Saturday, February 28, 2009


I used to be a bit of a bike nut. It had nothing to do with fitness but with freedom. When I was biking, I was not at home. I could concentrate on the immediate worries, which were few. I knew where I stood, so to speak. And for all their faults, none of my six parents ever grounded me. Freedom was a bike ride away.

Happiness was a Sunday afternoon biking. The banks of the Manawatu River with fresh batteries in the Walkman was the best, but any compass point would do. The Esplanade was interwoven with a braid of dirt tracks. That was always a good place to start. Right past the Lido swimming pools, the mini-golf, the micro-railway towards Dittmer Drive? Nice native bush back there, fantails and everything.

Left was always more interesting. Under the bridge, the one that isn't there any more. Concrete arches like a Loch Ness monster. Choice of the Lagoon path or the back of the Teachers' College. Past the Murder House, the golf course and the cement works. Before you'd know it, I'd be halfway to Ashhurst, stopped only by the track dying out behind the market gardeners and gang headquarters.

As far as I know, no-one in particular made these paths. They were formed from common usage and not a great pool of money.

Then there was the river. That thing had a life of its own. If a path had gone on too much further upriver, it would have had to stop at the Manawatu Gorge. It might look piddly in summer, but the history of the river's winter potential is carved in that canyon. Only the insanest of crazy cyclists, PE teachers and the like, dared to bike through that chasm of stone with the main traffic back then.

I saw few fishers or swimmers along the banks of the river. Even in the middle of summer, practically no-one dared dipping in the steady river chill. Fishermen had better kai half an hour down Himitangi way. Adults didn't bike back then, preferring to work out their miseries on tenderising the steak or the missus, depending on their sex. There were a few walkers, but jogging hadn't caught on yet either. For a time, there was just me and the river, the hills, the sky and everything else.

The bike became part of me. In town, I had worked out a way of avoiding having to slow down at those pesky overlapped metal bars that pedestrians are supposed to zigzag through on walkways. I'd half dismount and skim under the bar at cruising speed. I wasn't the fastest though. That was proved when I came third to last in a mini-triathalon, narrowly beating an asthmatic albino and the octogenarian nana.

Cycling in Wellington took a bit of getting used to. Out Island Bay way, cycling was more weekend thing than mode of transport. The bus was a more reliable, weather-proof and less suicidal transport than biking to work. Things got trickier on moving into Thorndon. By far the quickest way to work was to bike along the motorway to the Terrace off-ramp. As this was usually about dawn and not having lights on the bike to attract traffic cops, I got away with it.

In my many many hours of cycling, I had not got myself killed once. Or even maimed, for that matter. Grazes, hell yes. Embedded gravel, you betcha. One thing you learn quickly when biking is how to fall. Landing on your brain is not recommended and best avoided.

Bolger's National government did something catastrophic and stupid in the 90s. It actually did two huge Transport cock-ups, the other being the merging of the police with the traffic cops. But that was mainly a budget thing. It became compulsory to wear an approved bike helmet. From henceforth, all cyclists regardless of age must strangle themselves with the strap of an uncomfortable polystyrene hat that would magically protect them from death. All the fun had gone out of biking, and after one too many helmet fines in 1995, I got off the bike forever.

Tragedy, fat fucks and fashion crimes. That's the price of bike helmets. Last year's death of a traffic safety cop sort of summed it up in the tragic irony department. All those Soccer Mum traffic jams at schools can largely be blamed on the death of popular childhood cycling. And the sartorial infringement award goes to this post, which conjures up the unholy image of Karl du Fresne in bike pants. No-one should have to experience these things.

So, in some sense, I understand the potential of a bike track from north to south. It won't affect trade agreements, as it is difficult to describe the project as protectionism. It would separate the traffic flows, allowing a non-helmet environment (no narks or cops), whilst keeping latex shrink-wrapped junk from distracting or terrorising innocent bystanders. There's also the tourism potential as well as providing a designated route for people fundraising for charities or walking a hikoi.

But is it really worth $50 million borrowed dollars? Or as Cactus Kate more accurately calls it, $100 million? I'm doing my utter best to avoid complete cynicism, but I'd want to see more of a business plan before such a scheme is purchased.

Then there's the obvious solution. Rip up the Main Trunk Line on uneconomical parts of the route to cut funding costs. I mean, we already own it and everything. Rearranging sunk costs and paper write downs are cheaper than borrowing. Rip up the rail to pay for the path. In fact, you could probably get volunteers to rip it up, saving you even more. Much the same was done with the old Fell railway line, the Rimutaka Incline, which is now very popular with the cyclists and walkers.