It was a tram driver’s strike in Melbourne back in the early Nineties that got me riding a bicycle again as an adult. I was living in Elsternwick that year, an old bayside suburb in the city’s inner, and catching the ting-a-ling tram down Glenhuntly Road each morning to a fairly dull job writing features for a lightweight, parochial and oh-so-earnest Sunday broadsheet.
I didn’t own a car but relied on shoe leather and public transport to get around and so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going on strike from midnight, and the bus and train drivers agreed to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way in to work.
The twelve-mile round trip between home and office seemed just that bit too far to walk and you could grow a beard trying to catch a cab in Melbourne during the rush hour in those days, any rush hour, let alone one during a transport strike. As I sat at my desk that afternoon pondering my options, the cheeky idea popped into my head that I could always try riding my bike.
I still had a bike, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had somehow never quite had the heart to get rid of either. As far as I knew it was still in working order, buried somewhere deep amongst the clutter in the garden shed. The more I thought about it, the better liked the idea. It might be fun, an adventure, and certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.
When I arrived home that evening I found my old bike and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from years of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back when I was still daydreaming of cycling adventures in Asia, Africa and South America.
This here would have been just the thing to take you wherever you wanted to go, or so the man at the bike shop had assured me: the Gemini World Randonneur. It was the company’s expedition model: pine green with silver mudguards, fifteen speeds, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water bottle cages, drop bars with bar-end shifters and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking for those times when you were descending tricky mountain passes with a load of gear lashed on the back.
Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, this one ran on twenty-six inch tyres, rather an old-fashioned size in those pre-mountain-bike days, but one which was plenty common in the Third World, meaning I could source spares wherever my wanderings took me: from the Bolivian altiplano to the market bazaars of Samarqand. It was that which sold me on the model. I loved that touch of practical worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, seriousness of intent, and set my rugged World Randonneur apart from those tame suburban road bikes you saw tooling around the campus.
But as they say about buying novels, you don’t buy the book so much as the imagined leisure time to read it, and so it must be with expedition bicycles, for the way things panned out I never actually rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways along King Street in the student ghetto around the University of Sydney. I never even put enough miles on it to wear out the original set of tyres. Those same old Michelins were still clinging to the rims all these years later, soft and flabby and grimy with age.
I rummaged around some more in the shed, found my pump and set to work inflating them. Surprisingly enough, the things held air.
They were still plump and firm the next morning, too—disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have some second thoughts about the wisdom of all this. A good many years had passed since I’d ridden a bike, and then it had been mostly just tooling around the University of Sydney campus or riding the bridle paths in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying about in the mean streets of a big city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike.
Having those mouldy tyres deflate overnight—not an unreasonable expectation—would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back away from my brash plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. But the tyres remained firm and the weather outside was gorgeous, a perfect spring day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off, and pride forbade that.
And so after breakfast, with my heart in my mouth, I wobbled out into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, my office clothes folded into a bundle and tied on the rear rack. I headed for the city as a motorist would: straight up the main stem, along the fast and furious Nepean Highway and St Kilda Road.
It was a harrowing ride, peppered with what seemed at the time to be many near-misses, but half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with effort and the exhilaration of danger, I was kind of sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close.
All that day I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with a heady adrenalin-charged stab of eagerness and apprehension. I made it home unscathed, and feeling victorious, and the next morning’s commute wasn’t nearly so fraught. The first-day awkwardness was gone. I felt more assured out there, accepting as a matter of course the stream of cars and their wing mirrors whooshing close by my elbow. Along with this confidence came a certain quiet satisfaction at having taken matters into my own hands, a sense of having reclaimed some part of me that had lain fallow for years without my being aware of it. As I bowled home that evening along the margins of the Nepean Highway, I found myself marvelling that I hadn’t done this earlier.
The trammies went back the following day, but not I. I stayed out and with the money I saved from not buying tram tickets I tricked up my old tourer with a brand new flashing red taillight and a snazzy rear-view mirror. I bought myself a pair of padded shorts and cycling gloves as well, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days, and a pair of sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry—all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and traffic a regular thing.
Over the coming weeks and months I came to know the city streets in the intimate way only a cyclist can. By that I don’t just mean where the potholes were or the misaligned storm drains, but the pulse and mood of the place, the thousand-and-one vignettes and details that pass unnoticed when you rattle by in a tram with your nose in the paper.
Morning commutes were my favourites, when the day was fresh, bright as a newly minted penny and full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d find myself drawn to the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid lines and thermoses of coffee. I’d ride out to the kiosk at the end of the pier, lean my bike against the decorative iron railing and just stand there and watch the city wake up and greet the day, the upper flanks of the Rialto Tower catching the early morning sunshine, and the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge, and the big Tasmanian ferry steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight run across the moody waters of Bass Strait.
Other times I’d veer inland and follow the Yarra River into the city through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Park. Or if I were in a gritty inner-urban frame of mind call in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, and lose myself for an hour in its cheerful ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit and fresh fish and scorched Asian spices. I’d buy a handful of dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, soaking up the ambience and marvelling at all the lives lived out beyond the periphery of my own. It was like being a kid again, this roving around on a bicycle, taking the worm’s eye view. I’d forgotten.
As summer bloomed and the weather became warmer and finer, I found myself toying with the idea of playing hooky sometime; taking French leave from work and swanning off down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine and piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there.
What started out as a bit of whimsy, a wouldn’t-that-be-fun sort of thing, evolved into niggling temptation, which in turn grew into a bold-faced dare: go on, be a devil, do it. I fought the good fight, but in the end the bicycle and its seductive freedom won out, and one sparkling Wednesday morning early in autumn, I bolted.
I phoned in ‘sick’ from a payphone in Frankston, one of the outer suburbs along Melbourne’s southeast flank, and, with baited breath, recited the lie I’d been rehearsing since I veered off course twenty miles back: sore throat, headache, fever—one of those twenty-four hour things, no doubt I’d be fine tomorrow. It was the copy boy I spoke with. He bought my story with touching naïveté, and I rang off feeling mean and low and guilty—and elated and relieved as well, a heady cocktail of emotions. I’d been brought up well, imbued with a doughty middle class work ethic and had never before pulled a sickie, or at least nothing quite so flagrant.
Now the deed was done, the crime committed. Might as well enjoy the fruits of it, come what may. Which I did. I had a wonderful time.
It was lovely down the peninsula: plenty of warm cheerful sunshine, a creamy surf, and the bracing tang of eucalypt in the air. I did a spot of wine tasting at one of the vineyards I passed along the way, had an excellent lunch of fish and chips on a picnic table shaded by Norfolk pines along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a wonderful ice cream parlour.
Later on, at a stylish café in Portsea, over poppy-seed cake and cappuccino, I pondered the remains of the afternoon. I had come a long way and had just as long a ride ahead of me to get home but I was feeling fit and besides, I could always bail out at Frankston, if I had to; catch a train back to the city from there if it was getting too late or too dark. With that as my fall-back net, I reckoned I could afford to venture all the way down to Cape Schanck, the wild, windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula, another ten twelve miles further south.
I’d never been there before. I’d understood it was beautiful, haunting in its loneliness with its weathered lighthouse overlooking the moody waters of the Southern Ocean. And so it proved to be. And on a midweek autumn afternoon I had the place all to myself, too just me and a few wheeling gulls and the hollow boom of the surf far below. I sprawled on the clifftop for a long dreamy while, well satisfied, gazing into the violet haze, letting my mind tinker with the notion that the next landfall from here would be Antarctica and, like a kid, imagining myself going there one day.
After a while a sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch, but from the angle of the sun, and the increasing honeyed quality of the light, it was clear that afternoon was on the wane. Time was getting away from me. It was still a solid thirty miles back to Frankston and if I wanted to get there before dark (which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp) I’d best get cracking. And so with a wistful but contented sigh I picked up my trusty World Randonneur and pushed off.
Not many yards later I heard a hiss as my rear tyre went flat. An annoyance, to be sure, but hardly the end of the world since like any seasoned cyclist I carried a pump, tyre levers and a patch kit. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, and a few minutes later, patched and pumped, I was on my way once more. But not for long. Within thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again.
I dismounted, a bit peevish this time, removed the wheel and peeled off the tyre, thinking that I must have overlooked a piece of grit or shard of glass embedded in the rubber, allowing it to re-puncture the tube. I ran my fingers around the lining, in a cursory sort of way and, feeling nothing, shrugged and chalked it up to experience and bad luck. Whatever was in there must have fallen out. I fixed the flat, replaced the wheel, put away pump and patch kit, and mounted up again. Less than a minute later I was standing once again in the tall grass along the roadside, hands on hips, glaring at yet another flabby rear tyre.
This was losing its charm. I cast my eyes around to see if there were tacks or thorns or something scattered on the road, but all I saw was the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the—what?—one car a day that came along this dead-quiet ribbon of bitumen. Lordy, how unlucky was that? Like getting hit by a meteor, or spontaneous combustion, or getting three punctures in less than a hundred yards for no particular reason. I shook my head at the improbable wonder of it all and gave him a sympathetic nod. “You and me both, brother.”
I sat down on the gravel with a heavy put-upon sigh and peeled off the tyre yet again, this time giving the flabby rubber the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Remember, these were the same tyres I’d had in college all those years ago, the ones on which I was going to ride off to Zanzibar or down the Silk Road. Sturdy things, just like the man said. I’d been riding around on them in the city for months now without a flat. They’d remained plump and firm and so reliable that I’d forgotten all about them. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres, and here on the lonely Cape Schanck road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon and miles from anywhere, I made the belated discovery that my globe-trotting Michelins were finally, at long last, well and truly shot—beyond repair.
The front one was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear had frayed through completely. I could patch that inner tube as many times as I liked, but with the tyre holed like that, the first stray piece of grit that came along would get in and puncture the tube again. What I needed was a new tyre or, failing that, at least some flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed bits in the old one. I had neither. I toyed with the idea of using the snake but he was too far gone. The ten-dollar bill I’d frittered away on coffee and cake back in Portsea might have done for a make-shift tyre plug, but of course I’d spent that. All I had on me was coins and plastic, and this was one hole my VISA card couldn’t bail me out of.
It was eight miles to Rosebud, the nearest town, over on the bay side of the peninsula. They might have had a bike shop there where I could buy a tyre, but I doubted it, not in a sleepy little berg like that—and, oh, the sweet irony of it all, if there was a shop they almost certainly wouldn’t have a twenty-six inch tyre to suit my expedition rims; I needed to be on the Silk Road for that. But supposing there was a bike shop in Rosebud, and they did have a suitable tyre, it was still too late in the day to do me any good. They’d have long rolled down the shutters by the time I got there.
With luck I could probably scrounge something at a petrol station, a bit of rubber or plastic with which I could line the tyre well enough to carry on, but that would still leave me with at least a twenty-five mile ride into Frankston, at night, with no lights and dodgy tyres, and on the narrow, fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning—maybe.
A sickly smile crossed my face as I thought of everybody back in the office, packing up for the day right now, easy of mind, clear of conscience, looking forward to home and hearth, an evening of TV and off to bed. How I wished I was there. I could have been. Should have been, too. My inner Calvinist rose up with smirking glee: serves you right, bucko; here’s the old cosmic payback for the lies, the shirking, and the theft of a day’s pay: the absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, receives his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery and danger, muttering curses, prayers, and mea culpas every inch of the way.
Not a bit of it. Instead I made my best discovery of the summer, a sublime truth that would sustain and embolden me through many a cycling adventure and misadventure in the years to come: God, it seems, truly does look after children, drunks and tramp cyclists. No sooner had I begun the heavy-hearted trudge to Rosebud when I heard the distant purl of a car engine, the first such sound in what seemed like hours. I turned, hope and presentiment rising within me, to see a battered old Holden top the rise. The driver slowed as he drew abreast then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder a few yards up the road, his brake lights aglow.
It was then I noticed the bicycle rack on the rear.
A lanky young Catholic priest climbed out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic smile, as though he were sorry for having not arrived a little sooner.
“Hello, there!” he called as he approached. “Trouble?”
I nodded, staring as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.
He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and its threadbare tyres, sighed and shook his head. “It looks pretty final to me. How about I give you a lift to Frankston?”
I gave a feverish laugh, then sprang to life, eager to strap my bike onto that rack before this miraculous apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and an hour later I was standing beside my bicycle on the city-bound platform of the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.
I was back in the city by a fashionable hour, sooner in fact than if I had never had any of that flat tyre business. I bought myself a new pair of Michelins at a late-opening bike shop in town and toasted the sweetness of my escape over dinner that night with a fine bottle of merlot from one of the vineyards I’d seen down there on the Mornington Peninsula.
But the dice of God are always loaded, as the old saying goes. That beatific smile I’d been wearing on the Frankston railway platform wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. When I swanned into the office the morning after, as neatly recovered from my recent malaise as though I’d been to Lourdes, I was sporting a beautiful set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been. The real moral of the story? Seize the day, by all means. Get out there. Lie, cheat and shirk if you have to. All will be forgiven. It is a big beautiful world out there, rich in possibility and ripe for discovery and Heaven knows there’s no finer way to see it than from the saddle of a bicycle. But all the same, do not tempt the Lord thy God, as the Good Book says, for he clearly Hath a wicked sense of humour. So check your treads before you go, keep something in your tool kit you can use to plug a holed tyre if need be, and no matter what, always, always, always remember the sunscreen.