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The Wheels of Chance

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, one of those old bayside neighbourhoods in the city’s inner south, and working as a feature writer for a Sunday broadsheet whose offices were downtown. I didn’t own a car but relied instead on shoe leather and public transport to get around so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going out on a wildcat strike, starting from midnight, and the city’s bus and train drivers elected to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way to get in to work the next morning. The six miles 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, 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 bicycle, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had 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 would be fun, an adventure. And certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than helplessly throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.

When I arrived home that evening I found my old bicycle and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from a decade of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back in my college days in Sydney when I was daydreaming of setting off on bold cycling adventures along the Silk Road, riding Cape to Cairo, or pedalling the Pan American Highway. 

And this bicycle was the very thing on which to tackle such a journey: a Gemini World Randonneur, the company’s expedition model. A lugged-steel tourer, fifteen speeds, with mudguards, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water-bottle cages and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking when you were descending treacherous mountain passes.

Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, the World Randonneur ran on twenty-six by one-and-three-eighths inch tyres – a rather old-fashioned size among cyclists in the West at that time but one that was plentiful in the Third World, meaning the intrepid owner of such a bicycle would easily be able to source spares wherever their globetrotting wanderings took them, from the Bolivian altiplano to the camel markets of Samarkand. 

It was that which sold me. I loved that touch of worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, of seriousness of intent, and set my World Randonneur apart from the tame suburban bikes tooling around the campus. 

Alas, in the event, I never rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways on King Street. And even that was ages ago. And now here it was, all these years later, still with the original set of Michelin gumwalls clinging to the twenty-six-inch rims. With a shrug at things that might have been, I dug out my old track pump and set to work inflating the tyres. Surprisingly the flabby old things still held air.

They were still plump and firm the next morning too —disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have second thoughts about the wisdom of doing this. A good many years had passed since last I’d mounted a bike, and then it had been mostly just tooling around the University of Sydney or doing loops of the bridle path in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying my way through the mean streets of a big-city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike. 

Had my tyres deflated overnight—not an unreasonable expectation—it would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back pedal from my bold plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. But they remained rock-hard and ready and the weather outside was gorgeous; a fine autumn day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off and pride forbade that. 

And so, after breakfast, heart in my mouth, I mounted up and wobbled into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, office clothes folded neatly into a bundle and tied onto the rear rack. Being inexperienced in such matters 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. All the same, half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with effort and the exhilaration of danger, and more than a little relieved, I was also oddly sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close. 

All that day, as I puttered about the office, I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with an adrenalin-charged mixture of eagerness and apprehension. I left work a little later than usual, hoping to avoid the peak-hour rush, and made it home unscathed and feeling victorious.

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 whooshing past 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 to work the following day. I stayed out, at least as far as riding the trams were concerned. I’d had a taste of something I liked, and didn’t want to give it up. Spending in advance the money I reckoned I’d save by not renewing my monthly tram tickets, bought myself a flashing red taillight for my bike, a rear-view mirror, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days and a pair of sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry en route—all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and Melbourne traffic a regular thing. 

Over the coming weeks and months, as autumn segued into winter, I came to know the backstreets and alleyways the 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 feel of the streets and neighbourhoods I’d never known existed before I took up cycling.

Morning commutes became my favourites, setting out from home when the city was just waking up and life seemed bright as a new penny and full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d ride into the city along the foreshore, past the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid jigs and thermoses of coffee. If I had time I’d pedal out to the end of the pier, lean my bike against the wrought-iron railing and watch the city greet the day, the shadows receding from the skyline, the early morning sunshine glinting on the top of the Rialto Tower (then the tallest building in the city); or look to the west and see the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge; or watch the ferry from Tasmania steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight passage across 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 was in a gritty urban frame of mind, I’d call in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, where throngs of Greek and Vietnamese and Italian stallholders were noisily unloading their trucks. I’d dismount and lose myself for an hour in its ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit, fresh fish, scorched spices and roasting coffee. I’d buy a handful dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, revelling in the many worlds and lives that existed beyond the periphery of my own. 

It was like being a kid again, this roving around on a bicycle, observing, marvelling, taking the worm’s eye view. I’d forgotten. Commuting soon became the high point of my day. I found myself leaving earlier and earlier to give myself extra time to meander, explore and absorb. But it never seemed enough. I was always greedy for more. 

As spring segued into summer and the days became warmer and finer, I found myself toying with the idea of one day maybe not ending at the office, but playing hooky instead, taking French leave and escaping down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine, piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there.

What began as idle fancy grew into niggling temptation and finally into outright dare: go on, be a devil, do it. And one fine morning, late in the summer, I did.

I called in sick from a roadside payphone near Frankston, a suburb in what was then Melbourne’s outer fringe. Cupping my hand around the mouthpiece, to muffle the sounds of traffic, and with heart in mouth, I recited the fib I’d been rehearsing for the past twenty miles: head ache, runny nose, sore throat, yada, yada, yada. 

Mercifully, it was the copy boy who took the call and he bought my story with touching naïveté, expressing hopes that I’d be feeling better soon. I rang off feeling guilty and elated and unburdened. The deed was done. Nothing to do now but enjoy the day and let the chips fall where they may, hopefully beside the beer-battered fish. 

It was lovely down the peninsula: loads of sunshine, blue waters, a creamy surf, the bracing tang of eucalyptus and Norfolk pine along the esplanades of the little beachside holiday towns. 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 along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a delightful ice cream parlour. 

Later on, over a slice of poppy-seed cake and a cappuccino at a café in Portsea, 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 back home but I was feeling fit and besides, I reckoned I could always bail out at Frankston if I needed to; catch a train from there back to the city if I was tired or it was getting late or too dark to ride. With that as my back-up, I felt I could afford to continue on down to Cape Schanck, a windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula.

I’d never been to Cape Schanck. For that matter, in all the time I’d been living in Melbourne I’d never been down the Mornington Peninsula or to any of the old-fashioned seaside holiday towns through which I’d ridden that day. It was all new to me. I felt like a discoverer. Eager to be off, I paid for my coffee and cake and set out for the cape, still another twenty miles away.  

I rolled up there late in the afternoon. It was a gratifyingly wild and lonely spot overlooking the moody waters of the Bass Strait. I had the place all to myself, just me and a few screeching gulls and the hollow boom of the surf against the base of the sea cliffs far below. I lay my bike down on the grass near the clifftop and sat for a long while looking out over the Southern Ocean, marvelling at the thought that the next landfall south of here was Antarctica. What a satisfying outcome for the day. Instead of riding into the office, I’d pedalled my bicycle to the edge of the world.   

After a while an sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch but from the angle of the sun and the honeyed quality of the light it was clear that the slide into evening had begun. Frankston was still a good thirty miles off and if I hoped to get there before dark – which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp – I was going to need to get a move on. 

Reluctantly, not wanting to bring this fine day to a close, I gave the sea a last lingering look then picked up my bicycle and pushed off, homeward bound. 

I’d gone about half mile when I heard a hiss from my rear tyre. I glanced down, mildly annoyed. It was the first flat I’d had since I started commuting; couldn’t it have happened some other time? Still, just a nuisance. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, and patched the tube. A five-minute inconvenience and I was on my way again. But not for long. Before I’d pedalled thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again. 

Irritated with myself this time, thinking I must have seated the tube poorly and given myself a pinch-flat, I peeled the tyre off the rim – red-faced and hasty for that was a rookie error – then patched the tube a second time, pumped up the tyre and pushed off for Frankston once again. 

Less than a minute later I was standing yet again on the roadside, hands on hips, glowering at yet another puncture; rear tyre again. This routine was fast losing its charm. Either I was losing my touch completely or something was seriously wrong here. In all the time I had been cycling through the city, on streets and alleyways often strewn with broken glass, I’d not once had a flat. Yet here on this idyllic country road I’d suffered three in about fifteen minutes. 

I looked around to see if there were any unsighted nails or thorns on the road, but found only the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the – what? – one car a day that must have come through here. What were the odds of that? Like being hit by piano falling off a meteor. Or getting three flats on the trot for no obvious reason. I shook my head at the cosmic improbability of it all and gave the dead snake a sympathetic nod: you and me both, brother.

Peevish now, I sat down in the weeds and peeled the tyre off the rim yet again. But this time I gave it the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Remember, these were the same doughty Michelins that had been on the bike ever since I bought it all those years ago when I was in university, the ones that were going to carry me off to Zanzibar and the Silk Road. They were excellent tyres, just as the man had said. They’d remained plump and firm and so reliable that in all this time and all these miles I’d never given them a single thought. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres and here on the lonely Cape Schanck Road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon, I made the belated discovery that my globetrotting Michelin gumwalls 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 in spots. I could patch that inner tube as many times as I liked, but with the tyre carcass holed like that the first stray piece of grit I came to would get in and puncture the tube again. What I needed was a new tyre or, failing that, a length of flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed-through spots in the old one. I had neither. I considered – briefly – using the dead snake, but he was a bit far gone.

The nearest town was Rosebud, eight miles away, over on the bay side of the peninsula. But that was just a small beach town.  There was a chance, a miniscule chance, that they might have a bike shop there, but I doubted it, not in a little berg like that. But even if they did have one, or a surf shop that sold a bit of cycling gear, it would almost certainly be closed by the time I could get there, walking eight miles along a darkening country road, pushing my bike. 

And – oh, the delicious irony of it all – even if they did have a bike shop and it was miraculously still open at whatever hour I shuffled up to their door, there was almost no chance they’d stock the obscure twenty-six by one-and-three-eighths tyres that would fit my expedition tourer. No, I needed to be on the Silk Road for that sort of ubiquity. 

With luck I might be able to scrounge something at a petrol station: a length of flexible plastic or toughened rubber I could use to line the tyre and keep it inflated long enough for me to ride pedal Frankston. And what a lovely ride that would be. Twenty-five miles, at night, with no lights, on dodgy tyres, along the fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning, maybe. If I was lucky. 

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, a nice hot dinner, a leisurely evening in front of the TV and off to bed. How I wished I was there with them. I could have been. Should have been, too, as my inner Calvinist sternly reminded me. Here was justice at work, the wages of sin. The absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, gets his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery, despair, even danger, on the Via Dolorosa to Frankston, muttering curses, prayers and mea culpas every inch of the way. Hogarth, I felt, as I exalted my woes, should have been there to paint the scene: A Rake’s Regret.

Head bowed, I’d begun the long trudge to Rosebud, every flop-flop-flop from that blown tyre coming to me like a karmic raspberry being blown by the Fates, when I heard the distant cough of a car engine coming up the hill behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, hope and presentiment rising in my breast, to see a battered green Holden cresting the rise. It slowed, the driver regarding me curiously in passing, then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder up ahead, its brake lights aglow. It was then I noticed the bicycle rack on the rear. 

The driver, a young Catholic priest got out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic, smile on his face, as though he were sorry for not having arrived a little sooner. “Hello there,” he called out, “Trouble?”

I stared open-mouthed, as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush. 

He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and shook his head. “Looks pretty final to me,” he said. “How about I give you a lift into Frankston?” 

I gave a feverish laugh and sprang to life, eager to load my bicycle onto that bike rack before this miraculous apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and forty-five minutes later I was standing on a city-bound platform at the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing. 

I arrived back in the city at a fashionable hour – sooner, in fact, than if the flat tyre business had never happened. With the good fortune that comes with being in a state of grace, I found a city bike shop still open where I stopped off to buy a new set of tyres. They put them on for me, pumped them up nice and firm, and I pedalled the rest of the way home as happy as if I had good sense.

Still chuffed by the sweetness of my escape, I put away my bike, cracked open a beer, showered and changed into fresh clothes. Twenty minutes later, with a wicked little Miles Davis number throbbing in the background, I was splashing red wine into a piquant puttanesca I had simmering on the stove, waxing philosophical and reflecting on the lessons I’d learned that day, for as I stepped out of the shower I’d taken a hard look at myself in the mirror and had seen where I’d erred. That beatific smile I’d worn on the platform at Frankston wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. All that lovely stolen sunshine had left me with an incriminating set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been – a swell conversation starter for when I swanned into the office the next morning. As Emerson says, the dice of God are always loaded. I learned my lesson all right. Next time I’d remember the sunscreen. 

 

A lot of water has passed along the Yarra since those long-ago days of working at the newspaper and commuting through the streets of Melbourne on that old tourer, jousting with windmills and embarking on adventures. I passed through the city for the first time in ages a couple of years ago and was astonished by how big and glitzy and unfamiliar it had become. So much had changed. My old neighbourhood had been spruced up to the point where I couldn’t possibly afford to live there anymore. What I used to regard as ‘my’ quiet little cycle path along the St Kilda foreshore was no longer quiet nor mine, but was a brightly painted track fairly whizzing with cyclists, sleek young things moving swiftly on carbon-fibre bikes, for cycling had become fashionable in Melbourne, and was clearly no longer the fringe-dwelling bohemian form of transport it had been in my day. As for my favourite sneaky route into the city, the one where I finessed my way through the quiet backstreets of South Melbourne, it was still there, still broadly recognisable, until the last bit, where I was confronted by a sprawling casino, convention centre and shopping complex on the south bank of the Yarra and a whole different pattern of traffic. And once in the canyonlands of downtown I lost count of the exotic new skyscrapers I saw towering above me.   

The old familiar and rather ugly newspaper building on the corner of Spencer and Lonsdale, the end point of my morning rides, was no more. In its place was a gaping hole in the ground. On the construction cladding which surrounded it were signs proclaiming that this was soon to be the site of a seventy-nine story Ritz-Carlton hotel. As I stood there gawping at the artist’s impression, with all that alien bustle around me, I felt like a time traveller. So much had happened, so many changes – both to the city and to me. In groping for some kind of thread to connect where I was standing at present to what I remembered of the past – how did I get here from there? – I found myself marvelling at how big a role that old tourer and those daily micro-doses of adventure had played in shaping the course of my life. 

Emboldened by that buccaneering sense of captaincy and decisiveness that comes with steering your own course, and a rekindled sense of wonder and the notion that a vibrant world existed out there waiting to be discovered, I left the snug cocoon of my staff job on the newspaper not many months after my breakaway down the Mornington Peninsula and went off in pursuit of the dreams and ambitions I’d let lie fallow all those years. Some I achieved, some I didn’t, some turned out to be not the brass rings I’d hoped or imagined them to be. However you score it, though, it’s been quite a ride: twenty-odd years trotting the globe for National Geographic, an improbable daydreamed life I would likely never have led had it not been for that seemingly whimsical decision to drag my old neglected tourer out of the garden shed, brush away the cobwebs, spin the wheel and take my chance.