On Monday morning I left home at 6.45 to ride to work, which is number 10 on my 20 for 2020 list.
Some background. When I moved to Canberra and started my first job (last century), encouraged by one of my bike-rider colleagues, I bought a bike and started to ride to work. Canberra has this wonderful network of off-road bike paths, at least it did in the suburbs I lived in in the north of the city. So riding to work was a relatively safe activity. But because of the ramblingness of them and the tree roots that were a trap for young players riding home in the dark, I used to get frustrated and ended up riding into the city down the main road, Northbourne Avenue. Lots of riders did it and it was a lot faster.
I’m not sure how long this lasted, but I guess I must have tired of it pretty quickly. Then I ended up with a job close to my house so I walked and after moving jobs again was a car passenger for many years.
The bike, meanwhile, because very neglected and I rarely used it. (Rarely is code for never.) It just took up space in the shed and space in the shipping container when we moved back to Tasmania. And space in the shed at the new house.
One year I put it on a list of 100 things I wanted to do that year. It was 2016 (I was very ambitious back then. 100 things in a year! What was I thinking?) and one day I did pull it out of the shed, clean it, pump up the tyres, lubricate the chain and I rode it. Once.
From memory, this had been on the 100 things list for many years, and during that time I met a new friend who is a very keen cyclist and who kept telling me to get the bike out and ride it. When we moved closer to the city, he kept telling me I should ride to work.
Haha, no. Was my reply every time. It’s a ten km ride. On a main road where drivers are often, let’s say it politely, complete dickheads. Buses are frequent. All the cyclists who ride on these roads seem to be Bike People and they look like Bike People and they ride really fast. Yes, there’s a marked bike lane but it’s a very busy road. It is way scary and I am never doing that.
Fast forward to November 2019. I’m in a cafe and I see a poster for an e-bike expo in a couple of weeks. What’s an e-bike? I wonder. It might be fun to go up to the Regatta Grounds and hoon around on an e-bike for a bit. So, with no clue about what was going to happen, I went to the expo.
It was all a bit intimidating. There were Bike People there. I didn’t know who to talk to. The first stand I went to I asked the guy to tell me all about e-bikes because I didn’t know anything and hadn’t ridden a bike for years, and he said he didn’t know either, he was there from the Government’s climate change policy unit and I could take one of their publications if I wanted.
Not awkward at all.
I wandered round for a bit feeling very lost and confused. I’m not very good in crowds, even small ones, and I’m not very good at putting my hand up and asking for help. So I wandered up and down the bike shop stalls trying to overhear conversation fragments between salespeople and potential customers so I might find out how to actually try one of these machines out. I was finally able to find someone who was available to talk and told him my story. I know nothing, I haven’t ridden a bike for years, I live ten km from town and want to be able to ride into town and home again. At the time, I hadn’t thought about riding to work. I was thinking more about being able to get into town early in the morning to take photos more quickly than if I had to walk.
He showed me a bike he thought would suit me. It’s small, it has a battery capacity for up to about 50 km, and it’s . . . grey. Can I try it? Of course. A few formalities were needed. I had to exchange my massive sun hat for a fabulously fashionable bike helmet, hand over my driver licence, and sign a waiver in case I died. He showed me how it all worked (remarkably easily; these bikes are pedal assist, so you set a speed you want to ride at and then the motor will kick in if you drop below that speed—but you have to be pedalling for it to work. And its top assist speed is 25km per hour). He adjusted the bike to fit me and then I was allowed to go riding round the Regatta Grounds.
Whoooo! It was so much fun! All of a sudden, riding a bike wasn’t work. Sure, I had to pedal, and any time I got over 15 km/h I started to feel a little terrified but I couldn’t stop smiling. Can I ride over the memorial bridge as easily as I could ride on a flat street? Yes, yes I can. I exchanged smiles with other people experiencing the same thing. This. Was. So. Cool.
I imagined the possibilities for my weekend walks if I wanted to go and take photos somewhere around town. I don’t drive and on Sundays the buses don’t start until 8am, so I walk. It takes about two hours so it’s a very early start if I want to catch the morning light. At 15 km/h on a bike it would take less than one, or I could go further. The more I thought about the idea, the more excited I was. Finally, I could have some transport of my own.
I did a bit of research when I got home and the more I read about this bike, the more I liked the sound of it. I went into the shop the next week and chatted some more to the guy I’d talked to on the weekend (Ahmet, who, it turns out, knows my cycling friend because this is Hobart). I decided I was going to do it, that I was going to become a bike person (not a Bike Person) and ordered one.
It took about two weeks to come in and in that time I rode my old bike to the beach, a trip that takes about an hour on foot but only 25 minutes on a bike, even without pedal assist. I loved it. The trip back, uphill (up-incline?), was not quite as enjoyable, but I’m not used to riding so, of course, anything other than flat or downhill was going to be challenging.
I probably annoyed everyone for the next two weeks talking about when the bike was going to come. When it finally came, I arranged to go in on the Saturday afternoon so I could ride it home. There really wasn’t any other way, and I figured Saturday would be preferable to a weeknight because there’d be less traffic. I was so excited to pick it up as well as being terrified that I would have to get it home on my own. Ahmet was very thorough in explaining how everything worked and all the things I needed to know, he showed me how to adjust everything and pointed out a very handy feature of power assist walking where you can turn the motor on while you’re walking to keep the bike moving faster. These are heavy bikes, around 27 kg, so pushing them up a hill is not easy.
Fully briefed and relieved of a lot of money, I left the shop with my new bike. Walking through the streets. There was no way I was going to ride it until I got to somewhere more isolated. Because it was a couple of weeks before Christmas, the streets were packed. I don’t think I’d ever be game to ride in town, even in the quieter periods. My workmate, who I learned had recently started riding to work along the same road I would need to ride on, had told me she got her bike confidence by taking a few trips on the inter-city cycleway before she went on the road. This wasn’t really an option for me unless I walked the bike down there so my test ride to the beach on the old bike was all I had. I was going on the road today, no matter what.
I felt so awkward and visible walking through town, even though I’m sure no one looked twice. I’d worked out a route than involved a bit of footpath riding (never again, too narrow and pedestrian-rich), riding some back streets of Battery Point, walking down Napoleon Street (because there is no way in hell I am ever riding down there), and then riding along Marieville Esplanade to where the bike path is still on the footpath on Sandy Bay Road, and then (gasp!) the actual road. I made it home unscathed, bike undamaged.
Since then, I’ve ridden to the city a couple of times on Sunday mornings and it’s been great.
I’d been thinking about riding to work but thought that I wouldn’t want to do that until I was more confident in riding and knew the bike better. I wrote it down as a thing for 2020 to make sure I did it. Then it occurred to me that January is actually the perfect time to get that confidence because there are fewer cars on the road before school goes back and it’s light all day. If I’d left it until later I’d have to immerse myself in a more hectic road space and it would be more scary. No time like the present and this window won’t be around for long. I have no excuses. I picked Monday as the day and I did it. No special riding clothes, no shower at the end. I didn’t need them. It was no more energetic than walking 40 minutes to work (or however long it took).
It’s a good ride. I’m happy sitting at around 20 km/h, which I can do under my own steam most of the way. But the pedal assist is awesome for getting up hills. Well, not exactly hills, more like upwards gradients in the road. And going down the other side at speeds of nearly 35 km/h is way fun and I feel a lot more in control doing it, compared to a month ago when I would have sat on the brakes the whole time.
So ride to work is now crossed off the list and I think I will aim to do it at least once a week, at least in the lighter months. I’ll see how I feel when it starts to get darker. I might buy some more lights before then too.