Electric bikes aren’t easy to come by in a pandemic. Restricted to my local area, I can’t travel far to check out bikes advertised on Gumtree, nor am I confident in assembling my own bike from a flatpack.
I ring a tourism company, temporarily shut due to Covid, and arrange to lease one of their electric bikes. They are not cheap. To buy a decent one is as expensive as buying a cheap car.
A woman arrives one Friday with a bike on the roof. It’s hulking, the Hummer of bikes. If it fell on you, you’d be crushed.
She sprays the bike with disinfectant and I ride around a nearby oval. Up on its highest setting, it takes off quickly – the sensation not dissimilar from standing on a skateboard that slips out from under your feet.
It’s a hang-on-to-your-hat sort of bike, and I love it.
I’m leasing an electric bike because I still don’t have my drivers licence, and with social distancing, I can’t get any more lessons. My most recent driving teacher nicknamed me “Strudel” for reasons unknown. Instructions during the lessons as I approached a busy intersection went like this: “Turn with your chardonnay hand, Strudel!”
“What is that? Left or right? I don’t drink chardonnay!”
“Argh, turn right, Strudel! Right!”
The instructor once had a job driving a prison bus and told me he felt safer in the bus with all the murderers than being driven by me. “Ha ha ha,” I said, wondering if he was joking. I moved back to Sydney and stopped the lessons, telling myself I would pick them up again in March 2020.
But now driving lessons – and tests – along with everything else is cancelled. I feel trapped in the house and the small zone I can travel by foot. People don’t want to take you in their car – they could get arrested. Taxis present a (small) Covid risk.
During isolation, my brother stays and brings his racing bike.
He disappears all day and comes back with stories of a family of eagles that appear in the same place each day, flying low, and friendly alpacas and secret lakes, and overgrown bush cemeteries, flocks of geese and parakeets, trees that sing, full of rosellas, abandoned stone cottages, redback spiders glistening in the sun on the bitumen, 30 or more kangaroos at dusk, lined up on the shoulder of the road like soldiers.
On the electric bike I can go with him.
The first ride is a 35km loop – some of it on the highway, the rest of it on backroads and tracks that go into the bush.
Maybe because our lives had shrunk so much, so quickly – and maybe because there is a collective ever-present anxiety around notions of safety – that first electric bike ride is one of the most memorable afternoons of my life. I am facing dangers I can see and feel.
The danger is felt when the bike paths narrow and the trucks come so close that I forget to breathe until they pass. Then the steep descents, the rush of cold air, the feeling of falling – similar to skiing – where all I see in my mind is the stone on the ground catching the wheel and tumbling over the handlebars – and blood and shards of teeth on the road …
There is risk – riding into the sun or going over loose stones or crossing a highway – and that first ride, on the home strait but losing the light, still out in the dense bush, the air is tinged with a thin column of smoke from some lone house, and from the crest of the hill is only brown and grey bushland, its coverage absolute, that from this vantage rolls out like a vast undulating inland sea.
Dark coming, and whizzing past a field of willow trees and the last of the sun catching the tips, and it looks like the field has caught fire and the kangaroos moving as a mob up the hill, no sounds but the pound of their feet on the ground, and the twilit lonely cricket oval and war memorial in some small hamlet, and turning on to the highway and the taillights of the cars glowing then fading in the darkness on the edge of town.
Before I got one of my own, I thought electric bikes were for lazy, unfit people. But that night my legs ache in a way they haven’t since I was a teenager and had “growing pains.” The bike has a strange alchemy. You have to work, but it takes you further and faster. It is just very flattering – like you have suddenly become a lot stronger, the cycling equivalent of a performance enhancing drug.
Each day, taking my exercise, storming up a clay hill, or along a thin forest track or down a cracked, forgotten road – a farmer in the distance the only human in sight – I become intoxicated with the power of what the bike could do and where it could take me.
And also this – my world becoming so much larger and smaller all at once.
• Brigid Delaney is a Guardian Australia columnist