Fancy a nine-day camping trip with 4500 sweaty cyclists? It sounds like the holiday from hell. Yet against incredible odds the Great Victorian Bike Ride (GVBR) is fun, even for someone like me who prefers the peace and quiet of independent travelling.
Organiser Bicycle Victoria claims it’s the world’s biggest supported cycling tour. Each year thousands of riders and several hundred volunteers test their legs against hills, heat and headwinds. For over a week they share the road, the camping areas, the toilets, the showers, the food queues, the entertainment, a beer or two and lots of laughs.
The 2007 route crossed Gippsland from Phillip Island to Buchan, 544km plus a few diversions. Most days we rode 80 or 90km, mainly on the flat but with pleasantly challenging hills in the Strzelecki Ranges. It was manageable even for a rookie, though I was glad I’d done some bottom-hardening preparation in the weeks before the ride.
I was less well prepared for the communal camping. Each morning I pulled on my clammy lycra, crawled out of my dewy little tent on the local footy ground, struggled across to the rows of toilet trucks, waited my turn, pressed the foot pump once only, then lined up for cereal, fresh fruit salad, pastries and yoghurt, served by cheerful volunteers. Three ridiculously merry minstrels on sax, banjo-ukulele and drum entertained the queuing masses with an up-tempo version of King of the Road.
I’m normally a taciturn breakfaster, but on The Great Vic you chat. I met Arthur the retired auditor-general, forensic pathologist Helen and Peter the agricultural contractor. There were farmers, teachers, accountants and carpenters. Frank’s kids had sent him on the ride as a 60th birthday present ‘just to get rid of me for a few days.’
I met riders from every state of Australia and from the UK, the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Germany, Holland and South Africa. The youngest was 4, the oldest 84.
They talked about riding, about bikes and about life. At breakfast!
By 7.30 each morning my tent and backpack were loaded onto one of the six massive trucks that ferried gear to the next campsite, and I was on my bike.
I loved cycling through the rolling hills of beautiful Gippsland, but I wouldn’t have felt confident riding the route on my own. Risks of accidents, bike failure or heart failure, and the uncertainties of the road conditions would deter me.
Fortunately the GVBR organisation addressed most of these concerns. The route generally followed quiet but well-surfaced roads, marshals and police kept cars at bay at danger spots and WARBY (We Are Right Behind You) volunteers helped fix punctures. Mobile coffee vans provided life-saving cappuccinos and at the back of the field the Sag Wagon collected anyone who had had enough for the day.
The GVBR logistics were handled with incredible efficiency. Next time we have a natural disaster, forget the army, let’s get Bicycle Victoria to run the relief effort.
I rode at my own pace, sometimes slowly taking in the scenery, sometimes slipstreaming a train of serious riders for a few fast kilometres.
It was great to see over a thousand high school kids riding, groups from Geelong Grammar, Deniliquin High and McKinnon College prominent in their smart matching jerseys. But ageing baby boomers like me were also over-represented and there were as many kegs as six-packs squeezed under those logo-spattered jerseys.
Wiry old codgers with knobbly legs were back for the seventeenth time, others were enjoying their first Great Vic. There were parents bonding with their sons and daughters and groups of mates ‘just doing it for the beer’. All were bursting with a sense of achievement.
Slick road bikes zipped past, but hybrids like mine were popular too; a little slow, but sturdy enough – rather like myself. Others rode mountain bikes, tandems, recumbents and there were even a couple of hand-cranked machines.
In every town Lions Clubs and primary schools offered Powerade and sizzling sausages at knock-down prices. At the official daily lunch spot we filed past more happy volunteers handing us drinks, bananas and tandoori chicken wraps. I chatted some more – to Brian from Goolwa, Peter and Julie from Sandringham, and Dougie and Margaret who’d come out from Scotland for the ride.
On the hills I shifted into my lowest ‘granny gear’, pretending I was slowing to give ten-year-olds on their mountain bikes a little wobble room. How did those skinny kids get in front of me anyway?
Most of us took four to six hours to reach the campsite, which left the afternoon to kill. Even that was taken care of. The Spokes Bar was in full swing, and workshops were on offer in bicycle maintenance, managing diabetes, dance and juggling. I opted for daily harmonica lessons with virtuoso Justin Brady. My musical progress was disappointing but it was fun trying.At night while the riders enjoyed the bands, the trivia quiz or the speed dating, mechanics repaired broken bikes, medical teams patched up gravel rash and masseurs rubbed aching legs. I ended Day 6 with an elegant dive onto the bitumen of Maffra, a town in central Gippsland. Thanks, Dr Chris, for the stitches. I should have asked you to embroider ‘I survived the GVBR’ on my forehead. Maybe I’ll just get a tat instead.