As a regular reader of The Australian Financial Review, I can tell you each Friday, the paper publishes a liftout called Life & Leisure.
As the name implies, it's all about doing stuff other than work, which very much appeals to me. Most weeks, they feature a corporate so-and-so whose passion is cycling. Unsurprisingly, they tend to be the quintessential MAMIL: usually in their 40s or 50s (give or take five or 10 years), they've come into the sport late, got seriously hooked, and now own a bike (or three) any pro would be happy with.
This week, however, was different.
Instead of a high-flying corporate cyclist, they profiled a surf skier who used to be a cyclist. "For 30 years, I was a serious and competitive cyclist," said Sydney-based investment manager, Ken Hyman.
"I had a bad cycling accident in 2013, and it was the fourth time I was hospitalised with serious injuries. I agreed with my family (who said) 'no more cycling'. A close friend and star paddler suggested I try paddling a surf ski... and I've (now) been paddling for three years. Sydney has the best harbour and waterways, so paddling in Sydney is a no-brainer."
"I'm starting to realise we could all have died. And when I think that, it sends a shiver down my spine."
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for cycling in Sydney. (Some may flippantly say it takes no brains to even consider riding in our most populous city.) We could have some of the best cycleways, but very few have been constructed; instead, there lies a disparate map of poorly connected cycle paths that still require crossing or riding along major arterial roads. We could have a thriving bike culture, but instead the car is king, and among certain groups from both sides, there exists a mutual contempt and disrespect.
Despite more than 25 years' cycling experience across three continents, for me, cycling in Sydney has now become a daunting, at certain times, insurmountable, proposition. Yet I still do it because riding a bicycle is, at its essence, a wonderful, viscerally beautiful, physically spiritual, thing.
How much longer, though, I do not know. The recent death of British cyclist Mike Hall at the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, who was killed south of Canberra on March 31, disturbed me greatly. I went to his tribute ride in Sydney two days later and, while quietly buoyed by the nothing-short-of-incredible turnout for a man known to most as a dot on their screens as they followed his 5,500 kilometre journey from Perth and became enthralled in his tussle with fellow frontrunner Kristof Allegaert, the silence at the steps of the Opera House where we gathered was deafening.
If only I still lived in Holland or Belgium or Italy, I thought to myself that day. Things like that only happen once in a blue moon over there...
Yet, if I really thought about it, that statement wasn't altogether true. It was only January last year when six Giant-Alpecin (now Team Sunweb) riders were involved in a head-on collision with a car in Spain. "I know that crashes happen in cycling, we all do, but the nature of this one doesn't belong in sport," team manager Iwan Spekenbrink told Cyclingnews the day of the accident. "I saw that image of the bikes on the ground; there are no words for that. I had no words when I saw that."
"For the first two or three days, we joked more after the accident; we downplayed it because we had been through that drama. I told myself I had to be positive," Warren Barguil, one of the riders affected, said. "But since yesterday, I'm starting to realise we could all have died. And when I think that, it sends a shiver down my spine."
'We could all have died.'
Fabio Casartelli's fatal descent of the Col de Portet d'Aspet during the fifteenth stage of the 1995 Tour de France. Amy Gillett's fateful training ride on July 28, 2005 in Zeulenroda, Germany. The death of Wouter Weylandt on the third stage of the 2011 Giro d'Italia. Taylor Phinney's leg-breaking crash at the US Pro Championships in May 2014, who has since made a near-miraculous comeback but the after-effects he continues to suffer from. There have been many, many more, but these in particular have stuck like a malignant tumour inside my head. And now this weekend, Astana rider Michele Scarponi, the 2011 Giro champion killed less than two weeks out from leading his team at the centenary edition of his home Grand Tour. The driver of the truck that he collided with, it has been reported, claimed not to see him.
Absolutely gutted for his wife Anna and sons Giacomo and Tommaso, selfishly, I wondered: Is the next time going to be me?
While it is true that some cities or towns are more dangerous than others for riding a pushbike, crashes, be they fatal or not, happen anywhere, anytime, and for any one of a multitude of reasons. Fate does not discriminate.
Ken Hyman, asked if he's ever been scared in the water, replied: "I get a bit nervous when the wind and the waves are big, but never scared."
The same could not be said of his time on the bicycle.
Asked if he's had any serious injuries or catastrophes, he said that the worst thing that's happened was being blown off-course to Manly in a race and having to get a cab back home.
The same could not be said of his time on the bicycle.
Asked what he most liked about the sport, he said surf skiing caters to all levels of ability - which is also true of cycling - but noted "paddling has provided more shared recreational time with my family, which I never had when cycling".
'What do you think about when surf skiing?' he was asked.
"I get into a zone when on my own that produces great clarity in planning and problem solving. I paddle in the early morning and it sets me up for the day."
On Saturday, Scarponi was also out for an early morning training session in his home region of Marche, clearing his mind after the recent Tour of the Alps where he won a stage and finished fourth overall, setting himself up for the day and in readiness for the Giro, which begins May 7 in Sardinia.
He will never get there. There will be an indescribable sadness at the Grande Partenza.
What do I think about when cycling?
Aside from those times on fully-closed or mostly-closed roads, somewhat fatalistically, I've started to think more about whether the next news story will involve me, the impact such an event will have on my family and friends, and whether the risk to achieve that intangible, ethereal feeling of cycling on open roads is still worth it.