I took longer than most kids to learn how to ride a bike.
By the time I was six, pretty much everybody in my grade (and the grade below me, and the grade below them) knew how, and spent many happy hours zooming to and from school, painting the back paths with trails of rubber, and occasionally launching through mud puddles or dirt mounds that I or other kids happened to be walking past.
Knowing how to ride a bike was the child equivalent of owning a car as an adult; it symbolised freedom, and injected a hint of badassery into one’s still largely undeveloped persona.
Well, who knows why (maybe it had something to do with the concocted mental image of hurtling down a hill at 2.5 times the speed of sound and ultimately crumpling into a pile of angles that human limbs shouldn’t make), but I was terrified of the idea of cycling. And bicycles themselves. Kids on bikes were always so high up, and looking down on me menacingly.
Every time my parents made even the merest peep about me possibly tearing away from endless hours of Super Mario 64, popping outside and actually having a go at riding, I would panic and run for the safety of my bedroom. Nothing with two wheels could hurt me in there.
It got to the point where Mum and Dad practically dragged me outside, and used the chain (ordinarily intended to keep sticky-fingered kids from commandeering the town’s bikes to get home from school, before dumping them in a neighbour’s yard) to keep me in the saddle. They had little patience for my continued hysterics, and apparently grew weary of scraping my snivelling face from the bitumen time and time again and telling me I’ll get it–just one more try. I’ll get it.
I didn’t get it. So Mum and Dad resigned, and appointed an unsuspecting family friend to finish the job.
His name was Phillip Cogan, and he had the wispy, flyaway hair of a man who is far more relaxed than you. His teeth were permanently on display behind his frayed toothbrush moustache, and his eyes always smiled.
And apparently, he had a magical touch that could render bikes immune to the hungry pull of jagged earth, because I can only remember climbing on a bicycle in his company and miraculously not toppling over. (I’m sure the process was much less straightforward than this, but my brain has deftly removed memories of testing the flexibility of the sound barrier with my head.)
I was six, and no longer scared of bicycles. I was a two-wheeled badass, and all the roads belonged to me, thanks to one kind and patient man.
Tragically, Phillip is no longer with us. I spent weeks after his death mulling over the sometimes cruel and unexpected nature of life, realising more and more the significance of this skill (cycling, that is, not mulling) that I might not have if not for him, the sudden, icy insignificance of everything else I was worried about at the time, and the opportunities that might have been denied me, had my parents never made friends with this one man all those years ago.
Cycling the Otago Rail Trail, the ruins of temples in Sri Lanka, the back roads of Northeast Thailand and central Vietnam…all these experiences suddenly seemed like Phillip’s, just as equally as my own.
And I knew, as I was thinking aloud with a friend and hit with this revelation, that one day I would want (screw that, need) to embark upon a cycling trip that did justice to his life.
Said friend, as always, encouraged me instantly. However, he made me promise I would attempt a much smaller trip first, as homework.
So that’s what I’m doing in one week’s time. I’ll be flying to Hobart, Tasmania on the 19th November (a year to the day since I left Africa), and out of it again on the 10th December.
Ideally, I’ll find a bike to ride, and a tent to sleep in, and a safe path I can take across the island without logging trucks threatening to run me down. Hopefully, I’ll not get stranded without any food or water, or blow out a tyre, or crash where nobody can find me. My plans, as always, exist only as vague theory, but I’m trusting in the overall good nature of people and impulsive energy of spontaneity to help me out from time to time, if and when things get a little rough.
Otherwise, I’ll simply wake up in the morning, get dressed in what will probably be one of three outfits I pack (carry-on baggage only), consult some kind of map, and just go.
So little of life in the city comes down to “seeing what happens”, and I’m very much looking forward to getting back into the welcoming tendrils of nature and regaining some of the perspective I’ve lost over the past few months. Trusting again, completely giving myself over to chance.
With every pedal, I’ll remember the relentless smile behind the frayed toothbrush moustache, egging me on…and the roads will be mine once more.