Cycling serves us well in many ways, but we all do it for different reasons. These days, bike riding is becoming more accepted in Australia than ever before, and this got me thinking about what makes it special.
This column is a personal reflection about what cycling means to me.
– A blog by Rob Arnold
When it all really began for me, I was 12 years old and there was only one thing I wanted to do on the weekend: race my bike. For the rest of the week, there’d be riding but Sundays – and ideally Saturdays too – were all about racing.
Once I started racing, I never wanted to stop. It felt like there’d be endless motivation. But eventually the thrill faded, excuses mounted in my mind… and my attitude changed.
After around 10 years, something else changed. Instead of riding and racing, I was also writing about cycling. And that’s what prompted the most dramatic new direction in my cycling life.
Early in my 20s, I published my first cycling magazine. A few years later, in 1998, I established RIDE Media and that has been my job ever since.
I still ride but I no longer race.
We come to bike riding in myriad ways. And I’ve spoken with many cyclists who have shared their stories – and their passion, and sometimes their job. There are common themes, but we all have different explanations for what makes bike riding special.
Whatever the reason for it is, there does seem to be more cyclists in 2022 than there were not so long ago. Our community is growing and everyone arrives with their own story.
No matter if you’ve been riding (or racing) since you were young, or you have just started out, what becomes clear before long is that every day presents a new opportunity to get something out of the cycling life.
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At 51 I feel better on the bike than I ever have. I’m riding more now than I can remember having done in the past and although there are some bad days in the bike, they are easily outnumbered by the good ones. It’s this reward that keeps me coming back for more. And of late I’m even starting to think about pinning on a race number again…
The competitive spirit lingers but for years I’ve said that anyone who wants to race me has already won. That is my way of saying that I don’t really want to test myself against others any longer. In 2022, racing is not the reason I ride a bike.
There are many things that appeal to me about cycling. In the early days it was the quest to beat others in a race; it didn’t happen often but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t fulfilling to at least try.
In Australia in the 1980s, when I was racing every time I had a chance, there was a culture of cycling, but it was entirely different to how it is now. If you saw another cyclist out on the road doing more than just going to the shops, you probably knew who they were – and maybe even what grade they raced in. You’d give a nod or a wave if they were going the other direction, or you’d ride alongside each other for a while, for a brief catch up or maybe a swap-off session to help pass the time while learning the etiquette of cycling.
It was a niche, of sorts, and it often meant you were different. It was possible that you’d ride a bike and play footy… but usually it was either cycling or another sport, not both.
I was the only kid at my high school who raced a bike, and it wasn’t always a badge of honour. In fact, it was often something that was mocked by my peers. I knew I was a cyclist and that I loved what I did, but in a rugby league town like the one where I grew up, it was something that conjured taunts and ridicule.
Never mind the names I was called because I rode a bike rather than kick a ball; that impacted me as a teenager but the stigma has long been jettisoned from my mind.
When I first started getting serious and even considered shaving my legs so that I could “be like the pros”, it seemed like a step too far. If I turned up at my high school without hair on my legs, it would not have worked out well.
Attitudes were different in the 1980s, and tolerance for someone doing something a little different was scant.
When my mates started getting their drivers licence, they couldn’t understand why I was still content to use my bike to get around. Thankfully there were some who didn’t mock me, and even some who drove me (and my bike) to races so that I could keep doing the thing I loved. And yet, most of the time, cycling made me different, unusual even.
Why go for a ride when you could catch a wave? If you lived in a town like Coffs Harbour in the 1980s, early mornings and weekends were for surfing, not cycling.
Once, early in my cycling life, I splashed out with my pocket money and bought a rudimentary little device that counted my kilometres while I rode. I was so proud of the ‘data’ it offered. It gave me a target to aim for: a distance that might eclipse the day before… and yet I only had it a couple of weeks before it was destroyed.
One Saturday afternoon Mark Hocker, a bastard of a kid a couple of years older than me who lived down the hill and around the bend, chased after me with a fishing speargun. He told me he’d shoot me in the leg if I didn’t let him have a go of my bike.
When he took aim and seemed prepared to pull the trigger, I conceded. He put down the weapon, grabbed my dragster, wrestled my odometer off the front fork and duly stamped on it until the cogs of the mechanism and the little numbers that had given me my data littered the road in a mangled mess.
“What did you do that for?”
“You’re a pansy bike rider,” he justified. “Think you’re special, don’t you? Well,” he concluded, “you’re not.”
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There was an afternoon training bunch in Coffs on Tuesdays and Thursdays in summer. At around 4.00pm, they looped around a short circuit in town. It was a clique of blokes (and even a couple of women) who shared my passion for riding a bike.
They had “10-speed racers” (what we called road bikes back in Coffs way back when) but I joined them, riding on an old town bike my mother owned – a heavy, single-speed, with a back-pedal brake, rear rack, and mudguards.
Some riders in the bunch even wore knicks and woollen jerseys with pockets on the back. Oh, how I coveted that idea! But I never dared wear something like that when I started. How could I possibly wear tight shorts and risk revealing more than a teenager was safe to reveal at a time when there was very little leeway given for anyone who did something differently?
The cyclists in the afternoon bunch, however, had been riding for some time. They were older than me and they didn’t seem to have the same concerns that I, as an impressionable teenager, had about what others thought.
Glenn Price was one of the blokes in the local bunch. He shaved his legs! And he raced, that’s why he rode his bike through the week. He was training. On weekends he might go to a track carnival and compete in a wheelrace. Years later, he made selection for a team in the Commonwealth Bank Cycle Classic and I couldn’t believe that I knew a bloke who was racing an international stage race.
In summer, Glenn was often a star of the show on the rough bitumen track that looped around Brelsford Park, the local cricket oval. On those long, hot Saturday nights, the lights were turned on and fixed gear bikes were pulled out of the shed and put to use.
It was almost a counterculture, and only the truly bold were openly proud of their cycling. Many of us just did it almost undercover, not wanting to draw attention to ourselves and the sporting passion that lay deep inside.
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The bikes I rode were rudimentary. I raced BMX and I still cherish the chrome 1982 GT Pro that hangs in my office to remind me of that distant time. This was the bike I used for the novelty races at the local oval over the summer months while everyone else was racing track bikes. I’d power-mono away from my handicap mark, chasing down others who didn’t have fixies and reach the finish line with my lungs on fire from the effort and a sense of accomplishment that made all the ‘risks’ of riding a bike in a country town in the 1980s seem worthwhile.
For all of my high school years, I raced BMX carnivals as often as I could, but it wasn’t easy. Sometimes I’d like hoist the GT onto a rudimentary ‘bike beak’ affixed to the tow ball at the back of our Holden Gemini and my mum would drive me to the local races; other times I’d get a lift with Mel Atlee, Karleen’s mum, who was a regular at tracks all over the country. A bunch of BMX grommets would pile into the back of her Ford Fairlane and set off on a Friday night to race meets in Tamworth or Gunnedah, Blayney, Bathurst, Uralla, Armidale, or some such place hours away from Coffs.
If I was lucky, I’d get as far as Newcastle and the celebrated BMX track in Cardiff with his steep start gate and beautiful cinder surface that made the tyres sing and the massive jumps seem easy to clear. But a two-day meet was rare. I’d race a couple of these each year and it was a thrill. These carnivals seemed larger than life and I’d often turn up so anxious that my stomach would turn to knots and I’d be crippled by nerves.
Adrenaline surged when it got closer to race time and although my gut twisted with the pain brought on by anxiety, there were times when it served me well. If I could keep composed and time things right, I might even make it through to the semis. On rare occasions I got to the final but if Todd Selby was ever there – on his custom-made frame and his number-one ‘State plate’ – I’d freak out and be overcome by the moment.
How did blokes like Selby make it look so easy? Damn, he was good! So fast, so smooth. He even had sponsorship – from Qantas! To me, he was amazing. If, one day, I could beat Todd Selby, I thought, my life would be complete. I never did.
There were more losses than wins. There were a few crashes, a few conquests, and a surprisingly large haul of trophies for a bloke like me who rarely won a race.
The trophies served a purpose even if they just sat on my windowsill at home, gold-paint on plastic rapidly fading in the sunlight, collecting dust while showcasing my racing accomplishments. They were special then, and while they have long since been discarded, there was a sense of pride and a story attached to each one.
It seems like such a long time ago, but those days at the dusty tracks of NSW shaped me at a formative time. Without those moments, I’d probably not have become the cyclist I am now.
My BMX days are the beginning of a lifelong love of cycling. It left an impression on me in more ways than one. I still wear the scars, for example, of that time I slipped a pedal going over the doubles during a practice run in the dark late on a Friday evening at the Kempsey BMX track when I was 14. The cranks spun backwards at a rapid rate and the studs of my Shimano DX pedal smashed so hard into my shin that I landed with the bike stuck to me. Once I rolled to a halt, I had to slam the opposite crank to get the pedal out of my bone.
Ah yes, the memories – of good times and bad – come flooding back when I think of those distant days of racing my bike.
* * * * *
Even when I escaped the insecurity of my teenage years and committed to living the cycling life and not even being shy about it, I was different. In my early working life, I was often referred to as ‘the cycling guy’. A colleague who became a good friend called me ‘Bicycle Rob’. It wasn’t an insult. Actually, I took it as a compliment, but it also highlighted the reality of how – at that time in my life – I was different to others. I was a bike rider. And that was often something of an anomaly.
We’re luckier now. Things have changed. In 2022 there are more cyclists in Australia than ever before and that’s a good thing. There is a large community of bike riders and although we now have more riding options than I could have dreamed of in the 1980s, there are still the Mark Hockers of the world who will try to insist that cycling isn’t a valid thing to do, that it’s not something special, and that it makes you less of a person than if you did another sport. But the stigma no longer exists in my mind.
I’m proud to be a cyclist. I may no longer race but I still ride. And I love it more now than I could have imagined all those years ago.
When I think about that broken odometer and all the other ramifications that came as part of my desire to ride my bike, I’m surprised that I still love it as much as I do.
I almost stopped riding because of the speargun incident. It scared me. And the fright of that moment (and many other moments since) – made me wonder if bike riding was worth the risk of becoming an outcast.
I’m proud to say: I never stopped.
I still ride almost every day.
I still find satisfaction from the simple act of pedalling.
My competitive days are long gone but that doesn’t mean I’m beaten. If anything, I feel more satisfied now after a good day on the bike than I’ve ever felt.
It wasn’t always the popular thing to do and bike riding has given me plenty of moments when I felt at risk, or that I wasn’t part of the ‘in crowd’. But there is no excuse to stop doing what I love.
One of these days, I may race again and challenge myself for the sheer sake of seeing if I can beat someone and prove something to myself but that’s not what inspires me.
I ride now because it’s what I’ve always done. Cycling is a part of me and many of my happiest moments have come when I’m on the bike.
I’ve seen a lot of the world because of cycling and whenever anyone asks why I ride, there is no definitive answer. Rather, it’s a culmination of myriad elements that make it so special, and I’m motivated by seeing others come to this great activity and discovering the joy of riding.
Reporting on bike racing has given me a career but I’ve never been a pro cyclist. I’ve had a good life because of cycling. It keeps me fit and helps me in more ways than I’m able to express.
The act of pedalling is something simple and accessible. And you can make of it what you want while enjoying conquests along the way. But, for me, there is no longer a quest to win a race or prove that I’m faster than someone else. I’m just happy that others are discovering what a couple of wheels and a sense of adventure can offer.
I never want to stop riding. The thrill hasn’t faded. And I’m still discovering things about myself because I ride a bike. I hope you do too.
– By Rob Arnold