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Cycling Down Under

Tom Southam Tekst Tom Southam Gepubliceerd 08 December 2015

Australia is a hard country, just behind its coastal cities is a vast expanse of tough, dusty, dry land that stretches out for as far as you could imagine. The ‘bush’ is tough country and it is from here perhaps that the stereotypical Australian has evolved in the public’s conscious – rough and rugged, dressed in a vest and a cork hat with a can of beer to hand.

To be fair, in a lot of places this isn’t too far from the truth. In Australian cities though, the Australian people are an incredibly cosmopolitan breed. The population, free from the shackles of a long established societal hierarchy, has an open-minded enterprising attitude. Australians are willing to give everything a good go, and of late Australia has taken to one thing in particular: the bicycle.

Unlike in Europe or China, where necessity made the bicycle popular as both a mode of transport and as a recreational and sporting pastime, Australia is a country that has developed in the age of the motorcar. Australians have grown up with cheap fuel and open roads. The vastness of the countryside and great distances between towns, mean that many people didn’t grow up using a bicycle for transport, but instead thought of the car as the only way to get around. In 2013 though, cycling both as a sport and as a recreation has started to boom.

The ascent of the ‘Aussies’
Australia’s embrace of the bicycle may not be to do with the professional sport of cycling, but their riders’ successes have certainly helped. It will be three years this July since Cadel Evans became the first Australian to win the Tour de France. At 34 years of age to many in the sport his victory felt like it was a long time coming, however Australian professional cyclists have had a relatively speedy ascent to the top of the sport.

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Much like the UK and the United States, Australian professional cyclists were for a long time almost non-existent in the European professional peloton. But as the sport has made the transition from a European to a truly global concern, the number of Australian cyclists in the professional ranks has soared. Between 1981 and 2000 only thirteen Australians raced for professional teams in Europe, in 2013 Australia has its own WorldTour team.

Agostino Giramondo, who rode the 1990 World Road Race Championships for Australia, and now manages the Drapac continental team, explained that racing in Europe until relatively recently was never an option. “The idea of going over to Europe, even up until the late 1990’s was too much for most guys. It wasn’t like now with the Internet and easy communication, if you went over then you went for nine months and that was it. You were on your own, and the chances of success were so small that the number of blokes that tried it was so few.”

The fact that Australian riders have gone over and have conquered Europe and have created their own professional team is one thing, but the real evolution of the sport in Australia it seems is only beginning. Like scattered seeds, Australia has succeeded in putting its riders out there and now the roots have taken hold. With popularity soaring amongst fans of the sport, Australia is slowly succeeding in bringing not only the racing, but also crowds that could be the envy of any race in the world to its own doorstep.

Why can’t we just do it in our own back yard?
Australia boasts the first WorldTour race of the season in the Tour Down Under, and what was once a distinctly second class event when it started, is now a genuine curtain raiser for the cycling season. The fact that Australia has succeeded in bringing the European peloton to its doorstep isn’t down to either simply money or chance, nor is it down to the guaranteed good weather; it is down to the attitude of the Australian people.

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With no other opportunities to see the likes of World Champion Philippe Gilbert in action without travelling to Europe, the whole of the Australian cycling community makes the effort to get to Adelaide for the Tour. The Tour itself has been perfectly designed to cater for the committed and the casual fans.

One cycling fan Jeff Williams, who has made the 800 km trip to Adelaide from his home in Melbourne for fourteen out of the fifteen editions of the race, explained to me how the Tour had grown. “Adelaide does the race so well, the race is focused around one hotel where all the riders stay. The stages loop out into the countryside but there is a central hub and everyone can head back to that each night. The stages themselves are all accessible by bike, and a community builds there. “The number of fans has grown since Armstrong came out (2009 and 2010) but even since then numbers haven’t dropped off, it’s the opposite. It is just growing and growing.”

Even the riders who have raced at the very highest level in Europe, like Mitchell Docker, who is currently in his second year at Orica Green Edge, have noticed how passionate the Australian crowds are. “In the last five years I have noticed crowds ramping up, first of all with the TDU, but now that’s reflected down to the Australian titles, which has a real European feel to it. Not to say we didn’t have great crowd support before, but it was small and only for the real enthusiasts.”

The Australian titles that are held a week before the Tour Down Under on a tough 10 km course on Mount Buninyong, an hour drive from Melbourne, is another race that has developed its own identity over the past seven years. “Buninyong is a nasty climb that narrows towards the top. It gets so packed up there, you get the real feeling of pushing through a Tour de France mountain top crowd.”

“meet some mates, ride for a bit, stop and have a coffee, talk a bit of crap and then go home”

At the top of the climb there is a carnival atmosphere worthy of any European race. There are countless barbeques, fans in fancy dress, fans waving flags and the obligatory drunkards all jostling for a look at the riders as they pass by each lap.

As the Chinese have found out with the Tour of Beijing, you can’t just buy the best racers in the world in, and tell people to go out and watch. It is Giramondo who perhaps puts his finger on why the Australians have managed to make their races such popular events: their get up and do it attitude. “We are getting amazing crowds at races now. Not just in numbers but in how they want to celebrate the race. I think the public watching the Tour on the TV have though, well, they do it there, why can’t we do it in our own back yard?”

On the roads
But it’s not just the top-level professional events that are thriving in Australia. The Australian domestic scene is flourishing too. Giramondo, who started racing in the seventies, reflected on the difference. “If you were a bike rider in the seventies and eighties, you might see one or two other cyclists on a Sunday, but now it’s unbelievable. Any day of the week, any time of day there are cyclists out riding.

“It has come a long way. There were no real teams at all, just a few clubs. There were very, very few full time bike riders, let’s say of three or four hundred bike riders in Victoria, there were about ten full time bike riders.”

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Australia now has its own national series, as well as several Continental ranked teams. But behind that still there are thriving amateur scenes in each of the country’s biggest cities, and most rural areas. Jarrad Lory-Smith, who runs Invert Building, a small Melbourne club team explained. “Our team is amateur based, with seven guys, most of whom race the local criteriums on a Sunday. There are maybe six or seven teams in Melbourne at this level. We get about 30 to 50 grand of funding through sponsors. We put the team together for fun really, so our group of mates would have something to belong to.”

The sight of a group of very well dressed bike riders in immaculate matching kit riding several thousand dollars worth of bikes is not an uncommon one in Melbourne or Sydney. It is this massive influx of people that have been turned on to racing that has driven the level of professionalism and competition up. Despite this desire to race though, cycling remains a social activity. Lory-Smith explained that barely a day of the week goes by in Melbourne where there is an organized ride of some sort. “The big thing here is the bunch rides, which are every day of the week except Sunday when there is racing on. Monday and Friday there is the ‘North Road Bunch’ that goes out at 6am, on a Wednesday a longer version of the same ride, then on Tuesday and Thursday evening there is the 60 km ‘Tour of the Burbs’ that takes in the outer suburbs, and on Saturday there is the Hell Ride. That ride does an 80 km loop up the coast, and there can be up to 400 guys there. It’s unbelievable really.”

All of these rides conveniently have at least one or several cafés as a finishing point. “People like cycling at this level because they know they can head out, meet some mates, ride for a bit, stop and have a coffee, talk a bit of crap and then go home. Australia is well suited to that because we have a culture of going out for breakfast. Café culture is really important to the numbers of cyclists on the road. The two go hand in hand.”

On the streets
This passion for the sport is reflected not only in the people who want to go and watch or be a part of the racing, but also in the wider cycling scene itself. Malachi Moxon, an ex-pat Brit, runs Northside Wheelers, a store situated in one of Melbourne’s trendiest
areas that specializes in ‘fine cycle wares’: high end cycle clothing, such as Rapha, as well as hard to find cycling publications. Malachi embodies the spirit and feel of the urban Australian bike scene. The former mountain biker who now races both road and cross, as well as commuting daily (“I’ve never owned a car, I’ve always cycled.”) is enchanted by the optimism of Australians. “Melbourne reminds me of Portland in the US. They’ve got a really good community thing where they create spaces that people really want to go to. I liked the UK but there was always the feeling that if you hadn’t been to art school or you hadn’t got the right degree you couldn’t do something. In Australia everyone goes, ‘ah fuck it, if you want to do it, just do it.’ For me it’s an amazing thing that I can just come and open up a store and people will come along and support it.”

Malachi’s store is not only a place for the road-racing aficionado, it also serves as a hub for all types of cyclists that continually pass through the appealing space. Malachi runs photographic exhibitions, as well as film nights and any other types of events that might tickle his fancy. He caters for, and has a wide knowledge of, the city’s cycling demographic. “I don’t know about Sydney, but Melbourne has a lot of groups of cyclists within a big mass of cyclists. You’ve got your fixie riders, your steel riders, guys who race, guys who commute. There is a massive mix of people.”

“People want to ride their bike and look good while they do it. It’s a very healthy scene.”

While the trendy fixie scene may be the one that has drawn the most attention of late, it is neither them, nor the road-racing bunch that Malachi considers to be the biggest group of bike users. “The fixie scene has died a little now, the hardcore are still at it, but the commuter scene is huge. Gone are the days when people commuted in shorts and an old t-shirt; now you’ve got guys commuting in wool suits and girls commuting in dresses. They want to be stylish and Melbourne is a stylish town. People want to ride their bike and look good while they do it. It’s a very, very healthy scene.”

Commuting as ‘active transport’ is something that the health conscious Australian government is keen to promote. As Australian cities’ populations continue to grow (at an average rate of 25% every ten years) town planners have to both adhere to strict guidelines for the inclusion of cyclists, as well as help retrospectively fit new networks into existing spaces to promote bike use.

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Celia Constas from Mesh Town Planning, an Australian wide firm, explained how bike lanes are being added to Melbourne’s streets, both retrospectively and in the planning phase. “Inner city areas were built with cars and not bikes in mind, so you’re usually squeezing into an existing road reservation. A bicycle lane, a tram, car lanes, clearways, parking lanes etc. In the growth metropolitan areas however, we have the benefit and luxury of space so we can actually design in all the elements we need.

“There a two key user groups: recreational cyclists and commuter cyclists. The recreational cyclists are the ones that rely on off-road bicycle lanes and generally just connect open space areas. Commuter cyclists are on the road, going places. Both groups are on the sharp increase, and we have to cater for that.”

This is where Australia’s wider economic situation reveals itself as a key factor in the country’s newfound passion for cycling. While the European economy has had a tough time of late, the Australian one has held firm. Sydney and Melbourne are now two of the world’s top five most expensive cities. With money comes recreation and a desire for better health, and cycling, a sport and a pastime with infinite options for upgrading and improving equipment and clothing, is the perfect fit for that society.

This is something that Malachi, talking of his clientele, agrees with. “Rightly or wrongly, I think that it’s not a working class pastime here. It’s not a rich man’s sport per se… but most of the people we have in the store would be 35 plus age wise, with a bit of money. We do get kids through and you get guys who are a bit mix and match, but you do need a bit of coin.”

For a culture with petrol running through its veins, the fact that the bicycle is finally being embraced, not only by a proportion of people that are interested in the sport, but also by the growing numbers of people who are turning to commuting, is quite remarkable. Cycling requires a harmonious balance, and it creates one too. In Australia right now the balance seems just right for cycling.

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