Pedalling passion

First published

You have heard of born-again Christians. Born-again cyclists are similar. My conversion came on an autumn afternoon in 1984. Melbourne had a massive transport strike: no trains, no trams, no buses. Our house at Central Park Road, East Malvern, was 12 kilometres from Flinders Street. Just to write a funny newspaper column about alternative forms of transport I borrowed a bicycle from Malvern Star and rode to town.

It was not funny at all. I never got over it. Getting to town, battling with traffic or public transport had always been the most depressing part of the day. But this was enchanting, every day pedalling through parks, riding alongside the Yana, dodging in and out of all the back streets of Prahran. Every day a different route. I spotted all sorts of fascinating buildings, interesting facades, wonderful chimneys and urns atop nineteenth-century parapets. I had never noticed them when in a car. What's more, there were the smells every night. I could enjoy the wonderful dishes the Greeks, the Lebanese and the Italians were having for dinner. Then it was quick. I discovered to my amazement that the bicycle, door to door, was faster than car, tram or train by a good ten minutes.

My bicycle in the office garage was the only one there, a lonely thing. In 1964 such behaviour was rare, indeed. This man, if not a ratbag, was in eccentric, a nut - a bicycle nut. There were even kindly queries and suggestions from good friends. Were my finances going badly? Could they lend me a little money to tide me over? Yet like any member of a minority I did not think I was a nut. It was the rest of the world that was strange. If the rest of the world was logical and sensible it would give up the pollution-breathing, human-killing internal combustion engine and ride the bicycle.

There was a curious hostility to the bicycle on the road. Motorists wound down their windows and shouted abuse. 'Get off the road, you fucking idiot', was a common, kindly cry of encouragement. One afternoon in Prahran four youths in a Holden opened the doors of their car as they went past and tried to wipe me off. I had a little rear-vision mirror attached to my glasses, which had been made for a dentist, so I saw what was happening and fled to the footpath.

A pioneer of the bicycle was Victoria's Minister for Transport, Brian Dixon. He asked me to be foundation president of the Victorian Bicycle Institute. At this time there were no facilities for bicycles, no bicycle paths. We had the theory that no Melburnian was more than 5 kilometres from a railway station. If only we could encourage public transport to carry bicycles or to provide good lock-up facilities at railway stations we could improve physical fitness and at the same time solve Melbourne's traffic problems. Hostility remained. There was little interest from the railways, nil from the Country Roads Board or the Road Traffic Authority and I remember the Chairman of the Board of Works, Mr Croxford, telling me that there was no place for the bicycle on Victoria's roads and that if he had his way the bicycle would be banned.

The immediate effect of taking up regular bicycle riding was a 8-kilogram loss in weight. Never since have I had to worry about weight problems. I used to suffer arthritic pains in the hip and knees. These disappeared. The most frequent line of objection I received was: 'Frankly, I think you're crazy. I'd ride a bike myself, but not in all this traffic'.

Here is my survival record for twenty-four years of bicycling over more than 200 000 kilometres: no serious accidents; a few minor spills. One day my tyre got caught in the tram lines in Toorak Road and I went straight over the handlebars. Everybody in Melbourne does that - once! It is not an experience you wish to repeat. Another time I hit a car door and almost landed in the arms of a lady Jaguar driver. You are also inclined to do that once, and again you learn quickly. The biggest danger is the non-looking car-door-opener.

I belong to a little dining group called the Stringer's Club. Every year we give an award to the restaurant that has provided us with the greatest enjoyment during the year. In 1977 we gave our award, a silver pie, to Clichy restaurant in Collingwood. We thought it would be a nice idea to celebrate the occasion properly so I took along a bottle of Veuve Cliquot. The proprietor of Clichy, the ebullient Sigmund Jorgensen, was so pleased he opened another bottle of the widow Cliquot, and another, and another. When I returned to my bicycle, which was waiting patiently in Peel Street, I found it would not stay still. I put a leg over it and fell on the other side. I tried from that side and again fell on the other side. At the third go I managed to get on and wobbled home to South Yarra. Next morning I found I could not get out of bed. I did not ride again for six weeks. Lesson three: alcohol and bikes do not mix.

In Los Angeles in 1980 I bought one of the new, fancy bicycle computers. It did everything. It gave the speed, maximum speed, daily distance, total distance, time, pedal rate and more. I took this wondrous thing to the highest hill I could find. Down I went, my eyes on the bicycle computer, fascinated as my speed mounted to 30, 40, 45, 60, 65 kilometres an hour. Suddenly in front of me there was a semi-trailer, parked right across the road. I threw the bicycle sideways and hit the bitumen. The result: two broken ribs and a lacerated face. I was not wearing a helmet. I was only going out for five minutes so why worry? Lesson four: always watch what you are doing and never venture out the gate without a helmet.

But I believe people can survive almost anywhere on a bicycle, and I believe that with slow, careful travel I am safer than in a car. It takes several months to get used to the proximity of fast-moving cars and maybe a year to become truly traffic canny. There is the fun of studying maps and devising fascinating routes, through parks, over foot bridges, down lanes to avoid traffic. Oddly enough, the thicker the traffic, the safer the cyclist is. It is the high-speed highways with no side safety lanes that inspire the greatest terror. The true joy of cycling is getting out in the country and touring. It is here that you discover what a remarkably efficient instrument the modern geared bicycle has become. You might start by riding 5, 10 or 15 kilometres. This will grow to 20, then forty. Once you have gone that far the rest is easy. One hundred to 200 kilometres a day is within your reach.

In 1978 Marie and I went on our ultimate bike ride, across the United States. Freda Morgan, wife of John Morgan, Editor-in Chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, read about the projected ride in a magazine. At first she had a hankering to go herself. This was not possible, but John Morgan saw the potential for a good story, so why not dispatch Dunstan, with cartoonist Jeff to do the illustrations?

All sorts of ideas had been worked out to celebrate the bicentennial of the United States. One of them was a great hand-holding ceremony, a human chain from coast to coast. This did not eventuate but the bike ride did. The ride was the idea of two young American couples, Dan and Lys Burden and Greg and June Siple. The plot for the ride really began in 1972 when the Siples and the Burdens decided on perhaps the most astonishing bike route ever, from the top of Alaska right down to the bottom of Argentina. The Siples made it all the way. The trip took them three and a half years. Dan Burden covered 15 200 kilometres then succumbed to hepatitis in Argentina. Dan was a lovely, laid-back character, 191 centimetres tall, with a big moustache. Greg Siple was famous for his 'Eskimo roll'. With his feet strapped into his pedals he could do a complete Catherine wheel on his bike. Hands on ground, over, Eureka.

We received the complete plan and route for the bicentennial bike ride, called, believe it or not, Bikecentennial 78. It was formidable. Start at Reedsport, Oregon, work our way north to Missoula, Montana, near the Canadian border, follow the line of the Rocky Mountains south to Pueblo, Colorado, then continue down into the plains of Kansas, and finally head in a straight line across to Virginia and the Atlantic Ocean - some 6800 kilometres, at an average of about 90 kilometres a day. We trained for months in preparation. We did much of our riding on the road from Moe to Walhalla in Victoria. The spectacular part was Mt Erica and a 260-metre rise known to all bicyclists as Shit Hill. This was because the bikers always made the inevitable remark when first they gazed upon it, 'Aw, she. We were to discover later that Shit Hill was a nothing, barely worth a raised eyebrow.

Enthusiasts came from all over the world to take part in the big Bikecentennial ride. There were contingents from England, Japan and Germany and an astonishing 160 people from Holland. There were twenty-six from Australia and we all flew together in the one Qantas aircraft, our bicycles stowed below in cardboard cartons. Our actual luggage for the three months' ride was very little because all of it had to be carried on our bikes. I remember saying to Marie: 'Darling, guess how many pairs of shoes you will be able to take? One!'. There was a last-minute message from the most famous cyclist of all, Sir Hubert Opperman. He was in the habit of sending what he called Oppygrams. This one read: 'Eat little and often, look out for maniacs going downhill and keep your chamois well greased'.

Already we had been educated in the mysteries of the chamois. Bicycling shorts, like old footy boots, have their shortcomings. One never wears underpants. The shorts must be worn next to the skin. Sewn into the crotch is a leather insert. For a happy crotch this must be kept well greased with Vaseline. Marie and other ladies in the party looked at the unlovely shorts and said, 'Nothing in God's earth will ever get me into a pair of those'. They were all wearing them within three days.

We had a stopover at Honolulu and the full team took time off to sit on the beach at Waikiki. It was then that Marie gained a faint idea of what makes up a true cyclist. The scene out in front was one of the most beautiful on earth. Over yonder was Diamond Head, the sun was shining out of a stainless sky, the sea was even bluer than Elizabeth Taylor's eyes and young women of every shade and hue were stretched out on the sand, wearing very little. The conversation went like this.

'I don't reckon myself there's anything better than a Campagnolo derailleur.'
'What do you use with it?'
'Aw, a 14-32 sprocket. Works pretty well.'
'I got a Shimano, myself - 14-34.'
'A ten-speed?'
'No, a fifteen-speed. I put on a little twenty-eight chain wheel. Well need 'em.'
Nothing really diverts true bicycle nuts. They didn't even notice Waikiki.

We started from Reedsport in Oregon on 18 May. We went in groups of twelve or thirteen. In our group there were nine Americans, a 20-year-old Englishman, on leave from Cambridge, and four Australians, including Marie, myself and Jeff Hook. The fourth was Fred Smith, a 50-year-old plasterer from Alexandra in Victoria and an ex-professional cyclist.

It was a fascinating group. There was Don Hartley, 66, an ex-employee of the Santa Fe Railroad and his wife Norma, fifty-four. Don was from Tennessee and had a lovely Southern accent. He had a passion for pie, which he pronounced `pah'. 'Ahll just have a lii piece of blueberry pah', he would murmur. He loved strawberry pah, apple pah, pecan pah, blueberry pah . . . But 'The pah ah'm lookin' for is a hoolaberry pah', he always said.

We wondered and wondered about hoolaberry pie. We even asked for it in shops, but nobody had heard of it. Eventually we discovered it was a myth, like Norman Lindsay's Magic Pudding. Hoolaberry pie was the ultimate pie, the pie of Don's dreams. And Don was a dreamer. He took his riding slowly. He was the tortoise that always got there faster than the young ones - except that he took no notice of directions and often went the wrong way. His wife had a whistle, so whenever Don was out of sight there would be this blast from it. We thought it was like the mating call between two birds.

As a 5I-year-old it was interesting to discover that age did not matter. There were teenagers and there were riders over seventy. There was even one old fellow, named Clarence Pickard, who was 86 and turned up in a silver pith helmet and neck-to-knee underwear. Clarence lasted for 1600 kilometres before he went down with bronchitis. Then there was Cyril Henry from Dublin. Cyril was 66, red in the face and had a shock of white hair that stood up like Insulwool. Cyril thought the ride actually started from Portland, so he arrived there ready to go, only to discover his group was leaving the following morning from Reedsport, 250 kilometres to the south. Instead of taking a bus he hopped on his bike, gear and all, and rode the 250 kilometres in ten hours.

it's a wee bit tiring when you are not sure of the way', he said later. The ride would have been easier had there been a gentle start. By the third day we were right into the mountains and we had to climb 1525 metres to get through the Santiam Pass. Originally we were supposed to go through the McKenzie Pass but this was under 8 metres of snow. It was then we discovered how unprepared we were.

Our panniers were fully loaded with 18 to 20 kilograms of gear, plus sleeping-bags. Pain came first to the knees, then to the back and ultimately to the cheeks of our behinds, intense pain so that we wanted to stand all the time. I developed blisters on my posterior. If any cyclist was going to give it up it was going to be here. Marie showed extraordinary courage. She was ill and the changes in diet took a terrible toll. Age 50 is an unpredictable time in the female life cycle. Marie found the menopause hard enough without the Rockies as well, but she struggled up that mountain. Fred Smith was the strongest; he went up, he went down. He even pedalled beside some of the weaker riders and gave them a push.

There could be no delays because a new group passed through every twenty-four hours, and every night the bike inn was booked. A bike inn was a church ball, a church, a gymnasium, a tent, a municipal building and, on our third night, actually a Benedictine monastery. Several times we slept in Indian tepees or wigwams. That was a rare experience. Tepees are made with skins stretched across long poles that come to an apex. Because Indians always light fires in their tepees there has to be a gap at the top to release the smoke. The 'chimney' is also a convenient inlet for any available rain.

Sleeping in bike inns was extremely good for straightening the back. We had tiny blow-up back-packing mattresses, designed to provide comfort only from the top of the shoulder down to the suffering behind. On a hard, slippery floor it required a miracle of judgement to remain poised and asleep on this little concoction. As for a pillow - one filled one's sleeping-bag cover with one's track suit. Then, of course, we all slept, males and females, in the one room. The young, we noticed, paired off very early and rides of even up to 180 kilometres did not diminish their ardour. Ardour could come at any hour; say, at two or three in the morning. Marie, Jeff and I would be fascinated by noises of sleeping-bags unzipping and zipping, followed by even more eloquent noises, which reverberated through the bike inn.

One of our team was Chip Haines, a cartoonist from Florida. He had a marvellous bicycle that had cost him 850 dollars, with every conceivable gadget including compass and thermometer. Every night Chip sat cross-legged like a Sioux brave in front of his sleeping-bag and, regardless of all noise around him, slipped into meditation, a total trance. No doubt it helped solve his problems. Chip was busy reading Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance. This was the story of a father and son and friend who were touring through the mountains of the United States, precisely where we were. The message was this: when toiling, straining up the mountain, the object is not just to reach the top but also to enjoy and observe on the way.

After Oregon, we pedalled north through Montana to Missoula, then south through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. The sign outside Yellowstone Park read: 'Beware of Grizzly Bears - They are Dangerous. Keep Your Windows Closed at All Times'. This was disconcerting news. It brought to mind the old lion park joke, 'Englishmen on bicycles admitted free'.

We pedalled for 35 kilometres through Yellowstone and spotted bison, elk and antelope but mercifully not a single bear. A ranger told us he had not seen one for two years. But several days later one of the cross-country riders lost his bicycle for twenty hours. He thought it had been stolen so informed the police. They found it in the bush, covered with scratch marks. A bear, looking for food in his pannier bags, had carried it there. Unquestionably it was the strangest bear story since Davy Crockett.

The ride was carefully charted along back roads: no main highways and never did we enter towns with populations larger than 35 000. For the first 2400 kilometres we seemed rarely out of national parks, State forests and wilderness reserves. I thought it the most continuously beautiful country I had ever seen. I still dream of the calm and the eternal quiet of those Rockies, the scent of Ponderosa pines and the urgent, rushing rivers of Oregon.

Sometimes we were in sunshine, often we rode in rain and for two days we pedalled through falling snow. However, not rain, snow or even hail is the enemy of the cyclist. The greatest menace is wind. In Wyoming the wind came up daily at 10 a.m. precisely, almost as if Cod had suddenly thrown a switch. We rose before dawn in an attempt to defeat it, but as soon as that wind came up cycling speed dropped to little over walking pace. The only solution was draughting: cyclists pedalling in a human chain, nose wheel no more than 3 centimetres behind the wheel in front, and everyone taking turns of being leader and accepting the full force of the wind. The weather was anything but kind to the skin. We started to look like a bunch of Navajos. Marie's greatest problem was her lips, which became so sore she finally had to cycle in a surgical mask.

We crossed the great divide of the Rockies four times, but the hardest day was crossing the Hoosier Pass at 3500 metres. We started at 7.30 a.m., rode 80 kilometres before we tackled the pass and then climbed 1300 metres. All day we pushed, averaging, it seemed, about 6 kilometres an hour. Our bicycles had three chain wheels on the front and a cluster of five gears at the back, giving a combination of fifteen gears. We pedalled up the Hoosier Pass in bottom gear, feet going round like food mixers. It was nearly 8 p.m. by the time we reached the top. Many times on the way up, tempers had become strained. At the top Marie put down her bike and started kicking it. `What are you doing that for?' 'I hate the bloody thing', she said.

But then exhilaration, a feeling of achievement took over. We had a formal leader who had been trained for the job by the Bikecentennial organisation. He was a remarkable young man called David Canha, 25 years old and a student marine biologist. He had carried 200 crackers in his panniers all the way from Reedsport. He lit them and their noise reverberated loudly as we all cheered. You would have thought we had climbed Mt Everest. We looked down at the most majestic of sights, rocky, snow-covered peaks going for ever into the distance. From then on it was all downhill to Pueblo, riding marvellous descents that went for 40 to 45 kilometres, free-wheeling, with the wind in our faces. Before, I had always ridden behind Marie to make sure nothing went wrong - respectfully behind, the way Prince Philip always walks behind Queen Elizabeth, with his hands behind his back. But now Marie was becoming very fit, indeed, and it was no longer a case of staying respectfully behind; it was the very devil keeping up with her. She showed particular skills on gravel. Her method of coping with dangerous gravel roads was not to hesitate, not to go slowly, but instead to pedal full-speed ahead. Invariably she arrived ten minutes before everybody else. The group called her the Gravel Queen.

Jeff was a very strong and highly entertaining bike rider. Occasionally at the height of his sufferings he gave vent to anger. For example, at Wisdom, Montana, named in honour of the supposed sagacity of President Jefferson, our bike inn was the show grounds, and Jeff's bedroom was a cattle stall. He was so enraged he proposed to write to President Nixon to give him a piece of wisdom. He never did. Jeff's rage always subsided quickly Sadly we had to say goodbye to him in Pueblo. He had an important appointment back home in Melbourne: the birth of his daughter Sarah Jane.

The food was interesting. We developed voracious, teenage appetites. Oppy had given the advice eat little and often. The terror of long-distance cyclists is 'hunger flatness', and it is true that the body is similar to a paddle steamer: once the fuel stops burning the steam dies. We ate more in a day than in a week at home. Our handlebar bags were filled with nuts, raisins, Hershey bars, M & Ms, jelly beans, Granola bars, sesame seed bars. We learned bow to steer and handle gears with one hand and eat with the other. We paid for our meals in advance, 5 dollars a day to cover the lot. This money we pooled and it was amazing how far it went. Usually we cooked our own food. Fred Smith carried the large aluminium pot, Dave Canha carried the little fuel stove, the rest of us carried the other necessary items. We had a one-pot cookbook that detailed all the health-giving recipes that could be contrived in one saucepan. My most vivid memory is of peanut butter. Americans were obsessed by peanut butter: it was a special elixir, treated with all the national reverence that Australians accord Vegemite. They purchased it in 4.5-litre jars and ate it with everything, even putting it in porridge. Sandwiches at lunch could only be described as breathtaking in every sense of the word. The idea was to take a layer of brown bread, spread it with a centimetre or two of peanut butter, cover that with honey, add dried fruit and maybe sliced apple, celery or tomato, a slab of cheese or salami, and complete the internal bliss with some slices of banana, then apply the lid, another slice of brown bread. The calories involved could not be reckoned even on a computer.

Of course, the group always looked out for good pie stops. After we passed the half-way mark we met groups travelling from east to west, so word of the absolutely best pie towns and cafés was passed up and down the line.

There was a rest day every ten days. This gave us an opportunity to meet riders from other groups. For example, we met Albert Schultze, a welder from Alice Springs. Albert was a marvellous character; he utterly fascinated the Americans. Albert had a great beard like that of John O'Hara Burke of Burke and Wills fame. He wore a blue beret and a faded pair of buttoned up the front overalls. lie smoked an old pipe - some achievement when riding a bike - and attached to his bike was a fair dinkum, blackened bushie's billy. Every so often he stopped and boiled up a cup of tea. He carried his water in a milk bottle and most of his gear balanced precariously on his handlebars. Albert's sister, Wilma, was there, too. Wilma had a road-house at Buchan in East Cippsland. Wilma and Albert had not seen each other for twenty-four years so she talked her brother into making the trip. Albert thought they would be doing it by motorbike and he was startled when he found out there were no motors involved, only muscles. Wilma was an indomitable rider. Her fame spread way ahead of her. Always she was the perfect lady. I remember Dan Burden, the tour director, telling us some time before we met her, 'There's a lady, honest, who is riding the trail on a lady's bicycle in skirt, nylon stockings and high-heeled shoes'.

Joe Martin was another unusual character. Joe was an air traffic controller who worked for the Department of Transport in Melbourne. Bikecentennial offered two different trips: the slow trip of 85 to 145 kilometres a day or the fast trip of 180 to 225 kilometres a day. Joe, 58 years old, chose the fast trip. He sailed past us in Colorado. He was carrying almost no gear, beyond a change of clothing. He didn't even have a sleeping-bag. We asked him how he endured sleeping on some of the hard floors of bike inns. Joe had the answer. He pumped up the three spare tyres he was carrying.

After leaving the mountains of Colorado we were into the plains of Kansas. There were not only fields of wheat, but oceans of wheat, oceans with curved horizons going on for ever, and we realised this was the true wealth of the United States. Now we had to start riding at 5.30 a.m. to avoid the heat. We pedalled off in the blackness, then saw the dawn come up a blaze of red, spreading over the gold of the wheat. After days of near 40-degree temperatures the rains came, and it rained steadily for three days - 280 millimetres of it - causing a dam to burst at a town charmingly called El Dorado. We packed all our spare clothing in plastic carry bags and our sleeping-bags in plastic rubbish bags. Rain seeped everywhere and our handlebar bags filled like little lakes. Water first seeped down our necks, then penetrated our 'waterproof' trousers, trickled down to our knees and finally filled our boots. Once we were thoroughly wet it did not matter any more. After the dam burst the roads were under water and all one day we had to walk, water up to our knees. Fred Smith was so terrified of water damaging the bottom bracket of his bike, he carried his machine, plus pannier bags, on his back. I took a photograph of Marie, very wet, indeed, standing in front of a sign that said, 'Be Thankful to Cod'.

On, on into southern Missouri and the Ozarks. This was the country that inspired AI Capp's comic strip 'Li'l Abner', and it revealed once again a very important truth: there is no such place as the United States. It is really fifty different countries with fifty different accents. In the Ozarks it was definitely a different language. One day we met an elderly gentleman in front of a grocery store. 'Whar yur headin'?' 'Yorktown, Virginia, we told him. 'Whar yur frum?' 'Melbourne, Australia.' 'Orrrrstralia, huh? Thar sure is a furr peace.' It took us an hour to work out what he'd said. He meant that Australia was a far-off place. The locals were sensitive about their comic-strip image. They refused to concede that they had a distinctive way of speaking, which was really a type of eighteenth-century English. Their answer was always this: 'We ain't got no accent. It is them furriners that's got the accent'.

One needed a glossary to understand the language. A Springfield, Missouri, editor, Dale Freeman, provided us with a few essential definitions: tar A motor car rides on tars. rang When they got married he put a rang on her finger. crame Everyone loves vanilla ice crame. are He shot an are into the air, it fell to earth Ah know not whir. dark It gets real dork when the sun goes dahn. grub He grub her from behind. hep He can't hep it, he was horned attaway. flare A rose is the purtiest flare there is. walled That girl of hem was too walled (wild) for mah boy. vurp France is in Yurp. There were nice phrases, too: 'Duller than a widder woman's axe', 'Scarce as preachers in paradise' and 'He looked like he'd been chawin' terbac an spittin' agin the wind'. This was interesting. I particularly liked the fellow I met in a bar at Pittsburg, Missouri. 'Say someh'n. Keep on talkie' thar. Ah lake to har yuh cos you talk so funny', he said.

The Ozarks had not entirely escaped the rich stream of modem culture - Big Boy Hamburgers, Burger King, Colonel Sanders and McDonald's - but much of the region was primitive. Several times out on the road we came across Mennonites, members of a Christian sect that spurned the twentieth century and everything associated with it. Some were in horse-drawn covered wagons. We saw a father, mother and children in a horse-drawn buggy. Father had a beard, big hat and rough trousers supported by braces. Mother looked like an eighteenth-century Quaker, in long, grey dress, with sleeves down to the wrists and a close-fitting bonnet.

We crossed the Mississippi and pushed on into Kentucky, which we had thought was the land of blue grass and racehorses. We saw few racehorses but an astonishing number of dogs. I have put up with cringing dogs in Indonesia, Aboriginal dogs north of Tennant Creek, stray dogs in Port Moresby and a whole cacophony of dogs at Cruft's Dog Show in London, but nothing to compare with the vast kennel of Missouri and Kentucky.

The average farm in those States had about five dogs, and four out of the five detested bicyclists. I have consulted many authorities on why barkers do not like bikers. The most popular theory is this: dogs are fascinated by the sparkle of light on the moving spokes. Rubbish! They jump to the attack before they even see the light of the spokes. A more plausible theory is that they are irritated by supersonic sounds given off by the bicycles or by the clicking of the free wheel. Maybe. I believe the dog reasons like this: people who ride bikes when there are other more comfortable modes of transport are fair game; they are almost helpless and it is fun to watch their terror.

Repeatedly 1 was attacked by dogs. One member of our party was attacked by two dogs at the same time. He went off the road, hit a log, crashed on his back and was out of action for several days. Beagles were shocking, Dobermanns were terrifying and almost all terriers were anti-bicycle. Worst were German shepherds. The jumbo-sized dogs like Great Danes and St Bernards, oddly enough, loved us. Some riders used their bicycle pumps to try to beat off the dogs, like cavalrymen wielding swords in the Charge of the Light Brigade. Albert Schultze carried a large mallet and biffed the dogs over the head. The popular weapon, however, was a pressure can of anti-dog spray. It was called Halt, sold for 2 dollars 50 cents and was standard issue for posties in the United States. The label on the can read: 'Contains capsaicin. Strongly irritating to eyes, nose and skin. Will instantly repel and subdue dogs when sprayed into face and eyes'. There was one strapping group leader who carried her can of Halt on her belt, like Jesse James toted his six-gun. She could knock down a German shepherd at ten paces.

Marie would not have a bar of this. She said it was cruel to the dogs. Bravely she would stop, get off her bike and talk to them in a Southern accent. It seemed to work every time, and soon tails were wagging. The only trouble was the dogs fell in love with her. On one occasion a German shepherd followed her for over 40 kilometres. Everything about Kentucky was unexpected. We had not expected to see such poverty. We saw houses with earthen floors, no appliances and outside pit lavatories. Unemployment in some areas was up around 20 per cent. I have never seen so much rubbish; the citizens just left it in bags by the side of the road. I later asked Dan Burden, 'Why did you chart the route through Kentucky?'.

'We took you through some of the best parts of the States, so we thought you should see some of the other side too', he replied. There was another thing we had discovered. Drinking saloons were common in the West, but once you crossed the Mississippi they all but disappeared. We cycled 1800 kilometres without seeing a pub and that is hard for anyone on a bike. But I thought all would be well in Kentucky. This, surely, was one of the whisky capitals of the world. Everybody had heard of Kentucky bourbon. Our route kept clear of all that. We found there were 120 counties in Kentucky and ninety-two of them were dry, as the result of local option. We were in a very dry town, Hodgenville, Kentucky, when it occurred to me that there must be a story in this. Who would tell it to me? Ah yes, go to see the local newspaper editor; he would have to be a good drinker. So I called in at the local paper and asked to see the editor. Soon a young lady came out and said, 'Miss Phillips will see you now'.

Miss Phillips was tall and grey haired. As I asked questions about the licensing laws of Kentucky she began to look more and more severe, until finally she said: 'Before we proceed with this interview I think there is something I should make perfectly clear. I have been a total abstainer for thirty years. I will show you something'. She stood up and revealed that one leg was in a brace. '1 was knocked down by a drunken driver when I was 21 years old.' That put an end to my inquiries, but I did discover that Elijah Craig was credited with the invention of bourbon back in 1785. He sold it for 25 cents a gallon. It is one of the ironies of life that Elijah Craig was a hell-fire Baptist preacher. As for the famous moonshine, it had gone into a decline. We were told that in the 1950s moonshine (illegal liquor) produced in the hills made up 20 per cent of all the Kentucky whisky produced. Now it was hard to get, even a novelty. We read in the Louisville Courier Journal that the security system around the mountains was splendid. When a 'Fed' or anyone who looked even faintly like a cop or a 'revenooer' was in the district, the thing to do was to ring a dinner bell. The alarm would be picked up by others, until the entire area echoed to the slow, metallic clank of dinner bells.

We rode through West Virginia and Virginia. The countryside was a lush green, elms and beeches throwing leafy shade right across the road. It all looked historic, expensive and luxurious. The farmhouses tended to be white-columned, four-storied Cone with the Wind mansions, with stables twice the size of mere houses back in Missouri.

Suddenly it was all over. We finished at a place called Camp Chickahominy on a lake surrounded by a million mosquitoes. It was named after a long-forgotten tribe of Indians. For us it meant the end of the transamerican trail, a time of sadness. I felt I had lost my freedom. I could have gone right on pedalling up the East Coast to Canada.

Inside the camp, waiting to greet us, was Dan Burden, the astonishing man who dreamed up the crazy idea of sending thousands of people on push-bikes across the nation. He had prepared a beautiful victory cake in the shape of the United States. It depicted all the States and the Bikecentennial route and gave the total distance, 4246.8 miles. This he served with ice-cream and punch. Marie and I were left with a deep respect for our Malvern Stars. They had carried us, plus our luggage, all that way, through snow, heat and flood. I worked out our times and average speeds and estimated that our suffering pedals had turned over 1 448 OW times. It was a United States far different from what we had expected. How shall I put it? Before, I had spent my time in big cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Rural America was another place again. The people were much simpler, even naive. Small-town America was not rich, the houses never Hollywood grand. We were told we would be mugged, our bicycles stolen. That never happened. We became so trusting we left them unlocked outside cafés and stores.

Religion was very strong. In each town there were always churches, expensive churches in the main street, and often these were Baptist. There would be a bookshop, but inevitably it was a religious bookshop. I found it hard to buy a newspaper in many towns and almost impossible to get a news magazine like Time or Newsweek. The towns were introspective, calm and often beautiful. As I cycled I thought: 'These are the sort of towns that sent kids off to Vietnam. The people couldn't have had the faintest idea what it was about and when a boy came back in a coffin the shock must have been profound'.

The social centre of each town was the Dairy Queen ice-cream shop, rather than any pub, and the boredom of the young was similar to that endured in Australian country towns. 'Cruisin', that phenomenon so beautifully described by Tom Wolfe, was all the go. Every night we saw teenage boys and girls out in their fat tyred Mustangs and Camaros, just going round and round and round in the modern sexual parade. We found the people extraordinarily warm and generous. Sometimes they stood by the side of the road offering soft drinks. I particularly remember Mr and Mrs Parker of Hebron, Colorado, and their three sons. Their object was to greet every cyclist who went through. Mrs Parker was cooking thirty-two dozen cookies a day. At harvest-time the whole family had to work full pressure in the fields, so they put up an apologetic sign saying sorry, they couldn't get out for personal greetings, but coffee, fruit juice and cookies were available in the garage.

The Bikecentennial Trans-America Trail is still there. There is a Bikecentennial organisation, which operates in Missoula, Montana, and bikers have followed the tracks of the pioneers of 1976, ever since. After we returned to Australia we became fascinated by tandem bicycles. The tandem has a number of advantages. For one thing if you are travelling with your partner there are no arguments about pace. Your partner cannot burn you off on the hills; you are compelled to travel at the same pace. For this reason it is a gloriously sociable machine. You can chat all the time and the person who rides behind, technically known as the stoker, can give helpful advice. Backside drivers are not unknown on tandems. There is one disadvantage. There is much audience reaction from the side of the road. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred make the same comment, `Ahhhhh, you know the one at the back's not pushing'.

Marie, an utterly devoted stoker, has never taken kindly to this comment. Indeed anyone who has ever ridden a tandem knows instantly when the partner has eased off the power. Yet tandem riding is a lovely experience, a thing apart, as exhilarating as skiing or high-speed skating. Feed your stoker adequately, give him or her plenty of muesli bars and you can get speeds around 40 kilometres per hour. Most tandems have a deep and abiding problem - they require much to stop them. They build up extraordinary momentum and stopping them needs three and a half times the power required to stop a normal bicycle. Their spokes break and they go through cotter pins as if they were peanuts.

In late 1976 I decided it would be lovely to have a tandem that suffered none of these problems, a touring machine that would take us with our luggage over 1000 kilometres or more. I noticed there was a tandem shop in London, so I wrote the owners a letter, asking them to make me one. There was no reply. The English tend to be like that.

I tried all over Australia to find a suitable tandem, with no success. Then I saw an advertisement in a United States magazine: 'Mail Order Tandems with a Difference. All you have to do is install the pedals, adjust the seats and ride them home from the airport. Yes, we ship to the nearest jetport wherever you are'.

The ad did say in the small print that the average price for these tandems was about 1200 dollars. Good tandems are made to measure. You must have the right frame size for the pilot up forward and the right size for the stoker down aft. The man making the tandems was Bill McCready of Bud's Bike Shop, Claremont, California. I was so desperate for this machine I got out of bed at 4 a.m. and telephoned him direct. He took my requirements, recommended the ideal bike for Marie and me and told me how it would be assembled. The frame was to be made by the tandem specialists the Taylor Brothers of Stockton-on-Tees, Cleveland County, England. The gears, cranks and chain wheels were to come from France. The brakes, ah, they would be something - massive cantilever caliper brakes from France, plus newly invented Phil Wood disc brakes from California, enough to stop a truck. Each wheel was to have a remarkable forty spokes and there would be special sealed hubs and bottom bracket. The saddles were also to be American, and the seat pillars were to be made by Campagnolo of Italy.

I hung up the receiver, sent my 500-dollar deposit and dreamed of the beauty of this thing. Nine months went by and nothing happened. I telephoned again.

'What's happened to my bike?', I asked Mr McCready. We still haven't received your frame from the Taylor Brothers in England.' He explained that Messrs Taylor made all their frames by hand and then indulged in the most beautiful paint work, lovingly applied coat after coat. I got the picture. It was like producing Lancias for Malcolm Fraser. I asked why, if Taylor Brothers were slow, did Bud's Bike Shop not get its frames elsewhere? Mr McCready was shocked.

'When you are dealing with the best in the world there isn't anyone else.' What with the passage of time, the bike that was originally to cost 1200 dollars rose to 1600 dollars. It was in July, just over a year since 1 had first contacted Mr McCready, that a call came from a Customs agent. 'Your bike has arrived.' Oh joy. 'There are a few problems', the agent continued. 'Qantas want 225 dollars for air freight.' 'Ye-es.' 'And you won't get the bike until you have paid a bill of 1063 dollars 13 cents for sales and customs duty.' 'WHATTTT? You've got it wrong.' 'No, that's right, 1063 dollars and 13 cents.' 'But, but . . . Nobody in history ever paid duty like that. This is a bicycle. Do they think it's a Mercedes?' 'I'm sure you will get a refund. What you must do is write to two bicycle manufacturers and get letters from them explaining that they do not propose to make such a bike in Australia.'

I didn't write to two, I wrote to three, who between them made 90 per cent of the bicycles manufactured in Australia. I wrote to everyone in sight: to the ministers for business and consumer affairs, even to the Federal Treasurer. However, after the arguing had been going on for five months a bike manufacturer who made kiddie tandems for joy rides announced sure, he could make a bike like mine. My case was ruined and the 1063 dollars 13 cents was not returned. Marie did some arithmetic. She was very understanding. 'Do you realise', she said sweetly, your bicycle has cost just on 3000 dollars?'. But she had to admit the Taylor Brothers frame turned out to be everything we had hoped it would be. The bike gave us far more than 3000 dollars'-worth of pleasure, and, unlike automobiles, which tend to give up after 100 000 kilometres or so, this vehicle was for ever. By curious irony, within twelve months we were back in California, living almost within bike-riding distance of Bud's Bike Shop. What's more the Bikecentennial organisation ran other rides. In 1980, with Jeff and Pauline Hook, we rode the Mississippi Trail. There were many of the old team with us, such as Don and Norma Hartley. We picked up the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca, Minnesota, near the Canadian border. There the river was just a trickle. It was important to take a running leap across the rivulet to be able to say later, 'I leaped across the Mississippi'. There was a sign at Lake Itasca that said, 'Here 1475 feet above the ocean the mighty Mississippi begins to flow its winding way 2582 miles to the Gulf of Mexico'.

At least we did not have to tackle the Rockies this time, and theoretically it was all downhill. Marie and I rode our Taylor Brothers tandem.

Ever since the days of our wind-up gramophone, when we played Paul Robeson singing 'Old Man River', we had dreamed of one day seeing the romantic Mississippi. Every night we camped by its banks and discovered the real truth. It was one of the most important commercial waterways in the world. Mark Twain once reported that the railroads were complaining of the unfair competition from the river. One hundred years later things had not changed. All night long we heard the barges chugging up and down. One time I spotted a tugboat pushing twenty-two vast container barges. We were told the tugs, misleadingly titled 'two-boats', could push anything up to forty barges at a time. And what barges. They were worth 2 million dollars each and could carry as many as sixty 25-tonne semi-trailers. Restless, huge, extraordinarily powerful: by the time we had ridden a thousand kilometres the Mississippi was nearly 2 kilometres across. We visited Hannibal where Mark Twain spent his childhood. The river was the inspiration for all those wonderful stories about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. It's a wonder Huck survived: I wouldn't let a kid of mine ride a log raft in a fit. The river was chocolate-grey. Vicious currents raised little waves; trees, boxes and hunks of debris moved past at high speed and from side to side. The river was immense. If you had a hankering for walking on water it would take you at least forty minutes to stroll across. There were many other rides. Marie and I went on the annual Great Victorian Bike Ride and the Australian Bicentennial Bike Ride from Melbourne to Sydney in 1988. Jeff and I went on a tour of Denmark; again no Rocky Mountains. One time we were pedalling up a gentle rise and a German alongside us announced in guttural tones, 'You are now crossing the Danish Alps'. 'The Danish Alps?' 'Yes, this is the highest point in Denmark. You are 150 metres up.'

Then in 1983 I went on a tour of China. It was a comfort at last to go to a place where the automobile was in the minority. In China there were 700 million bicycles. We entered China via Macau and pedalled through southern China, all around Guangzhou and through Guangdong Province. The Chinese ride heavy, single-speed bicycles that weight about 20 kilograms. Our ten-speed Taiwanese lightweights, provided by Himalaya Bicycle Tours, were a constant source of wonder. Whenever we stopped in a village or town a crowd of 500 or more crowded around, curious not so much about us as about our bicycles. They would get down on their hands and knees to look at the gears, then ask for a demonstration.

However, one day early in the tour we received our come uppance. We were cycling near Shiqi, on our way to see one of the great dams built by Mao Zedong just before the Cultural Revolution, when we were caught in a typhoon blowing out of the South China Sea. Alas our Taiwanese bikes had no mudguards. I don't think I have ever been so wet. To make matters worse, we were riding on gravel roads, so we were soon covered in mud from helmet to bicycle shoe. When we arrived at the dam an elderly Chinese came over on his bicycle. I thought he was just another who wanted to admire the technical wonders of my bike. But no, he pointed to his bike, which had huge metal mudguards, then pointed to mine, which had none. He placed a forefinger to his head and made a circular motion to indicate that I was out of my mind. It was not the first time I had been called a nut.

Continue to chapter fourteen: The virus

In this first chapter of the first book of memoirs, 'No Brains At All', Keith reflects on growing up in Melbourne in the 1930's and at school.

Keywords in this article

BikecentennialBrian DixonChinaCyclingGreg SipleHerald and Weekly TimesHonoluluJeff HookJohn MorganMelbourneRoad Traffic AuthoritySigmund JorgensenUnited StatesVictorian Bicycle InstituteWalhalla

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