I was an instant convert. I didn’t even look back at The Pantha. BMX? For babies. I had A New Thing.
Actually a very secondhand thing. A dark blue Raleigh. Ten speeds. Steel cottered crankset, gear changers on the downtube, heavy wheels. Ten speeds. Steel drop handlebars, corroded allow stem, steel seat pillar and a battered old Brooks saddle. And ten speeds.
Don’t look at the clothes, look at the cogs. Did I mention it had ten speeds? I must have seen ten speed bikes in Burkes, but I didn’t know anyone who had such a thing. What on earth would you need ten speeds for anyway?
Looking back it’s easy to see this bike a beast. To start with, it was bent. Someone had pranged it and the down tube had a definite kink right up where it joined the head tube. The paint was chipped and fading, all the parts were heavy. Not Raleigh’s finest, something built to a budget. An abused example of the starter road bike of it’s day.
I was diddled on the swap. The Pantha was worth a lot more - it wasn’t beaten up and old.
But those ten speeds. Revelation.
You went as fast as you could, then you changed up another gear and you kept pushing faster and faster until either the road ran out or your heart was leaping out your nostrils.
This wasn’t about picking your way round obstacles of doing wheelies, this was about speed and effort combined. My effort made it fast. No limits other than what I could bring to it. Physically it demanded everything you had. I was soon a sweat-drenched addict, craving another burst, sucking up huge lungfuls of air and willing my screaming legs to turn one more time.
I was totally hooked on the sensation of it, not only going the exertion of going fast but tucking your head down and suddenly accelerating down hill, then leaning deep into a corner, going around it much faster than a car ever could; of sprinting all-out purely for the fun of it.
And I could climb hills again, longer hills, steeper hills.
Not only faster, but much much further. I had just started high school (year 8 for my UK peeps) and my mother was determined that I would not be going to my father’s Alma Mater, an all boys school called Rongatai College.
Rongatai was the kind of place you got strapped for walking on the grass. Or not having your socks at the right height. The headmaster was a pervert. I mean that literally - he was resigned a few years later after running an videod experiment on how to best use the cane on ‘willing’ participants. Nice guy, fun school.
But Rongotai was the place that all the boys went to. It was the local clearing house for hundreds of white boys on their way to becoming middling clerks in the pubic service. Why would you send your kid anywhere else?
My mother, bless her progressive socks, wanted me to go to a ‘worse’ school, Wellington High School. ‘High’ as it was known was situated around the back of the National Museum, right next to the Basin Reserve Cricket Ground. It had ethnic minorities. It had a loose uniform code. It had a Maori headmaster (pretty rare back then) and it didn’t have the strap. It had girls too - woohoo! But more importantly it had a lot of clever kids with progressive or arty parents who thought that it was the right thing to do send their kids to an inclusive and socially tolerant school. I was the kind of bright boy who was going to University anyway, so it didn’t really matter so much where I went academically - I wasn’t going to be needing much help in the that department.
My new gang had parents who were doctors, accountants, teachers, journalists, artists and even, gasp, public intellectuals and lecturers. Peter’s dad was a philosophy lecturer and owned an ARP synthesiser. So now instead of figuring out how to avoid mirrors while shoplifting with my ‘friends’ I was figuring out which bits of wire to put where to get a sound out of this massive electric box. It took about an hour to get anything of the ARP, but when you did it felt like the world had changed.
When I went to my friends houses I had conversations around the dinner table and it seemed that some of the parents had minds subtle enough that they could argue from just about any point of view, just for fun. Coming from Miramar (a long way from the film-centred progressive hub it is today) this kind of company was unexpected and very welcome. I started to live in the central city and spend as little time in Miramar as I could.
Home for me was going home to my father, buying a takeaway and eating it watching TV. The house was a kind of vacuum, any feeling had been sucked out of it by the negative storm of the divorce. It’s not that there wasn’t love there, I know my dad loved me, but he was of the generation and personality type to not really know what to do with it. Dad would come home with the takeaway, or maybe do meat and two veg, then he would play the piano for an hour or two. He would then fall asleep in front of the gas heater, the only warm part of the house in cold weather.
The piano was his sole emotional outlet - he is a gifted amateur musician - and I have a whole sub-strata in my subconscious of easy listening tunes and Jazz classics, all of them compressed and distorted from the weight of my father’s sadness and repression.
For the most part I would go to my room and read. I joke now that I was raised by wolves but I was living in a state of minor neglect. The house was never full of voices, never had parties, seldom laughter. It had two boys in it, one substantially older than the other, both trying to understand what was hell was going on.
There is the ‘evil or absent stepfather’ theory of athletic achievement (see Lance Armstrong) and I would have to put up my hand here. Wanting to be away from home was, given the circumstances, understandable. ‘Proving myself’ is something that has never left me, though who it is I am trying to impress, and what will satisfy them, I have no idea.
But there are plenty of other adolescents with better family situations who ride bikes. Lets not forget just what a fantastic way cycling is to burn up all that energy.
I would ride the 4.7 miles to school very quickly indeed, often less than 15 minutes (always less than 17), have my day at school, then do my paper round, then ride home, back up the hill. On arriving home I would put a pint of milk, a couple of tablespoons of sugar, a couple more of milo (powdered, sweetened chocolate) and then a scoop or two of ice cream into a big jar and shake it into a milkshake. After downing that I would put on my cycling clothes and go out ‘training’ for an hour or two, finishing with the ride up the hill again.
The bike also enabled me to ride all over town and visit my friends. I got to know the previously strange areas of Kelburn and Te Aro and Karori. Some of my friends parents even lived in Aro Valley, the actual inner city. So I rode that bike around the city a lot, and learned all the pleasures of the classic inner city climbs like Raroa Road and Devon Street.
The other thing I did was get a job, a paper round, and this minimal but independent wealth meant I could fantasise about a better bike. I had no idea what that meant, but occasionally I would see a real racer out on the road and feel an unmistakable urge to join their world.
They wore strange, colourful clothes with French and Italian brand names on them and wore odd shoes. They had brightly coloured bikes with exotic names and really skinny tires. And they were fast fast fast.
I would still go in to Burkes once a week and talk to Mouse and talk about bikes. So it must have been in Burkes that I saw the poster about ‘Turn up and race’ for youth at the Haitaitai Velodrome.
By this time I had bought some chamois shorts and my mum had made me a cycling shirt, so I didn’t look like too much of a dick when I showed up at the track, nervous, excited, looking at the other couple of dozen boys there and wondering where I stood.
Because it was a ‘turn up and race’ event we were all on road bikes. The Haitaiti velodrome is very long and relatively flat, so not very steep. It was also made of concrete so impervious to the kinds of damage our clunky old road bikes would inflict on a wooden track.
After a few laps to get used to it we all lined up and rolled over the starting line. I can’t remember how long the race was, probably only a few miles if that, but I do remember two things about it.
I came third. And I loved it.
I was hooked. I thought about nothing else for the next couple of years. I became, pretty much over night, a racer boy.
And the two things a racer boys needs are a crew and a decent bike.
Next: Interlude 1 - The Wheels