Pacing along the evening street, the bars filled with merry laughter and chatter, it’s a glorious time of year. Shared plates are served with crisp chilled wine. Pickled olives, pâté and creamy camembert tantalise and satisfy savoury palettes. Lovely company, fine food and drink, exchanging hugs, kisses and gifts: unmistakably christmas in spirit. A spirit that is so pervasive in it’s effulgence, that it’s easy to take for granted. Magical, generous, fulsome, expansive, optimistic: adjectives that come easily. I was going to include, forward-looking, but we’re not quite there yet. That comes the day after the turkey leftovers are glad-wrapped, heads are nursed back from foggy hangovers to welcome sobriety, and the euphoria-inducing experience of tearing decorative wrapping and pretty ribbon from packages and boxes containing toys, gadgets, tools, clothes, fragrances, chocolate and so many other gendered objects of desire, subsides.
I’ve just arrived home after a long day at the office. But rather than settle down for the evening, I’m hurriedly getting ready to catch up with old friends at a house party in the Eastern suburbs. As I slip into loafers reserved for summer evening wear, I reflect on the fact that in a few days time I’m going to be on annual leave for a decent number of weeks. A proper break, where I can truly forget my work persona and all the demands I and others place on him. I’m not going to be that guy for a while, and it feels, OK.
My Uber driver is fast approaching. The fresh EU ruling that Uber is a taxi service (with all the constraints that implies) pops up as a news notification on my iPhone. Interesting timing. Amusing even. Should I make this seemingly glib development a topic of conversation I ponder, as I jump in the back seat (I never ride in the front)? But both the driver and I politely steer clear of news and current affairs. He asks me about my day. I tell him it was busy. He looks at me through the reflection in his rear mirror and shrugs as if to say everyone in Sydney is busy. Even the unemployed and homeless are busy! He doesn’t say so much as imply it with an air of indifference and diffidence. I’m probably more socially outgoing than he is, but we’re both naturally introverted. So the quiet of silence overtakes our conversation fairly early into the journey.
We’re speeding along Edgecliff road now headed for Dover Heights. I feel comfortable enough to lower the automatic window without petitioning the driver. The warm summer night rushes into the back seat of his shiny SUV. It’s an unmistakably Sydney summer. A wind, so insistently warm, that it borders on the oppressive side of hot, making my cheeks glow crimson red.
As much as I’m looking forward to sipping on top shelf alcohol and letting my proverbial hair down (I’m actually bald) I’m bloody tired. Stuffed, as the Aussie saying goes! As we fly up a stretch of hill, I turn my head in slow motion and stare at the road disappearing behind me.
My mind wonders in sympathy with the sway of the car and I momentarily reflect back on what I actually achieved this year. What was it all about anyway? All that work. All the conversations, deliberations, attempts at reaching agreement but not always getting there because of this and that. Anyone who cares about something has a vision, and that vision, because of its sincerity, is always right, in a sense. The art of negotiation is to make potentially adversarial discourse feel like convivial banter; and ensuring that people who are paid more than you to be right, end up feeling like they haven’t been compromised. What happens though, in the heat of battle (the great battle of ideas, that is), if you take leave of your assigned field position in hot pursuit of a fight that’s not yours to have (or win)? Well, depending on your career aspirations and priorities, one can only hope and assume you’ve made a calculated move!
This train of intense thought is rudely interrupted by a pothole in the road!
How long have we been driving for? I think we’re almost there. In the distance I can see the desirable outlines of well dressed men and women silhouetted against the south facing windows. The sea breeze dramatically whooshes across the gothic cliff tops as we meander up the steep driveway of the architecturally impressive townhouse, ready to receive me in it’s bohemian-chic bosom. I bid the driver farewell without exchanging a penny between us. PayPal automatically takes care of all that messy stuff. He slips away into the night, off to chase his next fare.
I rap at the fire-red door. Sarah, attentive as always, flings it open and disarms me with her big sensuous smile and rapturous embrace. Darling! It’s been too long! she cries, as she thrusts a glass of fine champagne (not sparkling wine) in the hand nearest my heart. Before I can even affect a spirited hello, she pulls me into the crowd and all sense of time and space dissolves into the agglomeration of bodies. It’s going to be an amazing night and I have no idea where I’ll end up nor with whom!
It’s so late. The soft glow of smartphones and tablets are conspicuously absent on the bus. The passengers are too tired to fiddle and finger their personal devices. A quick scan of those present suggests that no one is here on account of a sense of environmental consciousness. At this ungodly hour, the bus is occupied by a smattering of poor students, the physically frail and a class of people who generally can’t afford the upkeep of private car ownership. Being the son of immigrants, I blend in easily with my swarthy and yellow travelling companions, save for my sports jacket. The jacket is an item of clothing that betrays a hint of privilege, good fortune and personal advantage. The kind of advantage one might associate with having been here a bit longer.
My eyelids are heavy. It’s a real effort to stay awake. I fight my natural body rhythms. The driver, who some might characterise, under muted breath, as a stupid wog, jumps on the breaks, again, again and again. Determined to rouse those of us at risk from falling asleep, in his provincial mind he’s acting out of a sense of civic duty. Under the constant jolt of powerful hydraulics my body is flung abruptly forward. This is what a bloody Opal trip buys you! I come to, irritated and belligerent. I stifle the impulse to hurl insults at the driver, before slumping back into the seat, dejectedly. Under the dissipating forces of inertia, irritation quickly gives way to blurry eyed resignation.
I’m so tired. It’s been a 14 hour work-day. But in my circles, sympathy for the weary is in short supply. It’s been another long week, and I’m but one of many who has given generously of their personal time and energy to extended hours at the office. Little reserve is left over for personal reflection, for intimacy, for a harmless hobby. Is this how it has to be? All or nothing? Full time employment, where the 35 hour-week is an implied minimum rather than the absolute maximum? The answer of course is no.
But what if it looks like I’m not pulling my weight? Will my colleagues lose confidence in my perceived abilities? My commitment to the team: Will it be called into question? Will my apparent lack of engagement, my seeming indifference under the whelm of stress and pressure, cultivate an insidious resentment? A resentment that unfurls itself like a noxious weed crawling up the side of a building until the hapless structure is choked by an unshakeable firmament of green envy? No! Of course not! But try reasoning with a tired man. Between the space of exhaustion and ambition lies a myriad strands of irrational thought, the gateway to paranoia, or worse still, madness!
Calm down! Stop! Pause.
After what seems like an interminably long time, the bus driver mercifully releases me at a coordinate on Victoria Road where the roads to Lilyfield and Balmain meet. I drift, zombie like, to the bicycle faithfully waiting for me at the corner of Darling and Merton. I find the act of unlocking my hobby horse especially tedious at this hour. As I prepare to push off I wonder if I’ll make it home without incident. Will physical exhaustion overwhelm my ability to judge the distance of obstacles, causing me to slip up and tople over a darkened pot hole? Will I fail to notice a lone car shooting out from a side street like a pin ball? I hope not! All I want to do is get home, have a hot shower and climb into bed. To disappear into a world of nocturnal dreams is the sweetest relief I can think of right now.
I push off, hesitantly at first. I take a lazy right into a deserted council car park and then a wobbly left onto a darkened cobblestone laneway, disobeying the one-way traffic sign. When? Oh when, will someone make these quiet and deserted streets bidirectional for poor old cyclists like me? This will be the last pathetic protest I register against the world, tonight.
Thankfully, the short journey home is uneventful. Upon reaching my destination a predicable sequence of actions unfold:
Bicycle parked and locked.
Clothes and undies flung to the floor of small rented apartment.
Heavy head falls onto fluffy white pillow.
It’s only a few short hours before I’ll have to get up and do it all over again. Of course, there is coffee. And there is the company of a few dear colleagues and the familiar smiles of students and academics to look forward to, making the experience of rushing back to the office a far more palatable proposition than it otherwise would be.
I finally succumb to my tiredness. I slip away into a mysterious deep blue ocean where the serpents of time and space float casually by as I set sail across oneiric seas for a magical world unchartered by earthly travellers.
I’m running later than usual. I hurriedly park my bicycle opposite Corner Bar, a New Orleans inspired restaurant and bar at the corner of Darling and Merton. In the commotion of parking and locking up my bike, two mandarins spill out of my backpack onto the street. I pick one up, not noticing the other roll down the kerb. An attractive teacher or mum (or both), entertaining a bunch of young pupils waiting for the 433, takes pity on me and momentarily diverts her attention away from the kids to fetch the errant piece of fruit. She hands me the fleshy orange thing. Our fingertips brush one another’s as we exchange an easy smile. A simple and innocent transaction of human warmth, one that reminds me of all that is good about the Rozelle community.
If I’m quick, I tell myself, I’ll make the 518. But at this late stage the 506 is looking the better prospect. I whiz down the short two blocks to Darling Street. But trotting between Merton and National, a portrait in the shopfront of Bella Emporio comes into sharp focus. I stop in my tracks, involuntarily.
I recognise that face. Next to it is another portrait with two other familiar faces. The picture frames are juxtaposed with an unlit candle. The shop keeper, a kindly middle-aged woman with a sensual mouth and uncontrived eyebrows, will light the candle later this morning when she opens for Monday trade.
It’s three years to the day that Adeel Khan blew up his failing convenience store in the small hours of the morning, shattering and upending the lives and livelihoods of so many innocent people, including that of his own young family. On the road to recovery the community wasted little time pulling together through a series of Leichhardt council supported initiatives: a village fair, a rebuilding fund (for retailers who sustained building and stock damage), street art and a memorial fund. It was these things that were so key to enabling the community to collectively work through the respective stages of shock, grief and recovery.
One year later, a community church service was held at St Josephs Catholic Church, in Gordon Street, Rozelle. The packed out service was attended by pollies, families and friends of the victims and survivors, first responders and locals. During the ceremony the parish priest spoke eloquently, uttering hallowed words that consoled those who had loved and lost, and lifted up the community:
Think not of a God of rescue. But a God of redemption. The first [year] is the hardest. As time goes on we can look back. In our mourning we are able to let go. Live in our memories.
The symbol of fire as a sign of goodness was conspicuously present all around us. We were each given a small yellow candle to light in prayer for the three departed souls. I wondered if it was apparent to the parishioners that the small naked flame, a symbol of redemption through remembering, was the same force that had wrought so much destruction. I inconspicuously made a note of it at the time:
Fire, both sacred and profane. It takes life but also gives life as a ritual of remembering. The eternal flame through God, both cruel and merciful.
After the ceremony we all repaired to the Sackville Hotel and downed a few pints, rubbing shoulders with family and friends. It didn’t matter if you didn’t know the Nobles, O’Briens or the Keremelevskis. We were all in it together. The occasion reminded me of the power of community in the ritual healing process.
Almost a year later, on 3 September 2016 a street memorial featuring a corrugated boat, appropriate for a community with a maritime history, was officially opened on the corner of Nelson and Darling. I wrote the following words on Facebook at the time:
The boat we were told symbolises the journey of life and Chris Noble’s love of the harbour. The love hearts symbolise the lives of Chris, Bianka and Jude. A very touching memorial.
The second anniversary of the fire was, in my opinion, the day in which the circle of catharsis had completed its full revolution. Khan had been convicted of murder. The memorial had been opened to the public. And importantly, a new building had sprouted where the demolished federation era building had once proudly stood.
Today, Monday 4 September 2017 is a somber day in Rozelle. It means something special to the people who lived through the eerie days, weeks and months after the inferno. This small but powerful gesture in the quaint and charming display window of Bella Emporio arrested my flight towards my bus. It caused me to pause and reflect. It was a reminder from the universe, that writing something about my experience of the Fire since that fateful day, was overdue. I have answered that call.
I’m deeply saddened by the fate of Bianka, Jude and Chris. I’m equally sad for Khan’s children who have been orphaned, and who are cursed to carry a dark family secret for the rest of their lives.
But, I’m honoured to have lived through this piece of local history. I feel greatful for those moments when I rambled to attentive ears about the Fire into the wee hours of the morning over a pint with my drinking buddy at The Welcome and The Bald Rock.
In terms of my sense of intellectual curiosity, I feel privileged to have shared, up close, what Arnold Van Gennep described (1961) as a rite of passage: The collective mental transition (which he called a state of liminality) a community makes in the aftermath of a critical event as it moves from a phase of separation to a phase of incorporation – from a state of loss to a state of new equilibrium.
Rozelle will never be the same again. But the Rozelle I have come to know is stronger and more fortified emotionally, if not physically. And yet, those tender moments of genuine human interaction, as my experience this morning attests to, are no less frequent as a result.
Van Gennep, A. 1961 The Rites of Passage, Uni of Chicago Press: Chicago.
When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race. H. G. Wells1
White Bay, Sydney
I pull the bed sheet back and stare at my toes. I wiggle them playfully, admiring their strange shape and wrinkled texture. While doing this I notice sports clothing at the foot of the bed, folded in a neat pile. I must’ve placed them there last night. But the reason for my doing so doesn’t come easily in my half-sleep. I instinctively scan the room for additional clues and notice a blue and white bicycle helmet sitting on my bedside table. The penny drops. Today is Spring Cycle and I’m taking part in it.2
Still feeling drowsy, I drag myself out of bed, splash cold water on my face and slowly dress in front of the full-length mirror. Peering at each other through squinting eyes, my reflection and I curiously study each other from head to toe. Dressed identically, we’re both sporting a bicycle themed Levis commuter tee in grey, a pair of black loose-fitting lululemon shorts, lululemon ankle-length socks and Onitsuka Tiger shoes. Although I could shed a few pounds, I still manage to look quite athletic. In any case, to rise to the occasion one must be dressed for the occasion.
It’s only after putting on a pot of freshly ground coffee and taking a few gulps that I feel fully awake. I check my watch. It’s time to go! I fill my water bottle to the brim and slip an energy bar into my pocket. I put on my gloves and bicycle helmet on the way to the door, almost forgetting my polarised Ray-Bans. Cyril (my bicycle’s name) and I hurry out of the apartment and pedal as fast as we can to Rozelle Bay tram stop, which is hidden above the bushy ridge opposite the intersection of The Crescent and City West Link.
Apart from a few shift workers drifting in and out of waking consciousness, the 6am service, the first for the day, is deserted.3 A buoyant prerecorded voice, jarring at this hour, reminds us that the next stop is Jubilee Park. One of the workers, an Asian man wearing a navy-blue parker, barely stirs from his slumber. We pull up behind the Rozelle Tram Sheds and the doors slide wide open admitting the crisp early morning air into the carriage. It’s the middle of Spring. A few more workers shuffle in, their heads bowed concertedly as if to avoid making eye contact with the other passengers. I understand. It’s too early in the morning to acknowledge each other’s existence let alone exchange civilities. The tram pulls out of the stop. This monotonous and unspectacular sequence of events is repeated along the next ten light-rail stops on the city bound Dulwich Hill line, until we climb up to the magnificent sandstone terminus at Central Station.
I alight from the tram and briskly walk a short distance towards the widest boom gate on the intercity train concourse, my Spring Cycle rider number clearly displayed on the front of Cyril’s handlebars.4 As I sail through the gates I flash a friendly smile at the Sydney Trains staff member manning the barrier. His chubby continental-looking face, betraying a love of rich food, in abundant quantities, begrudgingly acknowledges me. I hurry towards the lift, making little effort to conceal my excitement. The starting line of the Sydney Spring Cycle in North Sydney is beckoning, and I’m positively eager to get there before the deluge of late risers clog the network, turning what should be a delightful single trip train journey into sheer drudgery.
I’ve been riding a bicycle for a couple of years now, but it’s only this morning when attempting to squeeze my way into the carriage door under the duress of the train guard’s whistle, that I shamelessly discover its potential as a battering ram. The family of four, who’ve laid claim to the standing area next to the door, reluctantly make room for me and my newly assertive steed. I stake out my spot and we quickly settle into something of an uneasy truce. Not surprisingly, as the doors slide open at the next three stations, Town Hall, Wynyard and Milsons Point, no one dares muscle into the tightly packed entrance with its uninviting wall of bodies, bikes and surly faces.
We arrive at North Sydney station around 7am, an hour before the 12 km Sydney City Ride event is scheduled to kick off.5 Hundreds of bicycle riders rush from the train and float up the stairs to Blue Street. The rare scene of a swarm of cyclists pouring out of the station is a marvellous spectacle to behold. I imagine that’s what a typical morning looks like in an Amsterdam train station. Spring Cycle volunteers, keen to keep the movement of cyclists flowing and avoid overcrowding, vigorously wave us up towards Miller Street while shouting reassuring words of encouragement such as ‘Congratulations! You’ve made it this far! The rest is easy!’
The incline up Miller Street is mild enough for the average cyclist like myself with a clunky commuter bike (sorry Cyril) to sit in the saddle and take in the pleasant ambience of North Sydney in its most laid back guise: Clad in their Sunday whites, early risers stroll to their local café. Birds chirp in luscious streetside trees. Idle chatter is had between young siblings flirting with little experiments in freedom atop two wheels, under the watchful gaze of attentive parents trailing close behind. The weather is unseasonably warm, but not unpleasant. It will become increasingly warmer over the course of the morning.
The Starting Line
I dismount Cyril and walk him down to St Leonards Park. The mood is carnivalesque. There are long queues of people lining up patiently for coffee at a mobile espresso van. Dotting the landscape, colourful marquees represented by North Sydney Council, RMS, Bicycle NSW, cycling retailers and a few well known commercial radio stations, draw respectable crowds. Cycling mechanics are on hand, skilfully and efficiently making rusty bicycles roadworthy enough for today’s ride. I scan the horizon for my three work colleagues, Catherine, Feargal and Jen, who I’ll be riding with in a little under an hour. Familiar faces always stand out in the crowd. So, it’s not long before we warmly greet each other and assume our positions among a sea of cyclists snaking up Miller Street.
I can feel my throat muscles tighten and my eyes becoming cloudy. I’m a bit overwhelmed by the scene unfolding before me. I’ve never seen so many cyclists, of all age groups, gathered in one meeting place. The smiles and laughter of young children brimming with excitement as they cling onto their handlebars is a picture I find incontrovertibly powerful and moving. Nearby a DJ plays a song whose simple but apt chorus chants repeatedly: ‘We ain’t ever getting older.’
Volunteers stagger departures in tranches to avoid bottle necks further down the street. As we draw closer and closer to the starting line at the corner of Miller and Carlow Street, we engage in light banter and take selfies with our phones. Suddenly, without warning, the sound of a thousand bicycle bells ring into the air, a sweet sound which has an unexpected chimerical quality to it. Swept up in the moment, I’m delightfully surprised to find myself eagerly joining in. This form of meta communication between cyclists has an ineffable beauty that transcends any functional value I had hitherto assumed a bicycle bell was limited to.
We eventually reach the front of the starting line. I glance at my watch. It’s nearly 8:30am. Ride officials give us the thumbs-up and without any hesitation we propel ourselves down Miller Street which is dotted with tall, and spectacularly bright, orange witches hats. The starting line gradually shrinks in the side-view mirror on my right handlebar grip. Above the din of clicking freewheels, I hear the fading echo of the MC’s cry: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, make sure your helmets are done up properly.’ I had checked mine several times earlier this morning. But I check again, just in case.
There’s literally not a cloud in the sky. As clichéd as it sounds, it really is a picture-perfect day. Rolling down a smooth tar road with the knowledge that not only are we allowed to be here, but that the road has been set aside for us, ushers forth an unanticipated sense of freedom. I feel my usual heightened sense of animal alertness (an alertness which every cyclist with a sense of self-preservation comes to possess) slacken and fall away, a dead weight tossed aside effortlessly as I whiz through the lower parts of North Sydney with the irrepressible spirit of a child.
We negotiate our first corner into Berry Street.6 I feel Cyril eagerly surging forward. It’s as if sensing my lack of restraint, he responds sympathetically, gathering as much speed as his heavy steel frame can muster. The only care in the world now is to keep up with my friends, whose bikes are more agile than dear old Cyril, to safely navigate between the witches hats that channel us through innercity streets. Mustn’t crash into the others, I tell myself. So many cyclists. There are literally thousands of us participating in this event. But this is no peleton, flying around corners at breakneck speed. At times, bunched up like a hand of proverbial bananas, we barely inch forward. And then, as if by divine intervention, the throng of cyclists gives way to a splendid clearing and we make a break for it, only to be confounded with another massing of cyclists further up ahead. Although this stop-start pattern is a consistent feature of the journey, it’s infrequent enough not to become overtly onerous.
Volunteers halt us at the corner of Berry and Walker Street, a riot of bicycles momentarily quieted, before the grinding of chains and cogs erupt into mechanical song. We accelerate downhill towards the right turn leading into Arthur Street, passing a few benign-looking traffic police along the way. I see a young stringy looking boy momentarily lose control of his bike, his mother’s loving and encouraging voice trailing behind him: ‘Go Josh! Keep going! Hands on the brakes!’ As we come out of the bend, a breathtaking vista of the harbour bounded by Neutral Bay, Mosman and Cremorne Point comes into frame. Some of the more romantic cyclists among us audibly swoon, me included. This is the first sense one gets that this is going to be a quintessentially scenic tour of Sydney by bicycle, incomparably superior to touring the city’s landmarks in the stifling comfort of a car.
To help spread out the huge number of cyclists floating down onto the Harbour Bridge, we’re instructed to pause for a minute at a point in the road where Arthur turns left into Mount Street. Just for this morning, the first two lanes on the eastern side of the massive steel structure have been set aside exclusively for us. Once we’re given the green-light, it only takes a few minutes before we’re coasting along the bridge’s deck towards the Cahill Expressway. Cruising on two wheels while gazing skyward at the enormous metallic-grey arches that tower over the harbour, is a truly sublime experience.
I sneak a quick look at my watch. Since departing North Sydney, it’s taken us a little under a quarter of an hour to reach the iconic north-eastern pylon. Cars and buses hurry past us in both directions at a safe and respectful distance, thanks to the witches hats blocking off the lane to our right.
As if reading the group’s collective mind, Catherine mentions it’s getting warm. We make a quick unscheduled stop and stow our jackets in Cyril’s pannier. Organisers have recommended that for our own safety, participants not stop on the bridge, but we don’t dwell very long. We’re back in our saddles a minute later, pedalling past the south-eastern pylon of the bridge. Suddenly, I realise we’re riding alongside Sirius, the notorious weather-beaten public housing complex, boldly rising up from Cumberland street to steal a kiss from the southern approaches to the bridge.7 A wisp of wind lightly brushes my cheek. I sense a melancholy disturbance in the air, the ghosts of former residents stirring restlessly down below.
The lane starts to turn left and we pass the City East/Cahill Expressway sign overhead. At this point we lose sight of Jen and her family. Our paths will cross again later. Now travelling at a right angle to the great bridge, we straighten up on the eastern side of Cahill Expressway and the most gorgeous panorama comes into view from the north, the morning sun bathing the white sails of Sydney Opera House in a magnificent golden hue. Overcome by this operatic display of beauty, cyclists young and old, pull over to the side of the freeway and take Insta-snaps with their phones. Moments before we loop back 180 degrees to Cahill West, a female cyclist I’ve been trailing behind for a minute or so, suddenly wobbles, her drivetrain shot through with mechanical failure. ‘Nature’s devil!’ she cries, limping dejectedly towards the curb. I feel an impulse to stop and help, but decide to push on instead, reassured that a mobile mechanic is nearby.
We approach the Sydney Conservatorium of Music8 on Macquarie Street, an old stomping ground of mine, and then loop back onto the Cahill Expressway. Riding three abreast, the Opera House has now shifted to our right.9 A few hundred metres up ahead, the expressway dips into a short tunnel, cut beneath Cumberland Street and the southern approaches to the Harbour Bridge. Seconds prior to diving into the confined space, I notice an electronic sign overhead reminding us that ‘Cyclists Must Follow Traffic Signals.’ The younger riders among us instantaneously respond to the echoic properties of the tunnel, making all manner of subterranean sounds: ‘Woo’! ‘Ooh’! and ‘Aah’! I don’t need encouragement. I join the chorus with a few nonchalant flicks of the hammer on Cyril’s high pitched bell, and for good measure manage a drawn-out juvenile cry: Wheeeeee!
Emerging from out the other end, we struggle up the 270 degree spiral incline (it feels like the steepest grade of the entire 12 km course) that merges onto Bradfield Highway. As the road levels out, a relieved Cyril and I are safely funnelled away from the heavy traffic that’s making its way north over the Harbour Bridge. Without a seeming care, we roll past the scenic and beautiful Observatory Hill via Upper Fort Street and Watson Road, down towards the iconic Rocks area.
We’ve been riding for about half an hour now. We pause at the corner of Argyle and Kent to give way to traffic. It’s not even lunch time yet and I’m secretly pining for an icy cold pale ale. I can’t be blamed though. The ride down Argyle Street takes in famous pubs such as the Lord Nelson and the newly refurbished Palisades Hotel. There’s something about being in the Rocks that always brings out the tippler in me.
We fly down Dalgety Road which becomes Towns Place and then loop back at the roundabout towards Hickson Road Walsh Bay, where I worked as a waiter when I was young, pretty and stupid. We pass under the historic Munns Street bridge, cut across the theatre district and head south towards Sussex Street, riding parallel to the newly minted Barangaroo. An unwittingly rogue taxi driver momentarily trails behind us, before realising his folly. I observe him fading away apologetically in my side-view mirror.
It’s going on 9.15am. We cycle beneath the abandoned lower deck of the Western Distributor that flies over Sussex street, plunging the stretch of road near Erskine Street into a perpetual sunless existence. Cycling underneath its soulless canopy, one comes to appreciate the true scale of this historically contested behemoth. As Cyril and I are swallowed whole by its overbearing shadow, I ponder how future generations will look upon this concrete monstrosity, bitterly resisted by innercity residents in the early 1970s.10
The world that we have created, and indeed the one that had been made possible for us, has begun to give way to cars and trucks. The three kilometres of road skirting the city’s southern precinct, from the low-lying neighbourhood of the Rocks to the light rail corridor in Hay Market, is punctuated by a sequence of intersections and traffic signals. We’re stopping more frequently now. Arterial roads that simply cannot be blocked any longer are pulsating and throbbing with car loads of Sunday workers, shoppers and day trippers. Traffic police are becoming more conspicuous, though no less congenial. And the relatively safe road that the witches hats have paved for us over the course of the morning, seem to be squeezing us closer and closer together to the point of detriment.
Suddenly, around 9.30am, Jen and her daughter magically appear at the corner of Sussex and Bathurst Streets. We’re happy to be reunited once again, and chat for the next five minutes or so until we reach the Haymarket end of Sussex Street, just opposite Paddy’s Markets. Jen’s daughter, who has been riding along on a tow-bike, asks Jen to ‘put your gear on higher!’ Jen turns around to her little girl and in a warm and disarming tone replies ‘well I can’t cos there’s so many people.’ Indeed, we’re tightly packed at this stage. Although it would add to the logistical challenges Spring Cycle organisers currently contend with, putting on an additional 12 km ride and staggering its start time by half an hour would definitely alleviate overcrowding.
We turn right into Hay Street and for a short distance ride parallel to the Dulwich Hill tram line, to our left, before peeling off right into Harbour street. Coming to a complete stop outside the Novotel hotel, I sense someone looking down upon me from a vertiginous height. I look up to my left and fix my gaze on a beautiful ten-story tall mural of an androgynous middle-aged face with caramel skin and powerful brown eyes. This fantastic portrait, which I’ve never seen before, radiates with a latent energy that is almost palpable. Later I will learn that this is a representation of local indigenous activist Jenny Munro.11
Taking a left turn at the corner of Harbour and Goulburn streets, we enter into Pier Street. Pier Street has a steep enough grade to cause a few riders difficulty maintaining momentum at low speed. As we climb the street, the spatial arrangement of new and old buildings comes into striking view. Straight ahead the historic Ultimo Power Station, a relic of the electric age (whose current tenant, the Powerhouse Museum, is said to be moving to Parramatta)12is visually juxtaposed with the new International Convention Centre Theatre13 to our right, and to our left, with a building attached to the massive Darling Square urban community project.14
The slip lane off Pier Street channels us down into Zollner Circuit where we turn right, at speed, onto Darling Drive, a long road which circumscribes the western perimeter of Darling Harbour from Ultimo to historic Pyrmont. Passing under a noodle of massive concrete structures that prop up the ubiquitous Western Distributor, I feel like I’ve cycled straight into Jeffrey Smart’s The Arezzo Ramp Bicycle Race. It’s a painting I don’t pretend to know much about. But, on a superficial level, I find that its representation of a desolate urban landscape resonates with my visual experience of this corner of the city.
Reconnecting with the tram line, we cycle past the Exhibition and Convention Centre tram stops. I’m delighted to see that a new bicycle path has been constructed between these two light rail connections, replacing the loss of the decommissioned cycle lane on Darling Drive. As I wonder whether the path will extend to Ultimo Road, or perhaps to George Street via the Goods Line, the grade of Darling Drive suddenly steepens as it curves left. Cyril and I begin to heave. Instinctively, I gear down and pedal hard. I lift myself from the seat and shift my body-weight forward to meet the challenge posed by the hill, head-on.
At the busy intersection, where Pyrmont Bridge Road meets Darling Drive, we give way to traffic before turning right into Murray Street. We pass two Sydney icons, Pyrmont bridge to our right and to the left, Bridge Hotel, where I once enjoyed a pint with an old school friend, long since departed. Melancholy reminiscence segues into low-level indignation as we whiz past Star City, Sydney’s harbour-side shrine to a national obsession, gambling.
As Murray Street turns slightly left into Pirrama Road, I wistfully sense that my Spring Cycle experience is about to conclude. Cyril determinedly ploughs through the second exit at the roundabout between Jones Bay Road and Darling Island Road and the finish line at Pirrama Park becomes visible a few hundred metres up the road. Soon we’ll return to inhabiting the margins of society both figuratively and literally, where public safety awareness campaigns such as ‘a metre matters’ is not just an empty mantra, but for some of us a matter of life and death.
The Finish Line
With the buildup of energy and sense of anticipation expelled over 12 km of physical activity, the mood at Pirrama Park is a bit more subdued. I dismount my trusty steed and steal a glance at my watch. It’s 9.45am. Total journey time: One hour and fifteen minutes. Securing our bikes to the temporary parking rings, located on the perimeter of the park, we insinuate ourselves into the crowd of families and other entities. Catherine, Feargal and I (Jen and her family have repaired to another section of the park) are happy to dwell a little, to savour the moment, to look around. But the scorching heat drives us from the hive of activity towards a lonesome park-bench beneath a tree, where we quell our appetites with a few snacks scored from the promotional pop-up kiosks.
Bypassing the horde of event-sponsor marquees, our stomachs appeased for the minute, we saunter over to a cheerful volunteer handing out Spring Cycle medals, discharging her task without a scintilla of gravity. We each receive ours, still wrapped in the little plastic bags they were bulk-ordered in. I find the impulse of feigning deference too delicious to resist, so I cheekily affect a bow as I collect mine. With wide grins betraying a healthy dose of irony, we proudly show off our medals to each other and take a few selfies. Done with shenanigans, we unlock our bikes and pedal back towards the city centre, which is quickly and easily accessible via Pyrmont Bridge.
Cycling towards the centre of the Victorian era bridge, something unexpected happens, bringing us to a complete standstill. The bridge operator, an unassuming man with grey hair and a thin build, quietly emerges from the crowd. He climbs the short flight of heritage-green stairs to the compact bridge house and places both hands on the controls. The imposing wooden barrier gates on the eastern and western approaches to the bridge sweep inwardly shut, transforming the empty space between them into a forbidding no man’s land.
The swing span smoothly rotates 90 degrees to allow the passage of a tall vessel berthing in Cockle Bay. I scan the horizon but can’t see anything coming our way. Craning my neck through the western gate I spot a little fishing boat, a tiny speck of a thing passing quietly down below, making mere ripples in the water.15 I look on mirthfully, amused by the anti-climactic scene unfolding before the captive crowd. And then, as if yielding to our growing sense of impatience, the recalcitrant span slowly swings back into alignment with the rest of the bridge, the barrier gates sweep open to their usual taken for granted position, and commuters and cyclists once again pour across Pyrmont Bridge. With that, Catherine, Feargal and I bid each other farewell, mount our hobby horses and ride off into the remainder of the day.
As I make my way down to King Street Wharf, to catch the ferry to Balmain East, the symbolic meaning of what just transpired on the bridge dawns on me: Maybe a massive swing bridge giving way to a tiny boat may seem completely unnecessary, an exaggerated gesture, but perhaps that’s the kind of thing that’s needed to make smaller and more vulnerable members of our society feel safe and socially included.16 And maybe we should look no further than the example of today’s Spring Cycle, where a massive and coordinated effort by government and non-government organisations was made so that a precious little girl and her mother could safely and happily travel from one end of Sydney to the other, on their own steam, without having to be leery of fast cars and heavy trucks bearing down upon them.
‘Riders must remove their rider number before cycling home please.’ I’m not sure if anyone cared to read this command, but that’s what Bicycle NSW organisers had stipulated on the back of the Spring Cycle Rider Number. Down on the ferry wharf I bump into a father and son on their way home. They’re still sporting their identity numbers and proudly wearing Spring Cycle 2016 medals. The medals are cheaply made. They don’t signify place getting. But that’s not the point. They are shared symbols that connote a sense of belonging, a sense of achievement.
We have journeyed together through the threshold of the everyday world of the car to a space where bicycles are sovereign. And we have safely returned, basking in the afterglow of this liminal experience. However, things don’t just happen without leaving their mark. Even if it’s imperceptible, the experience of Spring Cycle doesn’t just change its participants. It changes the city. It changes the people in it. Populations who don’t cycle come to think differently about this activity, even if that difference is incremental and miniscule. That is how social change happens: Gradual, slow, patient and sometimes magical.
Departing King Street Wharf, the Darling Harbour ferry service picks up a bunch of cyclists from Pyrmont wharf and then effortlessly glides across the still waters of Port Jackson towards Balmain East. Once on dry land, Cyril and I climb up the notoriously steep grade of Darling Street between Weston Street and Johnston and Nicholson Streets, and then ride the rest of the way towards an old cafe haunt on the corner of Ann Street, Balmain. I take a seat at the street-facing table and order a toasty and strong coffee. While waiting for my food to come, I borrow a spare pen from the café counter and start sketching some ideas for this essay.
After six months of sporadic effort at writing this winding story, it’s gratifying to have something I feel I can finally let go of. Writing about the Spring Cycle 2016 event has given me the opportunity to reflect on my personal experience of the day, to try and make sense of its meaning. It’s also jogged my memory about how wonderful it was to be involved in a big event with tonnes of good will. I hope this rambling discourse inspires others to get on a bike, to experience Sydney (or whichever city you happen to live in) on two wheels, regardless of one’s prowess behind the handle bars. To conclude, if Cyril and I can do it, anyone can.
Looking back over this essay, it’s become clearer that cycling isn’t just about the physical act of riding. I don’t wish to downplay its undeniable locomotive demands, but it’s also a visual experience, and the pleasure that cycling brings draws much from the sense of seeing. What this essay doesn’t do particularly well is capture the spirit of riding together as a group. Truth be told, Catherine, Feargal and I were chatting throughout the journey, with very little intermission. In fact, we laughed our way throughout most of it. This dynamic, underscores the point that riding is a form of social interaction. To emphasise the point, riding a bicycle isn’t just about maintaining balance, momentum, and speed. It’s an intrinsically social act where all faculties and senses are engaged. And if you’re a thinking person, as you coast along two wheels you’ll be inclined to observe, notice and comment on things that stimulate the mind and challenge the intellect. I would venture to say that cycling can foster a sense of mindfulness, but that’s a topic to be mulled over for another day.
Quote popularly attributed to Wells, but not sighted in his published works. ↩
Spring Cycle 2016 took place on the morning of Sunday 16 October. It’s promoted by Bicycle NSW as ‘a day we can celebrate cycling and rediscover the joys of cycling through Sydney and beyond…’ My thanks to friends and fellow Spring Cycle participants Catherine, Feargal, Jen and her family. ↩
Spring Cycle ID holders were entitled to free travel on ferries and trains, except for tickets purchased at airport stations. I wasn’t sure what the deal was with trams, so I tapped on and off with my Opal Card. ↩
I registered for the Spring Cycle 2016 event in late August at a cost of $36. The invoice emailed to me was from Bicycle NSW. On its website https://bicyclensw.org.au/about/ Bicycle NSW states that it has ‘over 15,000 members and supporters, Bicycle NSW is the peak recreational cycling body in NSW. Our 40 years of history shows in our unrivaled (sic) local knowledge and a widespread cycling network.’ The organisation it enlisted to help run the event, Limelight Sports, is a UK based private company whose website http://limelightsports.com/what-we-do states that they ‘work with leading brands, engaging their audiences through active experiences. Providing a platform for meaningful real-life connections we create and deliver campaigns with guaranteed results.’ A week or so later I received a Spring Cycle pack in the mail with my individual rider number which one was required to attach to their bike handlebars during the event. ↩
The other rides are the 50 km Classic Ride and the full-on 105 km Bikebug Challenge Ride, both which started earlier in the morning, 6.30am and 7am respectively, and finished in Sydney Olympic Park. Our friend Matt, who is an experienced road cyclist, entered and successfully completed the Bikebug challenge. ↩
I filmed the ride by attaching my iPhone to a universal silicon mount called a ‘finn’ made by the cycling app company bike citizens. I drew on that video as well as photos I took immediately before and after the ride to inform my recollection of the day’s events. I also made use of the excellent Spring Cycle map, which breaks the relatively short journey into stages by street/road and distance. The original web-link to this map, broken at the time of publishing this essay, was hosted by a company called Ride with GPS https://ridewithgps.com. For general information about the event I referred to the Spring Cycle: 2016 Ride Guide at http://springcycle.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Spring-Cycle-Ride-Guide-2016.pdf↩
Epsom Road studios was commissioned by Spring Cycle organisers to take photographs of each participant as they crossed the Harbour Bridge and Cahill Expressway. Soon after the event, cyclists were invited to view and purchase photographs of themselves by entering their rider number into the Spring Cycle 2016 section of the Epsom Studios website, https://secure.epsomrdstudios.com.au/browse.php?id=3925. I paid $15 for the photograph of Catherine, Feargal and myself on Cahill Expressway west, the one featured in this essay. ↩
That battle was eventually won by residents. But the menacing threat of motorway construction through Sydney suburban communities has returned, in the aggressive and totalising form of WestConnex. ↩