On a busy afternoon at the Twelve Apostles on Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, I’m the only person not suffering parking angst. As four-wheeled motorists hunt for spaces, I’m wheeling my bike down the paths towards one of Australia’s most famous views.
I’m three days into a bike ride across one of Australia’s most iconic touring routes and almost 90 kilometres into my cycling day.
On a spectacular road such as this one, a bicycle opens up the views and the experience. Pedalling west from Geelong, I’m all but poised over the drop into the sea and I can stop wherever and whenever I like to soak in the scenery. It’s the freest form of road tripping I know.
It’s a similar story on roads and tracks across the country – there’s no view or immersion like that from behind the handlebars of a bike.
Two decades ago, I cycled around Australia’s entirety – a 20,000-kilometres lap – and in the intervening years, things have only continued to get better for cyclists. But these days you don’t necessarily need to go to such extremes, unless, of course, your heart desires.
Rail trails and mountain bike networks have proliferated across the country and, as bike sales showed during the pandemic, there’s a fast-growing number of people on two wheels.
Today in Australia, there’s a ride and a style of bike travel to suit any cyclist and here’s a step-by-step guide, based in part on my new book, Ultimate Cycling Trips Australia, to show you how to saddle-up from start to finish.
STEP ONE: ON YER BIKE (BUT WHICH ONE?)
All bikes are not created equal. The bike you want for a ride across the Great Ocean Road is a universe away from the bike you’ll need to pedal a mountain-bike trail.
The options are manifold – road bike, touring bike, mountain bike, hybrid bike, e-bike, gravel bike, recumbent bike, tandem bike – and there’s a surprising number of considerations around even just choosing which bike best suits a ride.
As the name suggests, touring bikes are the best all-rounders, built with long cycle tours in mind. At a glance, they resemble road bikes, with drop handlebars to give your hands multiple positions.
They have wider rims and tyres than road bikes, along with eyelets in the frame for attaching racks for panniers, and more spokes in the wheels to provide extra strength under loaded weights.
Road bikes offer the quickest way from A to B – at least on sealed surfaces – but have less capacity for carrying gear, so are often unsuitable for long tours.
Hybrid bikes slot into the middle ground between road bikes and mountain bikes – their tyres are wider than road bikes, but narrower than mountain bikes. They’re an excellent choice if you’re riding on roads or rail trails, and you want a bike you can comfortably tootle about on back at home.
The moment you plan to leave the sealed stuff, a mountain bike comes into its own. The four-wheel drives of the bike world, their wide tyres, suspension and upright riding position are built for rough travel.
A more recent upstart on the dirt is the gravel bike, shaped like a road bike but with the heart of a mountain bike. They’re great for unsealed roads and long-distance off-road rides.
E-bikes are the new black in cycle travel with these power-assisted bikes accounting for around five per cent of all bikes sales in Australia (and a whopping 50 per cent in the likes of the Netherlands). They cross genres – road e-bikes through to mountain e-bikes – and ease the pedalling burden. You still have to work for your kilometres, but it’s more like casual labour than full-time employment.
STEP TWO: MOUNTING TENSION (OR GETTING READY TO RIDE)
If you’re setting out on a multi-day bike ride, the next bit of business is deciding how you’re going to carry your gear. Contemporary wisdom favours two set-ups: panniers and bikepacking.
Panniers are bags that hang from racks over the wheels of your bike – typically, two panniers at the rear or, if you’re needing more gear, two at the rear and two at the front. An extra handlebar bag is good for carrying valuables and small items you want to access as you ride.
A slicker way of transporting your gear is what’s known as bikepacking, which does away with panniers and instead uses a number of smaller bags puzzled around the bike – a saddle bag hanging from beneath the seat, a longer roll of gear hanging from the handlebars, a triangular bag snug into the bike frame, and perhaps bags secured to the front forks.
It trims your packing and makes the bike more compact, and it’s the ideal set-up for off-road rides, narrowing the bike and limiting the drag and movement of gear.
Australia has plenty of multi-day rides that can be undertaken without the need to stuff panniers or bags full of camping and cooking gear, staying instead each night in towns and accommodation.
In researching Ultimate Cycling Trips Australia, I pedalled through the likes of the Southern Highlands, Sunshine Coast and Great Ocean Road with just a change of clothes and a few bike spares in a saddle bag.
Even a four-day section (Manjimup to Northcliffe) of Western Australia’s remote, 1000-kilometre off-road Munda Biddi Trail can be civilised each night with hotels and wine and whisky bars.
STEP THREE: CHOOSING A ROUTE FROM EASY TO EPIC
The Blue Derby Mountain Bike trails encompass some of the most stunning landscapes in Tasmania. Photo: Stu Gibson
So, the gear is sorted. Let’s ride.
Options across Australia range from road rides to rail trails, mountain bike blasts to extended off-road tours. Road rides are the traditional form of touring though the relative dearth of minor roads across much of Australia has always limited the appeal of long road tours.
That said, some of the country’s most beautiful roads and regions make for excellent riding, including Tasmania’s east coast, the Great Ocean Road and NSW’s Southern Highlands.
Rail trails have replaced roads as the routes of choice for many cyclists. Following the course of disused railways, these rides promise flat(tish) riding, typically between towns. Queensland has the country’s longest rail trail, and South Australia has a thirsty selection of rail trails through wine regions, including the Riesling Trail and Coast to Vines, but it’s Victoria that leads the rail charge.
It now has more than 30 rail trails, headlined by the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail, stretching from Wangaratta to Bright (with arms to Beechworth, Wandiligong and Milawa), but spread across the state. There’s a full list of rail trails across the country at railtrails.org.au
Surpassing even the growth of rail trails is the boom in mountain-bike trails. Since the north-east Tasmanian town of Derby rose to global mountain-biking prominence with the launch of its Blue Derby trail network in 2015, trails have materialised in towns across the country.
Among the finest networks I cycled in researching Ultimate Cycling Trips Australia were those in Alice Springs in the North Territory), Melrose. South Australia, Stromlo, Australian Capital Territory and Mount Buller’s well-named Alpine Epic.
Seeking the ultimate bike challenge? Australia might not have the collection of continent-crossing trails found in Europe’s EuroVelo network or the United States’ Great Divide Mountain Bike Route but it does have a couple of well-designed 1000-kilometre epics on dirt: the Munda Biddi Trail, stretching from near Perth to Albany, and the Mawson Trail from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges.
A shorter taster of this kind of off-road journeying by bike can be found on the 207-kilometre Goldfields Track, which weaves along tracks and past old goldfields between Mount Buninyong and Bendigo.
STEP FOUR: FULLY-GUIDED VERSUS SELF-GUIDED
Logistically, the simplest way to arrange a cycling trip is to take a guided tour, of which there are a growing number around Australia. Typically, everything is arranged for you, except the pedalling. An alternative that’s gaining traction is a self-guided tour.
Long popular in Europe, this style of cycle travel leaves you independent in every way but all the nitty gritty, such as accommodation, luggage transfers, maps and route notes, has been pre-arranged. You’re free to move at your own pace, stop as you please through the day, and detour to anything that catches your attention.
The traditional – and still for many, the best – form of cycle travel is independent, sorting out your own routes and arrangements.
STEP FIVE: WE’RE ALL EASY RIDERS NOW
If you’re cycling interstate, or far from home, it’s long been the practice to transport your own bike, which has typically meant flying with it.
To do this, you need to disassemble the bike, removing the wheels, seat and pedals and turning the handlebars. After packing this puzzle into a bike box (which you can usually get from a bike store) or bike bag and lugging it to the airport oversize-baggage counter, you see it again at another oversize-baggage counter at your arrival airport, and the reassembly begins. At this point, the cycling ahead can sometimes feel like the easy bit.
Bikes can also be taken on many regional train services and some buses, though regulations and requirements vary across the states. Regional trains accept bikes in NSW, Victoria, Queensland, and on three select services in southern WA. Buses are the most useful way to transport bikes around WA, Tasmania and South Australia, though typically bikes also require some disassembly before being loaded onto buses.
Cycling’s growing popularity, however, means that it’s no longer always necessary to bring your own bike, with rental options becoming more common.
Most major cities now have bike-hire outlets (including at least one that rents out touring bikes and panniers). True to the laws of supply and demand, bike hire is also more plentiful around busy rail trails and mountain-bike networks. There’s no shortage of bikes at the likes of Derby and Stromlo, while popular rides such as the Brisbane Valley Rail Trail and Great Victorian Rail Trail up the comfort ante even further, with shuttle services and luggage transfers alongside bike hire.
TOURING DOWN UNDER: EIGHT GREAT CYCLING ROUTES
SOUTHERN HIGHLANDS, NSW
The Southern Highlands may only be a 90-minute drive from Sydney but on a bike they can feel a hemisphere apart. Named by homesick Scottish settlers for a supposed likeness to the highlands of home, the region is threaded with quiet country roads that connect perfectly for a two-day, 115 kilometres cycling loop. Beginning in Berrima, the two days provide a contrasting look at the Southern Highlands. The hilly first day focuses on the beauty of the towns – Berrima, Bowral, Mittagong – while the longer and (slightly) flatter second day is about the area’s natural features, such as Fitzroy Falls and Belmore Falls. See visitsouthernhighlands.com.au
GREAT VICTORIAN RAIL TRAIL, VICTORIA
Victoria’s longest rail trail skirts the state’s second-largest lake, dives into its longest rail-trail tunnel and rolls through Bonnie Doon, the town from The Castle. From the foot of the High Country to the shoulder of the Hume Highway, in true railway form the ride adheres to the flattest course but it does rise into hills as it climbs 130 metres between Molesworth and Yea, burrowing through the top of the hills inside the 200-metre-long, brick-lined Cheviot Tunnel. The trail stretches for 126 kilometres between Mansfield and Tallarook, but the most beautiful section is a 13-kilometre side trail to Alexandra. Plan for two or three days of riding. See greatvictorianrailtrail.com.au
LAKE BURLEY GRIFFIN, ACT
Photo: Alex Ellinghausen
Canberra is Australia’s most bike-friendly city so it makes sense that the lake at the city’s heart doubles as a virtual velodrome. Cycling paths ring Lake Burley Griffin, making for a 35-kilometre loop that’s all about national treasures and icons, passing the likes of the National Museum, National Arboretum, National Gallery and myriad other “nationals” The circuit is almost entirely sealed, and predominantly flat as it skims past the monumental buildings that rise from the lakeshore like prodigious reeds. The full circuit can be pedalled in a couple of single-minded hours or stretched across a day with the sort of sightseeing and dining stops. See visitcanberra.com.au
BRISBANE VALLEY RAIL TRAIL, QUEENSLAND
Carving its way from Yarraman to the suburbs of Ipswich, Australia’s longest rail trail at 161 kilometres finishes less than an hour’s drive from Brisbane’s heart, and yet the ride is largely through the sort of outback landscape that makes the proximity of urban life seem fanciful. The gradient of the unsealed trail favours starting the ride in Yarraman, making for an overall 350-metre descent, though the bulk of the downhill is over early, on a long descent through bush into Linville. Well-spaced towns line the trail, which is usually cycled over three days, making it easy to structure food and nightly stops. See brisbanevalleyrailtrail.com.au
BLUE DERBY, TASMANIA
After making its brief fortunes through tin mining, Derby has found new riches from mountain-biking. Opened only seven years ago, the Blue Derby trail network – a collection of almost 40 trails covering more than 120 kilometres – has become the blueprint for quality mountain-bike trail networks. There are trails here for all abilities, from a gentle loop of the town-side lake to seat-of-your-padded-pants descents. Favourite include Blue Tier, which plunges through moss-upholstered forest to a low-level loop that includes the Derby Tunnel, a dark, low-ceilinged shaft bored through the earth. Shuttles and plentiful bike hire make access to the trails a breeze. See ridebluederby.com.au
COAST TO VINES RAIL TRAIL, SOUTH AUSTRALIA
Trails through wine regions are a feature of Australian cycling and Coast to Vines is one of the simplest to access. Setting out from a train station in Adelaide’s southern suburbs, it begins with coastal views before turning inland and leaving the urban sprawl behind as it crosses to McLaren Vale and Willunga. Vines encase the 39-kilometre trail, and it’s a short detour to many of McLaren Vale’s best cellar doors and to celebrated restaurants such as the Salopian Inn. On reaching Willunga, there’s the chance to tackle SA’s most famous cycling ascent in the form of Old Willunga Hill from the Tour Down Under classic. The three-kilometre climb rises 250 vertical metres through the dry slopes. Turn around beside the King of the Mountain crown painted on the road and it’s about four minutes of freewheeling descent back to a glass of wine in Willunga. See railtrails.org.au
ROTTNEST ISLAND, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
Photo: Andrew Bain
Watch fleets of bikes roll away from the ferry docks on “Rotto” and you realise that Perth’s favourite holiday island is all but custom-made for bikes. The only other vehicle on the roads is the island bus, and the highest point on the island is just 46 metres above sea level. It’s a simple task to pedal the 28-kilometre island loop, stopping at any, or many, of Rottnest’s 63 beaches, and still make it back for a late-afternoon ferry. No climb here is steep, and beaches – which are only ever minutes apart on a bike – are lined with bike racks. To ride here is to pack a pannier with little but snacks, a beach towel and a snorkel and mask. You’ll even spot cyclists carrying surfboards. See rottnestisland.com
ALICE SPRINGS, NORTH TERRITORY
From Alice Springs’ edges, there are two contrasting cycling experiences. The sealed Simpsons Gap Bike Path cuts a smooth path across the desert to its spectacular namesake gap in the West MacDonnell Ranges, making for a rail-trail-like day of cycling. The town is also surrounded by an enticing network of mountain bike trails as fun as any in the country. There are more than 100 kilometres of trails here, many of them clustered around the Telegraph Station, while the longest trail in the network, Hell Line, ventures west to great desert views and isolation. These trails have a true natural feel with dry creek beds and rock outcrops and it’s all the better for it. See northernterritory.com
This cover story is an extract from Ultimate Cycling Trips: Australia by Andrew Bain (Hardie Grant Books, RRP $45).