We thought we knew the Otways pretty well, but a few choice turn-offs open up a whole new world of thrilling adventure.

Words: Nick Squillari

Photography: Dominic Hook

There really is nothing quite like the nervous excitement that comes with an overseas cycling trip. Settling into the aircraft seat, searching for Deadpool on the inflight movies (maybe that’s just me) and trying to not be nervous about weather unknowns in a distant cycling mecca. You quickly forget about the weeks, months, years of planning that have gone into this moment. It all seems worth it. Almost easy. Yet I’ll wager that, less than 24 hours earlier, there were at least half a dozen things you were still scrambling to organise. Details you were stressing over. Variables – totally out of your control – that only matter when you’re travelling thousands of kilometres from home.

So while there hasn’t been a single overseas trip with Cyclist that I haven’t enjoyed, when the chance came up for a Big Ride in Victoria – ‘you choose the location’ – there was only one place I wanted to take readers.

Thanks largely to Amy’s Gran Fondo [and the Cyclist Gravel National Championships], the Otways aren’t exactly an ‘unknown’ when it comes to cycling. Skenes Creek climb. The roads out of Forrest. Apollo Bay. All gems, but also all well-ridden. And while arguably they could all be enjoyed a little more when not maxing out your heart rate in a heated fondo (an oxymoron if ever there was one), this Big Ride is about exploring more of what the Otways have to offer. Routes springing just off those already known but still with the mystique and sense of the unknown that comes with an overseas trip. Those excited butterflies as you clip in. Double checking you have enough food ‘just in case it gets epic’. But safe in the knowledge that, if it all goes wrong, you’re not too far from what you know.


Seeing the Forrest for the trees

When it came to recognising Forrest, Victoria as an ideal base for riding, mountain bikers were so far ahead of the curve it was like Sagan sprinting against, well, me. There are other towns in the region, but with Forrest you avoid a lot of the more ‘run of the mill’ types of tourists. Even in the middle of summer, the tourist count isn’t heaving like you might find with Lorne or Apollo Bay. It has nothing to do with its location. Easy to navigate to and with access to the Otways roads, the exceptional network of mountain bike single track around town (rated as one of the better mountain bike parks in Australia) makes it that much more of an attractive holiday proposition for those inclined to spend time on two wheels. And now it’s not just those on dirt who are using it as a base.

The recent growth in cycling tourists means the town now offers a brewery, cafes that pump out both solid coffees and exceptional baked goods (I feel choc brownies could probably solve most of the world’s problems), and a pub. So, basically, it checks the major boxes when it comes to ‘cycling adventure must-haves’.

And did I mention the serenity? You’ll hear the odd cow cutting through the kookaburras, but overall you’re surrounded by trees. A lot of trees. (Side note: the town was named after local MP Charles Forrest, not the surrounding timber.) Outside of the plentiful foliage, there’s also a real sparsity when it comes to phone reception. It’s a hell of a lot of silence. While I can hear gasps, as someone who traded a quiet(ish) town for the bustle of Melbourne, relief from all the noises of modern life feels like a beautiful cocoon. I’m no life coach. I don’t live by some snappy #lifehack mantra for happiness. All I know is that getting off the grid – even for a few days – is a mental reset I promise you won’t regret.

Who is Turton?

Sam – cycling team-mate, buddy and riding copilot for the weekend – asks if I have some spare arm warmers. It’s 7am and the kookaburras are seemingly laughing at him. Mirth at the rookie mistake. As beautiful as the Otways are, temperate mornings aren’t a feature for which they’re renowned. Last night’s full moon is still in the sky as we roll out. Maybe that’s why a possum was seemingly inexhaustible on the roof over my room. Sam never heard a thing. Guess that evens things up. One with cold arms, the other still sleepy, we roll out of a town still dead to the world.

For about 200 metres it’s downhill before the climbing starts. As far as remedies go for either of our ‘ailments’, an uphill start to a ride certainly fixes that. The gradient isn’t rude, but I’m not thinking about my lack of sleep anymore. Entering the rainforest there’s the odd chirp through the dappled early morning light and a rustle of leaves, but otherwise an almost deafening silence. As someone who can’t stand a creaking bike, I can’t help but be relieved our Cannondales are as silent as the surrounds. This isn’t a ride for anyone with OCD about creaks.

I’m no life coach. I don’t live by some #lifehack mantra. All I know is getting off the grid – even for a few days – is a mental reset you won’t regret

And while I promise to not keep rehashing this point, I do want to bang the drum for why – even if you’ve done Amy’s Gran Fondo in the (newer) ‘reverse’ format – you still owe it to yourself to come back outside of that time for another look. At this point in the fondo (in either format), there’s normally sweat pouring over your sunnies, half a gel remaining in your stomach, and the other half smeared across your jersey and top tube. Then you’re likely experiencing one of the following: I need to pee, I need to eat (non-cycling food), I need to drink, and – perhaps most of all – I’m ready to collapse. All while surrounded by hundreds of other riders connected by a combination of the above. While I probably should have relieved my bladder prior to departure, Sam and I are ultimately tranquilo. Empty roads and a rendezvous with a track. Impromptu stoppages pose no stress on our finishing time today.

It’s the best part of 500m of vertical ascent before the right hand turn for Turton’s Track. Even though I’m almost a local around these parts, Turton’s has never been on my agenda. It’s neither hidden nor off the beaten path; road signs clearly indicate a route through to Beech Forest. But the Jurassic Park-like maw of the bush just doesn’t boast an enticing route for road bicycles.

Enticing, though, it is. Descending into a world of eucalypts, ferns and moss, we soon find even the air is noticeably warmer, much to Sam’s relief as we wind our way down through the depths of the rainforest.

It takes a moment to click as to why we feel so immersed. There are no guard rails. The road is only a lane and a half wide. While we admire trunks that disappear to a forest floor far below and surrounds that are truly stunning, keep in mind you have about as much of a safety net as a base jumper. You won’t find L’Alpe d’Huez-style switchbacks. There is, however, the risk of slippery leaf litter or the rare vehicle coming in the opposite direction. All of my Google-fu was unable to unearth who Turton was. But damn it, if I was left with the option of having a ‘track’ named after me, this one would be at the top of the list.

An Otways oasis

Turton’s Track gradually winds back uphill and emerges from rainforest to regrowth and sustainable plantations and eventually to rolling hills. The south-west boasts a large dairy industry and while Timboon is a bit of a drive west, the ice cream it produces is arguably worth every hangry kilometre if you absolutely must have some for dessert. Beech Forest is the first town, 36km in, with farmland to the north and trees to the south. Too soon for a break – and too early for the one shop in Beech Forest to be open – we tap along the ridgeline towards Lavers Hill. Exposed and at 500m of elevation, it’s no alp, but it’s certainly more than a bump.

Over the last few years the Otways (including Beech Forest) have seen snow during the winter – and we’re not talking a cute dusting on the letterbox. Residents were snowboarding! I can cite multiple friends who failed to factor how quickly the weather can go from a sunny 11-degree day to rain and three-degree temperatures. So, even though solo ride kings (like me) love the heightened reclusive nature of riding through the Otways outside of summertime, take heed. Pack warm gear, and remember, if you’re worried you might look foolish carrying a jacket, there’s no one around to see it.

Entering the rainforest there’s the odd chirp through the dappled early morning light and a rustle of leaves, but otherwise an almost deafening silence

In all the times I’ve done this loop, I’ve never stopped at Lavers Hill for anything more than a quick water refill. And in fairness, the exterior of cafe Yatzies gives no indication as to what actually lies within. Stepping inside to ‘just have a squiz,’ the display cabinet of baked treats positively radiates. Doughnuts, muffins, slices of assorted cakes, cronuts, pies, pasties. Our jaws drop. Who is eating all of this? An oasis in the Otways. It didn’t matter. All you need to remember is do is I say, not as I have done, during rides gone by. Plan to stop in Lavers Hill. I’m still dealing with years of bypassed food regret.

Once fuelled, the route heads directly south, not south-west, unless you fancy a trip to the 12 Apostles and back into the rainforest. Another time.

Descending into a world of eucalypts, ferns and moss, we soon find even the air is noticeably warmer

Koala bare

The southbound leg ducks in and out of the rainforest in an undulating downhill. The drop in to Glenaire is a highlight. Don’t stress about the brakes – the left-hander, close to our most southern point of the ride, sweeps around the coast as it passes the surf observation platform. The coastline forms the eastern third of the little-known Shipwreck Classic, held on the Shipwreck Coast, where over 600 ships have sunk since the early 1800s. The Classic used to be held the day after Australia’s oldest one-day race, the Melbourne to Warrnambool. Swell is also ever-present – fans of the Rip Curl Pro would recognise Johanna Beach as the location the Pro visits when Bells Beach isn’t pumping.

Past Glenaire is the longest stretch of flat. Our legs take a well-earned 10km rest as we pass through farmland and tidal marshes. The Hordern Vale pinch of 2km at an average of 8% is all the more tough given it’s in the forest, and on a hot, still day you’ll feel an extra bit of heat. The good news is you’re roughly a kilogram of sweat lighter by the top. The bad news is you won’t find another tap for 20-odd kilometres. Today is a 750ml, two-bidon kind of day.

Just after the crest of Hordern Vale is the turn-off for Cape Otway (that little bit sticking out the bottom of the map). If time isn’t an issue it’s well worth a ride down to Australia’s oldest operating lighthouse and a rapidly booming koala population. In fact, Blinky and Caramello were doing so well that relocation of around 500 of these not-so-friendly furry marsupials was needed due to the region suffocating from over-consumption of their almost exclusive eucalypt diet. The dead eucalyptus trees make for a stark contrast to hours of lush branches and leaves. And on all but one visit I’ve been treated to multiple sightings (and grunts) as they move from tree to tree. Whale watching off the cape is also popular. Although with the wind and gawking tourists, it’s debatable whether you would want to stand around for hours on end in your cycling kit.

The good news is you’re roughly a kilo of sweat lighter by the top. The bad news is you won’t find another tap for 20km

After Cape Otway, it’s back on the pedals for a few more kilometres before bombing down to Apollo Bay. If you’re riding in tourist season, I’d recommend you eat more at Lavers Hill so you can just grab a quick drink and get out of town. If you thought koalas were grumpy, they’ve got nothing on some of the staff around Apollo. In June, it’s relaxed and lovely. In February, it’s best kept to small doses. It’s that paradox where the overwhelming number of tourists is what creates the income but also drives the locals mad. I get it. Best to keep on trucking and hit the gravel.

Groad mode

The new verb for gravel road riding is now ‘groad’ or ‘groading’. We’re well past the point of concern for destruction of the English language, so I’m cool with it. This groad (it’s a noun too) kicks off just outside of Apollo Bay with Wild Dog Road, a touch under 3km from the Skenes Creek climb. If you get to Skenes Creek, you’ve gone too far.

A little under 10km of Wild Dog is gravel-based, with the bottom 2km and top 3km sealed. It’s the perfect way to dip the tread into your more adventurous side. The groad proper starts at the intersection of Busty Road, and if ever there was a road to introduce someone to groading, this would be it. Corrugation-free and with a limited dose of large, loose stones, this is the place to sample some of the area’s best. The overhanging trees mean leaf litter gets pressed into the road by the infrequent local traffic. The result is little dust and dirt, with a firm surface by which to push on. And while I would want to be rocking tyres that bag out at least around the 25mm range, a regular road bike would also be fine on this climb. Tubeless, even better.

The road winds its way along the side of the mountain, taking us in and out of the forest until, by about halfway up, we’re again completely immersed under the canopy. It’s the first few days of March, and even after a long summer the roads are nowhere near as dry as you might expect. Fist pump for not returning with dust in every crevice of the bike and kit. A big downpour could see parts pretty sticky; otherwise, by the top, it feels like the superior route to take from Apollo Bay to Tanybryn. We count a single car along this stretch, possibly on the way to one of the secluded B&Bs found near the summit.

On all but one visit I’ve been treated to multiple koala sightings as they move from tree to tree

Before this trip I was never one who went looking for groads, but on the return to Forrest I was getting the run-down from Sam on all the other gravel bypasses in the region. Sunnyside Road, which connects back with Forrest-Apollo Bay Main Road, Busty Road, Grey River Road – they’re all part of an absolute multitude of routes that finish with a lick of gravel and even less traffic.

I still love road riding, but finding routes to ride with minimal traffic is becoming more and more of a challenge. And while the solution to the situation we find with cars and aggression should be one of education and respect, why not couple the benefit of getting out of their way and onto roads that are just as much fun (and challenging)? Races like Strade Bianche have embraced gravel, even if the 2018 edition was more mud. Bikes are becoming ever-more compatible over mixed surfaces, so take it on board and enjoy a locally based getaway with as much of the unknown as an overseas adventure – safe in the knowledge that, should you triple puncture, you’re still only a phone call away to a partner or mate for salvation.

Nick Squillari is a Melbourne-based rider and podiatrist who is still dreaming of Yatzies’ baked-treats cabinet.

Bust a move

Treat yourself to something a little different

One of the many alternate roads in the region forks off from our Big Ride route, just 2km up Wild Dog Road (and still on the sealed bitumen). Busty Road. It’s a mystery why the Surf Coast has an obsession with women’s chests (there’s also a surf break called ‘Boobs’). Bearing no real anatomical similarities, Busty is a shorter, steeper and more masochistic path to cutting out a third of Wild Dog Road. Taking a 90-degree right-hand (easterly) turn, you’re hit hard early with gradients at and above double digits. But stick with it, as it flattens through the middle – where it then turns to hard pack gravel – before delivering the sting in the tail. Gradients briefly over 15% on gravel are a joy.

The wind and dust swirl and eddy enough to mask your tears of pain. However, the view is certainly worth it. The road is built on a ridgeline, so you get exceptional views left and right and an appreciation as to why residents, who also undoubtedly have no issue with wind that is always blowing, have houses tucked away along its length. You would want pegs with 50 Nm of clamping force for the clothesline, but the panorama of the coast and mountain range is exceptional. Dropping off the crest is sharp but not too insane for a rim brake bike, but take it easy. Shift your weight back a little, ala mountain bikers, and you’ll drop down and back into the forest and down to Wild Dog Road. A right turn takes you up to Tanybryn (Skenes Creek summit), while left is back down. It’s a spicy little bonus for those looking to nail that hurt locker shut (and capture some terrific shots).

Three ain’t a crowd

Bringing along the family? There’s plenty for them to do while you’re grinding away

Some of you will be undoubtedly thinking, ‘This is all well and good, but I have a partner and children that will be coming along. What about them?’ Never fear. Forrest not only has trails for the little sprouts to bomb, but there’s also a skate park and no shortage of open spaces for running amok. The Otway Fly provides a treetop walk through the rainforest followed by a thrilling zipline ride through the canopy. Then there is e-bike hire in Beech Forest for a trip along the Old Beechy Rail Trail. Kids can either ride along or jump in a tow-along trailer. For something down on the forest floor, Maits Rest and the Californian redwood forest are both stunning – in a way that the ever expanding ‘old man’ in me worries that the younger generation won’t appreciate (given it’s not delivered on a screen).

The rider’s ride

Cannondale Synapse Carbon Disc Red eTap, $8,499, cannondale.com

There is no directive that ‘you must own a gravel bike’ for any of these rides. All are very doable on a road bike with tyres ideally of the 25mm range. Now that manufacturers have had a few years to digest and design bikes around gravel road (groad) riding, they’ve really started to come into their own. Being stable on gravel is one thing, but these bikes also need to be stable on sealed roads, given they still make up a sizeable portion of a groad ride. The Synapse felt just at home on asphalt as off -road. A longer wheelbase paired with a lower BB and typical road front end trail meant handling was a breeze. In fact, I missed my Skenes Creek descent PB by only six seconds, and that was into a head wind with 28mm tyres – just for a little bit of #excusewatch. The Synapse rails. The SRAM eTap hydro groupset has been well refined. The hoods are now slimmer than ever. Braking was as you would expect from hydro disc – strong enough to pull up a jumbo jet but with more control and modulation than you could ever need. eTap shifting, as always, was sublime.

By the numbers

Stats, stats, stats

Metres of vertical gain. Our ride wasn’t an epic search for up, but there are still a few reasons you’ll be feeling ready for dinner

Pounds per square inch of pressure, front and rear, for our big bag tyres

Tyre size in millimetres

Wild Dog’s gravel length in km

Hours to ride with photo stops, morning tea and lunch. You could hammer it around in less than six, but there’s the fondo for that. Enjoy the views!

How we did it

Follow in Cyclist’s wheel tracks

From Forrest, head south onto the C119 Forrest-Apollo Bay Road and continue the ascent for around 18km. Soon after the crest and at around 540m above sea level, take a left-hand turn onto Beech Forest Road and head due east towards Beech Forest. Continue through town and onto the C155 – the same road, just with a new name – and continue along the undulations until Lavers Hill. Take a left turn onto the Great Ocean Road at the 54km point and enjoy the long descent (with one small bump along the way) until you reach the coast at Glenaire. The coastal views continue all the way to Otway Lighthouse Road (81km) where you can decide to detour to the waterfront or continue through to Apollo Bay. Make a left onto Wild Dog Road and settle in for a long climb back towards Forrest. Reach the top, note the turn for Beech Forest on your left, and enjoy a primarily downhill run to the finish. Download the full route at strava.com/routes/12256505.

How we got there

Interstate visitors are best to fly in to Avalon, if possible, as the drive is only 75 minutes or so from the airport. It’s almost impossible to get lost, so have no fear about navigating to the destination.

Forrest has a multitude of options, many of them located within a very short walk (or ride) from town. Its relatively small size means one can enjoy a few offerings from the brewery and not have to worry about driving home. We did have a resident bush rat the first night in our accommodation; snake sightings are rare, but given the immense surrounds of the state forest, they do happen. And there is always the risk of kangaroos jumping across the road (either riding or driving). The Australian bush – where nearly everything is out to kill you.

The closest supermarket is Apollo Bay, an 80km round trip. That’s a long way for muesli. Forrest does, however, have the basics, and around half a dozen options for dining out, which isn’t too bad for a town with a population pushing 230. Not all are open for lunch and dinner, so like all good weekends away, do your research prior to arrival.

Big thanks to Cannondale Australia for the Synapse sleds. The SRAM eTAP hydraulic disc groupsets were a treat I had yet to devour. Also to Black Sheep for the fresh threads – no better way to mark a weekend trip than with some crisp new kit.