We’re a family of 4 living in Brunswick, Victoria bastion of bike culture; some might quip Melbourne’s answer to Amsterdam. With the help of bikes, good public transit and long-term membership of car-share company Flexicar we have been car-free for nearly eight years. We love our bikes! Currently there are 7 treadlies in the garden shed. Needless to say, cycling is part of the family gene pool. Brunswick is blessed with a vibrant local bike culture and the infrastructure to support families to ride to get to shops, supermarkets, childcare, kindergartens and schools. Lots of great socialisation happens on the ride to kinder and school for parents and kids alike; its great exercise, and there’s the added bonus that with riding bikes our kids have really gotten to know and appreciate the finer details of their local environment and community. Sadly recent Deakin University research reveals more and more children are missing out on these enjoyable experiences as a result of spending so much time commuting by car and seeing their neighbourhoods from out of a car window.
So with cycling at the centre of our daily life we decided it was time to take a holiday by bike. For our first foray we decided on Ballarat which prides itself as a bike-friendly city with bike lanes, paths and rail trails as part of the larger tourism package. We did a bit of online research to help us plan for a 3 day trip over the Australia Day weekend and even came up with a bike-friendly Motel to stay in.
On this trip we had Kim riding a Jamis Commuter 1 and Jarrah (aged 9) on a (soon to be hand-me-down) BYK E450, both purchased from the ever helpful Velo Cycles. Meanwhile I rode our much-loved Xtracycle Radish originally sourced from and maintained by Huw Vellacott and the chilled-out crew at Commuter Cycles. Our youngest son Rico (age 5) came along for a comfy free ride made possible by the Radish’s accessories – the Magic Carpet, Footsies and Stoker Bars.
We packed lightly, about one bag per person, with a few extras such as swimming gear. All up the luggage was easily taken care of with Kim’s two bike baskets and the large hauling capacity of the Radish.
Our little adventure started with a short ride to Brunswick Station, and onto the last carriage of the train for the trip into Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station. We deliberately left in the middle of the day to avoid any peak hour congestion and potential hassle.
Negotiating the lifts and turnstiles with fully laden bikes at Southern Cross Station was surprisingly trouble-free. The Radish – with its long tail – easily fit into the elevators with all of us squeezing in. Putting bikes on intercity and regional trains in Victoria is free and apparently much easier than it was in the past. That said it is still at the discretion of individual V/Line train conductor to allow bikes on board. It is possible to be denied boarding a train with a bike if it is too full. With this in mind I was a little concerned about fitting the Radish into the bike storage area on the Velocity train taking us to Ballarat. Our conductor gave us a momentary worried look as we turned up on the platform with three bikes, especially concerned about the length of the Radish. But fortunately he was very helpful and even escorted us to a section of the train where there were fewer people and two bike storage areas (which are indicated on V/Line trains by a blue bike symbol on the carriage).
With a little manoeuvring we managed to load the Radish back-end first into the bike space without it blocking the aisle of the train carriage and then secure it to the BYK E450 with the Velcro straps attached to the cargo railings. Our other bike was securely stored in the adjacent carriage. Easy! We grabbed seats right next to our bikes and then enjoyed the hour long trip to Ballarat.
The other surprise was how cheap this journey was. The return fare for 2 adults was under $50.00 with the kids on this occasion riding for free.
Off the train at Ballarat Station
A short ride (about 15 minutes) got us to the bike-friendly Sovereign Park Motor Inn. We got a little lost due to relying on cycling directions from Google maps. (Good reminder that Google maps are basically set-up for car travel.) The motel was 4 Star and might not suit everyone’s budget. However the facilities were fantastic for families and included a recreation room, play equipment, and a fabulous indoor pool. They provided us with a private lock-up storage room for the bikes, and the motel even has a bike maintenance area and a bike wash. Motel staff did everything to make our stay easy and enjoyable. One of the managers told us that only a few weeks before they had accommodated the Orica Green Edge team for the “Nationals” Cycling Australia’s Road National Championships hosted in 2013 by Ballarat.
Bike friendly motel facilities
The best sources of information to get around the city came from TravelSmart maps on the Ballarat BUG website and also available via Ballarat City Council. The Travel Smart Map was an excellent way to work out how the city’s bike friendly streets, bike lanes, paths and trails connected up.
The first day we spent cruising around what is considered Ballarat’s jewel in the crown Lake Wendouree. With a steady breeze blowing and gorgeous sunshine we were not disappointed. The ride through town was a combination of bike path and bike lanes. Only one steep category climb along Dana Street got some of us off our bikes and walking! Once we cleared this hill it was an easy ride to Lake Wendouree. The wide streets en route had excellent bike lanes and the historic homes and public architecture in this heritage precinct were a delight to ride through.
Lake Wendouree is encircled by an unsealed, well-maintained gravel trail suitable for walking, jogging and most bikes. There are also on-road bike lanes for the road bike fraternity.
The ride around the Lake was an easy 6km, with pit-stops including the enormous Ballarat Community Adventure Playground (a huge hit with our boys), the picturesque Botanical Gardens, and the friendly, laidback Ballarat Lakeside Farmers Market.
As we loaded up our fresh produce from the farmers market into the Radish (ya’ gotta love loading fruit ‘n’ veg into a bike named after a vegetable), some locals remarked that one of their musician friends was also riding a Radish in Ballarat – and used it to transport her cello! It was nice to know that long tail cargo cycles are not only a capital city phenomenon.
Over the 3 days we also rode to the The Unicorn on Sturt Street for dinner. Kim and I enjoyed sharing the Barramundi in beer batter with chips and the boys went down the comfort food route with yummy baked beans on sourdough toast. Local artwork on the walls and Nat King Cole on vinyl and an old turntable were a nice retro touch.
With these short rides around town we began to notice an absence of proper places to lock up bikes. Lydiard Street (one of the main drags) and Ballarat Station seemed to be the exception. For a city with a population of more than 94,000, pretty visible bike infrastructure and cycling as a tourism marketing push, we were curious as to why there were not more hoops and racks to securely lock up your bike?
One of only a handful of bike hoops we found to use around downtown Ballarat
On our final day we headed to the Ballarat Art Gallery, and were reminded that Australia’s regional art galleries are cultural treasures. We indulged in a pricey but stellar lunch at Sweet Decadence at Ballarat Art Gallery. I had a delectable mocha with handmade chocolate which I won’t forget in a hurry – fuel for the train and bike ride back to Melbourne!
Kim’s Jamis Commuter 1 and Jarrah’s BYK E450 snugly strapped in for the train trip back to Melbourne
Negotiating elevators on our return to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station
By the end of 3 days we felt like we had barely scratched the surface of what is on offer for cyclists of all persuasions in Victoria’s third largest city. Ballarat by train and bike from Melbourne was a perfect option for us as a family. We have friends who have even made it a day trip just to get out of town and have a ride around the lake. Apart from the sheer fun of an active two-wheeled holiday it was interesting to further road-test our urban and regional (bike-friendly) transit infrastructure. More can always be done but it was a joy to celebrate and make use of what we have here in Victoria.
Text: Llewellyn Wishart
Photos: Llewellyn Wishart and Kim Sargent-Wishart