At 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.