One of my earliest memories is learning to ride a bike. In our back garden, there was 10 metres of concrete path from the front porch to the side door of the garage. That path wasn’t very wide, so all up, you had very little time to find your balance, stay upright, and pedal before you ran out of path. You had to learn fast but the incentive was strong. Once you could do it, family law said that you could ride to school. So what if you were five-years-old and you had to cross Innes Road. If you could stay upright, you were deemed to have sufficient road sense to pedal to school. From that moment, biking has been my preferred option. Why would you walk if you could bike?
I can’t remember the bike where I learned the trick of staying upright, but I can remember my first brand new bike. One Christmas, my sister and I got bikes together. Hers was blue, mine was red, and they were English, made by Raleigh. Later, with longer legs, that blue Christmas bike became mine because by then, Clare had a green Loline. In due course, I inherited the green Loline, and so it went on.
Bikes were our transport. School, music, sport, Mass, friends – you got there by bike. It was unthinkable that your mother might drive you. If it rained, you had two options – you got wet or you took the bus. Bussing had drawbacks: not only did you walk to the bus stop, you also had to wait for it. Why bus if you could bike? Your bike is always right there and it takes you right to where you’re going. You never have to wait for your bike.
Red bike, blue bike and even green bike were no nonsense bikes. They didn’t really break down. They had back brakes but no gears and they were heavy and sturdy. Bikes became rusty with bent bits - we were not good at caring for them – but the main thing was they got you places. Bikes can be fancy, but in the end, a bike is just a bike.
One thing bikes did get, with some monotony, were punctures. My father (who walked to work) was a good puncture repairer. You told him there was a fix to be attended to and after dinner he would sit cross-legged in the washhouse with the tyre and a bowl of water, some patches, glue and sandpaper. He was so good I never learned myself.
In my second year of high school I got a new bike. It didn’t come for Christmas or for a birthday. My reconstruction is that after multiple evenings of puncture repairs, my father was reduced to taking the offending bike into Hobdays for a new wheel. Dad was not prone to impulsive purchases, so the 10-speed he wheeled up the drive that evening was quite the surprise. Having the bike shop fix a puncture was ignominious enough, but fixing a puncture by buying a complete new bike was sensational. I loved that 10-speed. It was white, it had big wheels, it had handle bars that curved down and around, and it had gears – 10 of them. It had hard skinny tyres and no carrier. It was beauty itself.
On a 10-speed, distance became no object. My cousin and I went on biking adventures to far flung places like Rangiora and Spencer Park. That summer, at 14 years, we persuaded our parents to let us bike to Little Akaloa. There was method in that caper. Having our bikes meant that we didn’t have to walk the 10 minutes from bach to beach. No need to walk that summer when you had your bike.
After that 10-speed, my bikes become less clear to me. I know I had that white bike for many years until it was stolen while I was at choir. I was living in town then, within the four avenues, and I was reduced to walking until my next birthday! This time it was a pink bike, a precursor model to a mountain bike. It had thicker tyres, and the handle bars didn’t go down and around. We took that bike with us to Tonga, with two child seats – the plastic bucket-style for a one-year-old and a nifty construction that hooked between the stem of my handle bar and the stem of my seat. That seat had stirrups and a padded area that a three-year-old could sit on while my arms went round him to the handle grips. That was our Monday to Friday transport. On the weekend, Rowan’s seat would switch to Philip’s bike and the 25 kilometre round trip to the beach for the day became very doable. Another choir practice, another theft. This time it was temporary. We were recognisable in the village and my missing bike made the notices that Sunday at Mass. It was duly returned, no questions asked.
New bikes were an occasional feature of my own children’s birthdays or Christmas. And over the years bikes were reconditioned and handed down, and around, sometimes from and to cousins. The children biked to primary school – this time crossing a state highway instead of Innes Road. Helmets and high-viz were really the only difference to what their mother had done before them. As the children aged, we biked with them on longer trips. During this period, biking, always a form of transport, became an exercise option. The Little River rail trail is on my door step and I’ve ridden it multiple times.
For the last 15 years I’ve regularly biked to and from work. Six years ago I got an eBike (black) so now I don’t have to factor in wind. I prefer to bike, it’s that simple. I ride up to the back door and park – for free. And I get a lot done when I’m biking to and fro – I listen to books, music, and podcasts, I talk to my sisters, I think about the day to come and the day that has been, I rehearse conversations that I need to have or should have had. Why drive when you can bike?
Biking is a sensory experience too. You see more from a bike than you do in a car. Rabbits, pukekos, ducklings. You say hello to children going to school. You smell things on a bike too – dinner being cooked, winter fires. In September I know where to sniff the daphne and in June the winter sweet.
For sure there are hazards to biking. They are called cars. Cars are unpredictable and will always beat a bike in a fight. Recently I was waved over by a policeman and given a talk about safety. It was a one-sided conversation because it was clear that Mr Policeman hasn’t been on a bike in a long while. When he stopped talking and I headed off, I had the conversation I wished I’d had with Mr Policeman: that I am on high alert at all times, that wearing high viz makes no difference, that having so many flashing lights you could be a Christmas tree makes no difference, that if I’m ever knocked off my bike I hope I’m fully vizzed and lit up because I’d hate for any coroner to say that I wasn’t wearing enough safety gear, that a simple way to teach bike safety would be for car drivers to ride a bike for a week. I could go on, but I think you get the gist.
I know that bike travel has increased with the roll-out of bike lanes. Data is published periodically but I know this because now when I wait at the lights there are usually twenty of my people waiting with me.
Biking is a great way to get around. It’s cheap, it’s fast and it’s fun. Channel your inner child.