Readers’ Rides: What a Difference a Ride Makes – Andy White’s Drop Bar Karate Monkey


Readers’ Rides: What a Difference a Ride Makes – Andy White’s Drop Bar Karate Monkey

Sometimes it takes really pushing a bike to unlock its potential. This was the case for Andy White of FYXO on a recent bush bash down in Australia aboard his trusty Karate Monkey. Read on for a full review of this tried-and true-touring platform…

Every year for the last decade, with the exception of COVID and a staff infection that nearly killed me, I have planned an annual ride to the High Country with my long-running saddle companion, Dave. Maybe you’ve got a Dave, too. Longtime saddle stalwart, adventure friend, and thanks to time in the trenches, someone who knows you almost as well as you know yourself.

We usually plan it for November when we cram three families into one big house, share food, hike, bike, and mostly chill. Dave and I steal an extra day and plan a way to pedal there. We’ve flash-packed, bikeh-acked, and cycle-toured various ways but the standout would have to be the first one, via the Dargo-High Plains road.

What made it spectacular was a combination of terrain, torrential rain, and a Campagnolo derailleur failure in the middle of nowhere that had one of us limping the final 50 km and reaching out for salvation by way of the wives. That year, the seasonal road had just been graded, and we were among the first to ride a surface with the consistency of cold, crunchy peanut butter. Dave likes peanut butter on bread—not on his bike.

I wasn’t hoping for the cruel weather, mechanical failure, or both, but I was happy to rehash it nearly a decade on and see what I could remember from that mystical adventure.

Dave had two bike options. The possibility of scooping thick clay from his tires had him wanting to ride his MTB over the cross bike. It would also give us a much better climbing range, as the climb out of Dargo is a steady 10% for over two hours with pinches of 20% along the range. That would mean we could climb seated without wiggling all over the road.

Once that was settled, I packed enough camera gear to film a Bond movie and rolled out my door in the dark, headed south for the city. Thirty kilometers later, I jumped on a train headed east, Dave joining me a few stops later.

On the train, with some help from Sheldon Brown, we concluded we had almost identical climbing ranges for gear inches and ‘gain ratios’. Dave was running Shimano SLX on his Kona Unit, with a stock 32 x 10-51 maximum climbing range. I had SRAM mechanical XPLR, running the GX cranks I scored at the last swap meet over my BMX cranks I use when it’s a dedicated MTB. This gave me 30 x 11-44 which would prove to be perfect. The XPLR 40t would have had me wailing—and walking.

Three hours later, we were in the country hamlet of Stratford with a strong urge to find the first bakery in town for a hamburger, potato cakes, and coffee. From there, we took the bitumen north to Briagolong where it turned to magic dirt shortly after.

The weather was perfect. Blue skies, light breeze, and other than a slight deviation due to unpassable roadworks, a catastrophe-free day all the way to the 4WD and hunting mecca of Dargo.

That slight deviation took us up Engine Track, a 30% lung-buster that had me working the 30×44 gear for all it’s worth. After crawling to the top without dabbing, an old bloke with his permanently parked caravan mentioned something about a lady that came through a day before and the approaching rains. Big rains.

As much as I like Strava for recording and planning rides, I’m a fan of Ride With GPS while on the ride for navigation and a heads up for the exertion ahead. It really helped when we hit the blacktop again at Cobannah and time was running out to make it to the General Store in time to resupply.

Knowing the 4 km effort ahead, I did a fat-tire individual pursuit, uphill in a bid to make it to the store before 5. As I rolled in with five minutes to spare, I was beaten by the fact that it was open to 5 pm on Fridays (the next day) only. Slightly demoralized, it was eased by the first sip of a shandy.

The familiarity of our log cabin accommodation in Dargo had the memories gushing back. One in particular: drying out of my drenched shoes on the oil heater, only to discover I’d melted the glue from them in the process when I woke the next day.

Dave and I reminisced over another shandy and the biggest chicken parmigiana I have ever passed through my digestive tract. Only foolish pride had me wipe that plate clean, leaving no room for dessert. While pouring another shandy, the barman asked us our plans. He mentioned the road had been graded, rolled, and was in the best condition it’s ever been. Some pleasing thoughts to take to bed with us.

The Dargo General Store didn’t open until 8 am, which was where we got supplies the previous time. I suggested we leave just after first light and steal an extra couple hours of ride time over a hot breakfast and was glad we did.

The town was blanketed in clouds as we rolled out, which peeled back after an hour to reveal stunning scenery. After a three-hour tussle with tarmac at steep grades, we reached the gravel road section. This has to be one of the best stretches of dirt in Victoria.

Just as I remarked to Dave what little wildlife we’d seen, a Wedgetail Eagle took off from the roadside. A handful of mighty flaps of the wings and it soared across the road, quickly climbing the thermals. It had been snacking on something that had well as truly decayed according to my nose and reminded me of previous close encounters with them, most notably when the Radfather (John) was with me.

The final 10 km before we once again made the sealed section was a delight of hard-packed dirt. As it meanders, it reveals more ranges and ghostly snow gums. Just before the main road, there is an absolute wall which I definitely remember battling the first time around on a cyclo-cross bike. Even carrying significantly more cargo, it was less painful on the big tires and smaller gearing.

That extra time came in handy. We rolled in our destination at a respectable hour, didn’t need to be rescued, and had time for a well-earned two scoops at the Bright Ice Creamery. Dark skies loomed large in the distance above the treelines and would dump an equal amount of rain on the region tomorrow as it’d done to us nearly a decade ago. What a difference a day—and a ride—makes.

For those wanting to recreate the trip…

Day 1 – Stratford to Dargo

Day 2 – Dargo to Bright

It’s hard to put my finger on the best bit, with so much eye candy over two days. Amazing weather, great company, incredible scenery and a given the biggest ride I’d done in the months leading up to this was 30 km – a sense of accomplishment. As we came up the driveway I knew the answer. My kid ran and threw her arms around me and squeezed like hell.

Build Spec

  • Surly ‘Trail Breaker’ – XL (Karate Monkey)
  • Chris King headset
  • Thomson X4 stem
  • Thomson Elite seat post
  • Brooks Cambium saddle
  • SRAM XPLR 1x (11-44)
  • SRAM GX cranks 30t
  • SRAM Level brakes
  • Teravail Honcho 29×2.6 tyres
  • Quad Lock moto mount
  • Novatec / carbon boost wheels
  • Skingrowsback Flask Pak Saddle Bag
  • Blackburn Outpost Elite Frame Bag (large)
  • Altura 5L waterproof handlebar bag
  • Blackburn Outpost cages
  • FYXO Lights
  • Bandit Healer (spiritual guide)