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Tassie Gravel: The Devils Cardigan

Images by Kristina Vackova

What is the Devils Cardigan? It is a hardcore gravel ride out of Derby in Tasmania … in deep winter, as Scott Mattern reports.

Grit is a loose particle on a surface—be that pebbles, stones, sand, dirt or dust. It differs from a smooth solid surface, in that it is this loose medium that is unpredictable to negotiate when travelling across it to get from one place to another. Grit is also a positive trait, based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state.

Pulling these ideas together, grit starts in the Tasmanian town of Derby, is 95km long and includes 2300 metres of elevation in three major climbs. Surfaces consist of 13% bitumen over four short sections with the rest being made up of various grades of gravel.

It also involves cold like you’ve never felt, extreme tiredness, screaming pain in the legs, aching joints and rain and dirt infiltrating every weak point of clothing. Sound like fun? Welcome to ‘The Devils Cardigan’.

Devilscardigan2021 Kiphoto Dz6 4306 Webres
The ride takes in all manner of country, from rugged, climbs and descents to hilly pastoral lands.

At a latitude of 42 degrees south, Tasmanian winter days are dark, wet and cold. Training rides in winter start in the dark and end in the dark, with temperatures hovering around zero. Rain, sleet or snow are not unheard of during rides at this time of year. It takes a certain type of person to enjoy winter riding here. There is no other way to say it: winter riding in Tassie is tough, and requires hard people. Yet, within the cold hard exterior, a warm heart of gold resides.

Riding in a Tasmanian winter is a magical experience. Leaves drop from the trees, snow settles on the ground and soft winter light guides you through your day. There are opportunities for solitude with only the people who you want to ride with present on the road.

Clear weather one minute, pouring rain the next … but sensational gravel roads.

Cold, wet and courageous 

What better way to embrace this Tassie winter cycling lifestyle that we enjoy than host a celebration of the dark, the cold and the solitude? Make it hilly, make it dirty, make it with heartbreaking climbs and bone-chilling descents, embrace it like the devil has just loaned you his cardigan for a day. Wrap yourself in it and ride.

While some sections are hard and slow going, more often used trails are hard-packed and allow for more constant power and speed.

Every good painting starts with a canvas on which it is to be etched. Derby, centered in a region of northeast Tasmania, is a world-class cycling destination thanks to its impressive mountain biking opportunities.

Yet, spoken in whispers for those in the know, is this region’s rich resource of gravel, logging and fire roads. It is a back-road riding dream location in terms of the options to explore and get lost. A canvas is just that, until an artist creates, and here is where the magic happens: The Devils Cardigan course has been painstakingly created. Maps help, but local knowledge is key. They say it takes a village to raise a child; well, it takes the collective knowledge of the dedicated local gravel bike community set this course and hold the event.

A rider powers along one of the smoother, faster and more comfortable sections of the Devils Cardigan course. For sections such as this 28 to 35mm gravel tyres will suffice – but wider, more aggressive tyres are best in the more rugged areas.

…It takes a certain type of person to enjoy winter riding here. There is no other way to say it: winter riding in Tassie is tough, and requires hard people…

A common passion is a way to build community. Such a tight-knit community is something that is a rare treat to be involved with. There is an undoubted community of gravel riding which, I think, in part creates the attraction to this style of riding. A race cannot happen without the passion and dedication of the organisers, supporting businesses and volunteers. The Devils Cardigan would not exist without this type of support.

The ride takes in some of Tasmania’s most spectacular gravel cycling country – deep, dark gullies, brutal climbs but also some stunning open forest country.

It takes a community to create this type of event, but it requires comradeship of the riders to shirk the cold and the wet, pin on a number and pit themselves against the course and the elements. There is a rare bond formed in shared experiences—make no mistake, this ride is an experience.

Thunder, rain & gravel

A night of thunder and rain precedes the race, as we gather in the chilly predawn to sign in. Nervous conversation about what the course and weather may bring us is whispered amongst the registering riders.

…a gravel whip with 45mm tyres on 700c wheels will let you explore this region of log trucks and lonely roads…

“Did you hear there is a forecast of snow above 800m,” and “that first descent looks chunky,” are some of the comments. Bikes, nutrition and clothing choices have been made, and training is a distant memory. Short or long course, this is going to a nice little ride in the best of what a Tassie July can offer.

A mix of gravel and cross country mountain bikes were used at the most recent get together. 

An early morning start

The ride starts in the rudest of ways, with cold dawn kick straight up the hill out of Derby soon stretching the field out. Lungs burning from the cold and exertion, we throw bikes into the first and most technical descent of the day. The various bike choices are on display, and it’s clear that some of these riders will be in a world of pain as they grind their way through the balance of the 2300m of climbing. For lighter and skinnier set-ups, this first descent has them rattled – quite literally rattled.

Then come the hills—and by hills, I mean mountains. We settle into the two KOM climbs—Mt Victoria and Mt Albert—that go on forever then the descents chill your fingers to the bone. Intermittent showers are only followed by the next downpour – the wet weather adds another element – something well worth considering.

Planning to ride Tasmanian gravel? You’ll need to pack well, train hard and be prepared for dust, dirt or mud. 

Yet for every dark moment, there is light. Sliding out of the mountain mist we are greeted with a break in the weather and a blue bell sky to warm tired bodies. In a typical Tasmanian way the weather wasn’t that bad, it could have been a whole lot worse. Green rolling hills and grazing cows are now our only spectators. One final challenge is the final road, bordering on a country path, which greets us, our tired bones and grinding gears over, providing the last splatter of mud over bikes and bodies to the finish.

Over the line, a cold craft beer and a moment to sit in the winter sun. A shower, bike clean, hot local pub dinner and the final results await. 

First Riders Home – long course

First Male Nathen Earl 3:26:40.

First Female Nicole Frain 3:58:14.

First Riders Home – short course

First Male: Nicholas Kerkham 1:48:53

First Female: Penelope Banks 2:35:15

Tough going early on in the day, with cold hands, tight legs and big climbs ahead.

Best Time To Visit

As rhetorically asked by the organisers ‘When is the best time to visit Tasmanian to ride gravel?’ Not in July … unless you are one of the faithful, a gravel tragic, one who searches for the purest experience, the perfect road framed by the perfect view. This ride is a fine line between pleasure and pain. And, just as the song goes, ‘you’ve done once and you will do it again.’

Where Else To Ride Gravel in Tassie

A simpler question might be where can’t you ride gravel in Tassie? The island has a vast network of gravel, forestry and fire roads to tap into. When planning a cycling trip, a good way to start is by entering an event such as the Devils Cardigan. You could also join a supported and guided tour with local operators such as Blue Metal. If you are a little more confident, mapping out your own adventure is an option.

What To Take

There are no guarantees with the weather conditions, and don’t be fooled by the size of the island. Within a small distance the riding can become remote very quickly. It is not only winter where you can experience challenging weather described in this story—any trip into this region requires serious preparation. They say if you don’t like the weather, just give it 5 minutes. Layers against wind rain and cold are a must on each and every trip.

With thanks to Kristina Vackova for the stunning images – For more info or to contact Kristina visit https://kiphotomedia.com

Scott Mattern rode this 2021 Devils Cardigan gravel event in June 2021. For details on future Tassie gravel events contact the team at info@devilscardigan.com.au

 

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