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 Photography: Tim Bardsley-Smith | Video: Phil Golston | Text: Iain Treloar

A map of a city doesn’t tell you much until you have the context to fill in the blanks. 

At first glance, Melbourne’s just a big city, arcing around a bay in the south-east of Australia. It is those things, but riders see places differently. They see things like this: to the south – roads tracing the coastline, dotted with thousands of cyclists. To the east – a range of low mountains covered with temperate rainforest and ferns, overlaid with a web of gravel and tarmac. To the north – endless rolling hills and quiet country roads. And in the inner suburbs, a bike culture that’s the envy of every other state capital.

With all this and more going for it, little wonder that Melbourne is considered Australia’s greatest cycling city.

It’s 5.45am on a weekday, on the corner of North Road and Nepean Highway, and the air fills with the clicking chorus of cleats into pedals. One of Melbourne’s bunch-riding institutions is rolling out on its well-ordered procession south to Mordialloc, where they’ll turn to the coast and return toward the CBD along Beach Road.

There’s no road in Australia that’s more synonymous with road cycling in Australia than this bayside boulevard, which hugs the coast’s contours from St Kilda down to the Mornington Peninsula. With bikes far outnumbering cars on weekend mornings, Beach Road is part of Melbourne cycling’s DNA and known by cyclists and the non-riding public alike.

For the most part, Beach Road is flat and fast – any inclines are short and gentle – but as you get further down the coast things get lumpier.

Arthurs Seat, looming over the beach town of Dromana, makes up for its relatively short length with uncomfortable gradients (3km at 8%). This climb is a regular feature of the Jayco Herald Sun Tour – Australia’s oldest stage race, and for more than 60 years a fixture of the Australian cycling calendar.

The race frequently draws a prestigious lineup and for 2019, that trend’s set to continue, with the likes of Mitchelton-Scott, EF Education First, Team Sky and Trek-Segafredo mixing it up with the cream of Australia’s domestic talent. The 2019 edition’s queen stage of the men’s race will involve a brutal five ascents of Arthurs Seat, and is sure to see thousands of fans making their way by bike down Beach Road and back.  The racing will be electric, but it’s also as good an excuse as any for some coastal views, companionship and (of course) a coffee or two.  

On Melbourne’s eastern fringe, like the silhouette of a sleeping green giant, lie the Dandenong Ranges. Rising to a height of just over 600m, they’re the early wrinkles of the Great Dividing Range, which reaches far more substantial altitudes as it stretches toward Victoria’s east and north. For Melbourne’s cyclists, the contours of the Dandenongs are both a perpetual challenge and an escape, as familiar as they may be.

Despite their relative proximity to the city – around 30km east – the Dandenongs feel quite remote, quite quickly. Rising from the suburbs, the houses soon stop and you’re enfolded in mountain ash and rainforest and ferns, the roads curving sinuously through the greenery. Like Beach Road, the climbs are part of Melbourne cycling vocabulary, and the nicknames of various segments – Devil’s Elbows, the Wall – are etched into the community’s consciousness.

Melbourne’s most popular climb, the 1 in 20 (Mountain Highway, from the Basin to Sassafras) is 6.8km of reasonably gentle gradients – an ascent where riders know their PB by heart and efforts by pros pass into folklore. It’s as hard as you make it, but if you’re not going for a time there’s plenty to enjoy – leafy views back to the city, ferns rustling invitingly and the hint of eucalyptus hanging in the breeze.  

It’s a playground up there, with enough roads – paved and gravel alike – to lose a day exploring. The city-facing side of the Dandenongs is lusher; as you head further east the canopy opens up and rainforest is replaced with pastures and rolling hills.

There are few bad options as you rise and fall through these ancient hills on the edge of the suburbs.

Inner Melbourne’s flat, orderly geography certainly works in the favour of bike riders, but there’s more to Melbourne’s cycling culture than that alone. Steady investment by local and state governments, backed by patient advocacy over a span of decades, has seen a network of separated bike paths and on-road infrastructure like Copenhagen lanes installed. Plant yourself on a street corner on any of the more popular routes (especially in the inner north) and you’ll see the full wonderful spectrum of bikes and their riders going about their day – families on cargo bikes, students on fixies, immaculately attired roadies, work boots and high heels, townies and hybrids.

Melbournians love to conceive of the city as a more cosmopolitan, more European-feeling counterpoint to the glossier, prettier Sydney, but that’s not from insecurity – there’s truth to it. Melbourne is internationally renowned as Australia’s cultural capital. And somehow, this city of laneways and street art, coffee and culture, wouldn’t feel right without bike riders all over the place.

One of Melbourne’s greatest charms, however, is that despite its size, escape from the hustle and bustle is never far away. Yarra Boulevard in Kew, for instance, follows the river around the leafy inner Eastern suburbs, past golf courses and sleeping bat colonies. And off the side of the road from virtually the edge of the CBD, there’s riverside singletrack stretching as far as Warrandyte, itself a springboard to gravel adventures to Kinglake and much beyond.

The city’s cyclists have enthusiastically embraced the sport in all its formats. All over Melbourne’s enormous span, you can see the love of cycling – whether it’s at one of the many weeknight crits or at an indoor velodrome or on a bike path during the commuter rush. There are countless bunch rides, clubs and Bicycle User Groups (BUGs). There’s a growing gravel scene, bike polo teams, mountain bike parks and rail trails. There’s something for everyone.

Cycling in Melbourne is a diverse, year-round obsession for those who do it, but it’s more than that too. It’s part of the city’s identity.

The Jayco Herald Sun Tour is Australia’s longest running tour, with a heritage stretching back to the 1950s. This year, a prestigious international field has again been attracted, with a lineup including Team Sky, Trek-Segafredo (men’s and women’s), Mitchelton Scott (men’s and women’s) and more.

Winners in the last couple of decades have included such famous names as Tour de France winners Chris Froome and Sir Bradley Wiggins, along with local heroes like Baden Cooke and Simon Gerrans. For the 2019 men’s edition, Richie Porte will be Australia’s greatest hope in the general classification, as the peloton tackles a five-stage race starting in Phillip Island and making its way through Gippsland, before the spectator-friendly queen stage from Cape Schanck to Arthurs Seat (five ascents!) and concluding on the fringes of the CBD with a race around the Botanic Gardens.

The women’s Herald Sun Tour will see Brodie Chapman – a revelation of the 2018 season – return to defend her title. The race will be run over two stages, with the first in Phillip Island followed by a climb-heavy decider on a course around the Gippsland town of Churchill.

For more on the Jayco Herald Sun Tour, see here.

Melbourne’s a big city, with a population of five million people spread over a vast surface area, so it’s no great surprise that there’s a broad range of accommodation options to suit any budget located in the CBD and beyond.

On this trip we based ourselves in Richmond, an inner-eastern suburb offering easy city access and good public transport connections – along with great cafes and food along Swan St and Victoria St.

Whether you’re looking for five star decadence or something more budget-conscious, Melbourne has something to offer.

For suggestions, see here.

Melbourne is proudly multicultural, with a culinary ethos informed by the diversity of people that make up its population. You don’t need to dig too deep to unearth true representations of cuisines from around the world, along with contemporary fusions.

Venture out of the CBD for some of the most authentic and delicious food – Vietnamese in Victoria Street, Richmond or in Footscray; Chinese in Box Hill (or Chinatown); Italian along Lygon Street (Carlton); and Spanish along Johnston St (Fitzroy).

Some of Australia’s finest restaurants are located in Melbourne, along with a vast array of top-notch pubs and bistros and cheap-and-cheerful hot spots.

On this trip, our highlights included Stomping Ground Brewery (Abbotsford), Proserpina Bakery and Cafe (The Basin), and Coffee Peddlr (Abbotsford).

With quality wine from surrounding regions like the Yarra Valley, a strong craft beer scene and one of the world’s greatest coffee cultures, there’s plenty to love about eating and drinking in Melbourne.

For recommendations, see here.

There always seems to be something happening in Melbourne.

The city is widely-regarded as the cultural capital of Australia, with a number of important festivals scattered throughout the year. Depending on when you’re visiting, you might be lucky enough to catch the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Melbourne International Arts Festival, Melbourne Music Week, Melbourne International Film Festival and Moomba, among many others.

The city’s live music scene is unprecedented in Australia, with dozens of venues hosting local artists and international acts alike throughout the week.

Melbourne isn’t just known for the arts – it’s Australia’s sporting capital as well, home to Australian Rules Football (AFL), as well as a thriving soccer scene and one of the world’s most anticipated cricket games, the Boxing Day test. Add to this the Australian F1 Grand Prix and the Australian Open, and you can see why the city is so sport-mad.

For suggestions on what to do and what’s coming up, see here.