Perfect Strangers - The art of the bunch ride in a town you don't know

It’s 5am and I’m kitting up in the dark on a couch I’ve been staying on in a town I barely know. Just the week prior was spent pushing the 600 semi-coastal miles from Adelaide to my guest spot in a friend’s living room in Fitzroy, Melbourne. I was off the bike a total of 12 hours before I began looking up group - or bunch rides as they’re called down here - rides to do in my few days here before I have to endure the 14+ hour flight back home to a waiting winter. My years as a messenger taught me many things about the bike and being on it, but one I’ve held onto is the knowledge that there’s no better way to get to know an urban environment than from the saddle.

Kitting up in the dark

A quick Google search for bunch rides of Melbourne will bring up an excellent CyclingTips article of bunch rides for every day of the week featuring a few of the classics; North Road Ride (that’s in southern Melbourne), Tour of the Burbs, Hell Ride and a few others. I set my sights on North Road Ride as a starter. However, every shop I visited poised more than a couple options to whet my appetite on. Turns out, Melbourne - a city that hovers around 5 million in population, featuring 5 velodromes within 45-minutes ride from each other and a rich network of trails and bike lanes - boasts one of the richest cycling cultures I’ve experienced. Beyond what I found online were recommendations for Commuter Cycles welcoming invitation for their Wednesday night MTB ride with accompanying beers, Johnson Bicycles weekly bunch starting at their adjacent cafe that cruises the interlocking roads of Northern Melbourne and Curve Cycles infamous mixed terrain Belgian or The Belgie as it’s affectionately referred to. So, I set my sights on the powerhouse North Road Ride and the recommended Belgie as a taste of the bunch rides of Melbourne.

North Road Ride seemed to elicit an eye-roll followed by a once over of me, and a quick, “you’ll probably be fine.” Its reputation as a smash-fest with strong riders with dubious pack or race experience seemed to precede itself. At least, this was the vibe I received - I suppose time would tell. The Belgie, however, brought about a different reaction- eyes would light up, in describing the Type 2 fun the ride dishes out. For sure it’s a hard person’s ride, either the full Belgie or the half-route “Dutchie” (a cute nickname I heard some of the riders joking refer to the shorter version), would feature something different and full of excitement. Like Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these two rides would prove to be very different tales of the same city.

Cut to me, weary-eyed rolling down Brunswick Street scrolling through Maps on my phone to make sure this cafe meeting spot was in fact just a few km away from the comfort of a borrowed couch. My first ride is Wednesday morning, meeting at Coffee PEDDLR for the start of the Belgian. The toneless strobe of tail lights outside the open roll down let me know I was in the right place at the right time. Ryan from Curve, or Rhino as everyone called him (a name I’m sure he earned not only from his South African origin but his nature on the bike), greeted me with more enthusiasm than I’d expect at 6 in the morning. I took a long black coffee and slowly woke up while taking in the interior of the space and convincing myself I was making the right decision this early. The promise of adventure and something new pushed my hesitation out of mind and soon we were rolling.

Rolling in the dark

Rollout saw about 20 of us leave the cafe towards Northern Melbourne on a mix of high volume caliper road bikes, CX rigs and an odd gravel bike or two. I was happy to have my Outback Breakaway set up with Alpine JB 30s as on paper most of the ride was paved. Soon we were doing near 500 watts and 25mph up a meandering climb in Yarra Bend Park as some hammerhead pushed the pace on the front. Race brain kicked in, but I fought the urge to muscle up towards the front to monitor any breaks that might occur. This was, after all, just a group ride. Rhino easily held the pace and made sure I had a heads-up for unexpected terrain changes or sharp turns that could gap off an inattentive rider. While it seemed everyone took their turns making it hard in the aggressive technical sections, there was always a slowdown to regroup, crack wise at one or another’s inability to hang and hit the tarmac again. The route is nearly the same every time: a smash over Yarra Bend Park, a couple chicanes through back alley bergs in the suburb of Heidelberg, a dirt loop in Birrarung Park and then back along the gravel flats of Yarra Trail at a pace that felt harder than it should in what is technically my off season. Soon, we were back together and taking a route Billy from “Family Circus” must have drawn on a cocktail napkin to the cafe for recovery coffees. In just an hour and half we took down 25 miles, 1,500 feet of climbing, and a bit more dirt than advertised. Not bad for a hump day.

Less than 24hrs later I’m kitting up in the dark again, wiping sleep from my eyes and searching on my phone for the intersection of North Road and Nepean Highway South of St Kildea on the other side of town and a 30-minute ride away. No chance of a long black to kick off this ride, so I set a quick tempo and book South to make the 5:45am rollout. I was told there are two groups, a faster group that rolls at 6 and a slower group that leaves earlier at 5:45. I opted for the more painful wake-up for the slower group under the assumption that if it was too slow, I could just jump on the faster group when they inevitably catch. The most direct route to the ride meant riding on a three lane thoroughfare for longer than I care for, but at this time, I doubted traffic would be anything to really worry about. From 3 blocks away I could see the repeating red glare against the exterior of an office building of flashing tail lights and others joining in from adjacent directions. I found a spot not too far back from the head of the group, and watched the group slowly grow to a mass larger than any of the NRC crits I’d done in recent years. The group was littered with deep carbon-rimmed, caliper-braked, Pro-Tour worthy road bikes. I felt a little out of place atop the only Ritchey I’d seen since arriving in this country, with a bar bag and enough tire clearance to pass a log through. I remembered my words of encouragement heard just days earlier: I’ll probably be fine.

Around 5:40 I could hear the voice of a man address the group just loud enough to make himself known but not enough to be intelligibly heard any more than 10-feet away. I could only assume it was a similar refrain I’d heard at other group rides of stay safe, watch your front wheel, et cetera. Without fanfare or a whistle, just the sound of almost a hundred snaps and clacks of pedals and we were moving. It felt like all the other cat 4 starts I endured in my 20’s, trying desperately to move up the cycling ranks: a relatively moderate pace, riders about an arms length from their neighbor, never less than half a wheel from the rider in front of them. We accordioned a few times, and I fought the urge to shoot the gaps and wiggle up through the pack - if you could call it that, we were never more than 2 abreast. In the dark and under the hypnosis of blinking tail lights, the city looked the same as any would anywhere, just on the opposite side from what I’m used to. We sailed South on Napean Highway at 22mph for almost 8 miles until we hit a roundabout and hooked North into the headwind that affronted us Beach Road. It was at this point the ride turned up a notch.

Waiting to start

Beach Road is boasted as the most ridden road in the world, and I could see why. As the sky greyed to the slowly rising sun, we passed a few other bunch rides and saw more than a few rolling the opposite direction. While there were a few ronin riders on the road, no group appeared to have less than 20-30 people in their little pelotons. Some had their ranks filled with bright matching kits and aero helmets, but all were setting a good pace with at least one rider chewing on their stem on the front driving the group forward. It was here we upped the pace and gaps began to open up in front of me. Afraid of getting my ticket punched by a rider popping with me on their wheel, I spun up my cadance and navigated through the gaps to the next wheel that could hold the increasing pace. However, not all wheels are worth holding, with riders either struggling to hold the line at speed or hold the wheel under effort, I quickly found myself sitting top 10 rotating through with some heavy hitters I felt were sand bagging the slow group.

I took my pulls like a good worker bee, but wanted to sit in not knowing just how much longer I could hold this pace at the front. Yet, when I looked for where I thought mid-pack was, I found the tail of what was left of the group. Our 70-80 strong group has whittled down to just over 20 strong riders driving a powerful pace up Beach Road. It was around this time I noticed riders moving up the sides - tail gunners I hadn’t seen stick their nose in the wind all morning “suddenly found” their legs and slotted in for a sprint that unceremoniously took place and was over before I could figure out where the line lay. And like that, the ride seemed over. Riders sat up, resumed conversations started on Napean 14-miles earlier and settled into tempo. I took an Irish Goodbye off the back and looked for that coffee that eluded me earlier in the morning.

There’s a line that separates the North of Melbourne from the South - where or what street it is, I couldn’t tell you. It is this line, I’ve been told, that separates the type of riders and rides. Like Calvino’s stories Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities, these differences do not illustrate two different places, but sing the beauty of one fascinating city - full of intrigue of endless riding and wheels to follow if not leading more than a few in tow.