I used to cycle a lot back in the day. We all did. That day was sometime back last century. Young, carefree, wind still legally allowed in the hair. It was fun, cycling, and necessary: as a kid there was no other way to get around. We delivered papers on them, cycled to sports on them, carried too many library books on them - or tried to, and had to walk them all home instead.
And we showed off on them. Wheelies, skids, jumps. That’s how I went over the handlebars the first time, discovering in mid-air that the first wheel to hit the ground should probably not be the front one, and probably not into thick mud. At least it was a soft landing.
We started out on the no-gear no-frills models bought by our parents, replaced every time they were stolen. Hills on these were a bastard. Then we saw the fancy new thing called a ten-speed sitting gleaming in the bike-shop window opposite the school, and we knew we had to have one. The new cheap models by Healing. (I seem to remember a price of $237, but I could be wrong on that.) To pay them off, we discovered the Lost Land of Layby, and every week we took our paper-round money over the road to pay off another few dollars on our dream bikes until that very special day when we could take them home.
That was the second day I went over the handlebars. First trip with the new bikes was up to the supermarket carpark to see how these new-fangled “gears” worked. “Swish” went the bike along the asphalt as I pedalled it up to top speed. “Clunk” went my clumsy hand whacking it up to top gear. “Clank” went the sound of the chain wrapping itself around and jamming the gear cogs .. and as I cleared the handlebars I just had time to wonder how that happened before I hit the deck. Not such a soft landing this time.
The next time I sailed over them was coming down the Kaimais. After that ten-speed was stolen I bought a newer and shinier one, complete with lights and mudguard. It was light and it was bright, and it was that damned mudguard that caused the damage. Coming down the Kaimais fully rested after lunch at the top enjoying the views, having launched ourselves down the mountains at top speed – overtaking the occasional Sunday driver with less interest in speed than us – a clip on the mudguard came loose and the loose guard whipped around the speeding tyre to become my only rear contact with the road. Going full-tit downhill with fully-laden saddlebags, what happened next wasn’t so much over the handlebars as rolling over and over the bike several times as it hit the death wobble and cartwheeled away down the road with me tangled up in the frame.
At least the beer in the saddlebags wasn’t broken in the fall.
If you don’t count the lady coming through the stop sign and knocking me off my motorbike a year or two after that – I can confirm that the bonnet of a Holden Kingswood certainly does make for a softer landing than the hard tarmac of State Highway 29 -- the closest I came to flying over the handlebars again was just last week in Mt Eden.
You see, the biggest change between now and when I used to cycle a lot back then isn’t just all the bike lanes, all the lycra, or even the bloody knob-hats the clipboard carriers try to force you to wear. It’s what’s happened to bloody cars to make them so-called “safe.”
“Safe,” according to the regulations, means a cushioned cocoon for a car’s occupants and high bonnets to save pedestrians when they get hit. “Safe,” in this era of wall-to-wall nannying therefore means fully-padded headrests, enormous pillars at all corners, and very high window sills all round. It’s all to do with the regulations, wouldn’t you know, to make people “safe.” “Safe” meaning ugly. “Safe” meaning cars that are bland, boring and identically dull. Safe” meaning (just another unintended consequence here of all this ill-thought safety regulation), that visibility out of the car for drivers and door-openers is dire, and visibility into the car for cyclists wary of door opening is almost impossible. How can you see if there’s a head about to move in the car parked ahead when you can barely even see into the bloody car? Add the tinted windows that fashion and heavily sloped windows has made the thing, and it’s a recipe for driver’s-door disaster, especially when impatient drivers behind the cyclist are all-but insisting he pull over.
This is the biggest change I’ve noticed since I’ve started cycling again.
So no surprise the other day then when in the narrow streets at the shops of Mt Eden Village a car driver and my bike and I met at speed in the close quarters of his door opening. He was very apologetic, and I was very lucky. My brakes gripped better than I’d ever thought they could. I had to accept his apology, what else could I do: I’d had no chance of seeing him inside the car before he opened his door; and he had very little chance of seeing me with all that cushioned plastic obscuring his view. (And what Auckland driver has ever used any mirror, let alone the side ones.) So we shook hands and we went on our way, and I had time to think.
I thought that it wasn’t him I blamed. It was the grey ones, who over the last four decades have turned cars from things of occasional beauty to ugly beige and grey blobs that are indistinguishable from each other, with cameras on the back because it’s the only way anyone can see out in that direction.
They’re a great symbol of the Age we live in, the Age of the All-Enveloping State Nanny.
And for cyclists in built-up areas and around shops, they are definitely not safe. The next time I fly I’d like it to be in something with wings. But I’m not altogether optimistic.