Fancy your exercise with a shot of coffee and a side of South Australian history? Join Mr South Australia – Keith Conlon – for a bike ride through the Adelaide Park Lands and Riverbank.
“Into the parklands and beyond!”
Keith Conlon is perky. But then again, he always is. Mr South Australia (as he’s known to locals) is excited about life, Adelaide history, our parks, and bicycles. He’s managed to combine the lot in the free weekly rides he leads on Wednesday mornings. The meeting point is Bicycle Express on Halifax Street. “Sure, you can join us,” Keith says. “Everyone is welcome.”
It’s true. A group of approximately 20 is already flexing Lycra-clad legs when I turn up on my fixed-gear Schwinn. As bikes go, it looks the goods but has problems tackling hills. I cop a bit of light-hearted flak from a few of the riders but our chatty leader puts my mind at ease.
“It’s a nice leisurely ride,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. You don’t have to think, ‘Oh my god, they’re going to ride at 30 kilometres an hour – I’ll never keep up’.”
The route changes weekly but is always focussed on Adelaide Parklands. “It’s a pretty safe ride for people. A lot of people say they’d like to ride but don’t want to go on the road. I’m with them. This is a way of finding routes of 25 or 30 kilometres where there are no trucks or buses.”
People chat as they pedal. “It’s become quite a social event. It’s inclusive and that culture grows. Luckily, we’ve attracted people over the years who all feel the same. One of the really nice and unintended benefits is it’s a ride that gives people a chance to find new ways around the town. That’s quite often the conversation afterwards: ‘I didn’t know you could go that way!’ I reckon there’s a fair chance we’ll show you a trail you didn’t know existed.”
First stop: West Terrace Cemetery. The beautifully kept grounds are a peaceful route to cycle. Tall, white headstones whisper tales from residents of yore. Keith loves to spin a yarn and this place is full of them. “It’s a bike club with no rules but there will be a story. There’s always a story.”
Keith hosted 16 seasons of Channel 9 television show Postcards between 1995 and 2011. It means he knows a thing or two about South Australia’s history. He stops at the grave belonging to James Breen. The headstone, dating back to the 1800s features a carving of a man beneath a falling horse. “He died instantly,” Keith says. “He was only 27. It was during a hunt in the wilds of Stepney. The horse’s name was Trump which didn’t mean anything until about 12 months ago. The community raised a lot of money for his widow and very young child.”
Topped up with trivia, we set off along leafy west end bicycle tracks towards Bowden. I wish I’d bought a bike with gears. “Keith… (puff, puff) what made you lead these tours?”
He smiles. “I got asked to do it four years ago when I retired from radio,” he says. I thought, ‘What a nice idea’. I’d already been riding for about a decade… now the great thing is it’s an appointment. I have to turn up.”
Technically, he’s been cycling for decades. The bug bit when he was a nipper. “I’m a Blackwood kid. We lived in Blackwood (on the train line) until I was eight, when [Blackwood] had all the trappings of a country town. I was a mad cyclist and used to do lots of silly long rides. In fact, during secondary school, a mate and I would ride to the top of the national park (from Colonel Light Gardens and back) just because it was there. I don’t think I knew Windy Point was up whereas now I have to seriously think about riding up Windy Point.”
There were no limits back then. Before Google Earth, they’d use a length of cotton to map out routes on an ordnance map. “Through Meadows, via Upper Sturt Road, behind Belair National Park, and back through the Vale. It was about 40 miles on the money – about 60 kilometres. We’d just do that on a Sunday arvo. It was fantastic. I loved riding.”
When Keith scored his first post-uni job at 5AD radio (now FIVEaa) he’d ride to work.
“It was in The Advertiser building and I used to park my treadly down the bottom in the lane. You didn’t need a lock in those days. No-one would pinch a bike in the 1960s.”
He gave up pedal pushing for a while before taking it up again when his knees didn’t like running anymore. “I wanted to keep fit and get fitter so I started riding.”
The Tour Down Under is a favourite time of the year. He also loves the Tour de France. “I’ll be up watching it late for the tweets. They’re half the fun. There’s a whole lot of humour going on as well.” Keep your eye on #SBSTDF. “Check out [blog] Les Vaches du Tour (dedicated to the cows of the tour). It’s lovely, silly humour.”
During the Tour Down Under, Keith rides the 60-kilometre BUPA challenge. Luckily, there’s nothing competitive about today’s ride. Except who is first in line for coffee.
“Every ride ends up at a coffee shop of course. You ask any bike rider: the intention of any ride is to get to a coffee shop somewhere. We sometimes go to the Adelaide Oval [café] which is a swish new one. Another really good one if you’re a bike rider is the Velo Precinct under the grandstand in Victoria Park. There’s plenty of them.” Today we’re heading for new riverside Lounders Boatshed Café. First, there’s more chatting (and puffing) to do.
“You always find out something new about a person each time you ride,” Keith says. Like Judith who works for Lifeline, former stockman Laurie who knew R.M. Williams, former Queenslander Ingrid who chose to retire in South Australia, Con who runs an Adelaide Hills bike ride on Sundays, Robyn who works part-time at David Jones, research scientist Con, Peter from England with his 1982 tricycle, and two Malcolms (both of whom have never worn Lycra). “It seems to attract and keep a range of interesting characters. Some are quiet and don’t say much but love hearing all the nonsense that’s going on and others who are out there.”
Keith stops. “Here comes the Popeye! The Popeye is a friend of ours. Captain Tony always gives us a beep.”
We cycle past the weir, Adelaide Festival Centre, riverbank developments, Adelaide Oval, Adelaide University, and Adelaide Zoo, and cross the new Hackney footbridge. “It’s quite an interesting architectural beast. A nice thing to celebrate is that we’re about to get the east parklands back. Then we can say we can genuinely ride 18 kilometres around the city and never leave the parklands. There aren’t too many places, in fact there’s nowhere in the world, that has completely circular parklands anymore – the others sold theirs off.”
He pauses. “Mind you, we have to stay on our metal. We should be proud of our bikeways but geez, you go to other cities and wow. There are some fantastic bikeways now. I rode in Vancouver last year – stunning bikeways. They are really into it. They’ll take you into the middle of the city as well. We can’t do that yet. We have a couple of bike lanes that aren’t bad but we have the dreaded unfinished Frome Road bike lane. When that’s finally finished we’ll be able to take the ride right into town as well. We’ve got work to do still.
I think the government is committed.”
“I see sadly the Burnside Council has decided to drop their bike strategy. How very helpful of them. I don’t get cross very often but I did turn to Twitter on that one. I try not to be negative but, ‘Thanks guys, you’re really on the pace. Not’.”
We’ve reached Launders and the (somewhat ragged) peloton is ready for a caffeine hit.
“In the last few months we’ve been able to come to this lovely old boat shed on the Torrens. It goes back to just over a century ago and now there it is, restored with a really nice café in it. We stop here every three or four weeks.”
Keith has barely stopped for breath and he’s not about to now. Coffee (and cake for some) is consumed as cheerful banter continues.
“The Torrens is a lovely spot to take people,” he says. “I love looking back and seeing the tail of the peloton cruising through the landscape. We take it for granted. The Torrens lake is probably the greatest contribution to our sense of city since Colonel Light. It took until about 1880 until they built a weir that would stand up. The people in the gaol opposite tried one a few years earlier and it took one spring storm to wash it all away.”
Keith’s hunger for historical South Aussie facts is endless. He has two Adelaide Fringe shows this year. Keith Conlon’s Horrible History Of Adelaide and an hour-long musical representation of the history of jazz. It’s yet another excuse to research our state. “I have lived and worked here all my life.” He laughs. “I just can’t help myself!”
Ride With Keith is held every Wednesday from 9am to 12pm. It kicks off at Bicycle Express, 124 Halifax Street, city. Best of all, it’s free.
Keith’s top riverbank spots
Secret picnic spot
Our famous Adelaide Parklands are so extensive that there’s always a path less travelled. One of my favourites runs along the Torrens. On the other side of the Adelaide Riverbank from the Zoo and upstream from the Albert Bridge, there is a hidden stretch of bushland that makes you feel you are far from the city. It includes a secret picnic site amongst very old river red gums and attractive nature sculptures on the bank.
Botanic Garden wetland
It’s no wonder the Botanic Garden is Adelaide’s most visited tourist attraction. Have you been since the wetland zone was introduced? It harnesses some of the water coming down First Creek from Waterfall Gully. My favourite destination is the new bridge across a deep pond – so deep that all of the Botanic Garden’s watering needs are taken care of, year-round.
A bridge with a musical past
It’s not just the beautiful Victorian design of the Albert Bridge over the Torrens by the Zoo that makes it a favourite of mine. It’s also because of its connection with perhaps our most famous composer internationally – Percy Grainger. The bridge was the work of his dad. John Grainger designed it as a newly arrived 23-year-old Londoner.
Bonython Park play space
Some of Bonython Park’s best features have been around for more than a half century when it was transformed from the ‘Siberia of the Parklands’ in the 1960s. One of my favourite sections, however, is a colourful new highlight – an all-access play space next to the long-standing kiosk. Families come from miles around to enjoy it and I love riding past it on the Torrens Linear Park track.
The moving statue of North Terrace
North Terrace is perhaps my favourite street in Adelaide. It’s our cultural boulevard, with a row of handsome nineteenth century classical-style buildings and beautiful landscaping. It is also home to several attractive statues, and I am particularly keen on Robbie Burns, the Scottish poet. He was the first monument to be carved here in South Australia. And he is the most mobile. His location in the State Library forecourt is his fourth since he was unveiled in 1894.
Have you been on a ride with Keith? Let us know what it was like in the comments, below.
Photos: Daniel Purvis
Video: Aaron Nassau