Back in the days when I was closer to fit and thrifty than fit and fifty, I rode my dodgy purple Indi 500 up a long hill to a bike shop in Kalamunda.
It was the school holidays in the middle of Year 10, and I’d decided that my bony rump needed some cushioned relief from the saddle of my trusty steed. I’d rung around the bike stores in the Perth metro area for a cheap-ass pair of cycling knicks, and the winner was a store in Kalamunda. $18, I remember, and the promise of a more comfortable journey on the return leg.
The journey felt epic back then. Google Maps tells me the round trip was just over 70 kilometres. Given that some of my friends regularly log 100-200 kilometres each Saturday morning, it seems pretty innocuous, but for a 15-year-old on a dodgy Indi 500, it was a fair hike. Epic or not,
I ‘rode the two-wheeled concern right straight away at sight’ (of Booragoon).
What I recall of the first leg is that Welshpool Road East is steep and many trucks like to stay extremely left. I don’t know how long it took to get there, but there was a sweaty refuel with copious amounts of water on arrival. I also remember the exchange of my baggy shorts for the svelte cycling knicks with their sewn-in, yellow padded disc of chamois. A glorious, sweet relief, I was ‘resplendent to be seen’. Goodbye chafing, hello speed!
Fueled by rehydration and the perception of pace never previously experienced,
‘(I) turned the cycle down the hill and mounted for the fray’.
Heading along Lesmurdie Road with fresh legs and newfound tempo, the sun was shining down on me, and the world was all as it should be. Rarely had a 15-year-old stewarded $18 so wisely (and there was still a crisp, green $2 note floating somewhere in my shorts).
Approaching Welshpool Road East, I enjoyed a clear line of sight down the hill and up and nothing was going to brake my ride, nothing was going to slow me down.
I flew off Lesmurdie Road onto the big descent, tickling the rear brake half way across for stability and sensibility.
The brake cable snapped.
“But ‘ere he’d gone a dozen yards, it bolted clean away.”
Suddenly, I was whistling down the awful slope at breakneck speed with only the temptation of a front brake and sheer stupidity to ease my flight.
I wasn’t losing velocity; I was pouring it on.
I flew, wobbled and clung on. What else was there to do?
“As Mulga Bill, as white as chalk, sat tight to every bound.”
Holding tight, barely able to divert my road-locked gaze, I vividly remember inching passed a Mini Cooper with two people safely on board. I took a fleeting glance to my right as they looked wide-eyed at my genuine terror.
“The wombats hiding in their caves dug deeper underground.”
Holding on grimly, I momentarily pondered the rich legacy of my tender years. Those I’d loved, those who’d loved me, all I thought may have lay ahead of me and was about to end so suddenly and tragically.
It sounds dramatic now, but of the near-death experiences I’ve had in life, this remains the closest.
I considered the truck arrester bed as a possible end to my freefall.
Here was my problem: I had no idea when the road flattened out again and whether there were traffic lights before it did. If it levelled off, I was safe. At some point, I’d bleed off speed, and all would be well. But traffic lights at 60 km/hour with no brakes? Not so good. It turns out I wasn’t surveying the landscape for the scenario at hand when I made my ascent.
I figured the arrester bed was little help. Too much, too soon, or too little, too late. Or just too soft. One of those.
On a longer, tree-lined stretch I realised that this would not be the day I stood before God with my strong and perfect plea. The gradient diminished and so did my momentum to the point I could use my front brake with some confidence.
There would be no leap of twenty feet or last despairing shriek on that day, but it wouldn’t be my last taste of breakneck speed.
Most of us have patches of time when we travel at breakneck speed. There’s too much on, the arrester bed is not an option, and we’re in freefall.
Some of us thrive in those patches. It brings out our functional (or dysfunctional) best. A lot of stuff happens, and most of it is good.
“To feel it whistle through the air and plunge and buck and swerve.”
Others hang on for the grim descent, hoping for someone to break the fall, barely capable of a sideways glance to those they’re leaving in their wake.
I am learning about my relationship with breakneck speed – it’s exhilaration, it’s joy, the white-knuckled adventure, and it’s capacity to give and take life.
What I have learned is that whatever capacity I have, no matter the size of my engine or the quality of my riding gear, I need to assess the landscape of life on the slow journey of ascent so I know what I may have to deal with when the brake cable snaps suddenly.
I have to know where, when and if the terrain I’m navigating will level off before it becomes life-threatening.
Short term speed is unavoidable for all but the safest life-rider. I’m not sure I even want a life that’s devoid of any speed. But a life of speed alone is unsafe and unhealthy. There’s no rhythm in it. No grace in it. And no long-term sustenance to keep me in my saddle over the long haul.
Like that thankfully unfateful day, it’s the flat stretches that help us recover from the deep ascents and breakneck downhills. Wisdom isn’t plotting a course without undulation; it’s regularly finding rest for your soul and weary bones along the way.
“A horse’s back is good enough, henceforth for Mulga Bill.”
Well, probably not.
(*with occasional thanks to Banjo Patterson’s ‘Mulga Bill’s Bicycle’)