Champagne gravel roads, relaxed country vibes and jaw-dropping views in every direction – all with nary a vehicle in sight. Cyclist unlocks the secrets of a little-known cycling wonderland, the New England High Country of NSW, on a route taking in historic towns Armidale, Uralla and Walcha
Words JOEL POTTER Photography SIMON ESJAY JAMES
I’m from Adelaide, live in Sydney and have spent almost all of my holidays at various places between the two. I knew about New England, knew that Armidale was north-west from home and further than Tamworth, but had never actually ventured to this part of the state.
So when my mate Esjay asked me if I wanted to join him on a ride through New England High Country, I didn’t think twice. An easy drive up after work on Friday for a Saturday gravel ride in idyllic spring conditions, a great excuse to escape the city and explore somewhere new.
You’d be mad not to. With the trip locked in and accommodation booked, I thought I should do some quick research about the area. Hang on a second – our starting point at Armidale is five-and-a-half hours away and sits higher above sea level than Jindabyne?
So, it turns out I really didn’t know much about New England. Now I’m feeling doubly intrigued, not just for the ride, but also to discover what I’ve been missing out on up north all this time.
The weather has been unseasonably kind for the end of winter, but as always when any kind of altitude is involved, you can count on a mixed bag. A check of the forecast reveals just that.
It’s a week into spring and there’s a cold snap rolling in and pulling the rug out from underneath the overnight temperatures. With leg warmers, gloves and a jacket packed, Esjay and I drive up the serpentine Thunderbolts Way well into the final stages of Friday night.
His three-cylinder hybrid is moaning up 13% inclines (I would be too), and I reflect on the smell of smoke drifting in through the windows.
There are two types that come to mind: the gentle smell of fireplaces that reminds me of cold winter nights, and the acrid smells of bushfire smoke that signals the Australian summer. And while warnings of another bushfire season loom, this one is definitely the former.
Tomorrow morning is going to be brisk.
Golden hour is overrated
Two alarms chime in unison. Both are quickly silenced. But it’s not the snooze button we hit, and it’s not hard to get out of bed on the first attempt. The sun is well above the horizon, its warming golden rays sparkling off the dewy grass outside.
The clock on my phone begins with a seven, which for most cyclists is a complete novelty. Esjay flicks the switch on the pre-filled kettle, ready for the instant coffee that always begins a ride away from home.
We’re in no rush to hit the road this morning, having agreed last night that arvo light was much better suited to Esjay’s vision for the ride photos.
I, for one, am very happy with the relative sleep-in, and even more so with not having to roll out with the mercury reading anything near zero.
We make our way around the corner from our night’s accommodation at Armidale’s City Centre Motor Inn and continue the morning’s leisurely pace with breakfast at the Goldfish Bowl, a former pizzeria turned bakery-cafe that still bakes on the bricks of a wood-fired oven.
The comforting smell of woodfire smoke is becoming a theme and permeates my bacon and egg roll perfectly, while my second coffee of the day is a million miles from the harsh, but always essential, instant from the motel. This is not your average country bakery brew.
Standing by the striking mural that wraps around the bakery, well-fuelled and caffeinated, we meet our companion, guide and resident route-planning extraordinaire for the day, Jorja (whom many will recognise as @jambijambi), her mum Wendy and exuberant kelpie Jane in tow.
It’s finally time to start ticking off the 100 or so kays Jorja has planned out for us, and by now there’s just enough bite in the alpine sun that we can get away without the gloves or leg warmers we were sure we’d need all day.
Even with such a civilised departure time, we barely see a car as we cruise through central Armidale.
It feels quiet in Australia’s highest city, but there’s a gentle buzz that makes for a very refreshing change to the frenetic Saturday morning we’d normally face in the city rolling out this late.
The town fades behind us as we gently pedal westwards past the very green golf course and out into the New England plateau. Jorja decides to jump in the car with mum and dog, saving her legs for the best part of the ride.
I should mention here that Jorja is pedalling for two, being around five months pregnant, although it’s clearly not slowing her down too much. Esjay and I have a decent chunk of kays to tick off before our first stop, so we press on, hitting Bundarra Road.
Like a Thunderbolt
‘Wow, this road is very straight,’ says Esjay, mirroring my exact thoughts that this particular stretch of tarmac is remarkable for its unwavering directness.
It sounds odd, but it’s a striking contrast to the rollercoaster ribbon of road we drove up just the night before and really reminds you that you’re up on the tablelands.
Bundarra Road seems to grind on endlessly and the left turn towards Uralla doesn’t appear to be moving any closer on our Wahoo screens.
Don’t think for a second I’m having a bad time though. The sun is tempering the morning chill, the air is crisp and has the same distinct high-country quality to it that I love so much about the Snowies.
Plus, I’m happily spinning my legs with a great mate. That is until we hear the unmistakable whoop-whoop of magpie wings on approach.
A few hours ago we were certain spring had forsaken us, but here it was, back in full force with rogue magpies taking potshots at the back of our heads. Luckily, the maggies are built differently up here and seem happy to let us pass with just one or two swoops each.
Not bad by the usual standards back down south!
The endless straight road is actually less than 10km and soon enough we swing left at a big, red, surprisingly photogenic livestock trailer and head south. Cool changes usually mean southerlies, and so with our change of heading comes a fairly persistent headwind.
We’re still not phased though; with no pressing schedule it’s a great opportunity to take in the landscape. Definitely high country, but with a lot more cattle than its southern NSW cousin.
The kays tick over steadily now and although the headwind isn’t letting up, the road surface is above average for a typical country, chip-seal scenario, while elevation change is minimal.
Our oversized tyres hum as they roll along and we make good time towards Uralla and lunch.
Turning left onto Thunderbolts Way, that monotony is shattered by the billiard-table smoothness, at least relatively speaking, of the road and our chuckles about the juxtaposition of this segment to the one that rattled our bones on the trip up last night.
It’s only a quick shot into Uralla on this famous road, named after notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, the prisoner who escaped from Cockatoo Island and who spent his time as a fugitive around the region.
A hot pie from the highly recommended Pie Mechanic is tempting, but Esjay and I opt for Alternate Root, lured by the unique pressed tin ceilings, stained glass skylights and a comfy sea indoors.
We’ve made great time, which sadly means it’s a bit early to knock the froth off a cold beer from New England Brewing Company just across the road.
Blue skies and champagne gravel
Leaving town on Thunderbolts Way, we ride past the New England Brass and Iron Lace Foundry, once upon a time Australia’s oldest working foundry. It has seen better days but still exudes charm, its wonky windows sitting more than a little skew-whiff in their frames.
There’s a lot of character in this part of the world. With just a couple of kilometres behind us, a level crossing greets us.
If you had to stop for a train the size of the one we’d seen earlier, you’d be waitinga while, but considering the crossing only sees one or two trains a day, we were never in much danger.
Straight after the crossing, it’s another left-hand turn that doubles back on itself and signals the beginning of the best bits – the part of the ride for which Jorja was saving herself. ‘This is proper big sky country,’ Jorja tells us excitedly, hauling her bike back out of the ute.
Better still, Jane the dog is also joining us as we ride into the Salisbury Plains on some truly great gravel. Esjay and I agree dragging our knobbly tyres this far on tarmac has been worth it to enjoy what’s in front of us.
A smooth, hard-packed base, lightly dusted with pea gravel and pancake-flat. Definitely achievable on road bikes with 30s, but effortlessly enjoyabl eon our gravel bikes, which allow us to share our focus with the scenery and that big blue sky.
As we roll along the farm road – Jane the kelpie gleefully bounding along beside us, clearing the cattle grids with elegant leaps – the conversation turns from the dichotomy of Thunderbolts Way to the bushranger himself.
Why do we remember or even immortalise certain figures and forget others? We fail to come up with conclusive answers to this or our other ruminations, but there’s no uncertainty surrounding the quality of the gravel.
As the road begins to gently meander, both side-to-side and up-and-down, we hit a small climb. Paddocks full of grazing cattle and sheep gaze on as we spin up the easy gradients and quickly crest the summit to be rewarded by an incredible 360-degree view of the rolling plains.
Wiry and dry, green and fertile – all in the one vista in a uniquely Australian way. Running with bikes is thirsty work for a dog, and Jane stops for a much-needed drink after a short descent down the other side to Cook Station Creek.
The scene is too good a photographic opportunity for Esjay to miss, and my companions stop to make the most of it while I decide to press on solo and stretch my legs.
GPS head units have revolutionised adventure riding but they’re only as good as the route you load onto them, as I’m about to find out.
Over a few more rolling hills and well out of sight I take a suspicious right turn off the gravel that’s still making me grin ear to ear and onto what is little more than a trail of flattened grass. My Wahoo assures me this is the way, so I put my faith in technology and hope for the best.
I learn later on that I’ve synced an old version of the route. The faint trail in the grass fades and by now I’m just picking lines through tussocks of grass.
I know I’ll be reunited with Esjay and Jorja eventually; our routes have the same endpoint and are bound to converge, but I’m still flushed with relief when I hear a loud ‘Yewww’ from Esjay over my shoulder not long after re-finding the road.
The final part of the ride will be much more enjoyable with company.
A royal banquet
The gang back together at last, we tap out the final few kilometres of sublime gravel together until the surface turns back to black. Esjay and I assume it’s a gentle roll down to Walcha and the cold beverage we were both beginning to taste in our minds.
A quick check of our vertical metres for the day, however, dashes this dream. There’s still a few hundred to go before dinner. I guess that explains why Jorja was so quick to jump back in the car and meet us back in town now.
We may be in the high country, but we’re also on the tablelands so there aren’t any proper climbs to speak of, but rather a series of sharp lumps to traverse.
These last few pinches start to dull the legs and my stomach is audibly grumbling. It’s been a fair while since we stopped for lunch and I really wish I’d pocketed a couple of the wood-fired Portuguese tarts from brekky.
Distracted by my impending bonk, I suddenly notice how quickly the countryside has shifted. Gone are the dry gum trees and tussock grass, replaced by verdant fields of lush grass and content sheep.
The air feels different here; there’s a refreshing dampness about and the panorama reflects the region’s namesake. New England indeed.
The final few kilometres pass by quickly and before we know it we’re hopping onto a bike path to follow the Apsley River into the centre of Walcha.
‘See, we had loads of time,’ jokes Esjay as we roll up to our final stop, the Walcha Taphouse, sun dipping below the hills on the horizon and the chill from the morning setting back in after what feels like seconds.
Slightly paralysed by the tyranny of choice, the cold and a now-raging hunger, the passionately knowledgeable owner Sean takes us in and plies us with a spread of food fit for a French king. Lucky because, according to Esjay, it’s the only way he’ll eat.
We make up for lost opportunities at lunch by going with local beers, straight from New England Brewing Company.
There isn’t a cold drink that warms your bones quite like a creamy stout and it’s just what I need to survive the cold ride down the road to our appropriately regal accommodation, the Walcha Royal Cafe.
As I stand under a scalding hot shower, the water pressure like a burst mains pipe (worth a five-star review for this alone), I reflect on the day. Most gravel trips I find myself on have a serious stitch-up element.
Today was pure type-one fun. Immaculate weather, impeccable company and some truly champagne gravel roads. We’ve barely scratched the surface of New England High Country.
There’s still so many roads to explore, pies to try, beers to sample and, in my immediate future, antique bric-à-brac to trawl in the Walcha Royal Cafe. I’ve discovered only a small fraction of the New England region, but I’ve definitely learned enough to know
I need to return and dig a lot deeper.
Keep an eye out for a future issue of Cyclist when we return to New England High Country on a route that visits Tenterfield, Inverell and Glen Innes
The route we took
Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks
Starting at Central Park in Armidale, roll down Dangar Street and right onto Brown Street, following it past the train station and left onto Barney Street. Go left at the roundabout onto Drew Street and take the first right at Shambrook Avenue.
Before the highway, swing left onto Golf Link Road to loop around the golf club and tennis courts. At Bundarra Road turn right and continue on for a few kilometres until Pinegrove Road, where you’ll go left.
Pinegrove Road heads south, then west to Mt Butler Road, which you’ll follow all the way to Arding Road. There’s a quick right onto Hawthorne Road which takes you all the way down to Rocky River Road.
Turn left and you’ll shortly be joining Thunderbolts Way to continue southwards into Uralla. Dog leg Bridge Street onto Salisbury Street then right onto Duke Street, which becomes Thunderbolts Way again.
Left onto the gravel at The Gap Road then eventually left onto Carlon Menzies Road. This winds along to the right turn onto Hillview Road. Go right onto Blue Mountain Road, which will become Emu Creek Road and take you all the way into Walcha.
Right onto Angel Street, another dog leg onto Lagoon Street and down to the bike path, which follows the river and spits you out right in the centre of town – and to the finish at Walcha Taphouse for a hard-earned beverage.
The riders’ ride
I’ve had my Áspero for over a year now and every single time I ride it, I ask myself, ‘Why don’t I ride this more often?’
For me, the true magic of this bike is that it’s been on muddy CX rides, champagne gravel days and up its fair share of single track (where an XC bike definitely would have been a better option) and, with all that, I’m still happy to take it on a pacy road ride.
This ride was an excellent case in point, where the Áspero was equally at home eating up the first 50km on the tarmac as it was tackling some unexpected paddock bashing. Even shod with reasonably chunky Zipp G40 XPLR tyres, I never felt significantly burdened on the road.
I’ve got Sram Rival AXS, set up 1x, which provides more than enough gearing options and effortless shifting, even when my hands are numb from alpine cold or rattled loose from long, rocky descents.
I’d never want to be faced with the decision of owning just one bike, but if I did, my Áspero would have to be top of the list.
Cervélo Áspero (Sram Rival AXS)
AU Price $8,100
For more information visit cervelo.com/en-au
By the numbers
The year Fredrick Ward, better known as bushranger Captain Thunderbolt, escaped from Cockatoo Island before heading to New England
Elevation above sea level of our destination, Walcha
Temperature, in degrees Celsius, of the wood-fired oven that baked our brekky at Armidale’s Goldfish Bowl Bakery
minutes it took Joel to locate Esjay and Jorja after realising he’d synced an old version of the route
Big stick found by Jane the kelpie
There’s so much more to ride in New England High Country
This was Cyclist’s first time visiting the New England High Country of NSW and, honestly, we feel like we haven’t even scratched the surface.
That’s why we’re heading back in a couple of issues’ time to explore the northern parts of the region – think Tenterfield, Inverell and Glen Innes.
However, even in the southern area that we visited for this issue’s Big Ride, there was still so much we didn’t get a chance to unlock.
Guyra, just 30 minutes’ drive north of Armidale, has sensational day rides like the Little Llangothlin Ride (156km), which takes you through the RAMSAR-listed Little Llangothlin Nature Reserve, a wetlands of international importance.
The Mother of Ducks Lagoon Nature Reserve is also worth a stop in Guyra, particularly if you’re visiting with family.
Of course, there are longer rides too – think the two-day Walcha Overnighter, or the bikepacking epic known as the NEHC1000, a 10-14 day circumnavigation of the entire New England High Country.
There’s far too much to write about in this short space, so for information on all the best rides in New England High Country.
Please visit newenglandhighcountry.com.au/adventure/adventure-cycling or scan the QR below:
How we did it
Armidale is roughly halfway between Sydney and Brisbane, so driving from either city will take you about five-and-a-half hours. From Sydney, you can take Thunderbolts Way (as we did) or opt forthe New England Highway, for a much longer but less involved drive.
There’s also a daily train from Sydney, but be aware that bikes need to be boxed and booked as luggage
In Armidale we stayed at the City Centre Motor Inn, a great choice among many great options in town.
Our ride ended in Walcha, so after a long day’s riding we chose the Walcha Royal Cafe & Accommodation and were very well looked after by the hilariously welcoming owner Toni, including a delicious early Sunday morning breakfast. Walcha Motel is another great option in town.
FOOD AND DRINK
The nutrition was one of the many highlights of a fun weekend. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast and superb coffee at Goldfish Bowl Bakery/Cafe in Armidale. The Welders Dog and Signor Vertelli are also both very worthwhile stops if you’re in town later in the day.
For lunch we stopped in Uralla and ate at Alternate Root, but if pies are your thing, the Pie Mechanic is not to be missed. Recommending mid-ride beers would be irresponsible, but New England Brewing in Uralla has some of the best on offer.
Post-ride rewards, which soon morphed into dinner, were at our final stop, the Walcha Taphouse, along with several very cleansing ales.
The list of people who made this weekend memorable and effortless is long. Huge thanks to Lisa from Walcha Council who was instrumental in planning and execution, and Jorja who crafted the route and, along with her mum and dog Jane, provided support throughout the ride.
We were also humbled by the hospitality of Trent from Goldfish Bowl Bakery, Sean from Walcha Taphouse (a keen cyclist and font of knowledge on beer), and Toni, who is the life of the Walcha Royal Cafe and who kept us fed, watered and warm.