If the Mustang was the cowboy bike, something that wanted to be ridden across a flat plain in endless pursuit of the american cliche, my second bike was one that begged to be ridden to the village shop by the vicar’s wife.
About the same time I got this bike we moved house. From a two bed in Miramar to a three bed two-storey on the top of the bony ridge of Seatoun Heights Road. Moving up, in all ways.
I didn’t know it at the time but this was something of an attempt by my mother to save the marriage. To get something to change. Anything.
An age-old story this. A woman finds a man who seems sensible and stable but in the end doesn’t like the eventual lack of dynamism. And back then some men still thought that women should do all the housework, even if they both worked full time jobs. That’s a reduction of course, there was a lot more going on in there, but that’s the heart of it. Men who won’t change.
But let’s get back to the bicycles.
After the Mustang was lifted over a fence by some local crook never to be seen again - I cried, a lot - I needed something new.
Truth was the Mustang was a terrible bike for the terrain we lived in. One back coaster brake and no gears in a place where the hills come at you short and steep. It was over-geared riding up the hills and a treacherous proposition coming down. While having no front brake reduces the chances of going over the bars in a panic stop it also increases the chances of you sailing across an intersection when the puny back brake fails to scrub enough speed off your descent. It was a good thing I lived in the burbs, and the volume of traffic was low.
A bike came up in the local paper. Three speeds, 26inch wheels, two brakes. As new. Perfect.
The only problem was it was a ‘ladies frame’. I must have still been in that phase of boyhood before the hormones kicked in, where my parents rational arguments made sense. Their logic was that the ladies frame meant I had plenty of room to grow. And they were prepared to spend $100 on a bike, for me. That was quite a bit of cash back then.
We bought it.
So I started with the white plastic quilt-effect saddle at the lowest point in the seat tube, and most of my early riding was done in that hovering position that kids have on bikes which too big for them. The brakes were better, but in the rain the steel rims meant the thing had the stopping distance of an ocean liner.
Having three speeds was, however, a revelation on the hills. I can remember the first time I rode this thing up from the Miramar flats to the top Seatoun of Heights without getting off and pushing. A major achievement.
Col de Newport Terrace (HC)
I had just hit puberty proper so was beginning to find my strength. Soon after that I was regularly riding it up all the hills, even Camperdown Road. I was the only one of my peers able to do this. Let’s face it, I was the only one of my peers who cared. Riding a bike up a hill without getting off became ‘my thing’. Maybe I was trying to make up for riding that horrible bike by showing that I was ‘the man’ regardless.
About this time What Things Looked Like started to matter. No more hard black school shoes on the weekend - I wanted that latest innovation from England - TRAINERS. I wanted corduroy trousers with a bit of flair, not shorts.
And the bike that I wanted, that every boy on the planet wanted, was not a ladies bike in egg-shell blue with white handlebar grips and seat and a chromed mudguards and chain guard. Every boy in the universe wanted a Chopper.
Cycling geeks note this is advertised as ‘a fully integrated design’.
Unlike something contemporaneous like the movie Star Wars which is still a decent film, the Chopper was a complete triumph of marketing over good sense or practicality. Particularly in a town like Wellington.
Wellington, on a good day, is unbeatable. Set on a natural harbour the sea is a beautiful deep blue green, the rugged coastline is a delight, a endless natural kaleidoscope of rock, flax and light. On a good day walking around the coastline is a joy - the sun beats down on you, a rare gentle breeze cools you and you can spend hours pottering in rock pools, or swimming off white sand beaches that, by international standards, are deserted.
Unfortunately good days are rare. Wellington is known as ‘the Windy City’. It has a radio station called ‘Radio Windy’. Sitting on the turbulent Cook Strait there is nothing between it and the roiling mass of the Southern Ocean, and Antartica beyond.
In a southerly buster the storm comes straight up off the freezing ocean. You can see it coming towards the south coast, a think finger of black cloud erasing all colour before it. First the wind, then a few huge drops of rain splat down on the road like pigeon droppings. By this time you’d better be inside, if not you will be subject to rain that blows horizontally across the ground. It doesn’t fall so much as attack.
If you’re not used to it it can be brutal. An umbrella in Wellington is the mark of a newbie. It will be discarded in a rubbish bin within a day, a broken mess of bent spindles and exhausted hinges. When the wind ran over 50 knots our whole wooden house would shake in the wind. The carpet in the lounge would lift, forced up by the wind pushing up under the house. Everything whistles. The sound of wind being sliced by powerlines and the swishing of trees being pushed around by the wind is just normal, common.
The best place to be is inside, listening to the wind howl around the corners of the house and rain scattering across the windward windows like shotgun blasts. The worst place to be is on a bicycle that puts you in a position where you function as a sail.
With this weather Wellington is no place for modes of transport with any affectations. Things were built to last. Cars and policemen were solid. Even now the best selling vehicle in NZ is a Totoya Van. Useful. Handy.
Still, this was the seventies. An instability threatened the traditional ‘dresses vs suits’ gender gap. Men wore open collars and showed their chest-hair but also had head-hair in waves and wore tight trousers. Women wore trouser-suits and talked about this ‘new’ thing called feminism. Some mum’s worked. A few, like my Mum, worked full-time. The careful workers and savers of the sixties were being swallowed whole by a generation that wanted to change and to (gasp) enjoy themselves. We’re talking fondues and conversation pits and swimming pools and colour TVs. Dad’s had Pink Floyd. Mum’s had French cook books and Delia. Rich kids even had Lego. These things were not Useful or Handy - they were colourful and indulgent.
The boy version of wanting to a part of this was The Chopper. Now that I live in the UK I can see the sense of it. Nothing better to ride the flat 300 yard triangle between shop, school and home, where most of what you would do with a bike was just sit sit on it drinking lemonade and encouraging your friends to go shoplifting. It was a posers bike, pure and simple. A Triumph Stag for ten year olds.
And about as useful in the real world. The people I knew who had choppers spent all their time pushing them up hills and then riding back down in a state of giddy terror. That tiny front wheel, ape bars and all the weight on the back meant they were very light on the front - a touch of damp on the road and you’d lose the front wheel and get a whack on the chin from those ape bars. Death traps.
Despite my parents progressive nature there was zero possibility of getting a Chopper. They thought it was dangerous. Whether that referred to its rideability or its cultural significance it is hard to say, but at the time I had about as much chance of a Chopper as getting a stereo.
I wanted a bike that had aspirations and looked cool but was practically useless. I owned a bike that was practical and better in so many ways. It actually went around corners. It stopped (as long as it wasn’t raining) and you could ride it up hill.
And I hated it with a passion.
So I did the only thing I could. I would force my parents to buy me something new by wrecking it.
They didn’t notice what I was doing. They had other things on their mind.
The marriage started to simmer with toxicity in the radioactive prelude to the mutually assured destruction that would soon follow. It was all incomprehensible to me and, in reaction, I entered a dark period. Shoplifting, putting crackers in peoples letterboxes, stealing my parents cigarettes and coughing up stolen chocolate in dirty patches of trees. Not exactly the fledgling crimes of a serial killer, but worrying none the less. I’m pretty sure my parents were more concerned with my behaviour and sanity than with the aesthetics of cycle choice.
Then, all too suddenly, being alone with Dad in the house, my parents separated, the custody swaps simmering with hatred.
This is a familiar story that too many of my friends now are part of. The bloody he-said, she-said tallying of blame and fault. People trying to offset the intolerable pain with the impossible task of keeping everyone happy.
It’s hard to watch. I listen to it all and sympathise but what I know as a child of (two) divorces myself is that divorce can be positive for the parents but it is a killer for the children. It’s a collision of confusion and illogical self-blame that kills your innocence and generates a dense strata of anger in your being.
So yeah, I really felt like wrecking something. I stripped my bike of anything ‘girly’. Mudguards, chain guard, the white seat, the white handlebar grips all went in the bin. Lets be clear, it was still a ladies bike, but the significant hacks made it just about ridable in company. It was by no means cool, but it was ok.
My crew at the the time was a troublesome trio of myself, my English mate Neil and ‘Woody’ a fledgling heavy-metal drummer. Neil was the local cool kid, a year older than me. I got to hang around with him because I had the dual benefit of being both entertaining and easily led - an amusing victim in his schemes.
Neil had the defining good bike of the period, a Raleigh Twenty. These were about as cool as it got at the time, and when you stripped them they looked cool. They were good for wheelies and, without a front brake, you could spin the bars 360 degrees when riding slowly. He would let me ride his twenty sometimes - he never deigned to so much as touch my bike.
The three of us would take our bikes and ride loops around the neighbourhood, or play football (soccer) on the vast expanse of Miramar Park. We’d kill time building small jumps out of scrap plywood and bricks, find drop-offs and practice wheelies. I remember taking a brush and some red enamel paint from the house and slowly painting the name of our gang ‘Hazard’ on the broken tarmac of a piece of junk space. Tagging. Oh yes, we were cool.
Woody introduced me to Pink Floyd, Neil to his father’s pornography, but soon they were gone to the local boy’s secondary school, leaving me behind in Intermediate. No doubt much to my parents relief.
I calmed down a bit without Neil and Woody pulling me off the straight and narrow. The dust of the divorce had settled and, after a bruising period of manipulation and bullying, somehow my Stepfather ended up with custody, my Mother moving a couple of miles down the road.
So there I was, back by myself, riding round and round the house. I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours on this bike, making up little obstacle courses and endlessly repeating them, trying to make less mistakes each time and not put my foot down. I would practise hovering the bike, stationary, counting out my previous record. Unconsciously exerting control where I was able.
Did I mention I am an only child?
It was a difficult couple of years, and the hated ladies bikes had made it through with me. I might have loathed it but the three speeds still worked despite everything I could throw at it, the wheels remained round and true. Endless wheelies had finally exposed the weakness of the ladies frame structure and the frame had bent on the seat tube, a structural collapse from which there was no way back.
I had finally achieved my aim of destroying it. It was, undeniably, time for a new bike.
Next: America calling
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