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For cyclists, Australia can be a daunting prospect. Ringed by the 14,000km-long Highway One and smothered in desert, it does not immediately seem to be a particularly bike-friendly destination.
But around the High Country towns of Bright and Beechworth in mountainous northeast Victoria, cycling has been embraced in recent years, with a rail trail, mountain-bike tracks and several road routes making this one of the most welcoming cycling regions in the country.
Rolling on rails
The centrepiece of the region's cycling network is the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail offering 100km of road-free riding along abandoned railway tracks through the wide Ovens Valley. The main 84km arm of the trail connects the river towns of Wangaratta and Bright, always in sight of the mountains yet climbing just 150m in elevation along the way.
This is an ideal introduction for those new to cycle touring, offering easy riding with towns and services spaced at short intervals – a rarity in Australia. It is also family friendly, with few climbs, no vehicle traffic and trailside vineyards with play areas.
The main trail can be ridden by fit cyclists in a day, but it is also perfectly laid out for a more leisurely two-day ride, stopping night in Myrtleford (53km from Wangaratta) and passing cellar doors, cafes and trailside produce along the way.
Additionally, an easy side trail from Wangaratta heads into the cheese, wine and olive producers of the Milawa Gourmet Region, while a beautiful 16km side trail from Myrtleford diverts to the former gold rush town of Beechworth, cutting through a corridor of native bush on an elevated rail bank.
At the rail trail's end, Bright is northeast Victoria's cycling nucleus. From here, roads radiate into the High Country’s mountains, providing cyclists with Australia's nearest equivalent to the famed pass climbing of the French Alps and Pyrenees.
Bright's emergence as one of Australia's premier cycling hubs is evident even before you leave town. Beside the trailhead for the Murray to the Mountains Rail Trail is Bright Velo, Australia's first dedicated bike hotel. Run by former Australian road cycling champion Wayne Hibberd, it is modelled on Italy's cycling-specific Hotel Dory in the Emilia-Romagna region , and features the likes of bike storage, racks and tyre pumps. Attached is Café Velo, a retro-style bike cafe strung with cycling jerseys and memorabilia, including Hibberd's championship medals. Since opening in September 2011, it has become the hangout of choice for local and visiting cyclists.
Three main climbs surround Bright – Mount Buffalo, Mount Hotham and Falls Creek – with the ascents ranging from 750m (Falls Creek) to 1,280m (Mount Hotham). Cyclists can loop over Hotham and Falls Creek on the Queen Victoria Ride, completing a 240km circuit with around 4,000m of climb in three or four days. More ambitious riders grind over the same route (which also includes a 500m climb over Tawonga Gap) in a single day during what is regarded as Australia's toughest cycling event, the annual 3 Peaks Challenge held in March.
Similar is the popular, but non-competitive Audax Alpine Classic, held each Australia Day (26 January) weekend in the same area. Distances in the event vary from 60km to 250km, ranging across a mix of the mountain climbs.
A more manageable road quest is the 7 Peaks Alpine Ascent Challenge, in which participating riders pedal to the top of seven mountains – Mount Hotham (1,862m), Mount Buffalo (1,723m), Mount Baw Baw (1,567m), Mount Buller (1,805m), Lake Mountain (1,433m), Falls Creek (1,600m) and Dinner Plain (1,520m) – collecting stamps in a 7 Peaks passport at each summit. The timeframe, be it over seven days or seven months, is up to each individual cyclist, and satisfaction is the only prize.
Hops and drops
Away from the roads and rails, the mountains of northeast Victoria are laced with mountain bike tracks. During summer, the cross-country trails at the ski resorts of Falls Creek, Mount Hotham and Mount Buller morph into cycling tracks (the chairlifts at Falls Creek and Mount Buller also operate in the summer months, easing the uphill workload for cyclists), while the Big Hill Mountain Bike Park in the town of Mount Beauty is regarded as one of the finest downhill venues in Australia.
In 2012, four local craft breweries collaborated to create the High Country Brewery Trail, publishing a booklet in which each brewer selected his favourite mountain bike trail. They range from the dizzying bends of the Beechworth Mountain Bike Park to a cross-country trail, the Roger Packham Track, beside the Ovens River in Bright, to the Survey Track, a descent through the eucalypt-covered slopes below Victoria's highest mountain, Mount Bogong (1,986m). And all with a beer to quench a cycling thirst at the end.