Every October for the last 24 years Victorian cyclists have been doing something commendably good and remarkably crazy – a charity bike ride around Port Phillip Bay.
Commendable because the ride, which attracts a disparate band of hopefuls and diehards numbering as many as 15,000, raises around a million dollars annually for The Smith Family charity, the money helping 2000 disadvantaged kids get a primary school education.
Crazy because, despite a choice of ride distances between 25 and 250 kilometres to match riders’ abilities and endurance parameters, most opt for the full-blown, 250km, single lap or one of two 210km choices.
Frankly, the notion of lapping Australia’s second-largest bay is great but pedalling that kind of distance takes a special resolve that lazy legs simply do not have.
So we took the easy option and jumped into a small, comfortable SUV that would easily get a big tick from the pedal brigade for its ability to not only hold a couple of bikes in its cavernous boot but also fit a trio of pooped, puffed riders on the back seat when it was all over.
Melburnians, it should be noted, are remarkably astute when it comes to event scheduling with Around the Bay happening several days after the AFL Grand Final (giving the euphoria or disappointment time to wear off) and beating the Melbourne Cup build-up by several weeks.
Now, cyclists know a good road when they see one but have to cram nutrient gels, energy bars and water bottles on themselves and their bicycles and have to prepare themselves for hills and headwinds. We simply opted for a full fuel tank, big cups of good coffee in the cup holders, snacks in the console and good music on the audio.
We chose Acland Street, in the funky bayside suburb of St Kilda, as our start and finish point. Why wouldn’t we? St Kilda is, after all, the home of Luna Park and the famous Espy Hotel and blends village vibe with urban hum.
It also happens to have some of the best cafes and coffee shops on the planet.
Queenscliff is the nominal halfway point for our lap of the bay. Doing the complete drive is half the fun. The other half is clearing Melbourne.
Normal city traffic densities meant we eased, rather than jumped, into the city flow, working our way past Albert Park and heading west over the Westgate Bridge, its humped back rising tall above the Yarra River and dwarfing everything around it.
We followed the signs, first to Werribee where the traffic started thinning and then on to historic Geelong, where we ditched the highway (just as any good cyclist would) and picked-up the tourist route which took us onto The Esplanade and back towards the waterfront, passing the parks and stately older homes overlooking the bay.
That choice avoids the city heart and touches parts of the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race route, rolling by The Carousel and the Royal Geelong Yacht Club, an area which, on one special day each January, becomes the centre of the cycling universe with Aussie Tour de France winner Cadel Evans its omnipotent being.
Navigation now means aiming the car’s nose east on the Bellarine Peninsula, with its undulating terrain, boutique local wineries and small villages dotting the route, and heading for Portarlington then, having reached that point, turning south to Queenscliff and the Searoad ferry that sails across the mouth of Port Phillip Bay to Sorrento and is classed, believe it or not, as part of Highway B110!
The trip across the heads on the MV Queenscliff, with Port Phillip Bay to port and Bass Strait to starboard, takes around 30 minutes.
With a total ferry time of almost two hours it helps explain why this particular road is not one on which drivers try for lap records but instead absorb the scenery and revel in that odd feeling of walking a surprisingly fine line between rural and urban.
But that time is long enough to relax and look at the surrounds, have a simple, affordable and impressively good lunch on board, freshen-up and give the batteries a shot of caffeine.
A cyclist riding 250km would find it very relaxing, with time to think about the joy of being at the halfway mark –without thinking of the 125km still to ride.
Disembarkation means working lazily back towards Melbourne via the Mornington Peninsula, hugging the bay as much as possible and travelling through Rye, the quaintly-named Rosebud with its famous painted beach boxes and on through Dromana before once more starting to feel the hustle and bustle of the outer suburban ring as Frankston welcomes us back to urban urgency.
The next stop is Mordialloc, the eastern gateway to that famous cycling mecca known as Beach Road, and one last shot at maximising our road trip.
That well-publicised stretch of bayside blacktop, which is regularly home to large groups of cyclists, runs hard against the bay and takes us through the leafy eastern suburbs of Black Rock, Sandringham, Hampton, Brighton and Elwood Park before depositing us back in St Kilda.
In Mordialloc a group of Malaysian university students, out on a Beach Road training ride, pulled-up to ogle our Volkswagen Tiguan and spent a few minutes figuring-out how many bicycles could be fitted not just in it but also on it. Nine seemed about right.
Finally, seven hours after leaving and taking time-outs for coffee stops, photographs and the ferry, we rolled back into trendy St Kilda.
Port Phillip Bay, it is worth noting, has its own special character and its surrounds have their own ‘north-south’ and ‘east-west’ divides.
North is the snarling city with its hustle, bustle and industrialisation. The south mixes rural and relaxation while west is the working side with farms, wineries and regional and rural towns. East is the vacation coast for the sun and surf set. Beaches, barbecues, endless summers, relaxation, ice cream shops and picture postcard sunsets.
Combine that variety and it becomes just the kind of place to lure anyone with a car, curiosity and a few hours to kill.
Lake Macquarie-based Brent Davison is a veteran motoring journalist with a love of bicycle riding. A multiple award-winning writer, he has also been involved with motorsport and, odd as it might seem, spent much of his adult life breeding and exhibiting dogs with his wife, Maree. He has been heard, too, guesting on several Newcastle and Hunter Valley-based radio stations discussing everything and anything to do with cars. These days Brent divides his time between cars, bicycles and travel, writing about all three.