Great Victorian Bike Ride

It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.
Ernest Hemingway

In 2008, I participated on the Great Victorian Bike Ride and wrote the following article. As I mentioned in my previous blog (When opportunity knocks), this article led to many other great opportunities in my writing, photography and editing. I have fond memories of the ride and all the people I met.

Great Victorian Bike Ride

Squinting through the swirling dust I could barely make out the direction of the road as it turned to rise above the drought-stricken lakes. Atop the hill I saw cyclists lying on the ground, exhausted. But I forced myself to peddle on. After cycling 50km into a relentless headwind I was in no mood for these desolate lakes, which seemed intent on joining forces as one gigantic dust storm. I was desperate to get out of the wind and silently cursing anyone that had ever uttered the word ‘holiday’ in reference to this bike ride.

The Great Victorian Bike Ride has come a long way since its inaugural ride from Wodonga to Melbourne in 1984, when 2100 people turned up for a ride advertised only by word of mouth and flyers handed out at bicycle clubs.

Since then, the event has attracted thousands of participants including, in 2004, the ride now referred to as ‘the big one’. That year, a staggering 8000 participants signed up for the opportunity to cycle along the Great Ocean Road on free new bikes given to entrants as part of the ride package. Bicycle Victoria (now Bicycle Network) dedicated the bikes to the late Ron Shepherd by placing a sticker with the words ‘Thanks Ron’ on each bike, prompting participants to ask, “Who’s Ron?”

In 1976, Ron Shepherd led a team of 33 cyclists on the American Bikecentennial, a 6838km coast-to-coast journey from Oregon to Virginia marking the 200th anniversary of American Independence. On his return he campaigned for a similar event in Victoria, which finally came to fruition during Victoria’s 150th birthday celebrations in 1984.

Granted $10,000 by the Sesqui Centenary Committee, Bicycle Victoria (then known as the Bicycle Institute of Victoria) began planning. There were visions of a grand bicycle tour lasting 10 weeks and covering 3200km, but eventually organisers settled for a nine-day, 670km bike ride from Wodonga to Melbourne. The Great Victorian Bike Ride was born – the biggest all assisted bike ride in the world.

Twenty-five years on, the 2008 ride promised ‘a week in another world’ featuring lakes, mountains, wineries and wildlife. Starting in Ballarat, the route was designed to meander through the Western District for 597km before finishing where it all began nine days later.

There is something incredible about setting off on a journey accompanied by thousands of like-minded people. You travel as part of a mobile city, self-sufficient with showers, toilets, restaurant, bar and cinema. In the towns along the route, locals welcome you with broad smiles and words of encouragement. Strangers become friends. Goodwill exists immediately.

Ride Director Vincent Ciardulli says the event breaks down barriers both physically and mentally, uniting people in a common cause. It doesn’t matter whether you are a lawyer or a bricklayer; during this ride you are cyclists.

Ciardulli jokes: “When you come on the ride we steal your bag in the morning, drive it 70-80km away and if you want somewhere to sleep and fresh clothes you have to ride there. So everyone unites in that effort to get to the next destination.”

There are many challenges, including cycling long distances on consecutive days, pitching your tent at the end of a long ride and, as we quickly discovered on this ride, the unpredictable weather.

Day one. Our itinerary described a 49km jaunt winding downhill from Ballarat to Rokewood, but failed to mention gusty headwinds and the necessity to peddle downhill.

Day two. Headwind unmerciful. Cycling between Lakes Corangamite and Gnarput, with the wind blowing dirt from the dry lakes into the path of cyclists, was the most difficult cycling I’ve encountered. Quite possibly I was delusional by the time I finally arrived in Cobden, but I’m sure I overheard a Lycra-clad cyclist say, “That headwind today made 90km feel like 200.”

Day three. Just for fun, the weather Gods threw in rain during the windy 59km ride to Mortlake.

Of course, in the ride’s 25 year history weather has often played a part. In 2006, there were six consecutive days of 35 degree plus temperatures, while in 1997 gale force winds temporarily halted the ride into Sale. In 2002, it was a story of extremes. On the ride into Halls Gap several participants suffered heat exhaustion, while only two days later there were cases of hyperthermia. Cyclists caught out by Victoria’s temperamental weather.

In Dunkeld, at the end of day four, I began to hear disgruntled mutterings around the campground, including one guy declaring that Victoria’s Western District should be renamed the Windy District. That day we had endured 70km of headwinds, and for me, a final 15km of fly swatting madness, which caused me to wobble all over the road.

Of course, one of the highlights of a cycling holiday is the opportunity to socialise, or for that matter, sympathise about the weather. Even when travelling alone, you are never alone. Conversations begin in shower queues or while you are pitching your tent. There is opportunity to mingle in the Spokes Bar or enjoy live music in the big tent. Even when exhausted there’s still a chance to chat over dinner, which is exactly how I met 63-year-old Leon from Leongatha.

Leon Watchorn has been participating on the Great Victorian Bike Ride since 1997 and for several years cycled with the Vic Roads team assisting cyclists and teaching bicycle education to school groups. His fondest memories are those times where he helped people along the route.

“We visited schools throughout the ride to teach kids bike safety and how to ride in teams and assist one another,” explained Leon.

In 1998, a brash 12-year-old school kid, Simon Clarke tacked onto the back of Leon’s Vic Roads group, keeping pace with them for the rest of the day. Leon, and his brother Terry Watchorn, recognised Simon’s potential and introduced him to Olympian Dean Woods, who was celebrity cyclist that year.

Encouraged to join a cycling club, Simon has since gone on to win a junior world championship and several Australian titles, including the 2008 Under 23 Road Race Championship. In mid-2008, after 10 years of amateur cycling, Simon signed a professional contract with Amica Chip-Knauf, a new Italian team.

To celebrate this milestone, Simon decided to cycle the event for old time’s sake before heading to Europe. As an enthusiastic advocate for the ride he’s keen to give something back to the event by returning regularly and encouraging other young riders.

“Living up in the Dandenongs I bashed around on my BMX bike when I was a kid but I never considered that I would compete at a state, national or world level,” said Simon. “It was definitely the Great Victorian Bike Ride, and the Vic Roads guys, that created an awareness in me that I had potential to pursue a career in cycling.”

Simon says the event is the perfect way for him to get back into training after the off-season. However, it should be noted, he had also scheduled a 150km jaunt around the Grampians for the rest day, while the rest of us were taking it easy.

He also gave a kind-hearted wrap to the mere mortals on the ride, saying: “No matter what level of bike rider you are it is still a challenge every day and not everyone can put themselves out of their comfort zone by cycling into a headwind for four days, like we’ve experienced this week. For everyone still on the ride, it’s a true credit.”

Duly inspired, I awoke the following morning with renewed optimism. Crawling out of my tent I saw mist encircling the mountains, the sun was breaking through and, hallelujah, the wind was minimal. So what if there was a big hill climb at the start of the day. It was a beautiful day for cycling.

For the first time I had the energy to enjoy the scenery and it was a spectacular 63km ride to Halls Gap. The camaraderie between cyclists, which always existed but had been cloaked beneath the fatigue of weary bodies, suddenly returned. Smiles were as wide as the mountain ranges towering either side of the road. A young boy threw a wheelie, laughing as I took his photograph. After lunch there was lovely downhill glide into Halls Gap and cyclists arrived in good spirits for a day of rest and rejuvenation.

The following morning I sipped coffee and had a leisurely chat with retired teacher Bryan Pope, who has participated on the ride every year since 1986 – a remarkable 23 times – mostly in his role as teacher at Kerang Technical High School.

“I wanted to give the students an experience they’d never forget and the ride does change the way they look at life. Most of these kids have never had to share or queue for anything and they don’t know what it’s like to ride 90 or 100km. You take them on the ride and bring them back as fairly responsible adults.”

Bryan has seen many changes over the years, but says one thing that hasn’t changed is the generous community spirit of locals in towns along the route. One time, in Castlemaine, a heavy downpour washed out some tents so the owner of the local cinema allowed people to sleep in the theatre between the seats.

In the early years, before the ride became self-sufficient, participants showered in private homes, while bakeries provided lunches and the ride’s chef used any available hall to cook the evening meal. Now, communities are encouraged to think outside the square when planning for the event. Successful ideas have included children with wheelbarrows helping cyclists with their luggage in return for a gold coin donation, massages, street parties, markets, and the very popular early morning bacon and eggs rolls for cyclists weary of queuing for breakfast.

On day seven, the trip out of Halls Gap was as enjoyable as the ride in two days earlier. As I had fervently hoped with a loop ride, the headwinds finally became tailwinds. Apart from an unscheduled stop to watch a farmer herding sheep across the road, there were few obstacles on the 90km ride to Lake Bolac. I arrived early afternoon with ample time to psyche myself up for the next day’s challenging 106km ride to Beaufort.

The longest day of the ride presented headwinds, tailwinds, and even side winds. My theory is Bicycle Victoria sent us round in circles just to nudge us over the 100km mark, which is their trademark challenge day. Throw in three kilometres of dirt road and two massive hills into Beaufort, and that just about sums up the day. As I cycled wearily into the campground at Beaufort Secondary College there was a sense of achievement coupled with déjà vu as I looked around the grounds. It was a mere 27 years ago that I attended school here. Man, I felt old.

But it didn’t stop me from joining the final night celebrations, mingling with other cyclists. The Great Victorian Bike Ride attracts people from all walks of life and there are some incredible stories.

Prior to signing up for the event Debbie Rechtman had never ridden a bicycle, but she was determined to join her children, who were cycling with their school. So she rode a tandem with husband Robert and says the experience was brilliant.

“I loved being in the fresh air and chatting to people along the way. I also wanted to prove to my kids you don’t have to be excellent at something to do it. You can always learn and improve, and you don’t necessarily have to be the best.”

In July 2007, 18-year-old Tim Elser was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Since then, Tim and his parents, Pat and Tracy, have been actively involved with fundraising for the event’s charity partner Diabetes Australia – Vic, through participation on the ride. As well as completing the ride they have won the fundraising challenge in consecutive years, raising more than $5500 for the organisation.

Equally remarkable is 71-year-old Graham Buckley, a retired teacher from Alice Springs, who has been bringing a small group of underprivileged Aboriginal children on the ride since 2003. He raises all of the funds privately and says it’s not always easy but the struggle is worth it.

“A main focus of mine is to give these kids a look at life outside of Alice and to encourage them to hang in at school and achieve a reasonable standard of education,” said Graham. “Some of them live in atrocious conditions in town camps and outside influences impact heavily on their lives.”

Graham wants to continue this project for as long as he can keep raising the necessary funds. He says indigenous people have enriched his life and he feels extremely privileged to have had this wonderful opportunity.

This year’s ride attracted 4200 cyclists, 350 volunteers and 200 support staff, with participants coming from all over Australia and overseas.

“The ride was a great success,” said Ride Development Director Nikki Tyler. “For many people the biggest challenge was the headwinds, but people rose to the occasion and there was a great sense of achievement.”

Thoughts that echoed my own as I cycled into Ballarat, exhausted, yet euphoric. I was glad to finish the ride, but not really ready to go home. There is just something about the Great Victorian Bike Ride that makes people return and I’m sure it’ll only be a matter of time before I conveniently forget the tough days and sign up for another cycling holiday.

This article was first published in the March-April 2009 issue of Bicycling Australia Magazine.

The 2014 Great Victorian Bike Ride commences on 29 November and Simon Clarke is returning as the ride’s ambassador.


3 thoughts on “Great Victorian Bike Ride

  1. I enjoyed reading this article, particularly the historical info about origins of the ride sounds like the 2008 ride was really tough. I enjoyed 2014 immensely. I’ve read a little about Ron Shepherd and the Bikecentennial but didn’t know the free bikes in 2004 were dedicated to him. Thanks for the post.

  2. Pingback: The Grampians: MacKenzie Falls | kgrahamjourneys

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