My dad was fast on his bike. So fast, in fact, that his friends called him Rocket Rod. He was 48-years old when he was hit by a car whilst riding in Castlereagh, on the western edge of Sydney. It was 1994 and I had just turned 20.
All rockets come crashing back to earth at some point. Rocket Rod was a strong and fast cyclist, but the car that hit him was stronger and faster, and the laws of physics are absolute.
Dad suffered brain injuries, a broken spinal cord, broken ribs and organ damage. He died on the side of the road that day. His friends gave him CPR at the scene until a medical team arrived. They manually pumped his heart through his chest and forced air back into his broken body with mouth-to-mouth. They saved his life, for a time.
I’ve been thinking about my dad lately. I ride my bike around Sydney every day; to and from work, to drop the kids off at childcare, to collect the groceries from the shops. The memory of Dad is an unsettling reminder of the dangers of the road.
On my birthday this year my sister, Erin, texted me about our dad. I was turning 47 and my daughter, Nissa, had just turned 20. I look back at this text every now and then. Erin says, ‘I didn’t realise how young Dad was. How much he missed out on. How young we were. We didn’t cope too well. It took years to deal with it.’
I grew up in the Western suburbs of Sydney, so my response was short, working-class and blokeish.
‘Yep, it was fucked up.’
Rocket Rod eventually passed away in hospital.
That day in 1994 is a rupture, a tear in the fabric of my life. There is a before and after to the day of Dad’s car crash, but there is no way through. You’re probably familiar with a day like this from your own life.
My earliest memories of my dad are associated with cycling in Sydney.
When I was young my dad would wake my sister and I up early for Nepean District Amateur Cycling Club races at Shanes Park, a small suburb in the Blacktown area. In winter, Dad would stuff newspaper sheets up the front of our shirts in what always felt like a futile attempt to combat the icy winter wind hitting our chests as we freewheeled down the hills.
In 1960, the Commonwealth Government purchased the eastern section of Shanes Park to build a small air navigation facility. Few people lived in the suburb and there was very little traffic, making it ideal for road cycling in the mid-1980s when I was racing out there. It’s still a sleepy site today, with one of the largest intact remnant woodlands in the Cumberland Plain.
I had my first run-in with a dog on my bike on a lonely Shanes Park road. It was a big, heavy-set breed that was full of anger that morning. It knocked me clean off my bike. You never really forget your first skid across the surface of the road. Skin on blue metal held together with tar. The sting of a gravel graze in the shower at night. I was training for my first triathlon the day that dog attacked.
The Emu Plains River Rats, as we were known, were the youngest team to race in the Nepean Triathlon in 1984, when the swim leg still traversed the water between the two bridges over the Nepean River. I was 10-years old at the time, but I never really took to triathlons. I always preferred the drains.
I got my first BMX bike in 1980, three years before BMX Bandits hit the screens. After the film was released the older kids in the neighbourhood started riding the large open-topped storm water drains near the Emu Plains Prison Farm. The farm was a site of incarceration and labour that was established in 1914 as a working dairy farm. It’s an area haunted by colonial legacies. In 1819 Lachlan Macquarie open a farm at Emu Plains to rehabilitate convicts through the hard labour of farming.
When I asked mum if I could go riding in the 80s, she’d always say, ‘yes, but be back by 5pm and don’t go near the drains!’ I never knew what mum was more scared of, the threat of prisoners on the loose or the fast-rising waters in the drains.
I got my first taste of riding in the city in 1996. I finished an electrical apprenticeship in 1995, the year after my dad’s accident. The happier days of road races at Shanes Park, triathlons along the Nepean River and BMXing the drains had all come to an end. So too had the desire to be a tradie. I didn’t know what to do, so I got on my bike.
I’d moved out of home and was living with a bike courier. He got me a job running parcels across Sydney on my old racing bike. My time as a bike courier was short-lived, but I did it long enough to fall in love with riding in the city and the buzz of urban cycling culture. At the unsanctioned alleycat races they organised around the city after work, the bike couriers called it ‘vélo culture’.
Riding in the city felt dangerous in the mid-90s. Actually, it was dangerous in the days before dedicated bike lanes. People would occasionally ask me why I was still riding bikes after a bike accident had taken my dad from me. Shouldn’t I stop? My bike mates never asked me this question. They already knew the answer: ‘Bike riding didn’t take my dad from me, a car did.’
I’ve always felt closest to my dad when I’m on my bike. I’d never let a car take that away from me. And so, I rolled on.
I was listening to FBi community radio one night in 1998 when a University of Sydney student started talking about a ride from Melbourne to Kakadu. My ears pricked up.
The Cycle Against the Nuclear Cycle, he said, was a protest ride aimed at raising awareness about the Jabiluka mine in the Northern Territory. The mine was built on land belonging to the Mirarr Aboriginal people, which was surrounded by, but excluded from, the World Heritage–listed Kakadu National Park. At the end of the interview the host said anyone who was interested in joining the ride should give them a call. So, I called up the radio station.
I was a 24-year-old electrician when I arrived to meet the other riders at the Friends of the Earth office in Melbourne a few weeks later. Seventeen of us left Melbourne on 20 June for the 4000-odd kilometre ride to Jabiluka. The ABC television show Recovery followed the ride with a weekly update from the road.
Taking on the Stuart Highway is a serious gig on a bike. The Stuart carves a 2834 km path from Port Augusta in South Australia, through Alice Springs and Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory, to Darwin. The highway is flanked by red sand and desert shrubs. It’s beautiful Country.
We camped on red sand at the side of the road when we were out of town. Most nights I slept under the stars in my sleeping bag. I was worried about snakes sharing the sleeping bag with me, but I couldn’t resist the big sky of central Australia. If you stare into the vacuum of space long enough you can almost feel time slowing down.
When the days heated up, we started riding at night. We visited sites along the way that were affected by uranium mining and processing. We saw the effects of nuclear testing in Australia. We met with Aboriginal communities and environmental groups and listened to their stories of life within the nuclear cycle. We bore witness to their resistance and struggles.
We covered about a hundred kilometres each day and made light work of the ride between Melbourne and Adelaide. It was cold when we left Melbourne, so we were happy when we arrived at Camp Coorong, an Aboriginal community and cultural centre just south of Adelaide. We met with Ngarrindjeri people who told us about their native title claims and talked about reconciliation. They told us about how they had campaigned for citizenship rights and legal process to secure land rights that would underwrite their claims of political sovereignty.
We rode out to Port Pirie, a purpose-built uranium treatment complex which processed ore from Radium Hill and Myponga, which is also known as Wild Dog Hill, just south of Adelaide. Wild Dog Hill uranium mine supposedly supplied uranium for the devastating British nuclear tests in the 1950s.
In Port Augusta we stayed with Mary, a woman who was campaigning against Western Mining’s Olympic Dam uranium mine. She put us up in her tiny little 2-bedroom flat. We spoke to members of the Barngarla community at the NAIDOC week rally.
In a roadhouse at Pimba, near Woomera, we struck up a conversation with workers from the Olympic Dam mine. They talked about the importance of uranium mining jobs for their community. A couple of the truckies had worked on the construction of the Ranger uranium mine in Kakadu. I learnt about the importance of speaking across difference in that roadhouse at Pimba.
On our way to Olympic Dam and Roxby Downs, we passed the Woomera Refugee Detention Centre, still under construction. In 2001 the Children Overboard affair politicised refugee settlement and this detention centre became a household name. In 2002, there were riots, hunger strikes, and lip-sewing protests at Woomera. The sting in the tail of this Howard-era shift in refugee policy still haunts us today.
At Marla we stayed with Yankunytjatjara elder Yami Lester (1941 – 2017). Lester was born at Walytjatjata in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands of South Australia in 1941. He was a survivor of the nuclear tests on Country in the 1950s, and a famous anti-nuclear and Indigenous rights advocate. Lester talked about being blinded by the first British atomic bomb tests at Emu Crossing in 1950s. Many of his people became sick.
Maralinga is 54 kilometres north-west of Ooldea, in South Australia’s remote Great Victoria Desert. Between 1956 and 1963 the British detonated seven atomic bombs at the site. Commonly known as the Maralinga atomic bomb tests, one of the bombs was twice the size of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
In 1985 the McClelland Royal Commission found significant radiation hazards still existed at the Maralinga test sites. The commission recommendations included group compensation for the Maralinga Tjarutja people and an extensive, long-term clean-up operation to restore the land.
Lester was significant in advocating for public recognition of what happened at Maralinga, and he played a role in forcing the Australia government to acknowledge that 1800 Aboriginal people were affected by the atomic tests. In testimony about the nuclear tests, Lester said some of his people were so weak they could not get down to the nearby populated waterhole. Some died of thirst.
Lester spoke with us about being a young boy when he was blinded by what he described as a black cloud from the south. After the nuclear fallout passed through his community there were outbreaks of skin rashes, vomiting, diarrhoea and blindness in his family’s camp. Lester said some people died from exposure to these nuclear tests.
I felt the foundations of the white colonial mythologies I’d been taught in school rattle at Marla. I saw the land as Country for the first time out there in the desert with Lester.
We crossed into the Northern Territory, where security guards from Pine Gap drove to greet us on the road about 20 kilometres south-west of the town of Alice Springs. Pine Gap is the colloquial name for the US satellite surveillance base and Australian Earth Station which is operated by Australia and the United States. It is partly run by the US Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. The security guards knew we were coming, and proudly told us so. They warned us not to approach the facility. We had little interest in Pine Gap and rode on to Alice Springs.
In Alice Springs we were billeted out to members of the Arid Lands Environment Centre. We spent a morning at Yipirinya Aboriginal School talking with the kids about their life in Alice, and about their thoughts on uranium mining and Aboriginal land rights.
The Mirarr clan welcomed us to Jabiluka on 12 August 1998. We’d ridden for 53 days, talked with countless people, raised $14,000 for the Stop Jabiluka Campaign, and spent our time on Country with Aboriginal knowledge holders across three states.
I was overwhelmed as I hitched-hiked my way back to Sydney. My head was spinning when I arrived home in late September 1998. I wasn’t an electrician anymore.
In July 1997, the collapse of the Thai baht escalated into a wider Asian financial crisis that affected several Southeast Asian countries. I had a working holiday visa for the United Kingdom and a small pool of savings from my apprenticeship to set myself up in London. But the Asian financial crisis was wreaking havoc on the foreign exchange rate and my Australian dollar savings were almost worthless when converted to British pounds. After riding across Australia, I decided to change my plans. I’d give riding from Singapore to London a go.
I flew into Singapore from Sydney with my bike in November 1998. The humidity is high in Singapore at that time of year, just before the northeast monsoon lashes the island city-state. I didn’t really have a firm plan for the trip, having flown into the city on a one-way air ticket with no visas, so I set my sights on Bangkok – expecting monsoonal rain.
Riding up the Southeast Asian peninsula in the monsoon season is like sailing across a sea of cities. I become attuned to the ebb and flow of the season, a different type of cycle that shapes people’s lives across Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. The riding was easy on the peninsula, and I was in Bangkok by Christmas. I stocked up on visas for Laos, China and Nepal in the Thai capital.
I crossed the Mekong River and entered Laos in February 1999. Outside the major towns and cities, dirt roads clawed through a mountainous landscape. The terrain and riding were tough. Looking back, I see a landscape that was ripe for development, a country wedged between the ambitions of China and the connective tissue of the Southeast Asian peninsula, which would eventually link Beijing and Shanghai to Singapore via flashy new roads and rail projects. Infrastructure projects funded by China’s One Belt and One Road dream plan for the future, which we now know was part geopolitics, part tied aid, and part pushy regionalism. But I couldn’t see any of this in the late 90s.
I fell in love with southern China as soon as I crossed the border. China was opening up, but tourism was still tightly controlled. Cycling across the countryside was relatively easy, but finding somewhere to sleep was harder. As I cycled my way across Yunnan and Sichuan provinces I found many of the smaller towns simply didn’t have a hotel that was allowed to take foreigners. Some of the more friendly hotel staff whisked me off to a room under the cover of the night on more than one occasion.
The idea of China as a nation-state is a relatively new idea, only a few hundred years old. The longer story of China is one of a multi-ethnic territory with shifting dynastic rule. There are more than 55 ethnic groups in China, and Yunnan is one of China’s most culturally diverse provinces. The Chinese government call the many ethnic groups shaoshu minzu. Non-Han communities make up 34 per cent of Yunnan’s population. A few times when I couldn’t find a place to stay, people simply took me into their homes. I learnt about the plight of the shaoshu minzu over shared rice wine on those long nights in Southern China.
I had to sneak out of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. I didn’t have a travel permit for the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but I heard from some climbers in Lhasa that I could get a permit in Shigatse. It was spring in Tibet when I was there in late March, but it was still cold at night. My alarm went off at 2am and I quickly rode out of the city. The water across the road was frozen in places, and the guard at the roadblock on the edge of the city was tucked up in a small building on the side of the road. I passed without him noticing and got my travel permit a few days later.
There is a point high up in the mountains, on a double mountain pass on the Tibetan plateau, where you feel like you can almost touch the sky from your bike seat. I camped one night with Sagarmāthā (Mount Everest) outside the zip-door of my tent. It was many kilometres away, but I felt like I could reach out and touch the holy mountain. Space seems to compress and time appears to warp up there in the mountains. Climbing over the huge Tibetan mountains is some of the toughest and most spectacular riding I’ve done. I remember every kilometre of the two-day downhill ride into Kathmandu, after I finally made it over the last mountain pass high in the Tibetan mountains.
The road out of the Indian city of Amritsar runs in a straight line over the border that separates India and Pakistan and into the Pakistani city of Lahore. It’s an easy 60-odd kilometre ride. The border balances precariously between these two cities. I’d heard that the border guards at the crossing were full of pride, facing off at each other with performative gestures of cultural and military supremacy; a legacy of partition. That violence lingers in ongoing tensions between India and Pakistan. It was on full display at the border the day I crossed.
I entered Iran on a five-day visa I’d picked up in Delhi a few months earlier. The ride from Quetta in Pakistan to the Iranian border town of Zahedan runs close to the Afghanistan border. It was hot out there in the desert in mid-1999, really hot. And even in those pre-9/11 days these desert roads felt lonely and dangerous, I felt exposed.
It was the middle of summer by the time I was in Iran. I travelled across the country with regular stops in the local police office to renew my five-day visa for a few more days. I knew I needed to get moving if I was going to make it over the French Alps before winter. So, I powered through Turkey and Greece, and caught a ferry to Italy. I had almost run out of money by the time I reached Europe, and I was camping in the countryside and eating almost exclusively from my camp stove. I crossed the French Alps as the winter snows began to fall. Throughout 2000 I worked and cycled around Europe, visiting the United Kingdom, Ireland, Holland, Belgium and France on my bike.
I flew from London to Sydney in the lull between the Olympic and Paralympic Games in October 2000 – and I enrolled in university. I was 26, and I didn’t know it yet, but I was set to become an urban geographer. Cycling had nurtured my interest in people and place, in cities and landscape, in society and culture. I’m a tactile learner. I learn by doing, and what I like doing is riding. But it was time for me to hit the books.
One cold morning in 2019 I was riding to work when an oncoming car turned into my lane. I was freewheeling down a hill when the car collected me head on. I hit the windscreen, flew over the roof of the car, and landed on the road at the back of the car. It was a serious crash, and my bike was completely smashed. I was injured, and I should have been more injured, but I was alive. As I lay on the road I thought about my mum. My mum couldn’t cope with losing someone else to a car, not like this.
The young man who hit me that cold morning in 2019, who turned out to be a P-plater on his way to school, could have seriously injured me that day. When the ambulance arrived at the scene they loaded me into the side of the van, but they also loaded this young man in the ambulance too; to treat him for shock. The young man was at fault, but I don’t blame him for what happened to us that day. It’s easy to blame a person or event for the structural problems with our cities and transport infrastructure, but it’s not the way forward.
Twice a year City of Sydney researchers stand on street corners in Sydney with clipboards to count the number of cyclists at around 100 locations on a weekday. These data provide a picture of cycling trends across the Sydney local government area. They only have data for 11 years, but it shows a good uptake of cycling in our city where we are providing dedicated bike lanes. Data collected at the intersection of King and Kent Streets, right in the middle of the CBD, show an average daily cycling increase from 654 bikes in 2010 to 2,000 in 2021. If we build cycling infrastructure people will ride on it and our cities will be cleaner and safer.
We know cycling is good for cities and the people who live in them. We know if you ride to work, drop the kids to school on a cargo bike, or get the groceries on your fixie you’ll be fitter and healthier. But we need to provide dedicated cycling infrastructure in our cities to drive an increase in active commuting. There is good evidence that the provision of dedicated bike lanes is a solid public health and environmental investment for our cities.
I have never stopped riding, and I continue to ride to work every day on my cargo bike. Cycling is about more than active travel for me, it’s the way I engage with the world. I’ve cycled around Japan with my 5-year-old daughter, I’ve travelled to Canada to go mountain biking, and I’ve taken side-trips from academic conferences to cycle across Germany. Gosh, I even rode a fixie from Canberra to Sydney in a couple of days when I was younger and fitter.
When I was a cycle courier in Sydney back in the 90s the roads were dangerous, there were few dedicated bike lanes and cars were an ever-present danger. I love riding through the city today on the dedicated cycling infrastructure, and other people do too. Let’s build more of it!
I write from land that was never terra nullius and I acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, upon whose land I live and work. I also acknowledge the Mirarr, Ngarrindjeri, Barngarla, Yankunytjatjara, Tjarutja and Arrernte peoples and thank them for generously sharing their Country, knowledge, lore and culture with me over the years. I would also like to acknowledge that the capacity to cycle across Australia and other parts of the world is not an option that is shared equally, and a white male body from Australia is especially privileged in this respect. I would like to thank Sydney Review of Books and Catriona Menzies-Pike for inviting me to write this piece and for very thoughtful comments on the first draft; and the City of Sydney and Create NSW for funding the broader writing project. Thanks to Jennifer Kent for sharing the cycling data with me. The original brief for this writing project was to write a piece about commuting and the city. I initially thought this would be a fairly straight-shooting piece about active cycling, bike lanes and the city, but when I sat down to write the essay something very different came out. There are many people who are conspicuously absent from the stories I’ve touched on in this essay; stories to tell another time perhaps. Finally, a big thank you to Wendy, Erin, Nissa and Jacqueline – my mum, sister, daughter and wife – for reading this essay and trusting me to tell this story about my dad, Rocket Rod.
This is part of a new series of essays on commuting. We’re grateful to the City of Sydney for funding the project. Look out for essays by Michael Sun, Beth Yahp, Jen Craig, Dallas Rogers, Anthony Macris and more in coming months.