Before I settled my bike into its new home (the shed) for six months’ hibernation while I disappeared to the other side of the world, I checked out the cycling situation in my new, temporary home of Ballarat, in Australia’s state of Victoria. Typing ‘Ballarat cycling’ into Google soon brought up BalBug, the hub of Ballarat’s cycling info. The site teems with info about recreational and commuting cycling. Perfect, I thought.
Fast forward a few months and I no longer think ‘perfect’. In fact, I laugh at how naive I was in believing the fairy-tale website. Ballarat isn’t cycling friendly. Even buying a bike was a chore.
Coming from Cambridge, I assumed that picking up a second-hand commuting bike would be easy. Far from it. There are many cycle shops and cycling clubs in Ballarat, but… and it’s a big but, there is no trade in second-hand bikes and the clubs are all about road racing. I finally found the glorious Bicycle Recycle on the outskirts of Melbourne, thanks to a friend’s recommendation. Sounds mad to drive two hours each way to buy a second-hand bike, but there really wasn’t much option. And it was worth it, because at least then I was mobile.
If you’re wondering why I didn’t buy new, the answer is price mainly. Bikes are very expensive here. Plus, as there’s no second-hand trade to speak of, selling it on after the six months would be quite difficult.
I knew that cycling here would involve hills, so they were no surprise. Not sure my legs felt that way at first though! Cycling up and down three hills to get from home to the main road is a bit much first thing in the morning for a Cambridge lass! My second surprise – after the buying palaver – was the lack of cycle paths/tracks and shared-use paths.
Living in Mount Helen, 10 km outside Ballarat, commuting should be easy. There are several cycle routes marked on the Balbug commuting map. The first route, let’s call it A, is mainly on a shared-use path, then drops onto the road, where there are only occasional stretches of cycle track. It’s an OK ride, but by UK standards, it’s very badly designed. The shared-use path is narrow, so passing is difficult (on the rare occasion that I do see another cyclist!) and visibility is bad at many junctions. It also involves more uphill and downhill than the road. Getting onto the road and the small stretches of track, the situation really doesn’t improve. Usually the track is narrow, only faintly marked and often drifts off into the drain.
Route B, the Canadian Creek Trail, is nearly all on a specially built shared-use path, following the creek. Sounds idyllic, and on a sunny day, it looks it. However, my first ride along it ended with grazed knees and a battered ego. I fell off on a winding section with the kind of camber you’re more likely to see in a velodrome.
It took a few days after that trip to muster up enough courage to try another of the map routes, C. I was encouraged when I saw that it had a signpost – quite a rarity, it seems. My enthusiasm soon dimmed though when I realised that was the only signpost and saw how many hills route C added to the journey.
And I still can’t find route D. The signpost from the main road into the residential area tantalises me, and I’ve followed it several times, only to develop a thorough knowledge of the residential streets!
This really does make cycling in Ballarat sound all doom and gloom, but there is at least one saving grace. So far I’ve experienced no evidence of SMIDSY. Maybe it’s because commuting cyclists are such a rarity.
The final surprise (and straw) for me was the lack of cycle racks. Cycle parking might be a bone of contention in Cambridge, with racks often congested in town, but at least there are racks and parking sites. In Ballarat, they are as rare as hen’s teeth. My local shop sports one, with room for six bikes; the next village along, Buninyong, has space for three bikes outside the supermarket, even the public pool at the University only has six – and they are the old-fashioned front-wheel-only style. And don’t get me started on the train station. There are racks, two sets of half a dozen of the front-wheel squeezers again; teasingly though there is a locked cage. To use it, you have to join Bike Victoria, and pay for the privilege. When I venture onto the train to Melbourne, I take my bike with me rather than leave it.
And that is one of the bright spots on the cycling horizon here. It’s so easy. Every country train has a place for bikes; there is no time restriction, nor any booking rule. You just buy an ordinary ticket, hop on and use the Velcro straps to secure your bike, stow your helmet and pannier in the rack above, and flop into a seat. Ah.
And it’s worth the 75-minute train journey, because Melbourne is a veritable bike heaven. That’s not just in comparison to Ballarat and its environs either. There are coloured on-road tracks, regular signposting, and cyclists are everywhere – weaving their way between trams and sitting outside cafés with their bikes locked to the nearest bit of metal. Yep, you’ve guessed it, hen’s teeth again.
Shame I don’t live and work in Melbourne really, but what the heck, I’ve come to love my ride into town in the mornings. It’s far more relaxing than Cambridge at 7.45 am. Rush hour in Ballarat is more like a sleepy country village on a Sunday morning in the UK. Coming back in the afternoons, though, I favour the cambered Creek route; a 30-minute back to nature bike ride to finish the day. I’ll miss it when I get back to Cambridge! Still, nothing here beats cycling along the River Cam into town in the mornings.
So far I’ve concentrated on commuting by bike, but early on I did mention recreational cycling. And for that Ballarat really does live up to BalBug’s claims.
You can pick up a leaflet of recreational routes from the tourist information office. And it’s packed full of rides, from 10 km one-way routes to huge 100 km loops. So when I fancy a day or afternoon out on my bike, there are plenty of routes to choose from – and not all of them resemble a mountain stage from the Tour de France either!
Road racing is also very popular here. There are lots of clubs, whose members all go out regularly, and every age and ability is welcomed. It’s not an usual sight to see a pack of red shirts making their way up Mount Buninyong – and the guy at the front is just as likely to be a grandad as a young lad.
I’ve not been tempted to join any of these groups, but I have joined the local Outdoor & Bushwalking Club. Although its main focus is walking in the bush, the promise of the word ‘outdoor’ is fulfilled with lots of leisurely cycling groups. So I can sometimes be found pedalling hard to get up a hill for the sheer pleasure of it early on a Saturday morning.