Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Never mind the nudity, where’s your bike helmet?
Cathy Duder, the New Zealand police officer who stopped two naked cyclists at the flashy beach resort of Whangamata just before Christmas, let them off with a warning – not about the nudity but about the lack of protective clothing on their heads.
On the nudity front she was blase. “They were more shocked than I,” she mused, though that’s a little hard to swallow. The chaps were sober, after all, and must have known they were laying bare their privates for scrutiny. Yet the senior constable dismissed the nakedness as an innocent bid for “total freedom”. The absence of headwear, though, that was serious.
The incident shows how eccentric NZ really is. I mean yes, it adds piquancy to the field of bike-seat erotica, from Alexander Waugh’s observation that his great-grandfather Alfred was obsessed by “pretty girls on bicycles” to Paul Keating’s preferred pejorative for investigative journalists as “bicycle-seat sniffers”. Globally, though, it must principally be seen as a good fashion opportunity squandered, since cycling, you may have noticed, is suddenly chic.
This isn’t just about the purist fixies (those uber-primitive bikes without gears or brakes derived from New York’s West Indian courier tribes) versus sedate ’60s ladies’ bikes which now, renovated, outsell new ones. Suddenly there is a whole new world of cycle fashionistas – clothes, bags, accessories for self and bike including handlebar cup holders.
Helmets, however, are decidedly uncool. Many argue helmets save lives. But the opposing arguments are equally numerous and, actually, pretty plausible. Not only are proper randomised studies hard to come by – like, where are the volunteers? There are also unanswered questions about how helmets modify cyclists’ behaviour, making them less likely (some say more) to take risks. Or how helmet-wearing relates to personality type and gender (the causality here being reversed).
But the point really is this. Countries with highest bike use and no helmet laws also have fewest bike fatalities – Denmark and the Netherlands being the most obvious. Copenhagen initiated the Slow Bicycle Movement, the non-lycra approach to cycling. There, 37 per cent of commutes and a staggering 55 per cent of all trips are by bike. In Sydney, where cyclists are routinely spat on and abused, it’s more like 1 per cent, but rising.
In London I used to cycle everywhere, not at first from choice – though it did prove addictive – but because driving was like pushing slugs through mud, and the alternatives even more disgusting. I’m saddened to report I never cycled nude, or for that matter helmeted, but I did do it in peach suede stilettos, long diamante earrings, houndstooth miniskirt, fur-lined mittens and ankle-deep snow, sometimes all at once. Only for the snow was I stopped by police.
No such nonsense in Sydney. Arriving here we were advised to quit cycling, much as they tell you to move to the burbs to procreate. (Why children have this special claim to mind-numbing boredom I’ve never understood although perhaps,
again, the causality is inverted; it’s the tedium that aids conception.)
“Nup,” they shook their heads sagely. “No one cycles here. London, sure, people have manners. Not here. Much too dangerous.” And for a while – OK, a decade – I caved in. Sold the bike, played safe. As a mother you feel obliged to stay more or less alive.
Now I’ve thought again. Not about survival, about cycling. And not just as exercise – twice round the park with the lycra legions then fossil-fuel-it home for breakfast – but as transport. I like streets, real world, feeling purposeful. I also like those little bike-logos, strewn round the streets like welcome mats. They change nothing, legally, except how it feels on that fragile, whizzy machine. And, it finally dawned, only if people do it, will people do it.
Plus – and this is key – it’s fun. Exhilarating, even, to arrive at the opera or the formal meeting with raised pulse, no parking worries and zero emissions. It has a rakish, adventurous quality – not nude, but close.
Imagine my surprise then to be recently stopped by police. Not for being nude (which I wasn’t) or even for riding on a footpath without appropriate signage (which I was). “We’re cracking down on cyclists without helmets,” said the coppers, writing my details into their notebooks.
A true road warrior would have checked their credentials. How did I know they even were cops, not petrol-head thugs on a road-rage revenge binge? But I was fully occupied not coming back with some kind of kamikaze quip. “Cracking down, officer? On cycling without helmets? You kidding me? What about cracking down on our third-generation neighbourhood smack dealers over there? Or the local housebreaking fraternity?”
The best way to encourage cycling is enhancing safety, but the best way to do that is to increase numbers. Circular argument. Fining cyclists won’t help. Cycle lanes will (instead of promises); stopping the gas-and-telco guys leaving long, tyre-grabbing road scars; smoothing kerb crossings that are routinely the size of the Tamarama escarpment; giving priority at lights. Then maybe your standard cyclists will behave more like homo sapiens and less like, well, Tony Abbott. But next time you’re tempted to nude highway cycling, remember, the roads are to share. Like the sign says. Cover your load. Fines apply. Mine eyes dazzle.