Riding through history at the Convict 100

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Here in Australia, we don’t have the amount of historical paths and routes that fall into everyday use like some parts of the world. While we still have plenty of examples where indigenous routes of travel have become major traffic corridors, we don’t have quite the same connection with the lived history. We don’t have passes across the Alps that Napoleon used and now have 8 lane motorways, or ancient smuggling routes between Salzburg and the Alta Valtellina which is now perfect singletrack. But we do have the Convict Trail, and you get right up close to it on the Convict 100.

The Convict Trail is a part of Australia’s colonial history – a road constructed to show those back in England that down in the colonies, things could be done just the same. But, it was never a complete road. With two Surveryor Generals leading the project at different periods, the road suffered for it. Their ideas on road design differed, and while some parts were finished to a very high standard, others were left very rough to show how ‘the other guy’ operated. There are a few instances of changes of plans, including moving from the Finch Ascent to Devine Hill for the road out. Many wouldn’t consider climbing Finch’s Line on their bikes these days – and few thought it would suit a horse and carriage.

While the road itself was meant to be a fast way from Sydney to Newcastle – it never truly got the use that was expected. Some sections that weren’t finished to the expected standard were too difficult. Bypasses were used by travellers, and eventually steamships offered a faster service between the townships. While a village was planned in Snodgrass Valley beyond 10 Mile Hollow, nothing ever eventuated. The route was falling out of favour. Still, the places you go through on the Convict 100 offer glimpses into the colonial history of Australia.

St Albans

Not strictly on the Convict Road, St Albans is the home of the Convict 100 start and finish. And who would have though that such a quaint village could be so close to Australia’s largest city. With a population of barely more than 300 people today, the village comes alive on the event weekend, with the slamming of portaloo doors, long and talkative coffee lines, and a field of carparks.

Camping is available, so the local population swells dramatically on the night before the event! It’s $10 per vehicle, so easily some of the best value accommodation around.

The village opened for settlement in 1842, and sitting on the Macdonald River meant that access to water for farming was assured. But it never really boomed, as anyone who has been further up the valley can attest. Rail went west beyond the range, and that made the movement of produce easier than down the river. Given the amount of sand and silt, the river could not see a ship navigate through now. This decline in the 19th century has meant that the whole area is very undeveloped, and it’s a mountain bike playground thanks to the old roads and paths. And the Settler’s Arms has pretty much seen it all – and is one of the oldest buildings around. Plus it’s licence dates back to 1836!

Convict 100 MarathonMTB Photo: @mozimage
Normally, not a whole lot goes on out here.

Crossing the might Macdonald River now means some slightly wet feet, but not the deep wading it might have been in the past. After some time on farm roads you ascend Jacks Track. Keep the gearing light but don’t go so slow you topple over backwards! Even though the Convict 100 route reversed since 2015, a stiff climb early on is still very telling.

The ridgeline is long, and you finally descend on fast fire trail down to Webbs Creek, and back onto the road – the kayak bridge looms. This bridge has its own shorter history, the main thing being it is now four planks wide, not too. Still – look ahead, stay seated and pedal smoothly. Spot the opposite bank and you’re away!

Sheppards Gully

This is the left turn off the dirt road once across the bridge, and it is suspected it was built around the same time as the Old North Road – as it’s not really a part of it. The road had improvements in 2015, which has turned a somewhat technical double track climb into a true race course. You probably won’t have time on race day, but across the gully to your right you can see other stonework for a disused road. It’s hard to pick but it does show the amount of built history in the area that has been left for the forest to reclaim.

From here you gain the ridgeline, and in time this is some of the most technical riding in the Convict 100 route. The kind of terrain where you scratch your head and wonder how a horse and cart was meant to get through. This was probably a section left unfinished by the second Surveyor General…

10 Mile Hollow

This point is known to most riders who have done the full Convict 100 – it’s just about the half way point. It used to be 12 miles in before the route moved off the Finch Ascent from the river. You might still be able to see the stumps for an inn that was there. While you will often stop for water here in the Convict 100, it was also the first option for water for horses and travellers using the Old North Road – 10 miles up from the river.

Clare’s Bridge is up the valley as you leave 10 Mile Hollow in the new race direction (and of course Wat Buddha Dharma was on the way in). This was built in 1830, but it’s no longer a functional bridge, you just get to dip in and out of the gully instead – and head back into the climb up the hill.

If you come out to the area to ride, do try the descent down Simpsons Track behind 10 Mile Hollow, you can make a great loop around by then coming up Donny’s track, or even head out to Mangrove Mountain. This area is a treasure trove for big training days.

Singletrack or double track?

The next section is the favourite for some – it’s fast, there’s one good line and often a second good line for overtaking. It’s some classic Convict Trail terrain, with Gymea Lillies in the gullies, shade, and plenty of fast terrain.

A hard left eventually takes you uphill again, shortly after a rocky descent which has a myriad of line choices, depending what water run off has done recently. The climb isn’t so bad, but it does represent the start of a lot of uphill. A left takes you to The Split, and it’s more up. This is all pretty rocky and loose, and wider tyres help with traction. The following 15 km are undulating with a tendency for climbing. The route is under tree cover for the middle section and it’s also smoother and faster.

Blue Hill

This one is a steep descent – this was the opening climb about 12km originally! It’s fast, and can be a little loose through the middle. But carry your speed off the final parts, onto the farm roads, and it’s time to carry your speed home. The final stretch is on Wrights Creek Road, the back way up from Wiseman’s Ferry if you’ve taken the ferry across. There are hamlets the whole way along, and even an old graveyard or two – but it’s unlikely you’ll stop there.

St Albans will be there and waiting for the finish, right in front of the pub, and most likely a lot warmer than when you started. Depending on whether you tackle the 100km, 66km or 44km route, you’ll see some of the history of the region. The 100km race is the full experience, but each route will give you a taste for the area, and a look at places that haven’t changed a whole lot in almost 200 years.

Convict 100

The Convict 100 is on 4th May this year, meaning it will be a cool start and a pleasant temperature when you finish. if you want to race it, don’t miss our #protips from last year, but if you want a good insight into the area you can do that too – with first aid and food support out on the route. So even if racing isn’t your thing, you’re likely to get a lot out of the day exploring one of the trails of our history.

The 2019 edition of the Convict 100 is also the 15th edition of the race, making it one of the longest running marathons in Australia! Just the RRR and Mitta to Mt Beauty pip it, although they don’t have a 100km option which is often seen as the Australian marathon standard. The Convict 100 route has changed over the years, but it is still one demanding loop, with it’s own mix of technical challenges despite sometimes being seen as a firetrail only race. If you’ve never done it, why not head out to St Albans for the weekend and experience an area that was called the forgotten valley?

All photos: Outer Image Collective

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