Thursday, September 1, 2011

Just a Small Town Girl: Living in a bikeless world.

Let me tell you my Bicycling Story. It began last century, with one of these:

Picture found on this blog by way of Google image search.*

Or at least something almost exactly like it. The city was Perth, Australia - Most isolated Capital city in the World with parochial attitudes to match. A car-centric city forged by the vast distances surrounding it, the sprawl of suburbs with enormous backyards to hold many a shed, the shunning of inner city living and a flimsy national identity tied to Holdens, Fords and beer. The year was 1994 and I was 12 years old. The Mountain Bike craze was an invisible dot on the horizon and I was at last tall enough to warrant an adult sized frame purchase. It would be my first 'real' bicycle and one for an important purpose - The end of primary school camp on Rottnest Island.

For those not acquainted with Rottnest, it is a small paradise off the coast of Western Australia famous for its blue swimming lagoons, bakery and complete lack of cars. The only cars on the island belong to the skeleton crew of island residents who keep things running. Nobody else can live there and everybody visiting must cycle. This trip was the mirage at the end of the primary education desert. You spent many of your school years fundraising for it, you took bicycle safety classes beforehand, you were made to pass cycling proficiency tests! Looking back, it's astonishing that an underfunded public school in a then working class area was able to offer this to students. A week without parents in an island paradise at minimal expense, being trusted not to create lawsuits with our bicycles. (Although I'm sure the Army barracks accommodation and mess-hall meals helped cut costs and I doubt our parents would have recognised a lawsuit.) In short, I needed a sturdy and reliable bike for the many hours of cycling ahead of me.

The general standard of natural beauty on Rottnest. Photo from this travel blog with basic information about the island.

My family had a small income so my parents scoured newspapers for garage sales or people selling old bikes. Old bikes were not Vintage at that time. Old bikes were simply OLD. New was still King, call it a hangover from the 1980s but despite recession there was a distinct lack of nostalgia when it came to consumer goods. My 12th birthday was at the beginning of the year, camp was at the end. All I wanted in the world was a pink bicycle. Through some kind of miraculous parental powers (I believe it's called 'Saving') my Mother and Father managed to produce one. A 1970s/80s Indi 500 bicycle. Looking very much like the one pictured above. And therein lay its downfall. It did not have the pump, cute saddle and grips as pictured but it certainly had the steel lugged frame, paintwork and decals - all immaculate. It had three entire gears, I had never known such luxury. My parents must have got it in a job lot from somebody clearing out their shed because my Mother got a different shaped, white Indi 500 with three gears, back rack and wire basket (I was desperately jealous) and my Father got a three speed blue one with rear rack. A little bit of surface rust here and there on Mum's bike. Saddles and grips a bit tired but every vehicle functional and nothing damaged. We could not afford to 'improve' them aesthetically nor did it even occur to us to do so. Thus the bicycles remained in their raw state, my Father applying his magical mechanical Dad-skills over the chains and various different brakes (between the three there was a mixture of back-pedal aka coaster-brake and caliper rim brakes) to ensure that they rode smooth.

I loved my Indi 500, I repeatedly rode it round the block. Sometimes with an off-brand portable cassette player on my hip, my one cassette pumping 'Ace of Base' through the cheap foam headphones. For the first time I cycled unsupervised up and down local suburban streets, thrilling at the feeling of being alone and in charge of myself, imprinting every neighbourhood house as I passed them again and again. I did not cycle for a reason. I cycled for joy. By the time camp was imminent I had cycled to school and passed my proficiency test with flying colours. My only memory of the test itself (apart from the hand signals and road rules we learned in the sessions leading up to it) is bicycling zig-zag through a long line of witches hats. By that stage it was a laughable challenge, I'd been riding the Indi on curbs round the block at high speed - a sort of balance beam for upright bicycle. There was a solitary student in my year who had never before ridden a bicycle but by camp she was on a bike too, although wobbly. We rode in an excited flock from one end of the island to the other and everywhere besides. I flew up and down hills, raced my friends (and enemies), triumphed when I beat an athletic boy on a brand new mountain bike with a proliferation of gears. Girls can do anything! I mentally rejoiced - even though Girl Power! hadn't been invented. Then. I can still remember his scorn when he cried, "I can't believe I just got beaten by a shitty Indi 500!" And with that, the poor Indi's fate was sealed.

How's my Father's bicycle today? Pretty good.
And my Mother? A little rusty from being rode hard and put away wet.
Don't know about her bike... ZING!

The awkward teen years were mere months away, waiting to sucker-punch my sense of identity. One day I was suddenly 13 and about to start high school when with horror I realised that my once beloved bicycle was not cool. It was old! It was pink! Only little girls like pink! All of my friends had discarded their upright bicycles seemingly overnight (but it was probably just over Christmas) and obtained shiny new MOUNTAIN BIKES! How EMBARRASSING! My older brother had possessed a mountain bike all along, he used it to do achingly cool teenage things like go places alone and see friends without asking for a lift. I had no idea of bicycle geometry or function but I was sure that if I just had a mountain bike then I could love it as I had loved the Indi 500, with the added bonus that I would have my first new bicycle and be cool. It's shameful now to revisit my discarding of the Indi. It was the shortest time I've ever owned a major purchase and the only time my parents ever permitted something so wasteful. Of course, they were not wasteful - they were sensible adults and so the mountain bike - bought from a bike shop and not a newspaper! - was partly funded by the sale of the pink Indi. It had always been the best preserved of the three but I doubt they got a lot for it because Perth was in the iron (Or should it be aluminium?) grip of THE MID-90S MOUNTAIN BIKE CRAZE.

It was a dark time. The lone bike shop in our area was full to the brim with trendy mountain bikes of all sizes and colours. (And hopefully price-points - Guilt guilt guilt.) Upright bicycles, already out of fashion even before the trend hit were now considered antiquated pieces of junk. It wasn't about buying a bike suitable for your specific needs or activities - it was all about chunky tires and straight handlebars. It was about the shape of the bike - end of story. And end of my cycling career. Within two years I had grown, my centre of gravity had changed and the mountain bike became my enemy. I hated the saddle, I couldn't ride it in the rain because water flicked up off the wheels, I felt unbalanced and it seemed to have a mind of its own. Strangely, I don't remember a single journey I took on that bike. All that remains is the feeling of regret. I put it in the shed and concluded that if this was what bicycles were supposed to be like then I was no longer fit for cycling. By then I was old enough to solo-navigate Perth's relatively comprehensive public transport system and my high school had a bus run with the cooperation of the same. Besides, I didn't need to go far. And there was nothing to do. It was Perth.

The hated mountain bike. I literally cannot give this thing away so it lingers in my shed.
Why, yes. That is the word 'RADICAL!' on a bi-coloured ellipse excreting fluoro triangles.
It couldn't be more 1990s if it was being ridden by a Ninja Turtle off a milk crate and plywood
ramp and landing on the entire cast of 'Saved By the Bell'.

My friends soon learned to drive. Just like everyone around me, it was all they'd ever wanted. Bicycles, buses and trains were to them a frustrating delay to 'real' transportation. For the shimmering promise of Freedom with a capital F. Not being able to drive was oppression of the worst order. Owning your own car was the ultimate statement of independence. We were turning 16 and my sense of identity, like so much jelly only a few years ago had been busy solidifying. I once more discovered that I enjoyed having my own opinions. An independence of mind. If it coincided with my peers, great! If not, too bad! They were my thoughts and feelings and they didn't exist without consideration - I could rationally explain them all. And my overwhelming feeling was that driving a car did not give us freedom. That it was being arbitrarily viewed as a compulsory right of passage. That just because everybody else does something was not a good enough reason to do it without first stopping to ask, "Do I actually want to do this?" So I asked myself if I wanted a car. Surprisingly, the answer was, "No."

Thanks to geography, outside of my home I was completely surrounded by car culture and I had just assumed that when I was old enough I would wake up with a hunger for automobile ownership. I was genuinely taken aback not to feel it. Of course, when I tell you that my Mother does not drive, my brother didn't drive, one Perth aunt and my maternal grandparents didn't drive it is of course less surprising but I did reach my decision independent of those circumstances. Nobody ever expressed displeasure with the concept of cars or told me not to drive. But they didn't ever speak of cars in the slightly erotic way other Australians do. They only served as real world examples of people living without driving cars. People using public transport or walking. True, they all lived in a household where there was one car and one driver so that if they did need to go a long distance with a large cargo they could but the one thing I saw and retained was the idea that it was POSSIBLE. But what of the Freedom? They didn't seem inhibited by their lack of car. My Mother still had her Indi 500. She rode it to work. There were buses and trains near our house. She took us on school holiday excursions into town, the beach, to smaller settlements outside of Perth. Every trip was still an adventure. She could still go wherever she wanted with or without us. They all could. By golly - they were free. And that's when I realised I had felt free all along. I'd never thought, 'Can't go there. Don't have a car' and so I didn't need to generate Freedom. I could only conclude that I in fact didn't ever want to drive a car, let alone go out and buy one. And more powerfully, I realised that I didn't have to.

Either this is deeply symbolic or there's nothing which can usefully illustrate the epiphany that one is a pedestrian. Not without a dangerous Google search, anyway. Everyone had those locks in 90s Perth and nobody used them because nobody wanted to steal a bicycle when they could steal a car.

I enjoyed public transport, I continued to use it throughout high school and into my tertiary studies. I was independent and I was free but I noticed that I spent an awful lot of time having to justify my 'freakish' refusal to drive a car. Sometimes to complete strangers. Once, a 30-something man selling a defensive driving course verbally abused me and insisted I must have had a horrible car accident to scare me off automobiles because I had dared to cheerfully respond, "No thanks, I don't drive!" to his offer of a pamphlet. I had never been in a car accident. Ever. Nor had my Perth family. He pressed me on it for a full ten minutes before becoming quite aggressive and demanding to know the real reason I didn't drive. Psychological problem or criminal conviction? He declared it impossible for me to genuinely have zero interest in a thing which everybody loved. He was almost hysterical by the end, invading my personal space and demanding answers. I was 18. That was the most extreme reaction. The more common ones were, "What if there's an emergency and somebody needs to get to hospital?!" (I'll call an ambulance, thanks.), "You'll change your mind!" (I might but probably not and if I ever do it will be entirely my business.), "But don't you want the Freedom of having your own car?!" (Again with the Freedom - you'd think we lived in East Germany.), "The fun of driving around with your friends while you're all teenagers?!" (Which I still got. And paid petrol money for.) "When I was your age…[insert reminiscence about getting away from parents and feeling like a grownup]" (I can still physically leave the house, I have feet.) and the classic peer pressure response of, "Everybody else does, what's wrong with you?!" And so it went until I was about 21.

By now it was the 21st century, the Human race had come down hard off it's Woo-Millennium-Age of Aquarius-Buy the World a Coke trip and had changed in inconceivable ways, life was every kind of complicated, there were wars for oil and environmental consciousness had reached even Perth's shores. Now when I revealed that I did not drive, people politely assumed some kind of disability disqualifying me from driving. I corrected them, they were confused, I calmly replied that I just never wanted to and that was usually the end of it. But every now and then, I would meet another Gen-Y who would look at me with a mixture of shock and delight before confiding in hushed tones - "I don't drive either." But none of us rode bicycles. We had a collective case of Velo-Amnesia.

All the while, Indis rusted faithfully at the back of sheds everywhere, waiting for the invention of Hipsters.

Flash forward to last year - I am 28, married and still not driving. My brother has been forced to drive (eventually getting his licence at 30 years of age) for his specific industry of choice but unless he needs the car for his job on a particular day, he just drives to the train station. He still cycles, going long distances for recreation. Most of my non-driving peers also have drivers licences but it was again an employment requirement they wouldn't need to adhere to if they didn't do those exact jobs. They still don't actively engage in car culture. I still meet non-drivers, mainly in more urban areas, though the suburbs of Perth are still spreading after a population and housing boom but with another economic downturn and the price of petrol people are returning to inner city living or taking the new train line to work (An electric commuter train goes all the way to one of the towns we used to visit on holiday). One non-driving friend decided she should probably learn to drive, bought a car and then moved to London where the concept of everybody driving everywhere is implausible and once more she is car-free, she just catches the tube. There are Australians in Melbourne who go without using cars (Melbourne is famed for a fabulous network of city trams) and public transport is now part of the city's cultural identity and 'Brand' in marketing campaigns.

I am still in car obsessed Perth, married (happily) to an ironically car culture-centric Ginger Man from a car crazed family who always have more cars parked outside a house than people resident inside but I am still not 'A Driver' and he respects that. Good cycling infrastructure exists, bike shops and even bike themed caf├ęs abound but the scene is dominated by a small population segment of men aged 18-60 commuting in lycra as fast as they can or riding in large groups on weekends. But something wonderful strange is taking hold of me. I'm remembering bicycles are vehicles. I'm recalling my Indi 500 transporting me from one end of an island to the other. I'm remembering how lovely upright cycling was, what a mistake a mountain bike in the suburbs was. And I'm noticing online that other people seem to be thinking about bicycles being transport too. Even upright bicycles. They're talking about finding ways to get out of their cars. About the environment and petrol costs, commuting and touring and leisure cycling. About finding their old bicycles in backyard sheds and giving them some 21st century upgrades. And some of those people are even in Perth: Bicycle Backwater. And so my research began…


*Turns out the blog is from Perth. Due to the 'small town' nature of Perth, for all I know that could actually be my former bicycle. Regardless - I hope it's being loved and that it hasn't fallen in with the wrong crowd and become a fixed gear.


  1. that's quite a interesting storie.
    raymond.coos bay,oregon

  2. Loved reading this. You are about the age of my sons. I cycle regularly but I'm till fat-bottomed. Glad to have found your blog. Brenda in the Boro UK

    1. Thanks, Brenda. The fat-bottomed must stick together and of course take comfort in the fact that our saddles are inherently more comfortable ;)

      Enjoying what I've seen of your own blog so far!

  3. Thanks for this, I just bought an Indi 500 from the tip and am doing it up! Stumbled upon your blog whilst researching it, very enjoyable!

    It shall be my transport of choice for the summer and beyond!

    1. A rescue bike, very cool! If you're looking for budget makeover ideas, I have a few here:

    2. But if you have a reasonable amount to spend, definitely look into getting the frame resprayed. A new powder-coating will protect as well as look excellent :)

  4. Hey. Great blog FBG. You have a real talent for writing, and as another treadly-crazy person I love the subject matter. Go girl ! (PS I have a couple of Repco Travellers roadies from the flouro-mad early 80s. Google Olivia Newton-John and 'Physical' for the look. Made by the tens of thousands, mostly in landfill).

  5. Ellipse Group specialise in Plant Hire, Surveying, Drafting and Construction Services.

  6. Thanks, I was laughing so loud at the "saved by the bell" bit that I had to explain it to my colleagues in the office.
    I used to ride a nice racer that i got for about 10 quid back in the mid 90's because everyone wanted mountain bikes and you couldn't give anything else away.
    I now have a nice tourer that was founds in a skip about 15 years ago that I could never have afforded new, and I also have an indi 500 upright 3 speed that i found by the side of the road, other than a new innertube it is a perfectly servicable bike and ideal for riding with my daughter who is just learning.

  7. I saw one of the indi 500 in a op shop for $15