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Xmas Belgie – The wacky Melbourne ride you’ve probably never heard of

An homage to Melbourne's rich cycling culture.

Belgie Forefathers, Adam (author of this post), Cam, Tom, and Tom.

Many would argue that Melbourne’s cycling culture is one of the most unique on the planet. Over the past decade one facet of the city’s rich cycling culture has been growing: a weekly ride called ‘The Belgie’, and in particular, the ‘Xmas Belgie’. We asked one of its founders, Adam Lana, to describe what’s so special about this ride that attracts everyone from weekend warriors to WorldTour riders, and the shenanigans that go along with it.

In some ways, we shouldn’t be allowed to call it the Belgie. You’re either drinking Champagne, or you’re not. Just like parmesan cheese shouldn’t be made in a suburban factory in Springvale, appropriating the name of one of the world’s biggest cycling countries, for a Melbourne ride, seems dumb. And then, for Christmas, you add pros, ouzo, sardines, waffles, beer, and vintage kit. Welcome to the 10th running of the Xmas Belgie.

For over 10 years, on any given Wednesday morning, a small group of riders rock up on their chosen bike. Of late that could mean anything – a roadie, an aero bike, gravel or mountain bike … yes, all on the same morning, all for the same ride.

Back in the Noughties, it was a “road ride”. Gravel bikes hadn’t been invented, CX in Melbourne was still just a pipe dream, heck Strava didn’t even exist and here we were forcing 25 mm tyres past our brake pads to give us more grip and a “softer” ride on the gravel parts of the course. This was always #NotBeachRoad.

Three of us became five, and five became seven, all while an explosion of creative souls began influencing our Melbourne cycling scene. People like Andy “Fyxo” White, “Everesting” founder (and now Escape staffer) Andy van Bergen, Nick C from Dirty Deeds CX (the one who started proper cyclocross in Australia), Wade Wallace who had just started CyclingTips, and Pikey from Rapha . These people and this ride inspired me to build a bike brand around it [Adam is a former co-founder of Curve – ed.] The Belgie somehow became a vehicle for how cycling evolved in Melbourne. We don’t have a Stelvio, a Tour of Flanders, nor 10,000 fans watching a cross race, but we wanted our own taste of it.

Through riding we loved and the brands we toyed with, sometimes it felt like we were creating the trends instead of following them – new Belgie sectors were fast-founded, each with their own story.  Tires started getting fatter and the riders faster. Names that I had only seen on the pages of CyclingTips started to rock up: Australian road and CX champion Alby Iaucone,  three-time Australian CX champion Lisa Jacobs, MTB world champ Paul van der Ploeg, and a plucky Tom Southam, former pro and now directeur sportif for WorldTour team EF Pro Cycling. 

When I asked Tom Southam to help me write this article, his response was like his riding: on point.

“It’s always so hard to try to explain the Belgie,” he said. “Once you ride it, you get it, (or you really don’t).  Why don’t we ask the Belgie WhatsApp group to share their favourite bits? I’ll kick em off …”

And so here’s what they all said, some highlighting their favourite sectors, others describing the Belgie in general.

Daniel Braunstein’s kit commitment is to be admired (especially wearing The Turbine, which is definitely helping his performance). Fyxo’s homage to his Norge backyard trails was equally as impressive.

Tommy P, founding forefather of the Belgie (Heartbreak Hill)

“There is no selection criteria to ride the Belgie. Anyone can turn up on any bike in any state of fitness, however the gateway to entry is getting over ‘Heartbreak Hill’. This is just a few hundred meters of medium-level gradient. No one really attacks but the Belgie ride will ride ‘quite firm’. This is simply due to the level of talent frequenting this ride and for most of us this is an early form test: Have you taken too many weeks off? Have you recovered from your injury? Have you been eating too much? Have you overfilled your drink bottles?

“Many Belgie hopefuls have failed at this point. You can quickly end up on the Dutchie here, or worse, all alone at 6:33am destined for a solo training ride. If you make it under the Johnston Street bridge in the top few wheels, you are in: you are riding the Belgie. Grab a handful of gears, take a couple of deep breaths, loosen up the body – it’s on!

Keiran Thompson (The Yarra Drop, Alphington)

“After surviving Heartbreak Hill, there’s a relatively relaxed road section past the driving range, and the first proper Belgie obstacles begin. The bunch accelerates in anticipation and a long line of Belgians trying to hold a wheel develops. The MTB crowd can tailwhip over the speed bumps all they want, but everyone knows that you’ve got to make it into the roundabout at the front of the pack. This is where the uninitiated tend to hit trouble.

“At the bottom of the descent, after you’ve successfully bunny-hopped the bluestone curb, stands a gate with a slender bit of metal crossing the gap and only a small opening on the left. Once you’ve seen it, it’s obvious. If you haven’t seen it, call your local bikeshop – you’re going to need a new frame. Many scalps have been claimed here, including a well-known moustachioed ex-pro. The lesson of the Belgie Gate is – always keep your eyes open and be prepared to chop the bunch to make the gap in the gate.”

Warrach Leach (“Backlanenberg, the quintessential Belgie segment”)

“A brag about that time a while back when I finished it with two flat tyres and a KOM …

“Backlanenberg is a 1,250 m-long uphill effort finishing on top of The Eyrie of Eaglemont. It is the laneway section of the Belgie and its first proper climb.  Beginning on the road it takes a sharp left into a slippery grass laneway littered with square-edged obstacles and thorny vines, before turning up a stoney laneway, and finally chicaning back onto the bitumen to go full-gas up The Eyrie. True to the Belgie spirit of underbiking the long uphill road sprint at the end requires fast wheels but the rocks and grass beforehand often have something to say about that.

“On this particular Belgie I got a fast sit going up the first lane but along the way blunted both wheels into a stormwater cover, which my 23 mm cotton tyres had no defence against. Persisting, I got out onto the road and bouncing off my rims, came around to open a gap by the top. Stranded but victorious I was reminded of the Bluesmobile’s demise in Daley Plaza, then retired myself to the Eaglemont train station. AJ has since demolished that time, apparently solo and in the mid-afternoon. Typical AJ.”

Former pros Simon Gerrans and Jeremy Hunt wearing the most legit kit of the bunch for the Xmas Belgie.

Neil (An innocuous bit of concrete in Heidelberg)

“It’s an innocuous bit of bike path and a 15% dirty ramp, located in a quaint and enchanted little park of Heidelberg.  However when the Belgie arrives, it all ramps up.

“It’s all in the detail, and before you have time to scan the lines, to assess the options, you need to choose to go left or right of the tree on your way to the path.  Left is steeper and shorter. Right, longer for the stronger. There’s a stunning view over the Banyule flats, but there isn’t enough time or oxygen to take in that view.”

Stuart Smith, current holder of the Xmas Belgie Cobble (Rosana Golf Club Climb)

“By this point, the concept of a bunch ride is gone and you are surrounded by comrades only there due to their power, lack of mechanicals, course knowledge (#shortcuts) or pure skill. The group blindly follows their leader’s choice, hoping for the gravel path leading to views of the city or bracing for a leg-destroying single-track climb.

“I have decided for our group; we will save the view for another day. Leading to the singletrack we select our positions to file into a tight left-hander and keep a look out for those game enough to send it up the inside, capitalising from the tow-in. Feeling a presence, I move left and close the door, I have worked too hard to not lead. While one is on the lookout for the water rut centring the trail, the tree stick jump, root ledges that adorn the end, low branches ready to take your helmet or shoulder, or the exposed rock ready to destroy your side walls there is no thought of passing – we are resigned to the wheel we follow.

“Ninety seconds of micro sprints, never conceding to my legs’ desire to leave the big ring. First over, I get the opportunity to survey the damage. I see two riders remaining, slumped over their hoods dragging their bike up the root ledges. I would typically look for a truce at the top as the gravel bike path continues to climb. Not today though. The power stays on and as we breathe deeper than earlier, all considering whether we spent too much before The Grassy Knoll?”

Jensen Plowright, Alpecin–Deceuninck pro

“This was my second ever Belgie and my first Christmas one. I’d heard the stories of the famous ride and had to see it for myself. 

“I couldn’t believe the brilliance and effort everyone put into their kit choices. Nothing but throwbacks for some of those old diggers I’m sure. 

“The ride was full noise from the go and never really let up. My goodness I was maxed out on some of those hard sectors. Greatest bunch ride of all time.

Jensen Plowright’s kit choice was none other than a Belgie national team kit. Strong choice.

Mark O’Brien, “the most-consistent top-10 finisher at the Australian Road Championships, 2010-current” (Pony Club Descent)

“My most feared segment is following Brauny [Daniel Braunsteins] down the Pony Club gravel descent. I am not a good enough writer to convey how bloody fast he goes through that sweeper, but while following him, you have to decide whether you’re to going not ease off and risk the rear wheel slip that will fling you at the perfect trajectory into the randomly poised park bench, or if you take the inside grass line and play Russian Roulette with any walkers or one-eyed dogs when you pop out the other side.”

Adrian ‘AJ’ Jackson, 2023 XCM Masters world champion (The Grassy Knoll)

“Named after the grassy knoll of Dallas infamy for no real reason other than it is a) grassy and b) resembles a knoll, many do not make it to Grassy Knoll on any given Wednesday morning. The entry is the first challenge.

“Drop down around the end of a cyclone fence, sharp right that brings you to an almost standstill, straight up a sharp pinch that always, no matter what your bike or tire choice, has your rear wheel spinning. Then the Grassy Knoll opens up to all its grassy and knolly painful glory. Where there is no distinguishable line, I always feel like I’m going much, much slower than I should be. When will it end?”

Simon Gerrans, no introduction needed

“The whole ride is a bit of a blur to be honest! There are so many moments when you think back and remember ‘Oh I nearly crashed there or had a moment.’

“I think the best part for me was over the grassy knoll out the back of the pony club. You get a real feel for it there and there are riders all over by then. That’s the thing, The ride is a real hit out! If you want to stay at the front it’s hard.

“The best bit for me is the whole atmosphere – everyone is just up for having a good ride, and the retro kits are great.

“In fact, the hardest part of the day was going through my old suitcases working out what to wear! That’s nice though because it brings back memories and it’s great to see what everyone finds on the day and then the kits and bikes becomes a catalyst for retelling those stories on the ride. It’s cool to see what everyone comes up with.”

Tom Southam, former pro (Slippery ‘n’ Sketch)

“The hardest section of the Belgie for me has to be the two flat S-bends on the Strade Bianche-style bike path that used to feature in the final. Unlike the other technical stuff (that if you are first into you can control the speed of) the gravel bike path is wide enough to pass, it’s about 2 km long, and it is fast. It has two totally camberless S-bends that are just loose enough to be the limit for a road bike. That gravel is gonna take your 25 mm tyres where it will.

“The speed is high enough here that if the elastic snaps that’s it. After the bends, it’s a gradual uphill too. The gaps are the gaps. If you are a road bike purist like me, you can either choose to take the corners on the limit or accept you have to let the gravel kids gain 2 metres before engaging the 53:13 to make up the lost ground (they all have tiny gears, do you have the legs?)

“For a few years this was the decisive sector, before we’d calm down and roll into town. It’s where on my first few Belgies I was always shitting it the most. I couldn’t quite handle the bike on the bends, but I also didn’t want to get dropped after going through all that to get there …”

Tom Southam and Mitch Docker sporting proper retro kit.

Mitch Docker, former pro, podcaster extraordinaire (Trouee d’Arenberg)

“Trouee d’Arenberg, the Hell of the South. It’s where the true survivors thrive, separating the leaders from the followers. But which section are we talking about? 

“At 2.2 km in length you feel like it will never end. You seem to just pinball through a tree-covered path, uncomfortably bouncing from stone to stone, from hole to hole. Following a wheel knowing how much better it would be to move out and see your own line. But you can’t, you don’t dare – the pace and suffering is too high. You just keep holding on, hoping, wanting it to stop. Until you see it, that left-hand turn. You can feel it, you know it will end, and yet those last few seconds hurt the most. 

“One of these sectors splits a French forest in two, riding cobbles laid in the the time of Napoleon. The other is a road in disrepair, wedged between the driveways of some really posh houses and the Yarra River in suburban Ivanhoe.

I’ve done them both. They both share the same length, the same physical emotion, pain, and yet a sick joy all at the same time. It’s like war through there. There has been a lot before and there is still more to come.

Allan Iacuone, former Australian road and CX champ (Currently in Belgium and had just missed the ride)

“I have just awoken to the Ghosts of the Christmas Belgie , relived, rewritten, revived, past, present and future. Like snippets from a dream, and having to piece the missing sectors together throughout the day. 

“Please keep the sector stories coming so I can have a full picture of the Belgie on hand at any moment to make sure I never forget.”

Lisa Jacobs, three-time Australian CX champ

“The Belgie. The best prep for a CX World Cup season this side of Europe. 

Cam MacDonald, Bike Gallery co-owner (Sardines and Ouzo)

“‘But what’s up with the sardines and the ouzo?’ … For many, it seems like a strange way to celebrate one of the hardest rides of the year.. For the Belgie however it goes back to the original finishing spot in Richmond at Dimitris Feast!

“We’d wind our way on the challenging parcours that makes the Belgie so unique only to be greeted by the warmth of the courtyard heaters that often were ablaze in the depths of winter. The highlight of the menu was the sardines on toast and in true Greek or “Belgie” style, a toast to the ride with a shot of Ouzo … an acknowledgment of getting out on bikes and enjoying the company of the unique individuals that make up Melbourne’s best bunch ride.”

Cam McDonald’s circa-2007 AIS jersey is arguably the best worst kit ever made.

For me, it’s not about a single sector, it’s all about these stories. My favourite Belgie is one of synchronised chaos, when we have riders, strewn all over course, weaving in and out of sectors, shortcuts and each other. An ‘active’ handicap, evolving and unfolding in front of you. The Belgie train may wait for no cyclist, it may be an aggressive ride, but there is no agro. “Good morning”s are dolled out to pedestrians, and being a dick is not condoned. It may not be a ride for everyone, but everyone is most welcome. And this is exactly what this year’s Xmas Belgie was all about.

Oh, and if you want to know more about the Xmas Belgie, well then, see you next year.

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