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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. 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 twelve-mile round trip 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 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 whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back in my college days in Sydney when I was daydreaming of setting off on bold cycling adventures along the Silk Road, riding Cape to Cairo, or pedalling down the Pan American Highway.

And this was the very thing on which to tackle such a journey: a Gemini World Randonneur, 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 but one that was plentiful in the Third World, meaning I would easily be able to source spares wherever my wanderings took me, from the Bolivian altiplano to the market bazaars of Samarkand.

It was that 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.

In the event, I never rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways on King Street. And even that was ages ago. And here it was, still with the original set of Michelin gumwalls clinging to the rims. I dug out my pump and set to work inflating them. Surprisingly the flabby old things still held air.

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 tooling around the University of Sydney or doing loops of the bridle path in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying my way through the mean streets of a big-city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike.

Had my tyres deflated overnight—not an unreasonable expectation—it 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. But they remained rock-hard and ready and the weather outside was gorgeous; a fine autumn day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off and pride forbade that.

And so, after breakfast, heart in my mouth, I wobbled into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, office clothes folded neatly into a bundle and tied 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 effort and the exhilaration of danger, and more than a little relieved, I was also 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 rush, 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, accepting as a matter of course the stream of cars whooshing past my elbow. Along with this confidence came a quiet satisfaction at having taken matters into my own hands and the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle. As I bowled home that evening along the Nepean Highway, I found myself marvelling that I hadn’t done this earlier.

The trammies went back to work the following day. I stayed out, at least as far as the trams were concerned. I’d had a taste of something I liked, and didn’t want to give it up.  I bought myself a flashing red taillight for my bike, a rear-view mirror, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days and a pair of 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 backstreets and alleyways the way only a cyclist can. By that I don’t just mean where the potholes were or the misaligned storm drains, but the pulse and feel and mood of parts of the city I’d never known existed before I took up cycling.

Commuting soon became the high point of my day. Although I could easily get into the city quicker on my bike than I ever could have on the trams, I found myself leaving for work earlier and earlier so I could take my time, meander and explore. I loved the jaunty sense of captaincy that came over me when I set out from home, the freedom to steer my own course, find my own way.

As you would with music, I varied my routes to suit my moods. Sometimes I’d ride into the city along the foreshore, 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 the mood took me, and I had time, I’d pedal out to the end of the pier, lean my bike against the wrought-iron railing there and watch the city greet the day: sunshine reflecting on the Rialto Tower (then the tallest building in the city), traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge, the big ferry from Tasmania steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight passage across Bass Strait.

Other times I’d call 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 this wonderful boisterousness and the heady redolence of ripe fruit, fish and scorched spices. I’d buy a handful dried peaches or a croissant from one of the delis and nibble my ad hocbreakfast 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, believing the world could be my oyster. I’d forgotten.

As spring advanced into summer and the days became warmer and finer I found myself toying with the radical idea of maybe one day notending up at the office, but playing hooky instead, escaping down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine, piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there. What started out as idle whimsy grew into temptation and finally outright dare. Go on, do it. And by golly one bright Wednesday morning, early in autumn, I did.

I called in sick from Frankston, one of the outer suburbs on Melbourne’s southern fringes, and recited the lie I’d been rehearsing since I altered course, twenty miles back, on the St Kilda seafront: head ache, runny nose, sore throat. Should be better tomorrow. It was the copy boy who took the call and he bought my lie with touching naïveté, expressing hopes that I’d be feeling better soon. I rang off feeling guilty – and elated and unburdened, too. The deed was done. Now to enjoy the day. Which I did. I had a wonderful time.

It was lovely down the peninsula: plenty of cheerful sunshine, blue waters, a creamy surf, the bracing tang of eucalyptus and Norfolk pine. I did a spot of wine tasting at one of the vineyards I passed along the way, had an excellent lunch of fish and chips on a picnic table along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a delightful ice cream parlour.

Later on, at a café in Portsea, over a moist slice of poppy-seed cake and a cappuccino, I pondered the remains of the afternoon. I had come a long way and had as long a ride ahead of me to get back home but I was feeling fit and besides, I could always bail out at Frankston if I needed to; catch a train from there back to the city if it was getting too late or too dark to ride. With the train from Frankston as my back up, I reckoned I could afford to risk a side-trip to Cape Schanck, a windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula.

I’d never been to Cape Schanck. For that matter, in all the time I’d been living in Melbourne I’d never been to any of the places I’d ridden to that day. This was all new to me. I felt like a discoverer. Eager now to make good use of the rest of my day, I paid for my coffee and cake and set off for the cape, another twenty miles away.

I rolled up there late in the afternoon. It was a gratifyingly wild and lonely spot and at that hour on a weekday I had it all to myself, just me and a few screeching gulls and the hollow boom of the surf against the base of the cliffs far below. I lay my bike down on the grass near the clifftop and stood for a long while looking out over the Southern Ocean, marvelling at the thought that the next landfall south of here was Antarctica. I’d ridden to the edge of the world on my bike.

After a wee while 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 afternoon was shifting into evening. The day was getting away from me. Frankston 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 crack-on. I gave the great violet-grey vastness a final gaze, then picked up my bicycle and pushed off.

Half a mile later I heard a hiss, as my rear tyre deflated. Annoyed – why did a perfect day have to be blighted like this? – I hopped off my bike and dug out patch kit, pump and tyre levers. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, patched the tube and pumped it up nice and firm again. Five minutes later I was on my way. But not for long. Within thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again.

Once more I dismounted, feeling a bit peevish this time. Once more I peeled the tyre off the rim, patched the nick in the tube, but this time I ran my finger along the inside of the tyre thinking that there must have been a bit of grit in there that caused the second puncture. I felt nothing, just smooth dusty rubber. Whatever had been in there must have fallen out when I pulled away the tube. I shrugged, pumped up the tyre, put it back on the bike and for the third time in what seemed like as many minutes I pushed off for Frankston.

Less than a minute later I was standing in weeds along the roadside looking hard at yet another puncture, rear tyre again. This was fast losing its charm. In all the time I had been cycling through the city, on streets and alleyways often strewn with broken glass, I’d not once had a flat. Here on this idyllic country road I’d had three punctures in less than a hundred yards.

I looked around to see if there were any tacks or thorns or other impediments on the road, but found nothing other than the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the – what? – one car a day that must have come through here. How unlucky was that? Like being hit by piano falling off a meteor. Or getting three flats for no obvious reason in less than a hundred yards. I shook my head at the cosmic improbability of it all and gave him a sympathetic nod: you and me both, brother.

Rather grumpily now, I sat down in the weeds and peeled the tyre off the rim yet again, this time giving the flabby rubber the scrutiny I should have given it earlier, much earlier, like before I ever left home. Remember, these were the same tyres that had been on the bike ever since I bought it all those years ago, the ones that were going to carry me off to Zanzibar and along the Silk Road. For months I had been riding them all over Melbourne, commuting every day and exploring the city on a whim and never giving a thought to the tread on my tyres. I should have. For here on the lonely Cape Schanck Road, in the fading light of an otherwise splendid afternoon, I made the discovery that my doughty old Michelin gumwalls were, at long last, well and truly shot, beyond all hope of repair.

The front tyre was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear tyres had worn through completely. I could poke my finger through the hole and wiggle it. No matter how many times I might patch the inner tube, with a hole like that in the tyre the very first bit of grit I rolled over would puncture it again. What I needed was a whole new tyre or, failing that, some bit of flexible, durable material with which I could line the worn-out old tyre. I had neither. I suppose I could have tried lining it with the remains of the snake, but he was a bit far gone.

It was eight miles to Rosebud, the nearest town, over on the bay side of the peninsula. There was a chance, a small chance, that they might have a bike shop there, but if they did it would certainly be shuttered up for the night by the time I walked there. And oh the delicious irony of it all – even if they did have a bike shop there, and it was miraculously still open at whatever hour I shuffled up to their door, there was almost no chance they would stock the twenty-six by one-and-three-eighths inch tyres that would fit my expedition tourer. Nope, I needed to be in the Third World for that.

With luck I might be able to scrounge something at a petrol station in Rosebud: a length of flexible plastic or toughened rubber I could use to line the tyre and keep it inflated long enough for me to pedal to Frankston. What a lovely ride that would be: twenty-five miles, at night, with no lights, on dodgy tyres, along the fast and busy coastal highway. Home by midnight, maybe.

Feeling mightily sorry for myself, I worked the flabby tyre back on the wheel, clapped the wheel back on the bike and began the weary trudge to Rosebud. As I shuffled along the roadside, pushing my bike, wishing to God I were safely home, slippers on my feet, diner on the table, having put in a good day’s work, my inner Calvinist couldn’t help pointing out the sweet justice of my predicament. The absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, gets his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery, despair, even danger.

Building on all this, giving free rein to emotion, I was thinking how my stooped and unhappy figure was just the sort of thing Hogarth would have enjoyed painting had bicycles been around back then (A Rake’s Regret?), when the distant purl of a car’s engine reached my ears. I looked over my shoulder to see a not-very-new Holden rise into view.  The driver slowed as he drew abreast of me then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder a few yards further up the road, his brake lights glowing.  The car had a bicycle rack on the rear.

The driver’s door opened. 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 as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.

I might as well have been. He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and its threadbare tyres and shook his head. “Looks pretty final to me,” he said. “How about I give you a lift into Frankston?”

Still staring, I gave a feverish laugh then sprang to life, eager to strap my bicycle onto that bike rack before this friendly apparition and his car could vanish. He remained real enough, though, and an hour later I was standing on a city-bound platform at the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.

Alas it was radiant for other reasons too, as I was to discover the next morning when I sauntered into the office, as neatly recovered from my sickbed as if I’d been to Lourdes. It had indeed been a sunny day down the peninsula. I was sporting a wonderfully vivid set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been. The dice of God, as they say, are always loaded.

A lot of water has flowed along the Yarra since those halcyon days at the newspaper. I’ve long since moved away from Melbourne. The city has changed beyond recognition. It’s bigger, brighter, brasher. The ugly old newspaper building where I worked in those days has been demolished and a glitzy billion-dollar eighty-story tower block, with a Ritz-Carlton hotel, is being built in its place. A sprawling casino and convention centre complex now dominates by the intersection where I used to sneak into downtown, and the vaguely raffish neighbourhood where I lived, just up the road from the Daily Planet brothel, has been relentlessly gentrified. I couldn’t possibly afford to live there now.

Bicycle paths are everywhere. So are cyclists, bright young things most of them, who likely weren’t even born when I was trundling along the foreshore. It’s a different city altogether. New skyline, new people. I feel like a time traveller. As I cast by mind back to those commutes into the city on that doughty old Gemini World Randonneur and that giddy breakaway down the Mornington Peninsula, I find myself thinking of all the changes in my own life and marvelling at how so many of them were brought about by the delicious restlessness and sense of captaincy that came over me that day I dusted off my bicycle and began to steer my own course.