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As I try to remember where I packed my earplugs, a symphony of snoring saturates the air. The sound comes at me from all directions, a vast swamp of bullfrogs. I am sleeping (not sleeping) with three and a half thousand strangers. They are from all walks of life, all corners of Australia and a handful of foreign lands. I have, by chance, set up my tent among older males who seem to prefer sleeping on their backs. Nodding off is out of the question. In desperation, I flick on my audio player and listen to a chapter of “Dark Star Safari” by Paul Theroux. Just another sleepless evening on the Great Victorian Bike Ride.

This annual event has been run for 23 years now and Bicycle Victoria has fine-tuned it into a well-run organism, a virtual village on wheels. Numbers have fluctuated considerably over the years, from 1900 riders the first year to an astonishing 8100 cyclists in 2004, the year of the free bicycles and the Great Ocean Road.

Although we all take satisfaction in being self-propelled, we are, in fact, supported by a fleet of trucks running on oil. There are hard-working staff and volunteers. Every single day, as we slip silently out on the road to challenge the hills, laborers pack up semi trucks pulling honey wagons, shower trailers, kitchen equipment, food, tents, mechanical gear, coffee machines, etc.

It resembles a medieval village, complete with wandering minstrels, lycra-clad jesters, the aromatic intensity of sweaty human beings, and millions of flies. At every rest stop, we can count on fresh water for our empty water bottles and portable toilets for full bladders.  At each lunch stop, we look forward to sandwiches, fruit, sweets, a bicycle mechanic and good coffee. We have route marshals, sag wagons, “we are right behind you” volunteers and our own daily newspaper: “The Good Oil.”

Ages, body types and bikes cover a wide spectrum. I seem to remember reading that the youngest is two and the oldest 84. There are tandems, tag-alongs and trailers. Father-son teams, mother-daughter pairs. The biggest clumps of riders seem to be secondary school groups (12-14) and those in my own age bracket (50-65.)

I see people perched on bikes whose sheer size makes me wince and wonder how they manage to get uphill. Youngsters who seem to be nothing but knees as they jerk their way uphill, graceful as goats. There are drinkers and thinkers, generous and grumpy old men,  friendly volunteers who serve up dazzling smiles. V.I.P’s and men who have lost their jobs. There is one man on a trike who comes to dinner in a wheel chair. He propels himself with the formidable strength of his arms. He is amazing.

The bikes range from titanium and carbon fiber road bikes that can be lifted with one finger to heavy, steel-framed mountain beasts. There are a few trikes, even one brand new tandem Greenspeed and an elegant, Dutch two-wheel recumbent similar to mine. People ride up alongside me and pepper me with questions: how do you start that thing? isn’t it uncomfortable? don’t your legs hurt? how do you get up hills? (as we pedal up a hill.)

Only one person has the nerve to actually ride it. She complains of a sore bum and knows that it will impress the hell out of her nine year-old son. She’s off to a shaky start, but it takes me a long time to catch her once she hits her stride.

We are riding 550 kilometers through Gippsland, (southeast of Melbourne). It is a diverse landscape, ranging from forested hills to spectacular sandy beaches. It was named after a governor of New South Wales. Cattle and sheep were raised here on cleared pastures from the 1850’s on. Now there is intensive dairy farming, market gardening and viticulture.

We stay in towns with names such as Wonthaggi, Foster, Yinnar, Rawson, Maffra, Paynesville and Buchan. We go east, mostly, then north, climbing painfully uphill into the Strzelecki Range. The next day we shoot back down toward the sea, then spin east again to follow the contours of the farms.

I stop on a long hill and look back at all those energetic, exasperating teens and think to myself: what a wonderful way to get healthy in a hurry. I wonder if they are cursing their teachers under their breath. Is it peer pressure that keeps them pedaling? Are they proud?

The motto on the T shirts says it all: A Week in Another World. We are self-propelled, yet supported by hundreds of generous souls. The towns are welcoming, as if we were a circus. We share confidences, complain and brag, tell bad jokes and good stories. We have left behind our everyday worlds.

Many are repeat riders, signing on year after year for the singular experience of a physically-demanding, shared journey. To those of you who have shared your thoughts, lent me your hammer for pounding pegs in tough ground, bought a bottle of wine or two, broken wind for me (in the literal sense.)  I salute you. I thank you.  May we meet again with the wind at our backs and the hills falling away.  Next year.

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