Of all the metaphors that capture the essence of bicycle travel, perhaps freewheeling is the most appropriate.
Think about it. When you stop pedalling and freewheel, you have ceased to exert any discernible effort. Yet you continue rolling forward anyway, propelled by your own momentum. Magic!
What makes this possible is the wheel – or, more specifically, the assembly consisting of axle shaft and rotational ball bearing. It is here, in the space between two atoms of polished steel, that can be found the transition between human and machine. Wikipedia informs us that bearings of this kind have been recovered from Roman shipwrecks dating back over 2,000 years.
(To understand the genius of this mechanical principle more deeply, grab some cone spanners and overhaul your front hub, or at least watch someone do it on YouTube.)
Similarly, when balance and curiosity pair up with that equally extraordinary invention known as the bicycle, they together express the same transcendental freedoms embodied by the free-spinning wheel and articulated in English with labels like “cycle touring” and “bikepacking”.
There are emotional parallels to be found on the road, too.
Perhaps the first such moment is when – maybe a few days or weeks into a trip, depending on conditioning – rider and bicycle begin to cross-actualise.
Not to speak for anyone else, but to me this moment feels like passing through a warm wave of realisation; a sudden comprehension of what people mean when they talk of “being at one” with the bike, or reaching a state of “flow”, or perhaps another of the linguistic tropes that don’t altogether succeed in describing it.
For the unaccustomed, it’s also the kind of first-time experience for which the word “epiphany” might hesitantly be employed.
What all these phrases have in common is an allusion to transcending what the body alone is capable of.
I tracked down Derek, the stranger who’d invited me to his workshop in the suburbs of Port Macquarie. As fellow cycle tourers do, we swapped stories while he disassembled my rear wheel, slotted in a new spoke, tensioned it up on a bench-mounted trueing fork, and had it all back on the bike within half an hour of my arrival, making short work of the mechanical crisis I’d been dragging along since the Old Gibber Trail.
Next, we looked at securing the kickstand mounting bolt, which had worked itself loose on the gravel roads and seemed in imminent danger of dismemberment. I’d decided a spring washer was the way forward; Derek agreed but wanted to add a daub of red Loctite for good measure. I rode the rest of the way into Port Macquarie on a bike as good as new. (If you happen to be passing through in need of a tune-up or repairs, do look him up!)
Having cycled several hundred kilometres without a break and with no prior conditioning, I knew it was time for a rest day, no matter how tempting it was to continue. A friend had recommended the local YHA hostel, and, at the bargain price of AU$41 per night (note to non-Brits: this is sarcasm), I decided to check in for two nights and do some hard-earned relaxing.
Later, after failing to extract a single meaningful interaction with various Gen‑Z backpackers hooked on TikTok and vaping, I gave up and decided to cook a worrying amount of chicken for dinner. While doing so, I overheard someone asking another guest if they’d heard of the Armenian language.
It was a very difficult language, he was saying, but his mother was Armenian, so that’s how he knew it.
And that’s how I met Bob.
Now, I am prone to bouts of misanthropy, keep my friendship circles tight, and generally avoid socialising unless I’m really in the mood, which is rarely. But you don’t always have the choice, and those of my ilk need to have a few friend-making strategies in easy reach.
One strategy I’ve found particularly effective is having a foot in the door to a marginal social group or two – just enough to spot the signs and break the ice. Those of Armenian ancestry are such a group, drifting through society unnoticed, only the trailing letters of a surname perhaps giving the game away. Other groups I’ve associated with over the years include computer programmers, Couchsurfers, hitch-hikers, anyone who’s written a book about anything, Land Rover owners, lovers of mid- to late-nineties progressive house and trance… you get the idea.
On this occasion, I wouldn’t have suspected Bob had Armenian blood if I hadn’t overheard him saying so. But I did, and one barev later we were the best of mates.
Bob had been born in Iran, emigrated as a youngster to Canada, travelled the world as a geologist, and eventually settled in Sydney. Now in his 60s, he was up in Port Macquarie for a spot of body-surfing; a pilgrimage he told me he made annually in pursuit of his passion.
Like most people of Armenian or part-Armenian descent, he’d never visited the present-day former Soviet republic bearing the name of his ancestral homeland. He probably never would, he said. I wasn’t sure whether that was a shame, and later decided it wasn’t.
Malcolm was a different kettle of fish altogether. When I’d first wheeled my bike into the central courtyard of the hostel, he’d positioned himself strategically on a nearby bench in order to dish out helpful information to new arrivals – me included. It hadn’t been clear if he was an employee, a volunteer, or a long-term resident who’d taken hosting duties upon himself. It soon transpired he was the latter.
Now in his 70s, Malcolm had taken one look at my bike and launched into the tale of how he’d spent his 60th year on Earth cycling a lap of Australia, riding a single-speed bike he’d bought for a hundred dollars off some dude in Switzerland. He’d spent his time on the road sleeping rough in the bush and getting fitter than he’d ever been before or since (unsurprising, perhaps, on a single-speed). This almost superhuman level of fitness, he told me, waving a finger for dramatic effect and raising his voice for all around to hear, was the very best thing about bikepacking.
(Most Aussies seemed to use the term “bikepacking” to mean what the British, among others, would call “cycle touring”, as if the line needed any more blurring.)
By this point, Bob had joined us on the bench, also waiting for reception to open, while outside the rain came down in sheets. The following day, Malcolm continued to regale us with the life philosophies of a perennial free spirit, along with idiosyncratic Aussia trivia: the tale of the Gosford Glyphs, ancient hieroglyphics that bore a resemblance to those of Egypt in spite of no recorded contact between the two cultures; the “emu in the sky”, a type of constellation in which if you looked hard enough at the Milky Way you’d eventually see the shape of an emu (and then never be able to un-see it); the strange lights he’d mistaken for car headlamps while crossing the Nullabor Plain in the dead of night, and so on.
What I found more interesting was hearing how he and many of his fellow hippies had bought cheap land in Byron Bay in the sixties – land now worth tens of millions. This, he said with a chuckle, was how they were all somehow making a healthy living long into retirement with neither job nor pension. He didn’t need to stay in a budget hostel, he said – he just liked the youthful energy.
I glanced around at the sunburnt teenagers lolling about the place; raised an eyebrow. All they seemed collectively capable of was shrugging the three of us off as freaks. The only energy expended was that required to studiously avoid us. And whatever hard-earned wisdom Bob or Malcolm might have imparted to any of these youngsters evaporated with the rain.
As I pedalled out of Port Macquarie the next morning, I dwelled on the strange and unspoken tension that nowadays exists in hostels like this. Was the backpacker scene still projecting an outdated image of itself in which people still connected by congregating in purpose-designed communal spaces? Did the persistent myth of the globetrotting countercultural psychonaut, now two or three generations deep in history, bear any relevance to the socially anxious hyper-individuals of today, whose primary form of expression was in the digitally mediated exchange of curated lifestyle vignettes with the physically absent? Did everyone really just need a shot of tequila and their smartphones confiscated on arrival?
Perhaps it was all simpler than that. Hadn’t the bicycle traveller always been the weirdo? I was reminded of a talk given by Jack Thurston at the recent (virtual) Cycle Touring Festival on the subject of whether cycle touring had an image problem. One memorable response was ‘yes – and let’s keep it that way’.
From that perspective, any hope that I might show up at a backpacker hostel and somehow integrate was doomed to fail. There was no foot in the door here; no social margins to inhabit. What began as counterculture had been thoroughly mainstreamed. Thus had I ended up hanging out with the hippie-millionaire and the half-Armenian, laughing in the corner, freaks to be avoided.
A day off had breathed fire into my legs, and I outright smashed it out of Port Macquarie. More gravel? Sure. Bring it on. After two hours on the Maria River Road I shook off the dust; grabbed coffee and banana bread at Crescent Head; meandered forth on riverside byways. I slammed on the brakes in Gladstone, wolfed peanuts, recalculated the distance to Nambucca Heads: another 90km. I sense-checked myself; I felt great, decided to smash it there too.
Then, in a petty but symbolic act of defiance against the stagnation that had inspired this ride, the rustiness that had seen it creak into motion, and the inner fight with what it was and who I was to be pedalling pointlessly across another new land, I broke away from the New South Wales Coast Cycle Trail, slammed a hard left, and headed for the so-called “cycle shoulders” of the Pacific Highway to get the distance done.
And it was while boiling rainwater for afternoon coffee on a roadside picnic bench with six lanes of traffic flying past, happy as I’ve ever been, that I realised that right here in this moment was all that intoxicated me about bicycle travel; the same transcendental freedom contained within that atoms-width of space between bearing and axle; the flow state; the long-awaited epiphany. Now – right now – I could just keep going. Whatever lay ahead was incidental.
Ironically, what actually lay ahead was the end. Because, as I mentioned in my opening essay, this was a ride of circumstance; one wedged between other obligations. I had been clear about what I wanted to achieve with the trip, even if I’d not known where or when I’d find that sense of achievement, nor what form it would take. It certainly wasn’t about reaching Brisbane.
I rode a total of 135km that day, arriving at the station with 5 hours to spare before the night train back to Sydney. I figured I might as well ride another 4km into town for a celebratory fish and chips and a chocolate milk. I’m not sure if was the journey leading up to it, but now, as I write this post in retrospect, the memory of that fish and chips lingers as the best I had in Australia.
Perhaps this ride had simply been about reassuring myself that I hadn’t lost it. By my calculations, the distance between three years out of the saddle and the feeling that I could ride the Earth all over again was precisely 589.2km, or 7½ days, from the point of departure. It was empowering to know this, and I realised that – all entertaining anecdotes aside – it would probably be the biggest lesson I’d take home.
There is an entertaining anecdote between dinner and boarding the train involving New South Wales TrainLink’s bizarre demand that a bicycle be disassembled and boxed for carriage, the early closure of Nambucca Heads station, and a bike box being hand-delivered in the nick of time by the conductor of another train.
But I think I’ll leave it at that. Endings can drag; this one doesn’t need to. Much future writing has emerged from this short, sweet little bike tour – some of it philosophical, some of it nerdy and equipment-centric, and some of it practical. That’s to come as I digest what’s happened.
And now for that wedding I came here for in the first place!