13 July, 2011

Vive le Tour!

Cyclists on the Barwon at Geelong
With half the country - me included - currently obsessed with the sport of cycling, I thought it might be of interest to look at the history of cycling along the Barwon and around Geelong. Over recent years, this has usually taken the form of leisurely rides and a few more energetic forays for the purpose of exercise, especially as new trails and paths have been built.
Historically, bikes have always been popular in Geelong and our association with the bike dates back to 1869 when a local coach-painter began producing the new "velocipede" (what we would call a penny farthing) which he had heard was the new thing in France. By 1881, there was enough interest the new sport that the call went out for those interested to form a penny farthing club whose first ride departed from the post office on 3rd October.
As the sport developed, Geelong was able to boast its champions, such as Sir Hubert Opperman in the 1920s and 30s and Russell Mockridge in the 1940s and 50s, before his untimely death in 1958 when he collided with a bus on his way to a race. Now of course, Geelong (well, Barwon Heads) can boast one of the red hot favourites to win the 2011 Tour de France - Cadel Evans.
In an earlier era however, when owning a car was the exception rather than the rule for many, bicycles were an important mode of transport, however their recreational value was also recognised through the establishment of social riding clubs, such as the Geelong Pedal Club which was established in August, 1954 - the second in the country and established a week after the Ballarat club. It was estimated that there were some 35, 000 bikes in Geelong at this time.
A close association between cycling and the river has only eventuated in more recent years as facilities have improved. There can be no doubt however, of the necessity for such infrastructure as a quick glance at the newspapers from the first half of the 20th century are littered with articles describing the circumstances under which cyclists and motor vehicles came into contact - often with fatal consequences - as it was expected that cyclists use the roads like all other traffic. In particular, the Barwon Heads Road seems to have been a treacherous stretch for those on bikes.
Likewise, not all associations with the Barwon and cycling have been positive. In one particularly gruesome incident in May, 1929, the body of a missing Japanese laundryman was found in the river at South Geelong. Newspaper reports at the time stated that he was found with a bicycle "entangled around his neck". No further information was provided to clarify this odd set of circumstances.
In another sad incident in January of 1915, the body of a teenage boy who had drowned whilst swimming with friends near the Excelsior Woollen Mill (now Godfrey Hirst) was recovered, along with a variety of debris, including a discarded bicycle.
In recent years however, as leisure activities have become more important and facilities have improved, the river has become one of the best places in Geelong for recreational riding. Recognising this, various official bodies are working towards providing a network of interconnected bike tracks and trails throughout Geelong and surrounds. As I have mentioned in previous posts, there are moves afoot to connect the river trail to the Geelong Waterfront via a dedicated bike lane up Swanston Street which, I am pleased to note, is nearing completion.
Section of UCI cycling course along the Barwon
Biking along the Barwon is not only an activity for all types of people, but increasingly includes a rather wide range of cycles. Of course there are the traditional mountain and hybrid bikes to say nothing of kids on trikes and scooters, but the small-wheeled, fold-up bikes are also becoming increasingly popular with riders of a certain age whilst the traditional tandem bicycle can also be seen on the odd occasion. Recently however, a new breed of tandem cycling has become popular with family riders - namely the various options which enable adult riders to pull smaller children on their own bike or wheeled attachment.
Another, rather different take on cycling with a Geelong twist, is the recent invention of a front wheel drive, recumbent bike by John Tolhurst and his brother Kim who grew up at Ocean Grove. Known as the Cruzebike, it was featured in an edition of The Geelong Times early last year which also gives an interesting insight into kids and their bikes in the 1950s and 60s. Whilst I have yet to see a Cruzebike in action around the river, newspaper articles inform me that I just have not been in the right place at the right time, although I suspect I may have seen one of these curious machines - or perhaps it was a more traditional recumbent bike - being ridden along the Barwon Heads Road.
The Peloton rounding the corner onto
Barrabool Road during the Men's Elite
road race
Whilst much of the cycling along the Barwon takes place in Geelong and its surrounds, one small town has reinvented itself as the home of mountain bike riding. The town of Forrest near the source of the Barwon in the Otways was built upon the logging industry of the 19th and 20th centuries which saw much of the old growth forest in the region clear felled. As logging in the region was discontinued, these little towns had to find other ways to survive and so Forrest turned to cycling.
In recent times, the off-road trails and tracks around this region of trees and hills have been opened up to mountain bike riding. There are routes to suit all levels of ability and Forrest is more than happy to play host to these cycling tourists.
In addition to the more serious mountain bike tracks, the route of the old railway line which was built to service the logging industry is now in the process of being converted to a riding path, known as the "Tiger Rail Trail". Currently, it extends from Forrest to the town of Barwon Downs, but the eventual plan is to have the route extended as far as Birregurra, taking in the full length of the orginal branch line - a distance of some 30km.
Cycling has been important to Geelong and the Barwon for over 140 years, since that first boneshaker was built by a local enthusiast, however the region's association with cycling reached a pinnacle last year when the World Cycling Championships were held in Geelong. In addition to introducing Geelong to the world, it also provided a perfect opportunity to showcase the Barwon as the world's best riders pedaled along Barrabool Road and came flying down Scenic Road and across the specially installed Bailey Bridge at Queen's Park.
The general community benefited from this increased interest in cycling as sections of the river trail were resurfaced, new signage was erected and the aforementioned bike lane up Swanston Street was started. Another big plus for those wanting to exercise a little more seriously, was the construction of the criterium track beside the river on Belmont Common. No doubt the local bike retailers also reaped the rewards of a renewed interest in cycling throughout the region.
Whilst the weather of late has not exactly been conducive to riding, walking or making any other type of progress around the river, it is probably time to drag out the bike and do another lap or two of the trail.

No comments:

Post a Comment