When I was very young, say seven or eight, my father worked in Bruce Small’s bike shop in Moonee Ponds, the north-western Melbourne suburb made famous by Barry Humphries. We lived in Yarraville in the inner-west, and one day I was astonished to see my father, trouser ends held in metal clips, ride home on a bike.
I hadn’t known he could ride a bike. Later I learned he’d been a keen motorcyclist and a bit of a tearaway in the days before marriage cooled him off. I’m not sure why he rode the bike home – there may have been a transport strike – but I never saw him on it again and the bike gathered rust and dust in the shed.
It moved with us to dreary Bentleigh in the south-eastern suburbs, ‘dry’ because the local council ordained no alcohol was to be sold. Most of the kids rode bikes to school. Humiliatingly, at the age of 11, I ’d never learned to ride. My father and I weren’t close. It would never have occurred to me to ask him to teach me to ride or for him to offer.
I determined to learn. I replaced the rotted inner tubes, pumped up the tyres and set myself on the bike, hanging onto the side fence. There was a gentle slope ahead of me. I pushed off and fell within a couple of wheel turns – onto grass but it still hurt – with the heavy machine, a clapped-out old Malvern Star roadster, falling on top of me. I got back on and tried again. I wasn’t gifted with good balance and I fell and hurt myself many times over the weeks it took me to achieve the freedom of cycling.
Eventually, an uncle was persuaded to buy me a bike, a red semi-racer. In those days there were three kinds of bikes used by youngsters. The roadster was heavy with wide rims, a foot brake and no frills. The semi-racer was lighter, with front and back handbrakes on the handlebars, which could be turned raffishly down. Racers were yet slimmer, slicker machines.
As I recall, few bikes had gears and those that did had hub gears, not the more efficient chain gears of later models. My semi-racer saved me from the mockery of having a roadster, even if it didn’t admit me to the racing elite. Cock of that walk was red-haired Ian Williamson who, I learned very much later, was a cousin of playwright David. Ian, to my great admiration, won slow-race competitions by staying immobile for untold minutes on his racing bike through adjusting his balance and the set of the front wheel. He has had, David tells me, a distinguished career in the Victorian police force.
So controlled by secular puritanism was my home life, and so dull was the suburb, that the bike represented escape above all. Escape to the North Brighton Beach sea baths a few miles away, escape on long rides to Dandenong and down the Nepean Highway to beachside suburbs. Escape to nowhere in particular on lonely weekends to indulge in adolescent fantasies and resentments.
I stopped cycling at 16 when diabetes struck. It was difficult to balance diet, insulin and the hard exercise involved and, anyway, by then it seemed a juvenile pursuit.
I resumed cycling at various times over the years that followed, particularly when we lived at Byron Bay and on a small island in Moreton Bay. Sydney traffic put an end to all that. I made sure, however, that I didn’t make my father’s mistake – I helped all three of my daughters to learn to ride.