There's a moment every time I get out on the road on the bike to do some touring.
It happens on day one when I've left the city or town behind, when there's no sound apart from the wind in my ears and the wheels on the road and no one watching except for maybe the odd cow.
It's then that I let out an almighty WOO-HOO of delight.
Because there's nothing quite so liberating as packing up your gear on a bike and having the feeling that you can go anywhere you want.
And so it was that after a good seven months without leaving Sydney (apart from three weeks working in Tokyo for the Olympics and two weeks in hotel quarantine), I hot-footed it out of Sydney with a friend and cycling mate, Pete, as soon as the lockdown lifted and headed for the Central West Cycle (CWC) Trail in inland New South Wales.
Everyone who goes cycle touring does it for different reasons, but for me, it's the epitome of "the journey, not the destination" – I just love the freedom of the open road.
But the CWC has the added bonus of being a pretty good destination, particularly after wonderful winter rain has greened up the countryside and made the native flowers bloom.
Made by cyclists, for cyclists
The CWC is a 400-odd kilometre loop in the central west of New South Wales linking the major towns of Mudgee, Dubbo and Wellington and a handful of smaller ones including Gulgong, Dunedoo, Mendooran and Ballimore.
It was opened last June by a group of local cyclists who'd grown tired of lobbying for a rail trail in their neck of the woods.
Stumped by the politics of bureaucracy of getting something happening, they decided to do it themselves.
"All of us in our little cycling group had been overseas for these week-long cycling holidays and we were frustrated that Australia and particularly NSW wasn't offering anything like that," president of the Central West Cycle Trail Group Barbara Hickson said.
"We know how much trouble we'll go to, to get a week-long holiday in France or Italy in the past, so we needed to have one here.
They mapped the byways, forest roads and trails, putting up yellow stickers to point the way, developed a website with downloadable maps and got local businesses on board.
With little fanfare, the Central West Cycle Trail was born.
It's one big, beautiful loop
Australia does have a few rail trails — mainly in Victoria — where old rail lines have been ripped up and replaced with a path for cyclists.
I've done one beautiful trip with my family from Wangaratta to Bright at the foot of the Victorian Alps, with a side trip to Beechworth.
The Brisbane Valley Rail Trail in Queensland is another popular route and Australia's longest at 161 kilometres.
Rail trails are great, but they're expensive to set up and as the CWC group found, there can be a mountain of bureaucracy to overcome.
There are other long-distance cycle trails in Australia, notably the 1,070-kilometre Munda Biddi Trail linking Perth and Albany in Western Australia and the Mawson Trail, which runs 900 kilometres from Adelaide to the Flinders Ranges.
But the beauty and uniqueness of the CWC is that it's a loop — the organisers were really keen that you could start or finish anywhere.
And because almost all of the route is on country roads and fire trails, it's pretty rare to get passed by a car.
Friends, fresh air and freedom
Pete and I began our journey in Mudgee and only had to ride a few kilometres before we turned off the highway and were into the back roads and soon even quieter gravel.
After 30 kilometres, we made it to the beautiful little town of Gulgong and saw our first group of fellow cyclists lingering outside a cafe.
"This must be the place," I said to one of the women.
"It's a place," she replied.
Her name was Luisa Fearnside, from Sydney, and she was teaming up with Jocie and Geoff Evison, also from Sydney, to do the route the day lockdown lifted, like us.
Before long, we were comparing notes about the routes we were planning to take.
Geoff and Jocie had recently bought serious steel bikes with massive tyres that could take on anything and were keen to search out the toughest alternative routes.
"And also, for me, I really like getting out into country NSW and spending a bit of money."
So, after spending a bit of money, we headed back out onto the road — Pete and I on the main trail for the small town of Dunedoo, while our new friends went on the back road via the intriguingly named Slap Dash Creek.
We chanced upon them again when our paths met up 30-odd kilometres later. Luisa hadn't lasted long on one of Jocie's old bikes, and so she'd driven off to Dubbo to hire a replacement.
They'd had a ball with their big tyres on a trail suitable for mountain bikes but told us we'd made the right decision to stick to easier dirt roads on our gravel bikes.
While we pushed on, they turned the other way for a date with a farmer, who was offering lunch for passing cyclists.
Keeping the local economy moving
Barbara Hickson says the CWC is boosting many aspects of the local economy.
"There are farmers that have come on board to offer morning tea or lunch. They are wonderful because they offer breaks in those longer distances."
In Dunedoo (population 750) the CWC is bringing money into the town via cyclists who stay at an Airbnb or the local pub and spend money at the local bakeries and cafes, said another organiser, Sharon Nott, who lives in the town.
"You're looking at around $75 for each cyclist," she said.
That may average around 10 to 20 people a day, but she said that when the trail was at its peak earlier this year, there were up to 45 riders a day passing through.
The next night we stayed at the Royal Hotel in Mendooran, with a population of just a couple of hundred people, and were one of six groups of cyclists drinking and eating at the pub, some staying in the rooms and some camping out the back.
Licensee Kylie Ward said her seven rooms are booked out on most nights by cyclists, whereas it used to be just the odd shearer or motorist needing a break.
"We didn't realise how big it (the CWC) was going to be, I didn't realise cycling was so big."
She's even added vegan and vegetarian options to the menu.
Earning your pie and pint at the pub
Barbara Hicks said the trail can have up to 100 riders on it at various locations at any one time.
"It's so egalitarian — people can camp the whole thing and right through to lots of golden oldies like myself," she said.
"I spoke to a couple, and they were both over 75 and they'd bought e-bikes especially for the trip."
The next day between Mendooran and Ballimore was a highlight as we rode through Goonoo State Conservation area.
After turning off the tarmac, we averaged less than 10 kph for the first hour or so as we navigated rocks and patches and got temporarily bogged in patches of deep sand on forest roads, but taking in the explosion of spring wildflowers made it worthwhile.
That afternoon we shared a beer at the local hotel with a friendly local horse and met Martin Hesse from Sydney, who'd got up to at 4:30 to drive to Gulgong and had then just ridden in one day what we'd done in three as he raced to catch up with our three new friends, Luisa, Jocie and Geoff.
Turns out Martin is hard core. He's ridden from Perth to Adelaide across the Nullarbor against the wind averaging 220 kilometres per day, but sometimes up to 330, so a mere 180 was nothing to him.
The next night, we all met up at a pub in Wellington to swap notes about the trail and what we loved about cycle touring.
"You could do the whole thing in a single ride if you really wanted to," he said.
"Or, you could spend seven days having the time of your life and it is accessible to all sorts of riders and abilities and bikes.
"So, the equipment, there's no pre-set list, there are no barriers to ability, the days can be as short or long as you like," Martin said.
For Martin, cycle touring is about a totally immersive experience.
"So, you have all of your senses involved when you're travelling on a bike," he said.
"It's the speed of the travel," Luisa added.
"It's a little bit faster than walking, but you still get an opportunity to really soak in the views and the area and the wildlife and you get to see things that you don't see when you're travelling at the speed of a car."
For Jocie Evison, it's, "being out in nature and also the sense of accomplishment".
Ah yes, the pub. There's a theme emerging.
"The exercise, the pubs and supporting the local business, but for me, it's meeting people along the way," Geoff Evison said.
"And we met some fascinating people doing the bike touring but obviously the locals as well."
Get on your bike
The following day we got hammered by the rain as we cycled the last stretch of our ride between Wellington and Gulgong.
We decided to do the first 40 kilometres on the highway because of the rain and not wanting to risk a very slippery and muddy dirt road, which can play havoc with a bicycle's drive train.
As cars and trucks flew by at 100 kph – some frighteningly close – it was a reminder of why the trail organisers had chosen the roads less travelled.
We'd learnt our lesson and so for the last 30 kilometres we turned back on the trail through some beautiful country roads and despite the rain, we had one of the best rides of the five days.
We soon arrived back in Gulgong and the same cafe with a friendly CWC sticker on the door — wet and tired after 350 kilometres, but happy.
I'm like lots of other keen cyclists in Australia, who have gone and explored other parts of the world that are well set up with cycling infrastructure.
A few years ago, I spent a magic three weeks cycling 1,500 kilometres through France, Switzerland, Germany and Austria.
But apart from a few overnighters, I've done very little cycle touring in my own country.
The Central West Cycle trail has inspired me to do more and clearly, thousands of others are jumping on board.
As Martin Hesse told me: "The support is definitely there, but also everyone is realising this untapped opportunity that comes with the cycling community."
Barbara Hickson is hoping more community groups in parts of regional Australia will follow their lead and map out their own cycle trails.
"I'd tell them, firstly I know it might be a bit of work to start with but do it, and your payment is the thanks from everyone," she said.
Elite sport is what 0.01 per cent of the population are employed to do.
Sport is what the rest of us do for fun.
Cycle touring is one of the easiest and most enjoyable ways to get some exercise, get out of your comfort zone and visit parts of the country that you may never get to at a pace that means you take it all in.
Give it a try. Get on your bike.