This iconic ride has a magic about it that can transform people’s lives.
At about this time every year, I think seriously about signing up for the Great Victorian Bike Ride, which is held in Australia in late November. The event, which is run by Bicycle Network Victoria, attracts people from all walks of life and is in its 30th year.
For the first time, the event is starting in South Australia. Cyclists will travel 610km from the rugged terrain of Mount Gambier to the famous Shipwreck Coast, with the route winding its way around the Great Ocean Road and into the lush hills of the Otways. The rest day is at Port Campbell, close to the iconic Twelve Apostles, before the ride continues past Lorne, Anglesea, the world-renowned Bells Beach and Torquay, to finish in Geelong.
I have participated on two Great Victorian Bike Rides (and a Great Tasmanian Bike Ride) and they each hold a special place in my heart. My first Great Vic ride was along the Great Ocean Road, with a record-breaking 8000 other participants, and the second was a loop ride from Ballarat, which took me back to some of the places I lived as a child. I wrote an article about the latter, which can be read here.
I’ve also meet some incredible people and had the opportunity to write about the event, including the article below, which was first published by Bicycle Victoria Network. I would highly recommend the ride to those who love recreational cycling in beautiful locations, or to those people looking for a challenge. It’s an awesome experience.
Great times, Great Vic
Speak to anyone who has experienced the Great Vic and you’ll find a unique story of challenging conditions, spectacular scenery and the discovery of new places. And most will talk of great camaraderie and friendship, a group of people bound together by the common goal of riding 500km. It’s a tapestry of thousands of stories woven together, creating a unique history and an iconic ride.
“I just love getting out on the road, meeting new people and having a good time,” says Bryan Pope, who, at the time of writing this, had been on 24 consecutive Great Vics.
In the early days, Bryan, 63, a retired teacher from Kerang, recalls riders showering in private homes, bakeries providing lunches, and a chef cooking evening meals. People sat on the ground to eat. Now there’s undercover dining, tables and chairs, live music and entertainment.
He recalls on one occasion a fellow teacher, who had been unwell, fell asleep while riding, but somehow managed to stay on her bike. Another time, in Castlemaine, a heavy downpour washed out some of the tents and the students ended up sleeping in the local cinema, between the seats.
For most of his Great Vics, he travelled as a teacher with students from Kerang Technical High School. Now he rides with friends, but students still seek his advice. “I suppose the biggest highlight for me has been seeing kids develop. Sometimes I took kids on the ride that didn’t fit into the group, or really fit in anywhere, and by the end of the ride they did. They set off as students, but returned home as young adults.”
The Great Vic has had a long association with schools, and in fostering a love of bike riding at an early age. Soma Griffin first took part in the ride with Melbourne Girl’s College in 2007. In 2008, she returned on her own to try volunteering and made such great friends that a group of them returned in 2009 as riders.
Soma’s love and enthusiasm for the event is infectious. “You can chat to anyone. It’s so supportive, and really like a big family. It’s an incredible atmosphere, and such a happy time. Everyone comes to have fun and socialise.”
In 2004, the Great Ocean Road ride created history with the largest multi-day participation bike ride in the world: 8000 riders. While this was a wonderful achievement for Bicycle Network Victoria, it wasn’t without its headaches. But those involved simply embraced the additional challenges, and made it work. The ride evolved from the experience and now there is a cap of 5000 riders for the event.
Jo Ballard, 54, of Bacchus Marsh, was lured to try the 2004 ride as a way of overcoming terrible physical adversity. In 1996, she was in a car accident and suffered injuries to her face and head, fractured ribs, collapsed lungs, a fractured right ankle, and both of her knee caps were shattered. During her rehabilitation she took up bike riding, and saw an advertisement for the Great Vic.
“My friends and family encouraged me to go on the ride and I was eager for the challenge, but I was also very apprehensive about re-injuring my knees,” admits Jo. “But it was a chance to believe that with effort, strength and dreams I could achieve something, and I’m really proud I did.”
Since then, Jo has participated on every Great Vic, and a couple of interstate rides. “Prior to the accident I wasn’t into cycling at all, but now I’ve found my little niche in life.”
While health and fitness is a huge motivation for Jo, it’s not the sole reason she returns each year. “It’s a very community-spirited event and everyone works together as a team, so there are no barriers at all. You develop great comradeships with fellow participants, and people are very encouraging. They’ll ride past and say, ‘Come on, you haven’t got far to go, keep going’.
“I remember a group of school children in Paynesville, holding up posters and flags, and waving as a large group rode past. This young boy yelled out to me, ‘Come on missus, keep trying, you can still win’, and I thought that was fantastic.”
Jo also has great admiration for the volunteers, and in 2008 decided to combine riding with volunteering. “On the first day I saw long-term volunteers reuniting after a year away, hugging and kissing, so happy to be there. I think the volunteers really bring out the best in people and help everyone bond together.”
The Great Vic thrives on positive word-of-mouth and holds a place in the heart of many of its participants. “The ride becomes part of you, and is really contagious,” says Bryan. “When I think back to all the people I’ve helped over the years, it’s probably the biggest thing I’ve done in my life. It really is a magical event.”
A bit of history
The first Great Victorian Bike Ride was in 1984 – a 670km ride from Wodonga to Melbourne in Australia – and at the time there was nothing else like it in the world.
In 1976, Ron Shepherd led a team of riders on the US coast-to-coast journey from Oregon to Virginia celebrating the 200th anniversary of American Independence. On his return to Australia he campaigned for a similar ride in Victoria, and eventually the Sesqui Centenary Committee granted $10,000 to Bicycle Network Victoria (then the Bicycle Institute of Victoria). The Great Vic was born.
Almost 30 years on, Bicycle Network Victoria has perfected the art of catering to the needs of thousands of riders. Vincent Ciardulli, General Manager Events, says the organisation has always understood the need for the ride to evolve, and much of this comes from participant feedback.
The ride has moved away from its early days when it was a beacon for advocacy of the bicycle. “These days the ride is really just a beacon for people,” says Vincent. “The bike is uniting people rather than people uniting for the bike.”
Have you participated on a multi-day bike ride? Where did you go? What was the experience like? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
For more information about the Great Victorian Bike Ride, click here.