An ageing, though sprightly Steven Herrick finds challenges and plenty of good food while cycling the Murray to the Mountains track.
What is it about middle-age men and bicycles? A desire to retrieve lost youth? A passion for Lycra and fingerless gloves? Are bicycles the trainer wheels before graduating to Harleys?
My bike buddy on this trip shakes his head and tells me to pedal faster. I suck it in and dream of the carbohydrate-heavy lunch that awaits 52 kilometres away in Myrtleford. Suitably attired in Tour de Old Fart jerseys, lathered in sunscreen, and dusted lightly with baby powder for (ahem) chafing, we chug through the wide streets of Beechworth searching for the start of this section of the Murray to Mountains Rail Trail.
Catering to all levels of cyclists, the trail is a far-sighted initiative of three shire councils to reuse the abandoned local train lines linking the towns of north-eastern Victoria. The iron tracks have been resumed for scrap metal, the sleepers sold for firewood, and the rolling stock rests in a rail museum in Bright.
Along the trail, each railway siding has been artfully designed to resemble a steam locomotive (use your imagination) providing walkers and cyclists with shade, tank water and toilet facilities. If only we could find the path out of Beechworth.
An embarrassing two kilometres into our journey, we stop for coffee and ask directions. We've already ridden past the trailhead twice, it seems.
Once on the path, we're like men possessed - gears clanking, cleats clicking, thighs pumping. We power downhill through the narrow railway cutting, rabbits and swamp wallabies darting out from the undergrowth to keep us on alert. I resist the urge to stop and pick the blackberries growing wild beside the trail as we plunge on into Everton.
Our wives are spending the day sampling the treats of the Milawa gourmet region by car, while bike buddy and I challenge each other to 40-kilometre-an-hour sprints on the flat sections. "Time trials, just like the Tour de France," he ventures.
We push onwards through undulating pastures of dairy farms and vineyards, swapping stories of mountains we'd like to ride up, tours to follow, carbon-fibre bikes to buy.
Old Holdens rust in a paddock beside the path. Is that the two-tone EK sedan with column-shift and bench seats of my teenage years? Bike buddy scoffs, preferring to catalogue the native birds who seem to have an agreement with the regional tourist board to flutter along this path during daylight hours.
A man picking wild berries signals our arrival in Myrtleford and suggests the Butter Factory cafe for cycle-friendly meals. The owners have recently restored the factory and now churn out door-stop slabs of butter and pure buttermilk.
Our entree has to be bread and butter. The chef helpfully adds a roast garlic clove and local goat's curd atop fresh Milawa sourdough. Delicious.
When the waitress recommends rabbit and vegie pie for our main course, we nod in agreement, wilfully forgetting the scores of bunnies we'd seen cavorting along the trail.
Belatedly, our wives join us with stories of wine tastings and food samples too many to list. They honour us by sitting at the same table, even though, truth be told, we're displaying the signs of too many failed attempts to reach 50km/h during our rash time trials.
An hour later, we lumber back into the saddle for the final leisurely section to Bright. The name of the first creek we cross says it all. Happy Valley.
For the last 30 kilometres, we cycle beside hop farms and vineyards, occasionally stopping to pick worm-filled apples from the overhanging trees. We toss them into the fields for the tourist-board-contracted birdlife.
Until 2006, this section of the Ovens Valley grew tobacco. All that remains now are the Druid-shaped drying kilns of corrugated iron, curiously arranged in threes beside the path.
As we start to fade at the 70-kilometre mark, Boynton's Feathertop Winery comes into view, nestled seductively into the hill. Bike buddy miraculously finds another gear and races up to the front entrance, hanging his bike on the racks just outside the door before striding into the tasting area. Strategically placing his helmet and gloves on the counter, he says, "We're trying today, buying tomorrow." Guilt-free tasting!
After quaffing the range from sauvignon blanc to shiraz, we order coffee and lemon meringue pie and contemplate the rigours of staying upright in the saddle for the last 10 kilometres.
All thoughts of time trials and mountain climbs evaporate. Boynton's thoughtfully offer a wine delivery service to local accommodation for cases bought by cyclists.
For those too knackered to continue, there's a spacious light-filled apartment for holiday rentals directly above the winery.
Eschewing such luxury, we cycle slowly into Bright, stopping for the obligatory photo opportunity at the iconic Rail Trail Cafe, followed by a quick criterium of the rail museum.
Now where are the wives? Bike buddy shrugs, "Don't worry, there's a train line around here somewhere."
Getting there You can join the trail at Wangaratta, Beechworth or Bright. murraytomountains.com.au.
Staying there Boynton's Winery, 6619 Great Alpine Road, Porepunkah. boynton.com.au; Beechworth Bed & Breakfast options — beechworth.com/beechworth_accommodation/bedbreakfast.htm.
Eating there The Butter Factory, 15 Myrtle Street, Myrtleford. thebutterfactory.com.au.
Rail Trail Cafe, 2 Service Street, Porepunkah. railtrailcafe.com.au.