Melburn Roobaix 2017 – The Hell of the Northcote

There is no race that quite compares to the Queen of the Classics, Paris-Roubaix. One of the world’s toughest one-day races, it has hosted some of cycling’s most epic battles, and helped make the legends of Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen and Eddy Merckx. Known for its brutal sections of cobblestones, or ‘pave’ (pronounced par-vay), every year it captures the imagination of the cycling public, and people go a bit nuts. And by a bit nuts I mean completely and utterly bonkers.

Australia is a long way from continental Europe, the spiritual home of cycling. It’s far from the hallowed farm lanes of northern France, and the fabled pave. We will never quite re-create the spirit and the history of this most famous of races. But for one day in winter, you can capture a sliver of that experience. You can imagine – briefly – that Phil Liggett is describing your every move, and that your last name is Cancellara, or Boonen, or…well nobody can be Eddy Merckx.

OK, maybe that all sounds a bit daft, but seriously, as I was riding along a cobbled lane yesterday, bars bucking under my hands, bystanders yelling and belting cow bells, and Flanders flags – a black lion against a canary-yellow backdrop – flapping against a moody sky, I thought: this must be what it’s like. Just like this, but a million times more insane.   

Apollo with rocket

Apollo with rocket

And the best part was that any old schmo can do it. I was riding in the Melburn Roobaix (correct spelling), an annual ride through Melbourne’s inner suburbs along little-travelled streets, laneways and trails. And while I revelled in the historical connotations of the ride, even if you have zero interest in cycling culture, it’s just a fun day out on the bike finding some of the city’s hidden places, and doing something a bit ridiculous.

Fyxo, the organisers of the event actively discourage racing, but do encourage diversions, exploration, and dressing up in something silly. Outfits in the 2017 edition included a posse of Lego people, characters from Nintendo’s Mario Kart (including Bowser, Toad and Princess Peach), and – my personal favorite – a NASA astronaut riding an ‘Apollo’ step thru.    

Bedhead Bike

Bedhead Bike

A great variety of bikes were on display also – fixies, single speeds, cargo bikes, fat bikes, and a bike made of a bead-head. That’s right, a bead head. I don’t know how that works, but some guy had made a bike out of a bed head and was riding it.

A key feature of Melburn Roobaix, like its more famous namesake, are several teeth-chattering cobbled ‘secteurs.’ Older parts of Melbourne have miles and miles of bluestone cobbled lanes, a relic from a time before mains sewerage, when a ‘shit carter’ would clop down the back lane on his horse and cart and whisk away your turds like an angel of sanitation. I’m pretty sure Melbourne’s early planners didn’t envisage hundreds of people bouncing down those lanes on bikes, wearing animal onesies and cardboard boxes on their heads, but I can tell you that it’s a lot fun.  

About half of the Velo and friends crew, ready to set on the Melburn-Roobaix from Hawthorn Velodrome

About half of the Velo and friends crew, ready to set on the Melburn-Roobaix from Hawthorn Velodrome

Velo Cycles fielded a formidable team for this year’s Roobaix. Our senior mechanic Israel rode a Soma Tradesman, with an esky on the front full of a perception-of-performance enhancing drug: beer. One of our sales staff, Jackie, rode her Surly Straggler. Velo Electric & Folding Store Manager, Cory, and our General Manager, Stu, rode Bromptons (it was Cory’s 4th of 9 Roobaix rides on a Brommie), joined by members of the Melbourne Brompton Club and a number who hired them for the day. And yours truly rode his recently purchased Jamis Renegade Expat.

I’ll avoid all the usual marketing spiel about how all those bikes handled the taxing conditions brilliantly and you should come in and buy one etc etc because, frankly, I don’t think it’s in the spirit of Roobaix. All I will say is that it’s a cracker of an event. Do yourselves a favour and get in the saddle for next year!