The first time that I tried bicycling for transport was a dismal failure here in Sydney. I’m no different to you. I’m a woman. I have a partner. I have children. I have a career. I’m no Superwoman. I’m just a bit stubborn, just ask my husband.
How did I start bicycling in Sydney? Many people have asked me this question. Gear Up Girl asked me to write a blog post about it. Come and join us on Sunday 13 March 2016 for a ride with other women who want to experience the pleasure of bicycling!
In 2008, I started bicycling again after a near decade absence. The last time I had ridden a bicycle, I was commuting to mid-town Manhattan from the Upper East Side to the office as a single, career woman. Here in Sydney while on maternity leave, my nearly-one-year-old daughter and I had started exploring Moore Park and Centennial Park on my Giant Elwood. My daughter would regularly fall asleep in her Topeak seat. I enjoyed setting my own timetable with the bicycle. When it was time to return to work, I decided to commute to childcare with my daughter on the bicycle and continue onto the office. I would be squeezing in my exercise for the day. My husband Justin was already commuting to work by bicycle and his figure had returned. Lucky me!
However, my memory, of that first ride to childcare on the weekend, was of terror. Drivers accelerated past us with a terrible sound. Hill starts were difficult with the weight of my daughter on the back of the bicycle. After a calm detour through the Domain to Chifley Tower, I was nearly in tears. I told my husband, “This is too hard. I can’t do it.” My lovely husband, who taught me to drive a manual in the South of France and how to drive on the left from Canberra to Sydney in 2003, saw my terror. He encouraged me to breathe and gave me a hug. We made it home safely. For the next three years, I walked my daughter in the pram to childcare and continued to the office. As a result, I lost twelve kilos.
While on maternity leave again in 2011 and facing years of school and childcare drop off, I grimly asked my husband “Are we going to have to buy a car?” He sent me a link to an article about cargo bicycles that he had seen in the New York Times. I read the article and a glimmer of hope appeared. For weeks, I researched online and discovered the Nihola cargo tricycle, which was made in Denmark. The College Street Cycleway also made me hopeful. As there was no supplier in Sydney, we ordered the Nihola direct from Denmark and without a test-ride. I was enchanted because hill starts would be a non-issue on a tricycle. We shipped it directly to Glowworm Bicycles in Marrickville in November 2011, who specialise in electric-motor-conversions for bicycles. We had decided to install an electric motor because it would extend my range, especially with two kids and Sydney’s hills.
Next, I took a free course that the City of Sydney offered called “Cycling with Confidence.” I learned the skills that I still use daily. I ride in primary position, beyond the door zone, which means that I take the lane. I choose my path. I avoid busy roads. I bicycle with intent by signaling and making eye-contact with drivers. I take a line and follow it. I don’t weave in between parked cars. When my daughter’s violin teacher moved to Eastwood, we bicycled from Surry Hills every Friday for her lesson which was a thirty-two kilometre round trip. I lost twenty kilograms, while dressed in normal clothing and shoes, combined with sensible eating habits.
Of course, bicycling daily for work, in dresses and heels, resulted in an improvement in my skills and strength.
The cargo tricycle gave me the confidence to start using my Giant Elwood again especially in the winter. My husband installed a tag-a-long bicycle for my daughter and one weekend we ended up at the bottom of Paddington. The only way out was to bicycle up a hill. I was able to climb with the added weight of my daughter whom I caught pedaling backwards. I was so surprised at my level of fitness but filed this discovery away in the back of my woman-wife-mother-employee mind. What to do with these newfound skills would present itself soon enough.
My husband’s friend Hugh, from the now-closed City Bike Depot on Kent Street, offered to loan us two Cannondale Scalpel mountain bikes for a weekend away to our house in the Hunter Valley. In passing, he mentioned that bicycling was a journey. I was now on that journey. Little did I know that Hugh’s plan was insidious. He was setting me up to fall in love. I went for a tootle around the property with my new clip-less pedals and then got bored and decided to go downhill to the valley. It was like snowboarding in the summer. I was flying. The larger tyres and suspension made me feel that I was riding a fast comfy chair. Zillions of gears made it easier to climb hills. Of course descending meant ascending again to return to our house, which was on a ridge. I climbed for a bit and then felt my heartbeat in my ears and nausea. My heartbeat had gone too high. I was also new to clip-less pedals. I fell because detaching while ascending isn’t easy for a beginner. There was blood and later, impressive bruising. I made it home before it was dark but I ran into my husband on the track with the kids who had come looking for me. I was hooked though because of that feeling of flight.
I decided to take a mountain biking course. I fell many times because of the clip-less pedals. As I mentioned, I’m stubborn. I should have started with flat pedals. The worst was going over the handlebars not once but twice. The first time, I bruised my ribs and broke the hanger on the back of my bike. I cried in pain and frustration on my husband’s shoulder when I found him. Fortunately, no one had seen me in flight. The second time was during a private lesson where my instructor suggested I jump over a log. I mistimed it and went over the handlebars. Meanwhile the handlebar had attached itself to my left inside thigh. I landed pretty hard with the bicycle tangled around me. Good thing for my helmet, which I’ve replaced. My instructor helped me get on again as we had to ascend the valley and I had an hour drive home. The injury became infected. After a course of antibiotics, I put the mountain bike away and started road cycling. Why? I realised that I like going fast. I like being able to use my body for what it’s designed for, thought and motion. And I don’t like to give up. What’s the point of giving up?
The Merida Lite road bicycle, which I bought from the City Bike Depot liquidation sale, was my ticket back to my mountain bike. I learned how to clip in and out of my pedals quickly. It’s also helped to increase my speed, stamina and balance. The first time I bicycled to Bondi Beach via Centennial Park was memorable. Not because of any mishaps but because the last time I was bent over on a bicycle, I was in high school. I had levers on the down-tube back then. Didn’t you? Balancing on that fine wedge of rubber tyre was thrilling. I had the same sensation of flying along Bourke Street Cycleway and around Centennial Park. Hills were difficult but gradually, I’ve raised my seat and have become more comfortable leaning over – a great abdominal workout. Long-limbed men with rock-hard calves are always passing me. One smelled particularly nice and I complimented him on his scent. He invited me to back-draft behind him. I’ve started passing people now too. In the meantime, I still commute to the office every day. In the summer, I ride the ebike in dresses and heels. In the winter, I take the urban bike in dresses, scarf, coat and boots.
We went to our weekender in the Hunter Valley on Boxing Day in 2015 with our mountain bikes. My son was now on the tag-a-long behind my husband’s mountain bike. My daughter was riding her own mountain bike. The descent and ascent were much easier now after a year-long break to improve my confidence, skills and stamina. Recently, we went enjoyed mountain biking from Lake Crackenback to Thredbo. We ascended 500m and amazingly, I was the only one who didn’t fall.
My point? Try, try again, if at first you don’t succeed. Take a little break or a longer one to ease the memory of what didn’t quite go your way. Try a different style of riding. Take a course. Ride with others. Make it work for you. The benefits of bicycling far outweigh the initial fear that you might experience. Practice does in fact make perfect and even then, there is so much more scope for enjoyment on the bicycle. I’ll see you on the 60km Gear up Girl in dress, sandals and ebike!
Happy Cycling (of all different types)!