Cobbles done differently: A cycling community rattles back to life
What we lost and what we always had.
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You know how when you’re on a ride, there’s that moment of perfect flow? It’s in some alleyway in Brunswick that it clicks for me. The bluestone cobbles are wet and jarring, interspersed with deep puddles. There’s nothing you can do but trust your bike’s course through the middle, hoping that you won’t hit a rim-busting edge.
Tim’s on the front, a big diesel engine with Cliff in his wake and me behind, and we duck back and forth over the centre drainage channel and around people taking a more sensible pace. It’s clamorous and a bit scary but you hold on and hope, because what else is there to do? If there’s a more perfect metaphor for These Troubled Times, I can’t find it.
The cyclists of Melbourne – the roadies, the gravel riders, the kids in trailers, the families, the maniacs on tall bikes – were back at Melburn-Roobaix.
For the last 16 years, this non-competitive alley-cat – created by Andy White of FYXO fame, and run as a family affair with his wife Melodie – has attracted hundreds of cyclists from every branch of cycling’s sprawling family tree. Modelled on the unsanctioned courier races White participated in during a former life as a bike courier, Melburn-Roobaix charts a tangled course around the cobbled laneways and bike paths of Melbourne’s inner suburbs.
Just like Paris-Roubaix, there are numbered sectors counting down to a velodrome finish; just like Paris-Roubaix, someone hoists a cobblestone trophy over their head at the end of the day. That’s about where the similarities end, though. This is no elite road race, but an open-armed embrace of all things bike. “I love the visual spectacle,” White enthused to me. “All these people dressed up, everywhere you look, there’s people – people on retro bikes, old bikes, cool bikes, wacky bikes, everything.”
The ‘winner’ is drawn from a barrel, and everyone who correctly fills out the questions on the ride manifest – what number the house is on the left at the end of sector 10, that kind of thing – is eligible. They take home a pot of White’s mum’s jam as well as a gold spray-painted stone. Other prestigious categories – judged by loudness of applause – include ‘cutest couple’. To be in the mix, you need to put together a pretty great costume, and it’s clear that people have spent years scheming.
The last Melburn-Roobaix was way back in 2019 – like a lot of things over the past couple of years, Melburn-Roobaix had a hiatus due to COVID restrictions. For White, that had been a blessing in disguise – after the financial hit (the 2021 event was cancelled at short notice, due to a reinstatement of distancing measures) he’d pivoted to a supplementary career as a trailbuilder. Now he has two professional passions, in a life that’s always revolved around bikes. “I’m so grateful to have learnt so much, to have met great people and to be able to do something I’m passionate about,” White said.
I get the sense that it’s also a way for White to give back to the community he’s an integral part of: “The reason I started putting on events was because I remembered how much fun it was, and all the unknowns. Now it’s a really powerful thing to be associated with someone else’s defining cycling memories,” White told me, reflectively.
It’d been a long time between events, though, and he felt it – we all did. Melbournians endured one of the world’s longest COVID lockdowns, complete with limits on movement, curfews, and travel bubbles. When that ended, there was this weird process of reintegration into a normal life – although ‘normal’ still isn’t it.
For most of 2022, it felt like everyone I know through bikes was counting down the days to Melburn-Roobaix, and as there always seem to be now, there were people that missed it because they’d just tested positive. It was the first time I’d ridden with a lot of these friends since last Melburn-Roobaix, and this year that brought both extra joy and poignancy. Friends with kids I’ve never met, new relationships, broken relationships. Big stuff and little stuff.
This year’s Melburn-Roobaix was, as it always is, several hundred different stories spread across a city. Mine began with a chilly bike ride from home, along the bike paths tracing the freeways and creeks of the suburbs, before a swarm of people with yellow event musettes showed me I was in the right place. It started pissing down with rain an hour or so in, not that anyone really seemed to mind. A sloppy embankment next to a bridge led to a brewery where a mud-spattered horde converged, wolfing down hot chips and cold IPAs.
Groups split and reformed at cafés and pubs, navigating by disintegrating paper maps. A marching band played as people slid their way down a sketchy slope next to a bridge.
At the ride’s end, we all lapped the Brunswick Velodrome, hit the end-of-day photobooth, and took this year’s customary black and white portrait of the friends we’d ridden with through the day – hamming it up, arms wrapped around each other, muddy faces and white teeth.
Before the event I’d called Andy and Melodie for a chat and we’d spoken about what the 2022 edition of Melburn-Roobaix might mean. He’d told me that after two years off, he hoped this would be “the best one ever, because we’ve learnt so much – the community’s learnt so much – about how to interact with the world after dealing with the pandemic. There’s a lot of sadness wrapped up in the event, the fact that some people who would have been riding are no longer with us, and I know some people have had a hellish, horrible previous few years … but I can’t wait to reconnect with people, after what seems like forever.”
He was right about the rough few years, and he was right about it being a special edition of the ride – because it wasn’t just a bike ride, not really. It felt like a community coming together again and making peace with the past. That’s not a normal cycling event, where people weld bikes up for the day, or construct team costumes, or have earnest heart-to-hearts over a parma.
For a wet, wintery Sunday in June, we rode together and worked through what we’d lost. By the time we got to the velodrome we were remembering what we’d always had – each other.
And bikes. Always bikes.