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Bikepacking Australia's Bicentennial National Trail

Alia Parker's picture
Gary's prototype Wayward Bicycle Company bike on the Bicentennial National Trail. Cycle Traveller

It's one of the world's great long distance trails, hardcore to the last grain of dust, and it runs right down the eastern seaboard of Australia. Bikepackers have come to love the 5,330km that is the Bicentennial National Trail, a horse trail that twists and turns along the curves of the Great Dividing Range from Healesville, Victoria to Cooktown, Queensland.

Spearheaded by none other than RM Williams himself back in 1972, along with a bunch of other horse-loving bushmen, the BNT as it is known is a tough slog, and one that even the most masochistic of bikepackers needs to detour from every now and again in order to pass.

Bikepacking the BNT is a beautiful challenge, says Gary Theiss, logistics manager at bicycle parts distributor Dirt Works and the Wayward Bicycle Company. Gary recently cycled 900km of the trail from Healesville to just north of Canberra. Over that distance, he climbed 14,000m, with 1,700m of that being in just one day.

"It's the hardest section of the BNT by far," he says, and he's not exaggerating. The southern end of the BNT heads up and down Australia's highest ranges, cutting over the Victorian Highlands, and through Alpine and Kosciuszko National Parks.

Much of this section of the route is high above 1,000m – and ice and snow can slow the way even as early as April. While parts of the route are on tame backroads, Gary says its overall ruggedness makes it much more suitable for bikepacking rather than cycle touring.

Gary Theiss on the Bicentennial National Trail. Cycle TravellerFor instance, he says a bikepacking set-up is much easier to handle than a classic touring one on tough off-road sections such as Moonlight Spur Road, where the elevation is up at about 1,100m.

"When you finally descend, it just plummets; not recommended for touring bikes," he says.

And then there's sections like the aptly named Mount Terrible, with grades of up to 18%.

"It's like a wall," says Gary. "It's a pretty shitty ride over Mount Terrible. It's probably the hardest day I've ever had on a bike."

He says there are plenty of sections where you need to get off your bike and push, making a light set-up much easier to handle.

"I think it's important not to punish yourself too much," he says.

The set-up

So how does a bikepacking set-up differ to a traditional touring bike?

Bikepacking has evolved into a unique offshoot of cycle touring in which mountain bikes are used to travel through tough off-road terrains. Importantly, the style does away with the traditional panniers and full rack set-ups of touring bicycles and replaces them with frame bags, which as the name suggests, are bags that fit within the bike's frame. It's an ultra-light way of packing that is suited to bikes with suspension and rides with steep climbs and narrow trails.

"When bikepacking you're often riding single track where panniers will snag," says Gary. "Frame bags are also easier to manage and manhandle."

The frame bags are usually custom designed to fit the particular bike model. Riders also commonly use bags that run down the bike's front forks, a roll for under the handlebar, and a large saddle bag that mounts from the seat rails.

On the BNT, Gary used custom bags from small Aussie company Bike Bag Dude and says they withstood a thrashing as well as a soaking at river crossings.

Breakfast time at Naas River Hut on the BNT. Cycle TravellerCrucially, in order for a bikepacking set-up to work, riders must strip their gear down to the bare necessities. Gary says it's important not to overload the handlebars and forks otherwise you risk compromising your steering.

"You want to have a fairly neutral front end," he says.

The ultra-light nature of bikepacking combined with the challenging trails make it a style of touring clearly only suitable for outdoor enthusiasts -- you won't find any cafe stops here!

Riding the trail

The BNT was originally designed as a horse trail to replicate the lives of drovers on the stock routes, but these days it is also used by hikers and cyclists. The BNT warns that parts of the trail are not safe for cyclists and in such areas, alternative bike routes are marked in the guidebooks and maps.

Riders interested in tackling the BNT can obtain the official maps from the Bicentennial National Trail website.

If you plan on cycling long sections of the trail, it it is also a good idea to be a BNT member as it will allow you access to more camp areas.

Images from top: 1. Glen Glen, NSW on the Bicentennial National Trail. 2. Gary Theiss on the BNT. 3. Breakfast time at Naas River Hut. Photos courtesy of Gary Theiss.

Comments

Hi Gary Theiss, I plan to depart from Sydney in September. I was looking at touring bicycles. However I plan to take the Bicentennial down to Victoria, then ride in SA, and make my way up north, all the way to NT.

I own a 29" specialized mtb which a front suspension that can be locked. It's a heavy but reliable bike. What what the bike you used ? Would it be overkill to use a mtb on flat/road sections of my trip ? What sort of tyres did you use ?

Alia Parker's picture

Cycle Traveller recently interviewed Vincent (who commented above before his ride) who has been out on the BNT for five months and is about to complete it. He has a great blog, Vincent On Wheels, and he gave us some really helpful info about the route. Check out his story here: Biking the Big Nasty: how to survive the Bicentennial National Trail.

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