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.
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.”