Gravel Culture: Just where did my back wheel go?
Gravel Union On
31 August 2021
Nikki Stanley lives and rides in Western Australia and spends at least some of her time riding on the gravel equivalent of magnetic ball bearings. We asked her to tell us about this unique riding environment.
Welcome to the land of pea gravel! I’m told by a geologist mate that we have lateritic soils. These little volcanic ball bearings help give that wonderful skittish, squirrely feeling that makes you laugh nervously, or leaves you lying on your side wondering where your back wheel went. The soils are iron rich. I hadn’t realised there was a magnet in my helmet though.
From peas to grapefruit size rocks and bedrock slabs thrown in for good measure, we have an “interesting” mix of trail surfaces for our gravel rides. And just in case you think that’s it for Mother Nature’s gift to gravel riders here, we also have a litany of gumnuts – hard spherical seeds of the Eucalyptus tree, just lying there, waiting to roll your wheel out from under you as you trundle past.
Little native bundles of joy found in the gravel
As with many bits of the world at the minute, local riding is king for now, so let’s go. Riding on the land of our Noongar First Nations people of the southwest of Western Australia, you will discover vast and different landscapes and some impressively large-scale art thrown in for good measure!
Collie Dam Mural by Guido Van Helten 2021
We are spoiled for choice when it comes to where to ride. There are gravel trails and roads all over the Perth hills, with short blasts and pub/café stops and links to the country towns. Locally groomed old-school XC MTB trails also crisscross the area. We’ve got a pretty decent endurance gravel ride scene - there’s lots of local riders joining up the gravel farm roads to produce endurance distance (200-400km) routes.
When you’re out riding, there’s plenty of interesting fauna to keep you entertained. You’ll often spot blue-tongue skink (known as ‘bob’ to the locals) and always plenty of kangaroos. Emus dart across the trails further south and there’s no shortage of birds and small marsupials. Snakes, ye, we have them here too. Just leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone. There is a long-standing urban myth of a snake making its way up your fork or cranks whilst moving, but there are no case reports! Having said that, I do carry a snake bandage just in case….
We are lucky in Western Australia (WA) that we have one of the longest off-road routes in the world, the Munda Biddi. Munda Biddi means ‘path through the forest’ in the indigenous Noongar language and is 1051km long. It can be traversed in either direction - seasonal conditions often decide. It can be done in bits, raced, ambled or ridden as part of larger epics (Race to the Rock) and it’s often done with kids in tow. You’ll get everything from bare bones set-ups, to fully loaded. The Munda Biddi ultra riders have done it as fast as 2 days 17 hours 22 minutes. Riders can use trailside huts, tents or call into local town to find pubs with accommodation.
Both MTB and gravel bikes are often used. The trail ranges from hike-a-bike through some of the river valleys to fast, if not slightly loose, gravel sections. Up and down rough vehicle tracks and forest routes are punctuated with bits of singletrack. The occasional sharp turn at the bottom of a rutted descent is great for testing your brakes out. There is often a sandy base to the trail as you head towards the Perth end, which can making descents a bit slippery, especially as it dries out. Summer is hot and dry here – 35/40 degrees is common, so Autumn & Spring tend to be the best seasons.
As you move further south, the jarrah forests deepen and compacted red dirt trails become more common. Their high clay content means they can be muddy once winter starts to appear. Whenever you get closer to the coastline in WA, you will see the more coastal grey/white sand and native scrub. The gravel becomes lighter in nature and that back wheel might feel a little more squirrelly.
For anyone keen on gravel racing, we don’t yet have a multi-day gravel event in WA, but there are some popping up in each state as the time progresses. Grinduro is still a possibility in Falls Creek, Victoria in December 2021, but we’re still unsure about what will happen with our interstate borders.
Photo courtesy of Patrick Boere Photography
The Seven Gravel Race is a single day event out of the small town of Nannup, in the mid-southwest. It has slowly been growing in attendance from a few hundred to over a thousand riders this year. It hosts three distances from 50-125km with the longer distance having 3400m of climbing and 10 climbs. Much like many gravel events, the crowd laps up the atmosphere at the start, but then the hardcore racers and the rest of us soon split up. The route takes the racers through a mix of local farmland, gravel tracks and forestry tracks and even uses sections of the Munda Biddi close to town. Long, gravel doubletrack climbs mince everyone’s legs, but luckily the aid points have much needed water and extra snacks. A few riders new to gravel describe the sometimes-sketchy fast descents and cattle grids nervously with a hint of laughter. Type 2 fun maybe. The climbs are, for sure! Many smiles are created, and food and beverages consumed afterwards.
Wherever your local ribbons of dirt and gravel are, may they bring you joy. Until we see you for a beer at the beach.
PS - For any gravel riders considering coming to WA, I highly recommend these folks for all your bike shop needs. They’re the most knowledgeable bunch on bikepacking & the Munda Biddi trail and specialise in all the gear.