The Short History Of The Surf Bike

Powered by breakfast cereal and sheer joy!

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Baby-boomer management consultants bulging out of Italian-branded lycra are not where bikes are at. Nor is our grinning PM, catching bugs in his teeth as he prepares the day’s gaffes with a peloton of sycophants.

Australians have been in love with the bike for well over a century – the Nullarbor was crossed by velocipede as far back as 1896. Tens of thousands of whiskered and bonneted Victorians (that’s the era, not the state) took part in giant rallies on Penny Farthings before anyone even dreamed of the Commodore.

So we had a good fifty years to get our balance before the Duke turned up at Freshwater and gave us a reason to ride to the beach. Logically, though, not even the Duke could ride a pushy with a sixteen-foot beast under his arm. The marriage of these two glorious conveyances had to wait until the shortboard revolution, and by then, the bike and the surfboard were itching to consummate.

The freewheeling bliss of cruising downhill towards the sea with the offshore behind you is among the handful of legally-available highs that defy all explanation: counter-weighted by the agony of cranking back up that slope afterwards, surfed-out and now battling the offshore as a headwind against the nose of the board.

Done well, the whole thing looks effortlessly cool… unless and until your dangling wetsuit sleeves find the spokes.

The vital relationship between riding pushies and surfing is a forgotten corner of our culture. And the grommets know it: the use of bikes to evade detection is among the darkest of their arts. Empty carpark does not equal empty line-up. The answer, of course, lies in the stack of rusty chariots lying in the scrub, tangled among schoolbags and scuffed sneakers. It’s an implicit statement of localism if you’re within riding distance of the break– to borrow the moron’s creed, ‘I pedalled here, you meddled here.’

You Am I’s Trike (1997) was the first known use of a bike bell in rock music, and also the first ever reference to the practice of putting footy cards in the spokes to get a motorbike engine noise: It’s a magic carpet and chrome / Can’t reach me by phone. A new deck of cards through the wheels / To show you just how deep I feel.

In my case, the sound of the footy cards led to onshore storm-surf in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. Dragsters were good for this, and their design features have never been equalled, even in the age of carbon fibre. The dial speedo, the headlight running off a dynamo, the three-speed stick shift, white wall tyres, the banana seat. But at eleven, the BMX got into and out of tougher terrain, and was more forgiving over driveway bumps. Then finally, at thirteen, the brand-new hairy armpits got some breeze on a ten-speed with transplanted dragster handlebars.

This was before Gath Helmets, dammit. Their dual function as bike helmet and surf accessory changed the game for future grommets. If you’ve never seen a yellow Guardian helmet, you’ve missed absolutely nothing. They looked like a Dalek fucking a grapefruit.

The only other change over intervening years was the advent of the board rack. Carrying a board under your arm is undoubtedly cooler, though the days of a burning ciggy hanging from the bottom lip, eyes squinted against the backflowing smoke, are probably behind us. With two hands free you can drink a Big M or call your mates en route. Side-mounted, rear-mounted; there’s even a rack available for mals – it goes overhead and makes your ride look like a tuk tuk.

The bike and the surfboard have served the same purpose for generations: freedom from parental oppression. When you ditched school you did it on one or the other, or both. The magic carpets – both of them powered by breakfast cereal and sheer joy. Wind in your face, water up your nose, speed and exquisite congress with gravity.

What cruel mutation, then, turned the bike into a ten-grand import on the back rack of an SUV, with the board, its evolutionary cousin, tied to the roof? It’s a gormless cop-out. Don’t stand for it.

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Jock Serong