You’ve probably never heard of the 27 kilometers of road stretching from Brighton, a wealthy southeast suburb on the outskirts of Melbourne, to Mordialloc along the edge of Port Philip Bay. Officially this is ‘State Route 33’ but known by all and sundry as ‘The Beach Road’. It’s hardly in the same mythological league as Alpe d’Huez, or the Ventoux but hosting 7,000 riders every Saturday, according to the 2013 Victorian Road Census, must make this one of the great cycling routes by sheer numbers alone? Add in the number of riders on Sundays, weekday commuters and the evening/early morning lycra warriors and the rider numbers are colossal. You get all types along this hallowed stretch of tarmac, mainly amateur ‘choppers’, but also families, tri-athletes, ex-pros now in retirement and the infamous ‘Hellkrew’ riders, considered so dangerous they elicit the attention of Melbourne’s law enforcement community. All shapes, sizes, styles and tastes are catered for on The Beach Road, very metro-sexual and very Melbourne. It’s so easy to dismiss 90% of these riders as ‘new agers’, converts from golf so that they can ride 27kms on their $20,000 Italian bikes head to toe in the latest designer threads and to sip their low fat, soya, lattes at the “Moordi” coffee shack. If you believe my 80 year Yorkshire father, Karl, who’s ridden a bike since his 12th birthday all over the world and at every discipline known, there are only two types of people in this world “those that ride bikes, and those that don’t”. Thanks Dad it a useful thought, then the Beach Road is definitely inhabited by “the right people”.
I arrived here in Melbourne 18 months ago, January 2013. Straight from the middle of a Liverpool winter into a 40-degree Melbourne summer – BOOM! One of my old Scouse cycling mates arrived at the same time for a ‘work project’, at a carbon composite company that has a factory within Melbourne’s outer suburbs. He’s a real hard-case ex-pro bike rider who now lives in Oodenaarde, Belgium. He stayed on there after a successful European racing career; some places are hard to leave. The bike was an escape mechanism from 1980’s Thatcherite unemployment in Liverpool, transforming into a life of pave, Belgium mix and the rough and tumble of the pro peloton. For our first ride along the Beach Road we meet at 09:30, Euro style, at the cycling mecca of Café Racer in trendy, Bo-Ho St. Kilda. But there’s a problem, where are the 7,000 cyclists? The roads are deserted, no wheels to sit on, no one to show us where to go. Even at 09:30 the temperature is approaching the mid to high 20s, not a good sign. We push on down the Beach Road, through Elwood by the kite surfers, Brighton Beach and all the tourists looking for the brightly painted beach huts, to Black Rock with the famous brick tower clock in the middle of the round-a-bout. Past the bike shop run by two ex-world and Olympic champions Kathy Watt and Steve McGlede, on over the ‘bonks’, which the locals consider hills to Moordi. It’s a great feeling to be free of overshoes, leggings and gloves; the roads are pretty good here too. In a tad under an hour we’ve covered the famous Beach Road in its entirety. Coffee at Moordi, no thanks we’ll leave that to ‘The Choppers’, we push on up to Frankston, another 16kms up the road and then another 11kms over Mt Eliza and drop down to the seaside town of Mornington for our coffee. A 30-minute stop and we hit the road back for the 50km return to our start at Café Racer. Now we understand where everyone is as the temperature hits 40 degrees. This ride home isn’t going to be fun for two middle-aged blokes straight from a Northern European winter. We buy, beg and even contemplate stealing water on our return ride, we’d drink form puddles but there aren’t any. Now we know where all those thousands of cyclist are, they ride at 6am; they get four solid hours in and are home by the pool or on the beach by the time the heat kicks in. It’s a mistake you only make once, lesson learnt.
In a classic case of neo-liberalism state intervention there is no parking on the Beach Road up to 10am on a weekend. This allows enough space along this four lane, with bike lane in places, route. Enough room for the masses to chop, weave, undertake, surge, slow, baulk and fan out three or four abreast. This certainly isn’t Europe. From the age of 11 I was out on club runs with the Hull Thursday Road Club riding around East Yorkshire in neat symmetrical pairs, doing a turn at the front and then swinging to the back at the command of my dad’s whistle. Everything was very regimented, organized, very British, as one would expected by a cycling club run by working class, ex-national service squaddies. Just because these cyclists can afford $20,000 dollar top spec bikes doesn’t mean they know how to ride them. Money can’t buy knowledge or skill though there are plenty of people trying to sell it along the Beach Road. Search the Internet and you will find a cruel satirical web site called “Pro Kit Wankers”, lots of these riders could feature on this web site.
There are some unwritten Beach Road rules, which go thus: –
- Always ride in your big ring, over geared is always best, never go over 54rpm and it makes for a slow and knee cracking start at traffic lights.
- Its shorts, always shorts not matter what the weather conditions. If its cold, not often, then its shorts but with hefty overshoes.
- Wheel choice on this parcour is crucial. It has to be 80mm deep section carbon with flashy graphics. Lots of shwooshing on the Beach Road.
- Always stand up and get the center of gravity as high as possible when coming to a stop at a junction, a little weaving/wobble is also good here.
- Why sit neatly on a wheel when you can leave gaps and weave about all over the place?
- Never ride tempo when you can surge and brake, surge and brake.
- Ride on the left out the way of traffic – NO! Ride as far right as possible, into the second lane is best.
- Half way to the Moordi coffee stop always have a gel or two as the cake at the stop might not be enough to keep the bonk at bay.
- Taking turns at the front is overrated; the pros have got it all wrong. Always sit on the front guy and let him get slower and slower until you can jump him and then sit on the front until you get jumped.
- Crash helmets are the law in Australia; as everyone knows riding around with a polystyrene hat makes you a safer rider/target.
Sometimes the inverse of European rules apply, well it is a land down under. For example in Europe if you don’t do your through-and-off turn some gnarly Belgium will threaten you or put you in a ditch. Here you can’t join in a through-and-off session unless you have, and are wearing, their club jersey. Here sitting on the back in the ‘armchair’ is the default.
All satire aside the Beach Road is probably one of the world’s great cycling routes. My Dad is probably right; if you ride a bike then you are a cyclist. No room for my elitist Euro snobbery here in Australia. Bike sales, cycling clothing and accessories make for a boom cycling industry here. No old shabby steel bikes, and cycle jumble sale clothing. In Melbourne the bike shops are spotless, modern boutiques and there are lots of them. The bikes and clothing match the salaries and house prices. This isn’t Hull or Liverpool it’s the Beach Road, Melbourne, Australia.