The great Victorian bike ride: The agony and the ecstasy, but mostly the ecstasy

If you'd told me six months before the 2016 RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride that I would be cycling 527 kilometres over eight days and calling it a holiday, I would have laughed.

Should you have mentioned that I'd manage more than 100 kilometres in a day, that I'd be slimmer and fitter than at any time since my 20s, I'd have looked at you from behind my overlarge dinner and oversized glass of wine with incredulity.

If you'd said then that I'd be doing all this with 4200 others, including a legion of over-50s and a jamboree of school students, I'd have questioned your sanity.

LOVES, LAVERS, LAST

Yet here I am, on a cold late spring day, halfway through the journey between the Grampians and Geelong, creeping doggedly up the frankly unfair Lavers Hill, in the Otway Ranges, doing everything above.

However, while the increased release of endorphins may eventually allow me to happily recall day five of the Great Vic, my backside, legs and lungs have less flowery ideas.

They want to kill those responsible for routing the ride up three endless tors along the Great Ocean Road today.

Or sneakily deflate the tyres of cheery fellow cyclists who chatter and chortle in the midst of my agony.

Unfurl the chains of those who, like my oldest mate Hugh, stand up on their pedals, and power past me like human piston engines.

CATCHY MONKEY

I continue to wind, rising like Ethelred the Unready, who suddenly became English king in 978, at the age of 12, the same age I was when, at Scouts, Baden-Powell's corruption of a Ghanaian saying, "slowly, slowly, catchy monkey", was drummed into me.

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The human body is remarkable. Decades of doing the wrong things with it have left me with knee and hip joints askew and hamstrings as tight as a Kardashian's face. But it all … still … works and does so, with some preparatory training, better than when I last did a long-distance cycle, the Great South Australian Bike Ride, from Mount Gambier to Adelaide, in 1996.

AN ANNIVERSARY

Hugh was there too, going for a 10-kilometre "fun" run on rest day – he's always been annoyingly skinny and fit – so this is our 20th anniversary ride.

We celebrate with dinners, at the acclaimed Royal Mail Hotel, in Dunkeld, on day two, and in the gargantuan mess tent that feeds the battalion of cyclists, on other evenings, but there are no flowers.

The most romantic it gets is lounging in the sunshine together, at our Bellbrae campsite, on evening seven, watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on an outdoor screen.

But, unlike those halcyon days in South Australia, when we partied into the night, we are no longer young and free.

IN THE MIDDLE WAY

We are, to quote T. S. Eliot,

"… in the middle way, having had twenty years,

twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres …"

We are fathers. He to two kids old enough to depart the nest, me to two under-10s, whose Mum recently left mine. Hugh's even got a serious job, in consulting, or business, or something.

We are here to ride, eat, sleep, repeat.

Unfortunately, before Hugh has agreed to that plan, he's made a new BFF on the ride: John, avid cyclist and champion Great Vic socialite.

When John's not riding up an Alp, following the Tour de France route, he enjoys wine, gourmet food and dancing to '80s tribute bands.

They're a perfect fit, why didn't I see this coming?

While Hugh and John pop up their tents each night in the mass camping area, I console myself in the upmarket "sleep easy" section, where the accommodation comes pre-erected by volunteers and I'm surrounded by middle-aged Melburnian couples.

I sleep beautifully but can't help feeling I'm missing out.

A STRANGE THING HAPPENS ON THE WAY TO APOLLO BAY

So here I am, halfway up Lavers Hill, breathing like a blast furnace and sweating like a yeti in a sauna.

Which is when something strange happens. I get into a rhythm, grinding around the bends that coil skyward, my mind unusually locked onto the present.

Before I know it, I'm at the lunch stop, in the hamlet of Lavers Hill, collecting my lamb, mint jelly, cheese and lettuce sandwich, having conquered today's major climb.

Except that, it isn't today's major climb. That comes next in a sinister knoll, which, like a younger sibling, seeks to outdo the firstborn.

I've no objection to ogling other people's backsides, in moderation, but this ride promised sea views and all I can do is stare immediately ahead or down.

Somehow, mind and body unite in flimsy union, propelling me nearer to today's finish at Apollo Bay, where I'm upgrading tent and camp nosh to villa and dinner at Chris's, Beacon Point.

By the end of the third hill, today's total elevation gain is 1595 metres.

What goes up must come down. In the lee of the knolls, I fly like a bird, on wheels, my heavy body weight whooshing me past those cheery chortlers and skinny pistons.

If uphill is about limb dystopia and brain disharmony, downhill produces a zen synergy of mind, body and spirit, motion-created tears creeping from my eyes as I descend for 10 glorious kilometres, into Apollo Bay.

IN THE BEGINNING

It's been this way for much of the ride, beginning in Halls Gap, in the Grampian Mountains, on a cool late November morning, covering 72 kilometres, including one long uphill, and one fast descent, before reaching Dunkeld.

It's here, during an intimate nine-course dinner for three at the Royal Mail Hotel, that John is mistaken for comedian Rob Sitch and that we meet fellow rider Karen, from Hobart, recovering from cancer and celebrating her 50th birthday.

Then there is Dunkeld to Mortlake, an 89-kilometre ride that meanders through Victorian farmland.

For rural towns like Dunkeld and Mortlake, the invasion of thousands of sweaty cyclists is like a shock wave, but surely a profitable one. Every motel, cafe, restaurant and pub is filled with our babble.

ONTO THE GREAT OCEAN ROAD

Our longest day runs from Mortlake to the Twelve Apostles, 104 kilometres, with sightseeing detours.

It's an inspiring day, the sun beaming over the Victorian coast, the Southern Ocean pitching and rolling against it and rocky outcrops like London Bridge and the Bay of Islands trembling in its wake.

Arriving at our campsite, a shuttle service conveys us to see the 12 (now seven) Apostles and Loch Ard Gorge, scene of the 1878 wreck of an Irish immigrant ship.

Then, after Lavers Hill and its "little" brothers comes, God love those route planners, after all, the Apollo Bay rest day.

I spend it with a Greek-style breakfast at Chris' and by turning my villa into my beautiful launderette, full of drying lycra knicks and tops.

ALL DOWNHILL FROM HERE

With the air back in our metaphoric tyres, we make for Lorne on day seven, with the Great Ocean Road closed for our exclusive use, a multicoloured river of velocipedes swirling around the bends, in a sweeping section of this famous thoroughfare.

On a flat section, I pause at a wooden memorial arch, commemorating 3000 Diggers who constructed the Great Ocean Road, using picks and shovels, after World War I, in tribute to their fallen mates.

At Lorne, suddenly engorged, like Apollo Bay, with chunky-thighed chocolate guzzlers, we wait while another section of road is closed to traffic.

It's that evening, in Bellbrae, that Hugh and I have our cinematic date night.

Next morning we set off for Queenscliff, on the Bellarine Peninsula, only 53 kilometres away, paying our regards to surf spot Bells Beach, and sunning ourselves on the Torquay seafront.

A PROUD DAY

It's a proud day for me, too, as I match my old mate for speed, powering my sturdy bike, lent to me by Melbourne's Reid Cycles, alongside Hugh's classic Italian Rossin racing bike.

Then, after leaving our lunch stop, I accelerate away from him.

It turns out, though, that he's had a nasty incident, shattering his crankshaft (poor luv) and being catapulted over his handlebars.

He is bruised but able to continue on a borrowed bike, while ride mechanics repair his Rossin.

Arriving early in Queenscliff, on a peach of a summer's day, we reconvene for yoga in the main tent, free for Great Vic riders, then plunge into the freezing sea, beside the pier.

My last night, shacked up at the Vue Grand Hotel, comes courtesy of All Trails, who offer a luxury, supported ride, including accommodation and occasional 10-minute massage.

SATURDAY NIGHT

It's Saturday night and the three wizened men have donned our best (crumpled) shirts, and John has polished his dancing spats in readiness for '80s cover band Enuff, appearing in the main tent.

We warm up at the Vue Grand's rooftop bar before tucking into slow cooked ribs and several lemon cheesecakes (it's not often you're allowed) in the mess tent. Then, after trawling Queenscliff's pubs, we return to Enuff's big hair and musical cheese.

Age, however, may have wearied us, as none of us hit the dance floor, and instead watch on, rubbing arthritic knees and hips, as teenagers are hoisted aloft and ferried above a sea of arms.

BACK TO NORMAL

Our final morning, skirting the contours of Bellarine Peninsula to Geelong, is a 62-kilometre breeze.

By now, I don't want it to end, don't want to go back to "normal", anchored to my desk and mired by worry over my separation.

Yet, as I cross the finish line at Geelong Showgrounds, to the applause of other people's friends and family and with tears of accomplishment in my eyes, I can't help feeling that, thanks to cycling 527 kilometres from mountain to sea in Victoria, I'm on the way to mending my broken spirit, finally looking forward and not back.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/victoria

Visitvictoria.com.au

bicyclenetwork.com.au

TOURING THERE

The 2017 RACV Great Victorian bike ride runs November 25-December 3 in Gippsland. Entry fee $1099 adults, $829 youth (13-17), $489 children (six-12). Five day and three-day options also available.

All Trails luxury Great Vic packages $2380 a person, twin share. Alltrails.com.au

Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Bicycle Network and Visit Victoria.

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