Cycling week

This week began with a Funny Noise in my back wheel. Things fell over from there and never really recovered.


Rode to work in a calm, clear morning. What the hell is that noise? It was a terrible clattering scraping noise. Few things fill me with more dread than a Funny Noise Coming from Somewhere.

One of the chronic shames of my life is that I know next to nothing about the actual mechanics of a bike. I know the names of some of the things, and I know how to clean and oil a chain and how to put a chain back on when it comes off, but I don’t know how to fix anything important. I once clanked along to the bike mechanic not realising that my front wheel had somehow warped into an egg shape. Another time – recently – I went to unlock my bike from where I’d left it on the street and found that someone had tampered with my back wheel, and I couldn’t even put the wheel back on.

I should be more responsible, I should empower myself with knowledge – I should do a course! But there are lots of courses I should do, and I won’t be doing those ones either.

I was hopeful that, somehow, in between the ride to work and the ride home, the funny noise would have fixed itself, like how the liver regenerates, or how a sick bird calms down when left in a dark box. But no, the noise had got worse. I clunked home grimly.


Rode to work, trying to look unbothered, as if the noise was intentional, maybe even good.

Clattered desperately to Bicycle Junction at lunchtime. ‘Your brake pads are right down to the metal,’ said the mechanic. ‘The front ones too.’

Withered in embarrassment, left my bike in the care of professionals and walked back to work with my helmet. I’m pretty sure that the last time my bike had a Funny Noise, it was the exact same issue. Why can’t I learn things?

My brakes are much better these days after getting the system swapped out for hydraulics, rather than the old cables, but still, worn brake pads are one of the costs of living at the top of a series of steep hills. Whenever I’m not slogging and sweating, I’m braking. It is the circle of life.


Walked to work with my helmet and pannier, hopeful that my bike would be ready to pick up today. A lady on an e-bike with Ortlieb panniers was riding up and down Rawhiti Tce. An energy came off her; I could tell that she saw I was a cyclist without a bike; maybe she saw even deeper and knew that I’d have nothing to write about in my cycling blog today unless she gave me something.

She called out, ‘Is that a bike bag? Is it the same as mine?’

I said, ‘Yeah. My bike’s still at the mechanic’ as if she knew the whole story.

‘Your bag’s got a strap! Mine didn’t come with a strap.’

‘Oh no,’ I said.

‘I’ll look into it,’ she said.

I hoped for something more, but that was all there was.

All day I waited and waited for the call that my bike was ready, but my bike was not ready.


I flew to Dunedin for a book launch. If I’d had my bike I would’ve cycled to Wgtn airport and used one of the new locky docks they have there so that I could’ve also cycled home tomorrow. It was a beautiful day in Dunedin and I admired a guy I saw on a beautifully kitted-out cargo bike, long and grand like a submarine. I wandered around the autumny streets for a while and then, out of curiosity, I rode the hotel exercycle for 30 minutes. This was a bleak experience.

It has been a long time since I have cycled in a different city, and I realise now I should’ve hired a bike and gone on a big ride instead of exercycling then sitting in a cafe working and eating a vast, terrible scone.


Sat on the hotel exercycle again for 30 minutes, hungover, wondering how I ever used to do this regularly – treating exercise purely as a chore to be got through. The exercycle was one of those ones where you can’t stand up on the pedals; you have to remain sitting. It’s a strangely stunted feeling, curled feebly over the bars, churning along, not being able to rise up and attack like a bear.

Flew home to Wellington. Rang the bike shop: would my bike be ready to pick up this afternoon? But my bike still was not ready; it would not be ready until the end of Monday. I felt strangely bereft, stranded. A bikeless weekend stretched ahead.

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Cycling week

It was a week of just refusing to deal with things. Very few good observations were made, but places were arrived at eventually.


Rode to work with no incident. A silvery blue morning. Sparrows and blackbirds.

At lunchtime I rode into town to the physio (‘Everything hurts’ I griped, helpfully), then rode back to work up the hellfire Terrace, noting that almost every driver was behaving insanely. Gave up and crept up along the footpath. I just could not deal with the nonsense.

Rode home in chilly dotty rain, feeling hounded by cars and buses. But towards the end I reached my favourite cycling sensation, which is when I am toasty warm and the air is chilly and dark.


A five ride day. In the morning I was running very late. I think I’ve talked before about how at some point, when you are running late, you simply cannot fight it any more and have to adjust to your new reality of lateness; you may as well just go along at your normal speed in order to salvage what dignity you have left.

At the beginning portion of the ride, up in the hills, I like looking down on the harbour to see what it’s doing today. Sometimes I try to come up with better ways of describing it than ‘like a piece of sheet metal’. Unfortunately today it really did look like a piece of sheet metal.

At lunchtime I zoomed down to an author event, then back up the hill.

After work I zoomed down to another author event, then back up a different hill. This was the first ride this week I properly enjoyed; I was let loose into the night and felt all my worry being washed away in the slipstream. Sometimes it’s the opposite – worry seems to re-form and cling to one’s back during a ride.

Was wearing impractical, unyielding jeans for all of these rides. Why did I wear these jeans?! But this is the eternal difficulty, especially on days when there’s some kind of event: clothes that can be cycled in comfortably but that also do not look too unsavoury when you get off the bike. My dream is a pair of pants that does everything, that has everything, that unlocks everything.


A harried ride to work, in shorts.

After work, I zoomed into town for necessary beer. The ride home was a long, dark ride of great struggle and suffering. Tunnel vision: focused on the spot of light in front of my wheel. I arrived home at one minute to 7 and lay on the floor in a dishevelled sweaty heap while streaming the Ockham Book Awards.


The morning ride. Got halfway, then realised with a start I’d forgotten my keys. Rode back home then started the day again. Sweaty, sweary.

A lunchtime ride: down to Thorndon then back up the hill, southbound on Thorndon Quay, then the Terrace. Another ride of great struggle and suffering. Rode through an immense, almost visible cloud of cologne as I passed a man in a long black coat.

The evening ride. Stress. A bus churning up behind me on the hill as I wheezed and huffed trying to get to where I could pull over and the bus would have enough room to squeeze past. Strong impulse to stop and lie down in the middle of the road.


In the morning I rushed through cold bitey rain. Wet shoes, socks, and pants. I refused to change them.

I rode into town after work, and then home in drenching rain. Wet shoes, socks, pants, undies. Another cyclist sailed past me at impressive speed, water sheeting off him. I swear a car swerved directly at me. I shrieked and did the fingers. Punishment passes all over. I was losing it. I felt the fight draining out of me and slowed to a crawl, which only increased the punishment passes.

I have managed to avoid mid and upper Raroa Rd entirely this week, but it was my third time up the lower bit. I almost always ride up on the footpath here, as the road itself is a deathtrap.

I have no learnings from this cycling week, only that being dramatic about small everyday struggles almost definitely worsens the struggle.

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Cycling week

There was some cycling, there was some griping, there was more cycling after that.


As I set off down Highbury Rd I was nearly taken out by a Countdown truck roaring up the hill. Squeezed myself into side of the road just in time. That crazy Countdown truck! I’ve had a few run-ins with it before. One time as I was zooming down a steep bit of hill, it accelerated past me at full blast and cut in front to turn left. There’s something funny to me about a truck full of supermarket goods hooning peevishly around in Highbury. But, well, also something slightly menacing. I have never seen the driver’s face. Maybe the truck is being driven by bags of frozen peas in the shape of a man.

Rode home at lunchtime for the day. Peaceful, sweaty.


On the ride to work I saw some women carrying huge-baby-sized bunches of flowers. Also saw a guy gliding along on one of those single-wheel electric scooters, with a helmet like Robocop. I can’t decide what I think of those scooters. It’s probably best if I don’t think anything. But I still feel that anything standing at full height while moving at speed is inherently unsettling (see also: bikes that stand on roof racks, people on e-scooters, tall buses, and horses in horse floats).

A bad ride home, for no single reason: body was sore, another cyclist followed me weirdly closely up Glasgow and I became stressed, a car passed far too close on a tight bend, breath was too hard to catch, gradient kept increasing, thoughts kept churning, nose kept running, and most of all it felt like (warning: self-righteous rage ahead) there were far, far too many cars.


Freshly pumped-up tyres – a delight. I set off on this ride thinking: I am going to attack this day. Then my energy flagged almost immediately. I would focus on just getting through.

Rode to work in cold diagonal jabbing rain, scrunching up face. It’s interesting how the face tries to protect itself from weather, like a turtle pulling itself into its shell, and how futile this is.

Narrowly avoided a serious downpour. There is something very satisfying about coming in out of the rain, only for the rain to bear down even harder.

The new rain jacket is holding up well.

Sometimes I think about this blog, and fear that I am approaching a level of boringness that I have never reached before. When I unlock that level, maybe there will be something new on the other side. But probably there won’t be. Maybe that is a reason for continuing: to trace familiar journeys that feel inconsequential and see what they might add up to, to try somehow to transcend boringness, and to shake myself out of my usual mode of trudging through life with eyes half closed. I do fear, though, being boring, and exposing the smallness and circularity of my life. A while ago, in a newspaper column, I tried to write about our fear and disdain of the boring, and argued: ‘Every person, no matter how talented or knowledgeable, sometimes acts like a big old bore. I bet even Prince complained about the mould on his bathroom ceiling once, or rang a biscuit manufacturer to complain that their packets were too hard to open. The point is that occasionally boring others is part of being alive, and, further to this, often the deeper truths we’re looking for aren’t exciting or surprising.’ I sounded so certain. (It’s odd how, if you write a column, you find yourself taking on a tone of crazed certainty.) But it’s all utterly subjective anyway, isn’t it – the Buddhist response would be that anything can be interesting if only we are open and curious enough. I am not open and curious enough to find certain things – long speeches, parties where you can’t hear what anyone’s saying, conversations about home reno or anything involving drainage – interesting, but many other people are.

Anyway, look, I don’t know what I’m talking about. But the decision is this: we continue.


In between hailstorms, rode up the hill to get bread. Because I’d run out of clean pants, I had to wear some old, padded cycling shorts. Over time these shorts have disintegrated horribly so they now have diseased-looking patches all over. But they were really comfortable and I resolved to wear them more often.

Rode back home proudly with the bread. This is how I imagine parents must feel when they ferry their children to and from school on bikes.


Rode out to Newtown in the morning. I always love riding through Memorial Park – this morning there were some young skaters flipping and running around and falling over in the sunshine. I was going to Newtown to see an orthopaedic specialist about my disc slippage – the foot is still numb and the leg still sometimes behaves like an alien appendage. The specialist told me that some people never ever regain feeling in their foot. Interesting. I knew the appointment was a bad idea.

Even with the excellent new cycle lane along Adelaide and Riddiford, this ride still kind of gives me the heebie jeebies, what with cars pulling out or turning in across the lane, and people leaping out of buses. But for the most part this was a good ride – to be out at mid-morning, outside of the rush. There was abundant bike parking outside the hospital, and a cycle lane from the front entrance back down to the road. The ride back to work, especially old nemesis the Terrace, was a slightly painful, hungry slog.

After work I rode to the pub then rode home later, up the ever-steeper hill, exhausted, lugging panniers, trying to cheer myself on. Then – disaster – my left knee seized up! I bellowed into the night in frustration. Was this a brand new injury? But then, once I got home and hobbled around, the knee went back to normal. I realised it was just the cold in my knees, and felt a hundred years old. If I ever actually get to be a hundred I will allow myself to glide around, standing at full terrifying height, on one of those single-wheeled scooter things.

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Cycling week

‘I try and accept that I am a snail, but try also to acknowledge and be pleased with myself on any sort of movement forward (given that I am a snail)’ —text message from Catherine Vidler

Some of Cath’s ‘wings’ in progress, June 2019


Rode to work. Grey sky, grey road, blue underpants on the road. Was cheered by the underpants. Also, plenty of dogs seen on this ride. The tan miniature dachshund always looks at me with an expression of great intensity, which I appreciate.

In the early afternoon, I had to ride down the Terrace because I was doing a talk on RNZ with Jesse Mulligan. I was very nervous and took terrible deep jaggedy breaths as I zoomed down Salamanca and the Terrace. Hands and feet quivery with dread. Should I have walked? It’s bad to be nervous on a bicycle. Overshot RNZ and had to turn around and ride back up the hill. Locked bike to a fence and went to buy coffee, which I have no memory of drinking but suddenly I had an empty cup in my hand.

This is a cycling blog so I have no comment about that interview.

Afterwards, stinking of fear sweat – the worst-smelling of the sweats – I discovered I’d lost my key for my bike lock. Disaster! Nothing for it but to leave my bike chained to fence. Strode back to work. Walked home. Got spare key. Walked all the way back to RNZ in a sweaty fervour. As I approached my bike, I imagined that it was glad to see me – that maybe it had been worried. Do other people sometimes think this about their bikes?

Rode home up the grind of a rush-hour Terrace, then up Salamanca and into the great sandwiching of Kelburn Pde. With the construction site at the top, there are temporary orange markers in the middle of the road, so cars overtaking have no room to pass, though they pass anyway.

Riding up into Highbury in the dark, I put both front lights on and went slowly. Saw a spider running along the road. Rain started to fall.

The rain was strange – it felt almost dry, soft, drops far apart. I thought it felt a bit like matchsticks falling. I let myself think about my friend Cath, who died yesterday. She had cancer but I had thought she would keep going. She lived in Sydney and our friendship was in emails, phone calls, poems and pictures, and text messages. ‘My anxiety is intense,’ she wrote once, ‘but there are other feelings in the mix – like happiness sending this msg to you.’


Rode to work and rode home in some sort of drizzle. I think I have no particular memory of either of these rides. I wasn’t paying much attention to anything beyond immediate sensations, like wind on face and in ears. Even cars passing too closely didn’t bother me much. The new green jacket is doing fine in this level of rain though it has not been tested in heavy rain.

A sky from Cath


I’ve lost my way :: the sky is greyly :: 

slight smears upon the looking glass :: 

this separation from the daily 

trajectory :: it comes :: it pass- 

es :: where are you :: sweet jacaranda 

shedding of blossom :: sea & sand are 

making their own map over there ::

or closer still :: this charged-up air 

alights upon my naked flesh :: so 

briefly tender ::

from ‘a small leaf’, Catherine Vidler, Blackbox Manifold 29


A two-ride day. Rode in early, up Raroa. I appreciated my front lights.

I think this Thursday was the most Thursday I’ve ever known a day of the week to be. It was like Thursday concentrate, Thursday paste. The mugginess in the air struck me as extremely Thursday. The way cars accelerated past with a kind of aggressive weariness, also Thursday. A slightly grindy Thursday feeling in my pedals, telling me I need to clean the chain.

Rode home after work in a big silvery fog. Moana felt steeper than ever but at the same time I sort of floated up it. Passed a cat just sitting casually on the road, staring up at a long grassy bank. I stopped to say hello and it came hurrying over.

Where are the other cyclists?

I need to wash my helmet – it’s been years.


Today was a four-ride day. Rode to work in air like a heated swimming pool. Need to pump up back tyre again. Nearly all of this week’s rides have been lacking in much detail: as I roll along, my bike feels smaller than ever inside an enormous churn and I simply let myself be carried by it.

Rode into town at lunchtime. I think I enjoyed this ride. Was wearing a top with giant red sleeves that ripple in the slipstream, which I like to think act as a kind of warning to cars, like – is this anything? – a phantasmal poison frog with its stripy red back.

I am thinking about Cath a lot and in all of today’s rides I was thinking especially about the ‘wings’ she made – little intricate, infinitely evolving digital artworks, many of which were eventually published as a book by Cordite. I love this introduction by Amelia Dale about the wings, how they evoke infinite shapes – ‘stars, nebulae, galaxies, galaxy clusters’. But also ‘cells or viruses reproducing and mutating.’

It is funny that Cath had a sense of herself as ‘a snail’ – inching forwards slowly, and in hiding. Maybe that was true in one way. But she was also these wings – constantly on the move, flaring open and closed, shimmering and rising and falling and hovering. Looking at the wings and thinking about her creation of them is very comforting to me, as they seem infinite.

‘It’s raining here this morning – I will do some work today – I hope you are cosy and having a good day’
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Cycling week

It was a week that went from dark to light.


Woke up from a dream in which I was riding some kind of very tall clown bike around town. The seat was about twenty metres off the ground, and you had to operate a complicated hand-lever system as well as push on the pedals. Humiliating, but it was my only mode of transport. I think I can trace the dream back to seeing a man riding a Brompton-like bike that had very small crankset at the bottom and a super-long stem. It messed with my head.

Got on my bike and trudged into an earlyish grey morning. We have entered the time of weather. Weather is going to be going on, half-heartedly and constantly, for the next few months.

My left leg and foot are still numb from my slipped disc, so I’m a bit lopsided. But most of my pain has gone, so I’m back on the bike, slogging, squinting, cursing, inching ever forwards.

Rode home. A car honked at me at the top of Kelburn Pde, on the steep bit. I must’ve been going through too slowly. Instead of reacting normally, I yelled, ‘What do you want?!’ Experienced strong desire to cause a scene. What if I just lay down on the road and howled? Managed to pull self together, but fumed all the way home – the kind of rage that feels like it is surely visible from space.

Was cheered by a Barbie-looking sky, pink and blue eyeshadow.


No bike ride today, but I did buy a new jacket for riding in the rain in. It’s been years since I have bought a rain jacket. This one is a violent shiny green.


Got on the bike earlyish in dark grey drizzle. Tarsealy sky. I haven’t missed going up the dark hell of old friend Raroa. Cars blasting past, hi-vis runners sprinting downhill with bare legs.

Today my rusty bike lock kept jamming, and I nearly got stranded twice, jostling the key frantically in the lock. Made mental note to spray CRC into it – the most satisfying, the most primal of the DIY tasks.

Incredibly, I rode home after work. Incredible because it was nearly impossible to rouse myself to get on the bike. My leg was aching again, I was tired and severely cranky, and I didn’t want to ride in the drizzle. Somehow I managed it, going uphill in the lowest gear, then lay on the floor, aglow, triumphant.


Suddenly, a beautiful morning ride. Buoyed by sharp sunlight, cold air. Everything glittering. Sparrows. A man out walking a tan miniature dachshund.

Rode home at lunchtime for the rest of the day, and something exciting happened: my new myofascial release tool, THE CLAW, arrived.


In terms of bodily composition, I am mostly knots. You could use me to tether a yacht to a dock or secure a tent in high winds. Partly the knots are from curling over a desk each day, but mostly it’s that I was born tense. As a newborn I should have been foam-rolled immediately. Over the years I’ve amassed various ‘myofascial release’ tools, from foam rollers and trigger point balls to a percussive gun and a thing that is shaped like a big peanut. Some have been useless; others have been quite good; a select few have been exceptional but I haven’t been good at using them diligently. A brief rundown on these, before I get to the business of the Claw –

Spiky ball: The spiky ball looks like it should do something, but it doesn’t really do anything for me. I dislike the spiky ball. It’s both too large and too small, and it’s also too … spiky. I think this might be more of a me problem than a spiky ball problem. I keep mine on my desk at work, where I can stare at it and not use it.

RAD Centre Ball: ‘the only ball designed for visceral release’. I can’t quite remember why I bought this inflatable thing. All I can tell you is sometimes when I have indigestion I lie on top of it and roll around. It’s effective.

Percussive gun (the one I have is called VYBE Percussion Gun): This is fine. But it’s also noisy and heavy. I realise now that maybe it’s a bit useless. Too easy to miss your muscle and accidentally hammer your bone with it. Don’t use it on your face.

Soft foam roller (Trigger Point Grid 1): Like a hairdresser you’ve been going to for years, it will give you what you think you want but not what you really need. I go to this roller when I am seeking comfort and reassurance. It has a hollow core and I’ve read of people accidentally breaking their rollers in half, but so far mine has held steady.

Hard foam roller (Trigger Point Grid X): Like a relief teacher, this roller is harsh and terrifying at first. Designed ‘for athletes with dense muscle tissue’, which is a true but bad set of words. One review I read said, ‘The first time I used this on my shoulder, I screamed.’ Of course, I purchased it immediately and have never regretted it for a moment. As with all foam rollers, the only drawback is that it takes graft. You can’t just lie there. You have to be rolling, you have to be screaming.

Shakti mat (Advanced): This is essentially a bed of nails and it’s meant to help with circulation. The first couple of minutes of lying down on this thing are diabolical, pure hell on earth, and you will want to die. Then gradually a sensation of warmth and goodness washes over you and all is right with the world. Another thing I sometimes do is stand on the Shakti mat (Advanced) to get the circulation going in my feet. This is worse than hell on earth and actually doesn’t get better.

Trigger Point ball: My most-used tool. For feet, shoulders, calves, butt, lower back. I have nothing bad to say about the trigger point ball. It’s a workhorse; it asks for nothing and delivers everything. It loves unconditionally.

Peanut-shaped thing: This competes with the classic Trigger Point ball for most-used tool. It is very good for calves and ankles and butts. It has good grip and doesn’t slide all over the place on a wood floor. I have a lot of time for this thing, whose proper name I don’t even know.

But back to the Claw. I was excited when I came across this tool when googling for things that might help with my back, because it is described as having ‘the hardness of an elbow’ and all you have to do is lie on it and wriggle around. It’s meant to free up the QL muscle – the muscle that I blame for all of my problems in life – in your lower back.

After tearing the box open I found that the Claw looks pretty off-putting – basically a big slab with a sort of knob on it. (In a review someone has written: ‘Feels as good as it looks!’ which I can’t make sense of.) I positioned the Claw on the ground and lay on it while reading the little pamphlet that shows some moves you can do with it – all variations on ‘writhing man’.

I started with the Bruiser and then quickly scuttled back to the Starter. The Claw is intense, and it really does feel like an elbow jabbing into your back. It resulted in a lovely deep sweet achey pain that told me it was doing some important, high-level work.

In conclusion, I feel like the Claw is going to solve all my problems. But I guess I should note that I felt this about all of my other myofascial release tools.


Sun again. I have been experimenting with getting up earlier. I have a feeling that it will solve all my problems.

As I cycled to work, I was worrying about something I have agreed to do in public. Whenever I agree to do something in public, I regret it and tell myself that this will be the last time. This time, on Monday, I’m going on Jesse Mulligan’s show on RNZ. Naturally, I’m terrified. I will be talking about creative writing, a subject that I used to think I knew things about, but not anymore. I had a nightmarish conversation with the producer of the show the other day and when he asked ‘What is creative writing?’ I said ‘I don’t know.’ Cycling is often a good activity during which to imagine better versions of yourself, and I tried to think of excellent, smart things I could say on Monday, but I know that in reality I will flounder before the nation.

Went for a lunchtime ride in the sun. It was a delight to be able to go for a ride at lunchtime again. Suddenly my leg wasn’t hurting anymore and I was able to go up a few hills.

After work, zoomed into town – sky still blue, wind low – to meet a load of poets. Afterwards, late, I ran out of energy to get all the way home and rode only as far as work. One of the poets, Nick Ascroft, lurched ahead on an e-bike. One important strike against e-bikes is that they are simply unable to ride slowly, so if you are riding uphill with a friend on a push bike, your push bike friend will appear weak and useless.

Parked my bike for the night. Walked back to collect it the next morning and had a good slow ride home in the autumny sun. I recommend a Saturday morning ride and need to get back in the habit of doing them.

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Rehashing week 2

Once again I refused to write a Cycling Week last week. My rides were too erratic, too inattentive, too spaced-out on codeine due to the persistent injury business (I don’t recommend this recipe). Now, if I were a serious cycling blogger, I would record every single one of those bad rides, and subject my readers, all four of you, to them. But I couldn’t do it. And I was going to let this post slide altogether, but then I felt bad about it. And I also miss Cycling Week. I rode home today, and it was a terrible ride, and I thought, ‘I miss complaining about my rides.’

What I am preparing for next time, though, along with a proper Cycling Week, is an in-depth discussion of various sports massage tools, as I have been using so many in the last week and have developed new opinions about some of them. We’re talking trigger point ball, spiky ball, foam rollers of various densities; we’re talking peanut-shaped thing, shakti mat, plain old tennis ball; we’re talking inflatable stomach ball thing, something called THE CLAW (which actually hasn’t yet arrived yet but which I’m excited about), and battery-powered percussive gun with various heads.

For now, before usual service resumes, I thought I’d travel back – again – to 2019. This column was for Canvas magazine. and I actually did start writing it in a bar in Toronto, hunkered over a beer. Once again, James Brown features here (apologies, James, for always putting you in these blogs), but so does Elton John.

Adrift in Toronto, October 2019.


I’m in a bar in Toronto, jetlagged and sorry for myself, when Elton John’s ‘The Bitch Is Back’ starts playing. It is a truly demented song – that hectic guitar riff, the dorky trumpets and, worst of all, the saxophone solo, which to me sounds like a loud man yabbering away on a long-haul flight. But somehow ‘The Bitch Is Back’ makes me feel a bit better.

I am in Toronto for the writers’ festival, and although I’m grateful to have the opportunity to come to a big city and maybe sell a copy of my book, for the past couple of days I have been full of nerves because I hate travelling by myself. At airports you have to carry all your stuff into the loo because if you leave it behind it will look like a bomb. As a solo traveller you get selected for random scanning all the time. On the plane you have no one to fall asleep on. Everything is more annoying and confusing.

In the bar I am reading James Brown’s book of poems Favourite Monsters. One of my favourite poems in Favourite Monsters is ‘Loneliness’. It describes a scene in which, one autumn afternoon, mid-period Elvis turns up on a university campus and walks across the quad, whistling. ‘There was a palpable happiness, for once you have seen Elvis, you are never alone.’

The song changes to ‘The One’. It has a lot of synth, and the lyrics have wild horses running around and people with fire flying from their hands. I remember leaping around the living room to this song, as a child, and I feel even better. I thought I’d left Elton John behind long ago, but he’s still here.

On the final leg of my journey here to Toronto, from Houston, the man sitting next to me pulled out a big stack of magazines. He shook each one open with an almighty crack and turned the pages vigorously. Snap, snap, snap. He gulped his wine and then his tray table got stuck and he could not manoeuvre it back into place. An attendant came to help and he barked, ‘You gotta really wrestle with that thing!’ Snap, snap, snap. I put on my headphones and listened to the latest Fresh Air podcast. The person being interviewed was Elton John, and like a lamb to the teat I was immediately soothed. He was promoting his new autobiography. He talked about his miserable childhood, his love of Elvis, and his cocaine addiction. ‘I would have seizures in the middle of the night, and people would find me on the floor and put me to bed,’ he told Terry Gross. ‘Twenty minutes later, I’d be up doing cocaine again.’ I thought of Elton John going through all of that while kids like me were choreographing special dances to ‘Crocodile Rock’ in their bedrooms, and I felt a retrospective concern and tenderness for him.

‘Song for Guy’, an instrumental, is playing in the bar now. My heart soars, and I have a sudden memory. As a kid, I tried to convince my best friend that, in fact, it was me playing the piano on ‘Song for Guy’, not Elton John. My friend was suspicious. ‘What are those drumming noises then?’ she asked. ‘That’s just the metronome,’ I said, pointing to my metronome on top of the piano. I later told this friend that I planned to marry Elton John when I was old enough. ‘My brother told me that Elton John is gay,’ she said, ‘so he probably won’t want to marry you.’ ‘He is not gay! Shut up! Shut up!’ I said.

I finish my beer and leave the bar. Toronto has gone bananas. Traffic is gridlocked and people seem to be queueing randomly. I can’t figure out this city. All the businesspeople look like they’ve been photoshopped in. There are cranes digging up footpaths and plastic tubes between buildings. Homeless people lie on pieces of cardboard. ‘Aw, you just do what you gotta do, buddy!’ says a man when a dog comes up to him. Then, I hear the unmistakable frenzy of ‘The Bitch Is Back’ spilling from the doorway of another bar. Just how many bitches are there in this city?

Elton John played ‘The Bitch Is Back’ in 1993 on The One Tour. I know because my family and I went to see him in Auckland. It was my first concert. Elton John was lowered down into the stadium from a helicopter and he strode across the stage with arms held wide. Through binoculars I could make him out in his sparkly suit and thick-rimmed glasses. His piano glowed coral pink. I felt electrified with joy.

Toronto. What will I do with myself here? As I try to navigate through the glacial crowd, I hear a man yell into his phone, ‘I’m goin’ to Elton John with Mitch.’

I stop. The seething traffic and crowds – it’s all for Elton. Once I have gathered myself, I continue up the road, and then I see him plastered on the whole side of a building, standing angelically beside a big golden piano in some kind of magic garden. THE FAREWELL TOUR. Once you have seen Elton, you are never alone.

Satisfied at last, I head back to my hotel.

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Rehashing week

I wasn’t able to write a cycling week this week, because the truth is, I haven’t cycled very much, due to this odd injury that has made my whole left leg and foot numb, though I did manage a short ride today, Sunday, riding lopsidedly along in the sun. Still, I thought that instead of trying to write something out of next to nothing, I would rehash a piece from a newspaper column I wrote ages ago, about a van ride. It doesn’t really go anywhere (none of my columns ever went anywhere), but I enjoyed reliving this silliness. This was written in mid 2019, just after I’d been to the Auckland Writers’ Festival.



I’m in a van going to the airport and I’m trying hard to make conversation. Also in the van is a famous artist and novelist called Douglas Coupland and a famous novelist called David Chariandy. We have all been at a literary festival. Even though in about twenty minutes we will part ways and never see one another again, I am feeling the need to bombard these novelists with friendliness. If only I can show them how unperturbed I am by their greatness, they will be so impressed that they will remember this van ride forever.

I say to Douglas Coupland, ‘Your talk was incredible!’

Douglas Coupland says thank you. He squints. ‘Are you the Canadian actress?’

I say no, but I can’t say the word ‘poet’, let alone ‘writer’, so I say I’m just an editor. He says, ‘I was trying to place it. I thought, Celine Dion?’

I laugh loudly for ages while he doesn’t laugh.

A few hours ago I listened to Douglas Coupland give a talk. He was wearing the same bulky red sports jacket he’s wearing now, like a character in King of the Hill. In his talk he showed many slides of his art. One of his artworks was a two-metre-high replica of his very own head, stippled with wads of chewing gum that people had stuck onto it, including a big wad of red gum on the eyeball. It was called Gumhead. Another of Douglas Coupland’s projects was to chew up his own books. He used his molars to reduce the pages to pulp, then he spat them out and fashioned the pulp into structures resembling hornets’ nests. ‘My doctor said I wasn’t allowed to eat any more books,’ he said. ‘I absolutely fried my salivary glands.’

At this point of the talk, I was buzzing with joy. I thought, ‘Douglas Coupland is the most interesting man in the world.’

Here in the van I realise I have nothing interesting to say.

We drive through an intersection and the novelist David Chariandy says, ‘I like the diagonal crosswalks you have in New Zealand.’

It’s an opening for some kind of larger anthropological comment. ‘Yes,’ I say. ‘There is a wonderful, uh’ – I’m struggling already – ‘sense of freedom to a diagonal crosswalk.’ Oh, no.

We look out our respective windows.

At literary festivals, writers are flung together for a few days then flung apart again. The conversations are a halting dance between people’s best versions of themselves, and they can sweep you up in a feeling of possibility, almost love. I once talked for an hour with a writer and we complained about how you had great conversations at these things but then never spoke again, so we exchanged email addresses and the next morning I leapt out of bed and emailed my new friend, excited about the friendship we were about to embark upon, but days then weeks passed and it became clear that she was never going to reply, and we never saw each other or spoke again.

I think of Douglas Coupland’s sculpture Digital Orca – a pixellated orca leaping up over the sea in Vancouver, as if out of an old arcade game. It’s very beautiful but it has an aura of impermanence. Digital Orca is like a conversation at a writers’ festival.

In the van, Douglas Coupland is talking about the Atkins Diet. ‘My friend was all, “It’s working! I lost five pounds!” I mean, sure, but you’re also half dead!’

I’m overwhelmed. There are so many things one could say at this. I say, ‘I’ve heard it also gives you quite bad breath.’ D minus. Silently, I urge our driver to speed up, to release us.

Then Douglas Coupland says, suddenly, ‘When I visited Wellington, I noticed that the green light goes for 3.5 seconds. The red light goes for seven minutes.’

I seize upon this and begin to tell him about cycling in Wellington. I have a habit, whenever I’m trying to make good conversation, of exaggerating everything. ‘Everyone is crazy on the roads down there!’ I shout. ‘It’s chaos. Bedlam at all times.’

After I have said this, I have one wish, and it is that famous writers didn’t exist in corporeal form. I wish they existed in gaseous form only. Then they wouldn’t need to be driven to airports in vans, where you might have to sit with them and listen to yourself saying nonsense.

When we’re nearly at the terminal, David Chariandy turns to me and asks, ‘Do you know a musician called Steven? This guy called Steven took us out to the beach where they filmed The Piano and he was so kind and I want to thank him, but I don’t know how to track him down.’

I don’t know a musician called Steven. But I immediately think: I’ll put it in my column. Someone will know Steven the musician, Steven who took a bunch of writers to Piha. Someone. This van ride can’t be all for nothing. Please don’t let it be all for nothing.

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Complaining week

A disaster has befallen Cycling Week. It turns out that my numb, burning leg last week was likely the result of a slipped disc in my lower back – which, by the way, is one of the most old-fashioned injuries a person can have. It belongs to the same category as gout, ricketts, shingles, and – worst of all – ‘a fall’. Also, the idea of discs in the back is a lot to get your head around. No one should have to think about discs all lined up in there like doughnuts in a vending machine, let alone think about one of them being jostled out of position.

Anyway, I can’t ride my bike, or at least not with this useless hanger-on of a leg. The problem with cycling is the forward tilt, which puts pressure on the lower back. Anything that involves a forward tilt is out, including running and fast walking. This is a challenge. I do everything in life with a forward tilt. I get it from my mother, whose forward tilt when walking is legendary – when I picture her, I see her at a forty-five-degree angle to the earth, tottering towards a garden centre. If you’re a forward-tilter and you get a slipped disc, you’re condemned to a few weeks of miserable uprightness. The world just comes at you, instead of you pointing at it head-on.

It’s funny how quickly this injury has reframed my way of seeing people in motion. When I see people out running, they look like horses – a whole other species, with incredibly powerful legs. A road cyclist looks more like a rocket, or a rollerblade, than a person. To be able to propel yourself along at such speeds… it all looks like special effects.

The prescription for most slipped discs is ‘rest’ and ‘gentle activity’. Now, I have a fractious enough relationship with rest – especially when the days are cold and sunny as they are right now, as we slouch towards winter – but even worse than being prescribed rest is being prescribed ‘gentle activity’. Gentle activity! When I think of those words, I think of ‘pottering around in the garden’, I think of ‘dead-heading roses’, I think of ‘shuffling out to the letterbox’. I think of death. If I had to choose the worst gentle activity, though, there is no question that ‘gentle yoga’ is it. Gentle yoga might even be the worst activity, full stop. When attempting to do gentle yoga, I seem to grow more alien to myself. It’s like I’m a ship slowly being overcome by a giant squid. But if that squid, somehow, were desperately boring.

I know that my aversion to rest and gentle activity is likely the problem. Maybe too much aggressive activity, followed by long bouts of sitting – hunched and shrivelling over my desk, as is natural – has caused the slippage of the disc. Now that I’ve accepted this, I need to figure out a way to get more comfortable with rest. And learn to get up earlier so that I have time to walk – slowly, as upright as a runner bean – to work instead of cycling.

In the meantime, for the next week at least, Cycling Week will morph briefly into something else (I’m not sure what yet), before hopefully morphing back to its vigorous old self.

Two weeks ago – looking out to the Cook Strait from the golf ball.
Jerry teaches me his ways.
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Cycling week

It was a week of less cycling than usual, but to make up for it – get ready – there was more complaining.


This day had four small rides in it, into a sharp but sunny breeze.

On the way to work I saw a tiny ball of wool on the side of the road that turned out to be a tiny mouse sitting in the grass. Also saw a bunch of worms out on the wet road, presumably having a good time in their last moments of life.


Rode to work, wincing into a cold gale.

INJURY TALK: I have suddenly developed sciatica in one ass cheek, leg and foot, and so riding my bike is a bad time for that leg. It drags along like someone being forced to go to a party.

When it comes to pain from injury, I simply turn to dust. I mope around. I weep. All hope is gone. I turn into the character in that Lorrie Moore story, who ‘shuffles through the hall like a legume with feet.’

After work I thought about riding into town to a poetry reading I was doing, but then thought about the necessity of riding home afterwards, in icy, shattering rain, with my leg twitching like a sleeping dog – and left my bike at work.

The poetry reading, though – a great time. I don’t think any of my poems had bike riding in them, so I will not mention them here. But one poem about cycling that I think about often is the great ‘Emu’ by James Brown. (Note that below the poem, he comments: ‘There’s something about the intensity, suffering, and pointlessness of biking up a hill that I find similar to writing poetry.’) Here’s a link, via the Wayback Machine, to an old post about a bike ride with James.


What is the point at which rideable weather becomes unrideable? I always like to think that my point is a bit further along than other people’s points, and so, sometimes, out of pride, I make bad decisions. Tonight, after a book launch, the southerly was roaring obnoxiously, taking no notice of anyone who might be trying to get by. Keeping my bike anchored at the red lights took all my strength. At one point, standing with both feet firmly planted, I lost control of the back wheel and the whole operation went sideways; I imagined people shaking their heads inside their cosy cars. Sky like a pulsing jellyfish. No other cyclists out. Saw some poor roadworkers drilling into a pole, orange sparks flying. For once, I was grateful to get onto Raroa, tunnelling slowly – very slowly – away from the howl. What a joy to get home and get warm and get a hot water bottle onto my ass. Still, I felt guilty for not going out with the poets to do karaoke.


Riding a bike – unimaginable.


A beautiful morning to ride – that ominous dark greyness had blown away, and we were back to a brittle blue.

But most of this ride was a trial, a grinding chore. Left leg still refusing to pull its weight, grumbling and aching the whole way.

Listened to an interview with a cyclist named Natalie Gauld who has motor neurone disease and is STILL doing a bunch of NZ’s Great Rides. Resolved to complain less on this blog. Then came across a dreary article about a person who doesn’t like the cycle lane that goes past her clothes shop in Thorndon. ‘Every second customer complains there’s nowhere to park now.’ After reading the article I went into an extended daydream about going into the shop wearing full-body hi-vis and getting into a terrible argument with the proprietor and being thrown out. Nothing good comes of this for anyone. But as a person who fears confrontation, sometimes I like to imagine myself as a person who rides directly into the storm.

The ride home was probably the slowest ride home from work I have ever done – low gear the whole way, white-knuckle grip.

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Cycling week


Technically this was last week, but an honourable mention to this hearty ride up to the golf ball. Air very bright and cold. It felt like riding inside a melting ice cube.

Riding uphill near Hawkins Hill.


Set off just after 7. Dark, darkish, then silvery grey. People walking along in suits. A lot of navy blue.

Rode into town at lunchtime into rising wind. The highlight of this ride was that on my way back I went past the musician David Long. The lowlight was riding back up the Terrace.

Rode back into town to the pub. On the way, I had good interactions with two other cyclists about the wind. We all agreed that it was strong. What is a good interaction with another cyclist? Generally, it’s just agreeing loudly with each other in the few seconds before the light changes. The brevity of the interaction is key, because in most cases it prevents the cyclists from finding out much more about each other’s personalities than that they’re both cyclists. One of my worst interactions was while waiting at some notoriously slow lights – the bit on Cuba St, heading north, where you must cross Vivian St. Another cyclist and I were sitting there waiting in a dignified silence. Whirring up behind us came a man with a little moustache, riding a huge fancy cargo e-bike. ‘Are we having an excellent day today, my fellow cyclists?’ he said. I can’t remember what else was said as I basically lost consciousness.

Today I also saw the poet Nick Ascroft grinning or grimacing into the wind, on e-bike with child in tow. Yelled ‘Nick Ascroft!’ When you cross paths with a cyclist you know, you have to yell their full name.

Rode home at night. The wind – snakes alive. But for much of the ride as I hunkered over the bars I felt like I was in a pocket of calm, like being rolled into a little ball inside a hedge in a storm. The rain was cold, fat droplets, all spaced far apart.


Forgot my sunglasses in a glarey morning.

Rode home in the sort of rain that feels like riding through one of those wooden bead curtains that you never see anymore.


Heard another cyclist: ‘Ah for God’s sake!’ as he went down Raroa Rd with a car tailgating him.

I’m having trouble with my pannier. On the whole it’s a good pannier – it’s an Ortlieb one – but it is always a faff to unhook the front bit of it to convert it from a pannier into a backpack, which is the whole reason I bought it. After watching The Last Of Us, whenever I try to convert the pannier I imagine that zombies are running towards me and if I don’t get the pannier converted to a backpack in like three seconds or less, I’ll be savaged. I always get savaged. Ortlieb needs to know that they are failing the zombie test.

A lunchtime ride down to Thorndon Quay, a generally bad road to ride. On the way back, at a red light on a steep uphill, a businessman on an e-scooter sidled up beside me. ‘Did we really have to stop at the lights?’ he asked. I said, ‘Haha,’ as I thought he was joking. I said it was always good to have a rest and that I was dying (which felt true). The man said, ‘Well, I think we could’ve made it through, don’t you?’ Then he scowled a bit and I realised he was serious, then the light changed and he zoomed off in the gutter. I did not spend the rest of my ride going over this interaction in my head and wondering if I was crazy.

Exhausting ride home, but some nice wide passes.

Dogs seen out walking today: Bernese Mountain Dog, golden retriever, tan-coloured miniature dachshund (really beautiful and jaunty).


It’s the morning ride. A city council truck gave me a nice wide berth while passing, but at the same time nearly ploughed into an oncoming car.

Rode into town for a haircut. I always think about Helen Garner whenever I go to have a haircut. And after a haircut, when I go out to my bike, I imagine that the stylist can see me putting my helmet over the new hair and thinking, ‘So that was a whole waste of time.’ But that is the life of the cyclist’s hair: the good moments are over before they’ve even really begun.

On twitter, saw this clip of a close pass on Adelaide Rd, after which the driver, very gently and reasonably, threatens to run the cyclist over. Watching videos like this puts my whole body on edge. Some of the reactions to them also make me want to claw my face off. Still, I think I’m glad these clips are shared.

A reminder, via Eamonn Marra below, that feedback on Kilbirnie connections is still open, until 5pm Monday March 27.


The only ride really worth mentioning today – and there were so many rides – was the ride home at night after going to a poetry reading. The ride only took about 35 minutes, but if we think of time as a sort of carriage, then each of those minutes seemed to man-spread outrageously. These minutes simply would not get out of the way. I kept entering a steeper bit, a darker bit, a more boring bit of the road. There was a moment when I appreciated the beauty of yellow and white markings on the road contrasting with the tiny purply flowers on the bank alongside, lit up cinematically by my headlight, but then it was over. I left my body, travelled to a parallel universe in which I had never gone out to a poetry reading and was eating toast at home, and in this universe I didn’t ride a bike at all and I had a big ute and I was always doing home reno and talking about drains and air vents. Then I returned, and I was still riding up the same bit of a hill.

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