Tag Archives: Humour
Being out on the road as much as I am, I’ve seen my share of bone-headed plays on bicycles – cyclists shooting through busy intersections against the lights, undertaking heavy goods vehicles that may or may not be about to turn left, and spinning along misty streets in the pre-dawn grey wearing sombre clothes and not a single light or reflector – but seldom have I seen anything more exuberantly bone-headed than the little tableau I witnessed this morning from my kitchen sink as I cleaned out my coffee pot, post-ride.
As I glanced out the window I saw a grey-haired old man – and how he came to be old, I’ll never understand – spinning along the footpath at a brisk rate, bareheaded on a ratty hybrid, one hand on the handlebars and a cigarette dangling lazily in the other. Distracted by an urge to draw on his cigarette, he hit a tree-root lump in the pavement and the whole bike did a somersault with him on it, mid puff. It was the damnedest thing. It was positively cartoonish. The aerial display ended with the guy sprawled on the pavement, the bike on top of him. I stepped out to see if he was okay, but he was already on his feet, a bit scuffed up and scraped and moving rather stiffly but clearly keen to get on his way. First things first though: he fired up another smoke to replace the one he mashed out on the pavement, then he slung his leg over the saddle and set off down the footpath once more, steering one handed, cigarette in the other, dangling by his side, just as before. It takes all kinds to make a world, doesn’t it?
How good it feels to be home again and back in the saddle after my unexpectedly prolonged sojourn in northern Norway. I spun along the seafront this morning in fine fettle, chuckling aloud in sheer good humour as I recalled a very funny story one of my readers contributed as a comment to a recent piece I’d written about bicycle maintenance (see here). It just sort of popped into my head out of the blue and made me laugh – and keep laughing, not laughing at the guy but laughing with him, a laugh of recognition, and all the heartier for it. It’s not every day you see a cyclist giggling to himself as he spins down the street and my seeming nuttiness drew concerned frowns from couple of joggers on the footpath and a rather dour middle-aged lady who was walking her dog.
I tried to mould my face into something more sombre and dignified, but it didn’t work for their quizzical glances only served to remind me of another funny story – this one from a couple of years ago when I rode the Lôn Las Cymru, the Welsh national cycling trail from Chepstow to Holyhead. It was autumn, late in September, a cool grey blustery day, awash with rain, and I was riding along a seafront promenade – just as I was today – except of course it was a Welsh seaside town, not an English one; a place called Barmouth.
I’d ridden the eight miles down to the sea from Dolgellau earlier that morning along a wooded railway path that shadowed the Mawddach River to its mouth on Cardigan Bay. It had been a pleasant ride, moody in the rain, with the sandy desolation of the estuary on my starboard side and the pewter-grey line of the bay up ahead.
I’d crossed into town on the railway bridge, swung through high streets, past the cavalcade of tacky seaside amusements, all shuttered up and gloomy in the autumn chill, and headed north, hugging the coast, with hopes of raising Caernarfon by the end of the day. As the rain gathered pace, though, and a fresh line of squalls blew in from the bay I suddenly found myself giggling uncontrollably at the thought of the two Bertie Woosters I’d met over breakfast at the B&B I’d stayed in the previous night back in Dolgellau
These two toffs had driven up from London in a soft-top roadster for a weekend jolly in the country, two days of zooming through the autumn leaves, top down, touring the postcard-pretty Welsh lanes. But somewhere along the line – they thought it had been while they were eating lunch at a quaint old rustic pub the previous afternoon – some clown nicked their roof.
Neither of the lads noticed the theft until later that afternoon, when the rain started. When they pulled over and went to hoist the canvas, they discovered it wasn’t there. Rather rueful now, they’d been obliged to drive through the cold shower, soaking wet, in search of the nearest B&B, which happened to be in Dolgellau. The family who ran it lent them a tarp to cover the cockpit overnight. But that wouldn’t answer for the wet drive back to London – and they said they absolutely had to be there today, Monday morning, rain or shine. And of course Monday dawned raining – and raining hard. I heard their whole sorry tale over my bacon and eggs that morning, as I sat in the bay-windowed breakfast room where they were fortifying themselves for the ordeal ahead.
The problem was one of aerodynamics, one of them explained to me, in his perfect cut-glass Wodehousian accent, as he marmaladed his toast. If they’d had a modern convertible design of the bonnet coupled with the rush of wind would have swept the rain up and over the windscreen as long as they kept their speed over forty-five miles an hour. But with an old classic like theirs, well … he’d let the words sort of hang there, chewing his lip and gazing thoughtfully out the rain-spattered window, lost in imaginings of his own.
It was two hundred and fifty miles to London.
I’d listened with a straight face at the time, although it wasn’t easy. An hour or so later, though, as I was pedaling through the drenching rain on the Barmouth seafront, and getting mighty wet myself, I found myself wondering how those two chaps were getting on as they motored back to the city along the M-4. And as I wondered, I began picturing, and picturing, I started to snigger and from sniggering… well, after that there was no stopping it. I laughed until the tears came, looking to all the world like the village idiot riding his bicycle with the pitchfork rain coming down all around him, stared at by motorists and passers by alike, gleefully warming myself before the bonfire of somebody else’s vanities.
Looks like it’s time to break out the chocolates and celebrate – Higgs Boson has at last been found. For those of you who have never heard of it before or who, like me, thought Higgs Boson was a Norwegian rider on Team Sky in this year’s Tour de France, this is the elusive ‘God Particle’ that has been so keenly sought by physicists since the 1960s. It is this ghostly sub-atomic particle, they say, that is responsible for giving objects mass – and that’s bound to be splendid news for those of us chocolate fiends who for years have been blaming <em>Theobroma Cacao, the food of the Gods, for our various problems with mass and tight jeans. Now, thanks to the indefatigable work of a team of scientists at the Large Hadron Collider, a multi-billion pound facility deep underground on the French-Swiss border, we can shift the blame to where it rightly belongs – the Higgs Boson particle – and hereafter enjoy our chocolate with complete peace of mind, even on those days when we don’t get out for long cleansing rides, or sit idle in small, cramped foreign hotel rooms, waiting for boats that never arrive, watching the Tour de France on TV…
“Isle of Fright!” screamed the page-three headlines in the newspaper that morning announcing the discovery of a new species of ‘vicious’ flesh-eating dinosaur that had been found embedded in the 120 million year-old cliffs of England’s fair and gentle Isle of Wight. Believing this walking nightmare to be the long-elusive great-great-grand-daddy of Tyrannosaurus rex, palaeontologists around the world were hailing it as one of the most significant dinosaur finds in recent years. An artist’s rendition showed it striding, fang and claw, through the swampy landscape that characterised the area at the time, in the company of an iguanodon, a brachiosaurus, and an armour-plated polecanthus, other prehistoric beasties that had also once roamed the island.
It all made for a stirring read over the breakfast bacon and eggs. I’d always thought of the Isle of Wight in gentlemanly terms: yachting regattas at Cowes, America’s Cup, Queen Victoria’s summer retreat at Osborne House, and those fashionable 19th century seaside resorts where England’s well-to-do used to go to ‘take the air’.
It never occurred to me that the island might be a dinosaur graveyard as well, let alone that its Cretaceous sandstones were the final resting place for some of those very same prehistoric monsters whose fossils inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World in 1912 – a novel that would one day provide the inspiration for Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. But so it apparently was.
And what’s more, thanks to the wettest winter since 1659, landslides along the coast were exposing fresh new rock faces riddled with the bones and teeth of dinosaurs. Anybody could go looking and, according to the newspaper, just about everybody was. Anywhere below the high-tide mark was Crown land and therefore fair game.
This was a few years ago. I was new in England then. And as I read all this, beautiful vistas rolled out before me. I used to love reading The Lost World when I was a kid and always fancied myself as the Edward Malone character, the journalist who accompanies Professor Challenger into the prehistoric jungles of South America. And now here I was, in jaded middle age, twenty-some years into a real-life career in journalism, and with a geology degree to boot, and yet to go on a dinosaur hunt. That was about to change. Here was my chance, not just to go a-dinosaur hunting but to do it in the style of my most cherished boyhood daydreams: sling myself aboard my bike and set off down the street, jaunty and cavalier, my cap set for adventure. How many times had I played out that scene in my head. Now I could do it for real.
The Isle of Wight was less than a hundred miles from my doorstep, and waiting out in my garden shed was a doughty old English-built, black-and-cream tourer, propped against a load of rusty paint tins, looking hopeful, ready to go. Like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything but temptation. I threw a few things together and, like a character in a storybook, set off within the hour with a heart for any fate.
Professor Challenger’s party began their adventures with an arduous journey by steamship to a dangerous South American seaport. I, on the other hand, had a long, wet and windy ride along the coast to Portsmouth, followed by a short but rather bouncy crossing of the Solent on the Wightlink ferry. I didn’t mind the lousy weather, not for the first few miles anyway. The lashing rain and stormy skies gave a nice sense of drama and danger to the undertaking, but by the time I rolled off the ferry and onto the rain-slickened streets of Ryde, I was more in the mood for hot coffee than cold hardship.
I collected my thoughts over a latte in the steamy warmth of one of the cafes along the seafront, watching the rain streak down on the windows and looking over the brochures I’d picked up at the tourism office, across the street. The best thing to do, I gathered would be to head first for Sandown, five miles away, visit The Dinosaur Isle Museum and get my bearings.
I arrived late afternoon, near closing time, under a cold slanting rain. I browsed amongst the glass-cased exhibits and artists’ renditions of what the island might have looked like in the bad old days of the Cretaceous. There were loads of fossil shells, ammonites, sponges, ferns, insects and chunks of petrified wood on display but they weren’t what I, or anyone else there, was interested in. We were all of us gazing at the bones, teeth and claws of the scarier critters, most particularly the newly discovered Eotyrannus lengi.
As dinosaurs go, Eotyrannus wasn’t terribly huge – about fifteen feet long, a mere morsel for T. rex, which could grow to over forty feet, but still more than double the size of those scene-stealing velociraptors in Jurassic Park. It sported rows of two-inch saw-edged teeth and nightmarish Freddy Krueger-style claws with which it could tear other dinosaurs to pieces. It was fast and agile and considered to be the most ferocious of any of the twenty or so species of dinosaur known to have inhabited the island. It had been found mingled with the remains of a plant eater – upon which it may have preyed – and surrounded by a lot of plant debris, leading to speculation that it may have been caught up in a flash flood.
I took this all on board, bought a where-to-find-fossils guide in the museum bookshop, and dropped another two quid on a waterproof geology map of the island. That night I sat up late in my B&B, in Ventnor, listening to the wind rattle the windows, and worked out a plan of campaign. Most of the new dinosaurs, including Eotyrannus, were being found amongst the crumbling sandstones on the cliffs near Brighstone, on the southwest side of the island. That was the place to be and where everybody was heading. There was even a small dinosaur museum that had recently opened up on one of the farms down there, where excavations were continually turning up interesting bones and where a team of palaeontologists had set up a booth to help amateurs identify their finds.
I marked it on the map. Early the next morning, after two-thousand calories of ‘full English breakfast’, I set out in the wind and rain for Brighstone, about fifteen miles away. I arrived just on low tide. Dismounting at a likely looking spot, I wheeled my bicycle down onto the beach, then propped it up against a rock face at the bottom of a cliff and started prospecting.
Everything I remembered about Cretaceous geology you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, but as a setting for windswept drama you’d have to give this spot high marks: a romantic old smuggler’s coast, lashed by storms, with the hollow boom of the surf in your ears and the windows of some old brooding manor house gazing down from the wooded heights nearby.
I pecked around for the better part of two hours without finding anything more interesting than a few faint impressions of shells and some squiggles in the rock that could have been anything. By then the weather was closing in and the tide was on the rise. I was daydreaming about lunch and hot coffee when I turned over an oblong lump of rock and realised, with a start, as I was about to put it down again, that it was shaped uncannily like a butcher’s bone – a tibia, to be precise. The hairs on the back of my neck began to tingle. I hastily brushed off the sand and grit. It was unmistakably a fossil, and its resemblance to the top part of a thigh bone was positively unnerving.
It was big, too; not as big as the ones I’d seen in the museum, but plenty big enough to satisfy me. I cast my eyes greedily around to see if there was any more to this skeleton, but it seemed as though the surf must have messed it all up, because this one chunk was all there was. But that was enough. I hoisted it up and, with a furtive look up and down the desolate beach, to be sure that I was alone with my treasure, I lugged it over to my bicycle and lashed it onto the rear rack with a length of shock cord I’d brought along, just in case. Five minutes later I was on my way, wobbling down the road to the farmstead where the palaeontologists awaited, eager to show off my weighty prize. This had to be seen by experts.
The rain was coming down harder now, with raw gusts blowing in from the sea. They skittered the bicycle some on the wet and slippery road, but the cold and wet couldn’t touch the inner me – warmed as I was by the glow of discovery, and of course the effort of lugging a sizeable chunk of Cretaceous-era relic along a hilly coast and into a stiff breeze. As I pedalled along I tried to imagine the fearsome creature whose leg bone I had found. Maybe it was a young Eotyrannus, a new and vital piece in the unfolding evolutionary puzzle. Maybe it was a bit of a completely new and still more vicious predator. Maybe … but who knew. It could be anything.
I found the farm I was looking for. Despite the atrocious weather the yard was filled with cars; I wasn’t the only one scouring the slumped cliffs that morning, looking for fossils. Inside the barn a knot of people in oilskins and gumboots were gathered around a table, waiting to show their finds to the resident palaeontologist. He was busy sorting through the bucket of stony curios brought in by a local woman. I sidled up, listening in, my altogether heftier specimen concealed by my dripping cape.
The woman’s seemingly shapeless lumps turned out to be rather interesting: a piece of vertebrae from an iguanodon, a bit of armour from polecanthus, and a piece of bone from an unidentified, but undoubtedly flesh-eating, monster. She was so pleased. I had mixed emotions, myself. My own find looked so much more impressive and bone-like, and was so much larger and grander that I hated to spoil her moment.
“Yes?” said the palaeontologist, looking up at me through his half-moon spectacles.
I stepped up, smiling apologetically to the woman whose find I was about to trump, and hefted my great fossilised tibia onto the table. “I found this near the bottom of the cliffs a few miles from here,” I began, striking just the right tone of self-important modesty. “…and I was wondering if it might be of interest.”
His eyebrows arched impressively. “My goodness! You brought that all the way here on your bicycle?”
I nodded an affirmative, and flashed a smile around the room. Anything for science, my good man.
“Hmmm.” He groped for words. Then he found them. “I’m afraid that what you’ve got there, young man, is a rather heavy chunk of flint, with a large fossilised sponge at the end of it.”
It took a few seconds before his words sunk in. I had been prepared to hear that this thigh bone might not actually have come from Eotyrannus lengi, and in fact might not even have belonged to anything carnivorous at all, but had instead been the thigh bone of some harmless moss-nibbling thing – but a sponge? What kind of a sick joke was this?
“Yes, indeed,” he continued, as he examined it more closely. “It’s a sponge all right. And rather badly eroded at that.”
“Uh-huh.” I could feel my face flush. Eyes were on me. “Of course it is. I knew that. I was just hoping you could tell me what kind of a sponge, what species. I’m most curious on the point.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry. That’s not really my area. But there is a palaeontologist here who could probably help you. She’s at tea just now, if you care to wait.”
I stepped smilingly aside, nodded knowledgeably to the crowd, easing backwards away from the table then waiting until he (and they) were busy poring through a bucket of someone else’s more interesting specimens before slipping out the door.
I abandoned Spongiferous rex discretely behind a fence post, together with my career as a swashbuckling dinosaur hunter. I saddled up, pushed off and pedalled onward through the rain, sneezing by now, another thirty miles back to Ryde where I caught an afternoon ferry to Portsmouth and the mainland. Conan Doyle could keep his blessed Professor Challenger and Edward Malone and the whole lot of them. The more I thought about it – and I had much time for thinking the next day on the long and dreary ride home – I liked Sherlock Holmes better anyway. Perhaps Dartmoor next time.
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, an old bayside suburb in the city’s inner, and catching the ting-a-ling tram down Glenhuntly Road each morning to a fairly dull job writing features for a lightweight, parochial and oh-so-earnest Sunday broadsheet.
I didn’t own a car but relied on shoe leather and public transport to get around and so when the tram drivers’ union announced out of the blue one afternoon that their members were going on strike from midnight, and the bus and train drivers agreed to down tools in sympathy, I found myself stuck for a way in to work.
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 in those days, 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 bike, a relic from college days that I hadn’t ridden in ages but had somehow 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 might be fun, an adventure, and certainly a more spirited response to being strike-bound than throwing up my hands and begging a lift from car-owning colleagues.
When I arrived home that evening I found my old bike and dragged it out of the shed, feeling a little reproachful at its sorry state, all grimy and saggy-looking from years of neglect. This had been quite a decent bicycle once, bought with a whole summer’s lawn-mowing earnings back when I was still daydreaming of cycling adventures in Asia, Africa and South America.
This here would have been just the thing to take you wherever you wanted to go, or so the man at the bike shop had assured me: the Gemini World Randonneur. It was the company’s expedition model: pine green with silver mudguards, fifteen speeds, pannier racks fore and aft, braze-ons for three water bottle cages, drop bars with bar-end shifters and powerful cantilever brakes for sure-footed braking for those times when you were descending tricky mountain passes with a load of gear lashed on the back.
Unlike the other bikes on display in the shop, this one ran on twenty-six inch tyres, rather an old-fashioned size in those pre-mountain-bike days, but one which was plenty common in the Third World, meaning I could source spares wherever my wanderings took me: from the Bolivian altiplano to the market bazaars of Samarqand. It was that which sold me on the model. I loved that touch of practical worldliness and savoir faire. It spoke of foresight and planning, seriousness of intent, and set my rugged World Randonneur apart from those tame suburban road bikes you saw tooling around the campus.
But as they say about buying novels, you don’t buy the book so much as the imagined leisure time to read it, and so it must be with expedition bicycles, for the way things panned out I never actually rode it anywhere more exotic than the Lebanese takeaways along King Street in the student ghetto around the University of Sydney. I never even put enough miles on it to wear out the original set of tyres. Those same old Michelins were still clinging to the rims all these years later, soft and flabby and grimy with age.
I rummaged around some more in the shed, found my pump and set to work inflating them. Surprisingly enough, the things held air.
They were still plump and firm the next morning, too-disconcertingly so, for by then I’d begun to have some second thoughts about the wisdom of all this. A good many years had passed since I’d ridden a bike, and then it had been mostly just tooling around the University of Sydney campus or riding the bridle paths in Centennial Park on quiet Sunday mornings, not jockeying about in the mean streets of a big city rush hour, let alone one in the throes of a transport strike.
Having those mouldy tyres deflate overnight-not an unreasonable expectation-would have given me a convenient ‘out’, the force majeure that would have allowed me to back away from my brash plan to cycle into work and still keep a measure of face. But the tyres remained firm and the weather outside was gorgeous, a perfect spring day. I had no excuse except timidity for calling it off, and pride forbade that.
And so after breakfast, with my heart in my mouth, I wobbled out into the maelstrom of the Melbourne rush-hour, my office clothes folded into a bundle and tied on the rear rack. 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, but half an hour later when I rolled up to loading dock at the newspaper building, flushed with effort and the exhilaration of danger, I was kind of sorry to see the morning’s adventures draw to a close.
All that day I found myself thinking about the homeward journey with a heady adrenalin-charged stab of eagerness and apprehension. I made it home unscathed, and feeling victorious, and 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 and their wing mirrors whooshing close by my elbow. Along with this confidence came a certain 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 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 the following day, but not I. I stayed out and with the money I saved from not buying tram tickets I tricked up my old tourer with a brand new flashing red taillight and a snazzy rear-view mirror. I bought myself a pair of padded shorts and cycling gloves as well, a citrine-yellow riding cape for rainy days, and a pair of sturdy waxed cotton panniers to keep my office clothes clean and dry-all the stuff I’d need if I was going to make these daily jousts with life and traffic a regular thing.
Over the coming weeks and months I came to know the city streets in the intimate 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 mood of the place, the thousand-and-one vignettes and details that pass unnoticed when you rattle by in a tram with your nose in the paper.
Morning commutes were my favourites, when the day was fresh, bright as a newly minted penny and full of promise. As you might with music I varied my journeys to suit my mood. Sometimes I’d find myself drawn to the old Edwardian fun pier at St Kilda, where Greek and Italian fishermen sat up all night with their squid lines and thermoses of coffee. I’d ride out to the kiosk at the end of the pier, lean my bike against the decorative iron railing and just stand there and watch the city wake up and greet the day, the upper flanks of the Rialto Tower catching the early morning sunshine, and the distant sparkle of traffic streaming over the Westgate Bridge, and the big Tasmanian ferry steaming up the bay, fresh in from its overnight run across the moody waters of Bass Strait.
Other times I’d veer inland and follow the Yarra River into the city through the Royal Botanic Gardens and Alexandra Park. Or if I were in a gritty inner-urban frame of mind call in at the South Melbourne markets, just off Cecil Street, and lose myself for an hour in its cheerful ethnic bustle and the heady redolence of ripe fruit and fresh fish and scorched Asian spices. I’d buy a handful of dried peaches or a couple pieces of baklava and nibble my ad hoc breakfast while I wandered amongst the stalls, soaking up the ambience and marvelling at all the lives lived out 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.
As summer bloomed and the weather became warmer and finer, I found myself toying with the idea of playing hooky sometime; taking French leave from work and swanning off down the Mornington Peninsula for a day of stolen sunshine and piny breezes and fish-and-chips on the beach among the pretty little seaside holiday towns down there.
What started out as a bit of whimsy, a wouldn’t-that-be-fun sort of thing, evolved into niggling temptation, which in turn grew into a bold-faced dare: go on, be a devil, do it. I fought the good fight, but in the end the bicycle and its seductive freedom won out, and one sparkling Wednesday morning early in autumn, I bolted.
I phoned in ‘sick’ from a payphone in Frankston, one of the outer suburbs along Melbourne’s southeast flank, and, with baited breath, recited the lie I’d been rehearsing since I veered off course twenty miles back: sore throat, headache, fever-one of those twenty-four hour things, no doubt I’d be fine tomorrow. It was the copy boy I spoke with. He bought my story with touching naïveté, and I rang off feeling mean and low and guilty-and elated and relieved as well, a heady cocktail of emotions. I’d been brought up well, imbued with a doughty middle class work ethic and had never before pulled a sickie, or at least nothing quite so flagrant.
Now the deed was done, the crime committed. Might as well enjoy the fruits of it, come what may. Which I did. I had a wonderful time.
It was lovely down the peninsula: plenty of warm cheerful sunshine, a creamy surf, and the bracing tang of eucalypt in the air. 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 shaded by Norfolk pines along the beach at Sorrento, and discovered a wonderful ice cream parlour.
Later on, at a stylish café in Portsea, over poppy-seed cake and cappuccino, I pondered the remains of the afternoon. I had come a long way and had just as long a ride ahead of me to get home but I was feeling fit and besides, I could always bail out at Frankston, if I had to; catch a train back to the city from there if it was getting too late or too dark. With that as my fall-back net, I reckoned I could afford to venture all the way down to Cape Schanck, the wild, windswept headland on the seaward side of the peninsula, another ten twelve miles further south.
I’d never been there before. I’d understood it was beautiful, haunting in its loneliness with its weathered lighthouse overlooking the moody waters of the Southern Ocean. And so it proved to be. And on a midweek autumn afternoon I had the place all to myself, too just me and a few wheeling gulls and the hollow boom of the surf far below. I sprawled on the clifftop for a long dreamy while, well satisfied, gazing into the violet haze, letting my mind tinker with the notion that the next landfall from here would be Antarctica and, like a kid, imagining myself going there one day.
After a while a sense of lateness came over me. I don’t wear a watch, but from the angle of the sun, and the increasing honeyed quality of the light, it was clear that afternoon was on the wane. Time was getting away from me. It was still a solid thirty miles back to Frankston and if I wanted to get there before dark (which I did, since I didn’t have a headlamp) I’d best get cracking. And so with a wistful but contented sigh I picked up my trusty World Randonneur and pushed off.
Not many yards later I heard a hiss as my rear tyre went flat. An annoyance, to be sure, but hardly the end of the world since like any seasoned cyclist I carried a pump, tyre levers and a patch kit. I had the wheel off in a jiffy, and a few minutes later, patched and pumped, I was on my way once more. But not for long. Within thirty yards the same tyre hissed flat again.
I dismounted, a bit peevish this time, removed the wheel and peeled off the tyre, thinking that I must have overlooked a piece of grit or shard of glass embedded in the rubber, allowing it to re-puncture the tube. I ran my fingers around the lining, in a cursory sort of way and, feeling nothing, shrugged and chalked it up to experience and bad luck. Whatever was in there must have fallen out. I fixed the flat, replaced the wheel, put away pump and patch kit, and mounted up again. Less than a minute later I was standing once again in the tall grass along the roadside, hands on hips, glaring at yet another flabby rear tyre.
This was losing its charm. I cast my eyes around to see if there were tacks or thorns or something scattered on the road, but all I saw was the squashed remains of a brown snake that had somehow managed to get run over by the-what?-one car a day that came along this dead-quiet ribbon of bitumen. Lordy, how unlucky was that? Like getting hit by a meteor, or spontaneous combustion, or getting three punctures in less than a hundred yards for no particular reason. I shook my head at the improbable wonder of it all and gave him a sympathetic nod. “You and me both, brother.”
I sat down on the gravel with a heavy put-upon sigh and peeled off the tyre 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 I’d had in college all those years ago, the ones on which I was going to ride off to Zanzibar or down the Silk Road. Sturdy things, just like the man said. I’d been riding around on them in the city for months now without a flat. They’d remained plump and firm and so reliable that I’d forgotten all about them. But nothing lasts forever, certainly not bicycle tyres, and here on the lonely Cape Schanck road, in the fading light of an autumn afternoon and miles from anywhere, I made the belated discovery that my globe-trotting Michelins were finally, at long last, well and truly shot-beyond repair.
The front one was bad enough to be dangerous, but the rear had frayed through completely. 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 that came along would get in and puncture the tube again. What I needed was a new tyre or, failing that, at least some flexible, durable material with which I could line the frayed bits in the old one. I had neither. I toyed with the idea of using the snake but he was too far gone. The ten-dollar bill I’d frittered away on coffee and cake back in Portsea might have done for a make-shift tyre plug, but of course I’d spent that. All I had on me was coins and plastic, and this was one hole my VISA card couldn’t bail me out of.
It was eight miles to Rosebud, the nearest town, over on the bay side of the peninsula. They might have had a bike shop there where I could buy a tyre, but I doubted it, not in a sleepy little berg like that-and, oh, the sweet irony of it all, if there was a shop they almost certainly wouldn’t have a twenty-six inch tyre to suit my expedition rims; I needed to be on the Silk Road for that. But supposing there was a bike shop in Rosebud, and they did have a suitable tyre, it was still too late in the day to do me any good. They’d have long rolled down the shutters by the time I got there.
With luck I could probably scrounge something at a petrol station, a bit of rubber or plastic with which I could line the tyre well enough to carry on, but that would still leave me with at least a twenty-five mile ride into Frankston, at night, with no lights and dodgy tyres, and on the narrow, fast and busy coastal highway. Home by three o’clock in the morning-maybe.
A sickly smile crossed my face as I thought of everybody back in the office, packing up for the day right now, easy of mind, clear of conscience, looking forward to home and hearth, an evening of TV and off to bed. How I wished I was there. I could have been. Should have been, too. My inner Calvinist rose up with smirking glee: serves you right, bucko; here’s the old cosmic payback for the lies, the shirking, and the theft of a day’s pay: the absconder, undone by his own fecklessness, receives his richly deserved comeuppance in a long dark night of frustration, misery and danger, muttering curses, prayers, and mea culpas every inch of the way.
Not a bit of it. Instead I made my best discovery of the summer, a sublime truth that would sustain and embolden me through many a cycling adventure and misadventure in the years to come: God, it seems, truly does look after children, drunks and tramp cyclists. No sooner had I begun the heavy-hearted trudge to Rosebud when I heard the distant purl of a car engine, the first such sound in what seemed like hours. I turned, hope and presentiment rising within me, to see a battered old Holden top the rise. The driver slowed as he drew abreast then veered, as though on tracks, onto the shoulder a few yards up the road, his brake lights aglow.
It was then I noticed the bicycle rack on the rear.
A lanky young Catholic priest climbed out and approached with a shy, almost apologetic smile, as though he were sorry for having not arrived a little sooner.
“Hello, there!” he called as he approached. “Trouble?”
I nodded, staring as though I’d been addressed by a burning bush.
He cast an appraising eye over my bicycle and its threadbare tyres, sighed and shook his head. “It looks pretty final to me. How about I give you a lift to Frankston?”
I gave a feverish laugh, then sprang to life, eager to strap my bike onto that rack before this miraculous apparition could vanish. But car and driver remained wonderfully corporeal and an hour later I was standing beside my bicycle on the city-bound platform of the Frankston train station, homeward ticket in hand, my face radiant with the smile of a man who hears angels singing.
I was back in the city by a fashionable hour, sooner in fact than if I had never had any of that flat tyre business. I bought myself a new pair of Michelins at a late-opening bike shop in town and toasted the sweetness of my escape over dinner that night with a fine bottle of merlot from one of the vineyards I’d seen down there on the Mornington Peninsula.
But the dice of God are always loaded, as the old saying goes. That beatific smile I’d been wearing on the Frankston railway platform wasn’t the only reason my face was radiant. When I swanned into the office the morning after, as neatly recovered from my recent malaise as though I’d been to Lourdes, I was sporting a beautiful set of tan lines around my eyes from where the sunglasses had been. The real moral of the story? Seize the day, by all means. Get out there. Lie, cheat and shirk if you have to. All will be forgiven. It is a big beautiful world out there, rich in possibility and ripe for discovery and Heaven knows there’s no finer way to see it than from the saddle of a bicycle. But all the same, do not tempt the Lord thy God, as the Good Book says, for he clearly Hath a wicked sense of humour. So check your treads before you go, keep something in your tool kit you can use to plug a holed tyre if need be, and no matter what, always, always, always remember the sunscreen.