Memoir

Open road

WHILE STILL A squirt, and a year or two before I started going to primary school, I often stood beside next-of-kin and others at the Caledonian Ground in Dunedin, beside adults who were shouting, 'Go, Alf!', or 'Go, Alan!' Both Alf and Alan were prominent top-class cyclists. They were my first sporting heroes, and watching them, being around them, excited my love and fascination for cycling.

So my desire to explore highways, byways and tracks and to head down roads not taken or less travelled goes back a long way now. A desire to follow tracks and roads zigging and zagging up and down hills, diving into valleys and disappearing in the far blue yonder was an irresistible part of what drove and has driven me for more than fifty years. And it's why I went mountaineering and fishing, and why I still ride a bike, am entranced, often, by the highways unreeling before me. Moving, and moved, I'm often mulling a little over what's behind and what may be in store. Cyclists know that out there there's a lot more to see than many of us ever realise, will ever notice, and there's a special pleasure in getting there using your unique, one and only engine made up of heart, lungs, sinew, muscle and bone. And when you come home, and people ask you where you've been, and you tell them, sometimes they're disbelieving. Especially if they're mainly, if not solely, accustomed to sitting in a metal carapace, the air-conditioning on, speeding along on four thrumming fat tyres.

On some days, the sights and sounds and smells amaze and delight. Today, in parts where I used to ride with pleasure, the land reeks – animal excrement and stinking water mixed in with silage and urine and nitrate contamination is vile. Such comes about, and we are required to accept, as the so-called ‘price of progress’. So much of what is deemed essential if ‘the economy is to grow’, if we are ‘to prosper’, is 100 per cent purely disgustingly short-sighted, irresponsible and unsustainable. But…

Be that as it may, at times, when descending, say, or speeding along in a powerful tail wind, you feel a sense of liberation, even exultation; an earned freedom that both sets you apart and confirms you as part of a fraternity that most people never experience. Because…? Because it doesn’t come easily. It requires work, skill, persistence, endurance, courage; because sometimes it hurts, quite a lot, especially on the climbs or into a headwind that’s unrelenting, buffeting. The weather’s changing, there’s spitting cold rain – sometimes hard rain – and you’re still an hour or more away from home. Keep going, keep going, don’t give up. If you’re hurting others are too… that’s what I was told. I can still hear my father and others saying, ‘if you want to be any good, you must learn to suffer.’ In my experience that is true, for after pain and, at times, sorrow, the onset of relief and peace is immensely satisfying. And you’re left in no doubt that it has been fully earned. How many, I wonder, of the more conspicuously wealthy know in their hearts that much of what they have acquired is not earned, has come at others’ expense. The greedy, here and elsewhere, as George Monbiot put it, ‘kick against the prohibitive decencies we owe to others’.

I SPENT MY childhood years in Dunedin, at the head of Otago Harbour, in southern New Zealand. Dunedin, and the south, has always been my homeplace, my heartland – no matter where else I have lived. We, my brothers and I, and my parents and uncles and cousins were active and sporty. I and my brothers weren’t the sort of kids who, when asked where we’d been and what we’d been doing, answered, ‘out’ then ‘nothing’. We were active from dawn to dark, were encouraged to ‘get out and play’. What wonderful childhoods and teenage years we had: stimulating, challenging, adventurous. No prissy, overly protective ‘elf ’n safety’ then. How lucky we were. Years later, but before I passed thirty, I was sure Flannery O’Connor was right to have said that if you want to be a writer, you have to come from somewhere. Just like if you want to be any good at sport you have to have had the right background, the right kind of tutorship and encouragement.

My father’s father, Louis, hailed from Birmingham pre-World War I. He was a soccer fanatic, but he liked other sports too. My cousins, the Larkins boys, Jim and Alan, liked rugby and cricket and athletics especially. But for many years it was cycling, both track and road, that stood out for me. In our family, for a decade or more, every winter in the years after my father, Alf, returned from World War II early in 1946, we followed cycling road races on Saturdays. When in Italy he claimed to have met the great Gino Bartali, and he often spoke of another Italian legend, Fausto Coppi. Then there were French, Belgian, and Spanish stars whose names rolled off the tongue. One threw in a few others – for example, the Australian Russell Mockridge and the great English track sprinter Reg Harris. So when I started riding myself in 1955, as an eleven year old, I often fantasised, imagined I was in breakaway groups with Italian stars, high in the Dolomites, and hurtling down the switchbacks and straights below the cols. I saw myself grazed and sweaty, at times mud-streaked and almost completely spent, crossing the line victorious, hands above my head, thousands of fans cheering me. In my case I realise now that in some ways I looked to emulate others and hungered to achieve things in sport that struck me as admirable and memorable. I suppose I was looking for the validation that comes from having achieved excellence borne of hard work, persistence and, frequently, considerable courage. I think my brothers, Glenn (a cricketer) and Greg (a golfer), tended to think similarly. We believed in giving your utmost, that there was no substitute for skill, and that you ought to play fair. That there was no glory without honour. And, in my case, and especially Glenn’s, we believed ‘chipping’ one’s opponents, or ‘sledging’ as the euphemism has it today, was often plainly abuse, nothing more, and as such contemptible.

As a small and spindly boy I could go a bit, was frisky. Right from the beginning I loved the open road, loved the wind in my hair, the sun on my face, the clouds, the vistas, the smells of the countryside and the views of both the coastal and inland hills of my beloved Otago. In years before I’d heard of Walt Whitman, or read his ‘Song of the Open Road’, I was smitten by the roads before me, the smoky blues of the fabled inland Otago hills beyond the Maungatua Range west of Outram, and the Silver Peaks and Kakanuis further north.

I had yet to begin to read poetry, and it was years before I found Louis Simpson – no cyclist as far as I know – and responded with an ‘Oh yes, so true’, to his assertion ‘At the end of the open road we come to ourselves’. He wasn’t, of course, specifically writing of cycling, but he was alluding to reaching out, making discoveries, often unexpected and illuminating. What I did not know, did not believe therefore, as I do now, is that for one such as me the road is neverending, seldom smooth, but always absorbing, sometimes magical and deeply stimulating and – believe it or not – uplifting and satisfying.

ALF WAS A racing cyclist, and a good one. He was a member of the Dunedin Amateur Cycling Club, a sprinter with a good tactical instinct, who was once the Otago-Southland sprint champion. He also competed in road races but with less success as he didn’t have the time to ‘put in the miles’ in training. 

Born on 3 April 1922, Alf worked in a bike shop before he sailed off to Egypt in 1943, then on to Italy. I, born in March 1944, was nearly two before he came home to Dunedin, saw me, and began cycling again. Alf was a star on the old track at the Caledonian Ground in South Dunedin, a cold and windy and smoke-raked industrial area in days when working class people like us felt integral and genuinely part of a society that valued skilled tradespeople, and still made things for ourselves that lasted instead of importing loads of junk from overseas.

Before long my cousin Alan Larkins, a skinny teenager, was turning heads both on the track and the road. He twice won the New Zealand junior (under 19) road race championship. A remarkable feat. He also won medals on the track. I wrote about these early years in my memoir Somebodies and Nobodies (2002). But for reasons there’s no time to explore here, I stopped racing in 1957 when I entered the third form at Otago Boys’ High School. Then, after a varied sporting career that included playing field hockey for New Zealand, I made a comeback to cycling about forty years later, in the mid ’80s. I wanted to see if I could still ride.

One day, soon after I’d turned 50, I asked my father if he was booked up on Saturday. ‘No, why do you ask?’

‘I’d like a ride to Miller’s Flat in Central Otago.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I’ve entered for the Kelvin Hastie Memorial road race from there to Mosgiel.’

‘You’re mad. There’s a veteran’s race out at Outram, why don’t you do that?’

I said I was still competitive and if I got a reasonable handicap I reckoned I had a chance.

The race started between 10.30 and 11am. Neither warm nor cold, a bit of a sou’westerly tailwind at times. I think I was off three marks from the front which seemed about right to me.

The first ten kilometres are is flat and our bunch was going well, lapping smoothly. I felt okay but not too perky.

Then for several kilometres the road is up and down, demanding in parts. We flew down the big hill between Rae’s Junction and Beaumont at between seventy and eighty kilometres per hour. A car came up alongside us and a passenger shouted at me, ‘You bastards are mad’. I smiled. Yes, I thought, but it’s thrilling, is it ever.

About twenty minutes later we climbed the Beaumont Hill. It’s a killer. On and down through Bowler’s Creek, then the main street of the old goldfields town Lawrence, and on through Waitahuna, all ups and downs until the top of the Mānuka Gorge.

We’d caught a few of the earlier starters by then. I got some food and another drink bottle from my father at the roadside feed station before we raced down the tricky gorge and out on to the Tokomairiro plain and shot through Milton. Ah, eighty kilometres gone and some tail wind for most of the last forty.

I wasn’t feeling great. I wasn’t feeling out of it either. I kept sipping drink and nibbling. Through Waihola and on across the Taieri River at Titri before bypassing Henley. Along the flood-free highway we were riding swiftly. The guns behind were having trouble hunting us down.

We caught the leaders with fifteen kilometres to go. When we crested the short hill at East Taieri, about three kilometres from the finish at the Mosgiel Railway Station, there were eight of us. Three I remember: Charlotte Cox, a leading woman nationally and a good friend of mine; another, younger, veteran Tony Chapman; and a youngish guy known as Toddy.

Someone attacked and strung us out. We turned the 90 degree corner into the finishing straight; two kilometres to go. Tony attacked. I went straight to the back of the bunch and sat there being sucked along. Tony eased and Toddy went. I thought this was good. I was on Charlotte’s wheel. She moved up and then with about 300 metres left she went for it. I changed up a gear and realised this was very good indeed, for me. About 150 out I went past her as hard as I could and within 50 metres knew I had the race won.

Past the line I freewheeled and coasted along for a few hundred metres then turned around and slowly rode back towards the finish line. There, on my left, leaning against the driver’s door of my car, was my father. He had both hands on his head which was down a bit. As I stopped beside him he muttered, ‘I can’t believe what I’ve just seen.’

I found it hard to believe too. Charlotte drifted by and said, with a wry smile, ‘You bastard.’

Winning ‘the Hastie’, as it’s known, is a big deal in Otago cycling. Kelvin Hastie won the first Tour of Southland, way back in 1956. He’d been a hero of mine. He died young, of cancer. He and Alan Larkins were rivals on the road.

I’d won a few other races before the Hastie, and I won a few after that, but the Hastie’s the most prestigious of them, for me, to this day. I still have hopes of winning another race, sometime, somewhere, but they are all in the category deemed unlikely. But who knows?

Griffith Review