This year saw the fifth running of the Thunderbolts Adventure, run by James Wilson and Mike Israel of Graveleur. It was the second time that Curve had attended and the first time for me (Sarah) to take on this ride.
Thunderbolts is an overnight bikepacking gravel adventure set in the beautiful Barrington Tops in New South Wales. All riders carry clothing, food, and sleeping gear on their bikes, with only one water stop on the route each day.
As visually stunning as this ride was, it also packs a punch with 5,000 vm of climbing over 248 kilometres. This ride is not for beginners, and I would recommend you have experience with long gravel climbs and time on the saddle. Despite this, many riders settled in for a very long day, despite their level of ability. I was surprised how hard day one was on a loaded bike.
As for the Curve crew: Ryan, Adam, Kate, and I attended.
Gloucester was the starting point for Thunderbolts and is roughly 3.5 hrs north of Sydney by car. Alternatively, some riders flew into Newcastle, which was only 90 minutes away by car.
With the drive up from Sydney the day prior being non-stop rain, several people were reasonably concerned that the weekend ahead would be a cold, wet, and muddy trek. However, based on the crowds at the start line on Saturday morning, it was pleasing; many were still up for the challenge.
The course itself was mainly an out and back to Moonan Flat; unfortunately, due to some weather damage to the original route, the organisers had to make some changes with little time to spare. As a result, the first day would be the tougher of the two, being one long gradual climb for the better part of the day.
Almost 220 riders crowded the start line, waiting for their wave start and a fantastic weekend on the bike. On arrival, all riders left their tent for transportation to the campsite where we stayed that evening. Looking around, it appeared many people left more than just their tents, with some bike setups on the very light side.
Kerry Staite of K-Lite, an event sponsor, was on-site cheering on the riders as they rolled out in 15-minute intervals from 8 am. At 8:30 am, I was riding, alongside Adam, now with the job of trying to catch up with everyone.
The first 25 km was sealed and not fast on my loaded GMX+ with 2.6-inch tyres; most riders had opted for the faster, lighter CX bike set up. We sped through the small town of Barrington, waved to a few locals and kids that came out to cheer us on, then rolled up the main road a little longer. Once we hit the gravel, I was much happier and faster. It was here the first glimpses of our surroundings starting to emerge, huge, lush green hills, acres of pastoral countryside, endless cattle grids, and so many cows. Cows are my favourite animal (after dogs, of course), so I was pretty happy about this ride feature. On many occasions, I made an effort to converse with any cow on the route.
The weather was overcast, with loads of low cloud wrapped around the hills; at times, it was hard to see how far the ranges in the distance traveled. However, the cloud was beautiful, giving the Barrington Tops this almost mystical fairytale feel, and with cool temperatures, it made for enjoyable riding conditions. I had heard that the last Thunderbolts event run in November had most riders were battling extreme heat and running out of water.
The climbing began almost immediately, nothing long enough to pace yourself with; instead, it was roller, after roller, after roller. I find this riding style tiring as you can’t get into a rhythm, but the surroundings were a lovely distraction, enough to push up every pinch and fly quickly down the brief descent. We also had several river crossings in the first half of the day to increase the fun, the first being the deepest, ensuring that many had soaked feet for the remainder of the day. This was also my first encounter with Bob, who was taking photos for the event. He would pass me hanging out the window of a camo detailed Jeep, camera poised, numerous times that weekend,
I chatted with various riders as I passed through groups; I was riding alone by this stage, as Adam had stayed back to ride with Kate. Usually, anytime a longer climb appeared, the conversation would stop, and so would people’s pace. Some would ride off on me, while at other times, I’d leave them behind. As the day progressed, the climbs were getting steeper, and some of the longer ones had me grinding in my most accessible gear, looking for the summit.
The gravel was in excellent condition and made for fast riding in most parts for lighter bikes. However, my setup tended to handle the descents better, being I had a more robust, wide tyre that could power over corrugations and loose gravel. Nevertheless, many riders seemed to be slowing down, and I started to see quite a few walking climbs, primarily due to the range on their cassettes.
Other riders just enjoyed the experience; many in groups would gather under big trees for lunch or at a nearby water stream, just because it was pretty, and simply, why not?
Passing through Tomalla, riders then had to conquer a 30 km climb that started with a vertical wall to set the tone. Just shy of 4 km and a 12.2% average, the first section of this ramp spiked at 23.8% and spent a lot of time staying above 20%. Most riders unclipped and were walking from the start, despite riding pace not being much faster. My Garmin displayed 6-7 kph speeds as I tapped away, knowing that it was only a few more switchbacks until the gradient settled slightly.
Once through the most demanding section, our surroundings opened a little more as we rolled through more cattle stations, including passing through a large herd of cows just minding their business.
The water stop was at 75 km, and I looked at my Garmin again to see that we had already knocked out 2,600 m of climbing, a tough slog for many.
Water never tastes better than it does when you’ve been working hard. So I rolled in and filled both my bottles; when a couple of older volunteers who had water on the boil greeted me, and I noticed they were making coffee. I was never so excited for a cup of coffee, let alone instant coffee. I happily accepted their offer of coffee, heaping a big spoon of sugar into my cup for an extra energy boost. When I rolled out that morning, I told them I was disappointed I wouldn’t get my afternoon caffeine fix, and here they were! I thanked them for being my trail angels and kept moving.
The climbing was much more friendly here on in, but before you could settle into the goal of the finish line being close, the route took a hard left and placed riders on a short 7 km stretch of the Barrington Trail. This short section wasn’t gravel; instead, it was a very wet, muddy, boggy four-wheel drive track. It was loaded with rocks and tree routes and made progress much slower. And we were still slowly climbing. Riders on thin tyres were walking most sections, some cursing louder than they realized. I offered encouragement and reminded them to see where they were riding and how lucky they are to be here. The recent rain had added some extra challenge to this trail, but it was still beautiful, and it was here the first patches of blue sky started to appear as we finally crossed over the summit again. Once out the other end of the Barrington Trail, riders were fast to get moving again, with radar lock-on Dingo Gate, the route marker that meant the final descent was on the other side. We rode high for a short while, the highest point being 1510 m, passing through some thick, dark pine forests that made me wish I had time to stop and explore its contents.
Once through Dingo Gate, there was a lookout point where I stopped for a breather with a few others. The view was stunning, the perfect reward for a challenging day of riding. Most of the cloud had cleared, and the sun was starting to lower, bringing this beautiful golden light across the Barrington Tops National Park, an almost glistening filter that even photographs would struggle to capture.
The following 15 km into Moonan Flat were fast! Impressive wide, sweeping gravel roads, with endless views in every direction you looked. The ranges comprised layers and layers of different shades of blues, leaving you wondering how far back they went. I was thankful I made it through here at this time of day, lucky to view this section in daylight.
I arrived at Moonan Flat Hotel, the finish line for day one, a little after 3:30 pm, and greeted Ryan, who came in not long before me, handing me a finish line beer and congratulations.
Moonan Flat has a hotel (pub), a cafe, and a post office, a tiny town with approximately 150 people.
Ryan and I decided to shower quickly, then set up our tents before more riders arrived. We then planted ourselves at the finish line to welcome as many people as possible with a well done and a cold beer. Adam soon rolled in and helped with beer hand-ups, and not long after, Kate arrived.
Rider smiles said it all that night; everyone was happy to have conquered day one. As the sun disappeared, we would wait for the sign of bike lights and again start cheering as riders navigated the dark to the finish line. Curve was sponsoring the evening refreshments at Moonan Flat, thanks to the support of Moon Dog Brewing. We also invited Andras DJ from Melbourne to play a live DJ set for the evening, and we hope it’s not the last time we have him visit Thunderbolts. We continued welcoming riders in as late as 8:30 pm that night, which gives you an idea of just how much some riders fought that day to finish this route.
Dinner followed, prizes awarded, and the last remaining social stragglers crowded around the fire enjoying a glass of red, sharing stories from the day.
I said goodnight and headed to my tent, amused listening to almost 200 riders struggle to get comfortable on their inflatable mats. My guess was sleep would be minimal that night.
There was no need for an alarm in the morning. People were stirring early, some a little louder than others. There were also countless bird noises in the background, greeting the sun.
After packing up the tent, it was time for breakfast and a strong coffee. I sighted Mike from Graveleur at the front of the coffee queue and was lucky he offered to take my order. My double shot, oat latte, hit the spot.
Again we left our tents at the drop location and began strapping bags to bikes and packing snacks for the road. The morning was freezing; although the cloud was burning off quickly, you could see it looked like a beautiful sunny day ahead. Breakfast was a massive bowl of warm porridge for me, heaped with raw sugar and bananas. It was perfect ride fuel.
Some riders departed as early as 7 am, wanting to get ahead of the larger group, being it was still a long way back to Gloucester, and day two meant more tired bodies. Adam and I had some packing up to help with and soon hit the road with Ryan at 8:30 am. Ryan pushed on quickly, and I spent the day riding with Adam, a rarity these days and something I enjoyed.
Being the majority of day one’s riding was climbing, it surely meant today would be a little easier? So today consisted of riding back the same way (mostly) we came out. However, the first 30 kms would take us out a different way to rejoin the route, suggesting a new climb to conquer instead of ascending the Dingo Gate descent from day one.
I felt pretty great on day two and found myself getting into a good rhythm quickly, chatting away with Adam. This first climb was more consistent, with fewer rollers, just up! There was yet another delightful ramp that had people walking again. This time, it was a short sealed section of almost 2 km and no doubt a hard start for many suffering tired legs. Best to get it out of the way early, right? Despite a long day ahead, some riders chose to stop on the climb and take in the views on offer.
With the last few clouds dissolving quickly, day two looked very different. As we rejoined the route from day one, it was like we were doing an entirely different ride.
With the sun out, everything looked brighter and more colourful! At times some of the green pastures seemed almost luminous. The gravel roads stood out more, and with the cloud cover diminished, you could see the gravel road ahead or behind, snaking forever through the hills.
There was more descending through day two as expected, but the pinches and rollers seemed to be just as frequent. With riders leaving at so many different times, we didn’t see too many people, as the large group seemed to be more spread out.
The water stop was again around 70 km and was more of a small party stop. Unlike a few riders from day one desperate for water, this time, close to fifty riders were hanging out, enjoying the sun and the spread that Kerry (K-Lite) had put on. There was fruit, chips, dips, cheeses, lollies, cold can’s of coke, and music playing to keep spirits high.
As Adam made his way through the buffet on offer, I called out that it was time to keep moving.
We sang old songs for the remainder of the ride, tried to remember lyrics to terrible songs, and spoke to others that rode nearby. We offered lube to every screeching chain that came past (there were many) and sighted a giant brown snake basking in the sun, totally undeterred by the number of riders going past.
When the water crossings returned, I knew we didn’t have far to go before finding ourselves back on the sealed road. Almost back in town, there was one last change of route, a final gravel road, complete with rollers, for old time’s sake. Adam rode ahead, scrambling to sort his mission to make his and Kate’s flight back to Melbourne that night.
I made it into Gloucester a little after 3 pm and parked my bike at the Roundabout Inn where everyone else had pulled up. I found Ryan and Adam and was very happy to enjoy a cold beer and some salty hot chips on arrival.
Once again, we cheered riders in and watched many leave quickly, needing to return home for the working week the next day. Ryan and I stayed until the last rider arrived about 8:30 pm that night, a woman on an old dual-suspension mountain bike. We then enjoyed a beer with James from Graveleur as he breathed an enormous sigh of relief, and joy I imagine, that another year was done and dusted.
Special thanks again to Mike and James from Graveleur and for running an incredible event. I encourage anyone keen on a challenging but rewarding weekend of bikepacking to join us next year. The Barrington Tops National Park is unique, and I’m grateful for the chance to spend my weekend here riding my bike.
Another special mention to Bob Barrett, the official photographer on route. He shot all photos highlighted in this write-up. And you can agree they are just beautiful. Included HERE is the link to view Bob’s full album from the weekend. If you choose to download the free digital images, perhaps purchase a printed photo to support his hard work.
See you all in 2022!