Victoria food tour by bike: A guilt-free way to enjoy an over-indulging food tour

One of the great benefits of taking part in a nine-day, 527-kilometre bike ride is that all that cycling enables participants to indulge in an "eat what you want" policy. 

This is particularly good news for the would-be gourmand, like me. With my trusty cycling computer egging me on, assuring me that I'm burning off thousands of calories every day, my dream of guiltless gluttony can finally become reality.  

But before I detail how the RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride makes mincemeat out of middle-aged spread, here are some of its parameters to make you saddle savvy for this year's big race.   

A MASS RIDE 

The "Great Vic" is an annual multi-day event organised by the Bicycle Network. It follows different routes in the garden state every year and last year it was from Halls Gap in the midst of the Grampians National Park, tracking down through rural Victoria before passing along one of Australia's most dramatic stretches of coastline, the Great Ocean Road, to Geelong. 

The average distance covered daily, with one day to rest, was 65 kilometres. 

Taking place from November 26-December 4, the ride attracted more than 4200 cyclists from Australia and overseas, and was backed by 350 volunteers and 150 support staff. This year's ride will head to Wilsons Promontory and entries open on May 22.

The Great Victorian Bike Ride is like a lycra-clad army moving across the countryside, establishing temporary bases at rural racecourses, small-town ovals and seaside campgrounds along the route. 

CATERING ON THE MOVE 

On our trip, the catering team alone numbers 70 volunteers.  They serve 12,000 meals a day and pour 1200 litres of beer and wine at the moveable Cafe de Canvas each night. 

The meals on offer from this rolling circus are consistently filling and nutritious.  

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For breakfast there is porridge, fruit salad, yoghurt, toast and spreads.  For dinner, highlights include Honey Soy chicken and noodles and slow cooked ribs and both vegetarians and vegans are catered for with dishes like falafel balls in sauce and chick pea and spinach curry.  

Lunch, served at a stop midway through the day's ride, is invariably wholesome too – a grilled chicken sandwich here and a ham, cheese, onion jam and salad wrap there.  

Yet, while the food offered is perfect for ravenous young cyclists, middle-aged gastronomes need, occasionally, to stray from the dinner tent. 

A RURAL GASTRONOMIC GEM 

When I studied the route for the ride, I immediately noted that our first day ended in Dunkeld, a small country town on the southern fringes of the Grampians. 

Even with my limited gourmet credentials, I know Dunkeld is writ large on the foodie's map of Australia thanks to the Royal Mail Hotel. 

So it is that, after one night at the mass campsite in Halls Gap, and with only 72 kilometres to ride to Dunkeld, I'm heading for comfort and immoderation at the Royal Mail. 

It isn't quite the perfect combo.  Other pesky cyclists, on a luxury All Trails supported ride, have booked out the hotel rooms, leaving only cottages at sister property, the Mount Sturgeon estate, 10 minutes' drive away.  

After a brief wait, I drop my bike at the pub and am taken to Mt Sturgeon to shower and settle in. 

After an hour contemplating the brooding Grampians from outside my bluestone cottage, I'm then ferried back to the Royal Mail for some epicurean reconnaissance. 

GARDENS AND CELLAR DOOR 

I begin by taking the free kitchen garden tour, accompanied by England-born executive chef Robin Wickens and three other guests. 

The 1.6-hectare plot that we visit comprises about half of the area under cultivation by the Royal Mail and its kitchen garden specialist Michelle Shanahan. 

It is guided by organic principles, such as employing ducks to naturally control pests like slugs and snails and using vegetable waste as compost and animal manure to develop nutrient-rich soil.  It is planted with a variety of heirloom vegies, edible flowers, nuts, fruit and herbs, many of which are not available elsewhere. 

A keen organic gardener, I can barely contain my enthusiasm as we stroll among poly tunnels where 18 types of tomato grow alongside fennel, asparagus and countless other goodies and pass trellises overflowing with banana passion fruit. 

Wickens and his team of 12 Royal Mail chefs operate a true garden-to-table policy, with seasonal organic produce governing daily menus. It has helped earn the Royal Mail two Age chef's hats for three consecutive years. 

If the Royal Mail is serious about food, the credentials of its wine cellar, which I visit next, are equally impressive. In 2015, it garnered the title of Best Hotel Wine List Worldwide from UK-based Fine Wine magazine and is one of only 88 Grand Vin cellars on the planet. 

In a former shed across Dunkeld's main street from the hotel, and presided over by sommelier Matthew Lance, the cellar contains 26,000 neatly arrayed bottles of vino, priced from $38 to $13,800. 

"The Royal Mail's owner, Allan Myers QC, has been collecting wine for 45 years," Lance tells us, "and is passionate about the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions." 

"We have Australia's leading collection of burgundy and bordeaux wines," he adds, "and since we've introduced the Coravin system we can now offer guests the most iconic wines by the glass." 

A SUMPTUOUS DINNER 

Lance is on hand later, proffering paired wines, when I and two other gourmand cyclists, Hugh and John, launch into a five-course degustation at the Royal Mail restaurant. 

I say five-course but with preliminary "snacks" and other extras that chef Wickens throws our way, it's more like eight.  

The amuse-bouches constitute a meal in themselves.  There's a pea and sorrel croquette, a passion fruit and scallop tartare and a dehydrated parsley sponge with salmon roe and wasabi.  Already WIckens and his team are displaying Heston Blumenthal-like invention, an impressionist's eye for detail and an erudite coupling of texture and flavour.  

The degustation proper begins with a smoked "slimy mackerel" that slips down beautifully with a glass of Grampians riesling.  It's followed by an almost uncooked but sublime blue-eyed cod, with broadbeans, peas, cultured cream and squid, that Lance accompanies with a chilled Sicilian white. 

So it goes on, from Great Ocean Road-raised duck "and its dinner" of fermented barley and apple, with a sumptuous Burgundy red, to "Royal Mail sirloin", from the hotel's farm, with smoked cheddar, pickles and mustard. 

By dessert, chocolate, olive plant, olive oil ice cream and pomegranate molasses coupled with a Spanish grenache, our superlatives and fancy food adjectives are running dry. 

The next morning, after a breakfast including free-range eggs from the Royal Mail's chooks, I'm back on my bike and destined for a few more nights in the tented city. 

ON THE ROAD AGAIN 

While I'm back under canvas, I'm hardly slumming it.  Having elected for Bicycle Network's Sleep Easy option, a roomy tent, complete with bedrolls, is pre-erected for me every night.  

It's not all sparkling wine and sturgeon roe, however.  

Over the next two days I cycle 89 and 104 kilometres respectively.  The latter ride, from Mortlake and onto the Great Ocean Road for the first time, near the Bay of Islands, sees me blast through 2352 calories. 

Which calls for extra cheesecake dessert and ridiculous amounts of chocolate, my sweet tooth enjoying free rein thanks to my industrious thighs and calves.  

THE LONGEST CLIMB 

The sugar rush provides fuel for the most gruelling day in the saddle so far, between the Twelve Apostles campsite and Apollo Bay.  

I'll let the ride statistics – taken from my cycling app – tell the story: 

Distance: 90.2 kilometres.  Time: 4:30.59.  Elevation gain: 1,596 metres. Calories: 3232. 

Actually, no I won't.  

Today will forever be remembered as the day of climbing, climbing further and then climbing yet more.   

Up and up the notorious Lavers Hill I pedal, the road contorting through the Otways like a confused eel, thighs stinging, chest pounding and torso drenched in sweat despite the unseasonable chill in the coastal air.  

Then, having conquered that tor in 40 interminable minutes, and had lunch at the top, a replica mountain contemptuously appears. 

But ... It's … All … Worth it.  

A GREEK ODYSSEY 

Because blitzing 3000-plus calories entitles my taste buds and stomach to a giant Greek-style party, without the plate smashing, delivered high in the Otway hills behind Apollo Bay, by Chris's at Beacon Point.  The creation of septuagenarian chef Chris Talihmanidis, originally from Salonika, this is an acclaimed modern Greek restaurant with rooms, or villas, set into a cliff brimming with ferns and manna gums.  Having experienced the minutiae of the Great Ocean Road as I toiled along by bike, checking into Chris's delivers wide-angled views of the coastline and the choppy Bass Strait. 

After an epic shower, washing my smalls and slipping into a short coma, I make for the restaurant, determined to recoup those calories. 

Everything I try at Chris's tastes like manna from the Greek gods.  I romp through taramasalata, tzatziki and hummus dips and a succulent lamb keftedes entree before savouring a king prawn saganaki main.  Cooked in chilli, garlic and ouzo and with spiced feta, fennel, spring onions and "fat chips", it is reward for my hard graft. 

In short, staying and eating at Chris's make me happy, especially when I lie in the following morning – the ride rest day – and dawdle over Greek pastries, yoghurt and honey for breakfast. 

THE FINAL PUSH 

There are now only three more days of camp food to go and two further nights under canvas to get through, for, on the final evening, I've scored accommodation at Queenscliff's Vue Grand Hotel, as a taste of All Trails luxury support package. 

Remarkably, in spite of copious efforts to regain around 15,000 calories offloaded on the eight-day ride, my "meals on wheels" policy has been a success.  I cross the finish line in Geelong lighter than I've been in 10 years. 

TRIP NOTES 

MORE 

traveller.com.au/victoria

Visitvictoria.com.au

bicyclenetwork.com.au 

STAY+ EAT 

The Royal Mail Hotel, Parker Street, Dunkeld. The hotel has a one-night Autumn Harvest Package available until July, including five-course dinner, deluxe mountain view room, cellar tour and breakfast, for $500 per double/twin (Weds-Sun, $50 supplement Saturdays). (03) 5577 2241. Royalmail.com.au

Chris's Beacon Point Restaurant and Villas, 280 Skenes Road, Apollo Bay.   Bed and breakfast from $330 per night. (03) 5237 6411. Chriss.com.au 

TOUR

2017's Great Victorian bike ride runs November 25-December 3 in Gippsland.  Early-bird bookings ($999 for nine-day adult riders, $599 for five days) from May. Sleep-easy tent option from $405 for full ride. bicyclenetwork.com.au/racv-great-victorian-bike-ride/event-details/4592/

All Trails luxury support and accommodation package for the Great Vic costs $2380 per person twin share.  Alltrails.com.au 

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Bicycle Network and Visit Victoria.

           

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