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Somewhere in central Australia

Deadly Treadlies was a bicycle recycling project minted in 2003 in Alice Springs by Ian Sweeney and Mick Cafe, working for the Tangentyere Council and Central Land Council. In brief, the project provided the materials and skills to recycle 2nd hand bikes for the Alice Springs community. It won awards, it recycled bikes and it kept Ian Sweeney off the street – all good news.

I went out to visit Ian in 2008 for about 10 days and spent a couple of days with him in the Larapinta Valley camp where he was managing the administrative centre for the camp. Ian and I spent two days fixing bicycles, recycling old parts and generally getting kids on 2 wheels in a collaborative workshop setting. It was part of the kids activities roster for the camp and it was great to get out there and be a tiny part of developing the bicycle scene in Alice. At the time I felt pretty ill-equipped to really ‘touch base’ with the community other than to be another well intentioned ‘blow-in’ from the big smoke. But bicycle repair was the only thing I really had to offer, other than an open mind, and for whatever it was worth, they got what I had while I was there.

Larapinta Valley Admin Centre front and back verandahs

To say it was rewarding is a massive understatement and I gained a whole lot more than I gave. As part of my day job I had done some aboriginal cultural heritage awareness training and so that had essentially briefed me on some of the most easily grasped issues, Ian filled in some of the finer detail about the work his does and the community I was visiting. It was a week that I won’t forget and feel now that I was given a real gift – just being out in that part of the country is special. Ian had been out there for about 5 years at the time, and since having a short sabbatical in Melbourne, he’s back out there again working with the community. The desert can capture a man’s heart so they say.

Something that I saw that will stick with me was this little girl who hadn’t ridden a bicycle before, getting on, pushing off, then riding through the sand like it were mown grass. Cycling in sand is hard and cycling for your first time usually takes some time to master – heading off into the sand is the cycling equivalent of jumping off a harbour ferry to learn to swim. It was impressive from a girl who was probably three and a half.

Somewhere else in Central Australia

I’m writing all this down because I think it illustrates the power of the bicycle to build capacity in communities. The joy of riding a bicycle is something that has no boundaries, and is easily shared with a simple smile. Its also a damn useful, sustainable, cheap and appropriate transport mode.

I’ve recently written a review of the movie Bicycle Thieves and although it’s not much of a ‘cycling movie’, it is a story that illustrates how a bicycle can create markets, economies and sustainable work. Perhaps I am making too much of all this, but suspend your disbelief for a moment, and imagine a city with all it’s short, commuter and general transport trips taken by bicycle. It’s a deadly idea.

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People cycle for different reasons and many people cycle. The number of cyclists, at least in Australia seems to be slowly, but visibly growing. It follows then that there must be lots of reasons to cycle. So, what are the pivotal reasons? What are the things that could transform a potential cyclist, into an avid one?

The main barrier to cycling, I believe, is the perceived risk to life and limb. Whether it be a real risk from poorly designed bicycle lanes, unaware or belligerent car drivers, or simply the unqualified perception that it is dangerous. There are so many real and imagined barriers to getting on the path to cycling that there must be some strong reasons and a high value outcome to balance out the potential risks. Good experiences of cycling for many seasoned cyclists probably creates a strong “it won’t happen to me” factor with years of experience under their belt. But if you were new to the concept and needed a little nudge in the right direction – What would it be? Why cycle?

As an adult, I started because I thought it was appropriate (not alternative) transport. It felt like a political decision and, at the time, I set about recycling bicycles and selling them cheaply to work toward a ‘critical mass’ of cyclists in my area – the project was called 101 bikes for Newcastle. Back then I felt that riding a bicycle was a statement about being independent, environmentally friendly and smart about transport. In most respects I still do.

Just to be clear about how hypocritical I have been in the past 20 years I will list the cars I have owned.

1965 Mercedes 230 (6cyl)
1970 Jensen Interceptor mk2
Triumph Spitfire (mk1)
1974 Citroen D Special
Daimler 250 V8
Volvo 1800s
Triumph GT6
Jaguar Mk2

I am bragging of course. I like cars, but know they are problematic when it comes to everyday use. Anyway – I am digressing. What got me out of these stylish cars and back on my bike? Cycling is fun and the little bit of practical fitness it provides keeps my body from seizing up and keeps me from the mental doldrums. Cycling seems to be the cure for what ails me. I’m sure I am not alone with these thoughts and motivations.

If there was a single activity that galvanised me as a Cyclist, once i’d started, it would be cycle touring. There a few things better than cycle touring – and all are too obscene to mention here – anyway, don’t just take it from me – get out and try it – It is absolutely awesome!

So how to get started? Is it an event like “Bike Hour” or is it a “commuter buddy scheme” where you mentor a cyclist along the safe routes in and around your neighbourhood? Is it worth getting involved with your local cycling lobby group and pushing for better infrastructure? This could take forever and won’t gain much traction unless there are already many bottoms on bike sets. I think I’ve done all these at various times and now I am coming back to the potency of the simple evangelical act of cycling. To be fair, it’s probably all these things – but the one thing that you can do everyday – the one thing that might make a difference – is getting out there and proving it can be done!

In short, as I am writing this down, I have come to the conclusion that you and I should ride for two, or even three. Ride to work in a suit, then ride home to change into something more casual and ride in again – It may just be the best way forward (and back again).