All 10-Speeds

Cycling State Highway One

Always a day dreamer, rarely a doer. I was not an untypical teenager in preferring the gloomy sanctuary of my bedroom and the blue glow of the TV to the world beyond. I knew that adventure and experience were out there, but those were things other people did. They meant taking risks or looking foolish.

It was from my friend Jack that I got the push I needed. A newcomer from smalltown Northland, he arrived oblivious to the tribal nature of our city high school. He had no compunction about telling our peers of his preference for Sinatra over Nirvana. More importantly, he did things. He took up ballroom dancing and sang at school events. He insisted on us both going to parties, and held gatherings of his own in his mother’s garage.

One day in late summer, he called and asked if I wanted to go to Dunedin. A friend from his hometown had moved there to study. I ummed and ahhed. How would we get there? We didn’t have a car or a driver licence between us. Nor did we have any money. We would bike he said. But Dunedin was 365 kilometres away. The most cycling I had done was the 15 minute ride to school each morning. It was impossible I told him. Really though, I was just waiting to be convinced.

We roped in another friend and together we began to transform the beat-up 10-speeds we rode to school. To their heavy steel frames we attached carriers, including the one I pinched from my brother’s paper round bike. We improvised panniers from backpacks, untying the straps and looping them into the carriers so that a pack hung down on each side of the wheel. Into these we crammed clothes and food, and we tied sleeping bags, tent poles and bed rolls onto the tops using belts. Towels, jerseys and water bottles were jammed into any space or tucked under straps until finally we wobbled down the road like a jumble sale on wheels. All this bulk added to our momentum and soon we were rattling out of town, on our way down State Highway One.

The trip almost ended prematurely when, on that first day, I inadvertently entered the grounds of Paparua prison while looking for a secluded spot to take a leak. A patrol car pulled up just as I emerged from the bushes and after a lecture and the threat of arrest, we were on our way again. It was almost evening and the light was growing dim when we rode into the town of Temuka to spend a night on the hard ground of the local campground. Two more days would pass this way. We felt the flat planes of Canterbury give way to the hillier terrain of Otago. We saw fewer towns and slept through slightly colder nights. By day three we had reached the former gold mining town of Palmerston, for another frosty night at an empty campground. We were only 54 kilometres from Dunedin.

We reassessed our plans. The most direct route, along the motorway into the city was off limits for cyclists. Instead we took the steep scenic road, climbing up over the hills around Dunedin. Our 10-speeds weren’t made for mountain climbing, especially when fully laden, and we struggled through most of the day. Our reward was to whoop downhill with no need to pedal. The green hills blurred, the bikes rattling harder and harder until it sounded as if they would shake themselves to pieces. We flew around corners, veering dangerously to one side, our brakes wearing away as we tried to slow. At an especially steep corner I found myself on an extreme tilt, an angle that quickly gave way to a skid. I was hurtling along the asphalt on my side. My handlebars sparked against the road surface. Thankfully, the junk piled on those carriers kept me from direct contact with the ground. My bike was scratched down to the steel but still in working order.

We took the remaining few kilometres more slowly, leisurely pedaling into town mid-afternoon. There we would meet Jack’s friends and spent a couple of fun days roaming Dunedin and successfully sneaking underage into bars, before finally packing our bikes onto the train heading home. Our adventure over, we sat back to dream about the next one, watching all those days of cycling slide by with the clack of locomotive wheels.