Bicycle touring in regional Victoria
Cyclists are flocking to country Victoria like never before.
From the forest floor of the Otway Ranges to the mountains and valleys of the High Country, lycra-clad folk fortify themselves with fresh coffee, pedal their worries away across stunning vistas, then reward themselves with a craft beer at a local brewery. They stay for nights, weekends and longer, generating revenue, boosting employment and generally bolstering a bike-driven boom that continues to gather speed as if free-wheeling downhill.
“Over the last 10 years we’ve made a serious play for the cycle tourism market, which is why as a region we’re recognised as having the strongest cycle tourism credentials in the state,” says Amber Gardner, CEO of Tourism North East in Victoria’s High Country. “Cycle tourism is growing at double the rate of normal tourism and visitation to the area.”
And it’s getting bigger. Amber’s team (which includes many passionate bike riders) is eagerly awaiting the delivery of the North-East Victoria Cycle Optimisation Plan, a blueprint designed to have regional businesses leverage off bicycle tourism as if tucking into the slipstream of the peloton. Interim figures show 105,000 bike tourists visit the area each year, spending $48 million. And Amber believes these numbers are conservative.
In a landscape dotted with picturesque rail trails, more than 250 kilometres of dedicated mountain-bike runs and road cycling routes as challenging as a Tour de France stage, bike riders have become brewers, brewers have caught the bike bug, baristas grind beans in buildings that were once nestled beside railway tracks. At cafes, breweries and wineries, finding a vacant bike rack has become as prized as nabbing a seat at a repurposed table.
Bikes meet beverages
Ben Kraus grew up riding his bike to school and around Beechworth’s historic streets, and when he returned home and started Bridge Road Brewery 12 years ago a head-clearing cycle became the perfect after-work outlet. He’s shifted gears from road to mountain biking, plans regular travel to brewing events around access to tracks and trails, and in business and pleasure is a disciple of the bond between bikes and beverages.
“We’ve worked hard in linking cycle tourism with our hospitality offer,” Ben (pictured) says. “People who drink craft beer fit really closely with people who are into bike riding – active people who want to experience new things, who have a sense of adventure.
“If you’re doing that in your leisure activities, it’s probably going to translate into what you decide to eat and drink – you’ll be open to new things. People visiting the region think, ‘I’m away from home, I don’t want what I can get at home every day. What have you got that’s from this area?’”
Since 2013 Ben and other bike-loving High Country brewers have come together annually to brew a Belgian-style beer called Rule 47, an example of the collaboration Amber Gardner says the area prides itself on, and which has been captured in a term coined by Ross Brown from Brown Brothers winery – “coopertition”. Packaged in cycling-themed cans, Rule 47 has so far been brewed at Bridge Road, Bright, Black Dog and Blizzard breweries, and funds the printing of the High Country Brewery Trail booklet.
I’d say 80 per cent of our customers would be bike riders in the summer and peak times.
At Porepunkah, Jesse Rios and his wife Lucy (pictured) have teamed up with e-bike specialist and bike hire outlet Bright Electric Bikes to offer a package of bike and helmet hire, breakfast or dinner at their Rail Trail Cafe (dubbed Sunrise or Sunset and Sombreros, with a Mexican-themed nod to Jesse’s heritage). The couple opened their business in a former butcher shop in 2008 with a focus on locals, a commitment that endures as their pedal-pushing clientele continues to multiply.
“I’d say 80 per cent of our customers would be bike riders in the summer and peak times,” Jesse says. “We’re only six kilometres from Bright so kids and families can ride it easily. It’s nothing to have 80 bikes out the front, they’re everywhere.”
The Murray to Mountains Rail Trail features more than 100 kilometres of sealed, off-road track linking Wangaratta, Beechworth, Milawa, Myrtleford and Bright, where riders cruise past many of the region’s 94 wineries and cellar doors. Showcasing local produce has spawned Pedal To Produce, an initiative where cyclists can fill their baskets with goods that have travelled no further than from a farmer’s field to the front gate.
Buildings and even entire towns are being revitalised on the back of bike riding. Beechworth’s glorious old bluestone gaol was recently bought by the community under a social enterprise model. Among broad and colourful plans for its future is a world-class cycling centre catering for everyone from children learning to ride through to tourists and then hard-core pedal-pushers with thighs of granite.
In the Otways, the timber mill site that was once the life blood of Forrest is about to be reborn in a manner that wouldn’t have been possible if not for a bike-led renaissance.
When Matt Bradshaw moved to town in 2002, the pub had burned down and was being run out of a shed, the mill closed while he was still unpacking his bags, there was a caravan park, a guesthouse, a couple of B&Bs, and that was about it. His plans to turn an old general store and mixed business into a brewery were scoffed at by the milk bar owner across the road. “Grumpy Jim said, ‘You’re wasting your time, just bulldoze it’,” Matt recalls with a laugh.
We know there’ll be 30 or 40 or 50 or 500 of them, and we know they’ll come and eat and get their coffee and buy their takeaway beer and hang out at the camping ground.
Yet something was in his favour. In the dense bush all around town there were logging trails and motorbike tracks, which Matt and his mates would tackle on their mountain bikes. The World Trail gurus visited and saw their potential, a summer fire crew with no fires to fight went to work with shovels and hoes, and Forrest now hosts several major mountain-bike events each year with 16 trails to test weekend warriors of all standards.
Their natural hangout from breakfast and coffee through to dinner and drinks is Forrest Brewery, the once ramshackle building in the heart of town where Matt and his sister Sharon have grown their business to the point that it’s bursting through the iron roof. In April they received a State Government grant of $1.49 million towards the redevelopment of the old sawmill, which will swell their workforce from eight to 23, house an 80-seat restaurant, 120-person conference centre, 20 eco-units sleeping up to six people each, and new brewing facilities where they’ll be producing a million litres annually within five years.
“The bike riders were definitely the catalyst for starting, they took away a lot of the risk to begin with,” Sharon Bradshaw says, estimating they accounted for 60 to 70 per cent of clientele in the early years, and still around 40 since their other markets have grown. “We know what’s happening each weekend. We know there’ll be 30 or 40 or 50 or 500 of them, and we know they’ll come and eat and get their coffee and buy their takeaway beer and hang out at the camping ground.”
Forrest has always boasted a vibrant community, now it again has a town to match. The rebuilt pub welcomes campers from the busy caravan park, there’s a bike hire shop, a restaurant committed to local produce complementing the guesthouse, and the tired old milk bar has become an inviting general store. A chocolate factory is on the way, and there’s now 23 accommodation options with 130 beds in total.
The Bradshaws reckon Forrest Brewery wouldn’t fall over if mountain biking ended tomorrow, but as a devotee who’s decorated the place with old bikes hanging from the ceiling, that’s a scenario Matt couldn’t contemplate.
Back in Beechworth, Ben Kraus is similarly confident about how Bridge Road Brewery would fare if the High Country were suddenly hit by a bike-riding Armageddon.
“We’d still survive without bikes,” he says, “but it would be pretty sad.”
Cycling’s untapped opportunities
The message Visit Victoria received from research into cycling tourism in 2015 was clear: you’re on to a good thing, so it’s time to shift up a gear and start gathering some serious speed.
Tourism Research Australia undertook a project aimed at better understanding the motivators and barriers to cycle tourism and its potential for growth in Victoria, and found a relatively small market that is highly engaged, craving more and ripe for expansion.
Of respondents who had taken part in cycling-related tourism in the previous year, almost half had done so at least three times, and more than 36 per cent more than three times. Pointing to broader tourism benefits, 59 per cent booked at least one night’s accommodation, and cyclists often also participated in charity and food and wine events.
While sightseeing in a city or town (41 per cent) and cycling on paths along a foreshore, river or lake (35 per cent) were most popular, 49 per cent ventured to regional destinations. Those who had taken a holiday that included a cycling experience rated Victoria as the best destination in Australia on all four measures considered: facilities and accommodation; scenery; cycle tours; cycle tracks and trails.
However, participants overwhelmingly wanted better information and promotion, and online maps, planning aids and other tools.
The low level of awareness was highlighted by almost half of respondents failing to identify a destination they believed to be good for cycling. Among those who could, the most popular answer wasn’t the High Country or the Otways. It was France.
The following are just a selection of cycling events in regional Victoria. For more go to vic.cycling.org.au
Great Vic Bike Ride - Three, five and nine-day cycling events. RACV members save on entry.
Tour of Bright - Racing and more relaxed Tour Fondo events. .
Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race - Includes Family Ride and People’s Ride.
Great Ocean and Otway Classic Ride - Courses ranging from 30 to 204 kilometres.