I feel like I went to sleep and woke up with a new life. There was no magic, though – just a lot of hard work by loved ones. I got sick. One day I was living in Brisbane, the next, Sydney.
I grew up in Sydney and left a few years after I started cycling, chasing the sun, a calmer life, and a home where riding was safer and the singletrack more accessible.
So it’s been pretty nerve-wracking to come back to a city twice the size: a hard, brash, global city where there are relatively few bike lanes, and motorists are much more likely to try to ‘teach you a lesson’ than give way.
But I’ve worked a few things out, and been very, very surprised. I’ve ridden bikes all around the world and lived in a fair few cities – some of them bike-friendly, some of them not. Here’s what I think you need to live a happy bike-life in a new place.
1. A bike shop you can belong to
This is one of the first things to look for – unless you’re as fortunate as I am and have a live-in mechanic. Nothing feels better than that welcome you get when you walk though the door of a bike shop where the staff get you: they get your bike, they understand the kind of riding you’re doing and the equipment you need. I’m really lucky to have this in Sydney at at least two shops – City Bike Depot on Kent St, and just up the road, the fabulous Atelier de Velo on Clarence St. I think that when you move to a new city it’s a great idea to head into a shop – there’s always something you’ll need to buy, and you can strike up a conversation… You might meet some new people, or score an invite to a ride.
2. A bunch ride that hurts you
This is the best medicine for a new arrival to any city. Force yourself to get out there and sit shoulder to shoulder with a few strangers. Learn a new route, and stick around for coffee if you have time and know your way home. It also helps if this ride is challenging. And regular. Go and keep going. Here in Sydney I’ve tacked on to the ‘Dawn Patrol’ bunch. It’s been hard for me, especially because it’s really been months since I’ve done a bunch ride, let alone got my heart rate above about 75%, and this ride includes a full-tilt, four-kilometre climb up Bobbin Head Road, as well as some techy descents and busy roads. But making it, (even if my boyfriend did push me back on once or twice up the hill), sticking with it, and feeling a part of something – that made me feel like Sydney has room, among its cars and high-rises – for one more girl on a bike.
3. A lycra-friendly café (with quality coffee)
Because we need rewards, too. And sometimes the joy really is in the arrival, in lifting your helmet off your sweaty head and waddling to the counter, licking chocolate foam off a spoon, chewing toast spread way thicker with melting butter than you’d ever spread it at home. It helps if the proprietors can handle 35 orders at once, and even better if the other patrons aren’t appalled at the sight of men and women in skin-tight, fluoro spandex, but not necessary.
Here, where we’ve settled in Sydney’s leafy suburban fringe, dominated by a behemoth shopping mall (containing no fewer than four supermarkets), around the corner, next to an adult shop, is a little hole-in-the wall café that opened a few months before we arrived, run by a couple of hippie-ish blokes who used to be professional coffee roasters. Nuff said.
4. A patient tour guide
This one’s really important. You need just one generous friend to take you out and show you the ropes. Sydney, since I’d left it, had seemed a hard, glittering mass of eyeless buildings, heinous motorists, and deep potholes. There was no singletrack, no bush, no peace, and the cycleways seemed to connect about as well as a chewed up mouthful of spaghetti.
But maybe I just hadn’t looked well enough. The difference this time is that Mike is here. A man who stayed here, where I left, and rode and rode, and who’s only been hit two or three times by cars. Who knows this part of the city that is foreign to me, and is happy to ride on the car side when we’re headed down the Pacific Highway on some dreadful mission or other. He’s taught me how to look again: shown me secret, safe back ways, taken me to new places, found trail heads, and ridden at the atrocious ‘girlfriend pace’ that’s been the best I’ve been able to muster for months. Mike’s teaching me to treat Sydney motorists much as you would a pack of children at a birthday party – any lapse of authority and they will take advantage of you. The other day, in 37 degrees, we rode out for six hours finding every bit of secret singletrack Sydney’s north side had to offer and came home sweating, dehydrated, and grinning.
5. A favourite ride
But Sydney still is not home, and expecting to love everything is asking too much. Back in Brisbane, I had my favourite climbs, my favourite singletrack, my favourite marathon rides, my favourite recovery spins. When you move, though, you need to find new experiences and places, and the most important ride to know is not the hardest but the one that always make you feel good.
Sydney, I’ve discovered, is not a city of shiny, cold-shouldered sky-scrapers. That’s just where everyone’s looking. Sydney is a city of gorges, of surprises, of crumbling change. My favourite rides are into, and out of, these gorges.
You can turn off a busy road, and descend, pursued by a dozen cars, lose them, and then suddenly sink into dark, hidden places where tree ferns thrust up between the weeds, and creeks lead further off between overhanging caves to deeper places, dark and full of secrets.
And they’re off-road, too. Descend and look back in time through sandstone cut and uncut, sandstone that crumbles at your touch and you’ve made history; you’ve made your mark on geology. Climb up to the heathy escarpments, where the trees are the size of arthritic old men and the bush smells of spicy peppermint and something older. Something sweeter.