This time I was determined to get a bike I wanted. And it was not going to be a Chopper. Choppers were kid’s bikes. I wanted something that was properly cool, something that promised something new and exciting. I had to stop looking to England, at Raleighs, and start to look in a completely different direction.
My Mum had been to America on a Rotary exchange in the 60s but she was unusual. Most Kiwis hadn’t travelled at all. We were still a nation of flightless birds - it was three hours on a plane and a months salary to get to Australia. Air NZ didn’t even fly to London until the eighties.
But TV programmes had started to make their way to NZ. There was nothing like the tsunami of content that the internet age bought with it, but in the 70s TV made a common appearance in the home. All one channel of it.
I remember getting the TV. I was five and the first programme I saw was something about American Baseball. As a kid I had no conception at all that there was a difference between English culture (Rainbow and Basil Brush and The Two Ronnies) and American culture (Batman and The Six Million Dollar Man and Fantasy Island) and that there might be something unique about Kiwi culture. We just watched everything - there was no choice - just that one channel. TVNZ.
So we lived inside a contradiction. Physically we lived in something drawn by very Kiwi concerns - farming and rugby sheep and Holden cars - but our televisual and reading experiences were from the two cultural powerhouses, the America and the UK.
Neither the country or myself could really decide which was better. Were we resolute Brit or Coolin’ in Cali? Was the country freewheeling and confident or stiff-upper-lip?
The answer for the country wasn’t clear at the time. In fact the future of NZ turned out be all about Maori and Pacific Island Culture and - for us whities - how it mixes in with the specific white NZ culture of the Pakeha. Apologies to my Kiwi friends who might find that last statement simplistic!
Growing up in a postcolonial country identity isn’t something that you find, it is something you make for yourself.
The culture in which I was growing up was trying things out and discarding them as fast as I was - two pubescent brats riding a sea of hormones and changing who they thought they were day by day.
You think I exaggerate? In the short length of my teenage years NZ went from a heavy-handed interventionist state run by a conservative government to a free-wheeling neoliberal economy run by a labour government. This was Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine in full flight, an extreme switch that made New Labour’s neoliberal reinvention in the UK fifteen years later look decidedly tame.
But I was was just a boy craving kicks, and, like many people in NZ, unconsciously I found the American Version of Life a lot more compelling. The UK gave us Blakes7, America gave us Starwars.
The movie ‘On Any Sunday’, partly backed by Steve McQueen, is an hour and half of people on motorbikes, but, at 2:27 in there is 30 seconds of footage credited with starting the BMX revolution.
In Scooby Doo terms, it’s those pesky kids. Californian kids took their Schwinn cruisers and ‘hacked’ them to ride on dirt tracks in emulation of their Motor Cross heroes and so invented BMX.
I didn’t see the movie, but I’d seen the bikes and it was an instant case of WOW. Maybe it was the colours?
The colours you see around you in NZ, the quality of the light is much closer to the light in California than the light of Sheffield. Perhaps the posters of BMX appealed to me directly - here was a place that I could see myself. This wasn’t the muted brown world of Austin Marinas, the ochre yellows and deep reds of The Chopper. This was a bright world where people shone in the sharp, angled sunlight that burnt you to a crisp in under an hour. Yellows, purples and sky blues.
Whatever it was, BMX was The New Best Thing and I wanted to be part of it.
There was a track that we went and visited, out on the coast, where lots of brightly clad boys in full face helmets fell off a lot and sometimes made it to the end. It looked scary, and fun - the two are closely related right?
For BMX the affordable bike was the Healing HMX 500, a solid choice. The real racers choice was the Redline, a fully chromed masterpiece that hung like a jewel in the Burke’s window and cost over $300. I was so enamoured of this bike that would go to the shop out of hours and simply stare at it.
The bike that sat in the middle of the affordable and desirable equation was _The Pantha.
Now I was at intermediate school my world had grown beyond the Miramar peninsula and now included the Kilbirnie shopping area, home to ‘Burke’s Bikes’.
I spent a lot of time lurking there, and it’s from there that I bought my Pantha.
It was staggeringly expensive, I think it maybe as much as $180. Dad gave me most of it, but my parents were pushing the contribution line so I still had to save hard on the pocket money and do extra chores in order to join the next cycling revolution. When I had most of the money I pointed to the black and yellow one and put it on ‘lay-by’.
I was in that shop all the time, looking at my bike. I was in there enough that one of the mechanics there, known as ‘Mouse’, recognised how hopelessly besotted I was. He was to prove a key enabler in my bicycle habit, but for the time being he just patiently led me through to the back room where my bike was propped up against some boxes, waiting for me to claim it.
The Pantha had mag wheels, and a high bling factor. The black frame was offset by either red or gold highlights. It even had matching coloured tyres. Sitting on the showroom floor it looked like it wanted to go fast.
What escaped me at the time - and maybe I knew but I certainly didn’t care - was that Pantha was an NZ company.
Importing from the US pretty much doubled the cost of anything, so what started as a cheap sport over there became expensive by default in NZ.
It’s no accident that NZ is really good at things like manufacturing one-off luxury yachts. Before the days of cheap mass imports things in general were scarce and expensive. NZ was a kind of south-seas Cuba where people would make things from nothing much.
My Dad’s father Roy had what amounted to a full workshop under the house. My dad used to rebuild engines down there it was that well equipped. I am pretty sure, had he not died when I was 10, Roy could have made me a bike to order. He was not uncommon.
So NZ was full of enterprises born out of basements and garages and sheds, some of them even hung on to become real businesses. Pantha was not one of them but they were clearly an innovative and passion-led business that suffered from scale issues. Pantha was what we would call a start-up, some inspired guy going ‘I can do that’.
Finally the day came where I had the last $10 and I was able to ride it out of the shop on my Pantha.
Boy did I feel good on this thing. Black! Gold!
Finally, a cool bike.
Once I started to ride it, however, I realised a few things. The alloy mag wheels may have looked cool on the shop floor but they weighed as much as the wheels off a stage-coach. The frame, likewise, must have been made of lead. It was heavier, and harder to ride, than my old ladies bike. It felt like I was riding underwater.
On top of that it only had one gear and I could barely ride it up the hills I had taken for granted on the ladies bike. The brakes were as effective as pressing bars of soap to the rims.
To be fair the Pantha was probably a good bike on the BMX track. BMX races start at the top of a steep ramp and you get a hefty gravity-assist start. And no one really used the brakes during a race, they were more or less for show.
But there was nowhere around I could ‘do BMX’. There were some local trails in the Miramar hills that, many years later, provided some excellent mountain biking, but they were well out of the league of a bike designed for smoothed dirt berms.
After all the anticipation of owning this thing I was struggling with the realisation that it was much worse than my previous bike for just getting around on and no better for doing my laps of the house. The low seat meant it was exhausting to ride more than a couple of hundred yards at a time. The only thing it was better for was ‘drop offs’, where you ride over the lip of steep bank, keeping your front wheel in the air and trying to land the bike on two wheels.
That aside, it was a dismal experience.
Thankfully it was also a brief. I realised that, as I had paid for a substantial proportion of this bike, that I was ok to maybe sell it and buy something else.
But what to buy?
This was my first - and by no means last - awful bike choice.
I had taken an expensive gamble and had chosen a bike based on what I thought it would let me do rather than chosen a bike based on what the riding I was actually doing. That’s called aspiration. Not a bad thing at all, but in this case I fell flat on my face.
Was it Mouse who brokered the next deal? I can’t remember if it was him or whether it was a friend of a friend, but a couple of months after buying the Pantha I found myself swapping it for something very different.
My next choice was nothing to do with aspiration, it just kind of happened. But in this case I landed the right way up. More than that - I landed the right way up and then vaulted to the heavens.
Next: Ten speeds and true