Port Macquarie boasts one of the keenest cycling communities around, its regional topography of hills, slopes and long straight stretches ideal challenging conditions. Riders of all ages and abilities indulge in road racing, mountain biking or cycling merely for pleasure. This month, Susie meets one local aficionado.
Out To Lunch today is not the usual seafood spread and chat with my guest at The Stunned Mullet’s landmark location … but rather a staccato mid-morning conversation snatched over a simple iced coffee, at a somewhat different spot.
Gweneth Newell’s unable tear herself away from work serving refreshments in the busy café she owns, so I find myself in her environment instead. Seated at a table opposite her, I’m surrounded by some remarkable paraphernalia: a bicycle sits mounted on display inches from my head, I’m looking at bicycles hung on walls and strung up above me, a mechanic works painstakingly on a bike just metres away and four more bikes are fixed at angles on a floor-to-ceiling steel rod, like a whirl of metallic pole dancers. Outside the window there are a variety of parked bikes and yet more bikes – maybe 400 of them – are all around, cramming every cranny in the adjacent Gordon Street Cycles shop. Bikes, bikes, BIKES.
The setting is one, however, that’s equally iconic in Port Macquarie. We’re at the Peloton Café at the eastern terminus of the Oxley Highway, quite a landmark for our town’s big coterie of cycling enthusiasts. Every morning after their dawn run, dozens of riders pull up here for an alfresco snack, their bikes parked jealously beside them on the pavement.
“Some of their bikes are worth $5000 or $6000,” Newell explains, and so must remain visibly under guard of their owners. Indeed, one new model close by me bears a price tag of $5899, but that’s nothing compared with the $20,000 custom-made number sold to one keen customer.
The business is owned by Newell and husband Lloyd, who’s away today competing in Australia’s biggest road cycle race, the Tour Down Under, opening event of the world cycling calendar, over 800km over six days out of Adelaide, winding through South Australia’s wine country. Along with Lloyd, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and Sports Minister Mark Arbib were among the international field of more than 7000 riders in this year’s event.
Lloyd and Arbib, both 41, and Abbott, 54, are typical of the many older followers of the sport that have seen it branded ‘the new golf”. Thanks to a range of influences – a 21st century fixation on personal fitness pursuits, Cadel Evans’s victory in the Tour de France among them – cycling in its various forms has grown in popularity in recent years, among all age groups. And nowhere more so than in Port Macquarie where the biannual Ironman events stimulate local interest in pedal power (although, Newell suggests, we need more cycle paths here, especially along our scenic string of beaches).
The couple’s shop is one of three dotted around the town centre: Graham Seers Cyclery at Port Marina on Park Street and TRS on Clarence Street are equally in the hands of keen rider-proprietors and similarly packed to the rafters with gleaming new bikes, integral in Port’s big cultural community of mountain biking and road and triathlon cyclists, not to mention sheer recreational riders.
Newell herself only began riding when the couple moved in to the business seven years ago but has since been known to hit the road with the single-minded determination cycling fanatics exhibit. “I did the Grafton to Inverell race,” [a 50-year-old annual amateur classic covering 230km over the steep, winding Gibraltar Range] she tells me, the only female competitor that year to complete the entire distance within the timeframe. “I did heaps of training, 450km a week, in the lead-up to that!” she recalls.
Today, however, she’s racing around the café instead, pulling coffees, toasting bread, serving tables, while greeting regular patrons by name: “Hi Dan! Hi Simon!” and slapping kisses on the cheeks of youngsters accompanying their parents. One not-so-young patron seated nearby, dressed in shorts, jersey and bike shoes, looks to be in his late 70s. I learn later it’s Jack Griffin, OAM for services to cycling, former bike shop owner, for 30 years Grafton-Inverell race director, whose early involvement with bikes was as a rider delivering messages to Ben Chifley shortly after the Second World War, and who’s covered hundreds of thousands of kilometres in his lifetime. The menu here has a sandwich named for him, the “Griffo”.
Aside from topline bikes, low GI cakes and coffee apparatus, the premises host a massage therapist and repair shop and are stuffed with other cycling gear: kids’ mini bikes with white tyres and handlebar streamers, fitted with tiny pillion seats and parcel baskets; replacement handlebars and pedals; spare tyres, helmets, pumps; monogrammed jerseys; compression leg sleeves (“better performance, faster recovery”); socks that look like gloves, knitted with five individually segmented toe spaces (“allow the foot to function naturally”); peculiar fig-shaped pink leather items that, Newell informs me (a glaring novice), are special bike seats “for the female anatomy”; even a handlebar iPhone holder. There are oil paintings of cyclists, framed autographed jerseys, books featuring Lance Armstrong’s exploits, bike magazines and a forest of trophies: his and hers belonging to the Newells and Peloton-sponsored world champs Belinda Porter and Jason English.
Newell took up the sport after meeting Lloyd – a lifetime enthusiast, significant achiever and competitor here and abroad, local club office-bearer and mentor and coach to young riders – so she would not be a “cycling widow”. Yet now her days begin at 5.30, gearing up the café for the onslaught, leaping about the place tending to the stream of customers.
Tiring? Not at all! Newell’s eyes light up with the earnestness of a zealot: “Fitness is part of our lifestyle. We hang out with like-minded people; we live our passion and our hobby. We don’t smoke, we get up early, we don’t go out partying …”
What, no partying for cyclists?
“Well,” she admits with a grin, “not really hard, anyway!”
The Out To Lunch series is hosted
by Lou Perri at The Stunned Mullet