Imagine the excitement of boarding a Ferry on an adventure across the bay. You’re off to a secluded island that offers over 100 km of roads and tracks to explore by bike. There is no electricity. No water supply and only a small population of permanent residents, with no tourist vehicles allowed. French Island is a true cycling paradise!
It was an early wake up in order to be down to Stony Point at 7:20am to catch the ferry. I was accompanied by Geert & Brad, who were eager to see what French Island had to offer. This Island is the largest coastal island of Victoria, and is located in Western Port bay. French Island boasts Australia’s biggest population of Koalas. With 70% of the island listed as National Park. This consists mainly of coastal mangroves, swamps, heath, grasslands and blue gum forests.
The island is quite isolated and we had to wonder; “do they speak English on French island?“.
We set-off down Coast Road to the north, which is a relatively flat 12 km stretch of dead straight road. Surprisingly this road ended up being quite an ordeal. Stretches of the road were soft and sandy. You would be riding along and suddenly the bike would sink inches into the ground and often go sideways on you. There was often little traction, and wheel spin was common. I brought my mountain bike, with nice and thick tires. It was hard going but I could manage o.k. Geert’s CX managed most of the carnage, but he was still battling the bike at times. Brad was the unlucky one, riding on 28 mm tires, which was like skating on ice.
Thankfully there was only the one spill and Geert managed to get a score of 9/10 with his crash landing.
When we made the turnoff for Red Bill Road I discovered that I had dropped my Go Pro. We had to backtrack 4 km to find it which was a major relief. This unexpected detour cost us a fair bit of time, and we needed to revise the route. Geert and I had mothers day functions to get back to, and could not afford to miss the 1:20 pm ferry.
Off the main road our adventure began. We had a map of the island and were soon to learn that a road on the map could mean literally anything. Red Bill Road was more of a walking track than a road, with a narrow bumpy line that had us dodging a number of objects.
We headed towards Mount Wellington, the highest point of the island. Whilst mountains are usually big, this one stood a tiny 92 meters above sea level. A used car salesman must have come up with the name.
We had scoffed at how little climbing there was on the island. I admit that I failed to take into account that most of the climbs up the island tended to be on sandy surfaces which are 10 x harder than normal climbing. The path ahead of us was very dodgy, and completely covered in sand and all uphill for the next kilometer. With no traction it was impossible to climb. We had no option but to go bush bashing and ride over some horrible terrain. Our legs were on fire, and I was experiencing some heavy labored breathing. “What’s the gradient Geert“, I asked. “2%” was the reply. We were dying trying to climb a 2% gradient, on a climb which stretched on for over a kilometer.
We all collapsed in a heap at the top gasping for breath. Over the other side the path just seemed to get worse. This would have been challenging hiking on, let alone ride on.
I was loving every single minute of our ride.
Eventually we made it back to the main road. This felt so smooth after all that we had been through, and made our way to the tea rooms. This is a farm in the middle of the island where we were treated to some scones, and got chased around by dozens of hens and took a short break. No visit to French Island is complete without visiting.
From here, we headed north and came upon what appeared to be a dead end. We pulled out the map, which told us that the road continued on for at least 3 more k’s. We went bush bashing again and rode on what kindly could have been called a goat track. With several more sandy sections that we had to ride off the path to avoid.
Time was running out, but we felt we had enough time to visit the Pinnacles, which had one of the best lookouts on the island. With limited time, we pushed as hard as our tired legs would carry us.
We came to a climb up to the Pinnicles and Geert and I had a little pissing contest to get to the top. I started to take off on Geert, which was short lived as I came around a bend to see a snake inches from my front wheel. I squeezed the brakes as hard as I could to avoid riding over it. Years ago this guy told me a story “my mate deliberately rode over a snake, and it got caught in his rear wheel and got flicked up and bit him on the ass!“. Thankfully the snake was facing away from me and slowly slithered across the path.
I love snakes, but prefer not to be bitten by one. Especially on the ass.
Soon we saw the lookout at the Pinncacles and came across a wall of sand. There was a 15 meter climb, over 30% in gradient. The path was completely covered in sand. There was no way we could possibly hope to get up there and we all had to get off and walk.
The French Island adventure
The views up the top were impressive, but time was getting away from us. We had 40 minutes to get back to the ferry. If we missed it, the next one wasn’t for 3 hours and we couldn’t be late.
There was a downhill section to look forward to and I pushed off, taking it easy on the descent. I rounded the first bend and almost rode over another snake. This one was a red-bellied black snake which I knew was venomous. The little sucker was facing me and reared up and hissed at me. I stopped inches from it. The foot closest to the snake was still locked into the pedal. I hoped that my mountain bike shoes were too thick for its fangs to bite through.
No I didn’t want to test out this theory.
I remained as still as possible, and quite relieved when it decided to make a quick retreat.
Time was running out getting back to the ferry, and I brushed off the two snake encounters. Then of course I punctured. The tube had enough air in it that I could continue riding on a flat tire, so I pushed along for another k or so. Still able to manage 15 – 20 km/h. Eventually I stopped and with limited time to get back, stopping 10 + minutes to change a tire I was working out in my head on the math. Do we fix the tire or do I continue on a flat tire? We put some air in the tire which seemed to be enough for me to ride back on.
Half a k later, the tire went completely flat, and we no longer had enough time to pump up the tire. I had to ride on the rims and was able to do so for awhile, but fatigue and exhaustion set-in and eventually had to get off and walk the last 2.5 km.
We had to push and managed to make it to the ferry, which was hell with 5 minutes to spare. Why hadn’t I stopped to pump up the tire?
Whilst much of the ride we traveled through scrubland. French Island has a number of hidden rewards worth making the trek worthwhile.
French Island is an adventure like none other. Its about riding the roads less travelled, and getting back to nature. Getting out to do a ride which most never knew existed. French Island is the least visited National Park in the country. The island is completely isolated with no electricity, no water and no sewerage. Residents need to be 100% self-dependent on generators, water tanks and septic tanks.
We saw so much, yet there were still large parts of the island left to explore.
An excuse to return for another adventure. That’s what I like most about cycling. The world is your playground and you are only limited to your imagination. Brad, Geert and myself had the time of our lives today and hope that our ride may inspire you one day to take the ferry out to this great little island to discover it for yourself.
We were excited to visit Quiet roads, beautiful coastline, and a sense that you’re discovering a place that few ever get a chance to visit.
It’s a wonderful thought.
If you want to ride French Island, you can check out our Strava route for the day here.
Brad put us to shame by riding a lazy 86 km home from French Island. All up he rode an impressive 160 km for the day. He said that “it was a good idea at the time. It was tough going most of the way home and felt every one of those kilometres. Thanks for the invite to French Island. Next time on bigger tires!“.