It was the first of many questions.
“A rider named Mike Hall died in that 5,500 kilometer bike race I told you about last week,” I replied. “Another rider was hit by a car, and had to have stitches in his head” I added. “The race was cancelled, but some brave people are still riding.”
“Are you sad?” she asked me next.
“Yes” I say after a pause. But it feels like something other than sadness, and I don’t want to put it into words for her. She comes over and gives me a brief hug before bouncing off down the hall.
We say nothing more about it, but the tragedy of Mike Hall’s death near Canberra during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race has stuck in my head. Like scores of other Indipac ‘dot watchers’ probably, I have been thinking about it since I first saw his unmoving GPS tracker label last Friday morning.
I have been wondering, how? Why? What next? Important questions, but confronting all the same.
Later that day, I went for a bike ride with my daughter. It was just a short spin down to our local beach path, and back home after the mandatory caramel milkshake and strong flat white. I needed to do something positive on the bike.
I have felt increasingly uneasy about cycling lately; so much so that I have stopped riding alone and I don’t ride to work anymore. Such has been the impact of recent cycling fatalities.
The recent Indian Pacific Wheel Race incident has almost cemented it for me.
So, we’re riding through our suburban streets in southeast Melbourne – on the roads, and along the footpaths. Alice is pedaling away happily in front of me. She’s a strong and confident rider, so its not long before she asks, “Can I ride on the road with you Dad?”
“No, darli” I answer as we roll along. “It’s not safe with the cars,” I say. I can tell she’s unconvinced from the look she gives me.
We keep riding together, and I find myself thinking of Mike Hall. I’m trying to imagine what happened in those last moments of his life up in Canberra. More questions: Was it driver error? Was it cumulative fatigue and a loss of concentration at the wrong time? Or was it something random like a puncture or pothole or kangaroo?
Again, important questions, but awful things that no one should have to ask about a person who has died while simply riding a bicycle. No one should die while cycling. Ever.
Rolling along with Alice that afternoon, my thoughts also wander to the accidents some of my friends have had while cycling – encounters with cars and other mishaps, broken ribs and collarbones, fractured shoulders and other bones, and the usual soft tissue injuries.
I think about the family friend, a young father, who is in a wheelchair now after a cycling accident. And I think about all those post-accident social media messages I’ve seen from fellow cyclists sharing pictures of broken helmets, grazed skin, stitches, bandaged limbs, x-ray films, and hospital beds (it’s a thing, strangely).
My own close calls while cycling on the road start replaying in my head too. Lucky for me, they have been few and far between, though they’re all streaming back to me now.
Suddenly, Alice interrupts my thoughts, and she’s shouting now, “DAAA-AAD, come on! Let me ride on the ROAD with you! I did the last time I rode with Muu-um!”
“It’s not safe Alice”, I say again.
And I’m really sad now because I realise it wasn’t always this way. During my childhood in the 1970s and 80s, we spent countless happy-go-lucky hours on our bikes riding absolutely everywhere. There were many adventures.
I don’t remember any adults ever telling me it wasn’t safe to ride bikes around the streets of my hometown. Hell, we didn’t even wear helmets back then.
But this is where I find myself now…hearing myself telling my youngest that the simple beautiful act of riding her bike around the streets around our home isn't safe. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t stop those words coming out.
I hate it, and I'm unsure what to do. Cycling suddenly scares me.
I'm also unsure about what to make of the Indian Pacific Wheel Race now. Since it started in Fremantle two weeks ago I was enthralled along with the thousands of other onlookers. I found it compelling. But after last Friday morning’s tragedy, it has been very difficult to think about.
While many people are grieving Mike Hall's death and still struggling to comprehend it, strong positive stories have also emerged of support and hope. Many others are finding inspiration and motivation in Hall’s legacy.
The public response from across the cycling community since last Friday has been nothing short of amazing. Good things are happening such as memorial rides around Australia, a crowd-funding campaign in support of Hall's family, and numerous offers of assistance to event organisers and the handful of ‘Indipac’ riders who have decided to keep rolling to the Sydney finish.
When people are ready, there are also some tough questions in all of this that will need attention too. How far should the spirit of cycling adventure take us? How free can we really be to push our physical and mental limits on the open highways and roads of today? What risks are acceptable in a cycling life, and who decides?
My hunch is each and every one of the people who started the Indipac race in Fremantle has already gone over those sorts of questions in their minds many times. At some level, these are personal matters, although I believe such questions are crucial for the rest of us too.
I’ve been fortunate over the years to experience many wonderful adventures cycling out on the open roads all over Victoria – with mates and family, racing, training, exploring, or just rolling aimlessly alone.
But right now I'm wondering how I can find a way to start enjoying riding again. Every time I’m about to ride on the road I ask myself ‘Is the risk worth it?’ Saddest of all though, I’m also racking my brains about how I can share with my daughter the beauty and joy of cycling untainted by my own fear of the dangers around us.
Such questions might appear miles away from a 5,500-kilometer ultra-endurance cycling event like the Indian Pacific Wheel Race. But when you really think about it, they’re much closer than that.
Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer based in Melbourne. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 ‘Oppy’ National Shield by riding 730km in 24-hours on open roads. His 2016 book on cycling and grief, Ride: A memoir to my father (Hampress), is available at Amazon.