January 18th, 2011

An observer's advice to cyclists in Sydney

It's no different from seeing the underground band you've followed for years now hitting the charts and being danced to at discos: you want to defect. Experienced cyclists in this age of cycleways, are feeling as these ladies must have, the day REM released Shiny Happy People as their new single.

With one dud song, REM's former classics turned into gobbledigook.

I stood at the corner of Sussex and King Street in Sydney this morning, witnessing a sad spectacle others have remarked on already. Not only must they battle with cars in Sydney these days, my fellow skilled cycling brethren must now mix it people learning to ride. I saw novices  riding all manner of ill fitting, poorly chosen contraptions. Like a cartoon slip on a banana peel, one forgot to unclip when he came to a stop. If he were a buddy, and we were mountain biking up out of a creek bed, we both might have laughed. But this happened amidst rush hour city traffic, and our novice friend was bouncing on his hip in the car lane, convincing pedestrians and drivers who were witnesses to his flapping around that cycling must be for the birds.
Hitting a hill, some learner riders chose the old mix-master cadence, while others abused their bikes like step trainers cranked up to 10. All pulled anguished faces. It is not only the riders though, who are looking vacant in maths class. Everything about cycling to work seems equally baffling and novel to those providing the infrastructure. New bike racks all over the city, I am sure were installed by a racket of thieves, who are now just waiting for a ripe time to harvest their bounty. In an afternoon they'll race through the city in trucks with special six sided screw bits on the ends of their drills, and load up racks, chains, bikes, the whole lot. The hasty and compromised design of the bike lanes themselves means they only provide the perception of safety. At intersections, those lanes prove plainly more dangerous than no lanes at all. 

Given the state of affairs, I understand why so many skilled cyclists would choose to flout road rules. Sadly, they come off looking like hoons doing burn outs in cars, or worse still as hipsters. Others bide their time, dissociating themselves from the circus, as one might if forced to commute to work on a bus that fills up each morning with school kids. They just look ahead, with steely expressions. A third group keeps away from the bike lanes altogether, choosing instead to cycle on major car thoroughfares, just like in the old days. The winners, to my mind, are those of the second group mentioned. 

Looks to look cool on the school bus. From left, from: Florence, Milan, Newcastle East.

A well maintained older steel bike, with full fenders, lights and a rear rack, propels its gentleman rider—identifiable by the trouser strap around his right ankle or one trouser leg simply tucked into a sock—with an air of grace that is not tarnished, but enhanced, by the madness around him. He comes across neither as a pauper with no choice but to ride, or as a bullying luddite going after the one zillionth customer prize for burning the world's last drop of oil. I'm siding firmly with the Cycle Chic-sters in my appraisal of Sydney. Upon entering their city, they give the impression of having ridden just a few miles from that inner band of old, prestigious neighborhoods, even if they did in fact ride all the way from the outer growth band and are not worth a zack. It is upon seeing this kind of rider, that someone behind the wheel of a car gives thought to riding. They ask if cycling might not increase their prestige. Answer: it will. 
For Miss Cycle Chic, the line between aplomb and looking cliched is somewhat more narrow, I hesitate to inform you. You would be wise, miss, to do away with that straw basket, and go instead for the look of a seasoned long distance tourer, as though you holiday out of that pannier in which you have packed your high heels. Alternatively, looking at the above pics that I stole from The Sartorialist, maintaining your detachment and cool may be as easy as choosing a men's bike, with a top tube.

I do hope this advice will help some of you down there in Sydney ride out these early years of your town's transformation into a city of cyclists. In time you will look as cool on your bikes as you do in your habour side mansions, that I know you all own.