The Last Personal Best
This morning, I shifted the old bike from one side of the shed to the other. The amount of dust launched into the air prompted me to oil the bits that spun and take the poor thing for a ride.
Rather than head straight for the Bass Highway, I decided to do a few laps around our house paddock – actually, our only paddock – which led into a bit of fancy slalom work after I spotted a neighbourly audience.
Sadly, I rode over a rogue twig that absorbed all of my momentum. The bike stopped, and I couldn’t get my big fat feet out of the toe clips.
The same neighbours were treated to the slowest accident ever as I gently toppled sideways and landed shoulder first onto the driveway.
I returned the bike to the safety of the shed as I felt the bruising set in, which made the perfect excuse to spend the rest of the day lying on the lounge. And therapeutically reminisce.
Now, you’re going to find this hard to believe, but there was a time before Netflix, Fitbits, and 24-hour gyms. And photos were something you had to collect from the chemist a week after you talked with them.
The only selfies were painted portraits.
So, my halcyon cycling days are a fading collection of scars and memories from another era. As I lay on that lounge, staving off concussion with cold Coronas, I remembered my favourite sprint ride from Karrabah Road, Auburn, to the Sydney Town Hall.
A quick Google search tells me the distance is 22km, but back then, I measured it with a string and my Dad’s street directory. Thirteen and a half miles.
And that was the start of every perfect Sunday – chasing my personal best to the Town Hall then swinging through the big city, down Elizabeth to spend the day doing laps of Centennial Park, 4kms per circuit, with another pack of cyclists always in front to chase, or behind to race.
And then the slow, reluctant ride home, down the docile edge of Parramatta Road.
The only part I timed was the race to the GPO, and over the years, my personal best times continued decreasing as my heart grew larger, and my bikes got lighter.
And the gears went up. The tech stuff peaked with a 54/11 twelve-speed gear set, a Reynolds 531 frame, and the narrowest tyres ever, which made them perfect for getting caught in those damn drainage grates.
My times plateaued at just over 40 minutes when I was early enough to beat the traffic and brave enough, between it and the parked cars.
By the time I was at my peak, there were around 50 sets of traffic lights along that stretch of road, and the ride degenerated into a series of sprints from red light to red. I usually got caught at around a third of them. Great for developing leg muscles, but frustrating as hell as the seconds ticked by and all the cars I just passed built up behind me. Again.
The worst morning was when I got in the way of some idiot in a Citroen wagon who spent the next couple of kays trying to ram me into parked cars. I can’t believe I didn’t just let him go, but I was stupid enough to catch him at the inevitable red lights. Yep, plural. Yep, loud swearing, and bike pump waving. Today, I can see that for the toxic masculinity it was.
As Parramatta road became ever more crowded, I realised that my personal best was never going to drop below 40 minutes. I would probably end up in an ambulance during the attempt. So, I decided to give it one big go before I retired the stopwatch.
One cold Sunday morning before sunrise, I wheeled my bike onto Karrabah Road, where I perched as I tightened the leather toe straps, started the stopwatch, and bolted the downhill zig-zag to Parramatta Road. There, I ran the first red light.
This was it. I’d decided to go express, and the first couple of reds were easily predicted. The situation became riskier as I swept through the four-lane intersection at Silverwater Road, and I startled a couple of truck drivers en route to the markets.
As I passed the old Ford assembly plant, the rising sun reflected in the bonnets of hundreds of Lasers, stockpiled in railway holding yards. The place is a shopping centre now.
The inclines grew, and the bends came into play. I passed my first bus at the Great Northern Road, up from where the AWA factory was slowly going broke.
Into Leichardt and still not much traffic. By the time I reached the downhill section toward the foot of Taverners Hill, I had already run a dozen reds, so flying through this major intersection was a breeze that enabled me to crest the gigantic hill in top gear.
Then, it was mostly just a matter of pedalling like hell and dodging the lumps in the road as I overtook cars that were only driving the legal speed limit.
As I started to run out of puff, the University gates opposite the Coroner’s Court signalled the edge of the CBD.
I backed off of a gear or two to catch my breath. Then, I really went for it as I turned onto George Street and toward the final downhill run. More buses. Another couple of red lights meant nothing by this stage, although the bloody pedestrians presented random frustrations.
I rode past the Town Hall and finally stopped pedalling. I coasted to a stop outside the Queen Vic and looked at my watch for the first time in 29 minutes. My final personal best.
I loosened my toe straps and meandered toward Centennial Park.