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The Hell Ride is iconic to cycling in Melbourne. For those of you reading who don’t know, it’s a popular group ride that starts at 7am on Saturday mornings from a suburb called Black Rock. Sometimes as many as 200 cyclists will show up and ride approximately 80kms. There’s a couple of challenging parts to the ride, but nothing too testing if you’re decently fit. That said, the sprint finish at the end can definitely get pretty sketchy. Apparently the Hell Ride had its beginning in 1984 when some VFL footballers began a weekly ride from Black Rock to Mt Eliza and back – reviving an older tradition known as the Frankston Derby. If anyone else can provide some more detail to the history of the Hell Ride I’d be very interested in hearing it. I’ve heard that back in the day John Kennedy would note down the final sprint results and submit them to the newspaper the following day!
There’s a lot of controversy over this ride. Because of the group size, red lights are regularly run and quite often both lanes of the road will be filled up with cyclists 6 abreast. It’s not hard to see why it gets a bad name. The media has labeled the people who do it “The Hell Riders” (as if it’s a gang of hooligan cyclist terrorizing the streets every Saturday). This has gone so far now that Cyclosport Victoria (abbr. CSV – our state governing cycling body) has issued a formal statement urging all cyclists not to participate in the Hell Ride. Many clubs have now passed on this statement to nearly every cyclist who races in Victoria. CSV has threatened sanctions to rule breaking cyclists’ licenses if proven that they’ve breached road rules. I understand their position here as they are the ones who have to stand up for us cyclists when we lobby for road permits and cyclists rights. They are asking this of us for our own good. How on Earth will CSV have any credibility and be taken seriously if we keep on riding in the Hell Ride like we do?
However, the Hell Ride is not going away. It’s numbers may die down for a while but it’ll rise again. The Hell Ride is not something tangible that you can just ban. It’s is part of a tradition in Melbourne cycling and is a tourist destination for many visiting cyclists. Many Australian PRO cyclists got their start doing the Hell Ride. When I first moved here I thought it was the coolest thing on earth riding beside half a dozen Pro Tour riders (I still think it’s pretty cool). In the end, it’s basically a weekly social gathering of a large group of serious cyclists doing what we love. It can also be seen as a stepping stone for beginner cyclists making the leap to a big bunch ride to test out their legs. I think it’s a great thing. On a cold winter day when the group is under 50 riders it is completely safe and everyone rides responsibly. It’s those sunny summer mornings when the group gets to 200 is when things go ballistic. Riders run red lights, ride 6 abreast, overtake cars that can’t get through, ride on sidewalks. It’s absolutely nuts! I’ve seen the sprint finish use up all 4 lanes of the road at times and oncoming traffic comes to a halt. I just sit back and shake my head.
The behavior of the hell ride needs to come from examples set within the bunch. Everyone I speak to is absolutely embarrassed by the behavior of some of the others during the ride. 95% are good and there are a few bad ones who ruin it. This responsibility to be a jackass seems to rotate depending on who’s there. When some of the stupid behavior is initiated by some of the strongest riders and some PROs in the bunch, this just perpetuates through to the riders who are easily influenced. These PROs need to be setting the benchmark for the others. If Team Management were to see some of these PRO riders’ behavior on this ride, they’ve be fired on the spot (not Gerro though…he’s cool).
In the end, I think it’s up to the riders themselves to put the pressure on the others who are making the rest of us look like a bunch of idiots. These are the people who are hurting cycling’s image and the reputation of the ride itself. Maybe the answer is for the cyclists themselves to ban offending riders. Even though many of these cyclists who break the road rules are our friends or may be a PRO, have some balls and say something to stick up for your sport. This isn’t a popularity contest and we’re no longer in high school.