Velo culture

14 December 2021 | Posted In: #141 Summer 2021,

For Dallas Rogers, cycling is about more than active travel — it’s the way he engages with the world.

My dad was fast on his bike. So fast, in fact, that his friends called him Rocket Rod. He was 48 when he was hit by a car whilst riding in Castlereagh on the western edge of Sydney. It was 1994 and I had just turned 20.

All rockets come crashing back to Earth at some point. Rocket Rod was a strong and fast cyclist, but the car that hit him was stronger and faster, and the laws of physics are absolute.

Dad suffered brain injuries, a broken spinal cord, broken ribs and organ damage. He died on the side of the road that day. His friends gave him CPR at the scene until a medical team arrived. They manually pumped his heart through his chest and forced air back into his broken body with mouth-to-mouth. They saved his life, for a time.

I’ve been thinking about my dad lately. I ride my bike around Sydney every day; to and from work, to drop the kids off at childcare, to collect the groceries from the shops. The memory of Dad is an unsettling reminder of the dangers of the road.

On my birthday this year my sister, Erin, texted me about our dad. I was turning 47 and my daughter, Nissa, had just turned 20. I look back at this text every now and then. Erin says, ‘I didn’t realise how young Dad was. How much he missed out on. How young we were. We didn’t cope too well. It took years to deal with it.’ I grew up in the western suburbs of Sydney, so my response was short, working-class and blokeish. ‘Yep, it was fucked up.’

Rocket Rod eventually passed away in hospital.

That day in 1994 is a rupture, a tear in the fabric of my life. There is a before and after to the day of Dad’s car crash, but there is no way through. You’re probably familiar with a day like this from your own life.

My earliest memories of my dad are associated with cycling in Sydney. When I was young, my dad would wake my sister and me up early for Nepean District Amateur Cycling Club races at Shanes Park, a small suburb in the Blacktown area. In winter, Dad would stuff newspaper sheets up the front of our shirts in what always felt like a futile attempt to combat the icy winter wind hitting our chests as we freewheeled down the hills.

In 1960, the federal government purchased the eastern section of Shanes Park to build a small air navigation facility. Few people lived in the suburb and there was very little traffic, making it ideal for road cycling in the mid-1980s when I was racing out there. It’s still a sleepy site today, with one of the largest intact remnant woodlands in the Cumberland Plain.

I had my first run-in with a dog on my bike on a lonely Shanes Park road. It was a big, heavy-set breed that was full of anger that morning. It knocked me clean off my bike. You never really forget your first skid across the surface of the road. Skin on blue metal held together with tar. The sting of a gravel graze in the shower at night.

I got my first taste of riding in the city in 1996. I finished an electrical apprenticeship in 1995, the year after my dad’s accident. The happier days of road races at Shanes Park had all come to an end. So too had the desire to be a tradie. I didn’t know what to do, so I got on my bike.

I’d moved out of home and was living with a bike courier. He got me a job running parcels across Sydney on my old racing bike. My time as a bike courier was short-lived, but I did it long enough to fall in love with riding in the city and the buzz of urban cycling culture. At the unsanctioned alleycat races they organised around the city after work, the bike couriers called it ‘vélo culture’.

Riding in the city felt dangerous in the mid-90s. Actually, it was dangerous in the days before dedicated bike lanes. People would occasionally ask me why I was still riding bikes after a bike accident had taken my dad from me. Shouldn’t I stop? My bike mates never asked me this question. They already knew the answer: ‘Bike riding didn’t take my dad from me, a car did.’ I’ve always felt closest to my dad when I’m on my bike. I’d never let a car take that away from me. And so, I rolled on.

One cold morning in 2019 I was riding to work when an oncoming car turned into my lane. I was freewheeling down a hill when the car collected me head on. I hit the windscreen, flew over the roof of the car, and landed on the road at the back of the car. It was a serious crash, and my bike was completely smashed. I was injured, and I should have been more injured, but I was alive. As I lay on the road I thought about my mum. My mum couldn’t cope with losing someone else to a car, not like this.

The young man who hit me that cold morning in 2019, who turned out to be a P-plater on his way to school, could have seriously injured me that day. When the ambulance arrived at the scene they loaded me into the side of the van, but they also loaded this young man in the ambulance too; to treat him for shock. The young man was at fault, but I don’t blame him for what happened to us that day. It’s easy to blame a person or event for the structural problems with our cities and transport infrastructure, but it’s not the way forward.

Twice a year City of Sydney researchers stand on street corners in Sydney with clipboards to count the number of cyclists at around 100 locations on a weekday. These data provide a picture of cycling trends across the Sydney local government area. They only have data for 11 years, but it shows a good uptake of cycling in our city where we are providing dedicated bike lanes. Data collected at the intersection of King and Kent streets, right in the middle of the CBD, show an average daily cycling increase from 654 bikes in 2010 to 2,000 in 2021. If we build cycling infrastructure people will ride on it and our cities will be cleaner and safer.

We know cycling is good for cities and the people who live in them. We know if you ride to work, drop the kids to school on a cargo bike, or get the groceries on your fixie you’ll be fitter and healthier. But we need to provide dedicated cycling infrastructure in our cities to drive an increase in active commuting. There is good evidence that the provision of dedicated bike lanes is a solid public health and environmental investment for our cities.

I’ve never stopped riding, and I continue to ride to work every day on my cargo bike. Cycling is about more than active travel for me, it’s the way I engage with the world. I’ve cycled around Japan with my 5-year-old daughter, I’ve travelled to Canada to go mountain biking, and I’ve taken side-trips from academic conferences to cycle across Germany. Gosh, I even rode a fixie from Canberra to Sydney in a couple of days when I was younger and fitter.

When I was a cycle courier in Sydney back in the 90s the roads were dangerous, there were few dedicated bike lanes and cars were an ever-present danger. I love riding through the city today on the dedicated cycling infrastructure, and other people do too. Let’s build more of it!