Paramedic road support is all along the cycle route.
Story and Photos by Steve Sullivan
While I was doing a three-month medical assignment as a doctor in Alice Springs, Northern Territory, my wife, Wendy, and I made the decision to sign up for one of Australia’s best known bicycle challenges, the Great Victorian Bike Ride (GVBR). Having undeniably passed through the 55-plus time warp and looking for a little adventure on the long down hill slide through life, we did our Internet research and briefly considered our somewhat questionable fitness level. Then my wife made up our minds, “Let’s do it!”
Canadians Steve and Wendy Sullivan look fresh and fit at the beginning of their ride.
The Bicycle Network website recommended minimum preparation as 600 kilometers of cycling in the six weeks leading up to the ride. That seemed easy enough, especially around nice flat Alice Springs. Ready or not, this semi-retired, semi-fit Canadian physician and his partner joined a veritable herd of 8,000 other cyclists on a ride bound to impress the grandchildren when they get old enough to appreciate our feat.
The intrepid 8,000 ranged in age from babes in bicycle trailers to grannies on racing bikes. Lots of school kids on school trips too. There were mums and dads with hook-on bikes for their offspring and even a few people on tandems. The level of fitness varied widely; some clearly hadn’t done their homework. While Wendy and I had no trouble on the flat, we were often grateful for the 32-tooth giant rear granny gears that came with our bikes. On the hills, I could pull ahead of one 70-something granny on her racing bike, but on the flat I couldn’t keep up with her.
The GVBR is certainly not for couch potatoes nor the faint of heart but you don’t have to be a Tour de France cyclist either to enjoy it. The shortest day, dubbed the prologue, was the first at 46 kilometers. Aptly nicknamed the century, the longest was the second day at just over 100 kilometers. Fortunately, the century was relatively flat but beware day three! Its 89 kilometers were euphemistically described as having “a few elevated areas for magnificent views across the countryside and out to sea.”
The pack or peloton hit the road.
Day five was described as having “more downhill than up” but the up included 15 kilometers of sustained uphill on Lavers Hill. That day, 1,100 bikes had to be transported by double-decker cattle trucks over the hill. Day 6 was a welcome rest day. From there, the going was easy. I didn’t need my granny gear again, but then neither did I catch a glimpse of granny on her racing bike.
Along our route, the Great Ocean Road is one of the most memorable drives/rides in the world. We were fortunate to do much of it without the distraction of automobile traffic. Time, wind and waves have hewn incredible structures from the stone: the Twelve Apostles, London Bridge (now fallen down) and Loch Ard Gorge to mention a few. Along the way, we passed through or stayed in delightful little towns with populations a mere fraction of our group size.
Six of the Twelve Apostles make an inspiring cycling backdrop.
Australians have been great about preserving and restoring their fine old buildings and pubs. This was particularly true in the seaside resort of Queenscliff where we enjoyed a quiet beer at the Vue Grand hotel bar and pitched our tents in a large tree-shrouded park along the foreshore. Here we had front row seats for a grand finale fireworks display our last night on the road.
Compare and contrast! Tents pitched in Queenscliff’s city park offer rustic shaded accommodation and across the street from tent city Queenscliff’s historic accommodation.
Bicycle Victoria’s planning and execution of the Great Victorian Bike Ride gives new meaning to “fully supported” — breakfast, lunch and dinner, a cricket oval or farmer’s field in which to pitch your tent and lots of toilets and hot showers; giant trailer trucks moving 20 kilograms of swag per person from site to site; and huge circus-style tents covering the eating, drinking and serving areas. There were 3,000-liter vinyl water bags with teats and multi-tap watering stations for refilling water bottles, multi-spray washing troughs for dirty dishes and multi-spigot hot water spots for tea, coffee and something called Milo. If you could stay awake in the evening, there were free movies, live entertainment and talent shows.
Volunteers included motorcycle paramedics, course marshals, traffic cops, and folks to unload the swag, Sag Wagons for those too pooped to pedal, WARBY (we are right behind you) helpers, and all the great people who served meals, filled jugs of beer and pulled corks in Café de Canvas! And then there were the commercial “camp followers”: Spud wagon, Cappuccino cart, Pizza oven, Pancake pan, Juice spot, Picture man, Bike fit, repair, parts and accessories folks. It truly was an amazing logistics operation. In fact, it is rumored that the Australian military studied the GVBR before moving personnel to Iraq!
A box lunch break on the beach.
As everywhere, weather is predictably unpredictable and we had one day that was, to use the Australian vernacular, “a bugger”! Windy, rainy, cold, and a bit of sleet. Hundreds succumbed to hypothermia or fatigue and even the redoubtable Wendy had to catch the “Sag Wagon” that day.
There was one day when I had trouble setting up the tent because of wind and at least two nights when rain bucketed down. But mostly the weather was not an issue. The biggest challenge was not knowing what to put in the daypack each morning. You could truly experience three-and-a-half seasons in a single day.
Home sweet home in a farm field for the night looks crowded but cosy.
The Great Ocean Road is necessarily blocked to normal traffic when the ride passes through.
Weather aside, the only down side of our experience was that we were 8,000 strong! Not likely to happen again, with future numbers capped at 5,000 annually. Realistically, numbers meant you had to queue for everything. If you saw more than three people standing in a line, then best get in it right away because a queue must be forming for something breakfast, lunch, dinner, massage, swag trucks, toilets, showers, and beer!!
Undoubtedly, the first morning was a shakedown exercise for everybody. The line-up for breakfast went around the block several times. However, by the third day systems and people had sorted themselves out and mealtimes went more smoothly. We took to picking up a few extra bananas and a roll or two at dinner the night before and then skipping breakfast. Instead we stopped in the first small town for our banana and roll plus a cappuccino coffee, and later went on to a “sausage sizzle” provided by the local community group at the first rest stop.
We quickly learned never to walk by an empty loo. We deliberately hustled a bit to the lunch stop to arrive before the pack, and at the end of the day we dawdled in the Café de Canvas and quaffed $8.00 jugs of beer or excellent bottles of Australian wine until the queue for dinner had shortened or until we were just too mellow to care.
The author practises patience in the bar of the Grand Vue Hotel while waiting for the evening chow line to diminish.
The Great Victorian Bike Ride is hosted annually by Bicycle Victoria, www.bicyclenetwork.com.au/, a 42-year-old organization dedicated to encouraging cycling for all ages. The next GVB Ride is from November 24 to December 2, 2018. There are nine-, five- and three-day options covering three meals per day, a place to camp each night, all the usual necessities and luggage transport from site to site.
Participants need to bring a tent, air mattress, sleeping bag, eating utensils, and of course a bicycle. If you don’t want to struggle with your own tent, then for an extra $AUD250-$350 you can rent a choice of tent and have it put up and taken down for you for the whole ride. If you serve as a volunteer, you can have all the excitement without the exercise — for free! Riding Volunteers can do the whole ride with a bit of volunteering for a 30% rebate.
The official tourism website for the State of Victoria and its capital city, Melbourne tourism website is www.visitvictoria.com/.
Over the past 30 years, liver specialist, Dr. Stephen Sullivan, has used his profession to explore the world on three-month to three-year medical assignments in Saudi Arabia, Australia, New Zealand, Saipan, Oman and remote areas of Canada. He and his wife of 50 years, rarely say “no” to a challenge. They headquarter in Victoria, British Columbia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.