The Wheels of Chance

It was a tram driver’s strike in Melbourne back in the early Nineties that got me riding a bicycle again as an adult. I was living in Elsternwick that year, one of those old bayside neighbourhoods in the city’s inner south, and working as a feature writer for a Sunday broadsheet whose offices were downtown. I didn’t own a car but relied instead on shoe leather and public transport to get around so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going out on a wildcat strike, starting from midnight, and the city’s bus and train drivers elected to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way to get in to work the next morning.

The six miles between home and office seemed just that bit too far to walk and you could grow a beard trying to catch a cab in Melbourne during the rush hour, any rush hour, let alone one during a transport strike. As I sat at my desk that afternoon pondering my options for getting into work the next day, the cheeky idea popped into my head that I could always try riding my bike.

I still had a bicycle, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had never quite had the heart to get rid of either. As far as I knew it was still in working order, buried somewhere deep amongst the clutter in the garden shed. The more I thought about it, the better liked the idea. It would be fun, an adventure. And certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than helplessly throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.

When I arrived home that evening I found my old bicycle and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from a decade of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back when I was living in the student ghetto near the University of Sydney and daydreaming of setting off on bold cycling adventures along the Silk Road, riding Cape to Cairo, or pedalling the Pan American Highway.

This particular make and model was said to be the very thing on which to undertake such a journey: a Gemini World Randonneur. It was the company’s expedition model: a lugged-steel tourer, fifteen speeds, with mudguards, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water-bottle cages and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking when you were descending treacherous mountain passes.

Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, the World Randonneur ran on twenty-six by one-and-three-eighths inch tyres – a rather old-fashioned size among cyclists in the West at that time but one that was plentiful in the Third World, meaning the intrepid owner of such a bicycle would easily be able to source spares wherever their globetrotting wanderings took them, from the Bolivian altiplano to the camel markets of Samarkand.

It was that bit of realpolitik which sold me. I loved that touch of worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, of seriousness of intent, and in my eyes set my new World Randonneur apart from the tame suburban bikes you’d see tooling around the campus.

Alas, in the event, I never rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways on King Street. And even that was ages ago. And now here it was, still with the original set of Michelin gumwalls clinging to those twenty-six-inch rims. With a sigh and a shrug at things that might have been, I rummaged around and found my old track pump, then set to work inflating the tyres. Surprisingly the flabby things still held air.

And they were still plump and firm the next morning too —disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have second thoughts about the wisdom of doing this. A good many years had passed since last I’d mounted a bike and then it had been mostly just pedalling around the campus or along the bridle path in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying through the mean streets of a big-city in rush hour.

Had my tyres deflated overnight—not an unreasonable expectation—this whole story and all that flowed on from it might never have happened. Flat tyres would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back pedal from my bold plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. I would have put my bicycle back in the shed, no doubt telling myself that I really must get back to riding sometime, then called a friend and cadged a lift.

But those old Michelins remained stubbornly firm and ready to roll and the weather outside was gorgeous; the start of a fine clear autumn day. I had no excuse except timidity for backing out and pride forbade that.

And so, after breakfast, heart in mouth, I mounted up and wobbled into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, office clothes folded neatly into a bundle, placed in a bag and lashed onto the rear rack. Being inexperienced in such matters I headed for the city as a motorist would: straight up the main stem, along the fast and furious Nepean Highway and St Kilda Road.

It was a harrowing ride, peppered with what seemed at the time to be many near-misses. All the same, half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with the exhilaration of danger and more than a little relieved, I was oddly sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close.

All that day, as I puttered about the office, I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with an adrenalin-charged mixture of eagerness and apprehension. I left work a little later than usual, hoping to avoid the peak-hour traffic, and made it home unscathed and feeling victorious.

The next morning’s commute wasn’t nearly so fraught. The first-day awkwardness was gone. I felt more assured out there, less jittery, accepting as a matter of course the stream of cars whooshing past my elbow. Along with this new-found confidence came a quiet satisfaction at having taken matters into my own hands, a sense of having reclaimed some part of me that had lain fallow for years without my even being aware of it. As I bowled home that evening along the margins of the Nepean Highway, I found myself marvelling that I hadn’t done this earlier.

The trammies went back to their trams the following day. But not I. I stayed out. I’d had a taste of something I liked, something that had been missing in my life and that didn’t want to give it up. Spending in advance the money I reckoned I’d save by not renewing my monthly tram ticket, I bought myself a flashing red taillight, a rear-view mirror, a bright yellow riding cape for rainy days and sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry en route—all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and Melbourne traffic a regular thing.

Over the coming weeks and months, as autumn segued into winter, I came to know the city’s backstreets as only a cyclist can. By that I don’t mean where the potholes were or the misaligned storm drains, but learning the pulse and feel of neighbourhoods I’d never even known existed before I took up cycling.

Morning commutes were my favourites, with the city waking up around me and the day full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d ride into the city along the foreshore of the bay, past the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid jigs and thermoses of coffee. If I had time I’d pedal out to the end of the pier, lean my bike against the wrought-iron railing and watch the city greet the dawn, the shadows receding from the skyline, the early morning sunshine glinting on the top of the Rialto Tower (then the tallest building in the city); or look to the west and see the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge; or marvel at the ferry from Tasmania steaming up the bay, fresh from its overnight passage across Bass Strait.

Other times I’d veer inland and hook up with the Yarra River near the posh suburb of Toorak then follow the river into the city through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Park. Or, if I was in a gritty urban frame of mind, approach through the inner south, calling in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, where throngs of Greek and Vietnamese and Italian stallholders were noisily unloading their trucks. I’d dismount and lose myself for an hour in its cheerful ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit, fresh fish, scorched spices and roasting coffee. I’d buy a handful dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, revelling in the many worlds and lives that existed beyond the periphery of my own.

It was like being a kid again, this roving around on a bicycle, taking the worm’s eye view. I’d forgotten. It was like an awakening. Old dreams and ambitions came floating up like genies conjured from a lamp. Just as I did when I was a kid aboard my old Schwinn Varsity, I found myself daydreaming jauntily of the adventures I’d undertake one day, the places I’d go, the things I’d do. These morning commutes became the high points of my day, glorious interludes filled with life, adventure and possibility. I started leaving the house earlier and earlier to give myself more time to meander and explore and simply ‘be’. What an anti-climax it was to finish these morning rides in the gloomy loading dock area at the newspaper building; to surrender that sense of captaincy and jaunty expectancy.

Over time the act of chaining my bicycle to the rack beside the Coke machine began to take on a troubling metaphorical significance. Of such little things are revolutions made. And one morning I rebelled. Instead of heading for the nest of glittering skyscrapers when I reached the seafront promenade, I turned left and set off down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine and fish-and-chips on the beach amongst the little seaside holiday towns down there.

I called in sick from a roadside payphone near Frankston, a suburb on what was then Melbourne’s outer fringe. Cupping my hand around the mouthpiece, to muffle the sounds of traffic, I recited the lie I’d been rehearsing for the past twenty miles: head ache, runny nose, sore throat. Should be better tomorrow. Mercifully, it was the copy boy who took the call, for I was unaccustomed to lying  and absconding. He bought my story with touching naïveté, expressing hopes that I’d be better soon. I rang off feeling guilty – and elated and unburdened. The deed was done. Nothing to do now but enjoy the day. Which I did. I had a splendid time.

I’d never been down the Mornington Peninsula before. I knew it only as a place where Melbourne’s old money had their seaside weekenders. I could see why. It was lovely down there, and a lovely day to be going there: loads of bright clear sunshine, azure waters, a creamy surf, the bracing tang of eucalyptus and Norfolk pine along the esplanades of the beachy little holiday towns. It was like pedalling into an old postcard.

I did a spot of wine tasting at one of the vineyards I passed along the way, had a glorious lunch of fish and chips on a pine-shaded picnic table by the beach at Sorrento, and I discovered a delightful ice cream parlour.

Later, over a slice of poppy-seed cake and a cappuccino at a café in Portsea, I pondered the remains of my stolen day. I had pedalled more than sixty miles by then and had a long ride ahead of me to get back home again but I was feeling fit and at any rate, I reckoned, I could always bail out at Frankston, catch a train from there back to the city.  Since I had come this far south already it seemed a pity not to go all the way, press on to Cape Schanck, a windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula.

The afternoon was pretty far gone by the time I reached the cape. It was a gratifyingly wild and lonely spot with its weathered lighthouse overlooking the treacherous waters of the Roaring Forties. I had the place all to myself, just me and a few screeching gulls wheeling overhead and the hollow boom of the surf against the base of the sea cliffs. I lay my bike down on the grass near the clifftop and sat for a long while looking out over the Southern Ocean, marvelling that the next landfall south of here was Antarctica.

What a satisfying thought: I’d pedalled my bicycle to the edge of the world.

Much as I would have liked to have dawdled there, and savoured the romance of distance, a sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch but from the angle of the sun and the increasingly honeyed quality of the light it was clear that the slide towards evening had well and truly begun. Frankston and the train back to the city was still a good thirty miles off and if I hoped to get there before dark – which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp – I was going to need to get a move on.

Climbing to my feet, reluctant to bring this glorious day to a close, I gave the silvery vastness of the Southern Ocean a final lingering gaze, then picked up my bicycle and set off towards home and hearth.

I’d not gone so much as half mile when I heard an evil hiss from my rear tyre. I glanced down, mildly annoyed. In all my months of riding through glass-strewn city streets this quiet country lane was where I managed to have my first puncture. Fancy that. I pulled over, had the wheel off in a jiffy, patched the tube, pumped it up swiftly and clapped it back on the bicycle. Irritating though it was, I had to smile: my inner Calvinist recognised a certain justice in my not getting off quite so scot-free. But hey-ho, it was fixed now and I was back on my way.

But the Fates weren’t done with me yet, not by a long chalk. Before I’d pedalled thirty yards the same rear tyre hissed flat again. Kicking myself, assuming that in my irritated haste I’d not seated the tyre properly and given myself a pinch-flat, I peeled the tyre off the rim, patched the tube, pumped the tyre up nice and firm, made sure it sat evenly on the rim and – satisfied – pushed off once again for home.

Less than a minute later I was standing along the roadside, a perplexed expression on my face as I eyed yet another puncture on that same rear tyre. This was fast losing its charm.

Peevish now, I sat amongst the weeds on the roadside and gave the tyre carcass the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Bear in mind these were the same doughty old Michelins that had been on the bike ever since I bought it all those years ago when I was in university; the tyres that were going to carry me along the Pan American Highway or the Silk Road. Excellent tyres, just as the man at the shop had said when I bought the bike. And in months of riding through the city streets of Melbourne in all winds and weathers and broken glass they’d remained plump and firm, so reliable that I’d never given them a single thought.

And that was the trouble. Nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres and there on the lonely Cape Schanck Road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon, I made the belated discovery that my globetrotting Michelin gumwalls were finally, at long last, irretrievably shot.

The front one was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear had frayed through completely. I could poke my finger through it in places. That it had made it all the way to Cape Schanck that day was a miracle – one that was now coming back to bite me. I could patch that inner tube as many times as I liked, but with the tyre holed like that the first stray piece of grit I came to would puncture the tube again.

What I needed was a new tyre or, rather, tyres. Failing that, a length of flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed-through spots in the rear one. I had neither. The slick polymer ten-dollar bill I frittered away on cake and coffee back in Portsea might just possibly have served for a makeshift tyre plug, but of course I spent that. All I had left on me was coins and a credit card and this was one hole Visa couldn’t bail me out of.

The nearest town from where I stood was Rosebud, eight miles away, on the bay side of the peninsula. But that was just a small beach town. There was a chance, a miniscule chance, that they might have a bike shop there, but I very much doubted it. And if they did have one, it would certainly be closed by the time I could get there, walking eight miles this late in the afternoon, pushing my bike.

And – oh, the delicious irony of it all – even if there was a bike shop in Rosebud and it was miraculously still open at whatever hour I shuffled up to their door, there was almost no chance they’d stock the twenty-six by one-and-three-eighths tyres that would fit the rims on my expedition tourer. No, I needed to be on the Silk Road for that, or at least in one of the better bicycle shops back in the city.

With luck, once I made it back to the highway, I might be able to scrounge something at a petrol station that I could use to line the tyre and keep it inflated long enough for me to pedal to Frankston. And wouldn’t that be a lovely ride? Twenty-five miles, at night, with no lights, on dodgy tyres, along the fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning, maybe. If I was lucky.

As I stood there forlorn by the roadside, with the shadows lengthening around me, I pictured everybody back in the office, many miles away, packing up for the day, easy of mind, clear of conscience, looking forward to home and hearth, a nice hot dinner, a leisurely evening in front of the TV and off to bed.

How I wished I was there with them. I could have been. Should have been, too, as my Puritanical conscience gleefully reminded me. Here was karmic justice at work. The absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, gets his comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration and misery on the coastal highway. Hogarth, I felt, should have been on hand to paint the scene. Call it A Rake’s Regret.

And so, with heavy heart, I began the long trudge to Rosebud, every flop-flop-flop from that blown tyre sounding to my ears like a raspberry blown by the Gods. But before I’d gone a hundred yards I heard the faint cough of a car engine. I glanced over my shoulder, sudden hope and presentiment rising in my breast, as I saw a battered green Holden cresting the rise.

Its driver slowed in passing, regarding me curiously, then veered, as though on tracks, onto the rough shoulder up ahead, his brake lights aglow. It was then I noticed the empty bicycle rack on the rear.

As I gazed in amazement, the driver, a lanky young Catholic priest, climbed out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic, smile on his face, as though he were sorry for not having arrived a little sooner. “Hello there,” he called out, “Trouble?”

I stared open-mouthed, as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.

He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and shook his head. “Looks pretty final to me,” he said, hands on hips. “How about I give you a lift into Frankston?”

I gave a brittle, feverish laugh and sprang to action, eager to load my bicycle onto that bike rack before this apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and forty-five minutes later I was standing on a platform at the Frankston train station, awaiting a city-bound train, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.

I arrived back in the city at a fashionable hour – sooner, in fact, than if this whole flat tyre business had never happened. I called in at a downtown bike shop and bought a new set of tyres. They put them on for me, pumped them up nice and firm, and I pedalled the rest of the way home as happy as if I had good sense. That night I celebrated the sweetness of my escape with a gloriously spicy Asian take-away and spent the evening plotting further adventures.

Alas, I didn’t quite have it all my own way, as things turned out. As Emerson says, the dice of God are always loaded. That beatific smile I worn on the platform at the Frankston train station wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. When I swanned into the office the next morning, as neatly recovered from my recent malaise as if I’d been to Lourdes, I was sporting a beautifully incriminating set of tan lines around my eyes from where my sunglasses had been.

A lot of water has flowed along the Yarra since those days of working for the newspaper and commuting into the city on that doughty old World Randonneur. I’ve not lived in Melbourne for many a year. Emboldened by the sense of captaincy I’d rediscovered and made restless by these daily doses of street adventure, I stopped waiting for ‘someday’ to arrive and began chasing up those dreams and ambitions I’d left untried or allowed myself to believe were out of reach.

Not long after my day of playing hooky down the Mornington Peninsula, I applied for – and was awarded – a Writers & Artist’s grant with the Australian Antarctic Division to go down to Antarctica, a lifelong dream fulfilled.

At the end of that summer, back in Australia, I landed a job with Time Magazine where I spent a couple of happy years as their senior writer for the South Pacific before restlessness, the open road and a sense of yet more unfinished business lured me away.

Putting what worldly goods and chattels I had into storage, I lashed a bedroll and waterproofs to the rear rack of my tourer and set out at last on that epic solo cycling trek I’d always promised myself – not the Silk Road as I’d once envisioned, but ten thousand miles through the Australian bush. I was away nine months, staying on sheep stations, aboriginal communities and remote mining towns. Mainly though, I camped, alone on the vast empty spinifex plains with an eternity of stars wheeling overhead, sometimes hundreds of miles from the nearest town.

On such nights I loved to sit up late, sipping at a water bottle, marvelling at the gaseous swoosh of the Milky Way overhead and the great primal hush all around me. I took a quiet pleasure then in the familiar sight of my bicycle, careened against a clump of spinifex like a discarded toy; good old bicycle that had brought me all this way and which, come morning, would carry me further down the highway to whatever new adventures awaited.

Eventually my wanderings brought me back around to Melbourne, where it all began. I approached the city from the south, up the Mornington Peninsula, having taken the ferry across the mouth of Port Phillip Bay, from Queenscliff to Portsea. From Elsternwick I followed my old route into the heart of downtown, almost like old times except now I was thirty-five pounds lighter, brown as a nut, and much in need of a wash, my panniers stuffed with tatty clothes and coated with ten-thousand miles of trail dust.

By then National Geographic had taken an interest in my journey, an interest that evolved into a three-part series in the magazine. It marked the start of what has grown into a twenty-five year-long association with National Geographic – one that would take me all over the world and fulfil so many improbable childhood aspirations. It’s been quite a ride. as I think back on those days I wonder how different my life might have been had I not dragged my old tourer out of the garden shed all those years ago and allowed those wheels of chance to work their magic.