June 25, 2012

The 2012 Melburn Roobaix (Hell of the Northcote)

Melburn Roobaix is a true icon of Melbourne cycling, an event the unifies cyclists of all abilities in a way that no other event really does. The concept is simple: find your way between a handful of designated cobblestone sectors in Melbourne’s inner suburbs and have a lot of fun along the way.

Unlike the event which inspired its creation — Paris-Roubaix — Melburn Roobaix has no set route — you are free to get between cobbled sectors as you see fit — and it’s not a race. And, at seven years old, and with over 2,000 people registering for yesterday’s edition, there can be little doubting the popularity of the event.

Image: Donvale Demon

Having heard how rough some of Melbourne’s cobbles are, I decided to leave the CAAD10 at home and take my old Trek 1.2 along. In fact, I went one step further, putting on the 25mm tyres I’d run the previous weekend at Around the Lake … and I’m certainly glad I did.

Brendan, the Donvale Demon and I met at Federation Square just before 9.30am and made our way over to the Hawthorn Velodrome for the start of the event. We met with Andy van Bergen and his crew at the ‘drome and queued up to get our registration musettes which included a map with all the cobbled sectors marked. There must have been 1,000 people there as we prepared to start the ride — people on carbon-frame road bikes, people on mountain bikes, people on unicycles and plenty of people riding single-speed bikes.

And it wasn’t just the variety of bikes that stood out. There were people wearing suits, people wearing sombreros, guys wearing outfits that left very little to the imagination, and people wearing mullet wigs, afro wigs and everything in between.

(Image: Donvale Demon).

We didn’t have far to go before hitting the first cobblestone sector — a reasonably simple stretch that gave us a taste for what was to come. But even on this easy sector, and even with thicker tyres on, my back wheel slipped out a few times on this first sector which didn’t fill me with a huge amount of confidence.

At the second sector my back wheel slipped out again and at one point I found myself sliding toward a fence, my back wheel flicking out at right angles to the rest of the bike. I managed to regain control just before impact and, slightly shaken, decided that it might be easier to ride faster over the cobbles. After all, greater forward momentum equals less chance of lateral movement, right?

By the third sector I was starting to get the hang of riding the cobbles and I was actually starting to enjoy it. From then on I stuck to a simple formula: try to cover the cobbles as quickly as was safe with others around, avoid the gaps between stones that looked like they could swallow my wheel and, above all, stop the back wheel from sliding around.

One of the 12 cobbled sectors throughout the day.

As we made our way along Yarra Boulevard between sectors four and five we rode past the notoriously steep Yarra Street — an opportunity that a few of us couldn’t resist. We blasted down the short descent then up the steep ramp that must get to about 15% at its steepest. Being one of the few people in our group to be riding a bike with gears I was able to push up the hill with a reasonable cadence, rather than zig-zagging about at 40RPM. I reached the top of the climb ahead of the bunch and set a PB in the process — a worthwhile little diversion!

In fact that whole day was full of little diversions and distractions like that. In the early part of the day we took a detour through Boroondora Cemetery … just because we could. A later diversion took us through and around a carpark, again for no real reason.

By the time we’d completed seven sectors we were over halfway and I’d managed to stay upright throughout. Mind you, I came pretty close to coming unstuck a couple of times. On sector four or five another slip of the back wheel saw me fall ungracefully to the right. I managed to unclip a fraction of a second before it was too late and, shaken, I continued on sheepishly.

Once in Clifton Hill it was time for a pre-planned rest stop. We ducked into a local pub, had a few beverages, a chat about the day thus far and worked out where the next sector was.

Checking the map at lunchtime (Image: Donvale Demon).

After a snack from a nearby bakery it was back on the bike and into the longest transition of the day: from Clifton Hill out to Moonee Ponds via the Capital City Trail and the Moonee Ponds Creek Trail.

Riding along the concrete canal next to the Citylink Tollway, we reached a point where a drain was pouring some kind of slippery green gunk down the slightly angled concrete path into the nearby canal. I managed to get over the slick section without any problems but not everyone was so lucky. I heard a few people behind me hit the deck, hard, as their back wheels slipped out.

Andy was one such rider who, as well as tearing up a favourite pair of gloves, managed to bash his elbow quite hard. The adrenaline took away some of the pain but by the end of the day Andy was struggling and spent some time at the St. Johns’s ambulance post-ride getting checked over.

As we waited for Andy to pick himself up off the concrete, I stood by the slick patch and yelled out for approaching riders to be careful. Despite heeding my warning, clipping out of his pedals and slowing down to an almost-crawl, one poor rider lost traction completely and went over, adding to the carnage. Maybe faster would have been better?

The slick patch that caused all the chaos.

The eighth cobbled sector of the day was the Koppenberg, named after the infamous cobbled climb in the Ronde van Vlaanderen. With a sustained climb for a couple hundred metres, some really rough cobbles and lots of people to get around while climbing, it was probably the hardest sector of the day … all the more reason to do it twice!

After smashing through the first attempt a handful of us (including Andy, with pain still dulled by the adrenaline) went around the block and back up the Koppenberg, weaving and winding our way over the lumpy, inconsistent surface. I’m very tempted to head out there one day when there’s no-one around to get a sense of how fast you could ride it. The fact that it’s a Strava segment adds a little extra motivation.

They don’t call him Trackstandy van Bergen for nothing.

With the Koppenberg out of the way there were only four sectors remaining. I was given navigation duties on the way to sector nine and planned out a route that would get us there. I lost the group after one corner with everyone (except the Demon) deciding to continue straight on rather than listening to my suggested route!

The Demon and I reached sector nine before the bunch and punched through the cobbles to wait for the others at the end. We rode the final three sectors as the bunch gradually thinned out and by the time we reached the Brunswick Velodrome to finish the event, it was more or less just Brendan, the Demon and I riding together.

Brendan signs off having completed his first Melburn Roobaix.

In many ways, Melburn Roobaix is a melting pot of Melbourne cycling — a place where you’ll find roadies riding alongside unicyclists, hipsters riding next to mountain bikers. It’s a ride that’s all about cobblestones but, really, the cobblestones are only part of what makes the ride so worthwhile. It’s about the joy of riding with mates, the joy of finding your way around, of getting lost and, ultimately, it’s about having fun. On that score the day was a roaring success.

Thanks to Andy White at Fyxomatosis for putting together a truly memorable event. It was a very different cycling experience to what I’m used to but, perhaps, all the more valuable for that reason. I learnt that you don’t need a precise, turn-by-turn plan to have fun on the bike and that it’s OK to take nearly four hours of riding to cover less than 70km.

And just as the dirt of Around the Lake opened my eyes to a different cycling experience last week, the cobbles of Melburn Roobaix revealed another dimension to Victoria’s tremendous cycling scene.

The crowd builds.

Andy gives his pre-ride address.

The Donvale Demon (left) tearing up the cobbles.

Riding through a cemetery … as you do.

Brendan takes on some hydration.

Brendan’s project bike.

Tammy (left) and Andy van Bergen, minutes before Andy’s crash.

Brendan looks like he’s gone through hell (of the Northcote) and back.

Team Blue Edge.

A terrific crowd at the finish.

Ridiculously Photogenic Guy (google it) has got nothing on Andy.

The Demon making the cobbles look like the smoothest road ever.

It’s all about picking the right line.

The expression is fake, but the holes in the gloves and the blood aren’t.

‘This way to hell.’

6 Comments

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  1. Joel Hermann / Apr 25 2013

    Riding this event in a few months… wondering what gear to use. I ride a giant defy 2 2011 with alloy frame and carbon forks. Id like to still ride it. Would u reccomended using a mountain bike over this. Also, if I do end up using my defy would 25mm tyres suffice or should I move up to 27/28 ones? great article by the way! Thanks.

    • Matt / Apr 25 2013

      Hi Joel, it’s definitely doable on the Defy with 25mm tyres. It will be pretty rough on the cobbles but hey, that’s the whole point right? ;)

  2. jules / Jun 26 2012

    i didn’t make it to the ride, looks like heaps of fun, although i did encounter the bunch on my way to somewhere else, passing the brunswick velodrome and i immediately realised “it must be the hell of the northcote today”.

    if it helps, that slick drainage goo on the moonee ponds creek trail/aqueduct has certainly brought a few people down in its time. i’ve had some great slides on it – you need to hit it straight, keep a lose grip on the bars and let your bike do its thing.

  3. Just_Rigs / Jun 25 2012

    Seeing AVB bandaged up at the end of the day and then talking to a few others the ‘slippery green gunk’ seemed to have claimed many victims on the day, I had EML’s wheel as we pulled passed a large mixed crew and we were just winding on the pace when I went from 35kph upright to 35kph on my head…..ouch….still feeling pretty tender but nothing broken (apart from helmet which is shattered at the front but shows it did it’s job, and the bikes needs a bit of tlc)

  4. Nick Orloff / Jun 25 2012

    Yesterday was my second Roobaix. Did it 2 years ago with my then 12 year old son, missed last year because of injury, but my then 13 year old did it with my wife, this year it was me, Mr now 14, Mr 12 and my not really a cyclist wife.

    We rode with a bunch of guys from my club, who were content to ride at a slow pace, and regroup from time to time. We had a flat and a busted chain – fixed on the course, a bike re-fitting session, and everyone can recount a number of very near misses.

    I think the thing that stands out – other than the amazing job that Andy at Fyxomatosis does organizing an event for 2,000 people without having to have roads closed- is it’s just a fun, silly day out on bikes.

    Remember being 11 or 12 and messing about all Saturday on bikes with your mates? When you’re (almost) 50, the Melburn Roobaix is the closest you’re going to get to 12 again.

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