Over Easter I rode the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail (BVRT) from top to bottom in both directions on a gravel bike. This blog is not to go into detail about the trail. There are some excellent resources available on it at www.bvrt.com.au. We used the pdf guide as background. But to be honest, we pretty much ‘winged it’ without a huge amount of planning. This blog is mostly about what it was like to ride the trail on gravel bikes, considering they were in the minority. Perhaps 1 in 10 riders we saw were on gravel bikes. Disclaimer – I have no commercial arrangement with any of the businesses/products listed in this blog. Also, this is a pretty ‘casual’ and chatty blog for me. Not much science in it, which is nice for a change.
Now, firstly to the bike. I waited a very long time for this Canyon Grail to become available, and it finally arrived in December last year. It has sat in my garage since then waiting for me to finish my road commitments (Nationals and 3 Peaks). I got both of those out of the way by March. However I ended up with an injury post Peaks, then got COVID. So the BVRT trip was all about enjoying ourselves as I was (am) still in comeback mode after what for me is a long break (5 weeks).
I’ve made no adjustments to this bike out of the box. It is a Grail CF SLX 8 Di2. It runs a 48/31 on the front and an 11/34 on the back. It has DT Swiss carbon wheels with Schwalbe G-one tyres. These are 40mm and I ran 40PSI in them throughout the 4 days we rode. Picture is of me getting my initial bike fit done.
We decided that we did not want to do the ride with panniers and carry our things for the 4 days. We also did not want to do a ‘credit card’ ride and take clothing only and book accommodation along the way. We wanted to be self supporting and camp (kind of). So the best option was to ride the trail ‘out and back’ each day, so we would return to our camp base. This meant we would only have to move our campsite once, riding two days from each site (Linville and Esk). One day we would go north return, and the other south return. Then move the camp, and repeat. This worked really well for us as we did not want to join a group. I should point out there is a company that offers a shuttle service and support if you decide this is the way you want to go.
This was the setup we used to camp. I am definitely not a ‘camper’. But to be honest this was pretty comfortable. That tent sits on top of a trailer and folds down. The bed is on the frame on the top, and everything else we needed left was in the tent.
Day 1: We arrived in Linville after lunch on Good Friday so we could not get a full ride in. We set up camp and headed south toward Moore and then Harlin. The 7kms from Linville to Moore is reasonably technical. Well not super technical as you would expect in mountain biking, but it certainly had me re-assessing what our average pace would be. I figured we would average around 20kph across the whole trail. That boyfriend of mine is not experienced in trail riding and I saw him gulping several times in this first 7km. But as it turns out, it was purely co-incidental that this windy and bumpy section happened to be right at the beginning for us. And there were cows, many cows.
The section from Moore to Harlin is pretty innocuous. There were a few crossings to negotiate, but none of them were difficult on gravel bikes. They have done a really good job of concreting the trail on these sections. There are warning markers as well, but you could hit these dips pretty quick and snap up the other side. This is where the gravel bike would have been superior to a mountain bike. We got back into Moore just before the sun went down. Option was to ride back to the campsite, have an open shower and come back to Moore for dinner as the pub in Linville was closed for Good Friday. However someone’s stomach was talking to them (not mine) and they wanted to eat now. We knew if we did this we did not have lights for the ride home, but figured we could ride on the road instead of the trail. This may or may not have been a good idea. I can tell you it is possible to ride using your cell phone light to illuminate the centre white line on the road so you can see your way. Possibly not the most responsible thing we have ever done, but we laughed a lot riding under moonlight.
Day 2: The plan was to ride from Linville north to Yarraman and return. This takes you right to the start of the BVRT at the north end. It was 40km in each direction. The first 20km out of Linville north to Blackbutt is the only long continuous climb on the whole trail. It is a slow drag for the whole 20km, albeit on a pretty modest gradient of 1-2%. The trail is quite rough in this section, and I can see why people would choose to do it on a mountain bike. When I say rough, I mean bumpy with rocks that were larger than gravel size. I considered lowering my tyre pressure. However, given I did not know what the trail ahead had in store for us, I left it. It was a pretty sweet run through this section though. There is a natural course that the trail takes through the valley. And given the railway line was originally narrow gauge, there is a nice feeling of ‘security’ as you are absorbed into the trail. The picture below shows this quite well.
We stopped in Blackbutt for coffee and cake. The queue for the bakehouse was epic, however the Bunya nut cafe was a nice substitute. The section from Blackbutt to Yarraman flattened out, with only some nice rollers to challenge you. There is one wet crossing that I was not prepared to put my bottom bracket through. I saw some mountain bikes go through it no problem. It was at this point that I was also regretting not purchasing gravel specific shoes. You can see I am wearing my top of the range Sworks road shoes with Shimano cleats. Yes, they got soaked. We rode the 40km back from Yarraman to Linville straight through. The descent from Blackbutt down is super nice. Sure there were a few sections where some suspension would have been nice. But for the most part the gravel bikes handled the trail well.
Did I mention the snakes? There was this beauty that got moved on from the trail.
Once we got back to Linville we packed up the camper and drove the 50km through to Esk. There were no campsites available, so we checked into the caravan park, nabbing a cancellation for a powered site. I will admit that the warm shower was much appreciated. The noise of surrounding people was not, but heck you know; swings and roundabouts.
Day 3: Easter Sunday and we were woken to the squeals of children looking for eggs. It’s been a while since that happened. The plan today was to ride North to Toogoolawah and then Harlin. Another rider had told us that this section was his favourite part of the trail. After riding it, I can only assume that it is because it was relatively flat. It was open, exposed, windy, dry and in parts, quite boring. My least favourite section of the trail. The part after Toogoolawah to Harlin was more interesting, because it has the only tunnel on the whole trail in it. So it was definitely worth doing this section, for that alone. In terms of the terrain, this was typical gravel bike territory. What I imagine north American gravel racing would be like. There were plenty of department store mountain bikes on the trail too, and they seemed to go OK on it.
We decided to stop in Harlin for lunch. This is where a rookie error was made by boyfriend, even though he says it wasn’t. The publican warned him that the house Schnittie was big, and it was! Carbohydrate loading during a ride was never this good.
The return ride to Esk was a schlepp. No other way to describe it. It was the middle of the day, hot, and we had a headwind right on the nose. This was enough to make my non COVID recovered heart rate shoot up. So I tucked in behind for a wheelsuck, and my heart rate immediately dropped 15 beats for the same speed. If you skip any section of the ride because you are short of time, then make it this section – Esk to Toogoolawah.
Day 4: the first 20km south of Esk toward Fernvale was definitely my most favourite section of the BVRT. The initial 10km has a slight uphill, but is on the most gorgeous trail with some canopy cover. It’s a much more ‘natural’ section of the trail, more compacted dirt than gravel. So it was very forgiving on the body and the Grail loved it. After 10km you reach a section of orchards and then have a lovely descent into Coominya. There are some river crossings, which some might choose to dismount for. We went through them no problem. So long as you carried momentum into them, they were rideable on gravel bikes. Coominya has no drinkable water, so a visit to the supermarket might be necessary if you are only carrying one bidon.
From Coominya we continued south to Lowood. There is a particularly bumpy section of trail just out of Coominya. It would be awfully uncomfortable to do this without suspension. Fortunately there is a bitumen road that runs perfectly parallel to the trail. So head across onto that if you are on gravel bikes. I also recommend that if you decide to take some video, don’t do it on this section of the trail. You can see me signal the ruts, then call them; but he still manages to provide some entertainment with this video. It does not matter how many times I watch it, I still laugh.
The section from Lowood to Fernvale is recently constructed on gravel surface. So whilst not perfectly smooth, it’s still easy riding. Oh, and the bakeries in Fernvale are to die for.
Overall, we did almost all of the trail in both directions. The only section we did not do was from Fernvale south to the start near Ipswich. We rode 300km in 3.5 days. You could comfortably do the 320km return journey in 4 days averaging 80km per day. Our average speed was 20kph for days 1 and 2; and closer to 22kph for days 3 and 4. This was taking it pretty easy as I was trying to keep my heart rate down. Our riding time each day was about 4 hours, with our elapsed time closer to 6 hours. We really did stop and smell the roses, took lots of pictures and chatted to as many locals and other riders as we could.
The gravel bikes were at home on the trail. Though as I have said, I can see why many choose to ride mountain bikes for the comfort the suspension provides. On reflection, I would run a lower tyre pressure. I think 30-35 would work quite well for someone my weight (50kg). It would also be remiss of me not to at least make some comment about the proprietary Grail two tier cockpit. “The cockpit has a unique two-tier design: on the upper level, a carbon Flex Area gives you the shock-absorbing comfort you need over gravel and forest tracks. On the drops, the carbon is formed to provide maximum stiffness for quick descending and all-out sprinting” (taken from the Canyon website). You can see it circled in the picture below, however I barely used the drops. When I did, it was for descending and felt reasonably controlled. And all-out sprinting – I definitely did none of that. So the jury is still out on this one.
To sum it up, twas a fabulous 4 days on the trail. Unless you are in a race, don’t be in a hurry to complete the BVRT. Relax and soak up the experience.