Table of Contents
Regardless of how old or fit you may feel, riding a bicycle is one of the most pleasurable, affordable and environmentally sustainable things you can do. When it comes to sharing the road with our younger but more precocious cousin, the car, there are real tensions and challenges that cannot be ignored. My friends tell me that no matter how much they love the idea of riding a bicycle, they’ll never do so in Sydney. Of course, this is disappointing to hear. But it’s perfectly understandable. Each time you ride a bicycle in this city you’re taking your life into your own hands. However, the avid cyclist will always seek out ways and means to reduce the risk of injury to a level that makes the activity a relatively safe, healthy and happy way to commute. For me, personally, it’s no longer a question of will I or won’t I cycle? But rather how can I make something I love doing work best for me under present conditions?
The vignettes below document daily observations and reflections behind the handlebars of my trusty steed Cyril during the first month of Sydney winter 2016. June, I recall, was a wet month. So the presence of precipitation does not go unchronicled here. As I live on the Balmain peninsula, west of the Harbour Bridge, reference to its streets and landmarks is inevitable. The intended audience for this work is the reader who would like to know more about the cycling life, or indeed those who already cycle and, like me, take pleasure in reading on the subject.
My main objective is to contribute to the ongoing project of demystifying the experience of cycling and to hopefully break down some of the barriers and stereotypes that dissuade the curious and interested reader from trying it out for themselves. In Sydney, like in most urban cities, car dependency has unfortunately been normalised as a rite of passage and a basic citizen right. One of my aims is to disturb these entrenched social norms. It won’t be lost on the reader that the word ‘view’ in the title of this winter diary is far from a neutral one.
A few words about the work’s style and structure: Although it began life as an essay I felt that this form didn’t capture the temporality, brevity and frisson of my observations on a bicycle. The daily diary seemed to be a more accessible and intimate format for achieving this. I had initially intended each entry to include a theme, a personal observation and a concluding statement about a particular advantage or disadvantage of cycling compared with driving. However, there are a number of entries where the poetry of riding a bicycle is simply celebrated for its own aesthetic beauty. In these instances, my adversary, the car, is the furthest thing from my mind. I am sensitive to the fact that at times the tone of the writing veers towards didacticism. But given the general poverty of cycle-craft and driver behaviour that we bear daily witness to, I hope the reader grants me leave to proffer a modicum of constructive criticism and advice (and sound the occasional note of frustration). Whenever possible, I’ve chosen to write in the present tense to convey a sense of the spontaneity and immediacy of ideas that came to me while I was cycling or thinking about cycling, and just as importantly, as a device for situating the reader firmly in the saddle.
To help direct the reader’s focus and to also provide a quick reference guide, each diary entry includes a hyperlinked subject heading. To avoid ambiguities arising from the association of the word ‘bike’ with ‘motorcycle’, I’ve opted to use the descriptive word ‘bicycle’ throughout the work. Anecdotally there appears to be more male than female cyclists on Sydney’s streets. However, I’ve coded cycling as a feminine activity and driving as masculine. Therefore, references to cyclists include the pronouns ‘she’ and ‘her’ and the driver ‘he’ and ‘him’. For readers who may be sceptical about this move, it’s important to note that historically it was cycling that provided women with one of the earliest promises of independence and equality.
Last but not least, to derive pleasure or insight from its whimsical observations there’s no need to read this work sequentially or in one sitting. It would please me to know that now and again the reader takes a measure of delight in dipping into an entry or two, just to pass the time or to escape the pressures of the present tense. What more could an aspiring author hope for? I hope you enjoy reading A View from a Bicycle in Winter as much as I did cycling and writing about it.
White Bay, April 2018
An oily pool of water fast approaches. The fenders steel themselves. Splash! I emerge unscathed. It’s pouring. The cool droplets bead off my water repellant clothes in quick succession. The dissatisfaction of having parted with a week’s salary on weatherproof gear is swiftly abandoned on a street corner. Up ahead the faint outline of a cyclist appears. His cadence is uneven. As we get closer I notice he’s utterly drenched. Our eyes meet. He looks forlorn. Caught out by the rain he is ill-prepared. Cycling inescapably draws us closer to nature’s whims and moods in all her wrath and beauty.
I conscientiously dodge potholes and car doors. The driver following me fails to comprehend the meaning of these deft manoeuvres. His mood quickly and unpredictably deteriorates culminating in a ritual dreaded by even the most experienced and street-hardened cyclist: He throttles the engine. The car leaps forward. The gap between us shrinks to an uncomfortably close distance. Epithets, incendiary devices, explode all around me. The incident leaves me shaken. I pull over to the kerb and dismount. I walk my bicycle on the footpath accompanied by an irrational but unshakeable sense of self-doubt and guilt. After a time, I manage to gather my wits about me and climb back into the saddle. It’s dark. I slip through the bollards on Napoleon Street, an inconspicuous no-through road adjacent to the cul-de-sac on National Street. I drift quietly down into the valley.
Parking rings and u-rails gradually insinuate themselves into the public imagination. Shiny alloy things. Objects of curiosity. Street sculptures without art. Observed but unnoticed. Except by the few who go in search. They climb up poles and attach themselves to road signs. Fanning out across Sydney they take root and grow near train stations, shopping centres and inner-city streets. Joined with a bicycle they become whole, gaining new meaning: A parking solution for two wheels. Peace of mind. Convenience. Social inclusion.
I pedal over a murky puddle, an unsavoury mixture of motor oil, water and street detritus. I observe the steel fork blades bend and flex under my man-weight. I marvel at the strength of their simple design. The moist ground swirls beneath me. The damp chain propels the bicycle forward. I negotiate a corner, adjusting my speed and taking every precaution to avoid wet-planing into a parked car. I shift my weight. I turn the handlebars. My eyes follow the arc traced by the front wheel. Street scum mischievously eludes Cyril’s front fender, spraying and staining the shins of my pants. We are not deterred. The spokes turn magically. Body and machine are intimately involved. The bicycle isn’t just a ride. It’s my companion, my confidente.
It’s a rainy day Sunday. I grudgingly accept it’s too wet to ride. I put the kettle on. Peering through the foggy window of my living room, my eyes trace the outline of Lilyfield’s rooftops. I entertain romantic visions, hopes and aspirations: The more women in the saddle the better off society will be. Riding a bicycle is not just a social activity. It’s a political assertion against the empty promise of convenience. My heart races each time I see you on a bicycle. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we rode to Centennial Park and enjoyed a picnic by the lake as the ducks paddled and birds chirped? We could explore cycleways and backstreets. We could unpack a picnic blanket and idle the hours away sharing stories, jokes, favourite lyrics (and limericks), quotes and aphorisms. We could stop for ice cream and join hands while riding two-astride just like the Dutch do, under the soft light of the winter moon.
I put on a pair of fitted stretch denim riding pants. They feel unexpectedly good around my legs and waist. I pull on my trusty RM Williams, leap down the stairs and jump into Cyril’s saddle. The first revolution of the pedals casts a spell into the sky and the rain comes. In bucket loads. My pants, designed to bead off the water, don’t stand a chance. After the chemically treated fabric puts up a half-hearted resistance, the rain soaks right through to my skin. The freedom of riding in the open air morphs into a cursed disadvantage. My RM’s suffer a similar fate. There’s a big difference between repulsion and proof. To repel something suggests a finite activity. To proof against is a perpetual performance. The latter is the protective quality I’m wishing for right now!
A bicycle is greater than the sum of its parts. The measure of the efficiency of the thing is best illustrated by way of a negative example – the subtraction of a part from the whole. Does the whole function effectively without the part? Yes? Do away with it for good then! No? Then take pause and appreciate the particular specimen for both its form and function. Such is the case with the taken-for-granted technology of the bicycle pedal. Pedals are ingenious. They enable us to power the bicycle, by adapting our enclosed feet to the drive chain. Something less well appreciated is the critical safety function this object serves. The pedals allow the safe positioning of the feet when coasting. Moreover, they allow the rider to properly rest when not exerting one’s self. However, there is only one way to truly appreciate the importance of pedals. Remove them! Take a day off work and take your bicycle far away from home. By the time you return in the evening, tired, exasperated, cursing and muttering to one’s self, you will truly to come to appreciate the beauty and necessity of the bicycle pedal. You will come to regard it as your best friend.
It’s evening time. I’m cycling on Anzac bridge. It’s cold and windy. I pass a cyclist travelling in the opposite direction, his front light blazing with the intensity of a hundred summer suns. Stunned, I experience momentary blindness. I come to an abrupt halt and focus desperately on regaining my composure. Relieved, I see the world slowly come back into focus. Poor lighting is commonplace among Sydney cyclists. Their lighting setups are absolutely hysterical. Dazzling naked LEDs conflagrate like a burning biblical bush. It’s one thing to be highly visible. It’s another thing to see where you’re going. The problem is not the intensity of the light but rather the way it is thrown in front of the cyclist. Good bicycle lighting requires internal mirrors and magnified lens that shape the light in a such a way that the road is lit up well ahead of the rider without impairing the ability of oncoming traffic to safely navigate past. Thus, the golden rule of night-cycling is this: If you can’t see and be seen, in a manner that is safe for all concerned, then you are well advised to leave your bicycle at home!
I’m coasting along Reynolds Street toward Mullens Street. I need to navigate across Mullens to climb up towards Darling Street, Rozelle. Mullens is an arterial road on the Balmain peninsula that joins Robert Street in White Bay, near the iconic power station. There’s a break in the traffic. I crawl over the stop sign without coming to a complete rest. I feel the social pressure of breaking a road rule bearing down upon me both physically and mentally. This is what sociology feels like. But I don’t stop. The cyclist depends on their own power to accelerate. Not stopping helps them maintain precious momentum. When legislating bicycle road rules, lawmakers should take the subordinate size of the bicycle and the vulnerability of the occupant into serious consideration. We need exceptional rights. Not because we are important or precious per se (indeed we are both to our families and loved ones). We are the most vulnerable people on the road. The first bicycle-friendly amendment to the NSW road rules should go something like this: ‘When safe to proceed at a stop sign, cyclists are not required to come to a complete rest.’ Simple!
The number of people who ride bicycles in Sydney is relatively small in number. How do I know you ask? The answer is plain for all to see. The roads are gridlocked with cars, not with bicycles. Does this mean that cycling is not socially acceptable? Not quite. Cycling is potentially the most socially acceptable form of transport today. Cyclists are tolerated both on the road (which they generally have a legal right to occupy), and on the footpath, which is still an unlawful activity in NSW. Of course, you can walk your bicycle legally on any footpath. Cyclists are democratic in that they irritate everyone equally – driver, dog walker, pedestrian. Anecdotally, the main barrier to a significant uptake in cycling, is risk to life and limb. We are told that creating better cycling infrastructure is the answer. But there’s no silver bullet solution. Cultural change from above is equally important. And that starts with driver education for younger people. And another thing: Has there ever been a government ministry at either state or federal level with a Minister for Active Transport?
There is power in slowness. There is strength in smallness. There is wisdom in quietness. The road is a non-place. And yet, it is a gendered space. Cycling is a feminine activity. Driving is masculine. Women are beautiful and strong. Men, we are weak and facile. Women take pity on us. Pity translates to us as love. Cycling is an exquisite digression from the routines the world has planned for us. How I relish drifting along a quiet and empty street on a Sunday evening into the fading sun. And yet, when I’m in the saddle drivers see a sissy boy. An object of ridicule. They mock me because I disrupt their cherished and fragile notions of masculinity. ‘Real men drive cars, not a pushy.’ ‘Cycling is for juveniles.’ ‘A bicycle is a toy.’ It wasn’t always like this. It doesn’t have to be this way.
It’s a brilliant afternoon. We walk side by side along Darling Street. The jockey and his champ on Derby Day. Heads turn. Admiration? Curiosity? Scorn? Who knows. Sure-footed I mount the saddle on your back. You transform into a carriage. I a cyclist. We gather speed along a busy intersection. Invisible forces compel us. We fall under the sway of legal rights and obligations. The footpath is prohibited. The red light that appears on the hill is a hazard to be heeded. Partners in crime, we legally filter past stationary cars. I dismount. You revert back to a shiny handsome bicycle. I, a humble pedestrian.
Did you know that the cycleway on King Street, Sydney, abruptly ends at Clarence Street, throwing riders onto the road? Can you imagine a main road suddenly ending for cars? What would the road sign say? ‘Alight and push’! Until our leaders build the segregated cycleways our city requires, please be patient with us. Just like the smug driver, who insulates his body from danger and discomfort in a 5-star safety-rated air-conditioned cockpit, we would like to reach our workplaces and homes in relative safety and comfort too. Drivers aren’t the only people who have friends, family and colleagues.
What’s pleasing isn’t always so. Cycling in the cold is not necessarily a pleasurable experience. The winter cyclist should be warmly and comfortably dressed. The car is an enclosed vessel. It’s excellent for regulating the driver’s climate. Riding a bicycle in the cold gets your heart-rate up. It focuses the mind on self-preservation. It’s better for you to cycle than it is to drive a car. Why? Because one feels exercised, alert, alive and invigorated! The risks of driving are well documented: Sedentary behaviour, unnecessary risk-taking and falling asleep at the wheel. I’ve been personally touched by the consequences of the latter.
I’ve just woken up. I’m hankering for a pot of freshly brewed coffee, with lashings of butter and jam on toast. Alas! The fridge is empty! I jump on my bicycle and pedal up to the local organic store. I’m back home in fifteen minutes. A car can carry a trolley load of shopping. But how many car trips per week are made for incidentals? A bicycle fitted with a pannier or basket is the easiest way to shop for ten items or less. No shopping bags to carry. No parking rangers to play cat and mouse with.
A beautiful idyllic scene that is unexpectedly shattered by a driver suffering a bout of rapacious indifference: There I am cycling along a quiet leafy street on a mild and charming morning when suddenly I’m forced off the road by a speeding car. Law-breaker! The driver didn’t indicate. And he passed me less than a meter away. I feel a sense of dread. I feel humiliated. I feel upset. Bastard! Two things make the cyclist vulnerable: First, the inability to rapidly accelerate from a stationary point. Second, the absence of a protective shell. Cycling is not unsafe in and of itself. It’s reckless drivers and careless cyclists who endanger life and limb.
Each morning I cycle from White Bay to Darling Street, Rozelle. I take a bus the rest of the way. After work, I ride my bicycle from where I parked it in the morning. My anti-theft regime includes securing a u-lock around the front wheel and frame. It takes less than a minute to arm the bicycle and the same time to disarm it. A car is less likely to be stolen than a bicycle. However, the insurance premium for comprehensive car cover dwarfs the cost of insuring a bicycle against theft and third-party property damage. Do the math!
Today I’m going for a leisurely spin to a funky café bakery in Chippendale. The scenic route takes about 30 minutes from White Bay. I cross Victoria Road via the Beatrice Bush Bridge. Then I circumnavigate Rozelle Bay and Blackwattle Bay via Glebe point. I dismount at the Sydney Fish Market and walk my bicycle a few blocks up to Jones Street, Ultimo. From there it’s an easy ride as the crow flies towards Cleveland Street. I pass UTS, George Street and White Rabbit Gallery. I continue to the cul-de-sac on the Cleveland Street end of Balfour. Arrived! I order a delicious coffee, served briskly. I close my eyes and take the first sip. Perfect! A pleasant bicycle journey makes a culinary destination twice as gratifying.
I’m at a dinner party in Birchgrove. We’ve all had a few drinks. The mood is jovial. The topic turns to cycling. The middle-aged lady sitting next to me loudly exclaims that she doesn’t have the ability to ride a bicycle. In any case, she continues, she’s too scared to try. I hear this all the time. Indeed it used to be me. Until one day my Dutch friends gave me their spare bicycle. They made me promise that I’d be in the saddle by the following summer. I kept that promise. I’ve never looked back. How curious it is that sentimentality was the thing that drove me headlong into Sydney traffic.
It’s raining and it’s a Monday. A double whammy! I’m heading into the office on bus route 518. Peering out of the large rectangular window I cast my mind back to a conversation I had when I was just reacquainting myself with the art of cycling. I remember my incredulity when the Swiss guy in the upstairs apartment in Balmain East, where I lived for a time, told me he was taking his bicycle for a spin to Kensington. How will he do it without killing himself I fretted privately? When I climbed into the saddle a year later I figured out the trick. The longest route is the safest one. It’s also more scenic. As a general rule if you follow the way-finding signs and white bicycle stencils on the road you will be sure to reach your destination without any dramas. With the proviso that if you’re ever feeling tired or unsafe do not hesitate to dismount and walk your bicycle on the footpath. For the avid cyclist, the journey itself is the destination.
It’s 5:40am. It’s still dark. White Bay is silhouetted by the moon. I pump the pedals uphill. I feel a deep burn in my legs. The lowest gear on my 5-speed is not up to the task. Nor are my legs. I dismount and walk the last couple of hundred meters up to Darling Street, Rozelle. I catch the bus on Victoria Road. The second leg of the journey takes half an hour. I arrive at Macquarie Park feeling refreshed. I’m ready to tackle the morning’s tasks. Although the bicycle trip is the shortest part of my daily journey, the invigorated feeling it gives rise to lingers well into the day.
I’m warmly ensconced in a corner table at Annandale’s Booth Street Bistro. I’ve been sharing a gourmet meal and a crisp bottle of Riesling with an old friend. It’s getting late. Time to say good night. As we depart I confidently exclaim that I’m sober enough to cycle home. There’s a chill in the air. It’s not entirely unpleasant. Weary of the police, I take the back streets. I cut past Rozelle Bay tram stop. I climb the Beatrice Bush Bridge over City West Link. I reach home a few minutes later. Riding a bicycle after a few drinks is my plan B.
The bus pulls into Rozelle Junction. It’s 6pm. I get on the bicycle where I left it in the morning. Cyril is always there. As I slowly descend the southern slope of the peninsula towards White Bay, old narrow streets lined with dimly lit heritage cottages pave the lonesome journey home. The welcome sounds of families sharing supper together warms the winter air. As if doing so will help me savour the moment, I bring Cyril to a complete stop, close my eyes and inhale deeply. The sublime experience of cycling in the back streets of the peninsula on a winter’s dusk is a pleasant memory that will stay with me for the rest of my days.
I’m cycling home after chasing down a few drinks at the Corner Bar in Rozelle. I spot the outline of a wayward dog in a nearby laneway. Is this lonesome animal lost and scared? Is it friendly or hostile? It begins to drift towards me. I don’t chance it. I pump the pedals hard crossing a busy road with far less caution than is my usual custom. I then do something on my bicycle that I rarely do: I sprint home. The cyclist’s main refuge from perceived threat is sheer velocity. In this respect travelling in a car is far safer. One must concede, begrudgingly, that what cuts the driver off from the outside world also insulates him from external threats.
I’m coasting along a quiet road at dusk. The street lights come on without warning. There’s a woman cautiously trailing close behind in her cute red Fiat. She doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. We can see each other in the side-mirror of my bicycle. Her face breaks out into a smile of approval. I blush. She can see more of me than I of her. Although not an unpleasant transaction, I feel that our exchange is unequal, leaving me at a slight disadvantage. The car is less flirting-friendly than a bicycle because the car disavows the driver’s body. Why is it that I perpetually sense the ghost of Adorno chastising me for my timidity? Ok! Ok! The car disavows everything.
Sunday lunch ritual: I’m sitting at a Ciao Thyme on Darling Street drinking coffee and reading the New York Times. I spot a pair of cyclists passing dangerously close to a young couple with a pram. I gasp with incredulity. Later today I will witness a cyclist run a red light at a busy intersection. I will also see another plough through a huddle of pedestrians who have right of way. These are accidents waiting to happen. This pattern of antisocial behaviour is not what cycling is about. The essence of cycling is characterised by grace, courtesy and respect towards all. Anything less is unacceptable and is not worthy of the name, cycling.
It’s a lazy afternoon. Accompanied by the sound of a gentle breeze I pedal my bicycle down Roseberry Place towards White Bay. The turning of wheels sets my imagination in motion. Many of my ideas come to me while cycling around the neighbourhood. Driving on the open road or ambling along a moonlit laneway each has its sublime and ineffable qualities. But neither activities compare to the clarity of mind achieved when rolling along a quiet street on a bicycle, the winter sun refracting through the leaves as a solitary magpie warbles high above. Bliss!
This hill is bloody killing me! My breathing is laboured. My legs are hurting. The cold air is stringing my nostrils and irritating my eyes. One of these days I’m going to invest in an electric bicycle. Alas, I relent to the sheer physics of the thing and dismount. The supreme advantage of a car is its ability to carry the driver up a steep hill while effortlessly maintaining speed. The villages to the north and south of Darling Street are built on sloping banks. The down-hill journey home is a welcome reprieve at end of a long and wearisome day.
It’s been a wet month. The chain has rusted. The bicycle frame is caked in dirt and motor oil. Each time I squeeze the front brake lever the wheel rim and brake pad conspire against me with an excruciatingly high-pitched shriek. It takes longer than usual to stop. The bicycle’s braking power is diminished. When the working parts of a bicycle become wet they need to be degreased, washed and oiled. The advantage of a car is that it doesn’t need regular maintenance to look good and perform well. On the other hand, the poor weather-resilience of the bicycle means that the cyclist, if she is inclined, has ample opportunity to learn how to care for and maintain her hobby-horse. So, you see, there are pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages to cycling. Though the former far outweigh the latter. The personal and social benefits of riding a bicycle are far superior to that of driving a car. We must resist and turn back decades of marketing manipulation by car manufacturers that contrive to fool us into believing that driving is a natural and inevitable way of urban life.
My phone is mounted on the handlebars. It rings. I answer using the hands-free mode. It’s mum. She wants to know what time I’m coming over for dinner next week. We don’t chat for long. A sequence of notifications follow: My brother has made his move in our game of online chess. There’s also a string of ‘Like’ notifications on my Facebook page. Then I get a dating app notification. I have a match! I pull over. After some meaningless banter we part on polite terms. She told me she doesn’t think much of cycling. I told her much the same about driving.