We visit Rottnest Island for riding, racing and quokkas

Perth’s picture-postcard island getaway of Rottnest welcomes cyclists with open arms

For many discerning roadies, big city cycling is a pain. Mixing it with heavy traffic as red light follows red is the polar opposite of the free, fast riding to be had in the sticks. No matter what major city you’re in, it can seem an age to get out, and getting back in is even harder, limiting the time on the open road. 

There are sanctuaries within the city — Londoners head to Richmond or Regents Park, Manhattanites to Central Park. For the two million people who call the Western Australia capital of Perth home, there is Rottnest Island.

399 competitors across multiple age and gender categories were invited to the island to contest a 19.4km test over its lumpy roads

Closed to motorised vehicles ‘Rotto’, as locals know it, feels far from city life, whatever the skyscrapers on the skyline try to tell you. Just 11 miles off Perth’s coast, the island is a rare tourist hotspot — one that’s just as special to locals. As a tourist you might hire one of the bikes shipped over on the ferry and take in a few laps of the island or spend a few nights in the island’s hotel or apartments-for-hire and relax on its beaches.

For locals it’s a spitting-distance retreat from city life, one that, for some, is reached by private boat and which, in summer, initiates an exodus from the city and turns this sleepy island (population: 114) into a party that can swell numbers 100-fold.

Free of motor vehicles, Rottnest is a cycling paradise
Free of motor vehicles, Rottnest is a cycling paradise

It’s a time of year when the island’s bars and restaurants go into frenzied overdrive, when boats spill out of the marina, where rafts are tied together to create a giant flotilla, with the objective to create a new landmass where having a good time is the only item on the agenda.

Our visit coincided with the closing days of winter and ordinarily it should have been some of Rottnest’s quietest days, but something was stirring. That something was the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships, the final of a globetrotting 15-event series that clothes its winners in their very own, legit, Velominati Rules-busting rainbow jersey.

For the time trial, which opened proceedings, 399 competitors across multiple age and gender categories were invited to the island to contest a 19.4km test over its lumpy roads. In the days before the race, as boat by boat time-triallists arrived and began their preparations, we hopped aboard the Rottnest Express ferry to see what the fuss was.

  • Distance: 12 miles (19km)
  • Grade: Easy, though the German time triallist Christian Mueller wouldn’t tell you that after averaging 29mph round it…
  • Route: www.mapmyride.com/routes

Ferry tales

Eleven miles separate Rottnest from Perth but it’s a world away from city life
Eleven miles separate Rottnest from Perth but it’s a world away from city life

The ferry operates out of three ports; one in Perth, two in the adjacent, much smaller city of Fremantle, and we chose B-Shed, the best option if you’re staying in the latter. A return ticket isn’t cheap — with a bike we paid AU$106 (£66) — but around a quarter of that figure constitutes admission to the island and helps towards its upkeep (council tax from 114 people won't stretch far…)

It’s just under half an hour on the ferry, but it can be an uncomfortable 30 minutes — it often is for our seasick photographer and Fremantle resident, Daniel, who tells us Perth is the second windiest city in the world. It’s a hard stat to prove — there is no standardised method for measuring it — but it’s certainly up there and is recognised as the windiest in Australia.

Responsible, in the summer at least, is the Fremantle Doctor, the cooling sea breeze that blows in southwest from the Indian Ocean and builds through the afternoon, a wind that has given many English batsmen the heebie-jeebies over the years.

Looks can be deceiving — Rottnest can be beyond breezy
Looks can be deceiving — Rottnest can be beyond breezy

Cast adrift at sea, Rottnest gets battered by the wind year round, often gusting and liable to change direction in a heartbeat, which put the frighteners on the TT riders during their recce rides, with disc-hobbling winds over 40mph.

You never think of leaving Britain for Australia and wishing you’d brought more warm clothes

You can ride your bike off the ferry, which is what we did, via a dropping of luggage at Hotel Rottnest in the island’s main settlement of Thomson Bay. Daniel was my guide, hauling his considerable cameras on his back aboard a Specialized ’cross bike, which he’d borrowed from his business partner at a bike shop he co-owns, R&D Speed Shop in Perth.

He was a guide in terms of teaching me about the island, rather than a navigator on the road: you really can’t get lost on Rottnest, not with a postage stamp-like square mileage of 7.3 and a road network that consists of little more than what you’ll find running close to the island’s coastline. What a coastline it is, though, so while this ‘Big Ride’ wasn’t big in size, it was in stature.

First up we took in a clockwise loop of the island, the exact same route that the time trial riders would face (the 12.1-mile course would take us a leisurely 50 minutes, double the time of the fastest ride on the day, from German Christian Mueller in the 19–34 men’s category). It was a course that needed a good recce, with few straights, numerous sharp bends and constantly rolling hills.

Cold start

“G’day, mate!” John makes friends with a Rottnest quokka
“G’day, mate!” John makes friends with a Rottnest quokka

You never think of leaving Britain for Australia and wishing you’d brought more warm clothes, but that was the case at first. With a fresh, early morning breeze and overcast skies only intermittently treating us to the warm sunshine above it, arm warmers would have been welcome, if only they weren’t languishing in a Perth hotel luggage lock-up.

It was just about shorts and jersey weather — certainly for this Northern Englishman — though many others, whether tourist or time triallist, were dressed for an Arctic expedition. Sometimes a place just feels warm, even if it might not be, and this island paradise, with its white sandy beaches, a turquoise ocean and deserted singletrack roads felt like that. Perhaps I was in denial.

Humans might swell in number during holidays but there’s another mammal on Rottnest that would still outnumber us and it didn’t take long for us to spot our first. The quokka is a marsupial and official mascot of Rottnest, found only on the islands of Western Australia, and most abundantly here, and would be described later in an after dinner speech by the race’s ambassador, the three-time Tour de France green jersey winner Robbie McEwen, as an animal “somewhere between a kangaroo and giant rat”.

Rottnest’s lighthouse, an omnipresent feature of the island
Rottnest’s lighthouse, an omnipresent feature of the island

Indeed, rats are what Dutch sailors mistook them for in the 1600s, naming the island ‘Rotte nest’, or rats’ nest. It’s their long, rat-like tail that probably saw them mistaken for sewer-dwelling rodents, but in reality they’re a lot cuter. They’re the size of a domestic cat, moving with the spring of a kangaroo and in possession of perhaps the cheesiest grin in the animal kingdom. And who can blame them: snakes apart, they don’t have any predators here on Rottnest, so they have it pretty good, mixing in happily with their human guests.

After almost coming a cropper and ending up as shark food at the sharp right turn at Jeannie’s Lookout, a bend that dishes out its fair share of stiff breezes and caused plenty of murmurs of discontent among the time trial competitors, we made our way westwards towards the Wadjemup lighthouse, which dominates the skyline at every turn.

From the eastside of the island, where the skyline of Perth looms large, we’d briskly made our way west, where the next landmass, Mauritius, is almost 4,000 miles away across the Indian Ocean.

Not a fisherman’s friend

John surveys the vastness of the Indian Ocean
John surveys the vastness of the Indian Ocean

Already heading back towards base, we jutted inland past the surprisingly monikered Lake Baghdad and got chatting to a fisherman out on his bike.

It had been the first time that McEwen had been to the island since he’d raced a criterium there in the early nineties

“So what’s this bike race?” he asked, as I launched into an enthusiastic primer on the event and where he could catch it, not twigging that he cared little for cycling and simply wanted to know when we’d be on our way to leave him in peace to catch fish.

“This is a great island you’ve got,” I offered desperately, in a somewhat forlorn attempt at keeping this already dead conversation alive.

“It sure is,” he replied. “Try not to tell anyone about it.”

“Err, that might be tricky…” I said, before pulling in and letting him continue on his not-quite-so-merry way.

Mr Fisherman might not have been best pleased at the Championships’ presence, but a thousand or so competitors, friends and family, and organisation staff were, and the following day, with the whole aero armada arriving on shore, we headed out for another spin, this time with Robbie McEwen.

Former pro Robbie McEwen joined John for a spin
Former pro Robbie McEwen joined John for a spin

The Aussie legend, who brought a decorated 17-season career to an end in 2012, came back into the limelight this summer as a commentator on Australian race broadcaster SBS. It’s a new role for him in more ways than one; for a man who spent his career finishing off races, in his commentary role he talks until the 50km mark, at which point he and his co-commentator hand over to Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, an unfamiliar position of lead-out man to Phil and Paul’s veteran sprint kings.

Queensland resident McEwen had flown out to Western Australia for a race ambassador role, with no plans to ride — until the organisation announced on Twitter that he would be starting the Gran Fondo later that week. In the end he started in the 40–44 age category, then peeled off to assume PA duties.

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable racing,” McEwen told us, uneasy with the idea of an ex-pro battling out with amateurs. For fierce competitors like McEwen, it must be hard to suppress the instinct to race when parachuted into one. That much was clear when a couple of amateur riders passed us on the road and, recognising McEwen, one of them told him to jump on the back — if he could.

With red rag sufficiently waved, McEwen let them go but as they headed into a couple of successive bends up the road, he suddenly bolted, as he did so saying to either himself, or me and Daniel, “I’ll get you on the corner and put you in the bushes,” 99 percent tongue in cheek, one percent menace. You can take the man out of the competition but you can’t take the competition out of the man.

It had been the first time that McEwen had been to the island since he’d raced a criterium there in the early nineties and before that he’d been here as a young kid. He stopped several times in the ride to take photos of himself in spots he remembered from more than 30 years ago, even getting a selfie with a quokka that saw him getting perhaps a little too close. For everyone, not least cyclists, Rottnest sticks in the memory.

Local Knowledge

Getting there

We took the Rottnest Express, which runs from Perth and Fremantle year round. There are, however, numerous travel options. You can take your own boat (visit www.rottnestisland.com/boating for more info) or a speedboat ferry.

By air, there’s the Rottnest Air Taxi from Jandakot, Mandurah and Bunbury airports, which operates during daylight hours (www.rottnest.de), or Rotorvation Helicopters from Jandakot Airport and Hillarys Boat Harbour.

Where to stay

The island’s only hotel is Hotel Rottnest (breakfast isn’t supplied), while Rottnest Lodge, which is a cheaper option, offers apartment accommodation. The most popular choices are two-, three- and four- bedroom houses from the Rottnest Island Authority, with prices dependent on whether you have a sea view or not. Campsites are also available.

Food and drink

There isn’t a huge offering of restaurants and bars, but what there is, is mainly in Thomson Bay. Dome Café is good for breakfast — and you’ll find the waiting staff staff there shooing hungry quokkas out with a broom. Aristos is a seafood restaurant overlooking the bay. Rottnest also has the obligatory fast food outlet, in this case case Subway.

What to do

If you get bored of cycling, you could have a round of golf at the Rottnest Island Country Club. There’s also a water park, children’s fun park, spa and cinema.

This article was originally published in Cycling Plus magazine, available on Apple Newsstand and Zinio.

After early cycling flirtations with the Tour de France on childhood holidays, John Whitney fell for it hook, line and sinker in his mid-20s as an escape from the more sedate sports of his youth. As a classically trained news reporter, he snagged his dream job as a cycling writer straight out of college and is now fully immersed in the industry and wouldn't have it any other way.
  • Discipline: Road

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