Cycling legend hits the road again

Geoff Atkinson. (Ivan Kemp)

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St Leonards’ Geoff Atkinson is one of only eight ‘legends’ to have ridden in all 28 Around the Bay cycling events since 1993. Matt Hewson caught up with him to hear his cycling story.

Of the tens of thousands of people who have participated in the annual Around the Bay cycling fundraiser over its 30-year history, only a handful of people – the Around the Bay legends – have ridden in every edition of the event.

Geoff Atkinson is one of that illustrious number, having seen the event grow from its humble beginnings – if one can call an inaugural event with 2700 cyclists ‘humble’ – into the institution it is today.

A lifelong educator, Geoff has taught business studies at many universities and TAFEs across Greater Melbourne and continues to do so at RMIT’s School of Fashion and Textiles, to which he commutes three days a week from his home in St Leonards.

And while fitness has always been a high priority for Geoff, he was a latecomer to cycling.

“I’m not an elite runner, but I used to love running and jogging,” he said.

“I started off doing Melbourne marathons; I did four (of them). I used to love trying to get myself fit, which running enabled me to do for many years.

“Then this thing called triathlon hit us in Australia and I became interested in that. So I had to learn pretty much how to swim properly, and then of course the other thing is you get on the bike, which was also relatively new to me.

“So during the 1990s I got heavily into triathlon. There was a whole series that used to happen around Melbourne, in different places both on the Bellarine and the Mornington peninsulas.”

In 1993, when Geoff was 37, he saw an advertisement for a longer-form cycling event, in a triathlon magazine – “The internet was still embryonic, so we still used to buy magazines” – and thought he might have a crack at it.

“I just got the idea in my head and thought, that sounds really interesting, I wonder if I could make the distance,” he said.

“And that was all it was. I didn’t think much about it in terms of training specifically for it. I entered the event, went down to the Docklands, and just gave it a go.”

While the jump from the 80-kilometre rides in standard Olympic distance triathlons to the 210-kilometre Around the Bay event tested Geoff, the strongest memory of that day was the feeling of shared purpose with the other riders.

“When I train, I train on my own, I don’t have a group of friends that I go out and ride with,” he said.

“So it’s a special occasion when I do ride in these events. And I still think on the (first) day, the camaraderie amongst the riders out there in the groups, in the pelotons that formed… we were talking and chatting and admiring the scenery, it was just a fantastic feeling.”

Geoff still considered himself primarily a runner at that stage, but in 1999 that all changed.

While commuting from his home in Sunbury to his workplace at Swinburne University in Hawthorne on his motorcycle, Geoff was involved in an accident that cost him two toes on his left foot.

“In those days, running was my first love, my passion,” he said.

“I basically had to give that up. I couldn’t run any sort of distance anymore because my foot would swell up.

“It broke my heart. But people would say as you get older it’s better to be on the bike and save your knees, even strengthen them, rather than pound the pavement.

“I’d tried to embed (fitness) into my lifestyle; I’d get up at silly hours in the morning to go for a decent run before work. So I just transferred all of that energy over into cycling. It became my passion then.”

Geoff’s greatest sense of achievement in his Around the Bay career was the event following his motorcycle collision. Though unsure if he would be able to participate in the 2000 edition, he decided to “enter and see”.

“I started training for the event and gradually I got stronger and stronger,” he said.

“Even though I had doubts, I made it around once more. That particular year gave me a huge sense of achievement because I learnt that even though I had lost the ability to run properly, I was damned sure I could still ride.”

Since then, Geoff has put the date of the next Around the Bay in his diary every year as soon as it is announced, working his commitments around to ensure he can participate.

“Once you’ve got so many behind you, it becomes like a club that you want to continue being a member of,” he said.

“I remember at the 10 year celebrations, one of the other ‘legends’ turned to me as we were leaving and said, ‘I’ll see you back for 20!’ That resonated and I’m still here.”

This year, at age 67, Geoff faces what might be his greatest Around the Bay challenge yet: completing the ride this Sunday (October 8) with just two weeks of training behind him.

“(My prep’s) been a little bit thwarted; about four and a half weeks ago I had an operation on my prostate,” he said.

“I couldn’t really train before the surgery and then of course after they tell you don’t go near a bike, because you’re basically going to sit on the area where you’ve got internal stitches.”

With such a shortened training period Geoff is having to let go of his normal expectations and focus on completing the ride.

“I’m a little bit anxious; I did 150 km on the weekend, but my body, (which is) usually peaking at this time, is really struggling,” he said.

“In the last few years I’ve gone for a sub-eight hour Around the Bay. If I can do that I’m really happy, and I have been able to manage that.

“But this year I’ve thrown sub-eight hours out the window and I’m thinking, just get yourself around, mate.”

If there were ever a legend that could do it, it would be Geoff.