track – nowhere to pass, a few steep drops, some tight turns, but nothing to fear. It opened back up onto Hamilton Road, where the race will finish on a long, slightly uphill straight. We could see some very exciting sprint action of riders coming to the finish line as a group, but that is a big ‘if’, having seen how physically demanding this race is going to be.
As an Australian, all I can say is that this course will make the reputation of Australia gravel proud. It’s exciting, it’s stunning, it’s raw, it’s fast, it’s hard. Most of all, it’s being run by very, very capable hands, so we know it’s going to be an excellently run day.