A different spin on Melbourne

00:28, Jul 04 2012
Melbourne
NEW PERSPECTIVE: A ride on Melbourne's cycle trail gives a new view of the city. Both learners and experts should plan to spend some time on the experience.

It's a busy Thursday afternoon and I am hotfooting it through Melbourne's central business district. I've headed out along bustling Bourke Street and turned right onto the main thoroughfare of Swanston Street, alive with its outstanding buskers and rambling trams.

I notice the city folk are well-heeled in smart urban dress – without exception, it seems. Before I make it to Federation Square, I'm feeling surprisingly conspicuous striding it out in my Under Armour leggings, running shoes and ultra breathable, high-tech sports top. Yes, I appreciate this is a cultured city, but where are the sporty people?

I cross Fed Square, trot down the stairs and arrive at Melbourne's Rentabike on the banks of the Yarra River. While wandering Melbourne's laneways at a leisurely pace would be, well, leisurely, I figure that I can cover a whole lot more ground and take in a lot more on two wheels.

Carlos the friendly Spaniard sets me up with bike, helmet and map and I'm off to explore this city from a fresh perspective on the Capital City Cycle Trail. Touted as one of Melbourne's "Top Five Rides", it's a 32 kilometre loop that encircles the wider CBD area, suitable for all fitness levels and with the great appeal of offering ever-changing vistas of the city.

Within two minutes of setting out along the banks of the admittedly murky, yet very lovely Yarra, my question about the whereabouts of sporty types is answered. They are here, by the water. In their hundreds. A constant stream of runners and cyclists pass by along the wide, sandy riverside path, making the most of the gloriously sunny autumn afternoon under the golden glow of trees celebrating in splendid colour the last throws of this vibrant season.

The first half of the Capital City trail follows the Yarra upstream. In one section a floating bike path carries cyclists, runners and walkers atop the water, beside a city freeway. Passing by a freeway overpass, I happen upon the Burnley Bouldering Walls, a series of three climbing walls installed beneath the motorway. How inspired. Two climbers are practising their skills while city traffic breezes by overhead. Regulars here, they tell me how the walls were council funded, installed by local volunteers and, thanks to floodlighting at night, are free for public use 24/7.

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Further upstream, the city busyness is left behind. The trail is wide and smooth and winds casually along the riverside under tall trees. I glide along, taking in the autumn scenery as dry leaves crunch under the bike tyres. I traverse bridges, glide under old stone arches and catch glimpses of some substantial riverside residences complete with tennis courts, pools and gardeners at work maintaining the paths that lead down to private boat moorings.

The trail leads on to Collingwood Children's Farm, a popular spot for families to cycle to. Children can make friends with a range of farm animals, ride a pony and milk a cow. There's a family day once a month and a fortnightly market garden to stock up with produce from the large vege garden.

Around the next bend is the Abbotsford Convent, built on a grand scale and featuring medieval French ecclesiastic architecture. It's the perfect resting spot to park the bike, look around and enjoy some food from one of several onsite cafes.

Carlos had suggested I allow three hours to complete the ride. But with so much of interest along the way, two hours have passed and I've clocked up a mere 12km. My efforts to catch up a bit of time are then frustrated by a lack of clear signage and confusing detours because of maintenance work. Universal signage would certainly help distinguish this tourist route from the myriad other cycle trails it intersects from hereon. Aside from this glitch, Melbourne lives up to its billing as very cycle-friendly place.

Soon the trail travels alongside the aptly named Park St and more suburban areas north of the central business district. Swathes of green reserve cut a wide path through the streets, providing a commuter corridor for the steady stream of cyclists, and recreation areas for families and local residents. Heritage houses line the streets, and this is an opportunity to see Melbournians go about their everyday life in a bustling neighbourhood. Once again the city's commitment to providing safe, accessible cycling is very evident. Perhaps New Zealand town planners could pop over and check this out?

There's plenty of open space to enjoy as the trail continues through Princes Park, Royal Park and skirts around the Royal Melbourne Zoo. Heading back towards town, it's time for the industrial section of the ride. Tracking under the towering freeway and beside the train tracks, it's an entirely different environment to the first part of the trail. It's unexpectedly liberating, and fun – time to get the wheels spinning. I dash along under the rumble of city traffic, swooping low to cut under city bridges, chasing the odd train and revelling in this unusual perspective of Australia's cultural capital.

Finally, it's back to classic Melbourne. Coming through Docklands, I take the pace down and simply enjoy pedalling over the Webb bridge to the fantastic river precinct – in my opinion one of the most attractive urban precincts you'll find anywhere. Here you can take in the classic postcard views of downtown Melbourne in all its finery along the riverbanks.

Carlos doesn't bat an eyelid that I'm a bit over time, as we concur on what a fantastic way this is to tour around the city. Next time, though, when I'll tick off another of Melbourne's top five rides – perhaps the St Kilda or Parks trail – I'll allow myself more time and enjoy it at a much more, well, leisurely pace.

Sarah MacDonald paid and pedalled her own way on the trail.

The Dominion Post