Melbourne’s new Bike Share scheme is great value for money and it’s not just for commuters. Richard Tulloch enjoys a whistle stop tour of his birth city for the price of a bottle of water… and invites UTB readers along for the ride.

Don't forget your helmet!

I’m a tightwad traveller. I shun expensive hotels, keep my hands deep in my pockets in shopping malls, and save my hard-earned for life’s essentials – coffee, food and alcohol.

Melbourne is my home town, but I left when I was 26 and haven’t spent a day, or a cent, there for years. There are a lot of new developments to check out; the Melbourne Museum, new facilities at the mighty MCG, the Ian Potter Centre and Docklands have all been installed since last I was in town.

At just $2.50 per day, the Melbourne Bike Share system promises to be the most efficient mode of transport a cheapskate could choose to whip around them all, getting free exercise in the process.

Before I leave home I check the Bike Share website. There’s a downloadable map showing 51 bike stations, designated bike paths and recommended informal routes around the city, and self-guided cycling tours – Culture Craving tour, Feed Me tour, Retail Rejuvenation tour, Spiritual Guide tour, Park Your Bike tour…it all sounds excellent. And cheap.

Cycling the South Bank

Thirteen blue Bike Share bikes are standing in a row when I step off the shuttle bus from Tullamarine Airport (at $26 return it beats the hell out of any taxi) at Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station.

With gritted teeth I insert my credit card into the machine. I could join Bike Share for a year for $50, a week for $8 or a day for the aforementioned $2.50. The instructions also warn me that I will lose my $50 deposit if I nick a bike. There’s no chance of a miser like me doing that. The bikes may be sturdy and comfortable but they are not the sort of thing I want cluttering my hallway.

Getting a bike helmet is trickier. They’re compulsory for cyclists in Australia, and few visitors would arrive carrying one. However, you can get them at Melbourne 7-Eleven stores, or from the helmet dispenser at Southern Cross Station. They cost $5 with a $3 refund if they’re returned undamaged. $5?? That’s excellent value. I’ll get one and keep it. Maybe I’ll buy two. Any bike helmet I’ve ever put on my delicate head has cost at least $50.

View of MCG across the Yarra River

Still, it’s awkward to have to go and get one. As someone put it, ‘It’s like buying a coffee and being told the milk is at another café down the street.’

As it turns out, this is my lucky day. There’s an abandoned helmet by the bike rack. And it’s a perfect fit! I mount my steed and tootle off in the direction of Queen Victoria Market.

Vic Market has been a Melbourne institution since 1878, but I steer clear of the exotic veggies and genuine Aboriginal boomerangs made in China. I’m after a coffee, and excellent stuff it is in this town – Melbourne’s Italian immigrants made sure of that years ago.

Then I pedal up the road to park the bike at the Royal Exhibition Building, a temporary structure erected in 1880. I can’t go in there without feeling inadequately prepared – I used to sit my university exams in the great hall. Across from it is the smart new Melbourne Museum. It charges $10 admission but it’s free for scrooges with student or seniors concession cards. Bingo!

Branching out to the Botanic Gardens

I don’t bother with the dinosaur bones and Egyptian mummies. I’ve seen them in other places. I go straight to the Melbourne room, with the stuffed hide of the iconic Aussie racehorse Phar Lap, and an excellent, quirky, nostalgic history of the old town.

I swipe the card in the bike rack machine again. There’s no extra charge for this – it’s just the system welcoming me back. My trusty bike is still there and it’s downhill all the way to the Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia’s greatest sporting venue. Entry to an international cricket match normally costs north of $50, but today the gates are open, so I stroll in. It’s a Victoria vs. Tasmania state match and it ends ten minutes after I arrive, right on lunch time.

No need for a rip-off café – a picnic in the lovely Botanic Gardens will do fine. No restaurant in the world has a more pleasant view. Cost – nothing.

City slackers on Federation Square
Then I can ride along the bike path by the Yarra River up to Federation Square, the meeting place in the centre of Melbourne. Depending on whose opinion you read it’s either an architectural marvel or a disorientating shambles of a complex, all odd angles and uneven zinc surfaces.

But inside it has the Ian Potter Centre, the branch of the National Gallery of Victoria housing the marvellous collection of Aboriginal and other Australian art. The gallery’s international collection is in the building across the river. Touring exhibitions can be pricey, but the permanent collection is, you guessed it, free!

I have a dinner and show appointment at Melbourne’s alternative Malthouse Theatre, but that leaves me time to ride the bike past the Southbank bars and restaurants and down to the flash apartment development of Docklands.

I miss the event by a day, but I see that Tour de France winner Cadel Evans has just raced a Melbourne Bike Share bike around a Docklands criterion course. You can see it on YouTube.

Ready for the next tourist
I’m not in the same sort of rush as Cadel. I roll down to the theatre and click the bike back into a rack for the last time. I’ve had to change it over a few times, to avoid the $2 fee if I use it for more than half an hour at a stretch, but this has been a minor inconvenience.

I still have money in my pocket, and I’ve burned off a few calories. Add to this the warm fuzzy feel-good factor that comes from knowing I’ve done a good day’s work for the environment and Melbourne’s traffic congestion. In short, who could begrudge me a couple of cold beers before the show?

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