Sunday, 7 September 2008

Shattered by North Shore hills

A post about cycling.

It is a common misconception that Sydney is not well suited to cycling. The usual reasons that are trotted out are:

- geography, as in enormous hills
- weather, as in humid summers
- bad roads with no cycle paths or cycle lanes

The problem with that reasoning is that such a situation really only exists north of the Harbour Bridge. Which only re-inforces my view that the prats who write for Fairfax publications all live on the lower north shore. (I knew this to be true in one case - when I was living in Neutral Bay, I had a Fin Review journalist downstairs. My cousin used to be an editor of some sort with the SMH in the good old days, and he lived in Double Bay).

Out here in wogland, it's pretty flat. In fact, once you go west of Balmain, there is hardly a hill of note before you hit the Blue Mountains. It's like Holland with a few wrinkles. Yes, it does get humid, but having been locked in train carriages without air conditioning, I can attest to the fact that it gets disgustingly hot and humid on public transport as well - and that includes public transport in the east and north. One of the worst experiences along those lines that I ever had was to be stuck on a train between Edgecliff and Bondi Junction in a tunnel for about an hour one summers afternoon. By the time we alighted, so much sweat had run down my legs, my shoes were overflowing. It was disgusting.

The trouble with our media elite of course is that they live, work and play in a closely circumscribed area bounded by Coogee in the south, Willoughby in the north and Balmain to the west. They describe a Sydney that is cosmopolitan, multi-cultural and replete with good food and coffee. That describes the inner suburbs quite well, but once you venture outside that zone, the locals hate poofs, live in mono-cultural ethnic ghettos and spend their days stuffing their faces with McDonalds and KFC. The number of copies of the SMH sold west of Burwood can be counted on one hand, and the ABC might as well not bother to power up any transmission towers out this way. When gay friends come for dinner, it's usually by means of an armoured taxi, and they like to leave before the lynch mob with the pitchforks and burning torches breaches the front door.

Which means when it comes to Sydney being cycling unfriendly, they are of course referring to the tiny enclave that they inhabit which makes up less than 10% of the Sydney area. Hey, I used to live there too, and any trip west of George St usually required a pith helmet (no explorer ever ventured into the savage backwoods of Africa without a pith helmet). Out here, one can cycle for miles on either dedicated grade separated bike paths, or on back streets where an easy and bike friendly route has been laid out by the RTA or Councils - when I read an article saying that Sydney is not bike friendly, I wonder whether the idiot writing it is living in the same city as me.

The unfortunate effect is that it discourages people who live in very cycle friendly places from giving it a go because they believe everything they read.

All that aside, I decided to tempt fate today by cycling into the great unknown, which is the region north of the Gladesville Bridge (and north of North Sydney). Because it is comparatively flat out this way, I completely lack hill fitness. I wanted to find some hills and see how I went.

Fuck, I almost died. And not from the fucking maniacs driving Mercedes like they own the road. I am talking about heart attack brought on by having to attack hills that would make good launching pads for Scud missiles. I went over the Harbour Bridge to North Sydney, then up Miller St and over the Castlecrag Bridge. That was not too bad, and I have no photos of that part of the trip because trying to pull the camera out when you are descending a hill at 60km/h is a trip to certain asphalt covered death.

It was at the top of the hill after crossing Castlecrag Bridge that I started to understand that I might have bitten off more than I could chew. It was at that point that I called the Chickenman on the pretext that I needed directions to Waringah Rd, but more importantly, to stop my heart from leaping out of my ears. I even spent a few minutes fiddling with the new Nokia, trying to get the GPS function to work. I was so glad of all the fiddling that I had to do to try and make it work that I lost my desire to toss it into the nearest gorge. There's nothing like a bit of pain in the arse, not functioning properly technology to waste some time when you really need a break.

From there, I kept going north over a few more hills until I pretty much cracked and decided it was time to try heading home by a different route. I had to stop in Crows Nest for a restorative Coke and a bit of a lie down on the grass - I was that shattered. In the end, it was "only" a 44km round trip, which ended up involving 2 hours of actual riding in a 3 hour trip. Every 20 minutes of riding required almost 10 minutes of recovery. I feel like I covered more distance vertically than I did horizontally.

The problem was not the hills themselves - I've done hills that steep and long and nasty before. The problem was the traffic, and the lack of a safe bike lane. I just couldn't cruise up the hills in low gear, taking my time and hogging a lane. I wanted off them hills as fast as possible to get away from all the lunatic Mercedes drivers, which meant pushing it as hard as I could until the body was not capable of giving any more. I am just not fit enough to push the bike up those hills as hard as I did. It was a case of get off the hill or die by being rammed up the arse by an idiot in a Merc.

In short, the only thing holding back cycling on the north shore is not the hills or the weather, but a lack of safe bike lanes. Forget about riding on the footpaths - I tried that in a few places, and they're about as smooth and nicely formed as a prodigiously-mined Afghan goat track. That is, if such a thing as a footpath exists. There must have been a great Concrete Famine or Concrete Drought on the north shore at some point, because they certainly ran out of the grey stuff when it came to laying paths for pedestrians. That denotes a certain amount of cunning on the part of the city fathers, who probably figured that if they forced people to drive, they could exclude people too poor to afford a car.

I pulled into a bike shop and asked them about safe routes to the Roseville Bridge, and they laughed at me. They told me that there are a few cycling paths north of that area, but essentially nothing in the area between the Roseville Bridge and the Harbour Bridge.

If they won't build paths for bikes, the answer is to clear the road of idiots in Mercedes with one of these.

Don't tempt me....

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