Lifelong cyclist's test of faith


CyclistEvery journey leads you into a story as well as to a place. Journeys become memorable when you find that you have been deceived about the story which you enter. So Odysseus, the master of journeys, was led to believe that he was a fringe character in the story of a brief war, only to find that the gods had conned him and that he was scripted for the lead role in an odyssey.

My least forgettable journey took place on a Saturday many years ago. Stan and I had decided to go by bike to Mount Donnabuang. We had thought that, like Tobit's journey, this would be a pastoral journey through valleys and hills, that the way there would be safe and the return untroubled. Instead, we found ourselves trapped within the narrative of Job ...

The trip out was uneventful, with only one portent that the valley of the shadow of death may have lain ahead. At the Burke Road lights my brakes proved totally ineffective: a swerve on to the footpath and into a hedge, however, met this crisis adequately. The problem did not recur, for those days what few traffic lights there were between Kew and the township of Lilydale were all on the flat.

By the time we headed out of Healesville up the Mt Donnabuang road, it was quite hot, and on the climb we became thirsty. Fortunately, there were small streams running down the gutters, fed presumably by the snow melting on the mountaintop. Pollution seemed no problem; we drank plentifully.

When we reached the top of Mt Donnabuang, the late winter sun was still slanting on to the snow, but it was beginning to get cold. Stan barracked for St Kilda who were playing in the semi final, so we waited by a car radio until the game was finished. If it thundered out of the clear sky as we so blatantly dallied with strange gods on the high places, we did not hear it. We left the mountain top just before dark.

When you are coming down a mountain at dusk, brakes are useful, but where they are not given they can be improvised. Early on, there was no problem: if the bike was gathering speed, I just allowed it to run off into the banks of snow by the side of the road. The bike jarred as it landed on the left pedal, but it was brought effectively to a halt.

Further down the mountain I simply used my sandshoe against the front tyre. It was all rough but effective, and got us uneventfully to the outskirts of Healesville. Then my left-pedal snapped off, perhaps weakened by my earlier creative styles of braking.

Not realising what story we had entered, we continued to put our trust in horses and ingenuity. We door-knocked around Healesville asking if the householders had a spare left pedal or an old bike from which we could cannibalise it, and eventually met a generous donor.

It was at that point, we later concurred, that we erred. But in what our error consisted, on that we could not agree. I came to realise that it was in not recognising and playing submissively our part in the story in which we had been placed. Stan, who, as this history will relate, ultimately failed in his time of testing, continued to maintain that we were mistaken in taking with us only the left pedal and in leaving behind the chain drive and axle.

Anyway, after we had gone happily some miles along the starlit Yarra Glen road, disaster struck ... my right pedal-arm cracked and became detached from the axle, so that the bike could no longer be pedalled. At the same time, the salts in the mountain water I had drunk earlier took their effect, and in one of my frequent diversions from the the road I lost my belt.

Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention, and as anyone knows who has ridden under the stars and steered by the white posts on an unlighted country road, the mind is never more focused or creative than on such occasions, nor the capacity to overlook mere physical frailty ever more highly developed.

So we scoured the edges of the road until we found a rope which supplied for belt and towrope. We took it in turns to tow one another on the flat and up the slight rises, while we walked the steeper hills, and simply enjoyed the long down-hill run through the Christmas Hills to Watsons Creek.

We climbed to Kangaroo Ground and headed safely around Reilly's corner ... We were still in good spirits, confident of catching the last train at Eltham.

Then came the final disaster. The front tyre, rubbed raw by my sandshoe on the mountain descent, blew out noisily, spectacularly and decisively. There was nothing to do but walk. So we plodded the four or five miles to Eltham, arrived much too late to catch the train, and continued to walk the ten miles or so back to Kew.

By 3.30am our muscles were in spasm, our hearts low; we were thinking in lamentations, and had fallen prey to depression. Stan, I am ashamed to say, was already abjuring his cycling faith, cursing the true, two-wheeled, motorless way, and beginning to whore after four wheels, upholstered seats, engines, and all the meretricious charms of more modern gods ...

That day Stan turned from the true way, sacrificed to the automobile, secured a libellus to prove his new allegiance, and never touched a bike again. As for myself, having been tested and found faithful, I was eventually rewarded with a new bike which had effective brakes, thick tyres, two pedals, and-uncovenanted blessing-three gears.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He also teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.




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Existing comments

As one of the Author's age, my wife & I can recall incidents as using the shoes to stop a bike & veering into the snow when the axle broke. A great story!
John P Keane | 05 March 2008

A wonderful story, Andrew. Could more things could have gone wrong in one day? I think it beats our Watsonia story from about 1954 which I've never thought could be beaten. Ted Roarty, Tom Sullivan and I hitch-hiked one day from the Scholasticate up to Mt St Leonards. Got up there easily, and there was snow that day too. Being prudent (we were supposed to be back at Watsonia by 9.00) we began the trip at 3.30 pm. But in the snow there were no timber trucks - 50 miles (?) from home and walking! So we walked. And we walked. And we walked. And it was now very dark. About midnight we saw the tail lights of a car parked half a mile ahead. The relief enormous, we ran towards it, but whatever the occupants thought to see three strange men running towards them at dark midnight in the mountains, they took off. So we walked. And we walked. Hours later we arrived at a dairy, near Yan Yean I think, to find a milk truck being loaded. "Mister, can we help you load your truck? Could you drop us off at Greensborough Rd?" So 5.30 home unmissed and safe!
Joe Castley | 05 March 2008

After all that, really Andy, couldn't you have demanded more than three gears, and a new pair of sandshoes? Very funny anyhow with your quirky way with words shining through.
Cecily McNeill | 05 March 2008

Thanks, Andy. For those faithfully addicted to pedal-power, a heart warming story. Is there also some blessing in hanging on to old bikes, or parts thereof, from a sense of loyalty (and gratitude for their honest service), even when utility might dictate otherwise? Not sure where you sensibly retire broken pedal arms or front tyres, but I cherish the fashion statement still being made by my first helmet, 22 years after its inaugural outing!
Chris Straford | 07 March 2008

A very well told story, Andy! I remember some bike rides with you, too - none as unforgettable as this one though!
Iain Radvan | 21 March 2008


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