Two wheels and the world at your feet

What struck me above the tales of sex and drugs in Monkey Grip, Helen Garner’s iconic novel of 1970s hippie living Melbourne-style, was her character Nora’s love of the bicycle: whirring along under trees in the Botanic Gardens, crunching across hot bitumen on the way to the pool, wobbling home after a late-night party. Bikes feature elsewhere in Garner’s writing: it’s on a bike that she criss-crosses between Ormond College, judges’ chambers, and the houses of unhappy academics in The First Stone. I don’t think this is just convenience or environmental friendliness—there is something in the philosophy of the bike that suits Garner’s style. Bikes are unpretentious, democratic, and don’t put on airs; you can’t be too sophisticated on a bike, it’s hard to wear a ball gown. They fit with Garner’s strategy of getting people to open up by placing herself at their level or below—a method that works not by impressing but by disarming, convincing your subject that it’s safe to trust you when it may not be. Garner’s style, descriptive and ruminative, also seems to flow from the speed of the bike. Even with the fastest peddling you have the chance to see details you miss in a car and it’s easy to stop if you want—no need to find a park, just jump off! Things start to fit together not by analytical thought but via the meandering byways and backstreets of association.

One of my earliest memories is of standing transfixed before a beribboned sky-blue bike, fitted with white training wheels, gleaming outside a toyshop in the Queensland timber town of Maryborough. At the age of three I existed in some state of non-consumption where certain objects could be viewed without desire: I had no presumption that I could ever possess such a thing, ever call it mine, and hence admired it with an open heart, no more imagining that I could park it under my house than I could the wind or the sun. Consequently the appearance of that same bike on my fourth birthday was astounding rather than gratifying. However, Sunday afternoons spent mastering it on rickety paths through an insect-filled park next to the Mary River, while my mother, oblivious, read under the Bunya pines, made me one with this foreign sacramental object, and my legs pumped furiously up and down, not simply to avoid the mozzies, but with the genuine joy of it. Bikes were the vehicle of adventure throughout childhood (even after a virtuoso manoeuvre aimed at retrieving a fallen thong without dismounting resulted in a BMX brake pedal piercing my tongue—a scar I still bear), but we were estranged during my teenage years: too many mortifying possibilities for falling off or getting my skirt stuck up my bum.

I rediscovered the bike on the northern Israeli kibbutz of Ein Hahoresh. The Orthodox ban on Sabbath public transport impossibly curtailed my one day free from peeling beetroots and cleaning toilets, so I paid US$35 to a dope-smoking refusnik engaged in serious couch occupation and became the owner of a men’s yellow mountain-bike held together with gaffer tape. How I loved that bike, the glorious freedom of it! On Saturdays, and even after work if my limbs were still pliable, I would take off, choosing with the ease and immediacy of a Zen calligrapher which street to take, where to turn left, and when right. With this method I passed silent fields splashed with poppies, skidded through ecstatically dancing Hasidics, and arrived at the Mediterranean turning silver in the dusk. The bike seemed to find its way home unaided through a radically changed geography: what had been glimpsed from a speeding bus was made both large and intimate; the landscape spread out around me rather than merely separating here from there.

A much more serious cyclist at the kibbutz was Anna, who halfway through her life had decided to pedal from her hometown of Amsterdam to Cairo accompanied by two saddle-bags and a fearful mutt named Dribble. In France, she said, men had rushed out to propose when they saw her riding by, such a commitment to their honoured velocipede proving an irresistible aphrodisiac. For me no other bike has inspired the heady romance of that first adult attachment, but there have been other loves. Most significant, a third- or fourth-hand girls’ bike, blue again, called The Paloma, on which I cycled under grey Oxford drizzle, and the rare burst of sunshine, to dons’ rooms where port, blue cheese and a passion for ideas were devoured by astonished colonials like myself, bred on the constraints of Howard’s universities.

Everyone who loves to ride has stories like these: the world’s opened up to them through two wheels and a little thigh power. In my mind the bike is all about pleasurable coasting: I’ve never understood the armies of Lycra-clad fanatics who barrel up and down mountainsides on Sunday mornings, let alone those who watch, on television, such activities in climes more suited to romantic trysts and leisurely wine tastings. I have often wondered, though, gliding along and revelling in the sure elegance of the bicycle’s design, why on earth it took so long to invent? For centuries we bumped about in carts and carriages but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that there appeared a two-wheeled version. It was a farcical contraption consisting of one gigantic wheel and a stunted brother, upon which silly-looking men in tweed and moustaches balanced precariously.

Josef Trunecke, maps librarian at the stately Mitchell Library in Sydney, is a rider of penny farthings and possesses a healthy moustache but no knickerbockers of which I am aware. He explains that the difficulty with penny farthings is their tendency to tip over—a considerable drawback in a bicycle—breaking wrists and crushing legs in the process. Josef took up the penny farthing (and then the unicycle) in his 50s, and when pushed for an explanation suggests that perhaps his experiences as a teenage army parachutist in Czechoslovakia had closed his eyes to the dangers inherent in machines that seek to remake what the human can do. Josef has offered to bring the smaller of his two penny farthings to the library’s forecourt so I can try, believing that if I survive intact (the little legs that allow me access to the second-hand children’s bike market are a distinct disadvantage here) I will find the answer to my question, ‘Why do you ride them?’

It is thought that these early bicycles, and the infinitely safer chain-drive models that succeeded them, developed from a French hobbyhorse. If so, the bicycle provides an extraordinarily significant link in the evolutionary chain as it was, after all, bicycle builders who invented the aeroplane. When Wilbur and Orville Wright of the Wright Cycle Company of Dayton, Ohio, combined the knowledge gleaned from bicycle chain drives with the inspiration on wing design arrived at from playing with inner-tube boxes, they built a bridge between the animal and the celestial, the earth and the heavens. As the evolution of birds has been explained by the discovery of feathered dinosaurs, so too between the horse and the plane there stands the bike.

The humble cycle has played a significant part in social history. In Man in a Case, a wonderful 1898 short story by Chekhov, the buttoned-up character of the title is almost rescued from his obsessive anxieties by a sudden infatuation with a passionate Ukrainian. But when her easy enjoyment of life extends to trying the newly available bicycle it all becomes too much for Belikov: ‘May I ask, just what is the meaning of this? Or do my eyes deceive me? It cannot be proper for schoolteachers and women to ride bicycles.’ Appalled, he breaks off the engagement and quickly dies a miserable death while the beautiful Varenka rides off into the sunset. The bicycle’s affront to decorum caused disciples of Tolstoy to voice their objections when he took up bicycle riding at the age of 67 (criticisms to which he seems to have been uncharacteristically sensitive, noting in his diary on 17 July 1897 that ‘I rode the bicycle to Iasenki. I like the motion a lot. But I feel guilty’).

However, it was not only the Russians who were socially unsettled by this new invention, with the sight of women on bicycles in particular provoking consternation everywhere in the late 19th century. Such independence and freedom, such an unsettling change in their underthings! As well as carrying the weight of women’s emancipation, the mobility provided by the advent of the bicycle has been credited with extending the gene pool for rural workers and reducing crowding in inner-city tenements.

In 20th-century history, bikes make appearances in the strangest of places: it was on a mind-altering bike ride home from his lab in 1943 that Dr Albert Hoffman, the Swiss chemist who invented LSD, became the first person to experience its effects. Two years later in Germany, boys barely in their teens were given bicycles fitted with bazookas and ordered to act as mobile anti-tank reserves, riding to their deaths in Berlin, Silesia and the Rhineland. Today those re-civilised European cities such as Amsterdam (where even the Queen rides a bike) show the residents of car-mad cities like Sydney and Los Angeles what a pleasure urban life can be.

As they gaily cycle from café to tulip-seller, the Dutch are permitted to let their blond hair blow free, and, in the way that some women rue the medicalisation of childbirth, there are bicycle devotees who bewail the helmetisation of cycling. How we miss the unfettered freedom of those early rides on sky-blue machines across hot bitumen! But Josef Trunecke has an answer: the lack of a chain means penny farthings are not, legally speaking, bicycles. This, he told me with a smile under his moustache, is a fact he enjoys telling indignant traffic-police officers.      

Sarah Kanowski is a freelance writer and broadcaster.



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