In England cycling used to be huge. Before the car got cheap enough for a family to afford - which is to say well after the second world war - your choice was public transport, cadging a lift from a rich uncle, or a bike. With a bike the suffering classes could ride to the next village and had both a wider choice of jobs and a new view of the world. People had always walked in the hills sans goretex for recreation and soon enough people were using bikes to strike out into the countryside too. A cycling holiday was not the contradiction in terms many view it as these days. Rattling around in a group through the English countryside wasn’t just something that blokes on £5000 mountain bikes and Audis to put them in did.
There were bike shops everywhere and most of them sold their own brand of bike. Some built them themselves and others slapped stickers on other makers frames to make them their own, an effective way of spreading their brand through a local area. The rise of the car killed these shops and through the 70s and 80s those shops closed or became something else, most commonly a toy shop. Soon enough there were just enough shops to support the cyclists who were left, the enthusiasts - racers and a few hardy tourers. The shops that survived had names that I knew, even in New Zealand - Yates, Geoffrey Butler, Condor. These were shops and bike builders combined, the owner often building bikes, organising the Sunday rideout and maybe even having their own club as well.
Australia, while having a much smaller populartion than the UK, had a few of these shops left and the nearest to me was Mascot cycles in Richmond (founded 1938). The owner made frames but also, as far as I can make out, white-labelled some made in taiwan frames.
I wandered into his shop one day, saw a half-way decent second hand bike for $400 that was about the right size and walked out with it. This bike was made of bottom of the rung 501 tubing, still had friction levers on the downtube for shifting and had a mere 14 speeds in the age when 16 and 18 were common. It was defineltey one of his made in taiwan frames, not something made in the shop. Any serious rider would have turned their noses up at it, but it was a lot faster than the green/white bike, mainly on account of it’s lightweight rims (the classic mavic MA4s). Good bikes at this stage cost in the order of $1500 and up, so I was still hovering around entry level.
Despite the (justifiable) popularity of disc-braked adventure bikes these days the format of the steel racing bike barely changed from the end of WWII to the end of the millenium because it’s a great format. A steel frame, 700c wheels, drop bars and 25c tyres can take on any western road in existence, and a ‘cyclocross’ bike can do everything short of carry a house around the world.
It was Ray Blucher himself who sold it to me and, after I confessed a racing past, generously invited me to join his Sunday morning rides (the peninsula run is still a staple of the Melbourne road racing scene).
I never took him up on his offer, never spent a minute in my 6 years riding around Melbourne in another proper cyclists company. There are many great training routes in Melbourne that I just didn’t care about - here’s a good list from Strava. And that was about it for ‘cycling culture’. Melbourne now has the standard range of neo-cycling activities (The Brompton Club, Car Park Racing,Urban Cyclo Cross, Alley Cats, City by bike tours, Tweed Run) but back then you either raced or kept to yourself. I was either riding to get somewhere or riding solo, doing the kind of rides that I now call ‘Cycloflanneuring’, a fancy term for just riding around to see things.
And in Australia that invariably means ‘Riding around in the heat to see things’. You know Australia is hot, but living in it, even Melbourne, is intense. It was common to get five days in a row with no wind at 40 degrees before the ‘cewl change’ comes through. Everything turns into an element; roads and houses still radiate the days heat off them past midnight, beach sand burns your feet, the horizon disappears in a continually shimmering haze. In the still, claggy heat riding along at 20mph feels good - you are generating your own breeze, nd it was the only breeze you would get for days on end.
Without The Relationship I had more time to roam, and a real need to do so. In the heat it was better to be moving than sitting still. I needed to be out and about, not sitting and stewing and wilting into a featureless blob of self doubt and recrimnination - we are all better at processing when doing something other than ruminating.
Of course my something other was riding. In my ramblings on my green/white bike I had discovered a series of tracks that circled Melbourne, all ridable on a road bike. They were both significantly safer than proper roads and a lot more fun.
The suburban grid is built up in Melbourne, sitting five metres or so above flood level of the rivers and streams. The pleasure of turning off a busy street on a hot day, with drivers stewing to fury in their tin-tops, diving down a track to come alongside a cooling creek surrounded by that lilac-green bush that only Australia has, was magic.
Down in the creeks it was all about dog walkers, and, if you kept your wits about you, you could ride at a good clip on the six-foot wide concrete paths, white hot in the heat, for hours on end without repeating your route.
On the weekend I would take off on a 70-90km ride on these tracks. I had the time and energy to ask questions like ‘What’s it like to ride to the airport?’ Or ‘where does this squiggle on the map take me?’ Or ‘Can I ride to Heidi?’ And more than that, not only where does it take me but ‘What’s the nature of that journey?’
The modern explorer goes outside to find out more about what is inside, to find out how much they have been constructed, to try and shake that off, striving to find a new, uncolonised area in our selves. We know what’s there but we don’t want to know how we feel about it yet. We try to escape the logic of our expectations, to get off the grid.
The fantasy of the city - and the state that follows - starts with the grid. The plan for a new city is a coloniser’s fantasy, a way to sell the idea of progress to a burgeoning population of people who have no idea what to do with the indigenous. It was the same story in America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand - the grid was a promise to people who moved there that things would be both comprehensible and better. The logic of economics - the saleable plot, the packaged article - could overcome the messiness of the oral and social traditions found in the colonies.
London is fithy, crooked in all senses, but the colonies - what promise! Everything will be different! A clean slate! Look at this plan folks, see how reliable and clean and rational it is? Come and get your own peice of the dream - buy a ticket!
And to serve the grid the hills and water and vegetation and people are pushed back, or pushed down. You just know when you see a weir and some flood defenses that the wildlife, the river and any indigenous culture that relied on it is lost.
Planning, the bastard love child of Colonialism and Modernism, has ground out a victory. Planning is meant to manage risk and maximise resource use, but it also erases casual knowledge. As cities are improved and planned we often throw away any old (oral) knowledge of how to live in these environments. The 1m waterfall that kept seawater out of the upper Yarra river was dynamited in the late 1890s and with it complex freshwater marshlands which had sustained the local aboriginal were destroyed. The elimination of complexity does not makes things simpler, it usually just shifts the effects somewhere else (in place or time).
In valleys prone to flash floods and deadly raging fires indigenous people lived in lightweight transportable dwellings, ready to move at a moment’s notice. Europeans built houses and buildings there and ignored the indigenous place names that indicated where the fire and water would come, and have been caught out, often, since. The indigenous locals knew that risk is not abstract, a flash fire still kills people no matter how statistically unlikely it is.
The rational process does not admit of Black Swans and so there are always catastrophic events that tumble the odds: A Fukushima, a flood in Somerset, an earthquake that sits outside the neat parameters of the building code. When you have only lived in a city it seems like the city is that by which everything is measured, but of course this is just a kind of learned arrogance.
Walking up a hill or cycling a path that wiggles and dips around a water course tells you more about ‘capricious nature’ than walking a block. The environment works in pulses and cycles, spirals and bursts, not neat abstractions and projections and squares.
As I rode further out into the hinterland of Melbourne I saw more and more of this, more and more of the tatty edge of management. At the end of industrial parks and under the arterials there is nature curling over the concrete. Riding on the outskirts I saw the distance between the layer of civilisation and the hot brew of nature underneath is next to nothing. Sometimes it felt like the city was laid on top of the continent like a mat - if you pulled up a corner there was the baking orange earth right there, daring you to try and grow something in it, as if you had a chance.
I guess this was all about some kind of yearning for the authentic. Not the authentic of nature in a pure state - we’ve mostly lost that - but the want to know what the real story is. What have we done to this place? What’s underneath, on the underside, around the next corner?
So there I was, thirty four, unattached and unanchored, floating across the bike paths, themselves barely anchored to the ancient continent of Australia. I wasn’t making a dent in anything much, not leaving any impression. What did I matter? What was I bringing to anyone? I had become a tourist in my own life.
I was at that time of life where you can start to see that you need more than instant pleasures and cheap thrills. You start to see the cycles that underlie culture, that not everything portrayed as new and exciting is so and what you used to think was boring might hold some reward. You see that you need to invest to get anything back.
Moving to Melbourne I thought I would live there forever. But, having grown up a little, having found a drug-free equilibrium and having unearthed a love of writing and a new career as a ‘digital’ person, I found I was done with it. Maybe if The Relationship had worked… but it hadn’t, and now I was wondering what the next move was.
I was thinking of home again, and the people who lived there. New Zealand seemed like an option. But the next call to action would take me back to a place I hated and swore I would never return to, London.
The great maw, the witty genius, the bully, the mother, the manic-depressive of cities. I couldn’t quite believe it but I was about to throw myself willingly into the great maelstrom again.
Next: Grids and curves