Stepping out of the English winter and onto the tarmac at Tullamarine was like jumping into the middle of a nuclear explosion - instant searing white light and intense heat. Welcome to Australia.
On the shuttle bus into town everything seemed obscene, too clean, too bright. Buildings had space around them, houses were detached. After the compression of space and things in the UK it seemed that even atoms had more room to move. I knew what to expect, but I was still having that culture shock that brit kids get when they go down under - the unsettling notion that you might have room to breathe, the sudden giddiness of possibility.
I wasn’t travelling though, I was settling. Staking new ground to build a healthier self on. I had some friends who let me couch surf for a couple of weeks, then I moved in with an old friend from Uni as a lodger - hi Evan!
Evan was (is) a writer and, like all good writers, worked in a secondary service industry and was generous enough to hook me up with my first job in Melbourne - working at ‘Moonlight Cinema’ in the Botanical Gardens. And as I often finished way after midnight I needed a bike, quickly.
I found a suburban bike shop down the road that made its way doing trade-ins and had a look around. And there is was, The Green Bike. It would best be described as a piece of utter crap. There were three reasons I bought it: It was the right size. It was dirt cheap. I didn’t have a choice.
How cheap? $80. In terms of quality it was about as poor as you could get, easily the worst bike I had ever owned. The frame was made of very heavy plain-guage tubing. It had brakes that flexed like plastic spoons. It had a saddle that looked like a cheap vinyl sofa in a student flat after a rowdy night. Steel rims guaranteed that it wouldn’t stop in the rain. There was no alloy involved - it must have weighed near enough to 35 pounds.
And yet the advantages of having a bike, any bike, are instant. For the cost of two midnight taxi rides from work to home I had a summers worth of transport.
The roads were generally empty late at night, and it was great fun riding home after a few late night beers in a t-shirt, blowing along the still-warm suburban streets.
I didn’t have any fancy gear. I wore normal shoes, normal shorts, ordinary clothes. I was just a guy with no money trying to figure out what to do next. I had the two tools that I needed to start again - a battered old laptop to write with and something to get around on.
In London today I walked out of the office (currently in the very wealthy financial district) and took photos of bike racks within a couple of minutes walk. You can see examples of The Green Bike everywhere - pieces of rubbish, utility bikes, cheapies, bikes you wouldn’t cry over if they got nicked.
Ridable? Only just.
Posh commuter's bike of choice - the Giant Defy.
Giant hybrid - there are more of these in the world than sparrows.
Early 90s Raleigh when they were experimenting with materials - this one has a mixture of steel and titanium tubes. Seat angle marks out rider as... strange.
The other end of Raleigh - a heavy steel roadster with rotting tyres. Note lock worth triple the bike.
Classic high-character London single-speed rat bike with courier pretensions.
Real 'bitsa' bike. Old mafac brakes date frame as 70-80s while front wheel is from ealry 2000s. Loose chain shows it's set up single speed not fixed (or at least I hope so)
B-Twin, French megabrand, the new version of the shopper
Trek District single speed from around 2013. Note owner has had to retrofit fugly mudguards to make it London pratical. Horrible saddle.
Another Trek. Yuk. Bike way too small for owner.
Londoners love these cheap bright fixies. Around £300 new. Heavy but impart an aura of cool for those who have no idea what a real cool fixie looks like (snob!)
Fancy! Cube (German) commuter and canal path cruiser, all the bike most people need.
A pair of heavy steel bikes. Note bike on left has no pedal body. Abandoned?
Euro non-brand bike on left - not old but horrible. BTwin on right is a real bargain and very versatile. Again, horrible mudguards conversion.
80s MBK - always liked this bike. Gatroskin tyres mark this one as proper rider's bike.
I love bikes like these - a bike is a bike is a bike after all.
With transport, accomodation and a basic income all sorted it was time to get on with other things. After my time out in the UK I knew what I wanted to do. I went back to University. Someone thought I had enough writing cred to let me pay money to do a Postgrad writing course. And, as we know, writing is a great way to make a living.
To support this ambition I worked for the next three years in arthouse cinemas ripping tickets and making choctops. I started at the infamous Valhalla, site of monthly Blues Brothers and Rocky Horror nights (both sets of fans hated each other) and worked the mighty hormone surge of the annual 24 hour Sci-fi film festival, with kids camping on the stage in sleeping bags and fourteen year olds with no intention of watching any movies snogging in the upstairs foyer.
I moved on (with Evan) to the equally infamous Lumiere (RIP 2005). It was a well-loved dump. The kind of place where there was no running hot water. The kind of place where a splash of Junkie blood on a cubicle wall slowly darkened to black, despite being the toilets being ‘cleaned’ every night. The kind of place where you picked up crisp packets very carefully after screenings of films like Lolita. The kind of place that seems a bit shit at the time but gave you everything you needed in order to do something else. Everyone who worked there was doing something else. Artists, writers, designers, filmophiles.
I rode my bike to work of course. It was about four miles, the same distance I used to ride to high school. If pushed I could do that pretty comfortably in well under fifteen minutes. I was in my early thirties - in terms of strength as a cyclist you are peaking about then - so averaging over 20mph, even on that bike, was achievable.
The roads are very wide. The traffic is fast. People do 40-50 mph on the big arterials that surround the inner city. A substantial number of the population have V8s and the big-dick attitude to go with them. Going to the front of the line at a set of lights was like extreme surfing - just waiting for the great rolling wave behind you to smash you into little pieces. On those roads the choice is ride fast or die and in practice I would be on maximum heart rate pretty much all the time.
Aside from the occasional run in with aggressive drivers life was pretty good. With a chemical buffer in between me and the experience of day to day life, and with my new ‘build myself new’ anonymity I was beginning to see that everyone wasn’t judging me every second of the day and that, sometimes, it was possible to relax and be my multifarious selves without exploding with stress.
My writing course was great, I was finally doing something I wanted to do. My small department had some excellent academics in it, including Lisa and Darren. It was Lisa’s ‘Writing for the media’ course that set a new direction for me. She had carefully wrapped an exciting exploratory course about writing for this new thing called the internet inside a course called ‘Writing for the media.’
Two streams came into one - my love of writing and my fascination with the content production studio we call ‘a computer’. This was early days for the internet, 1997, when it really was all new and interesting. I instantly ‘got’ how the internet and writing went together and very soon I was making money designing and building sites for various departments and even teaching people how to do the same.
After a brief, nasty mental health blip I had changed medication to a much better and more modern SSRI, was doing a lot of meditation. I was in the care of a psychiatrist who was insightful enough to give me an essay about creativity and depression. No, you didn’t need to be depressed to be creative, but they often went together - so the thing was to accept the predilection and then do something with it.
Ok, better get on with that then.
What wasn’t going so well was The Relationship. I spent a few years living with a painter who was wildly talented but not getting as much airtime as she deserved. Word of advice - don’t have two underachieving creatives in the same relationship, it’s hard work. We tortured each other and ourselves in one way or another, neither of us really having the courage to call time.
Without the ‘excuse’ of anxiety and depression I was finding out just who I was - in the context of a relationship that wasn’t a pretty picture - sorry Helen. Having had zero role-models and after making a mess of this part of my life for many years I was having to relearn how to actually get on with people ‘sober’ as it were. An ongoing and not entirely comfortable process, but then we all need a challenge in life right?
So life was pretty how it should be. And all the time I was still riding The Green Bike; from home to uni to the cinema, from the cafe to the gallery to the theatre, from Sunday morning soccer to choir to meditation.
I was very happy with my bike.
Actually that’s a complete lie. The Green Bike was everything I needed in transportation, and yet…
I had been spoiled by owning good bikes in the past. And now I was making a little more money from web design I started buying bits and pieces for the green bike. It was my first proper Pokemon bike.
Pokemon is an endless card game that is built on the idea of power ups and evolutions of cute anime style characters. There are around 700, each of which can evolve in many ways. There have been 10,000 card designs produced since 1996. Central to Pokemon is the idea of evolving or ‘training’ a character. By buying or earning powerups you,as the Pokemon trainer, take a lame entry-level character and turn it into a warrior.
I was about to start doing the same thing with bikes. It’s a deeply addictive hobby that I am still plagued by, not that different in spirit to doing it with playing cards, but quite a lot more expensive.
Every now and then I would call into the suburban bike shop and see what they had in their pile of parts. Often if you just ask a bike shop they have a bin of discarded parts that might just work. “Any alloy cranks in at the moment?”
They get to know you pretty quickly.
It started, as it must, with better tyres and brakepads. These are an essential for safety. After than the steel rims have to be replaced with alloy, because you will then be able to stop in the wet. And lighter wheels make it easier to get up to speed and stay in front of those V8 drivers. So they were an essential upgrade.
Then the crankset. It’s a rotating part so any weight saved here is beneficial - and better cranksets are stiffer, putting more of your ommff into the back wheel.
Saddles are very personal, so you need a new one of those, it’s essential. Better brakes are a no-brainer at this point, followed by lighter handlebars, seat pin and stem.
Then there’s just the final upgrade - the frame. So over a year or so my green bike slowly evolved into something completely different; the white bike.
Not that the white bike was anything amazing. It was a Raleigh mix-up; an entry level hybrid frame (501 tubing for the techies) with cantilever brakes, clearance for the 28c tyres I ran on it - the rest was all road bike. The bike-aware will realise that I had what would now be called a ‘gravel’ or ‘adventure’ bike - a cross over bike with road and mountain bike features.
I had created a cross-bred bike perfectly adapted to my needs and free of any particular dogma. At this stage of my life I wasn’t riding my bike with other people or competing or doing anything other than getting around town.
A bike is a bike is a bike, sure. But now it’s one bike, then another slightly better one, then another even better than that.
I got another couple of years out of the white bike, it got me to my new jobs - working for an agency out in Port Melbourne, then as an associate lecturer in web design. In this time I also had two plays on and was feeling like I might just stay in Melbourne for the rest of my life. It suited me. And yet…
All of a sudden, the turn of the century was hours away. I was 34 and I was having a childish, protracted argument with the painter about what we would do at twelve o’clock. We ended up sitting on the sofa, fuming at each other.
Something had to change. Time to trash the gallery.
I moved out and went to a one-bed over in Richmond, home of Vietnamese restaurants, mindless junkies prowling for heroin and the Tigers. And a very nice small bike shop frequented by racer types.
You know what’s next right?
Next: On and off the grid