Making Sense of Gravel Biking

IMG 1046

I suspect that the collection of memes now gravitating around the generic term “Gravel Biking’ are as nebulous and contestable as those collecting around that other ‘new’ dimension of e-biking.  

As with most concepts emanating from humans, what we end up with by way of a definition (of anything) is kind of an exercise in the survival of the fittest set of memes that are collectively the least offensive to the most number of people, at the end of the day, and all days thereafter.

It’s all about context and the context here is the ‘world view’ of the beholder. There are a bunch of ideas underpinning this ‘world view’ thing. That can get anything from a touch difficult through to pathologically difficult – academically philosophical; so I will put the disc brakes on any further travel down that particular path; mainly because any attempt to get philosophical usually causes the vast majority of readers to suddenly feel the need for iPhone consulting (usually while crossing a road or driving a car…). Suffice it to say that if world view/mental model/hermeneutic circling/ego identity self-validation interests you, I recommend enrolment in a university philosophy degree (but not at the University of New England, which is  rubbish…)

Anyway… 

The thing that most people overlook when seeking opinions on things is that, well, everything they turn up is actually just that: opinions. And opinions are shaped by the vast collection of biases, prejudices and limited (always limited) perceptions of individuals who are more than keen to push their own views enroute to self-validation.

This is the essence of critical thinking. They (the education bureaucracy and its coal face practitioners) should teach more of that at school. But that might cause the young and impressionable to develop ideas of their own that might, gasp, be in contradiction to the views of the ruling public service mantras in charge (which are collectively described as the wisdom of the Politically Correct).  

So let’s try to apply critical thinking to this game we have come to describe as gravel biking.  

For starters, gravel biking is, actually, the oldest ‘discipline’ of cycling there is. Back in the 1860’s or there about, gravel biking is what people did on bicycles because there were only gravel roads. Apart from racing penny farthings around Paris back in the good old days, bike racing back then was cyclo-cross and cyclo-cross bikes were and are what most intelligent people wanted to ride or race on gravel, dirt and maliciously unmaintained roads like those around where I live in the New England Tablelands.

We rural folk have been living on and near gravel roads from rural settlement days right through to today. I live on a sheep station and there is only one sealed road out to the nearest town. In the other direction, we have, literally, endless gravel roads. Real one-car-a-day remote gravel roads that go anywhere from high mountains down to the sea, through National Parks and State Forests, through to places where you’d go to witness duelling banjos being played on verandahs (which, come to think of it, is only 5km down the road from where I live….) 

I’ve been riding bicycles on these roads for 35 years. It’s only in the past few years that I have come to understand that all this is called gravel biking and that I am a gravel biker. Which must kind of mean that I ride gravel bikes when I am doing this gravel biking thing (which I’d hitherto just called cycling…).

Let’s get one thing out in the air and all clarified. Riding a mountain bike on gravel roads (as opposed to trails and assorted ‘bush bashing’) is a total misery. Too heavy, too BIG, too cumbersome, too much overkill. Mountain Biking on gravel roads is like paddling a cruise liner up a creek rather than a canoe. For starters, most mountain bikes weigh at least 11kg plus, which is 3kg too much, at the very least. While fat 2 inch plus tyres are great riding up a mountain track, riding 2 inch plus tyres on a gravel road is looking for a fight. You are fighting your fat wheels all the way when you take a MTB on a long gravel road ride. Yes, I do realise that not all mountain bikes are fat and cumbersome when the going gets fast (as it does on a gravel road as opposed to single track, by and large). A good Cross Country racing hard tail is a reasonable compromise. But, you are still stuck with flat bars and flat bars have only one hand position. Drop bike bars give at least four hand positions to spread the pain around (and gravel roading does cause pain, when you do a lot of it). Plus, the steeper frame geometry of a road bike-like design is going to give a faster, more nimble ride on a good gravel road than any slack angled mountain bike could ever provide. (Context Alert: I am a roadie by way of background as must be, by now, obvious). 

For 30 of my 35 years of gravel road biking, I’ve been using cycle-cross bikes. I still do, to a degree. 

So what is the difference between a cyclo-cross bike and a gravel bike? Not a huge amount, but different enough for the difference to be real. A cyclo-cross bike is, by definition, a design constrained by the UCI (because cyclo-cross racing is governed by the UCI and as for road racing and UCI controlled mountain biking, the UCI dictates what is and is not allowed for the bikes people race in UCI controlled races). One thing that the UCI mandates for cyclo-cross bikes is tyre width, which can’t exceed 33mm (on 700c rims). Many cyclo-cross bikes, therefore, are designed to take up to 33mm tyres and nothing much more. Cyclo-cross bikes are also pretty steep in terms of frame angles (73degrees head and seat tube angles are pretty common – much as for road bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around high ground clearances (higher than for road bikes and even higher than many mountain bikes). Cyclo-cross frames are designed around fast steering (rather than the long trail Harley Davidson-like cruiser geometry of mountain bikes… which is great for stability on untracked trails, but not for the road – which is kind of why I sold my Harley Davidson in favour of a Ducati but that’s a different story). 

Which all implies that this thing we now call a gravel bike is a bike that can accommodate tyres of at least 40mm, is still pretty upright in terms of geometry (but slacker than a road bike), most definitely has drop bars, still has a road bike like stem, is high but not as high as a cross bike, and steers something like a road endurance bike on the gravel (slower than a road bike but faster than a mountain bike). Note that I have not mentioned suspension here. 

Suspension basically defines a mountain bike. Mountain bikes are all about suspension. Almost no road bikes have suspension (except the Specialzed Roubaix and the Pinarello Dogma FS). I am not talking about rubber/elastomer suspension like they use on all those strange ‘endurance bikes’ like the Trek Domane, the Specialized Diverge and the Giant Defy et al. The new Roubaix and the FS have actual springs…

And it’s here that we are getting to the actual core of the design brief that defines a gravel bike. Suspension is unnecessary and, indeed, reduces the efficiency, speed, tractability and even joy of riding a gravel bike on a good gravel road. I will repeat the most relevant bit of that last attempt at definition: a GOOD gravel road. A good gravel road is a fast gravel road. As in a good gravel road is pretty smooth, without ‘too many’ pot holes, corrugations and rocks. Where I live, a good gravel road happens from day zero through to about six months after a good grade by the local council. After which that gravel road becomes a corrugated nightmare on a bike without suspension. If you can imagine a graph of cycling bliss you get from riding a gravel bike vs a mountain bike on an unsealed road, there is a point where those curves cross over. From day 0 through six months after a proper grade, gravel bikes are the way to go, By the time you get to 1.5 years after a good grading, mountain bikes are what you need if you are still intent on surviving a ride (or at least your wrists are so intent). 

But, and now we get to the real nitty gritty, from about 8 months after a good road grading through to that 1.5 year point, a gravel bike with suspension out front is the bike to ride; a touch heavier and a bit more cumbersome than a pure unsuspended gravel bike and quite a bit less cumbersome and way lighter than most mountain bikes. Yes, I am calling it here. There IS a new update on gravel biking that has arrived and is ready for attention. Gravel bikes with gravel bike specific front suspension are a thing and are indeed, the very best thing for the vast majority of the gravel roads we tend to get these days (which means roads that are generically neglected by local bogan councils intent more on financing local car parks and Mayorial Robes than trinkets like road maintenance for us rural folk). 

So far, there are not that many front suspended gravel bikes out there. The first seriously integrated design was the Lauf True Grit. Which we Australians have to buy over the internet from Iceland where that company sits, because there are no dealers here. More specifically, the Lauf Grit started out as just the leaf sprung fork that defines the Lauf True Grit bike. And I have that Lauf Grit fork on the front of my 3T Exploro. It woks brilliantly. With that fork on that bike, I have a Council-neglect proof gravel bike – provided said Council can be persuaded to re-grade our roads before two years between grades, after which, even the Lauf is not enough. I understand that Fox has a gravel biking specific fork out too, but it is way heavier than the Grit and comes with the stiction issues of the hydraulic fork design. What you need for suspension on gravel roads is NO stiction (zero delay or instant responsiveness to the relatively small but constant bumps that define gravel roads). 

Are you getting the picture here that, really, gravel biking is a very dynamic thing? Unlike road riding, where roads tend to remain largely the same in terms of surface irregularity over time, and mountain biking where trails are always different (except, maybe, on bike park flow trails). More than anything else, a gravel bike is a bike that must be designed to accommodate road surfaces that are always more challenging than sealed roads and that degrade faster than local councils ever recognise. One good rain session and you have a whole new road to ride, probably for the worse. And, come a good drought, you end up with roads made of rocks. Loose, coarse, rocks. The challenge for gravel bike makers is a design that delivers compliance and speed over road surfaces that are vastly more variable than you would ever get from sealed roads, and those irregular gravel roads change (for the worse) faster than sealed roads. Which means that the one bike has to cover more abuse than most road bikes, and even cyclo-cross bikes can accommodate.

There is a point, however, when the distinction between gravel bikes and cyclocross bikes becomes very, very unsubtle. This is the point where all those rebadged enduro bikes (with elastomer bits here and flexi seat posts) are shown to be the product of marketing rather than engineering. There is a point where real designers have contributed real, genuine innovation to make gravel bikes distinct. When your favourite gravel roads hit 1.5 years plus out from a grade, or are decimated by floods and drought, or all three as has been the case around here, what do you ride? A cyclo-cross derived gravel bike will start to fail in terms of insulating you from the horrors of a truly bad road. Do you start to ride your suspended mountain bike at that point? No. Enter the genius of Gerard Vroomen, the engineer behind the 3T Exploro and Open gravel bike brands. Here’s where the true gravel bike comes into play: the ability to fit 650b fat wheels for when roads get really rough. When the luxury of last year’s grade has well and truly disappeared, and Council’s ignore all requests and threats to grade again, it’s time to swap out your 700c rims for 650b’s shod with 2 inch plus tyres pumped to 30psi or less. Here you can still get all those geometry benefits from your gravel bike combined with the greater compliance of mountain bike wheels. Yes, fat tyres are harder and slower to push on a gravel road than their 40mm 700c counterparts, but when roads are bad, fatter tyres are better than giving up or breaking your wrists. The capacity to swap 700c rims for 650b’s is not new, having some heritage in the touring bike domain, but it is a feature that needs to be engineered into a bike frame from the concept stage. Vroomen’s solution was to build in a dropped chain stay to accommodate the wider rubber while not compromising that same bike’s capacity to run faster, more nimble 700c rims shod with cyclo-cross derived tyres. The dropped stay gravel bike is a thing of astounding versatility. It will take you out into the territory of truely appalling roads. As you get when your local council prioritises its own payroll over the delivery of services to remote rural communities like ours. It’s at this point when gravel bikes really have become a thing. A genuine thing that’s different by design rather than by marketing fluff.  

It needs to be said, though, that these dropped stay gravel bikes are expensive, and hard to get. I have reviewed a bunch of these in a previous post; most are not directly available in Australia and none come from the major established bike makers like Trek, Specialized et al. They are niche. If, however, you do have access to gravel roads in reasonable condition, you don’t need to extend out past a gravel bike with ‘standard’ 700c rims and tyres fatter than 40mm. The choices you have are vastly greater if you are prepared to forgo a bike with a dropped chain stay. 

Given that, I think there is more life left in conventional cyclo-cross bikes when (relatively slightly) re-purposed for gravel biking than anyone is really giving them credit for. 

Yes, in my view, the ultimate gravel bike has been sitting there, largely neglected and overlooked, all this time. Sitting up the back of your local bike shop is probably the very gravel bike you have been looking for before all that re-badged road enduro bike marketing from the likes of Trek, Specialized et al. started confusing us. 

There are some pure cyclo-cross bikes that need only a wider set of tyres to make a seriously great gravel bike. Specifically, I am talking about cyclo-cross bikes that allow for tyres of 40mm plus. The UCI mandated 33mm is not enough for roads that are some six months out from their most recent council grade. Gravel bikes get their suspension from softer, wider tyres. In my experience, 40mm does the trick, and for my 65kg, 50psi is the max pressure I would ever need. I would present the Giant TCX as the ultimate cyclo-cross bike for transition to gravel biking in this regard. The carbon TCX is one of the world’s most underrated bikes. It is a superb frame. It is rigid, but compliant, fast and precise by way of steering and tracking through garbage road conditions and comfortable for seriously long rides. It is a work of art that has remained unchanged for going on five years. I have two. One is kept as a pure cyclo-cross machine with 33mm tyres and the other is riding on 40mm Schwalbe OneG tyres on wide and light 3T Discus Team carbon rims,  compliant 3T carbon Superergo bars, a top end Giant SLR stem and a carbon railed ProLogo seat. Not cheap, but seriously adaptable to most of the assaults dished out by council road maintenance neglect. So, if you are prepared to tinker, a cross bike with a few upgrades for gravel roading might well be the gravel bike of your dreams. And you will have a bike way, way more sensible for the realities of gravel road riding than any of that marketing derived, elastomer/flexi post enduro road bike nonsense being re-purposed at us from the likes of Specialized, Norco, Trek and Cervelo these days. 

My gravel biking has been defined by necessity rather than through following marketing trends. Where I live, gravel biking is what you do to go for a ride. If you want to go fast, have fun, and last for rides longer than, say, 60km, and on roads even further out than six months past the most recent council grade, your needs, like mine, will get rather specific. After 35 years of trial and error, I offer three perfect bikes by way of recommendation: the Open Upper (below), the 3T Exploro (tamed by a Lauf Grit fork) (photo at top of this post) and a gravel road tuned Giant TCX (bottom of post) (any carbon TCX will do, they all have the same frame. Do not consider the aluminium version; it is nasty). Of these three, the Giant TCX has the lowest entry price (starting at $3800 for the base carbon model, up to around $8500 where I ended up), and the 3T the highest priced (pushing $18k with the Lauf Grit fork). The basic Open UP is around $9k and the UPPER is around $16k specced with all the Tune bits I have on mine. The TCX is a bargain in stock spec. Just add fatter tyres and try to ignore the standard 9kg weight. My modified TCX is down to around 7.5kg. The Open UPPER can touch 6.5kg if I choose lighter tyres. Of the three, the TCX is the most versatile. Fit it with road tyres and you have a good road bike. Fit it with 40mm rubber and you have a great gravel bike for gravel roads in good to reasonable condition (up to, say, 6 months post grading). 

IMG 0428

 

IMG 1649

 

 

 

One Year on My S-Works Roubaix

IMG 0974

It’s exactly a year since I purchased my violent orange/yellow Mclaren Special, Specialized S-Works Roubaix: a bike fully dressed in Top-Of-The-Line. On this bike alone, to date, I have ridden 8,625km.

Specialized don’t (just) pitch the Roubaix at feeble old men with bulging stomachs and hairy legs.  But then again, most cyclists I have ever met who do have bulging stomachs and the cycling prowess of an overfed horse with two too many legs, seem to imagine themselves as being in training for the very next Tour de France. Apparently, anyone in training for the Tour de France (and thus, most cyclists who wear lycra without a pro contract) would never contemplate a bike like the Roubaix. Which kind of cuts the market down a bit. Which is a tragedy and a shame. Because, once all the delusional types have self-exited themselves from the market for bikes like the Roubaix, it’s only the pros who do tend to buy bikes such a this. Isn’t that a perversity!. The Roubaix has done very, very well, at Roubaix, but not so much at local club roadie rides… That’s the very essence of what economists describe as a misinformed marketplace. Or as Behavioural Economists would have it, the predominance of behavioural delusions and psychopathy constructing market perceptions out of touch with scientifically interpretable reality. Which, really, is why we have Global Warming and tossers like Donald Trump and his Australian analogue, Barnaby Joyce, empowered to reinforce these negative feedback loops of destruction in the first place. Which also explains how Pinarello can get away with selling so many Dogma F12’s and why so many golfers keep on wearing shirts that are three sizes too small…

It’s also why, probably, the S-Works Roubaix costs so much: too small a market place for too much of a bike. And that Specialized is being a bit greedy. The latest version of the S-Works Roubaix is now at AUD$17,000.  

This bike is a response to a complexity of problems. It’s a solution to a bunch of issues. It’s a bike that addresses the reality of seriously crap roads. 

Bike buyers seem to face a conundrum. They can realise their delusions of podium proficiency through riding the latest Giant Propel or Focus Izalco Max on roads even a goat would avoid, or they can suck it up and match wheels to corrugated realities and ride something more compliant with the roads they ride rather than with the delusions of self-image. I blame Mathew Hayman. 

When Mattie Hayman won Paris Roubaix on a Scott Foil back in 2016, the whole world marketplace for the misuse of aero torture bikes for real world road riding was reinforced and validated. See, you can win Roubaix on an ultra stiff sprinters bike. He did, therefore, so can I. Or so should I, if appearances are to be maintained. All this without considering that Mathew Hayman rode said bike because he was paid to do so seems to escaped the attention of those who ride for image rather than traction.  The fact that Peter Sagan went on to win the same race two years later on the S-Works Roubaix seems to have escaped most folks’ attention. See, Sagan can ride anything! Isn’t he amazing…

Really, non-pros need to stop informing their bike choice though what the pros ride and all go get an Open UPPER instead. There’d be so many more smiling faces in the non-pro peloton via fantasies such as that. 

Anyway, all this fertiliser composts the observation that there are very few S-Works Roubaix’s out there on the roads despite the technical reality that most roads are better suited to a Roubaix than to silly stiff sprinter’s bikes. After enquiring at the two official Specialized dealers covering the region where I live (the New England Region of New South Wales, Australia), for example, I am told that I am, apparently, the only S-Works Roubaix rider in a region the size of a Balkan State… 

Real roadies don’t ride a bike with head tube suspension!  That’s only for blokes with big guts and hairy legs. Despite the fact that I have neither and ride 25,000km per year, which is way more than anyone else around here. And no, that is not pride speaking here. I ride because I can’t stop and by the end of each year, 25k is where it ends up. Or am I trying to project and validate some kind of uber-cool self-objectivity here? Too deep yet? I really don’t mind if you do go out and buy a Basso Diamante and a new set of dentures after the first two sets fall out enroute to your own personal vision of cycling glory.  

I started not to care about this perceptual malaise of keeping up with invalid social constructions of delusion on the day I bought this bike. After a year, if nothing else, my S-Works Roubaix has facilitated me to care even less. Perhaps my Roubaix is all about validating a perverse intent to be a radical or an anarchist. But I don’t think so. Having a stable of top end Italian super bikes all aging away in my shed, I don’t care what anyone thinks about such things, or really, anything at all, these days. Which is kind of why I gave up Facebook and am planning on going full private on Strava from Jan 1 next year. 

Or maybe I should simply abandon all I’ve said above and simply say, when you are forced to ride crap roads, the S-Works Roubaix is the best bike I have ever owned and would probably be so for you too if you had to ride roads like ours to the extent that I do.

So, there you go. If you don’t like thinking deeply, just match your roads with bike compliance/stiffness ratios and buy with sublime technical objectivity. You may well end up with an S-Works Roubaix yourself.   

But I have yet to meet any half-serious cyclist who informs decision making with any kind of demonstrable objectivity. That’s the problem!

We are all unguided missiles in perpetual search of self-validation.  If you are sure that the identity you are trying to self-validate is true and correct against some kind of objective metric, go forth and inform your decisions in accordance with the constructions of your delusions. Because there is no objectivity out there. All identities are self-constructions around delusions. Go reference contemporary philosophy (I recommend a jolly read of Hans Georg Gadamer as a good starting point but that’s a seriously subjective choice in a universe of subjective possibilities…). Or become a Buddhist. 

All you have to do, in the face of philosophical conundrums like this, is to accept that your decision processes are made on top of philosophical oceans of usually unconsidered complexity. Know, simply, that there are infinite realties out there, mostly in conflict with each other and that your own is merely a figment of your imagination subject to the push and shove you open yourself up to whenever you interact with other humans and their own constructions. When you are confronted by n+1, think of where you are going to ride first rather than be guided by what your inner mirror is trying to tell you. 

We philosophically-bent academics call this reflexivity. Or critical thinking. It’s free to do but painful to apply. I have a theory. Most S-Works Roubaix riders out there will probably be happy little Buddhas all really, seriously enjoying their ride… Are you? 

Hence my singular conclusion after 25,000km of riding this year: if your wrists hurt from riding too much on crap roads, do yourself a favour. Go forth and buy the first S-Works Roubaix you can find. You can still win Roubaix. And survive to ride another year. The Roubaix is one fine bike. 

Sealing the Fate of an Iconic Gravel Road

Kempsey Announcement March 2019 jumping 700x467

The Headline reads ‘Jumping for Joy’. The occasion is an apparent win in securing a $4.5million State grant to seal the ‘worst’ bits of the Kempsey Road in northern New South Wales. The jumpers are the current State member of parliament for the region and his local Council counterparts. You can read all about their victory on the local member’s web site (but read it quick as the next election is in two weeks…). So I am in a protest movement of one. Just me. Possibly. Because, as is the case for every story, there are two sides to this particular situation, I am targeting myself through suggesting what a voice to the contrary might suggest. I’ll probably get run off the road by way of response. I suspect that these joy jumpers don’t even conceive the merest possibility of a dissenting view. 

Map

There’s a good reason to keep outlier positions to yourself: the most obvious being the likelihood to be singled out as a ‘fringe dwelling nutter’. But then again, who’s going to read this post on an obscure cyclist blog. Just by being a cyclist, I am a fringe dweller, hated by caravan drivers, beer fuelled truck drivers and bogan four wheel drivers who really, really, don’t like to share gravel roads with cyclists. But here’s the thing. I don’t like sharing the road with them, either.* 

But there is much more to this and similar stories than might meet the eye. 

On the surface, sealing a road the condition of which has rankled car drivers and caravaners for decades looks like a simple win win. Hence the public claims to fame via the (for the moment) local State member for The Northern Tablelands region, Adam Marshall. Junmping for joy. Indeed. This guy is up for re-election and this photo is all about why he lost my vote. I don’t like the presumption that simple problems are never explored for their more complex dimensions, and as such, are never opened up for public debate. The first I knew of this road sealing caper was the occasion of my most recent ride down that particular road…today.

Let’s air one basic presumption underlying decisions like this. More or better access for car drivers is always good. End of. 

Is it?

In this era of drive-through everything including four wheel drivers running over kids on the beach, isn’t it time to actually question this basic presumption? Are there places that actually deserve the space and relative solitude of access rationed roads?

The Kempsey Road links the coastal city of Kempsey with the urban hub of Armidale in Northern New South Wales. It’s a road of around 160km that is around one third unsealed, where all the unsealed or gravel bits being the most spectacular, scenic, remote and wild places along the route. The 22km gravel stretch between the stunningly idealic family camping hotspot of Georges Junction and the forestry centre at the Styx River is known as the ‘Big Hill’. That hill is an official Hors Categorie or HC hill in cycling terms. It is a wonderful climb; cutting through almost pristine wilderness wth sheer drops off to one side and a windy but relatively constant gradient of around 8 per cent with some 20 per cent bits to keep the KOM record sheet honest. I held that KOM for around five years until a recent crop of adventurers decided to upgrade the challenge (the curse of Strava…). The Big Hill, and most of the rest of the road on either side is trafficked at a pace of around one car per hour or so. If that. Caravan drivers are officially advised to find an alternative route. Trucks are not keen. Urban cars are a dodgy proposition. This is 4WD, adventure motor bike and cyclist territory, It’s all worked well since the days of the horse and cart. 

The unsealed character of the road has defined the identity of the place and the entire route. People seek out the camping at Georges Junction because it is remote. The (Upper Macleay) river is unspoiled. Most of the route is way, way outside of mobile phone range (and texting terrorists). There are no shops, places to buy fuel, or, really, not many signs of humanity at all along the section between Georges Junction and Wollomombi. This road is a facility for escape. 

Ride

The alternative, main route joining the coast with the Northern Tablelands region is further North: the Waterfall Way via Dorrigo. Nice scenery, but infested with caravans and speeding car drivers intent on overtaking everything and anything in their path. The Waterfall Way is a road for motorists who want to get someplace. The Kempsey Road is more about the journey and less about the destination. Where the Kempsey Road is the road of choice for 4WD drivers and adventure bike riders, the Waterfall Way is the route for Hyundai shopping cars and Harley Davidson cruisers. Not that I object to Harley cruisers, given the 2019 Fat Bob in my shed… But these routes are two dimensions apart in terms of character. Let’s just say that one is a poor and scary choice for cyclists and the other is the perfect ride. So perfect is the Kempsey Road, that over 400 cyclists ride it’s entire route every year via the Tour de Rocks charity ride. I am pretty sure there’d be no takers for a similar ride down the Dorrigo route…

Junction

So, in the context of the place as a route of natural distinction for gravel cyclists and wilderness loving 4WD enthusiasts enjoying a caravan/bimbo box free drive, let’s take stock of what it is that road sealing is about to destroy. Yes, the handful of locals living en route will have faster and more secure access to the facilities of civilisation from which they have been less than perfectly connected for so many years, but we can safely assume that traffic on the road is about to go through the roof when, ultimately, the entire road is sealed. While the windy, steep and probably always more remote landscape en route is unlikely to attract the traffic of the more northern Waterfall Way route, it is going to rise by way of outcome. From one vehicle per hour, we are going to approach one per ten minutes or so. I am, of course, guessing here; if you have a better estimate, leave a comment below.  Worse, the caravan set are going to infest this place, along with, god forbid, tourist busses and similar assaults. I’d put money on the remote perfections of the Georges Junction wild camping site being closed to the public even before the tar has dried. That place is a pastoral lease, barely tolerated by the lessee even now. There will be deaths on the hill once its natural gravel speed trap character has been removed under hot mix. Crash barriers and tar are going to encourage speeding and nut job stupidity from inept motorists as never before. The 500 metre sheer drop is going to attract kamikaze mistakes. There’s nothing like a blind hairpin bend and a sheer drop to assert the incompetence of a driver otherwise deluded to be en route to the podium of a Formula 1 Grand Prix. A sealed Big Hill is, most definitely, going to become a hoon road route for motorists who get a thrill from driving or riding too fast. 

Wildlife is going to suffer most. There are lyre birds, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, echidnas all about to meet their demise once the tar is put down. Road kill follows cars wherever they go. Cyclists don’t leave road kill. 

Cyclists become road kill. I can see it now. Guess who is going to go over the cliff first: the bogan tin box driver with dodgy brakes or who considers his car as a penis extension or the cyclist with nowhere to go? Go on. Guess. 

I am pretty certain this road sealing plan will mean the end of the Tour de Rocks annual charity ride. The dangers will rise to a level that the organisers will be unprepared to accept. Millions in cancer charity fund  raising will disappear. 

And how will those locals who have, apparently, lobbied for road sealing for so many years fare? Will they enjoy life on a new highway where once they lived on a remote rural road? Really?

Without a doubt, the Macleay Valley is going to change once its road is sealed. Without a doubt, its current character as a remote, rather wild place with little in the way of casual tourist opportunity or amenity to Point A Point B commutes is going to become something else. Have all these ‘jumping for joy’ road sealing advocates really considered what it is that they have now unleashed? For me, it’s the announcement of the death of a loved one; a favourite place is about to become yet another stage of adulation to the curse of the automobile and the drive-through lifestyle of those who drive them.The world is about to lose a towering iconic ride. I, for one, am not jumping for joy nor will be voting for those who are.   

* Here’s how this post is almost certainly going to be interpreted by road sealing advocates, cyclist haters, the Local Member (if he ever actually reads stuff like this) and the local Council clique (in the unlikely event that they ever read anything at all from local rate payers): ‘cyclist wants Kempsey Road all to himself’. Or ‘selfish cyclist wants to kill progress for his own riding pleasures’ Etc etc etc. One thing is guaranteed, none who end up concluding this will have actually read what I said above. Such is life and the reality of community discourse…

 

Tools of Terrorism

Here’s two interesting charts. The first shows gun related deaths in Australia over the past few years

Gundeaths

The graph reveals that around 238 people died via firearms in 2016. The stats don’t tell us how these people died, but not all would have been via murder.The stats don’t tell us how many incidents were officially classified as being an act of terrorism.

The next graph reveals car related deaths in Australia over the past few years

Car deaths

The graph reveals that around 1,500 people die via the automobile each year on Australian roads.  

Cars account for over 6 times the number of fatalities in Australia each year over guns. 

Statistically, cars (or more specifically, their drivers) are more deadly than guns (or, more specifically, those who shoot them). 

Now consider the relative paranoia devoted to curtailing excesses from the use of both these instruments of ‘death’ (guns and cars). 

Imagine if some bureaucrat proposed to advance gun safety by painting lines on the ground to separate gun users from the general public as a primary control. Imagine all those happy public campers: kids, walkers, runners, old folk, all doing their thing on one side of the line while shooters did their shooting a metre or so away via the safety of a painted white safety line. Not likely eh! But that is precisely the kind of inanity that these same bureaucrats have inflicted as a primary safety instrument through which to separate murderous car drivers from insanely vulnerable cyclists all trying to share the same road.  A painted line, is, apparently an OK safety measure through which to separate car drivers and cyclists. But not shooters from the public. Despite the fact that the death rates inflicted by car drivers is more than 6 times that inflicted by shooters. 

And let us not forget the very latest trend in official terrorism circles: the use of cars to intentionally plough through pedestrians as a deliberate act of murder. Consider the furore over gun control after all those shooting incidents in American schools. Look at the venom aimed at just the one company, Vista Outdoors, manufacturer of ammunition and supporter of the the National Rifle Association in the USA. Vista also owns Giro and Bell, two of the worlds largest bicycle helmet makers. Both these bicycle accessory makers have been boycotted by the public for their association with their parent company. 

But did anyone consider boycotting whatever car maker made the cars that deliberately ploughed through pedestrian precincts in recent times? Nope. 

In all my years of being around guns (which, in rural Australia, is quite a bit of being around guns), I have only ever observed one episode of gross stupidity (a person pointing a loaded shot gun around the place claiming his trigger was dodgy – that person was quickly controlled!)

In all my years of being around cars as a cyclist who rides 25,000km pear year (as in, being passed by, passed into by, abused via, cut of by, run off the road by, tailgated by and generally, terrorised by car drivers), I have generally observed at least one moronic car driver exhibit of psychopathy every single ride, which means, every single day. 

For everyday ordinary Australians (which means, non-cyclists), cars are 6 times more deadly an instrument of death than guns. For cyclists, the assault of car driver terrorism is vastly greater. 

I can’t help thinking that it is actually safer for us cyclists to ride alongside a rifle range than a highway. 

I can’t help wonder at the current culture of aggrieved horror and disapproval aimed at shooters by the general public and public opinion makers these days. These days, gun owners keep their passions secret to avoid marganalisation or worse. Car drivers, though, happily wash their instruments of death and terror in the street. They even get their kids to help out. They even allow their kids to ride in their tin boxes of carnage. Just imagine what would happen if a kid even looked in the general direction of someone polishing a gun at home! Child abuse at best…

And let’s not forget the rather asymmetric training and licensing arrangements that pertain to guns vs cars. To get a firearm, you need a licence and to get a licence, you need to proclaim a good reason for having one. Basically, if you are not a farmer, and you want a gun, you will have issues. 

Do we need to present ‘good reason for wanting to drive a car’ as part of the process for applying for a driver’s licence? (Now, there’s an idea…)

Do we need to lock our cars away in a cabinet with at least two locks via two different keys? Do we need to drain our car’s petrol tank after each use and store that petrol in a separate safe?

Are we prohibited from taking our car out in public unless its to take said car off to some controlled venue partitioned off from the public (I wish). 

Do we need to log our purchases of fuel on a police controlled register every time we fill our car’s tank?

Clearly, most readers will be thinking that my arguments here are inane, if not insane. In our culture, cars and driving are a right, a necessity, a passion and an unquestioned backbone of the social fabric. Consider this. When we build a new house, why do we devote around one third of that space to housing our car? Why are we prepared to devote one third of that mortgage to accommodating a car and maybe only 20 percent to accomodate our kids (cars take up more room than the kids under the roof of most houses these days).  Why are we so complacent with the astounding carnage cars inflict on our public spaces through parking and parking infrastructure? Why do we build cities around cars rather than people? Have we all gone mad?!

Compare all that with the furtive timidity of gun owners who secrete their instruments of apparent terrorism in cabinets behind closed doors or keep their guns covered like lepers in shrouds when heading off to the range or the paddock. 

If my argument still doesn’t do it for you, here’s another approach. Go out for a drive on a rural road. Anywhere. Drive along and notice all the road kill. Kangaroo after kangaroo. Possums, echidnas, birds, snakes, wombats (and maybe cyclists): if it moves, it’s likely to end up dead beside the road. All this carnage is via car drivers and their tin boxes of death. Not one carcass would be from cyclists! If all that stinking residue of death and destruction does not reveal a ‘lived experience’ of the murderous character of cars and their drivers, you must be seriously deranged. And that’s just what cars and their drivers inflict on non-humans. Non-human car kills don’t even rate a mention in the car carnage statistics. 

Governments don’t classify all this car driver caused carnage as a scenario of terrorism because no one would vote for them if they did. Or maybe even the perception of cars-as-death can’t take hold in a society that has elevated the car to the status of obsessive reverence. It’s all a bit like a cargo cult. Or a religion. We worship cars. We build our societies around them. And many of those disciples don’t and won’t tolerate anything or anyone who disrupts that flow of reverence, like, say, cyclists – who dare to demand equal space on our roads of automotive worship. Nope, it’s a lot easier to marginalise cyclists and consider them as prospective roadkill. After all, car drivers who kill cyclists rarely if ever face penalties worse than a fine. 

I wonder if someone might consider marketing holsters for guns that fit on bikes? That would mess up a few pre-conceptions and social memes out there…

Twin Peaks

Two humps

There is a place with two wonderfully serious hills, one after the other. Two Hors Categorie peaks. Each is seven km or so in length, and about 10 per cent plus to climb and about the same to descend. They are located in a remote river valley with views to remember.  Both hills wind in a most alpine kind of way via a series of bends all the way up (and down again). Both are set within an uninhabited wilderness: just trees, steep precipices and wildlife; no people and best of all, no cars. There’s one of the world’s most spectacular camping sites (and serious Australian Bass fishing spot) on the approach side and there’s a great little village at the other end. 

These twin hills sit half way along a 250km route from the alpine New England Tablelands town of Armidale to the beach holiday town of South West Rocks. 

I ride this route once a year, as part of the local Tour de Rocks ride along with around 250 other cyclists, 248 of whom seem to insist on overweight mountain bikes as their peculiar weapon of choice.  

You’d think that this ride would be busy with cyclists, every other day of the year.. But there are fewer cyclists than cars on this road. Other than on the day the Tour de Rocks passes through. 

Why? 

31531212 1885530958136743 4354851582626496512 o

Because the first hill in the middle and the 100km to get to it is all gravel road, The second is sealed as is most of the rest of the 100km to the coast (unless you take a few interesting gravel road diversions along the way).

It’s as though the gravel/sealed road junction at the trough between the two peaks is something of a locked gate, a chasm or a wall. Almost no road cyclists will pass beyond the tar and most mountain bikers start to feel like they’re riding a tractor on the road once the gravel runs out.  

These hills represent something of a double dimension; the combination is a serious challenge to road cyclists on the one hand or the mountain bikers on the other. Neither is at home from one end to the other. The roadies ride the sealed side and return the way they came. The mountain bikers climb the gravel and suffer the tar. The hills are like a junction between two different gauge railway lines. The journey breaks in the middle. 

But the two hills and the two halves of this 250km journey the hills divide add up to a total trip that’s much greater than the sum of its two parts. They become a total journey of transition from rural tablelands, World Heritage Area country to sub tropical coast.  One half without the other is less than half the total deal. One part is black and the other is white (or gravel brown). Black without white would be too much black. Gravel and gravel would just become one long slug in the dirt. To ride from either end and return from the middle would be a totally different ride: one all remote and wild and the other all coastal and tropical. 

To ride the whole route is an adventure. To ride just one half there and back again is just a ride. 

I’ve ridden the whole thing on a mountain bike. Once on a hard tail XX1 KTM and another on a dual suspension XC Scott Spark 900 premium. Both very special bikes and each a chore on the tar. Especially on the long, long head wind-blighted blast of a last leg to the beach. Short of driving a 4WD tractor on the road, I can’t imagine anything worse than riding a mountain bike on the tar. Sit up and beg, all out in the wind with no place but one to rest your hands on the bars. Misery. I’d rather stick gatorskins on my road bike and hope for the best in the dirt. And probably break both my wrists over the bumps, washouts and a death defying 22km scream down the Big Hill Black Diamond dirt road sliding decent that dumps you 900 metres via a goat track embellished with 500 metre unguarded cliffs off to one side.  Fun on a dual suspension bike, hell on a road machine. 

I’ve also ridden the same ride twice on a cyclocross bike (A Giant TCX Advanced SL 0)  and twice on two exotically magnificent gravel bikes (a 3T Exploro LTD and most recently, an Open UPPER).  

Which brings me to the point of this story. 

These twin peaks are two versions of bliss on the right bike or a wall of no return on the wrong bike. Everything is about compromise here. The mountain bike can get you from one end to the other, if you must. The road bike is not going to work unless you are followed by a team support car with ten  spare wheels on its roof and a physio bench in the back. 

The right bike is a gravel bike.

IMG 0422

A gravel bike stitches the two halves of the ride together into the one seamless adventure ride. The twin peaks in the middle become an exclamation point of purposeful bliss. One peak in dirt and the other in tar become a thrill of transition rather than an agonised wall. 

A cyclocross bike is a bit more of a compromise on both halves with nothing particularly comfortable in the middle. A cyclocross bike is a bit like a hack that works ok on the dirt (though is a pain in the wrists and sobering on the Great Descent if you don’t want to be pot holed off the side of a cliff) and works on the tar (but you’ll be dreaming of your road bike once your too upright position starts to hurt). A cyclocross bike is WAY better for this kind of trip than any mountain bike, hard tail or full suss.

These twin peaks define the purpose of a gravel bike. And that purpose is adventure via astounding versatility. My Open UPPER with it’s sweet compliance and pedal stomping stiffness seems to transcend compromise on either the gravel or the tar. Yes a road bike might be faster when the road is well sealed, but you’d only really notice if you were in a race. And once you get to the dirt, your biggest challenge is to weave your way around all those mountain bikers wallowing all over the road like hippos dancing a waltz. 

That’s what gravel road biking is all about. You need to ride a ride like this to know that gravel bikes are not a fad or a marketing ploy. They are more like a wormhole star drive of transcendence between the gravel and the tar. One bike to rule them all. And yes, that KOM over the twin peaks is mine!

Flying Outside the Matrix

IP6010002 have always considered that the essence of what defines a person’s intellect to be either engaging or as dull as an Australian politician is the degree of reflexivity inherent in that intellect. A reflexive intellect is one that recognises that other points of view are not only possible, but that you might actually be wrong!. And if you are open to the possibilities of being wrong, you are likely to be open to the possibilities of learning! I enjoy the company and conversation of people who genuinely enjoy being challenged by new ideas and/or having existing mental models challenged. I don’t enjoy any kind of conversation with people who have closed minds. But then again, the latter usually only converse with rubber stamps or tick boxes to be checked.

This is quite pathological with me. I really, really, do not enjoy the company of dull witted types who’s idea of argument is to put a position on the table and then proceed to stick their fingers in their ears while you waste your time arguing to the contrary. Or worse, who don’t bother to reason why I might be wrong other than to say that I am wrong and that my arguments are ‘bull’…

I know more than a few people like this. Sometimes they have other redeeming characteristics. Usually they don’t. But things get really bad when these dull wits have managed to sludge their way into some sort of empowerment wherein their stupefyingly robotic mental models can be asserted over others. My local council (The Armidale Dumaresq Council) is utterly bloated with this kind of stupefying dullard. You will know the kind immediately, I am sure. These are the kind who claim that we must comply with some inane regulation or requirement ‘because the rules say so’.  

My last encounter with the Planning staff at this council left me looking up membership forms for the Misanthropist Society. We had a road that connected to a new house we wanted to build. But that road did not have clearly specified access rights (despite the fact that it was our road on our land). So this asylum for the mentally deranged decided we had to build a new road at the cost of $20,000 or be refused permission to occupy our new house. I had a one hour conversation with the head Planner involved. I wanted to know why we couldn’t use our existing road to access our new house. ‘Because it is illegal’. Why? Because it is illegal. Why is it illegal? Because it is. But why? Because the title deeds don’t specify your rights of access. But it is our land and our road. Does not matter, the Title Deeds don’t say so. Well, add some words to the Deeds. Can’t. Why? Because. Why? … In the end we had to build a new road because us spending $20,000 was easier for Council then it was for Council to add those words to the Deeds. Why? Because no one knew how. There was no real pathway with neon sign posts to show these dim wits how to proceed. No path, no journey. You can’t expect a robot to clear a new path when his programming neglects to support a challenge such as active thought. 

My one time university (the University of New England) was also bloated by mental unimpressives of this kind. The second from last boss of that now appalling degree-factory-with-delusions-to-relevance operated on the astoundingly inane premise that whatever happened in his last university should now happen to the one over which he now had the reins: to shut down any research group not in a faculty silo. Why? Because! That’s why. So out I went along with all my students. It might sound strange, but I found as big a dearth of intelligent life at that university as I found at our local Council. The dullards are in control. One place feeds the other. Literally.

And here is the rub. When the dullards mange to grab empowerment, they empower themselves over recruitment. And if there is one thing a dullard likes is even duller dullards under him or herself to control. So recruitment processes proceed along the lines of an ever descending spiral of stupidity until the point when an entire organisation becomes one big turgid bloat of dullards with the collective intellectual breadth of a beach sponge. Professors who should inspire us with the mind of a mental gymnast are, instead, more like the intellect in your local Automatic Teller Machine. Try to conduct an intellectually provocative argument with an ATM and you will just have your card confiscated. Try to conduct and intellectually provocative argument with one of these new generation professors and you will have your career terminated. Just like happened to me. 

You can understand why the robot brains are taking over. If you are in charge of an organisation, and you have a mind with less capacity for intellectual creativity than a traffic light, you will hardly be wanting to appoint more creative thinkers than you as your deputies, will you! I reckon you can always pick the character of an organisation through interviewing that organisation’s leader. I should have known my career was on the skids when I first met this new university head. I have met more inspiring carrots. I should have known we were in for it with our new house when I first met the General Manager and the Mayor of our so-called local council. The intellectual lights are definitely out in both organisations.

Yes, dullards can be dangerous.  

Cycling, for me, is my escape. This is just about the only place where I can fly outside the gravitational anchors of the robo-brained dull-wits-in-charge. 

Think about it. Just imagine being allowed to take a F1 grand prix car out for a spin on a public road. Yeah right. But that’s precisely what we can do with our Pro-Tour racing bikes. Breathtaking! 

Yes, we have to wear helmets, and have to obey the traffic rules. But, for most practical purposes, we can ride at the limits of our power and still stay legal. Try that in a car. Even if we do speed, we are not required to have a speedometer on-board so can plead ignorance (despite the Garmin 510 with second by second incriminating evidence if only Mr Plod knew…). We don’t have to ride with a number! Where else in society can we play without a number through which rule enforcers can enforce their rule? We can get away with things like carbon wheel braking (aka, no brakes when it rains) and glue on tyres. We can avoid obstacles that leave the car trolls holed up for hours simply by dismounting, hopping a fence or barrier, or weaving through the metallic mess they cause when they bash into each other rather than into us. Just imagine having to have our bikes inspected by bureaucrats with clip boards once a year. Just imagine if the OH&S ATM Brains were put in charge of designing road rules for cyclists and the bikes we ride. Just imagine what an OH&S bicycle would look like!! Just imagine how it would ride…

And then there is the breathtaking lack of regulations over the engines we cyclists use. No emissions controls, no caps on horse power. No catalytic converters and silenced exhausts. Indeed, government campaigns exist to encourage us to keep adding ever more horses in our corsets. The world’s most powerful cycling engine is every bit as legal as the most feeble. We don’t have to pay penalty insurance premiums as our watts go up. We don’t have to reduce our air intakes to constrain our power. Where else is power so unconstrained as it is for we cyclists? And, even if you don’t consider regulations and rule making, where else does performance remain so unconstrained by use? With a car, engines wear out and servicing costs go up with use. By and large, for cyclists, increased use only makes us go faster and longer! (Within constraints, as Strava over-performers will no doubt confirm).  Where else are the curves for costs and rewards so skewed in our favour as with cycling? Yes, cycling defies the axioms of economics in a most reassuring way!

Yes, we have many of the freedoms car drivers once had back in the 1950’s and before. Yes, we are not entirely un-constrained. But those constraints are nowhere near as intrusive as they are for any other road user. Basically, I am amazed that in this era of robot-brained idiocracy that we are actually allowed to use the road at all. I certainly have encountered many many car drivers who are also amazed at this too; and do everything they can to redress the problem by trying to run us off the road. 

Often times I think that riding my Wilier Zero.7 on the road is some kind of glorious aberration. I should enjoy it while I can, before the bureaucrats finally have their way. Can such an endeavour as riding a high performance bike on a public road really be a long-term pleasure? I ride like each day will be the last that such a thing will be allowed. Often, I think that riding is like receiving a lottery win on the wrong ticket. We have the money but surely, someone will pick up on the mistake and ask for the money to be returned. Can such a pleasure that is so profoundly at odds with the ordered, rule-bound machine world of  bureaucracy continue so profoundly under the radar of its reach? I ride like someone who has stolen something. I am getting so paranoid that I even feel guilty after a fast hard ride. What? Haven’t they banned this yet? Really? Wow. Off for another ride before some bureau-brain fills this hole in the social fabric matrix of our machine ruled world.

I know I am being controversial, but I think we are getting dangerously close to the end-of-cycling-days every time some bureaucrat orders the construction of a new cycleway. 

Maybe cycle ways work where you are, but around here they are simply an exercise of bureaucratic contempt; an exercise in ‘harmonising’ we cyclists into the matrix of ordered rules that has squashed the life out of everything else that once gave us pleasure. Building a cycle way usually involves painting a stencilled bicycle logo on what was otherwise the shoulder of a road. We are then expected to cycle on the glass/gravel detritus that car drivers effuse as part of the pollution package they dump wherever they go. We are expected to ride on road shoulders used by cars to park or otherwise decompose. Worse still, we are expected to share these ‘cycleways’ with pedestrians, wobbling casual pre-cyclists and worst of all, ebikers!; and all at speeds half that at which we can cruise on the road. My main worry is that once installed, the legislators frequently insist that we have to use a cycleway when one is available. I am not going to start riding a pedestrian infested gravel trap on my 120psi 23c tyres any time soon.

But where there is a cloud, the sun also often shines. I dream of the ‘metre matters’ metric being turned into law. Just imagine if the car trolls could actually be fined for brushing our handle bars or wing mirroring us into a ditch. This would be a veritable culture shifting catalyst for driver behaviour, especially if that new rule were to be ruthlessly enforced. I am sure the very next must have gadget for our handlebars would be a combination one metre radar detector and number plate recording device with satellite streaming to police stations everywhere! I can dream, can’t I?

I rather suspect that the reason for our relative freedoms on the road is more to do with the ‘monolith effect’ than it is to do with any laxities in rule maker diligence. By monolith I refer to that wondrous black slab that appears in front of the pre-bone weilding cave men in the film 2001. Any attempt to control we cyclists with the comforts of deep litter rules must hurt the brains of diligent mono-tracking rule makers just like making sense of the black monolith must have been to those pre-historic man-apes in the film. But once they did consider and enter the gateway, evolution went through a worm drive upgrade. I wonder what kind of a brain shift might happen to otherwise rule-bound dull thinking bureaucrats should they fall through the monolith into a life of active cycling. I rather think the effect would be like flying. They would be reborn in some mysterious hotel room into the higher plane of creative, reflexive thinking that had hitherto been evolutionarily denied by the dystopian rule-bound bog within which they currently primordially wallow. 

Road Rage

NewImage

I have developed a perception of death. Death happens if and when I can’t ride my bikes anymore. And not the other way around. Day in day out, every single day, I sometimes wonder how on earth I can stay motivated to ride so persistently; especially when the experience, sometimes, is less than pleasant. It’s not as though I have nothing else to do, despite what our neighbours might think and say (and say they do, apparently). So, when is the riding experience less than pleasant? When the hills are really, really tough?  No, for reasons I don’t understand, I love riding up hills. Is it when it rains and howls a headwind gale on a near zero fridge/freezer day? No, there’s technical gear for that and, really, the sheer ludicrousness of riding in such conditions gives a kind of perverse pleasure.

When then, does the cycling experience turn bad? When some car driving troll tries to run me off the road, or worse.

All cyclists know about this one. It happens frequently.

Maintaining a long term cycling habit implies some kind of coping routine through which to recover from every incident of this kind, presuming, of course, that we survive the latest assault.

Think about it. How many other endeavours involve the necessity to recover from potentially fatal encounters with the deep, deep darkside of abject, and usually unmitigated human aggression? Add to that the fact that cycling is an endeavour that we do voluntarily, and with enthusiasm, and passion. How many other pleasures could sustain such a persistent onslaught of outrageous hatred directed, almost always, at us without any kind of reasoned cause? This hatred is extraordinarily unbalanced. While we might hate at least some car drivers and more than a few car drivers might hate us, it is the expression of this hatred that is the problem here. I have no liking for any car driver unless that car driver proves him or herself worthy of my respect (usually by not trying to run me over). I react like most other people when some troll vomits abuse from the lounge chair comforts of his (almost aways, his) car window, or cuts me off, or, like yesterday, actually chased me down and baled me up in the middle of a shopping mall suggesting that I should depart this earth in a most timely way. If not at his hand, then by some other person’s righteous hand. While I might have repetitive strain injury in the middle finger of my right hand, do I attempt to run car drivers off the road with my bike? Do I slam on my brakes in order to promulgate a painful collision? Do I ride around, through and over cars expecting them to get out of my way when they have the right of way? I can prove that I don’t do any of these things. I am still alive. At least for today.

If this were any other endeavour, I’d probably have given up by now. Assuming sado-masochism is not on the cards, why bother to keep on attracting a seemingly never ending barrage of abuse from the dark side of the human race? Wouldn’t it be cleverer to cosy up to water colour painting or wood turning instead? I don’t know the answer to this. I do not enjoy encounters of this kind. I try to wash the fallout from my mind within seconds of each event. But you’d have to be a pretty accomplished buddhist monk to pull off that rather extreme perfection of equanimity. It is always a struggle not to allow each encounter to accumulate into an ever deepening pool of destructive resentment. Which rather implies that the positives from cycling must be pretty profound to push back the impact of anti-cyclist vitriol and supremely unconstrained motorist ignorance. On balance, the equation balances out in cycling’s favour. At least it does for me. But I know of cyclists who can’t keep the equation balanced. They give up. Or stick to mountain biking instead. And yes, I have engaged in cycle commuting in the big angry city. Really, cycle commuting in Sydney is, on balance, a more ‘comprehensible’ endeavour than the kind of rural cycling with which I am engaged these days. Around here, the breeding pool from which car drivers are selected is rather smaller and less discerning, and education is so frequently all done in by the age of five.

So how do we cope with and overcome the exhibitions of car driver hate? And cope we must if we want to continue to ride on public roads.

I have no doubt that the best response it to ride predicatably, courteously, righteously and passively with the equanimity of a buddhist master. Do the right thing and never, ever, let them get you down. If you are abused, wave and smile. If someone runs you over, show genuine concern over the panel damage you might have caused to their car. Offer to wash your blood off their bonnet. Bless them and be on your way. Or apologise for inconveniencing them if an ambulance is needed to take you away.

Clearly, this committed misanthropist is challenged by an approach of that kind. Only this year, a fellow cyclist I know and for whom I have genuine regard (not frequently given by me as many who know me would attest), was killed by a hit and run encounter with a car driver on our local rural roads.

I use my misanthropy to sustain me in my cause. I will not let that minority of car driver trash keep me from the biggest and greatest passion of my life. They will not win. They will not prevail. But I will not let the desolations perpetrated by car-drivers build to a consuming hate that taints the purity of whatever it is that keeps cycling alive for me, year in, year out.

One insight that helps is that the kind of car driver that I encountered yesterday are a minority. And that their toxicity is fuelled and cooked in the ovens of their cars. When they step out of their vehicles, they turn into just ordinary, unlikable, generally harmless non-entities of the kind it is easy to ignore.

It helps me to classify car drivers into a kind of toxicity scale.

At the bottom are those who are, simply, ignorant. These drivers are not aggressive, in any kind of considered way, to cyclists, or even in possession of any definitive attitude towards those who choose to ride bikes on their roads. These drivers are usually just as ignorant of the rights of other car drivers to use what they believe to be their space on the road. This kind cuts everyone off. This kind think nothing of overtaking any other road user and then slamming on the brakes to turn left 20 metres down the road. The problem for us cyclists is that we are particularly invisible to car drivers of this kind. Their car-induced comas generally admit the possibility of giving space to, possibly, a truck; but, never, ever, to a cyclist. This is the behaviour of people who fully absorb the sensations of removal that sitting in a tin box seems to encourage. The world outside of their car becomes a kind of video game where the only real person is him or herself. They probably never spare a thought for the cyclist they have just cut off enroute to turning left. They never see the middle finger raised in the trail of resentment they blissfully leave behind. These drivers are dealt with most effectively through assuming that all car drivers are of that kind. We cyclists need and must assume the very worst if we are to stay alive. I know some cyclists think that taking on such an extreme stance of defensive riding tends to taint the experience of what should otherwise be our blissful rides; but I reckon if we ride as though every car driver has fangs and a predilection to strike, we can soon acclimatise to the realities of the road and the car-induced behavioural perversions that sitting in a climate controlled tin box seems to invoke.

Next up the scale are those who are both ignorant and intentional in their hurling of abuse. These are the horn honkers, the window down ‘get off the road’ (or worse; much, much, worse) aggro bloatards who are so unaccountably annoyed that anyone should ever get in their way. We should take consolation that this kind also take umbrage to other car drivers as well. The aggravations from this level of the ‘toxic spectrum’ are short lived. When you take them out of their tin boxes, they almost seem normal, if not the kind you’d ever want to invite around to dinner. It is here, and only here, I think, that we cyclists can be successful in playing the ignore them routine. There is, generally, and by my definition at this level of the toxicity scale, a cap on how far this kind will go. Should they choose to get out of their car at the next set of traffic lights or roundabout to confront the cyclist victim of their hate, they have self-selected upwards to the next highest level on the scale.

That next level are pathologically disturbed. These are the people (usually male) who, via a flood of testosterone, will exit their car to raise a fist or deliver the very antithesis of a Shakespearian sonnet in the direction of the cyclist who, at least while ensconced in the delusional protections of their car, seemed  to be an easy target for the exercise of their territorial hate. A hatred that peters out very very quickly when standing man to cyclist outside the protections no longer on offer from their car. This kind are cowards. This is the kind who confronted me the other day. This rather time ravaged bloke with a fascinating lack of front teeth and an astounding inability to string more than five words together before brain fade, burst out of his SUV to confront me in the pedestrian mall where he saw me pull up. The fist I knew of his presence was when he pushed his body right up against me, bloated stomach and gap toothed red-necked rage as physically forced as he might without using his fists,  to articulate his intention to ‘do me here and now’. Whatever a fat enfeebled 60 year old might imagine he could actually inflict on someone, let’s say, who was taller, fitter to many orders of a degree, and, most impressively, I thought, laughing in his face. ‘Do me for what?’ I enquired. ‘You think you own the road’ he suggested. ‘Really?’, I asked.  ‘Who was it that illegally overtook me at the traffic lights and then slammed on his brakes to turn right into some pastry shop?’ Yes, I gave his car a good slap to wake him up. Which was dumb because the then took off after me and swerved across the road in an attempt to knock me off my bike. I disappeared between two cars and he then took up the police car chase of his dreams to take a victory of confrontation in that mall. Or so he thought up until about a minute had elapsed from leaving the securities of his SUV. I rather ungraciously proffered some suggestions about his likely long-term residency in a low rent caravan park and accompanying lack of front teeth before he rather gave up the game only to reappear, half an hour later, in a last ditch attempt at a road block with his ample body and opened car door back at those traffic lights where we first met. I upset him again by ignoring him totally. With a practiced straight ahead focus on what I was asserting to be my uninterrupted ride. On reflection, I was also at my worst by way of response. I could see that this guy was rather past the stage of actually giving grievous bodily harm without the backup of his car. But I neglected to consider how he might have subsequently used that car to take me out. And, really, I was rather concerned that he might elect to kick my bike and take out some spokes as an alternative to his struggling inarticulate verbal abuse. I had my number one most treasured bike by my side; my Bianchi Oltre. That gave me pause for concern, then and through to now.

And what if that tragic, enraged simpleton had turned out to be on the next level up my toxicity scale? What if as well as being ignorant, profoundly uneducated, and hyper aggressive, he’d also been willing to actually use his fists. Or worse, actually go the next step and run me over with his car without fear of consequence? Then, I would be in some other place.

Fortunately, I have rarely encountered that kind who inhabit the enraged murder-end of the scale. They certainly exist. Cyclists are killed off by that kind every year. There is no defence from pathologically toxic characters of that kind. I have only ever met one of these, and my escape was lucky rather than the outcome of some kind of considered strategy. I survived  because he was driving a truck and I managed to escape between two cars as he attempted to throw me off the Urunga bridge, into the river below. Literally. My crime was to simply be on the road, in a 50km/hour urban zone. There was no verbal intercourse on my part. I was simply doing a Cavendish sprint to avoid this truck driver who had most intentionally tried to run me off the road to the point where he almost hit a tree with his b-double truck. What a man! And what a man he wasn’t when he exited his vehicle to confront me on the bridge. Stubby shorts, thongs, fluro singlet, lots and lots of body hair, five foot six, and 11 months pregnant with fat. And a terry towelling hat.  Only the residual image was funny. I have never seen such vitriolic burning hate  before.

So, yes, I have seen them all and survived, at least until today. I am not going to give up because I love to ride and riding is my thing.

I can only recommend a simple strategy here. We can never really know where an aggravated car driver fits on the toxicity scale until we have made his unpleasant acquaintance and that is an encounter we should go out of our way to avoid. So, the strategy I use and recommend (as best I can given my imperfections with dealing with humans of this kind) is to treat all car drivers as, at best, ignorant and dangerous until their actions prove otherwise. Never, assume we will be given the right of way. Always stick to the road rules to avoid confrontations where we can be officially judged in the wrong, and learn to forget as fast as we can. Why give toxic losers rent free space in our minds? These types should never be privileged above the pleasures we take from riding our bikes. They are not worth the space of our attention other than for the duration avoiding them requires.

One other recommendation is to consider one observation I’ve made trough over thirty years of riding on the road. The vast majority of car drivers are simply incapable of recognising the different ‘tribes’ to which we cyclists belong. Most car drivers cannot separate a difference in likely behaviour between casual cyclists and serious shaved legged, lycra wearing roadies. Or any class of cyclist between. To these drivers, all cyclists are simply pedestrians on wheels. We all ride at 5km per hour and are, like roadkill or truck spill, something to overtake or otherwise pass without forethought or consideration. Nearly every bad encounter I have ever had with car drivers was the result of their profound ignorance of my capacity to more than keep pace with cars at least around town. I cannot count the number of times I have been overtaken by car drivers while I was, at least, at the legal posted speed limit. The desperation these drivers exhibit to overtake what their simian brain perceives as an almost stationary road obstacle is often something to behold. And is frequently astoundingly dangerous to both me and other road users. And guess who gets the blame when the overtaking car driver almost collects an oncoming car via his or her profound misjudgment? It’s at this point that that frequent accusation of me being ‘insane’ originates. When forced to reflect on a near miss, any car driver I ‘question’ post-encounter almost always shifts blame to their perception of my insanity to ride in such an unexpectedly rash way. Whereas, my perception is of myself as a road user obeying the road rules and travelling at pace with the prevailing traffic. Most car drivers simply cannot conceive of a cyclist who can keep up with their car driving brethren, or indeed, that a cyclist could possibly be a legitimate vehicle for travel on those roads. Most people do not like their perceptions to be shocked in such an unseemly way.  Most people don’t like to countenance the merest possibility that perceptions alternative to their own might even exist.The proof of concept of this behavioural theory is that these self same car drivers also treat truck drivers the exact same way. I have discussed this at length with a few truck drivers I know. These car drivers with an ‘overtake at all costs’ mentality are the bane of truck drivers as well.

The message here is that even if you do look like a GC level pro-cyclist and you are riding a bike worth more than just about any car on the road, you will be grouped with those twice a year, shopping bag-on-the-handlebars, street-clothed, wobble cyclists who really can’t travel at more than 20km per hour.

As a related piece of advice, I have this controversy to add: never, ever, ride on the edge of the road. That is absolutely asking for death by being run over. Most car drivers are, let us say, somewhat less talented at the art of driving than the designers of those cars might have intended. When you ride on the edge of the road, you will find yourself being overtaken as a matter of course and with even less consideration than you would receive when riding in the middle of your lane. When you encounter that overtaking car, you will be encountering the non-driver side. The possibilities for your survival depend entirely on how well that driver judges where, exactly, the off side of his car might be in relation to you. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t ever want to be giving the average car driver the benefit of the doubt in relation to his or her driving skills. Not when the loser in such a judgement call will always be the cyclist. If you ride on the edge of the road you are only reinforcing the drivers’ perception that you are an obstacle on the road to be by-passed. And you will be putting your life in the hands of that driver’s driving skills. Why would anyone do that? It makes absolutely no sense. Ride in the middle of your lane unless you are riding up a really steep hill that is wide enough to accommodate three vehicles abreast (you, the overtaking car and the inevitable car coming the other way – which will force the overtaking driver to crowd you off the road even more). But even then I stick to the middle of the lane.

I cannot reinforce the last point more other than to say that casual cyclists who persist on riding on the edge of their lane are not just putting their own lives on the line. They are endangering all cyclists through reinforcing car driver attitudes and behaviours that are at least as deadly as a deranged nutter blasting away with a shotgun in a shopping mall. If every cyclist rode in the middle of their lane, car drivers would soon get the message. Cyclists require an at least basic degree of thought to overtake. Even if in so doing those car drivers feel the need to vent some rage. Just watch out for the nutters who live further up the toxic driver scale. If they pass and seek to confront, pass them by and don’t interact. Hopefully you will survive.

Having said all that, to avoid the accumulation of driver-rage induced misanthropic sludge in my mind, I recommend taking regularly to the mountain bike (in the dirt, where mountain bikes exclusively belong), or to the freedoms of riding remote rural dirt roads on a cyclocross bike. Drivers out there are, almost always, of a vastly more benign kind. A ride on a remote rural road or cross country where cars can’t go is the recharge I need to stay on the road. Sometimes, that recharge takes some time. All roadies should invest in a mountain bike! And a GoPro video camera for their handlebars. For evidence in court.