Emma Rhymer | Brisdivide 2021
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Brisdivide 2021

Some Background:

Since my earliest attempts at mountain bike racing, I suspected that endurance riding would be my preferred format and joked that if I couldn’t ride fast then I may as well ride far. Initially far meant anything up to 4-hours but as my fitness grew, I discovered a love for 24-hour mountain bike racing. However, after listening to many episodes of The Hidden Athlete podcast I realised that far is a more elastic concept than I had initially grasped: the voices of James Heydon, Jimmy Ashby, Jesse Carlson and Jackie Barnardi (among others) kept me captivated on long drives and I daydreamed of riding further. Dylan and I purchased gravel bikes and bike bags; we discussed future adventures, but life was busy, and the ‘front door mile’ proved hard to begin. Then, out of the blue, Rebecca Stone half-jokingly suggested that I join her on the Brisdivide 450 and – much to her surprise – I jumped at the opportunity. I felt this would be an ideal introduction to bike packing, where I could watch and learn from someone much more experienced.

The Hidden Athlete Podcast changed my idea of what ‘far’ meant.

Now that I’d progressed from daydreaming to a definite departure date, a flurry of last-minute preparations ensued. I bought a bivvy and an ultralight sleeping mat, removed my as-yet-unused bike bags from their packaging and dug through my old hiking gear for cooking equipment. I even bought a Garmin one week out so I could download the route we needed to follow. Rebecca advised me to use my mountain bike rather than my gravel bike and Dylan carefully attached bottle holders to my front forks. Loading my bike for my trial ride I felt full of confidence – or at least I did until I tried to pedal! The joys of a small frame and full suspension mountain bike revealed themselves in no uncertain terms, with my saddle bag dragging on the rear wheel and stopping all forward momentum. I reluctantly accepted that I would need to use a backpack instead of a saddlebag, and to minimise weight I removed my sleeping bag, exchanged my bulky polar fleece sleeping bag liner for a smaller silk one and took out the leggings I planned to wear at night. My pack was lighter, but I would regret each of those decisions!

I only made it to the front gate with my original set up…

The final setup entailed swapping the saddlebag for a backpack. Not ideal, but the Evoc bag was great.

Day One:

I was confident my body would cope with long days in the saddle but expressed concerned that I would be slower than Rebecca expected, so we (fortunately) arranged to depart a day early. Once Rebecca’s daughter was ready for school, we rode to the official starting point at the top of Mt Coot-Tha where photographs were taken, last-minute faffing was done and Garmins were started. We set off in high spirits but hadn’t gone far when I called out to Rebecca that my Garmin was telling me to do a U-turn. Looking perplexed, Rebecca nonetheless agreed to turn around. Her Garmin quickly objected and after riding in circles for a few minutes we realised that while I’d downloaded the route correctly, all of my directions were in reverse. I’m still not sure how I managed this, but so long as my Garmin was telling me to turn around then I knew I was heading in the right direction. Lesson learnt: practice downloading and following routes BEFORE setting off on a 460km journey!

Setting off in high spirits.

The rest of the day was a very steep learning curve for me. We began our journey on familiar Gap Creek, but it rode very differently with fully laden bikes. Several stops and further adjustments hastily ensued as our bikes rattled noisily along the trails. Smoother roads followed, as the route then took us along South Boundary Road and various fire trails through Enoggera Reserve. The climbing was significant but stunning views to the valleys below easily distracted me. It didn’t take long for the predicted rain to begin, however; lightly at first and then becoming increasingly heavy. We warmed ourselves with toasted sandwiches and hot chips for lunch at Mt Nebo and voiced our relief at having made it through the early singletrack in the dry.

The rain begins

Lunchtime, backpacking style!

Back on bitumen after lunch, I got to experience Mt Glorious in all her glory: pouring rain, thunder, thick mist and fogged up glasses! We stopped to wipe off our glasses at the summit, where locals came over to check we were ok and then cheered us on as we left. The smooth bitumen roads didn’t last long, however, as the route quickly diverted back onto rough gravel roads and overgrown fire trails. The going was tough, with plenty of climbing as we worked our way towards the summit of Mt Mee. We found ourselves riding through rain and cloud for several hours, only able to focus on the trail immediately in front of us as the afternoon passed. As evening approached and darkness grew, I began to feel weary: retreating into my own thoughts and riding quietly through the cold, wet night. A warm meal by the side of the trail revived us both and the comedy of trying to strike matches in the rain lightened our spirits. We decided to push on until we reached The Gantry, where we were able to seek refuge from the weather in a public toilet block. My first day of bike packing and already this was my new idea of luxury!

Overgrown fire trails

Rebecca learning how to use her new stove

The Gantry was dry but extremely cold, with the wind forcing its way under a 10cm gap between the walls and the floor. I hadn’t anticipated temperatures as low as this: nestling into my bivvy as tightly as I could and wearing all the dry clothes I had left, I missed the leggings, sleeping bag and warm liner I’d left behind! Sleep was hard to come by and just as I started to doze off, we were woken by three 4WDs and a loud noise reverberating in the air around us. Peeking under the wall, Rebecca identified the cause as an air compressor being used to pump up each of the 4WD tyres. The group didn’t leave until after 2am and we didn’t get any further sleep, electing to get underway again at first light.

Day Two:

Riding through the cool mist covering Mt Mee State Forest, a constant chorus of bell birds kept us company and small finches regularly flittered across the road. This took my mind off the rough roads we were riding, at least until the bottle cages attached to my front fork rattled loose enough to thrust a bottle into my wheel. Admitting defeat, I added the bottles to my backpack and tried not to notice the extra weight – or the slight wobble in my front wheel. Eventually we emerged onto bitumen again and Rebecca pointed out the rugged hills behind us. I admit to being slightly in awe at what we’d just ridden over.

Misty trails in Mt Mee State Forest

The ride from here to Kilcoy was almost all bitumen and our average speed finally started to look respectable once again: even on our heavy bikes, I felt like we were flying across the smooth road surface. David Elby, the route organiser, met us enroute to Kilcoy and it was great to chat in person after only exchanging online messages. He joined us for lunch at the Kilcoy bakery, where I happily consumed a very large hamburger and chips in the hope of warming up. A combination of the cool wet weather and lack of sleep meant I’d felt cold all morning, and was still rugged up in my gilet, jacket, arm warmers and leg warmers. David, on the other hand, was comfortable in just shorts and a t-shirt.

Yup, I ate it all!

Leaving Kilcoy with a very full tummy, my spirits were high as we headed out of town along Mt Kilcoy Road. As the name suggests there was plenty of climbing involved, but this posed no problem on the bitumen road: we settled into a steady rhythm and admired the view of green rolling hills and cattle grazing. All this changed abruptly, however, when we entered Conondale National Park and the road changed from bitumen to gravel, the rain became heavier, and the gradient increased rapidly. We gave up pedalling and began the slow slog of pushing uphill: the climb was tough, but the forest was beautiful (especially when the sun momentarily peeked through the clouds).

Steeper than it looks, I promise

As we climbed, the road became rougher and more overgrown until it resembled a rough 4WD track at best and then all but disappeared Paul’s route continued on, however! This section was tough going in the rain as the track (while it existed) had deep ruts from 4WDs and the surface also changed to extremely slippery yellow clay. I had my only crash of the trip when my rear wheel slid into a rut and my heavily laden bike overbalanced and toppled onto its side. I was very glad to get through this section in the daylight as I’m not sure how successfully I would have negotiated its dubious log bridges in the dark! Eventually we joined up with Sunday Creek Road and were able to enjoy the relative luxury of the dry weather gravel road (albeit in the wet) before one last diversion along unmarked twisty forest tracks into Jimna.

We elected to walk across bridges like these

Enjoying the dry weather roads, in the rain

Arriving at Jimna after dark, we headed straight to the “Jimna Rocks” music festival where we were been made welcome to buy food and offered a camping spot overnight. Our plan was to eat quickly and keep riding until at least 10.30pm but after eating our dinner of chicken wings, chips and doughnuts, our motivation to continue was low. We were still cold and wet from the day’s riding and it was raining heavily: warm showers, dry clothes and a safe, dry campsite were appealing. As we dithered about what we should do, Rebecca’s medical training kicked in and she expressed concerns about succumbing to hypothermia if we continued. A warm shower won out over continuing in the rain, and it was AMAZING. As I dressed to return to my bivvy, however, I again regretted leaving my leggings at home. There was no way I was getting back into wet knicks, so I simply tied my jacket over my undies and tried to blend in. I’m not sure that a middle-aged lady half-dressed in cycling clothes blends in at a rock concert, however!

Very tired, but thoroughly enjoying myself

Day 3:

Sleep once again proved elusive and so at 2.30am we decided to get up and get going, as the party continued around us. I’d now had less than an hour’s sleep over the two nights and it took two coffees to convince my body to climb back into my still-wet cycling clothes. Rebecca was keen to get going and assured me that within 10 minutes I’d only be wet through once again. Strangely, this didn’t make the thought of heading out into the rain any more appealing! She was right, of course, and by the time we re-entered Jimna State Forest I was as saturated as my cycling clothes. These initial roads through the forest were relatively smooth, but Paul had planned this route for adventure so it wasn’t long before we turned off to follow a rough, overgrown ridgeline and a barely discernible track. Other riders told us afterwards that they had used our tracks to help find their way, but as the first riders through we had no such assistance. Paul had been following our dots closely and met us at the end of this section to make sure we’d made it through ok – we assured him it was (mostly) rideable and that the views were spectacular. Once again, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment.

More misty trails

Looking down onto the clouds

From here we joined back onto Monsildale Road, which meandered through lush green paddocks filled with fat cattle. I had one nervous moment when I got between a boisterous calf and its mother, but the cow just gave me an exasperated look (“kids!”) and went back to grazing. I laughed and the calf decidedly let me pass. The rest of the road was a lesson in how to cross creeks: many, many creeks. We rode across a couple but erred on the side of caution and waded across the rest, either removing our shoes and socks to keep them dry or carefully using rocks as stepping-stones. This was a laborious process and I found out afterwards that the better prepared riders simply changed into plastic slides for this section. Another lesson learnt: take note of river crossings and plan ahead!

All roads lead to Linville

Creek crossings galore

A welcome break followed at Linville, where we recharged our phones and I refuelled on homemade passionfruit biscuits. Oh boy, yum: I ate several!  A short, leisurely stretch along the BVRT followed before we turned off onto yet more steep gravel roads and then some enjoyable singletrack through the Benarkin State Forest. At Blackbutt we stocked up on high energy snacks, enjoyed a toasted sandwich and coffee at the bakery and met fellow participant Colin, who was riding fast – with a very broken handlebar. Kudos! I also bought some bungy cords and was able to better secure the bottle cages onto my forks. This meant I could finally take the extra water bottles out of my backpack and my slight backache improved immediately.

The BVRT was a welcome reprieve from climbing

We left Blackbutt with high spirits and grand expectations, accompanied by a stunning pink sunset. We had anticipated reaching Toogoolawah in time for dinner and then continuing along the BVRT during the night, but this confidence proved significantly misplaced. The road from Blackbutt was steep and our spirits sagged: conversation largely ceased, and I found myself silently staring at the pool of light in front of my wheel. Even once we were back on bitumen it was tough going and our winding route meant Toogoolawah only seemed to get further away. My energy reserves were well and truly depleted when we finally arrived after midnight. The Toogoolawah Hotel was closed but the publican took pity on us and quickly made up a room for each of us: a warm bed was far more appealing than a bivvy by the side of the road and our previous plans to continue were quickly discarded.

Leaving Blackbutt

Old fashioned hospitality at the Toogoolawah Hotel

Day 4:

Monday morning was by far the toughest part of the ride for me. I struggled to get out of bed with my 5am alarm and felt tired and groggy once I was up. I hadn’t slept well, and my hip was now sore and stiff from my fall 2 days earlier. We knew we had to make Brisbane today as I needed to be at work in the morning, but Mt Cooth-tha felt like a very long way away. We discussed “plan B” options in case we were too slow, and I reluctantly accepted that not finishing in the time we had left was a very real possibility.
As such my mood was sombre as we began the morning on the BVRT, but it didn’t take long for the rail trail to work its magic on me. The scenery was stunning, the relatively flat gradient did wonders to warm up my legs and hitting speeds of 30km/hr did wonders for my mood. Even the sun came out! Conscious of time and determined to do everything we could to make it to the finish at Mt Coot-Tha, we limited all unnecessary stops before lunch at Fernvale and then set off for the final stretch back to Brisbane. Things were starting to look up (figuratively), but as we neared Lake Manchester and Rebecca and I found ourselves looking up (literally) at the steepest gravel roadclimb I’ve yet to encounter. Working as a team, we slowly pushed up one bike between us and then repeated the same process with the second bike. To say progress was slow would be a massive understatement!

It doesn’t look like much in the photo, but this is the steepest climb I’ve ever encountered

After skirting Lake Manchester, it was back onto bitumen and the increasing number of cars confirmed that we were indeed getting closer to the finish. The adventure continued, however, with another steep climb in Moggill State Forest: take one step, rebalance on the loose surface, haul the bike, brakes on, regain balance, take one step, haul the bike… It was slow going yet again and we acknowledged we were running out of time. Rebecca and I debated whether we should push on to the finish: I didn’t know how much sleep I’d get before work in the morning, but not finishing was inconceivable after coming so far. We pushed on. Darkness fell and more bitumen followed, before we turned off for the final part of the route in Gap Creek Reserve. Our finishing point back at the top of Mt Coot-tha felt close enough to grasp now, but Paul had a few more surprises in store with diversions along twisty single track and one last steep climb up a trail named Scorpion – definitely the final sting!

Another steep climb

From here we exited onto Sir Samuel Griffith Drive, riding the last few hundred metres to our finishing point. Cars and motorbikes roared past us to the lookout and Brisbane’s lights spread out below us like a welcoming red carpet. Victorious, I whooped loudly: this was by far the longest and most difficult ride I’ve completed to date, but also the most rewarding. As we neared the lookout, a familiar figure waved us over: a smiling Paul Elby was waiting in the dark to welcome us across the finish line. Russel Worthington, who’d not long finished his ride of 650km (in an incredible 59 hours), had also come out to greet us, as had Eve Conyers, Allegra McGrory and Derek Ireland. This was a much-appreciated gesture and I felt like a star. A tired, dirty, and smelly star – but a star, nonetheless.

Jubilant smiles at the finish!

We in turn stayed to cheer Mike Norman home as the second 650km finisher, before leaving for Rebecca’s and a much-appreciated hot shower. Dylan (bless him) met me there and drove us back to Stanthorpe: the plan was for me to grab some sleep on the drive, but I was far too wired, wanting to recount every aspect of my adventure to him. We made it home just after 2am, and I made it to work by 8am – just. More lessons learnt: next time I’ll make sure to leave a bigger window before having to get to work! Because, yes, there will most certainly be a next time.

Victory photo!!

1 Comment
  • Davey Crocket
    Posted at 11:03h, 24 June

    Welcome to bikepacking Emma!
    Great write up and yes, Mermaid Mountain is probably the steepest climb any of us are likely to see in SEQ! 😆
    I am sure you have heard of the Manaro Cloudride/VicDivide550/Hunt 1000/Tour Divide Race/Arizona Trail Race 800/Colorado Trail Race………yep, there are plenty of exciting challenges ahead. Keep it up!