It doesn’t seem like much on paper. Sixty-six miles. You cover that in an hour on the highway at cruising speed. I have been doing my preparation, getting out on the bike every other day for the last couple of weeks and clocking from 30 to 50 kms on the bike path. Yesterday, however, it was a different story.

The event is called “Around the Bay in a Day.” It began 14 years ago with about 2500 riders. Yesterday there were some 14,000 cyclists. It is a fund raising event for a charitable group called “The Smith Family,” which raised nearly half a million dollars last year for disadvantaged children. I don’t know how much they raised yesterday but there were a lot of corporate teams in evidence.

I wasn’t up to 250 kms, or even 210, but I didn’t think 100 would be so hard. The official start for the 250 loop was 5:30 AM. Those of us who elected to ride the shorter distance were supposed to be down in front of the Arts Centre by 5 AM to load our bikes on tractor trailers and hop the busses that would take us to Sorrento. That meant riding downtown since no public transport starts at that hour. I was up at 4 for the ride downtown on mostly deserted streets.

I’m not exactly a night owl, so it was the first time I witnessed daybreak in Melbourne. There was a beautiful light reflected by the Yarra when I came across the bridge. Hundreds of other riders were busy removing their pedals and turning their handlebars, preparing their bikes for for the trucks. I chanced upon another rider from Essendon, a ride marshall. We exchanged greetings, then I never saw him again.

Sorrento is very close to the narrow straits between Point Nepean and Point Lonsdale called the Symonds Channel, otherwise known as The Rip. A huge amount of water wants to go from Bass Strait to Port Phillip Bay and back every day. There are about a hundred shipwrecks in that body of water. For the around the bay riders, this would prove to be a frustrating bottleneck, as the ferries could simply not keep up with the numbers of riders.

A prime minister by the name of Harold Holt kept a summer home in the town of Portsea. He had been prime minister for two years when he went for a swim one December day in 1967 at Cheviot Beach. According to friends, he swam straight out a couple hundred feet, then disappeared. His body was never found. The beach is now closed to the public but there is a swimming pool in Melbourne named after him. No one ever accused Aussies of not having a sense of humor.

We began our ride around 8 AM. Not long after the start we were seeing streams of riders coming our way, heading for the ferry crossing. They seemed to be riding fast, high on testosterone and their light carbon-frame bikes.

It was tricky riding along with so many cyclists, hard to find the right pace and not feel bunched up. I saw two casualties on my ride back, one shortly after the start. Contending with cars, trucks and the sea of cyclists surrounding you was not an easy task. I wanted to keep my pace in the 25 km range, but it didn’t happen. With stops, it took me six hours to reach Alexandra Gardens. My actual cycling time was five.

Despite the prediction of a mild day, it was one of the hottest rides in the event’s history. It got up to 33 Celsius, or 91.5 F. There was a wind coming at us from the North that seemed to pick up strength the further we rode. The one long hill we had to surmount was not steep, but it was very, very long. When I hit the downhill, however, I was grateful not to have done the ride in the other direction.

I rode back through the city on my last legs, collected my lunch and sprawled out with the thousands of other riders. Thank God for trains, I thought. I won’t have to ride home. I seemed to be surrounded by youngsters, but the mean age of the long distance riders was forty. Dorothy Quinlivan was 75 years old. She set off from Melbourne at 4 AM for her very first ride of 210 kms around the bay. Good on ya, Dorothy. In another thirteen years I just might be in shape to join you.

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