The Great Vic is a multi-day bike tour that kids will love
This classic Australian adventure is as much an annual institution for cycling fanatics as it is a colourful family expedition that everyone can enjoy (even those with little experience).
- September 2019
For reasons that seem unfathomable with the benefit of hindsight, my wife and I were worried our 11-year-old son might struggle to complete the abridged three-day section of the 2018 Great Victorian Bike Ride. Finn had never ridden beyond 40 kilometres at a time, and any hill climbs he had encountered along Melbourne city bike trails were mere speed bumps compared to the ones he would have to tackle on this 202-kilometre adaptation of the “Great Vic”, as veterans call it.
The Great Victorian Bike Ride is an annual cycling tour organised by the Bicycle Network that covers all corners of Victoria and beyond, with a different route being mapped out each year. This year’s 10-day event takes in 652 kilometres from the Limestone Coast of South Australia to Torquay in Victoria.
Our introduction to the 2018 instalment was a three-day ride – participants in the full, nine-day event were expected to cycle a total of 541 kilometres from Bright, at the foot of Mount Buffalo, through the gourmet food region of Beechworth and Milawa to Tallangatta, on the banks of Lake Hume, then follow the course of the Murray River to Rutherglen and onwards to Yarrawonga, eventually finishing in Benalla.
Our party of five – me, my wife Michelle, our son Finn, and Michelle’s sisters Kath and Veronica – would join more than 3000 other cyclists during the last three days of the ride from Rutherglen to Benalla, in Victoria’s north-east. But it was the 95 kilometres stretching from Yarrawonga to Glenrowan that concerned us most – it included a nasty climb over the 515-metre Warby Ranges straight after lunch.
“We can always jump in the SAG wagon,” Veronica had said, referring to the mini-van that picks up fatigued and injured riders, or those hampered by mechanical breakdowns. Veronica had grudgingly signed up for the Great Vic after her two sisters had begged her to join them. As an avowed exercise hater, who snarled at the mere mention of the word, it had taken more than a little prodding to persuade her to sign on the dotted line.
“Three days of bum-numbing bike riding over hills and into headwinds? Where’s the joy in that?” she’d growled at the time. But sign, she did, and ride all 202 kilometres, conquering a route deliberately designed to challenge riders on her pedal-assisted electric bike.
“Well, if she can do it, so can we,” I’d said to Finn who, I must say, was initially reluctant but eventually relented after being told that hundreds of other kids would be doing the ride. Thirty per cent of Great Vic riders each year are aged 12 to 18, with a further 50 per cent falling into the Over 50s category.
Fast-forward three months to our second morning of the ride and the forecast says it’s going to be a stinker of a day. Temperatures are expected to top 34 degrees, so we depart our campground at Yarrawonga’s Victoria Park just after 7am – more than an hour after some early birds – and spend the next few hours cycling through mostly flat, sun-beaten farmlands.
After pausing for lunch beside an alpaca farm woolshed, Finn sets off towards the Warby Ranges with a steely determination I wouldn’t have expected a few months earlier. “Let’s beat this hill, Dad,” he says, nodding encouragement.
Trees obscure the road ahead and after rounding one uphill bend, we see another, then another again. Others have dismounted to walk up the road. Finn just pedals by them. As for me, my legs and lungs cry out for mercy.
“Come on, Finn,” I plead. “Let’s walk.”
“Nope. I’m not stopping,” he says. “I’m not quitting now.” And with that, he’s off and races onwards at a pace I can’t match.
By the time I catch up with him at Ryan’s Lookout, where the views extend across the patchwork grain fields to the Victorian Alps, he’s sufficiently refreshed and ready to go.
“Not until the others get here,” I remind him, referring to our rule of waiting until we’d all caught up before continuing. (In this case, I was just using it as an excuse to catch my breath). Finn has been tireless since we rode out of Rutherglen on that first day, feeling a buzz of excitement we all shared.
Tacking on to the ant’s trail of riders cycling through some of the country’s oldest vineyards – some of them pedalling unicycles or tandem bikes, one even powered by a blind man, and others dressed in tutus or butterfly wings – we cross the Murray River into New South Wales at Corowa, the birthplace of Australia’s Federation push in 1893.
From there, we skirt dusty grain fields and trace the Murray’s banks to Mulwala, where river red gums that had been drowned by the damming of the river sprang from the shallows of the town’s eponymous lake.
Our campground, just across the weir at Yarrawonga showgrounds, is a welcome sight after five hours of riding through sweltering heat and some ghastly headwinds (especially for someone like me who had only managed a few morning training rides before this). The majority of riders have already pitched their tents by the time we arrive early in the afternoon. Row upon row of identical tents are placed side by side for riders prepared to pay extra for the privilege of not having to erect their own, while designated camping zones have been set aside for school groups and quiet zones reserved for early sleepers.
We find a grassy space near the fence, locate our bags from one of the semi-trailers hired to cart 60,000 kilograms of luggage between campsites each day and then set about cheerily hammering in our tent pegs. After inflating his mattress, Finn rushes off to join dozens of other kids – and a few adults – cooling off at the aqua park on Lake Mulwala. How they have the energy to scramble up and down inflatable obstacles, I’ll never know. I retreat beneath a shady tree to recuperate.
Later that afternoon, we wet our throats and fuel up on the wholesome food on offer inside the big catering marquee – this is also the nightly reunion venue for riders who have befriended each other during past Great Vics. There is a real carnival atmosphere here; bands roam the campgrounds and rock on stage, and an outdoor cinema projects Hollywood favourites away from the noise.
There’s also a talent quest open to anyone from age five to 75 – an accurate reflection of the demographics taking part in the Great Vic each year. Bagpipes, recorders and ukuleles appear on stage, a Rubik’s cube is unscrambled, one-handed, in less than a minute and an old timer belts out a self-penned song titled “I met my baby in a Portaloo line”, but the crown deservedly goes to a jazz trio from Fitzroy High School. The creativity is enough to inspire Finn to start planning his act for next year.
By our third morning, as we get stuck into what is now a routine of rising at dawn, packing up and carting all our gear to the trucks before breakfast, we are greeted with thunderous skies. Heavy rains lash the mess tent ahead of our 52-kilometre ride from Glenrowan to Benalla.
Eight hours earlier, hundreds of riders had been dancing to 80s music inside the marquee, where crowd-surfing teenagers kicked up dust.
“Well, the good news is that we’ve got the dust under control,” announces an event organiser, tongue in cheek, as the rain teems down. “But, folks, we ask that you wait another 20 minutes before heading off, as we reckon there will be a break in the weather by then.”
And so it proves to be. Though almost all of us set off in rain jackets, we don’t receive another drop for the rest of the day. Instead, howling crosswinds hinder our progress as we pedal through rolling hills where the Kelly Gang once put fear into the hearts of lawmen.
Need to know
The 2019 Great Victorian Bike Ride event takes place from November 22 to December 1 and follows the Great Ocean Road from Robe, South Australia, to the Surf Coast town of Torquay in Victoria, a total of 652 kilometres. Entrants of all ages can ride the full 10 days or shorter five-day blocks, from Robe to Port Fairy or Port Fairy to Torquay. BYO bike, helmet, tent, sleeping gear, crockery and cutlery.
Find out more at the Bicycle Network website opens in new window.