While I have been very much enjoying caning my aged collection of bikes round the back lanes of Scarborough for the last few months, I would like you to know that I am prepared to go literally to the ends of the earth to ride bikes and tell you about it.
By way of proof, I would like to direct your attention to Exhibit A. That's A for Australia, baby!
Yes, me, Mrs Langsett and the little Langsetts have recently stared the travel apocalypse that is long haul flying with children full in the face. And - better yet - arrived at Sydney's Kingsford Smith airport, safe and sound, one beautiful sunny morning.
Ellie, the littlest Langsett, had been working overtime to set this up as the most awesome holiday ever. Not only had she been very satisfied with the wide selection of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse that was available on the flight out, she had also been busy inventing some cracking new compound words (she is learning to talk at the moment). Wriggling happily in her seat as we prepared to take off, she did her best 100-watt smile. "My on my holiplane!" she said. Me and Mrs Langsett thought this was hilarious, but Ellie wasn't done. She pointed to her sister's baseball cap, which she had - not to put too fine a point on it - stolen. "My have on my AustaliHat!"
So Mrs L was looking forward to seeing her big brother Andy, who moved out to Australia a few years back, and lives there with his missus Lisa and their two boys. And I was looking forward to getting some miles in, enjoying the gorgeous sunny weather that Oz is famous for:
For an occasional rider of bicycles, Oz seemed likely to be pretty interesting. A few months before, the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had been advised by his ex-physician - the fantastically named Dr Killer - to give up his regular early morning bike rides.
"You know," said Dr Killer menacingly, "as a doctor I see all the accidents with coming off bikes and one day I think he is going to have one too."
This was a worry. The Lonely Planet guide had a bit at the back about how to come back from Australia alive. It described obstacles like deadly snakes, deadly crocodiles, deadly spiders (lots of those), deadly jellyfish (some so deadly that they continue to cause brain melting levels of pain AFTER YOU ARE DEAD), deadly bush fires, deadly downpours; the lot.
Mr Abbott is not a man inclined to hide in terror indoors either. His Wikipedia page lists him as an active volunteer fireman and a member of the Queenscliff Surf Life Saving Club, so he spends his free time blasting the bejesus out of raging fires and rescuing the unlucky from the pounding jellyfish infested surf, as well as cycling.
Which made me wonder: just how dangerous was the bike riding going to be if it was a bigger threat to the PM's health than - well, all of the other ways that just being in Australia can bring about your early demise?
Clearly, I was going to have to find out.
First of all, let me just say what an astounding country this is. We actually stayed slap bang in the middle of Mr Abbott's constituency:
And I don't think I will ever forget the drive from Sydney airport up to the Northern Beaches. Australians like their motorways exciting, and the one we followed popped up out of a tunnel right behind the Opera House, executed an improbable left hand turn to run fifty feet up in the air along the top of Circular Quay metro station, and then did another equally improbable right hand turn to deliver you onto the Harbour Bridge itself.
It was an entrancing sight. The view out of the car window was filled with stuff I'd seen a hundred times on the telly and in books, but all ten times as big and with colours ten times as vibrant. Sunlight danced on the blue water of the harbour, yachts and ferries headed this way and that and the Opera House looked down on it all. I had every intention of taking a picture, but I ended up just looking at it all.
"Alright, isn't it?" said Andy from the front seat.
We ended the day at North Curl Curl beach, watching the setting sun light up the turquoise Pacific Ocean, and feeling very much in love with the place.
It is impossible to go to Sydney without measuring it up favourably against other big cities around the world. If you're in the city centre in Sydney and you fancy dipping your toes in the ocean, then one of the most beautiful ferry journeys in the world will take you out to Manly in twenty five minutes and another five will see you getting pushed around by the boisterous Pacific.
If you want your fix faster than that, the harbour itself is fringed with literally hundreds of lovely beaches of all levels of seclusion. New York's got Staten Island of course, but if you want to get out to somewhere like Jones Beach and get the full nature showing you who's boss experience, that's a lot more involved. And London is far worse again - here's how TripAdvisor members responded to a desperate plea from a recently incarcerated dweller of the city for some fresh sea air:
2. Re: Go to the beach near London
30 June 2013, 12:15
Edited: 30 June 2013, 12:16
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3. Re: Go to the beach near London
30 June 2013, 12:17
Stony? Muddy? I could do that I guess, or I could go and live somewhere with some actual seaside...
I loved the people too. Just about everyone we met in Australia had a kind of understated competence. If I ever find myself stuck with a bunch of other people in some kind of mortal peril - volcano about to erupt perhaps, or cruise liner about to sink - I'll know to look for some Australians, because they will be the ones who will have exactly the right unlikely skill required to get out of the situation alive. I'd guess this comes from living somewhere which is both awesomely beautiful and really quite dangerous, at least compared with suburban England. I think that if you want to get the most out of Oz, you inevitably get a lot of practice at using your judgement. By way of an example, Andy and Lisa took us out to Narrabeen Lake for a picnic with some of their friends. The picnic started when all of the children jumped out of their mums and dads' cars (or in some cases, off their bikes), ran towards the lake carrying kayaks, surfboards and body boards and threw themselves headlong into the water, while Mrs L and I looked on, appalled.
Then we realised that the children were all exceptional swimmers, and that the mums and dads all knew the lake well and looked out for each others' children. There is an amount of risk inherent in swimming in a massive lake that opens into the sea. But instead of trying to avoid the risk by keeping the kids out of the lake, the other mums and dads had just taught their kids the skills they needed to be able to manage the risk themselves.
Right, let's talk bikes. There were a lot of them:
And some of them were very cool, like this Pashley Guvnor-a-like, complete with surfboard carrier:
Some of them were racy:
And some appeared at improbable heights above sea level:
That's Bald Hill above, with Coalcliff, Scarborough and Port Kembla in the background. I was immediately jealous of the lad with the touring bike, because the twisting, tree shadowed descent from Bald Hill to Stanwell Park is a peach. If you're reading this, and you're from Northern England, it is as if someone has moved the Snake Pass to the seaside.
If you squint a bit at the picture, you might be able to see the Sea Cliff Bridge, where the road is built on concrete pillars a hundred yards out at sea. When we got to our B&B that evening, I asked Glen, the owner, why they'd built the Sea Cliff Bridge.
"Rocks kept falling down and squishing cars when the road went along the bottom of the cliff." he deadpanned, without missing a beat.
When we got back to Sydney, Andy very kindly lent me his Specialized Allez, made the year before Specialized introduced the curved top tube and ruined bikes for ever.
The bike had a lot of gears, including a triple chainring up front - and I was very grateful for all of them. The Northern Beaches look like they're going to be pretty flat, but there are steep sided sandstone headlands separating each beach from its neighbours.
It was the golden hour when I set off, but because this was Sydney, the beaches were busy with serious surfers and the roads were pretty busy too. I headed north, through Dee Why, Collaroy and Narrabeen, and there was a steady stream of lads and ladies riding very plush bikes somewhat faster than I was going.
The Allez did me proud. The wide handlebars felt a bit strange, and the aluminium frame made a whole load of musical twanging noises at every opportunity. But it was comfortable to ride, and easy to wind it up to speed. Specialized were a bit shy about telling you how much it weighed but it certainly didn't feel noticeably lighter than my Aerospace.
I looped around the lake at Narrabeen and headed back down the coast to the North Heads. This towering sandstone peninsula stands next to the entrance to Sydney Harbour, and gives you views out over the endless Pacific to one side, and back towards the city on the other.
The attitude of the state government towards cycling in and around Sydney contrasts sharply with the awesomeness of actually riding a bike around this beautiful city. Roads Minister Duncan Gay in particular has a talent for not just being legendarily stupid about riding bikes, but making his stupidity a matter of policy. Recent high points include considering compulsory licenses as a response to cyclists being killed by motorists and removing a central Sydney bike lane on a whim. The bike lane, on College Street, carries as many commuters on bikes as does the rest of the road in cars at rush hour. At least he's honest. But in all seriousness, Sydney is a city that has traffic congestion on biblical scale. Why would you not back a form of transport which reduces congestion by a measurable amount, every time someone decides to use it?
I remember reading somewhere that Gay's objection to the College Street cycle path was born of sitting in his ministerial car, stuck in traffic, while cyclists passed on the cycle path. I think that giving the lad a pair of trouser clips and a nice new ministerial Pashley Roadster might go some way towards helping him be less of a dufus.