Beware the lone wolf in Lycra
Danger lurks ... a shared path. Photo: Rob Gunstone
I am a pedestrian. OK, sometimes I am a car driver, sometimes a train traveller, and quite often these days an airline passenger, but for the purposes of this column, ich bin ein pedestrian.
My husband and I have reached the age where, to the deep approval of our GP, we walk for an hour most mornings. She thinks we do it for our health; actually, we do it so we can continue to eat and, even more importantly, drink, without going up by more than a dress size each year.
We walk on the cycleway because it's officially a shared pedestrian and cycleway. It used to be a drainage reserve and before that something they used to call a ''creek''. Now it has been spruced up and turned into a shared path winding its way past backyards and an oval, under an expressway, and through a smattering of bushland. That's why we thought it would be safer than walking on the road.
How wrong we were.
We have made the walk part of our daily routine for a few years now, and have learnt things about the characters around our neighbourhood that we never could while whizzing past in a car or, as will become painfully clear, a bike.
Because we usually leave home at the same time every morning, we tend to see the same people. A couple of the more colourful characters we have christened Hat Man and Bread Man (I know, our wit and creativity are awe-inspiring). Hat Man is rather sweet. He is short, dapper and of a certain age. Every day he wears a different snazzy hat. Trilbys, sombreros, caps, sun hats, you name it. We look forward with some excitement to see what sartorial treat he has in store for us every day.
Bread Man is slightly more peculiar. Naturally endowed with generous cheeks, he solemnly ingests bread while walking and then holds it in said cheeks (quite noticeably) while slowly and methodically chewing it. We have no idea why and - for obvious reasons - are rather loath to ask.
Other observations we have made include that joggers always look as if they are about to die and are probably wishing they could, and that many dog owners really do look exactly like their pets. However, our most constant companions - given that we walk on a shared cycle path - are cyclists, and it is within this community that we have made most of our observations.
The first thing we have noted is that any cyclist wearing their own - ordinary - clothes is the pedestrian's friend, particularly women who cycle in wide skirts (Mad Men style), sitting bolt upright behind the basket on their handlebars. They are harmless, have lovely manners, and will even occasionally trill a bright ''good morning'' as they trundle past. They are there to be admired and we oblige.
But men in ordinary trousers, T-shirts and runners are also courteous cyclists and, while they may not give us a breezy greeting, they do appear to be quite comfortable about using their bell.
It is as the clothing worn by the cyclist becomes more purpose-designed that the behaviour deteriorates, with the honourable exception of those who ride in pelotons. Their behaviour is exemplary. The leader always lets us know he is approaching by calling ''walker up'' (that's us) and then we hear the cry carried back among the bunch so we know to stand to one side as they ride past.
No, it is the lone-wolf cyclist dressed to kill (I think literally) in his/her (when fully kitted-out impossible to discern gender) Lycra, bum-padded speed suit that strikes terror into every pedestrian's heart.
Silent, with a seemingly genetic incapacity to ring a bell, they hunch over their weirdly angled handlebars, riding as if invisible hounds from hell are on their tail. (They may be fleeing magpies. I notice many make their hideous, space-alien helmets look even stranger by affixing vertical plastic straws to them, presumably to ward off the birds. I used to hate magpies; I feel a strange affinity with them now.) These cyclists appear to regard pedestrians as oddly shaped bollards, our cringing humanity and vulnerable flesh invisible to them.
Silently (I know I am repeating myself, but I can't emphasise the horror of this enough) they whizz past, missing the poor unsuspecting (completely unsuspecting) pedestrian by centimetres. One actually knocked the bag from my shoulder. If you listen you can hear the startled, strangled cries of other pedestrians further along the cycle path as the lone wolf weaves his/her ruthless way to whatever life-and-death emergency they have been summoned to attend so urgently.
Recently, my husband and I paused on the narrow part of the shared path delineated for pedestrians to say our goodbyes because, for reasons far too boring for a column, he was going one way and I another. As we pecked each other on the cheek, one of these speed fiends rode by. Then he stopped, turned round, cycled to our side and began to tell us off for - wait for it - standing still on the path. ''Cyclists come down this hill fast,'' he said, as if we didn't already know. My husband gently (OK, not that gently) pointed out that we were within the lines, so to speak. This impressed the speedster not one jot. He continued his finger-wag undeterred. With my usual wit, I then turned into a kind of female Colonel Blimp and blustered and sputtered at him. ''Outrageous!'' I think I said to him and then, in case he hadn't understood, I said it a couple more times. That ought to teach him to mess with me!
From now on, rain, hail or shine, you will see me walking with an umbrella. Held at right angles.