It’s all downhill on a bike trail in Victoria
“No problem, we can keep them for you right here, just bring them around the back,” says the helpful bloke at the bustling bicycle shop Cyclepath in Bright, a pretty town nestled in Victoria’s high country. My buddy visiting from San Francisco and I have found a safe place to keep our bicycles overnight.
It marks the successful first stage of a complex logistic plan I have devised to cycle the 80km Murray to Mountains rail trail from Wangaratta to Bright, and also a 15km spur up to Beechworth, but with a twist. I want to cycle only downhill. Bright is at one end of the M2M trail, a dedicated paved cycle track the Victorian government, in an inspired move, decided to construct out of a disused railway line. It has proved very popular and a big boost to the local tourism industry, with some businesses in Bright decked out with cycling themes.
Now, I love cycling. I just don’t like hills. So when I discovered the M2M rail trail by chance on a wine-tasting road trip some years ago, I tried to work out if it could be ridden without having to do any uphill section. A key advantage of rail trails is that trains can only safely get up or down shallow inclines, so those that have been converted to cycle tracks have gentle grades.
But I want to avoid any hills whatsoever, and the starting point is to check out the elevations.
Bright, at the foot of the mountains, sits at 320m, while Wangaratta on the Murray is at 150m. Beechworth, at the top of the spur line, perches high at 560m. Logic suggests the hill-averse will want to cycle the main track only one way — essentially the wrong way in relation to the trail’s name, Murray to Mountains.
I decide to cycle from the mountains to Murray, downhill from Bright to Wangaratta. The further goal will be to ride the spur up to Beechworth in reverse, that is, downhill from Beechworth back down to the main trail.
It’s a bit like the old puzzle of the farmer in a rowboat who has to get a goose, a bag of grain and a fox across the river without any of them getting eaten. Here’s how I do it. First of all, we stay in Beechworth, the highest town. On the afternoon following our first night there, we put our bikes in the back of the car to drive to Bright, leaving them, as described, with the bike shop.
Then we spend another splendid night in Beechworth, a well-preserved gold mining town that has heritage buildings, a local history museum, a few good restaurants and pubs, and a very pretty lake.
We stay at a charming B&B called the Old Priory, a rambling former Catholic college in pleasant grounds.
Next day it’s an early-ish start and a drive of about 40 minutes to Wangaratta, where we leave the car at the train station. Again, it seems too easy and there is plenty of unrestricted parking.
Then the next logistic feat: there’s a public bus that runs from Wangaratta station to Bright. After parking the car, we buy a ticket for about $10 each, and catch a morning run. Just over an hour later, we are in Bright, retrieving our bikes from Cyclepath and ready to ride.
Then we are living the dream, cycling gently downhill through the outskirts of Bright, resplendent with northern hemisphere trees that attract scores of tourists in the autumn for their brilliant colours. The bike trail itself is top quality with a hard smooth surface and truly dedicated apart from a few short but poorly signposted spots where it runs briefly on local roads. Original rail stations have been retained along the route as rest stops.
You wouldn’t think that 170m descent in elevation over 80km would make a difference, but it does. The slight downhill quality, particularly in the first part of the trip where it is most pronounced, makes for an easy pedal where you can enjoy the scenery without raising a sweat. And the scenery, particularly on the first leg from Bright to around Myrtleford, is stunning.
For some reason, the high country of northeast Victoria (more so than in NSW) really looks alpine with the rugged mountains, sometimes topped with huge expanses of bare rock, coming right down to the towns, enhanced in Bright with pine plantations on the hills.
Our timing works out well on the first day because we arrive at Ringer Reef vineyard, 7km from Bright, just after opening at noon, a perfect time for the first wine-tasting break. It’s a small operation on a hillside and I instantly take to the rose and the Montepulciano. Then, just a bit farther on, is a bigger vineyard, Feathertop, with an alfresco dining terrace, again with a view.
Another place worth stopping is an innovative business called Pumpkin Seeds Australia, where visitors can taste all sorts of interesting formulations made out of, yes, pumpkin seeds; the seed meal is a treat on fruit and yoghurt.
We have intended to cycle to where the spur up to
Beechworth starts at Everton, but about 20km before it we encounter, to our horror, a hill. I study the map again, and am shocked to realise I have not allowed for two rises between Myrtleford and Everton.
It is getting hot and my buddy from the city where Mark Twain famously said “the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco” says he can’t go on, even though he’s much fitter than me. I persuade him to tolerate 10 minutes on a gentle uphill slope to get to Gapsted Wines, the third vineyard on our route.
Then I do what I originally intended when we reached Everton — I ring an old friend who has moved to Beechworth, and accept his standing offer to come down in his ute, pick us up with our bikes and proceed up the mountain to Beechworth. I should say I didn’t originally count on this favour as I had checked out a guy who runs a taxi service in Beechworth who has a bike rack and, with perhaps a day’s notice, will come down to the main M2M trail and pick you up. Hill-averse cyclists call on his services regularly.
The next day starts blissfully. After visiting Penny- weight Winery at the top of the Beechworth-Everton rail trail spur, we enjoy the best part of the downhill-all-theway plan. The 15km descent is through forest and meadow, one long, glorious easy downhill coast, sometimes over high embankments or cuttings through tunnels of trees. Incredibly, we encounter cyclists coming uphill the other way; I admire their stamina but they don’t look as happy as we do.
The last part of the route, 27km from Everton to Wangaratta, has no more hills since we’ve avoided them by getting picked up at Gapsted, rejoining the main M2M trail at Everton, thus not cycling the 20km in between with its two rises.
But the section is not as interesting as the area we covered on day one; the trail goes through pleasant but not particularly inspiring flat farmland with no vineyards along the way. We are glad to get into the car at Wangaratta, flick on the airconditioning as the mercury hits 38C, and head back up to Beechworth to cool off in the lake before our final night.
When I next do the M2M, I think that for the last sec- tion I’ll take a connecting road that runs from Everton to Milawa, a splendid gourmet town of wine, cheese, mustards and restaurants. From there, you can ride the other rail trail spur from Milawa to Wangaratta.
All up, it’s a great expedition, and the Victorian government should be applauded for creating the trail and maintaining it well.
It’s worth noting that on just the other side of the mountains, in NSW, another disused railway track runs 214km from Queanbeyan near Canberra over the high Monaro plain to Bombala, and there’s a proposal to convert it to a cycleway. It would be fantastic for cyclists and similarly bring a lot of tourism to that region.
But the plan seems to be bogged down in local politics with owners of land through which the railway runs apparently fearful of feral cyclists, and the politicians have decided it’s all too hard.
Ride the M2M and you’ll become a convert, particularly if you do it all downhill.
Brilliant autumn colours in Beechworth, above; vineyard scenery on the trail, below
Along the trail at Myrtleford, above left; cycling-themed cafe en route, above right