And ride she did! Pauline Webber enjoyed one of Australia’s best bike rides and discovered the pleasures of communal bike riding.
(Book now for this year’s great ride.) Images below by Pauline Webber
Victoria may indeed be the Garden State, but it is also the bicycle state, with cycleways, railtrails and the dynamic Bicycle Network Victoria looking after the interests of pedal-pushers.
For the past 28 years, this organisation has hosted the annual RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride and I saddled up to join the 2011 tour from Swan Hill, in the state’s northwest, to Castlemaine, 590km southeast.
With 3500 cyclists and 500 volunteers, it’s a huge feat of organisation. Every morning, the enormous circus of tents, catering pavilion, bar, nightclub, luggage trucks, maintenance shop and coffee carts is packed up and re-erected at the next campsite. Most riders take their own tents, but there’s also a Sleep Easy package of tent set up for you each night and a hotel package handled by cycle tour company Alltrails. Combining camping with motels works well, though accommodation en route is booked out well in advance.
We are eased in with a gentle 50km circuit round Swan Hill past vineyards and orchards heavy with summer fruit. The next few days are easy 80 to100km routes through the pancake-flat Murray River valley, the sky a huge blue bowl over fields of wheat and canola.
This is very much a family event - toddlers in trailers are towed along behind mum and dad while kids barely old enough to reach the pedals go tandem or ride solo. Older folk maintain a steady pace while super-fit high school students whiz by them in colour-coded pelatons.
I get chatting with Len, 81 years old and on his seventh ride. “I lost my wife 11 years ago,” he tells me. “I couldn’t let her down so I learnt to cook, clean the house and I took up cycling. I’ve made lots of friends and kept myself fit. I think I do ok.”
Astonishingly, Len is only one of several octogenarians who are Great Ride.
Many riders do the tour again and again, saying it’s a great way to get to know the state. “You see places you’d never go to in other circumstances,” one tells me. Some towns on the route really get into the spirit of the thing and it’s always a buzz to hang out in those that put on a carnival for us. I’ll definitely go back to Barham, Maryborough and other communities that made us so welcome.
Plus “it’s an environmentally sustainable way to travel” says one of the volunteer road marshals, who is on her 11th ride. “These kind of holidays leave a pretty small carbon footprint.”
Among the 1000 school, there are some Aboriginal lads from remote communities. For many, it’s their first taste of the world beyond home. “It builds their social skills and confidence,” says Graham Buckley, who brings students from the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands each year. “For a few, it can be a life-changing experience.”
I burn up the aphalt for a while
Conversation in transit is one of the pleasures of communal bike touring. I burn up the asphalt for a while with WARBIES Gabriel and Jo. The acronym stands for “we are right behind you”, a great thing to know when you get a puncture, take a spill or find your brakes have gone.
Jo, a slight, fair-haired young woman is doing her first WARBIE tour. “I like being a bit of a role model,” she says. “There aren’t many female WARBIES and I reckon it’s good for other girls, especially the school girls, to see a woman take a position of responsibility.”
Like Jo, Gabriel has done the ride many times and feels he gives something back by volunteering. Almost all the volunteers I meet have done the ride many times.
I make a few discoveries as the days pass, not least that a fierce headwind can be harder on the thighs than a hill. I find hot tea is the best pick-me-up after a day on the road, that lying snug and dry in a tent listening to rain patter down outside is one of life’s pleasures, that computers and mobile phones are non-essentials and that there’s no better way to make friends than over a beer and chicken curry in a giant communal dining tent.
The secret to a happy ride, I’m told, is to go at your own pace. On Day 4, I do pedal-chat with Lyn and Val, whose shocking-pink “Grannies on Bikes” T-shirts are hard to miss. Both retired, they formed the club because they’re determined to stay fit into old age. We’ve been riding along together for a while and I’m thinking we’ll probably keep company for the rest of the day when Val says, “Well, we better be getting along. See you in camp.” And with that, they both shoot off into the distance.
Now I’m back home, I do regular rides so I’ll be match-fit for the 2012 ride. Watch out you Grannies!
RACV Great Victorian Bike Ride 2012,
November 24 – December 2
Lakes Entrance to Phillip Island
Registrations open April 2012
Bicycle Network Victoria www.bv.com.au
images by Pauline Webber