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Café Racer is an icon of Australian cycling. It’s not only a place where cyclists meet before and after their morning ride; it’s a fundamental part of the vibrant cycling culture we enjoy here in Melbourne. Many people take it for granted and may think that it’s something that’s normal, however I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world.
Rock up on any morning and you’ll see dozens of bikes hanging outside the windows and scattered around the building. If you want to get a glimpse of the pros during the summer, this is where they all meet to begin their training rides. Café Racer didn’t just pop up because of an opportunity to capitalise on Melbourne’s massive cycling market. It’s been here long before this explosion of bikes on beach road ever began.
Café Racer is blessed with being a perfect location for cyclists, but it wasn’t built there with that in mind. It all started on June 6, 1995 by Danny Colls when he was a 22 year old motorcycling enthusiast. The building was originally three separate spaces which he subleased to a rollerblade shop and a hairdressing salon. 18 months after Café Racer’s opening, the rollerblade shop walls came down and a few years later the Salon became part of it’s current incarnation. In each renovation, Café Racer didn’t lose one days trade.
If you think the name “Café Racer” refers to us cyclists, think again. Look up Cafe Racer and you’ll come up with a world of motorcycle inferences. Café Racers (originally pronounced “caff” racers) were born out of the Ace Cafe in London. The patrons would put a coin in the jukebox, race around a circuit on their motorbikes and try to beat the song back to to the cafe before it finished. This developed a style of bike called Café Racers. Imagine low and narrow handlebars, a long petrol tank, and a single seat.
Danny used to be crazy about his Ducatis. Every Good Friday him and 50 of his mates would all go out and do their annual ride around Port Phillip Bay. Back in those days there weren’t a lot of good coffee shops in Melbourne and Danny made one of the best coffees you could find. Café Racer was a convenient place where everyone could meet for their rides and get one of the better coffees around. Just like now, you could rock up alone and be guaranteed to find someone there you’re happy to chew the fat with.
Around this time Café Racer had this unspoken “amnesty” with the police where they could pretty much get away with anything on their bikes in the area. Many of the cops were into the motorbike scene as well, so they turned a blind eye. It got to the point where everyone was putting Cafe Racer stickers on their rego plates. All sorts of shenanigans went on. Legend has it that in the first year of the Grand Prix a Senior Sergeant was doing wheelstands in full uniform down Fitzroy Street on Danny’s Ducati!
In the late 90’s Danny had a motorcycle accident at Philip Island. After recovering he never made it back on the bike. Motorcycles turned into prams and the kids became his priority. Then one day Scott McGrory came in and gave Danny his Mapei Colnago C40 and told him to get out there and enjoy it. Danny rode that thing until it nearly wore out. This was back when the North Road Ride and the Hell Ride were only a few guys strong. The cycling scene was nothing like what we see today and an expensive bike cost $2,000.
After Danny sold his last beloved Ducati the motorcycle crew began to disperse. Eventually all the cyclists who used to frequent Greasy Joe’s (Provan, Snake, Stoner, Van Niekerk, etc) started infiltrating Café Racer and as Danny humbly puts it “it just grew from there”. Something tells me however it had more to do with Danny’s magnetic personality and the way he made people feel that attracted people to Café Racer.
Back in yr2000 there was a gentleman named Ian Stringer (an ex-trackie who unfortunately passed away) brought over a 4m satellite dish to Cafe Racer which enabled them to pull down Eurosport feeds of the bike races in Europe. All the cyclists would meet at Racer to watch the last hour of every TdF stage while screaming at the television like lunatics.
In 2002 Robbie McEwen became the first Australian to ever win the Green Jersey at the TdF. In 2003 Baden Cooke won the points competition and Australian cyclists were becoming recognised on the international stage. Danny was sitting across the table with the president of Mazda Australia and they got talking. Danny said “If I could pull all these Aussies in the European peloton together and hold a race, could you help sponsor it?”. It wasn’t long before McEwen, Cookie, Whitey, Davis…a heap of international riders were lined up outside of Cafe Racer. It was a massive production. Channel 10 and SBS broadcast it with Mike Tomalaris, Matt Tilly, and Matt Keenan all on commentating duty.
Who won the race? Well, this depends on who you ask….
After 14 years of owning Café Racer Danny came to a point in his life where he had to part with it. He went through a traumatic divorce and had no choice but to sell. Danny says, “It was like selling a child”. When talking to him about it you can see that he’s still very attached to his memories of Café Racer and misses it dearly. Digging up these stories was no trivial matter.
Danny and his lovely partner Sian now own Liaison House on 22 Ridgway Place (city), underneath the Consulate of Monaco. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend you visit. The coffee is superbe and the hospitality of Danny and Sian is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced in a cafe. They have to be very proud of what they’ve done with this little place.
After the sale a new group of owners renovated the interior of Café Racer and later bought back some of Danny’s memorabilia. If you look around the walls you’ll see framed photos, jerseys, surf boards and heaps of other items scattered amongst the place that few people know the stories behind.
Here are some photos of Cafe Racer in it’s humble beginnings along with some of the stories that go along with it.
Danny’s Ducatis parked out in front of Cafe Racer back in the day
Some of the original crew who transformed Cafe Racer into a cycling meeting spot. Most of these guys were probably sitting in the same chairs this morning
The party the night before the Cafe Racer criterium.
(rear L-R) Jason Phillips, Mark Hindmarsh (the other organiser of the race), Danny Colls
Who actually won? Well the story goes something like this. The race was fixed for Cookie since he had just come home with the Green Jersey. Cookie had a big night out and wasn’t feeling so hot (a rare occurrence) therefore Matty Wilson was picked for the win. Crowie apparently didn’t get the message at the start and ended up coming across finish line first by half a wheel. However, Mike Tomolaris knew the deal and announced “and Matty Wilson gets the win!”
“Cafe Racer Man” Story: Danny lived next door to a graphic designer named Andrew Hoyne in St Kilda. Danny was after a funky logo and they had been throwing around ideas. One night Andrew had a massive party and kept the whole building awake until the early hours of the morning. To apologise for keeping Danny up all night, the next morning Andrew slipped a sketch of the Cafe Racer Man logo under his door. Andrew invoiced Danny for $1.00 so that he legally owned it and the rest is history. It won the Art Directors Award for best corporate logo where the award still hangs on the wall at Cafe Racer. No one else except for Danny, Andrew Hoyne, and us know this story.
Every year Danny owned Cafe Racer he put up a sticker on to mark the milestone. Sixteen years later Danny Colls tells me about it’s beginnings “Day one at Cafe Racer was June 6th 1995 I was there an hour earlier than I needed to be. No staff, just me. My gross takings for the day was $14.00 and I still have the first dollar. I did’nt have my first day off for over two years. 7:00am to 6:00pm 7 days a week.”
The framed piece of plastic on the bathroom wall: “I had just bought a Ducati 748, it was parked on the street in front of the cafe ( I had a parking spot in front of the cafe changed by City Council to ” Motorcycle Only Parking ” ) An everyday customer named Efi backed his 4WD into it. I framed a piece of the fairing and glued a copy of the cheque to the back (I think $4000) and had Efi hang it on the wall. He remained a customer everyday, and I see him in the city.”
Visit Cafe Racer on any morning and this is what it looks like.
Sue and Clare, two of the four new owners of Cafe Racer doing a terrific job at keeping this Australian cycling icon alive.