Impressions of the Canberra Cycling Life

I was only in Canberra for four days and sampled only a portion of the city, but I see no reason why that should keep me from making broad general conclusions about the state of cycling there! 

Apart from my 31 mile ride around Lake Burley Griffin, I spent most of my time north of the lake.  My hotel was in the City Centre district, directly north of the lake on Northbourne Avenue – a major North-South thoroughfare.  My business was largely in the Reid and Russell districts, east of City Centre but still north of the lake.  As I puttered about Northbourne Avenue, I was immediately struck by the steady stream of cyclists.  It was hardly a tidal wave, but a constant flow of bicycles.  During the course of the day, I rarely went a minute or two without seeing a cyclist.  During rush hour (or at least what passes for rush hour in this relatively small capital), the number picked up and it was common to see groups of two or three cyclists traveling together and as many as five waiting at red lights.  Northbourne Avenue and several other streets have dedicated bike lanes.  Drivers seemed to be very aware of the cyclists and I didn’t observe any collisions, near misses, honking horns, curses, or gesticulating arms.  The cyclists seemed to be an integrated part of the traffic flow and it was refreshing to see.

The rider pictured above is atypical in that he is decked out in full roadie garb.  I was struck by the lack of lycra and jerseys.  Most people were dressed in “relaxed” street wear – shorts, sneakers, shirt/wind breaker, etc…  Helmet use was universal.  I don’t know if that is due to the legal code or simply convention.  Many cyclists had stay-ties protruding from their helmets to ward off the magpies.  Others had lights strapped to their helmets.  The quality of the bicycles were decidedly low-end, as one might expect from the commuter crowd.  You don’t want to leave your $10,000 road machine in a public bike lock!

While looking for breakfast in a pedestrian shopping area in Reid, I came across the Onya Bike Shop.  The shop was closed when I passed (stores in Canberra generally don’t open until 9:00AM and close around 5:00PM, except for Fridays when they stay open late).  I resolved to return later in the day and say hello.  When I made it back, I was amazed to see a substantial bicycle display in front of their store.  First, I couldn’t believe how many bikes fit into that tiny shop (there were still a great many bikes on display inside the store) and second, I couldn’t believe these bikes weren’t immediately stolen by the passers-by.  Canberra is definitely a kinder place than what I am used to.

The inside of the shop was devoted almost exclusively to Giant mountain bikes and hybrids.  There were about five high-end Giant road bikes for sale.  The three 20-somethings manning the shop confirmed that mountain bikes were very popular in the area and the store sponsors/hosts a series of local mountain bike rides every Thursday evening in the Spring/Summer.  As with most bicycle shops, the back end was devoted to a bicycle repair section.  The space devoted to accessories and clothing was extremely limited.  There were about 15 jerseys for sale, a couple types of gloves, a handful of tire pumps, and so on.  I found this to be a bit odd as the business model of the American shops I have been to is largely the reverse.  I’m not sure where the cyclists of Canberra get their energy foods, water bottles, helmets, and other gear, but I don’t think the Onya Bike Shop is a major source of supply.

And thus concludes my extensive review of the Canberra bicycling scene.  It was great to see a place where cyclists are woven into the traffic environment, with wide streets, bicycle lanes, drivers who acknowledge the existence of cyclists and pedestrians, and ample amounts of mixed-use pathways.  Cyclists are hardly the novelty they are on America’s roads.  The mountain bike and hybrid communities are doing quite well, though I wonder about the road cyclists.  On the whole, I was very impressed and American city planners could do a lot worse than copying the Canberra model.

Australian Historical Marker Segment!


click for details

It is my pleasure to bring to you this outstanding (and first non-Virginian) addition to my collection of historical markers.  This marker can be found on the London Circuit Road in City Centre, just beyond the traffic light in the first picture of this post.  In it we are reminded that Queen Elizabeth II has been sovereign for a very long time and that somehow Australia avoided a visit from the monarch for the first 166 years of its existence.

10 thoughts on “Impressions of the Canberra Cycling Life

  1. As I understand it, helmets are mandatory in Australia, although there’s a growing campaign against the law (not helmet, just the compulsion).

    Canberra always sounds an interesting place when I hear accounts of it…

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Andy. I’ve read of similar push back on mandatory helmet laws in other countries and have actually seen studies which conclude helmets don’t lessen the likelihood of injury. The argument seems to center on the conclusion that cyclists who wear helmets are more aggressive because they believe themselves to be safer. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

      I thoroughly enjoyed my short stay in Canberra. Here’s hoping I can make it back soon!

  2. How did you guess !!! – live in Adelaide, South Australia – arguably the cycling capital of Australia

    1. My extensive (ie, 125 hours) experience living amongst the Australian people tipped me off! Thanks again for stopping by and for the info. If Adelaide tops Canberra, it must be pretty special!

  3. Mike is correct, wearing helmets is compulsory in Australia. And has been for nearly 20 years, so for a lot of us young folk, it is pretty much both law and habit.

    I also live in Canberra, so can provide some additional detail.

    1. The bikes don’t get stolen from Onya Bike because they are usually all locked together with a long cable. That and we are all good honest citizens here 🙂

    2. You are right, this is not a big bike shop, and usually supplies us city-commuters with good spare parts, and a few other odds and sods. But there are some much larger bike shops just in the next suburb north (Braddon), and many dotted around Canberra.

    3. As you no doubt saw from the surrounding terrain, Canberra is well served by mountain ranges, making off-road mountain biking a significant past time here. Thus, bike shops tend to stock a solid range of both road and off-road bikes and equipment!

    Canberra is the best place I have ever lived for cycling – the commuting areas are reasonably flat, with good bike lanes and many off-road sealed bike paths. And the whole region is surrounded by a natural beauty that is perfect for mountain biking. For example, Stromlo Forrest Park ( has a fabulous range of mountain bike courses, and was the location of the 2009 UCI World Mountain Bike Championships.

    We are very lucky ‘down under’ 🙂


    1. Thanks, Adam. There are definitely plenty of hills to climb just outside of town! How many kangaroos have you hit on the trails? One of my disappointments was not seeing any during my visit (except a dead one near the War Memorial and I don’t think that really counts). Enjoy the Spring and Summer. I was thinking of you all today as I enjoyed one of the few mild days left for us in Virginia!

  4. Love the fact that the bike commuter in your photo is taking his full lane as a vehicle. This “defines” the cyclist’s place in traffic, and leaves no room for ambiguity about what he is doing, where he belongs, etc. Ambiguity is one of a cyclist’s #1 enemies.

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