Essay: Michael Sunon e-bikes

I Will Be The Most Esoteric Person On The Bus

At dinner parties I tell embellished stories about how chaotic my life is as everyone laughs in the right places and pretends not to notice the embellishments. 

Wow, someone says when I tell the story of Chris, a man I met on Hinge and then invited to a party while extremely drunk. Are you serious, someone says when I reveal that I left the party early only to find out the next morning that Chris had lingered much later into the night, subjecting all the attendees to invasive and probing interrogations on the dancefloor, so flagrantly flouting any and all social codes that he had been politely asked – then forced – to leave, though not before feigning a lost wallet somewhere deep in the many crevices of the sharehouse. That’s crazy, someone says and this is when I know I’ve been talking for too long. My mouth feels dry. 

One afternoon I wake up from a nap and see that Chris has messaged me on Instagram after many months of no communication. I open the message, then instantly regret opening the message. Hahahaha I nearly hit you with my car two weeks ago, it reads. You were on one of those orange e-bikes. Where were we, I respond, groggy. Right outside the Marley. But the ez mart side. I was in the vintage 95 Commodore that’s literally falling apart.

This orange e-bike is (confusingly) a Lime Bike, a brand of shared bicycles with top speeds of 25 kilometres per hour. I am certain this claim is an outright lie concocted to stay within Australia’s legal limits, the lowest legal speed limit for e-bikes in the world. Lime Bikes are faster than their bulky frame might imply. On the right day – the wind just favourable enough, the slope correctly inclined – they can keep pace with any car. 

I don’t remember the incident Chris is talking about but I have no doubt that it happened. Over the past year I have become a Lime addict. Hardly a day goes by now without my booking at least a single Lime Bike. The app calls it an ‘unlock’. Scan and go; scan and go. Most days twice, three times. To the grocery store, to the pub, to the end of the street for bread. To ‘Lime’ becomes a verb. Why walk five minutes when I can Lime in one? I change my Instagram username to @limebikeaustralia and begin compiling photos of Lime Bikes in the wild, lined up like soldiers on footpaths, or jutting out from wayward shrubs, orange aberrations amidst greenery. I am in the pocket of Big Lime and it is a fickle provider. Sometimes the seat is stuck at an awkward height, or the brakes completely busted by thousands of previous riders, and suddenly I’m whizzing around on a deathtrap, a vintage 95 Commodore hiding behind every corner waiting to strike.

Still, deathtraps give the best joyrides, so I keep pedalling manically, waiting for the inevitable collision, the crunch of bone on metal. If you are reading this, it means this hasn’t happened – yet.

When I am Liming, something primal emerges. When I am on the road, risking it all with a rusted-off chain and creaky saddle, I want to be seen, my existence hailed into being only in relation to the cars beside me. I want to be acknowledged by these hulking machines – which, I’m sure, could crush me like a bug without a moment’s hesitation were it not for their simpering drivers inside – as something formidable, something unknowable but fearsome all the same. I present myself like a challenge. Go on then, run me over.

As far as I am concerned, the road is an arena and all drivers are the enemy.

Australia has a brief and storied relationship with bike-sharing. No sooner had yellow oBikes reached our shores in 2017 than they were found, in great numbers, drowned in the Yarra, slung above street signs and power poles, in trees and on roofs. Mass cyclocide.

The same fate has yet to befall Lime Bikes. There are many theories to explain why. Mine rests on this simple fact: a Lime Bike weighs 32 kilograms, almost double the weight of an oBike. It is too heavy to be slung above street signs; too dense to be deadlifted over a railing.

This is not an essay about the metaphors of the road; Rachel Cusk has already laid claim to that. In ‘Driving as Metaphor’, she writes:

Once you’re inside a car, it becomes permissible to comment on those outside it, to remark on their appearance or demeanour, with a brazenness absent from most social situations. The occupants of a moving vehicle might even feel licensed to heckle or harass those they see, yet when the car is stripped of its power – by being stopped by traffic lights, for instance, or at a standstill in a traffic jam – and those occupants are exposed, their violence and aggression can rarely be sustained. They may even be frightened of being confronted in the flesh. It has often been observed that people behave in their cars as though they cannot be seen.

I will not comment on the accuracies here as I am – famously – not a driver, a fact I make readily and irritatingly known to anyone who will listen. But what I will say is this: if drivers accrue their power from anonymity, then cyclists may weaponise their vulnerability – visibility – in an equal and contrary manner. On a Lime bike, I am not just being seen: a passive act. I am demanding attention from drivers; I am courting impatience, resentment, a middle finger, a furious honk. For a brief moment, before I veer off, dissolving into the soup of traffic, the driver sees me as I see myself: a winking provocation speeding at 60 – sorry, 25 – kilometres an hour.

It sounds grotesque but mostly what I have wanted out of life can be distilled into that singular desire: to be seen. When I was younger I cycled through all the predictable predilections of a queeny child given too much unsupervised access to projectfreetvdotcom and BitTorrent. I wanted to be a model. Too much ANTM. I wanted to be a fashion designer. Too much Project Runway. I wanted to be a songwriter. Too much Platinum Hit, an obscure Bravo reality series that pitted subpar hitmakers against each other as they subjected a panel of judges – and, in one episode, an unlucky Donna Summer – to an overabundance of syllables crammed into ear-splitting EDM beats. It was a product of its time – 2011 – and it was cancelled after one season.

What I really wanted, though I didn’t know it at the time, was to be famous. For a while, I was convinced I would be, but I had no evidence to support my hypothesis. At university our lecturer asked us why we were studying media. For attention, I said, only half-jokingly, and she scoffed – the sound you direct to a dog trying unsuccessfully to eat its own tail. 

I hated her for it but I would’ve scoffed too. You don’t need a media degree for attention, I would’ve said. You just need to Lime down Missenden Road without a helmet and risk colliding with a vintage 95 Commodore, behind the wheel of which is a strange man you once knew.

What I talk about when I talk about life – which is too frequently for my sanity, often after the dinner parties reach a certain hour, after my embellished stories of chaos have been exhausted – is a scene from (500) Days of Summer, a twee 2009 Sundance affair about two people in a not-relationship upon which I built my entire personality between the ages of 13 and 17. The soundtrack is basically Morrissey propaganda, which I thought made me ‘charming’ but in actuality made me ‘annoying’.

The film was also a blueprint for aspiring Manic Pixie Dream Girls everywhere (me included). Like Summer, the film’s unattainable, unmoved, and deeply unrealistic love interest, the ideal Manic Pixie Dream Girl wore perfect bangs and listened to indie rock on oversized headphones. Importantly, she commanded attention wherever she went. ‘Her round-trip commute to work averaged 18.4 double takes per day,’ the narrator intones as Summer steps onto a bus, blithely – or more likely wilfully – unaware of each and every head-turn from awestruck passengers. 

In the same sequence, we see boardrooms full of executives poring over her every move and queues out the door of the ice-cream shop where she spends a stint as a summer casual. The only time she is alone is a brief moment at the end of the scene, on two wheels, gliding down a sun-dappled boulevard and coming to rest inches away from the camera. Her smile is guileless, serene.

By some cosmic stroke of misfortune, I was not born with Summer’s doe eyes or clear skin, and as a result I cannot rely on my good looks to grant me an average of 18.4 double takes on the bus. Instead I am constantly fabricating new and fanciful methods to derive attention on public transport – to earn attention; to beg, borrow, and steal attention. Attention from all corners. It’s in the name, after all: I am performing for the public. I am wearing increasingly esoteric and sometimes incredibly uncomfortable outfits on the bus. Beauty is pain (is what I say to myself as I lament my choice of heeled boots on a bloated vehicle that is lurching violently in all directions). 

There is an Instagram account called @afffirmations which compiles satirical and delusional personal mantras, posting at so dizzying a rate that it’s no longer clear where irony ends and earnestness begins: I do not get intense anxiety at parties, says one post; I will not waste my loan on clothes, reads another. If I had my own @afffirmations they would go something like this: I will be the most esoteric person on the bus. 18.4 people will turn their heads as I walk down the aisle without falling over in my heeled boots. I will command attention instead of merely deriving it. 

On a bus, there is no anonymity. Once you have committed to being the most esoteric rider – ding ding! A winner – you must wear the crown until your stop arrives and/or you are flung out a window, your centre of gravity destabilised by a pair of heeled boots.

This much is true: it is very difficult to wear heeled boots while cycling.

I see a tweet:

van life has always been a tragic millennial pursuit in that it romanticizes the union of two conflicting desires – to be seen and to disappear

I will not comment on van life as I am – famously – not white. But what I will say is this: the sentiment applies to cycling too. To be seen: fleetingly, in reckless abandon, by old Hinge dates or otherwise. To disappear: into the melange of the road, a Lime Bike rendered invisible to Sydney drivers as soon as it switches lanes, ducks away, no matter how fast, how orange it is. To be seen: cluttering the streets. To disappear: tossed into the Yarra. To be seen: by the camera, capturing a smile so guileless, serene. To disappear: from double-takes and hawk-eyed spectators for just a moment, alone on two wheels.

To drive is to experience true anonymity – in the hermetic security of a steel vault, behind tinted windows. To bus is to bind yourself willingly to, or at least acknowledge, the social contract – the one that prevents us from subjecting strangers to invasive and probing interrogations on the dancefloor, lest we risk eviction from the party. To perform on the bus is a loaded act, operating for and within the bounds of the social contract. 

Demanding attention on public transport is a tightrope trick. Too little and you won’t attract the requisite 18.4 double takes. Too much and you end up a pariah, facing public humiliation for the duration of your trip. I know this first-hand as someone who once vomited on a train approximately three stops before my own.

What I talk about when I talk about cycling – which is every time I am commissioned to write an essay on commuting (by which I mean only once in my life thus far) – is something of a happy (neurotic) medium. Like a bus passenger, a cyclist may invite attention; if you fail to command the right double take at the right time, you get crushed like a bug by a hulking machine. Like a driver, a cyclist may don the invisibility cloak whenever they wish, however risky. Weaving and ducking amidst traffic, a cyclist is seen only for an instant, then forgotten – the road is too dramatic, to paraphrase Cusk, for any singular incident to linger long in the mind.

Chris, then, was never really a driver (despite the vintage 95 Commodore), but more of a cyclist. He caused a stir, then exited, never to be thought of again. I doubt any of my friends could identify him today were it not for this essay.

Another tweet

Literally every person riding a bike in Sydney is hot

To be seen: desired, even. To disappear: into a flash, blurring past Twitter users and vehicles alike.

Maybe those two impulses – to be seen, to disappear – are co-dependent. I am hardly the first person to vocalise this: desire often entails a degree of inscrutability. We want what we don’t know. We look harder – see more attentively – when the details are fuzzy. Some call this playing hard to get.

It’s in the @afffirmation: esoteric. Not: prettiest, hottest, loudest, campest, most outré. But esoteric: something more enigmatic, less definable. I want 18.4 heads to turn not in lust or even admiration, but in sheer and banal recognition. I do not wish to be known – only seen. Like Summer: an enigma in the most traditional sense; a slate for others to project their wishes, desires, and insecurities upon while retaining the agency of self-determination. Others may think they know her, but they do not.

What I talk about when I talk about cycling is David Byrne – famously a cyclist – in the closing credits for American Utopia, his 2020 concert film. After 100 minutes spent cloistered in a theatre, suddenly, we’re outside. Byrne and his posse – a troupe of on-stage performers-cum-dancers-cum-multi-instrumentalists – are gallivanting down New York streets in a huddle of Citi Bikes, so close they might collapse on top of one another. It’s Tour de 6th Avenue.

As the camera closes in on each of their faces, their expression approaches the beatific: guileless, serene. Safety in numbers. They pay no attention to the passers-by, some of whom turn their heads in wonderment (as one is wont to do when they see David Byrne pedalling past them). They pay no attention to motorists, who – if the Manhattan stereotype is to be believed – likely heed road signals and bike lanes even less than their Sydney counterparts. It’s risky business. It’s thrilling cinema. They are seen, but in this moment, they refuse to see.

When I Lime I imagine that I look like David Byrne: graceful, lithe, striking. When I Lime I imagine that I look like Summer: porous, poreless, awash in a permanently golden-hour glow. 

When I see others Lime – a rare and unpleasant sight – I cast rapid, silent judgements on them. Hunchback, I think. Slovenly, gangly, stiff. Then I realise this is probably how I am seen too, if I am seen at all. Fucker, I’d think, if I saw myself cycling. Dickhead, narcissist, selfish.

What I talk about when I talk about cycling is Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino’s doomed 2017 romance upon which I built my entire personality between the ages of 20 and 22. By now, the story is well known. Two men fall in love somewhere in northern Italy in the 80s. They cycle out to a lake as the sun beams down overhead. Some other stuff happens.

In 2019, Lawson and I make the pilgrimage to Crema, a town just outside of Milan where Call Me By Your Name was filmed. The tail end of a classic Euro trip which has left us broke and tired, left us with a hangover that lasts for months. It might be late afternoon when we get into town; we might have already hiked up a hill that morning. The sun slowly slipping its way behind terraces, or maybe I’m misremembering now. It doesn’t matter.

What matters – what I remember – is this: the heatwave that strikes the day we arrive in Italy, heady and languorous. Scrounging together our last Euros to hire out the shoddiest bikes in Crema. Shirts soaked through, riding, riding for 42 minutes in a furnace, past a landscape that grows agrarian as we near our destination: Fontanile Quarantina, Guadagnino’s lake.

The lake appears for only a couple of minutes on screen; it’s not important. The cycling is the point – the romance of it all. The road stretches in both directions without a single interruption: no cars or pedestrians, certainly no vintage 95 Commodores. Nothing to be seen. Nothing to see. Nobody around to document this, to validate this, to honk or curse out the window, to turn their heads, awestruck, to determine whether I am esoteric enough or too much. Just Lawson and I. If I cycle on the road and no one is around to see it, did I cycle at all.

The same primal urge, as always. I present myself like a challenge. This time, to the skies, screaming and whooping into the air with stupid gusto. What was that, Lawson says. I shrug.

The lake doesn’t appear at all in my memory. What I remember is this: bobbing up and down, up and down. The horizon in perpetual motion; Crema receding into a vanishing point, then looming before us again on the return as if it had been there all along, playing peekaboo with us, as if the bike ride had been nothing but a fugue state from which we’d awoken from with shallow breaths and sore calves.

The day after I return from Italy, any sense of momentary bliss – guilelessness, serenity – immediately dissipates. Cycling home, I deliberately stay in the wrong lane, then flip off a driver who tries to merge too quickly.