UTOPIA, IF ONLY FOR A DAY: SPRING CYCLE 2016

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From Left to Right: Catherine, me and Feargal. Photo credit: Epsom Road Studios.

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.

Leaving Home

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.

The Ride

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)12 is 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.

Returning Home

‘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.

Postscript

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.


  1. Quote popularly attributed to Wells, but not sighted in his published works. 
  2. 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. 
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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. 
  6. 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 
  7. http://saveoursirius.org. See also Vanessa Berry’s excellent essay on Sirius at her Mirror Sydney website: https://mirrorsydney.wordpress.com/2017/03/28/a-tour-of-the-sirius-building/ 
  8. http://music.sydney.edu.au 
  9. 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. 
  10. 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. 
  11. http://www.novotelrockforddarlingharbour.com.au/whats-on/overview_viewItem_3551-en.html 
  12. https://maas.museum/ 
  13. http://www.iccsydney.com.au/plan-an-event/icc-sydney-live 
  14. http://www.darlingsq.com/home 
  15. The bridge has a regular schedule of opening times on weekends and public holidays, independent of waterway movements in and out of Cockle Bay: https://vesselbooking.property.nsw.gov.au 
  16. In fact, the bridge did not swing open to give way to the small vessel (see previous footnote). But for the purposes of literary conceit, the coincidence was too tempting to ignore. 
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Balmain Blind Bowling Combination

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ON EASTER SATURDAY which this year fell on the 27 March, I visited the NSW township of Leura with my daughter Alex and her mum, Angie. It was a brisk drive from Ryde City up to the Blue Mountains. Perfect weather, light traffic. We arrived at brunch time. The main shopping strip, Megalong Street, was crowded with international tourists and day trippers, like ourselves. One of the shop keepers told me it was their busiest trading day of the year.

It certainly felt like it. Moving at a pace no faster than wading through treacle, we weaved in and out of inviting life-style stores, lingering here and there, with a special visit to The Candy Store in Leura Mall. We had lunch at Leura Gourmet, whose panoramic views of the valley consistently delights regulars and newbies alike (generally a smart-looking bunch with button down shirts and light knits), drawn to its tasty menu, attentive service and homestead ambience. Delightful take-away treats at the cashier’s register never fail to win over punters as they settle the bill.

Having graciously put up with being dragged from one shop to the next, when we finished lunch it was Alex’s turn to direct proceedings. She was keen to visit Leura Markets, which incidentally is held every third Saturday of the month in the CWA Hall.1 While Angie made a beeline for the hall, Alex and I paused at the stand nearest the gates, drawn to hundreds of beautifully crafted bowling club badges, each one proudly telling a story about the pass-time of a particular Anglo-Australian post-war suburban community. The badges, though pretty, were coated with a thin film of dust and grime giving their intricate designs a lacklustre patina. Cradling one in my hand, I repressed the impulse to polish it with my sleeve.

The former owner of the badge collection, I was told, resides in a nursing facility somewhere in the valley. For a split second, I tried to fathom his life before being forced to surrender house and home: A grumpy parochial recluse, quietly passing his retired days dissolving the cement bond between badge and manufacturer’s back-pin with the aid of acetone, and then carefully super-gluing a flat tack onto the rear so that he could pin it onto a large cork board alongside his myriad other trophies.

Did he hoard these objects made of brass and enamel, enjoying them only with a small coterie of friends over tea? Was he methodical? Systematic? Did he arrange each badge by state and postcode? I’m not sure why, but I didn’t want to countenance the possibility that he was anything but meticulous and exacting in the cultivation of his hobby. I checked my field notes, crammed with immediate impressions and information gleaned from the seller. As it happens, the badges were once arranged in alphabetical order. Perhaps I did have my man after all.

As Alex and I examined the badges, carelessly heaped one on top of the other into two wooden trays, I felt a tinge of melancholy borne out of the impression that something that may have once been intensely personal, was being broken up and sold off at a dollar a piece in a flea market to complete strangers. But this wistful impulse was tempered by the fact that I also saw in them value as historical artefacts, time capsules of a forgotten past that in the right hands could be rescued and put into meaningful service.

I can only imagine that the secret world of lawn bowls provided succour and sanctuary to older Australians, the genteel pace of the game and the all-white bowling uniform 2 powerful symbols of order and unity in the face of rapid urbanisation, automation and the threat of newly arrived immigrants with their strange mores and customs. I wanted to know more.

What Alex Found

Although not a Balmain boy (by definition, someone who grew up and attended school in the local area) I have lived on the peninsula since 2011.3 In that time, I have made many wonderful friends and acquaintances from Balmain East to Rozelle. And I have observed close-up scenes of the local community rallying to protect its urban village character from unsympathetic commercial developments, 4 and coming together in the weeks and months after the Rozelle fire in 2014. However, my connection to place goes back further than this. My parents 5 and godparents 6 had lived and worked in the Rozelle-Balmain area. A high street personality, the Good Weekend Magazine published a one-page profile on my godfather Con Hatzis in the late 1980s.7 Hatzis had operated a barber shop and mixed business at 296 Darling Street for decades.8 For these and other personal reasons, I feel a sense of investment in Balmain’s local history.

Returning to the present scene, it’s understandable that I would be somewhat curious to know if the collection contained a badge from Gladstone Park Bowling Club or Balmain Bowling Club. I enlisted Alex’s help in the search, turning what had started out as a leisurely activity under the warm glow of an autumnal sun into a pressing mission. Every Sydney bowling club badge one could think of was represented in the collection, except for Balmain! An hour had passed without any results. I was about to give up the search when Alex’s keen eye fell upon a dusty object bearing the inscription ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’.

‘Look dad!’ Alex said excitedly ‘Look! It says Balmain on it! Balmain!’ I gave her the biggest hug. ‘That’s amazing Alex! I exclaimed earnestly. ‘Excellent observation! You’re on your way to becoming a great researcher!’ We were both elated with her discovery. I paid our one dollar, quietly slipped the badge into the back pocket of my denim pants and walked back up Megalong Street, hand in hand with my daughter, before reuniting with Angie.

I was back in my Rozelle apartment that evening, getting ready for a barbecue at Larry and Trish Wyner’s tastefully decorated house in Balmain. Larry, whose winning smile brims with youthful ebullience, is the son of Issy Wyner, a local Labor hero with a playground named in his honour at the corner of Mort and Curtis. The dinner was a jovial affair attended by a lovely group of erudite and convivial left leaning folks who ritually congregate at the Dry Dock Hotel on a Thursday night. I returned home later that evening, sated and lubricated. Perforce, I didn’t have the opportunity to carefully examine the badge until the following morning.

The Badge

I have to admit that I’ve yet to step onto a bowling green.9 Nor have I held a bowl, let alone rolled one.10 And yet here I was on a fine Sunday morning, sitting at my desk closely scrutinising the bowling club badge Alex and I rescued from Leura Markets. I polished the badge till the brass gave off a brilliant shine and the colours and tones, revivified.

Around two-thirds of the circumference of the badge from 8 o’clock to 4 o’clock in a clockwise direction is composed of black enamel, with the words ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’ inscribed upon it in brass. The inscription at 6 o’clock ‘NSW 1954’ is bordered by a boomerang shape of black enamel, off-set by an intricate laurel wreath relief.11

Many of the bowling bowl club badges we looked at in the collection, while miniature works of art, didn’t leave much to the imagination. They featured crests, coats of arms, the initials of the club name, or the image of an animal, object or thing of local significance. This badge is unusual in that it depicts an iconic scene on the bowling green, a male bowler crouching on his mat poised to deliver the bowl. The yellow sun is peeking out from behind a gilded white cloud, its golden rays streaming down upon both player and green. There is an undeniably sublime and transcendental quality to it.

Having attempted to carefully write down my impressions of the badge’s appearance I still had no idea what the meaning and significance of ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination’ was, other than it obviously having something to do with bowls and Balmain. Was it a type of handicap game played in pairs that required extraordinary skill? That sounded interesting. I glanced at my desk clock and it was nearly 10am. I was shortly due to meet a friend for coffee on Darling Street. I took a few quick photographs of the badge, put it away in my top drawer and forgot about it until the following weekend.

Blind Bowls

On the morning of Sunday 3 April, I prepared a simple breakfast, consisting of coffee and toast and consumed it while watching Insiders on ABC iView. Afterwards, I gave the apartment a quick once-over and ventured out for the day. A ten minute spin cross-town, I rode my British racing-green bike to Ciao Thyme, a gourmet cafe with rustic charm and great coffee, on the corner of Darling and Ann Streets, Balmain. I took a seat by the window jumped on the iPad and googled the words ‘Balmain Blind Bowling Combination.’

I retrieved a cache of articles from contemporary sources and online archives with bits and bobs of tantalising information. One gem in particular was a regular column on lawn balls published in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1979 with the captivating title ‘The Sixth Sense.’12 The article makes reference to the silver jubilee of the Balmain Bowling Club’s blind bowlers combination. That fixes the inaugural year of the blind bowlers combination at 1954, which indeed matches up with the year inscribed on the badge. It also confirms the badge is attached to the Balmain Bowling Club at 156 Darling Street, and not the Gladstone Park Bowling Club on Darvall Street.

But what is the meaning of the phrase ‘blind bowlers combination’? It is, literally, lawn bowls played by the blind. Because a blind or vision impaired bowler cannot see the jack 13 he or she is accompanied by an able-sighted bowler called the ‘director.’ The director directs the blind bowler using the clock position (for example, ‘deliver the bowl at 3 o’clock!’) 14 to strategically guide the trajectory of the bowl toward the jack. Together the blind or vision impaired bowler and the able-sighted director/helper comprise a ‘combination.’

The original inspiration behind blind bowling was 10-pin bowling for the blind. In 1952 the Balmain Blind Bowlers club was formed, 15 with Bert Hussey its inaugural club president, a position he held for 22 years. Though it wasn’t until 1954 that the Royal New South Wales Bowling Association accepted blind bowlers as a combination. The article attributes president and vice president of the Balmain Bowling Club, Frank Yeats and Piers Holmes, respectively, as the driving force behind the institutional acceptance of blind bowling combination in NSW.

However, a much earlier article published in 1952 16 stated that Jim Jack, a blind Sydney bowler and ex serviceman invented blind bowls:

Mr Jim Jack…has at last originated a sport at which blind players can compete with sighted players under same rules. It is a variation of bowling, and is played by the team with the aid of a skipper, who directs each shot by a whistle.

The article goes on to say that ‘A club has been formed at Balmain, Sydney, and has now 23 members and is rapidly expanding.’17 I should point out that no mention of Jim Jack is made in The Sydney Morning Herald piece published 27 years later.

The blind bowlers enjoyed success and recognition for their efforts on and off the green. Yeats was awarded and MBE in 1971 for services to the blind, and a Frank Yeats memorial day was inaugurated at the club in tribute to this legacy.18 In 1977 a five-man team won gold and bronze medals at the first world blind bowling tournament in Johannesburg.19 And the national singles champion in 1979 for the partially sighted was won by Ken Curtis, then in his fourth term as president of the club. Undeniably, Balmain Bowling Club was a socially inclusive hub of the community which actively encouraged blind people to take up lawn bowls.

Until recently 20 competition bowls were traditionally segregated by gender. However, an exception to this rule was the blind bowling combination. Evelyn Hitchenson joined the Balmain Bowling Club in 1976 after marrying her deaf and blind husband who was a member there. As his guide, over the period of a decade they went on to win 16 gold medals in local and international blind bowls competitions.21

On the History Trail

Today blind bowls is an established international game played under the auspices of para-sport lawn bowls.22 The question is, did blind bowls really have its humble beginnings in the Balmain Bowling Club? Various newspaper sources I uncovered point in that particular direction. To be sure, on the morning of Friday 8 April I decided to visit the archives of Leichhardt Municipal Library to see if local historians had documented this aspect of Balmain’s history. I came upon an essay by Peter Reynolds published in a local history pamphlet commemorating the centenary of the Balmain Bowling Club.23 The focus of the article was on whether or not the Balmain Bowling Club, established in 1880, was the oldest continuously operating club in NSW. It wasn’t at the time that Reynolds was conducting his research, but the club incidentally took on that mantle after Parramatta Bowling club, formerly Rose Hill Bowling Club, folded in 1986.24

Even though Reynold’s article commemorates 100 years of bowling in Balmain, there is no mention of blind bowls or blind bowling combination. It would be unfair to characterise this as an oversight since the article narrowly focuses on the club’s establishment in the 1880s. Notwithstanding that, any history of the club which glosses over or ignores it’s pivotal role in establishing blind bowls in NSW and beyond, is a grave omission, especially if blind lawn bowls was conceived in Balmain, as history suggests. To that end, if the Balmain community has anything to be proud of, it is the whelm of humanity its men and women displayed through the magisterial sport of lawn bowls, leading the way through social inclusion of the blind and the vision impaired, and the wonderful women who were their ears and eyes on the green.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

It’s late evening on Sunday 22 May 2016. As I write this concluding paragraph, the bell in the post office tower where Montague meets Darling tolls eight times, echoing across the peninsula down into Rozelle valley.25 Coincidentally, it also happens to be eight weeks since Alex found the badge. If it wasn’t for her desire to visit the markets we wouldn’t have stumbled upon it, and I probably wouldn’t have put pen to paper (Actually, part of me wishes Alex hadn’t found it!). However, as integral as they are to the story, it’s not really about bowls, nor is it about the badge. It’s about chance. It’s about place. It’s about local history. It’s about people and community values. More precisely, it’s about the strange and unlikely ways we sometimes stumble upon the past, and the unexpected discoveries this yields.

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  1. Country Woman’s Association Hall. 
  2. According to a close source who is an experienced bowler, in the world of bowls the white uniforms are referred to as ‘creams.’ 
  3. I was raised in the north-western suburb of Dundas on the boundary of The City of Parramatta and The City of Ryde. A friend of mine who grew up in Balmain remembers families moving out to the new housing developments there in the 1960s. He wryly characterised Dundas as a ‘nothing place.’ An uncharitable reference, but maybe not untrue. It’s a featureless garden suburb premised on car-dependence. 
  4. I’m referring to the controversial retail and residential development application at the former Balmain Leagues Club on Victoria Road. Locals and business owners fear it will have an adverse impact on main street shopping and the village feel of the neighbourhood. Employing doublespeak, the developer has dubbed its proposed high-rise shopping centre ‘Rozelle Village.’ 
  5. In 1969 my parents, George and Pipina Elles, were renting a house at 1 Terry Street Balmain with their first newborn, Peter, my eldest brother. My father opened an account at the Rozelle branch of the Bank of New South Wales on 24 December 1969, giving his occupation as a ‘painting contractor.’ Cited in the Rozelle Branch Accounts Ledger, Westpac Historical Archives. 
  6. My godparents, Con and Eleni Hatzis lived in Turner Street Balmain with their three children, Olga and twins Sam and Spiro. 
  7. The State Library of New South Wales holds microfiche records of the Good Weekend Magazine published by John Fairfax and Sons. Reference details of the edition featuring Hatzis, forthcoming. 
  8. Hatzis started trading from this location in the early 1970s. I have a living memory of the shop operating at the time. My parents used to take me there as a little boy. Locals I have spoken to recall vivid details: A barber’s pole out the front and a small kiosk window through which cigarettes and confectionary were sold. The family still owns the building, which the patissier Adriano Zumbo has been trading from since 2007. 
  9. I count an experienced bowler as a friend. He has promised to take me to the Balmain Bowling Club for my first game of bowls in the near future. 
  10. The legacy of being a first generation Australian perhaps? A good friend of mine recently told me, in all seriousness, that ‘you probably wouldn’t get Dorothea MacKellar.’ Be that as it may, most Anglo-Australians (including him) are unaware that the popular vernacular version of ‘My Country’ omits the first verse ‘A land of field and coppice…’ which expresses McKellar’s estrangement from the English penchant for ‘ordered woods and gardens.’ For example, Christine Robert’s popular version adopted to music and broadcast on the ABC on the 02 Nov 1967 commences at the iconic second verse ‘I love a sunburnt country, A land of sweeping planes…’ Cited at http://splash.abc.net.au/home#!/media/104826/dorothea-mackellar-s-my-country-as-a-song 
  11. On the rear of the badge the manufacturer’s name, clearly visible with the aid of a magnifying glass, is ‘Denham Neal and Treloar’. The text is wrapped around the image of a coronet, the company trademark. 
  12. Rheuben, P. ‘Sixth Sense,’ The Sydney Morning Herald, Sat October 7, 1979 p.43 cited in Google News, URL: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1301&dat=19791007&id=tzNWAAAAIBAJ&sjid=geYDAAAAIBAJ&pg=5170,2022242&hl=en 
  13. The jack is the small white ball that is the target or mark. 
  14. A bit of conjecture on my part here. More informed sources about how the director and blind bowler interact as a combination or team can be found on the Internet or public library. 
  15. ‘Blind Sportsman Invents Game’ Benalla Ensign Thu 30 Oct 1952 p.1 cited in Trove http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/65504469 
  16.  ibid 
  17.  ibid 
  18. Date of inauguration unknown. I contacted the Balmain Bowling Club by phone and spoke to a female member of staff who told me she has been employed there for 10 years and has never heard of the memorial day in Yeat’s honour. So, it seems, his legacy has been forgotten by the club. 
  19. Op. cit. Rheuben 
  20. See for example, Bolger, R. ‘Male lawn bowls players quit over move to mixed competitions’ Fri 5 Dec 2014 cited at http://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2014-12-04/male-lawn-bowls-players-quit-over-move-to-mixed-competitions/5942078 
  21. Tarbert, K. ‘Kingswood Bowls club rolls out special celebration for ton-of-fun Evelyn Hitchenson’ Jun 11 2015 Daily Telegraph cited at http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/newslocal/west/kingswood-bowls-club-rolls-out-special-celebration-for-tonoffun-evelyn-hitchenson/news-story/c55158d63112c849bcbaa8971a152959 
  22. For example, see the Disability Sports Australia website: http://www.sports.org.au/lawn-bowls/ 
  23. Reynolds, P. ‘Uncovering Our Past: 100 Years of Bowling In Balmain 1880-1980,’ in The Balmain Association issue 101 (March 1980) pp 4-6. Thank you to Services Librarian Benjamin Carter at Balmain Library and Amie Zar, Local History Librarian at Leichhardt Library for their kind help in locating the original article in Leichhardt Municipal Council’s local history collection. A scanned copy is available here: http://www.balmainassociation.org.au/newsletters/contents/102%20198006.pdf 
  24. See the history page of Bowls Australia at http://www.bowlsaustralia.com.au/About-BA/History 
  25. The last toll for the evening, probably due to noise restrictions.