A New Beginning

A lonely highway stretches to the horizon in outback Queensland. Photography by Roff SmithAt the risk of sounding – and indeed, being – a bit like Star Wars’ George Lucas, who waited some thirty-odd years before getting back to the continuation of his Jedi Sci-Fi series, I am at last relaunching my suspended cycling blog, although with considerably less fanfare than that generated by Mr Lucas.

Between techno-glitches, travelling for work, and simply not riding my bicycle in favour of spending my early morning hours sitting at my laptop and working on a series of children’s books I hope to launch, I’ve either not had much to say on the subject of cycling or been able to say it.

But now spring has sprung, leaves are in bud and the hawthorn is in bloom along the hedgerows, and when I look outside at the pink dawns these days I am reminded of the freedoms of being out on the road at sunup and – guiltily – of my ambition to attempt Paris-Brest-Paris in 2019. Time to get back into the saddle and, while I am at it, turn my attention once more to my old rusticated blog.

It was twenty years ago this month that I finished my solo cycling odyssey through the Australian outback – a journey that remains one of the most profound experiences of my life. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since that time. My world today bears little resemblance to the one I inhabited on the road all those years ago – and it appears that the road itself has changed dramatically, at least in Australia.

I was saddened to read of the death of Mike Hall late last month – the intrepid round-the-world adventurer and ultra-marathon cyclist who was killed just before dawn on the Monaro Highway near Canberra while attempting to win the Indian-Pacific cycle race across Australia.  I never had the privilege of meeting Mike, although he and I exchanged a few witty pleasantries by e-mail a few years ago, at the time he was making his astounding 91-day self-supported circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle – the pair of us making light of my very-much-unrecognised ten-second circumnavigation at the South Pole in 2000. He seemed like an awfully nice guy and someone I would love to have met.

It is hard to say what happened on the highway outside of Canberra that morning – that is something best left to the police accident investigation team – but in the coverage of the accident I was quite surprised to hear Australia described as such a dangerous, and indeed hostile, place for cyclists. It wasn’t in my day. Yes, there were stretches of the Bruce Highway northbound along the Sunshine Coast that I found unpleasant, and would not care to repeat, and I never did feel comfortable cycling anywhere in metropolitan Sydney, but for the most part the roads felt safe.

The road train drivers – whose monstrously large rigs seemed so intimidating to see parked at the roadhouses – were invariably courteous, giving me plenty of space, while rank and file motorists must have done much the same, because I really don’t recall any near-misses in more than 10,000 miles and nine months on the road. I am sure there must have been a few, but none were so harrowing as to sear themselves into my consciousness.

Yet to read some of the posts on threads in cycling forums and in the coverage of the accident that claimed the life of Mike Hall, Australian highways – even those lonely stretches across the Nullarbor Plain –  appear to have become far more dangerous and the motorists who drive them far more hostile, with endless tales of blaring horns, verbal abuse, thrown beer cans, deliberate swerving and the like. Scary stuff.

It is hard to know the truth – is it because there are more cyclists now, more potential for run-ins with cowboy motorists and a vast social media network by which the world can be made aware of these things? Does coverage of the death of a prominent cyclist bring out all the horror stories at the expense of the millions of cycle-miles that are ridden without incident?  Or is the world genuinely more hostile today. Or some combination of all three? Certainly in my day there were far less cyclists on the road – we were something of a novelty. I was one of a bare handful of cyclists who commuted daily to work in inner-city Melbourne back in the early 90s and I encountered very few fellow cyclists on my round-Australia journey. Tales of wars between cyclists and motorists seem so alien. I feel like a dinosaur.



  8 comments for “A New Beginning

  1. Ron Clark
    April 22, 2017 at 7:24 pm

    First off, of course, welcome back! We left the light on for you….

    I don’t know what the cycling situation is like in Australia, but in the US, like most things, cycling has become a polarizing activity with outrageous behavior on both sides of the argument, and they both feed on each other to create a never ending chain reaction of venom. People write opinion pieces on line and in comments sections about cycling and say they think they have the right to run a cyclist over because he was “in the way”. Cyclists decide to form mass rides and choke highways and bring traffic to a standstill, to make some kind of point that is certainly lost on people who are just trying to get to work in their car. Neither side is capable of seeing the other’s point of view, and both sides seem convinced that the only way to win converts is to scream their arguments at people until they….I dunno….just capitulate and agree? I’ve never seen anyone make an intelligent, coherent argument while screaming at another person, but it seems to be the foundation of all discourse here in the US.

  2. Roff Smith
    April 22, 2017 at 7:31 pm

    Back in the 90s I don’t think cycling was a big enough thing for it to polarise anybody – perhaps that was it. In Australia back then there were several million fewer people and correspondingly fewer vehicles, too. The world seems to be growing smaller, meaner and more hurried with each passing year.

  3. Ron Clark
    April 22, 2017 at 9:15 pm

    LOL Roff, in the Age of the Internet, I don’t think anything has to be big in order to become a battleground. The most innocuous comment can result in a Twitterstorm of hate, shaming and death threats. The internet has given the Angry Coward a forum like he’s never had before, and I don’t see an end to it. People seem to be perpetually poised to take offense at something, with a response that is totally out of proportion to the perceived offense. I totally agree with your last statement.

  4. Roff Smith
    April 23, 2017 at 3:57 am

    Indeed the ability – and inclination – to take offence and broadcast it to the world has never been greater, or more abused. And indeed catered to. I saw a story in one of our papers yesterday that new student guidelines, published by Oxford, says that anyone who shies from making direct eye contact or speak directly at another person is guilty of ‘racism’ .

    That ought to help everyone get along and make friends.

  5. Beverley
    April 28, 2017 at 5:45 am

    Yes, it really is good to have you back – glad you didn’t wait thirty years. Not sure I’d be out on the bike then, though it would still be good to read your blog from my room in the care home.

    Eagerly awaiting the publication of your books. Passionate as I am about getting children to read, I have a great fondness for well-written stories. I don’t feel the least bit guilty when I indulge in children’s literature, as it is all in the name of professional research!

  6. Roff Smith
    April 28, 2017 at 6:27 am

    I am very excited about the books. They have been a long time in the making. They involve a magic character and his zany grandmother who come to live in an English seaside town…

  7. Chuck Smith
    May 11, 2017 at 4:37 pm

    Welcome back, Roff! I enjoyed very much your book about circumnavigating Australia. I rode across the USA in the summer of 1982 (not following any pre-described routes, just a route I scribbled notes about while looking through a Rand McNally atlas) from New Hampshire to California. In terms of cycling being more dangerous now, I think it might be just for the mere fact that there are more people using the roads, both cyclists and motorists. As the population has grown, I suspect (though I am not a demographer) that there are many more varied attitudes regarding motorists attitudes toward cyclists. I didn’t feel unsafe in my transcontinental ride, but there were times while riding through Kansas on Highway 50, an alternate route for big trucks choosing not to use Interstate 70, that I wished I had more route options. I ran into very few folks cycling long distance that year. I found motorists to be very accommodating. As you noted, it was probably because it was more of a novelty to see cyclists on the road. I don’t think, however, that we can just stop and think that it is motorists who are being rude. Whiles riding my bicycle around town here (in Denver, Colorado), I’ve come across a large number of cyclists who think that they are the “bees-knees” and all should cow-tow to them on the trails and roads.
    Enjoying your web-site! Keeping on riding! And let’s all be safe out there.

  8. Carl Pettman
    June 2, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    I’m pleased to see you’ve reignited the touch paper on the blog.

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