I grew up believing that cycling on the roads was practically suicidal – you might as well throw yourself under a train and be done with it. We occasionally hired bikes and rode on the bike path around the Yarra, near the Botanic Gardens, but we didn’t ride in our neighbourhood, or for transport. It was a dangerous, freaky thing to do.
Then I started dating a Cyclist. Not simply someone who rides a bike occasionally, but someone for whom the bike was a passion. Transports of delight on two wheels. The relationship grew, and it was inevitable that I would begin to ride. But the first few tentative rides on his old bike didn’t go well. For starters the bike was waaaaay to small for my ludicrously long legs – I kept inadvertently changing gears with my knees, which came as a dreadful shock to someone who had only just discovered that bikes even had gears. Talk about a crunching gear change! But I also had trouble overcoming my innate belief that to get anywhere under my own steam would be a huge amount of work. And I wasn’t a fan of hard physical work, particularly in huge amounts.
Then we visited Rottnest Island on a trip to WA, while I was still in the unforgiving grip of chronic fatigue syndrome. We hired bikes and cruised around the island, and I made a stunning discovery – riding is hardly any work at all, unless you want it to be, or choose to climb a mountain (and it never occurred to me that I would go on to do such a weird and crazy thing, but then I have a history of not predicting my own future terribly well). We gained enough momentum cruising down each gentle slope of Rottnest to all but propel us to the top of the next rise. The actual effort input was tiny. Although feeble, permanently tired and generally unwell, we covered most of the island without putting a dent in my vanishingly small energy quota. What’s more, I felt great.
It was a true revelation. Sometime soon after that I bought my own bike – a staid and conservative hybrid. I began to ride more, even riding to work on occasion, and I gradually became more and more confident, and more and more hooked on this remarkable lifestyle. One of the first things I noticed was that I was suddenly in the world, rather than separated from it by a big steel box with windows and a loud stereo. I was chatting to crossing guards, saying hello to other cyclists, and even exchanging friendly comments with people in their gardens. I noticed birds, cats, gardens and the weather in a way that I hadn’t since buying a car.
A car divorces you from the world in a forceful and aggressive way. You have your stereo on, your windows closed, and a whole heap of steel and glass (well, ok, plastic and glass these days) between you and the rest of the world. When was the last time you exchanged a friendly comment with a fellow driver? And when was the last time you received an angry or threatening gesture from another car? It’s truly a different world. Cars are the ultimate ego traps. Here am I, they say. I am all that matters. Get out of my way or be squashed under my wheels, it’s all the same to me! You move through the world, but apart from it. It boxes up your soul and shields it from any participation in the world around you.
It is all too easy, behind the wheel, to become oblivious to pedestrians, cyclists, animals, and the world in general. Today I was riding in a bike lane next to a row of parked cars, and I discovered the horror of that most cursed of missiles in the cycling world, the flung car door. I was fortunate to see it coming, so I didn’t wind up flung myself, but the flinger was completely oblivious to my presence. We are not bike aware in this country. Increasingly, we are not pedestrian aware either, for the simple reason that we don’t walk. Walking to and from my children’s child care centre, we very rarely encounter anyone else on foot, although when we do, it is always the same few people.
Our complete neglect of pedestrians is even more astounding when you look at a shopping centre car park. Heaps of parking spaces, but nowhere safe to walk once you get out of your car. Now that’s weird. Even if you drive to the shops, as nearly everyone does, surely you must actually get out of your car and walk to the entrance of the shops in order to wave your credit card about with wild abandon? Where are the footpaths taking you safely to the door? There is nearly always a major through way (for cars) right outside the door, with a pedestrian crossing to nowhere (at our local shopping centre the crossing actually leaves you in the middle of a road), but no footpath to take you safely to your car. Presumably we have failed to develop the levitation skills that the planners were anticipating.
We are hoping this weekend to take delivery of our Christiania bike, for doing the school & child care runs, and all the local shopping – basically anything within 5 or 10km. The imminent arrival of this delightful beast has seen me hop back onto the bike for any local trips I do without the kids, and today I even did a bike/train combination to get to a cafe in Hawthorn where I was meeting a friend. It was a buzz of huge proportions. I started the day tired, stressed, and a little down. I have come home buzzing with energy, having cruised just under 20km. The whole trip took a little more time than a car trip would have, but it was so much more delightful. I stopped at a little op shop I saw along the way, because I had a little extra time. I chatted to passers by at the lights. I enjoyed the sunshine, heard birds twittering, and had time to reminisce over the house where friends used to live, as I cruised past it down the hill.
This is life – this is taking part, not passing through. Ride to live. Live to ride. Now I get it!